Jokes about morbidity aside, TPTB are methodically establishing benchmarks of this show for newcomers. We had creepy “science” in contemporary society last episode, we’ll have supernatural with a Historical Guest Star in the past in the next one, and right now is an off-the-cuff answer to “How far in the future can we go?” and “How many aliens can we pack into an episode?”
The Doctor asks what time period Rose wants to visit, and she decides she wants to see the future. Now, when I say that I wish I could see the future, I typically mean I want to see amazing positive developments that will come to pass after my natural lifespan has passed. I want to see hypermegaultrasupercomputers. I want to see flying cars. I want to see common people living long, healthy, happyish lives. I want to see world peace and generalized prosperity. I want to see humanity populating the galaxy faster than light and finding fascinating planets and aliens as it goes. I want to see the Blues win the Cup, dagnabbit.
The Doctor finally decides that what will really blow Rose’s socks off is watching her world die. Fantastic. So he takes her to the year five-point-five-plural-Z-alpha or whatever and grins as he motions her out of the TARDIS. He talks about being too obsessed with death to allow for life’s possibilities, the Sun explodes, the intro sequence rolls.
Our heroes are on an observation deck orbiting the Earth. The Earth has been kept in some arbitrary, historical state by a Trust for some time, with the Sun being held back by gravity magic, but now the money’s run out and there’s a convenient wrecking ball aching to be used, so it’s time to let the old girl go. The psychic paper comes out for the first time this series to convince a confusing alien that the Doctor is an invited guest. The way the steward acts at first, “Maximum Hospitality Zone” comes across as a euphemism worthy of the drones in “Let’s Kill Hitler”.
Rose gets a moment to deal with the existence of very blue people (I suspect the short ones evolved from Oompa-Loompas), then we get a parade of aliens, including the Face of Boe. Jabe, a cross between a ceratops and a tree, gives the Doctor a sapling as a peace offering, claiming it was cut from her grandfather. (Someone has plastered some flowers to the back of her head, presumably as a prank.) The Doctor did not come prepared for a gift exchange, so he breathes on her. That probably is a greeting of some alien race or another. In fact, the next high-falutin’ VIP spits in Rose’s eye. The Adherents of the Repeated Meme hand off the episode’s Plot Device, again very innocuously.
Then the main antagonist appears, Lady Cassandra O’Brien O whatever, who doesn’t look a day over 2,000. She should be the Lady of the Single Veil. Get it? Because she’s just a patch of skin with eyes and mouth on a frame? Uh, anyway, it’s a pretty icky concept. Rose stares in shock, while the Doctor does everything but guffaw and slap his thigh. The CGI of Cassandra is convincing for me, but I find King Kong swatting down aeroplanes an impressive achievement so what do I know. Lady Cassandra is chatty and self-absorbed and very much proud of being the last human in existence. This opens up the main philosophical discussion provoked by this episode, which runs for me about like this:
- What is human? What do we mean when we say human?
- If we insist that Cassandra is not human, is that being unfairly restrictive? Is it because she lacks most of the body parts that we are used to seeing in a human? Because she has made choices that would horrify us? Because her points of pride — being born on Earth in particular — are already points that science fiction fans would consider moot?
- If we insist that Cassandra is human, of what worth is that distinction? She may be genetically human, she may well represent the end of our species as a thing unfiltered through alien biologies, but how much should that matter? Does that matter for purposes of interaction, seeing as how she now lacks so many of the things we consider to be typically common ground of the human experience? Might Rose not, in fact, have more practical common ground with the blue blobby guy who spits in her eye?
- If we insist that Cassandra does not count as a human, is it because we simply don’t want to be associated with her? Are there not worse people today who are undeniably human through and through? Does she not in fact express very human emotions and characteristics?
- Where is her brain located, anyway?
The other point of interest is the idea of when to let go, when to move on, when to decide that something has served its purpose and is now more hindrance than help. As beautiful as we know this planet to be, as full of history as it is by the year five zillion, humanity has totally abandoned Earth (the Sun trying to go nova probably had something to do with it) and its existence serves no more purpose than does a historical building. Now, I’m all for having a few historical buildings around. But a historical building has to be seen to serve any further purpose, and there is no sense of that occurring here. There is no sense in this episode of the common people caring about the Earth, no sense of any media coverage of this event. That is how incredibly far in the future this is. When does the burden of maintaining a beautiful thing for its own sake become too much? Is there not a parallel intended here between keeping the Earth alive and Lady Cassandra’s willingness to go to extremes in an attempt to keep the human race alive and pure in herself, without contributing anything further to her environment?
Such are the deep questions that this episode invites, ultimately bringing us to examine the nature of our reactions to those who are different from ourselves yet claim to be similar. . . . Whereas within the previous few years, need I remind you, Star Trek had been getting men pregnant, peeing on sacred trees, and continuing to let entire species die out of a vague fear that Something Bad Might Happen If We Try To Do Something Good.
Rose is going to insist that Cassandra is not human, and our form of humanity is so far in Cassandra’s past — and Cassandra’s ego rides so much on being The Very Last One — that Cassandra rejects Rose as human too. To Cassandra, Rose doesn’t count. Rose mustn’t count. Rose is fake, she’s a time traveler, she hasn’t turned up in Cassandra’s daily obsessive scrutiny of galactic headlines, whatever. We are certainly supposed to see the absurdity in Cassandra’s rejection, the result of having wandered so far from the source, and being lost in one’s pride, to the extent that one is unable to accept the real thing when it comes along (and one can doubtless invoke any number of examples here, from the Jewish leaders of Jesus’s day to contemporary people twisting a political philosophy to mean whatever they want to do). But I also feel we are supposed to sympathize much more with Rose’s rejection of Cassandra, and yet we should be aware that she is perhaps being closed-minded as well. She is applying the label of Not-Human in a pejorative way when she should be applying the label of, for example, Snotty Sociopath.
Meanwhile, the Doctor seems to be enjoying Cassandra’s speeches, probably more than they merit. Is he trying to make a point in front of Rose? No, passive aggression doesn’t seem to fit with this Doctor’s personality (although TPTB were doubtless going for this angle with the audience). Is he laughing at Rose’s reaction?
Most likely, the director simply overshot his mark, but that’s not as fun.
Back to the plot. Cassandra confuses ostriches with dragons, calls a jukebox an iPod, and lumps ’80s music together with Debussy, right under Rose’s nose. (The first notes sounded like “SOS” by Rihanna, which would also have been appropriate.) Rose finally can’t take this madness anymore and heads out of the room as the Memesters hand out more Plot Devices. The devices start to hatch wiry robots, and the plot continues to . . . heat up.
Rose chats with a blue plumber about normal things like suites and hot water. That brings her down to earth (heh) and she second-guesses rushing off with a total stranger. She wanders away and the plumber gets pulled into the air duct by the robots in a rather cheesy manner. When there’s trouble afoot, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a horror movie or Doctor Who — hanging around tubes is a bad idea.
The Doctor catches up with Rose and she decompresses a little in a nicely staged scene. The Doctor’s arc is touched on, with the Doctor flaring up when Rose presses him for the name of his planet. As a way of mending fences, the Doctor enables her cell phone to transmit across time. First thing she does is to call Mum. Wouldn’t you?
Then the structure rumbles a bit, presumably because the robots have been messing with systems. One crawls around the chief steward’s office as he tries to sort things out. It’s squeaky and yet he never looks up. This happens so often in TV and movies that I guess this is a sort of social version of things making noise in space; the audience just has to accept that the sound is thrown in for our amusement. The robot is stage-whispering squeaks at us. A robot strolls over and taps a single button, much like Bugs Bunny pressing the plunger while Elmer Fudd is setting up the dynamite. This causes the office’s sun shield to lower, and of course raising it is much too hard somehow, and the steward is incinerated.
The Doctor heads off with Jabe to see the engine while Rose goes to talk to Cassandra. I think the Doctor actually tells Rose “Don’t start the fight.” The, not a. He knows there’s going to be trouble, he accepts it, but it’s fine as long as Rose isn’t the instigator.
Jabe explains that the facility is fully automated and that “nothing can go wrong.” If only human culture had survived the race itself, the people of the galaxy would know better than to doom themselves like this. So there’s nobody to help if things go wrong? the Doctor asks. I guess not, Jabe replies. “Fantastic,” the Doctor says, and grins.
Cassandra reminisces about her boyhood spent in the Los Angeles region. She shows disdain for all the “mongrel” humans out there in the rest of the galaxy, then tells Rose she has a little bit of a chin sticking out. Cassandra had hers removed in her latest operation, you see, so she’s already convinced that chins are universally bad news despite having lived several thousand years with one without adverse effects. Rose says she would rather die than be a “bitchy trampoline” like Cassandra. She calls herself the true last human, then storms off.
Jabe tries to get the Doctor to open up about his past, finally as good as telling him that she knows him to be a Time Lord and that she feels terrible for the loss of Gallifrey. The Doctor solemnly accepts her condolences. They catch on to the sabotage. The Doctor finds that a shield has been dropped and rushes off to save anyone in there. Naturally, it would be Rose in there, she having been kidnapped by the Memememememe and trapped in the room. The shield is raised, but Rose is stuck for now.
Cassandra has been enjoying being the life of the party, but the Doctor and Jabe bust in with news that the Steward is dead and the “spider devices” are everywhere. The blue blobby guy immediately jumps to the conclusion that someone killed him. Hmm. Cassandra tries to pin blame on the Face of Boe. The Doctor looses a robot with instructions to report to its master. The robot looks at Cassandra before heading to the Meme adherents. The Doctor exposes the Memes as merely cover for someone else, an idea given physical form, and this time the robot heads to Cassandra and stays there.
Cassandra explains that she was trying to get the station taken hostage for the sake of a huge ransom. Failing that, she’ll leave them all to die and watch her stocks soar as their companies plummet. She teleports away. Jabe and the Doctor rush off to find a System Restore switch with two minutes to go. It’s on the other side of that walkway from earlier, you know, the one with no guard rails and huge fan blades sweeping across fast? And now it’ll be really hot if the fans are shut off. Jabe stays behind to keep the power to the fans turned off and burns alive, but not before calling the Doctor “Time Lord”. The Doctor has to use his mad Alien Skillz to get through the last fan, but makes it and the shields go up zippety-zap during the last second. Then all the cracks in the station repair themselves within seconds. Guess that was a pretty good automated system after all. It was the maintenance system that was idiotic.
Rose and the Doctor return to the main stage, where whimpering and sad warbling abounds. Some of the aliens, notably the blue blobby guy, didn’t make it. Rose is distraught and the Doctor is grim, having just walked away from Jabe’s smoking remains. He finds a teleportation booster in the ostrich egg and manages to call just Cassandra back. He then stands there and watches her dry out. Rose asks for mercy, but the Doctor has decided this is her time to die. There’s your parallel. Cassandra moans, tightens, reddens, and . . . uh, whoa, was that where her brain was kept? Ew.
This is a dark thing for the Doctor to do. Emotions were high, yes, and Cassandra was just bragging about how she would get away with it, but the Doctor does not typically seek to bring about someone’s death unless it’s to save other lives or they’re droning about extermination or assimilation. I guess his patience just snapped.
Everyone else has left, and Rose is left all alone, watching chunks of her planet drift by, unidentifiable, unmourned, and destroyed by the very star that had been its source of life for billions of years. I tell ya, it takes a special person to be a Companion at the best of times, but right now . . . .
The Doctor takes her back home, and she looks at the everyday life around her with new eyes. The Doctor talks about the impermanence of things (there’s a third philosophical idea for you, if you like, which is echoed in the human race blending with other species, which actually loops back into Cassandra being too obsessed with death to notice life’s possibilities) and finally brings himself to confide in her: his planet is already dead, the rest of his people gone. Rose finally decides she needs some chips before another trip through time, and the episode ends. This is probably where the Rose/Doctor ‘shipping started to kick into high gear, right here, with the baring of the man’s soul and the hurt/comfort overtones.
Again, the music is pretty good and, as far as I know, specific to this episode. (Compare to, say, Matt Smith’s first season, where, for better or worse, the same music was mostly used throughout.) The font used is a fun take on the Latin alphabet, with extra lines and “Greek” E’s that still allow one to read most of the words. The episode itself is undoubtedly put together more cohesively than the first. It still gets a simple rating of “Good” from me.
The preview contains an early contender for favorite dialogue in the next episode: “What happens in 1860?” “I don’t know. Let’s find out.”
Rating: 3 saplings cut from dear Granddad
Favorite dialogue: Jabe: “The gift of peace. I bring you a cutting of my grandfather.”
Doctor: “Thank you. Yes. Gifts. Umm . . . I give you in return, air from my lungs.”
Jabe: “How . . . intimate.”
Doctor: “There’s more where that came from.”
Jabe: “I bet there is.”
Most uninspired word: Meme. What’s the point of spelling it like that if you don’t want to pronounce it mee-mee? Why wouldn’t you want to pronounce it mee-mee? If you’re going to pronounce it meem, wouldn’t it be more fun to write it that way?
This was originally posted July 31, 2014.