It is mildly ironic that I so dislike those pre-credits previews of next week’s episode because, nine years ago, having been underwhelmed by Rose, that was the only thing that made me tune in again. The future! Aliens! A big space station! The end of the world! Excitement!
At the time, my sci-fi of choice was decidedly serious and decidedly American, so the quirkily British ‘End of the World’ struck a chord with me and I think it holds up quite well today also. The pop-culture references will date it over time, but Cassandra confusing a jukebox for an iPod, and Britney Spears for a “classical ballad” is still pretty funny.
This episode continues to focus on Rose as the conduit for the viewer, with her asking all the questions that the viewer would likely have too. She also starts to question what she’s doing going off on a mad adventure with a complete stranger, and there’s a bit of friction as the Doctor initially refuses to talk about his past. What I get from the Doctor’s character, for the first time, is the sense that his madly enthusiastic and cheery persona is just a smokescreen for the sadness and guilt he feels over the loss of his people, as though he has to compensate for that by being as upbeat as possible. Ecclestone does this well, I think.
Without having to squeeze in an origin story, The End of the World has space to breathe. Granted, it’s still a brisk whirlwind of an adventure compared to the classic serials, but at the other end of the spectrum are the convoluted plots from the later series that have to rush through a load of exposition to get from A to B, scarcely making sense. The resolution here is refreshingly simple, albeit somewhat daft, as the Doctor races to pull a perilously positioned lever to reactivate the station’s shielding.
While Rose talks about everything being “so alien”, I can’t help but think how human everybody is. Several of the characters are just people painted blue, all speaking British English with 21st century colloquialisms (rationalised as psychic translation, but still), and humanoid trees? Really? The Face of Boe is delightfully weird, mind you. I can imagine a more recent equivalent of this story filling it with Sontarans, Silurians and Zygons, so if nothing else, the production designers wanted something new, which is good.
This is still a surprisingly enjoyable episode, successfully mixing serious events (and a few of the guests being killed) with lighthearted humour and some thoughtful themes of mortality and legacy, with a simple plot that’s easy to follow. And it still looks pretty slick.