The Doctor takes Rose to the year 5 billion, where the end of the world is about to take place. The sun is due to expand and the Earth melt. An assortment of rich aliens has assembled on a floating space station-cum-observation platform to view the spectacle. The Doctor strikes up a relationship with a talking tree.
One of the rich people, Cassandra, is the last “pure” human. All that remains of her is a wafer-thin piece of skin stretched over a frame, with only a pair of eyes and a mouth still functioning. She has planted some robotic spiders on the platform, smuggled aboard in little eggs, so they can infiltrate the defences and generally wreak havoc. Having invested in shares in their rivals’ companies, she intends to kill the rich aliens by melting them and teleporting away from trouble to cash in. (In a separate incident, Rose nearly gets melted for dramatic purposes.)
The Doctor foils Cassandra’s plan by using his Sonic Screwdriver to buzz some panels on some walls, and by pulling a lever (during which process the talking tree gets burned). He teleports Cassandra back to the platform, where her skin dries out and she explodes.
Unsurprisingly, given the setting, this is a story about the end times. But the eschatological issues are quickly dealt with to make way for the real intrigue. Under the surface this is a story about vanity: the vanity of human endeavour, of pride, and of greed.
The Bible and the end of the world
So, we’re visiting the final minutes of planet Earth. I wonder what we’re going to find there. Will we face up to our mortality? Will we look in on a final judgment? Apparently not. A tannoy announcement early in the episode tells us all we need to know about the spiritual implications of the end of the world:
Guests are reminded that Platform One forbids the use of weapons, teleportation and religion.
Religion isn’t banned, though. Not really. Because although it’s subtly different to what the Bible teaches us about the end of the world, this episode is religious in its own way.
The apostle Peter describes what the final day of planet Earth will be like:
The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
– 2 Peter 3:10
At the end of the world, everything will be exposed for what it is. As the world burns, the only things left will be the deeds of those who have lived on it, opened up for scrutiny. What matters is not the material things of the world itself, but the ethics of those who have lived in it. Indeed, we are not living to protect this world, but rather we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth. So Peter continues:
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.
So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.
– 2 Peter 3:11-14
The end of the world is coming, Peter says. The world to come is the one that matters. Therefore, we must live well in the time we have left. Everything else will pass away and will count for nothing on that day; our ethics alone will be the measure of how well we have lived in the world. And God’s ethics will shape life in the world to come, uncorrupted by sin.
The vanity of human endeavour
The Doctor would have to agree with the apostle Peter. The moral of this story – the doctrine that it teaches – is that the material world is dispensable, but the good of the human race is what really matters. (What that looks like in practice is quite different, but we’ll get there in a minute.)
Despite the impending doom awaiting planet Earth, the Doctor introduces things with a rather upbeat message about the survival of the human race. He suggests that we worry too much, failing to recognise that we have a great and glorious future ahead of us.
You lot. You spend all your time thinking about dying, like you’re going to get killed by eggs, or beef, or global warming, or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible. Like maybe you survive.
In other words, what doesn’t kill the human race will make us stronger. There is no such good news for the world itself, however. Towards the end of the episode the Doctor takes Rose to stand on a busy street in contemporary times, where he speaks about the vanity of the material world in words that could have been lifted from 2 Peter:
You think it’ll last for ever – people and cars and concrete. But it won’t. One day it’s all gone. Even the sky.
When that time finally arrives, nobody notices. Rose is aghast to realise that the world finally blew up while even those who had paid to witness its destruction were busy with other things. “All those years,” she says. “All that history. And no one was even looking.”
We work so hard trying to make a name for ourselves in the world, but one day it will all end and nobody will even see it happen.
The vanity of pride
This is why the acid-tongued piece of skin Cassandra is such a hateful character. She has had over 700 operations, such that she no longer resembles a human being (aside from having eyes and a mouth hovering on a piece of skin stretched across a frame like a drum). Rose has no truck with her.
Rose: How many operations have you had?
Cassandra: 708. Next week its 709 – I’m having my blood bleached. Is that why wanted a word? You could be flatter. You’ve got a little bit of a chin poking out.
Rose: I’d rather die.
Cassandra: Honestly, it doesn’t hurt.
Rose: No, I mean it. I would rather die. It’s better to die than to live like you – a bitchy trampoline.
There are more important things in life than looking flatter. Rose recognises that Cassandra has become less than human in her effort to survive in an ever-thinner form. Her self-obsession is a fate worse than death as far as Rose is concerned:
You’re not human. You’ve had it all nipped and tucked and flattened till there’s nothing left. Anything human got chucked in the bin. You’re just skin, Cassandra. Lipstick and skin.
The vanity of greed
If Cassandra’s pride is objectionable, so too is her greed.
She is in good company – the guests aboard the viewing platform are all successful businesspeople in their own rights. Cassandra has taken the opportunity to plot their deaths. By investing in their rivals’ companies and killing them, she hopes to turn a profit. (It might not be a watertight business proposal, but it serves the purpose of demonstrating how ruthlessly greedy she is.)
“Five billion years and it still comes down to money,” the Doctor observes, witheringly. It’s not just that killing people to make money is a poor moral choice; it is also another example of vanity. Within a few minutes, Cassandra will be dead. She can’t take it with her.
A helpful foil to the selfish Cassandra is the selfless Jabe, a tree-like creature who struck up a flirtatious relationship with the Doctor and went to help him save the day while Rose was locked in a room getting a suntan. Tellingly, Jabe was reluctant to be there in the first place. Her wealth had come from her family business, quite literally – she owned vast forests, who we assume to be her relatives. She was only aboard the viewing platform because she had to be seen to be in the right places by the right people.
Jabe held down a lever while the Doctor ran a gauntlet towards another lever, and burned to a cinder in the process. Cassandra’s selfishness threatened the lives of everyone aboard the viewing platform. Jabe’s selfless self-sacrifice saved them.
So when Jabe died, even though the crisis was averted, the Doctor’s response was to reverse Cassandra’s teleportation device and bring her back to the viewing platform. It was hot (thanks to her) and she began rapidly to dry out.
Rose: Help her!
The Doctor: Everything has its time and everything dies.
What’s fascinating about this is that it wasn’t a lesson in direct retribution – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Rather, it was a lesson in the natural lifespan of a human being. Cassandra’s time was up. And all that she had put her hopes in came to nothing when she died. Her greed was all in vain.
The difference between the human race and human beings
So in the world of Doctor Who, the material world is dispensable, but the good of the human race is what really matters.
The human race matters deeply to the Doctor. After 5 billion years, he observes with a smile, “you survive.” That is a success from his point of view, as one who travels across time and space with abandon. From his perspective, it is the survival and strengthening of the race that seems significant.
Yet for an individual human being, the positive fate of the race 5 billion years hence is small comfort. What matters to Rose Tyler that far in the future is that those she loves have died.
Feeling overwhelmed by the alien world she has been immersed into, Rose tries to contact her mother. After the Doctor does some “jiggery pokery” with her mobile phone, she gets through and has a chat. Afterwards, she feels even more overwhelmed than she did before.
Rose: That was five billion years ago. She’s dead now. Five billion years later, my mum’s dead.
The Doctor: Bundle of laughs, you are.
Rose is affected by the fact that that the passage of time has meant that her mother is long since dead. The Doctor has no answer to that, so instead suggests that she’s being a killjoy to mention it. The Doctor sees civilisations rise and fall, so the births and deaths of individual human beings are of only marginal significance to him. “Everything has its time and everything dies.”
There is a big difference between the human race and human beings. For the Doctor, the human race is important. Individual people are, like the rest of the world, only temporary. They will all die. It is the race that will survive through the years. This is what it means to be human: to perpetuate and advance the human race.
Whereas for Rose, human beings are what matters. The people that you know and love are the things that carry significance. Individual people have value, and each death is a tragedy. This is what it means to be human: to live well and love well.
What’s so amazing about the Doctor’s view on things, whereby his big-picture view of the human race has blinded him to the significance of the individual humans he encounters, is that it’s so different to that of God’s. He, too, sees the history of the human race from beginning to end, but he is deeply concerned with every one of the people who have walked the Earth. Where the Doctor doesn’t think about the people who have died over the years, God cares for each one of them.
It is not the survival of the human race that concerns God, but rather the fate of each human being who has ever lived. And in that, Rose’s perspective on the end of the world is a lot closer to God’s than the Doctor’s is.
Doctor Who Doctrines
- The material world is dispensable, but the good of the human race is what really matters.