|I have a budget now. Budgets are cool.|
It’s April 2nd, 2005. Tony Christie is at number one with “(Is This The Way To) Amarillo,” which features the Abzorbaloff. 50 Cent, Elvis Pressley, Will Smith, Gwen Stefani and Eve, Natalie Imbruglia, and Nelly with Tim McGraw also chart. Christie also has the top album, while The Killers and Green Day also make that chart.
Since last week, a sizable earthquake took place off the coast of Sumatra. Robert Mugabe held “free and fair” elections, which he proceeded to win by an implausible margin. And on the day this story airs, Pope John Paul II dies. Also, in all of this, it’s announced that Christopher Eccleston will be departing the series, leading absolutely everybody to conclude that David Tennant would obviously be taking over (although that wasn’t formally announced until the day Aliens of London aired). But today, on television, it’s The End of the World.
The single most important moment in The End of the World comes in a seemingly lightweight scene in which we see the robotic spiders scuttling down an air shaft. The camera is positioned at one end of the ducting, and the spiders are scuttling towards the camera. And one of them bumps into the camera. This, of course, is a joke about the supposed poor quality of special effects in classic Doctor Who, the joke being that the spiders are CGI monsters and thus cannot possibly jostle the camera except on purpose. So they’ve put in a deliberate “bad effect.” But perhaps more to the point is that they’ve selected a bad effect from within Doctor Who’s own history, namely the infamous scene from The Web Planet of a Zarbi plowing into the camera where they couldn’t do a retake because they simply didn’t have time in the studio that day.
I do not, I trust, have to go to the length of analysis demonstrated in Rose for every episode in order to show how the new series works. Episodes are made up of bibs and bobs of other television shows, characters from one type of show get shoved into another, and much of the drama is, at least partially, based on the question of what shows do or don’t hold power over the narrative. That’s the basic model for the new series - one that’s going to be used for practically every entry for the remainder of the blog. Likewise, I do not have to stress the way in which the invocations of things in particular places carries meaning. In an episode of television that is stitched up out of other television the particulars of what television you stitch into the lining of matter.
And The Web Planet is a spectacularly weird thing to evoke. The Web Planet is not what you would call a highly acclaimed episode. It got phenomenal ratings at the time, was novelized, and was quick out to VHS, and so it’s unmistakably a classic episode that loads of people have seen, but that’s not equivalent to a lot of people liking it. Its reputation is as a somewhat clunkily paced story whose reach so exceeds its grasp as to be almost unwatchable. And this isn’t entirely unfair - it is, in fact, a story in which really weird-looking butterfly people fight giant ants who are very obviously men with fiberglass ant carapaces shoved over their torsos, and where everything was filmed with Vaseline smeared over the lenses to make it look weird. If last week’s invocation of Spearhead From Space was an enormously sensible moment of calling back to the series’ most iconic popular memories, The Web Planet is an invocation of all of the absolute strangest in Doctor Who.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that this is what The End of the World is going for. It is, after all, the first televised story since The Web Planet to feature no humanoid characters other than the regulars. This requires some nipping and tucking around the edges of the claim, but it is largely solid. Yes, Cassandra is human, but the entire point of her is that she doesn’t look it. Yes, there are supporting characters, most notably Jade, who are functionally human for the purposes of being able to see their faces, but if Verity Lambert had the proesthetics department Russell T Davies does, frankly, she would have made the Menoptra like that. And yes, there’s the brief intrusion of Jackie Tyler and the final sequence that you can use if you want to say “a-ha, see, The Web Planet really is the only story like that,” but frankly, what’s the point? You don’t need to tick absolutely every single box to realize that it had been a very, very long time since last Doctor Who did a story this jam-packed with odd aliens. (And if you need a final piece of evidence, just note that on his next appearance the Face of Boe is established as coming from where, exactly?)
And what’s really telling is how much The End of the World revels in it. It doesn’t just have lots of aliens, it has lots of gratuitous aliens. The Face of Boe and the Moxx of Balhoon are really just there to show off that the production can do them. They contribute virtually nothing to the plot, and are instead among the most gratuitous expenditures in the sake of visual texture in the series’ history. Which is perhaps the strangest thing about the invocation of The Web Planet and the attendant homage to it: in many ways it feels as though it’s there just to prove that the series can do it.
In fact, behind the scenes at least this is exactly why the episode exists. Russell T Davies wanted to demonstrate the breadth of the concept and to avoid scaling things down for the second episode. So he embraced for the first time what will become one of the defining artistic moves of his tenure: don’t just go big, go ludicrous. So we have an episode that is on a basic level dedicated to just being too damn much. In that regard there’s a sizable break from The Web Planet, and, to an extent, from the entire production model of television it represents. The Web Planet was ludicrous, but came from everybody embracing a little too sincerely the idea that they could portray something “totally alien.” But this is something else - something that is completely and utterly aware of how strange and off-putting aspects of it are, and that is, more importantly, embracing it.
Or, at least, that’s what it’s doing with its Web Planet aspects. But let’s double down on the oddness here. After all, we do know that the Face of Boe is, in all likelihood, secretly Captain Jack. In this regard The Web Planet serves a crucial function as establishing the nature of the area from which Captain Jack hails. Let us, then, briefly imagine the sheer insanity implicit in this. Let us imagine taking a relatively normative Torchwood fan with a Captain Jack crush and showing them The Web Planet on the grounds that it is the first story about where Captain Jack comes from. How, exactly, do we think this might go?
In other words, as self-consciously weird as The End of the World is, the weirdest thing about it is not the Moxx of Balhoon as such, but rather the fact that the Moxx of Balhoon is being seriously mooted as something that belongs on BBC One in a competitive time slot. It’s not just completely ludicrous, it’s completely ludicrous in a way that plays very actively with fan expectations. As with Clive last week, part of what we’re doing here is exorcising the ghosts of the wilderness years. The Web Planet would be just about at the bottom of everybody’s list of what the expected to see in the new series, or, for that matter, what they wanted to. Even something like The Twin Dilemma felt on paper the saner bet - Eccleston could surely handle the strangling scene well and make it properly scary. And while there might have been some debate to have on which one was the better idea in the abstract, prior to about 19:45 on 2nd April, 2005 nobody would have seriously suggested they were both actually possible.
But there’s an oddly meta texture to the events here. We’ve found ourselves in the position of suggesting that The Web Planet is being invoked in part because it is the single most absurd thing that possibly could be invoked at this point. It’s being invoked because it is, in 2005, the remotest aspect of Doctor Who. And that fact parallels one of the central tensions of the episode. Throughout the entire episode there’s a pattern that recurs several times: someone asks the Doctor who he is, or brings up a detail of his past, and the Doctor reacts in anger or horror. The usual brief is to read this from the perspective of a hypothetical new audience member, and thus to read the episode about building to a reveal about the Doctor’s past. But that’s not what’s going on here. The fact that the Doctor is a Time Lord is not some secret that was kept from the audience for the first hour and fifteen minutes of Doctor Who. It was splashed all over the place. The newspapers were unabashed in calling the Doctor a Time Lord, because it’s a default piece of the series’ mythology. It’s part of what people just know about the character - you can go ask a Brit who’s never seen an episode and they can, in all likelihood, dutifully recite that the Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. So the unveiling of the phrase “Time Lord” was not, in any meaningful sense, a surprise.
No, the surprise was its concealment. The surprise was that we spend all of The End of the World visibly recoiling from even the most basic piece of series lore. That’s one of the central tensions of The End of the World - the fact that the audience knows the unspeakable thing that the Doctor is recoiling from, and thus doesn’t understand why it’s a source of pain for him. And it’s clearly pain, from his angry explosion at Rose prior to the jiggery-pokery sequence to his quiet anguish when Jade calls him out. So what we have is an episode where one of the central conflicts is anxiety over Doctor Who’s lore in which the episode’s iconography is pilfered from a part of Doctor Who’s history that provokes outright terror.
(In this regard it was almost inevitable that this be the episode that comes out in the wake of the Eccleston departure news, the anxieties of its content spilling out into the emboited wider world. The show was a source of fear. We all felt it, even after Rose was a massive hit. The other shoe could drop at any moment. It still could - look to the astonishing paranoia over the possibility that Moffat can’t make Doctor Who as fast as Russell T Davies could. The wilderness will always haunt Doctor Who, but this was, perhaps, its moment of greatest terror.)
Again, we have to understand the basic structure of a modern Doctor Who episode at this point. It works like this: you take a tension within or between two narrative systems. So, for instance, we have one between the material past of Doctor Who - the twenty-six seasons plus a TV movie of stuff that preceded Rose - and the idea of the BBC One Saturday night schedule. The latter seems to be recoiling from the former, raising the possibility that there are parts of Doctor Who that simply have to be jettisoned to make it succeed in the present day. And then you bring in something from another signifying system that somehow resolves the tension in the first one.
Which brings us to Rose. The parts of the episode that are not consumed with being ostentatiously Doctor Who are, after all, largely concerned with the business of Rose’s reactions and how she handles the strange world of Platform One. This is a phenomenally easily misunderstood fact, however. Again, there’s a usual explanation, but it simply fails to fit the episode itself. The usual explanation - one that, in fact, covers all of Doctor Who (equally wrongly) is that the companion is the audience’s “point of view” character. I’ve rubbished this in the past, but let’s take it very specifically in the context of this episode, if only because at this point in the series’ run there’s a more credible case for needing a point of view character in the first place than, really, any time since 1964 or so. After all, whatever The End of the World is doing, at least part of what it’s doing is still reintroducing Doctor Who. That’s what the whole first season is, in part - an extended argument of the form “this is the range of things Doctor Who can be.” So in that regard someone who represents the audience’s perspective seems perfectly reasonable.
But that’s clearly not what Rose is doing here, because the audience is considerably savvier than her. Rose, as a companion, was carefully selected precisely because of how far she was from the traditional companion template. She’s intensely working class and largely feels like she’s wandered in from a soap opera. She is, in other words, manifestly a companion who would never be caught dead watching a show like Doctor Who. This is actually a departure from expectations, which would have been to go for companions like Izzie and Anji from the wilderness years - ones who are aware of sci-fi conventions. But Rose isn’t. And in that regard large swaths of the audience are going to be considerably ahead of her as she explores Platform One.
But even for audience members who are more or less completely unaware of Doctor Who The End of the World is going to seem less off-putting than it does to Rose simply because so much of Platform One is organized around familiar logics of Britain in 2005. The presentation of the aliens is shot like a presentation of contestants in the first episode of a reality program. The music is ostentatiously dated, and more to the point dated perfectly to 2005: a Britney Spears single that was just past its prime and a bit of 80s kitsch. Fundamentally, a bunch of aliens milling about to “Tainted Love” just isn’t that strange a sight for a 2005 television audience.
And more to the point, it’s miles from a man in an ant carapace wandering around a studio moonscape beeping like a car alarm through a Vaseline smeared camera lens. The Web Planet was ostentatiously alienating. The End of the World isn’t - it goes out of its way to frame the entirety of its alien weirdness in the present day. It’s as digestible a set of bizarre aliens as it’s possible to show on the 2nd of April, 2005. In that regard it can be accused of dating terribly. Actually, all of the first season is a bit odd in this regard, which is probably where the “Skip Nine” advice/faction has come up from. There’s something oddly disposable about the first season, and it comes from exactly this: the first season exists to successfully launch Doctor Who on British television in the spring of 2005. In another year, or even in another country it comes off oddly. It was absolutely necessary to Doctor Who returning; in many ways it’s the single most important season of Doctor Who since Pertwee’s first season. But now that Doctor Who is a thing it feels oddly distant. It’s not that it’s flawed on its own merits, so much as that it feels slightly unapproachable.
In that regard, however, it mirrors The Web Planet better than intended. Part of what is striking about The Web Planet is that it is, in its own way, so aggressively dated. It looks like a cheaply made piece of 60s television trying to do far more ambitious sci-fi than it has any hope of doing. But that’s part of its charm - the fact that in 1965 a bunch of people made a ludicrously overambitious sci-fi television serial that ended up drawing on techniques from early 20th century film to create something that is dated, but that is extraordinary in its datedness. After all, the past is dated. Being from 1965 is no more of a sin than being from 2005 is. What’s so wonderful about The Web Planet is that it’s something that couldn’t happen today. And the same logic, by and large, applies to The End of the World. It’s unmistakably television from 2005.
And so Rose, in being alienated from it, is not serving as the audience’s perspective. At almost every turn the audience is against Rose here, willing her to get over herself and get involved with the cool sci-fi plot instead of moping about how alien the aliens are. So if Rose isn’t the audience’s point of view character, what is she? The answer, I would suggest, is that she’s the audience’s point of view narrative system. It’s not that she expresses the opinions of the audience so much as that she presents the most familiar set of narrative codes. When Rose is in control of the narrative, we know basically how it’s going to work. Because Rose represents the normative emotion-based dramatic structure that dominates contemporary television.
And so where Rose (the episode) was Doctor Who crashing into Rose’s show, The End of the World features Rose crashing into Doctor Who. On one hand we have what is not just a bog-standard Doctor Who plot but a parodic one - a villain with an excessively baroque scheme, a bunch of silly aliens, and things like the sun filter scene with Rose, where it’s not even entirely clear what’s going on. (Nowhere in the episode is it ever explained why Rose is attacked and left in the room with the sun filter. Presumably it’s revenge for her insulting Cassandra, but it’s never stated, and even if it is revenge it’s a preposterously convoluted sort of revenge.) On the other we have Rose, and, with her, an unexpected amount (at least for Doctor Who) of emotional content. In that regard the reappearance of Jackie Tyler is, in its own way, more shocking and disorienting than any alien in the entire episode, simply because it’s something that is wildly unlike anything that has ever happened in Doctor Who before.
But the presence of Rose also jeopardizes the structure of Doctor Who on a fundamental level. It is, after all, the Rose-introduced emotional content that renders the history of Doctor Who suspect. In that regard Rose seems to pose as much of a threat to the underlying structure of Doctor Who as the fact of its scheduling does. Everything, it seems, conspires to make Doctor Who seem marginal and unobtainable. But then, in the episode’s closing moments, comes the inevitable reconciliation. But what’s striking is how it eventually comes together.
The end centers largely on the eponymous end of the world - the point where the sun expands and the Earth incinerates. Rose provides the necessary emotional closure by pointing out that nobody even saw it go. On one level this is just setup for the Doctor’s subsequent revelation of the Time War, an event that initially contextualizes those events not in terms of Doctor Who history but in terms of the ability of Rose to add emotional content to Doctor Who, in this case a lingering trauma. But more to the point, it adds emotional content to the big sci-fi ideas. The trick of The End of the World is that up until the world explodes and Rose comments mournfully that nobody was there to see it the destruction of the planet was just another sci-fi conceit, no different from the Brothers Hop Pyleen.
So what Rose serves to do is to make the fantastic premises of Doctor Who material and, more to the point, significant. Up until Rose’s mourning for the planet the end of the world had been the one thing that The End of the World was not, in fact, about. It is only through Rose’s observation that the story becomes about the end of the world. Crucially, this happens after the end of the world itself, which, in practice, the audience glosses over as a big special effects sequence in the middle of the climax of a Doctor Who story as opposed to reading it as significant. It is not until Rose says anything that we realize that we did, in fact, completely miss the end of the world in amidst the climax.
And in that regard, Rose is wrong. It’s not true that nobody saw the world go. In fact, eight million people saw it. And they saw it because of Rose. It’s only through her intervention that the end actually becomes manifest. Rose’s critique of Doctor Who - that it blazed past the end of the world without noticing it - in fact repairs the program, and, in doing so, allows it to heal the wound of its relationship with its own past and, in doing so, to push into the vibrance of the present moment. And so in doing so everything we’ve seen becomes justified - the very practice of putting freakish aliens in amidst the cultural debris of 2005. The answer is tautological, perhaps, but all the more straightforward for it. Why do The Web Planet again in 2005?
So we can watch it happen.