Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ Is an Action Scene Icon

Nineteen years ago today, alien denizens of the universe gathered in the Doctor Who revival’s sophomore episode, “The End of the World,” to bid farewell to the planet Earth by mourning her with song: the traditional ballad “Toxic” by Britney Spears, played on vinyl. It took nearly two decades, but finally someone else saw the vision the show had laid out.

The use of “Toxic” in “The End of the World” is perhaps the purest distillation of Russell T. Davies’ approach to bringing back Doctor Who in 2005. Two years on from the pop hit’s release in our own time, using Britney as an example of ancient human art and culture in a far-future sci-fi setting—described by a floating strip of skin, the villainous Lady Cassandra, in the way we would refer to a renaissance painting or classical music—is equal parts funny and abrasive to the sort of people who take this kind of thing a little too seriously, like the moments Star Trek’s approach to referential history mostly limits itself to public domain fiction rather than our own time.

Doctor Who Season 1 Episode 2 “The End of the World” Clip

Doctor Who Season 1 Episode 2 “The End of the World” Clip

It’s incredibly camp, and yet also bitingly dark, as Britney’s verse becomes the soundtrack to the Ninth Doctor discovering a grisly murder: “There’s no escape, I can’t wait/I need a hit, baby, give me it/You’re dangerous, I’m loving it,” we hear, as we learn that a space station steward has been roasted alive by the dying sun, his office’s protective sun filter disabled until he was nothing but smoke and a burning smell. A compelling comparison to life with the Doctor, perhaps, as we soon learn that another filter has been disabled elsewhere on the station, and “Toxic” fades into composer Murray Gold’s score to reveal that Rose Tyler could be the next victim. Silly-yet-serious, camp and compelling: in just under a minute and in one licensed song usage, Doctor Who made it very clear what kind of show it wanted to be, as it prepared to shoot itself into the pop culture stratosphere all over again.

Nineteen years on we trade one Cassandra for another—a Cassie, this time—in the similarly camp, perhaps not quite so successful Madame Web. The good madame’s usage of “Toxic” itself has parallels to Doctor Who’s, but with one fascinating difference. In Doctor Who “Toxic” was recent history presented as a far-flung past, to show the way culture is treated across eons of time. In Madame Web and its early-aughts period setting, “Toxic” is explicitly of the now. When it’s deployed in the diner where Cassie’s wayward group of teens—fleeing the murderous intent of a villain who’s seen their future role in his own demise—go to seek solitude and sustenance, we are repeatedly reminded when it comes over the radio that it’s Britney’s latest, a new and modern song for the current moment. It’s rooting us to the past in the same way Doctor Who’s usage was, but a much more recent one, to evoke the context of the superhero genre at the time Madame Web was set, as a parallel to the way Doctor Who used “Toxic” to show us how one day our recent culture would become a part of ancient history.

Screenshot: Sony Pictures

It’s also just a good song, dammit. It’s catchy and punch and works fantastically for an action scene—whether it’s Doctor Who running down corridors or Madame Web’s race against time to stop a creepy faux Spider-Man from killing a bunch of teens. Few texts will perhaps be as capable as either Doctor Who or Madame Web’s respective deployments of an all-time Britney classic as insightful mediations on the concept of time and culture, but that shouldn’t stop them from trying. “Toxic” on the next Mission: Impossible soundtrack, anyone?


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