“The nature of man, even in this day and age, hasn’t altered at all. You still fear the unknown, like everyone else before you.” – Steven
This is one of those episodes I loved in childhood as budding sci-fi fan. It has many great science fiction elements—a far future version of Earthlings that have forgotten elements of their past (and are so advanced they are susceptible to simple illness), an alien race that has dwelled together with the people of the Earth for years, the last days of the dying planet Earth, a new planet to colonize. Most importantly, it introduces a time-travel concept that was surprisingly under-utilized in the early days of the program: the TARDIS crew return to the a place they visited centuries earlier and see the ramifications of their initial interaction.
This aspect of the show is not only interesting but quite well presented as a surprise. When the crew leaves in the second episode, it seems that all is resolved. When they arrive in what looks like the exact same spot a few second later, we don’t realize anything is amiss until they find that the giant statue that had just been started when they left is now complete. Seven hundred years have obviously gone by. That is already a big revelation—then the camera pans up and we see the planned statue of a man is now a Monoid. This of course means something has significantly and drastically changed.
There are a lot of other nice little elements in the overall story as well. The society of the ship has to rigid such that even the smallest mistake leads to your removal because of the absolute priority of the survival of the human race. Yet there is no sadness as they watch the end of Earth from a distance since the human race is now out far beyond. As the Doctor cites to two different generations of the guardians, “you must travel with understanding as well as hope.” In terms of production, the special effect for the end of Earth is fairly well-done and there are several other attempts at more advanced special effects like the food tablet or the folding space ship doors. Even the Monoids are a nice attempt at creating a different kind of alien. (While as an adult the costume is obvious, for some it really worked in my imagination as a child.)
Even more interesting is the whole socio-political situation with the Monoids. Though in their status as overlords they are clearly the aggressors and die in the end because of it, the Doctor partly blames the human guardians and their treatment of the Monoids as a cause for the situation as well. This seems a bit odd from our first encounter where the Monoids where spoken of like equals and seemed to treated with honor—until you realize that despite all this the Monoids were actually the only ones filling all the menial positions and duties for the guardians. They were little more than glorified servants and rightly rebelled against it. Still, it is made clear that the Monoids too realize their error and will change. You see this without a word being spoken by body language of incredible sadness by Monoid 4 upon seeing his friends and fellows all dead around him in their brief civil war.
One thing that I particularly noticed on this viewing that I hadn’t really paid attention to before was how when they announce the first human death from the cold virus that the Doctor covers his face visibly shaken with grief. The camera pans down to Dodo tenderly taking his hand as he clasps hers. It’s an uncharacteristically emotional display for the First Doctor. It clearly comes from his knowledge that this one death is directly his fault for not foreseeing the effects of Dodo’s illness. It’s an interesting and direct contrast to his supposed callousness pointed out by Steven in the story just before. Unlike all the deaths he could stoically face before knowing that they were from outside circumstances that he was fighting against, the Doctor obviously feels like this death is squarely on his shoulders.
Best unsettling moments:
Hands down, the reveal of the Monoid statue and the shock that it provides is the best part of this story.
- First ark of people escaping the dying planet Earth (many more to come later)
- First on-set elephant (!) not to mention a menagerie of other creatures
- First time to see future consequences of past actions
There are of course a lot of distractions in this episode that affect people’s enjoyment of the story. Bad costumes (are togas made our of colored strips with Speedos underneath really where the future is heading?), odd acting (the giddiness of the Commander), and Dodo’s character doesn’t quite help since she comes off as quite annoying at the start.