To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.
Rose originally aired in 2005.
So, I’m going to go up there and blow them up, and I might well die in the process, but don’t worry about me. No, you go home. Go on. Go and have your lovely beans on toast. Don’t tell anyone about this, because if you do, you’ll get them killed.
I’m the Doctor, by the way. What’s your name?
Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!
- the Doctor and Rose
It’s amazing to think of the pressure weighing down on Rose. Sure, Doctor Who has gone from strength-to-strength since its revival in 2005, but there was a time when its resurrection seemed unlikely, to say the least. Although fans had kept the show alive in various media, it must have seemed highly unlikely that they show would ever return to television, let alone as a massive success. Producer Russell T. Davies might have seemed like an unlikely choice. Although he had written some spin-off material, like other British television writers including Stephen Moffat and Paul Cornell, Davies was best known for producing shows like Queer as Folk and The Second Coming. Nevertheless, he had been campaigning to bring the show back for quite some time, notably in 1998 and 2002, before finally bringing the revived show to screen in late March 2005.
Although the edges are still a bit rough in places, Rose serves as an effective introduction to the Russell T. Davies, and contains the seeds of what would become the show’s success. Borrowing (and reinventing) heavily from perhaps the last seismic re-tooling of the series in Spearhead from Space, the show presents a version of Doctor Who for a new generation.
The similarities to Spearhead from Space are quite striking, even if the overlap makes sense. I think it’s possible to argue that the move from Troughton to Pertwee was the largest transition the show ever made. Not only did the series shift from black and white to colour, but it also radically changed focus. The first year of Pertwee’s tenure remains one of the most consistent seasons of science-fiction that the BBC have ever broadcast, and a lot of it holds up surprising well even today, decades later. So it’s not too surprising that Davies picked Spearhead from Space as his jumping-off point.
Like Spearhead from Space, Rose joins us as we meet a recently-regenerated Doctor who arrives on Earth without a companion. Both stories use the Autons as villains, and set up a season of stories that take place completely on (or, in the case of the revived series, around) the planet. Eccleston’s Doctor also seems clearly modelled on the version portrayed by Pertwee. Both are somewhat condescending and cantankerous to their human companions, but share the Doctor’s deep-seated affection for mankind as a whole.
It helps that the Autons are easily among the most visually distinctive villains to appear in Doctor Who. They appeared twice on the show, in two consecutive season openers, and yet they made a lasting impression on the public’s imagination. Indeed, the Auton invasion in Terror of the Autons remains one of the show’s most iconic sequences, not least because of the amount of controversy it generated at the time. Apparently it was really put the show on Mary Whitehouse’s watchlist and what she was talking about when she alleged the show was turning the nation’s children “into bed-wetters.”
The Autons hit what might be described as the Doctor Who “sweet spot.” They are, as bad guys, undeniably camp and ridiculous, but also strangely terrifying. The notion of shop dummies coming to life to murder us is absolutely absurd, and yet those mannequins manage to reach into the uncanny valley. While some of the CGI here is a little bit ropey, there are several inspired touches. The make-up on not!Mickey is fantastic and unnerving, making Noah Clarke look disturbingly plastic.
However, if the Autons themselves manage to balance camp and effective remarkably well, the episode itself struggles quite a bit. The show would learn to regulate its tone quite quickly, but there are several moments where the whole thing veers too far in one direction or the other. The Auton hand bit is probably the campest scene in the entire revived series, and the use of special effects to demonstrate the London Eye as a transmitter and the sonic screw driver as a tool seem a little clumsy and over-stated.
Murray Gold’s score also seems to have a bit of difficulty balancing everything. Gold’s work on later adventures would be criticised for being a little too bombastic, but I’m generally fond of his work. Working with an orchestra, he gives a wonderful impression of scale. Here, however, there’s a little too much cheese on his music selection. In many respects it sounds like Murray Gold just got a synthesiser and is trying to demonstrate exactly what he can do with it. There are touches which suggest the more impressive themes he’d work in ahead, but there’s a very rough quality to his work on Rose that makes it clear this is a work in progress, rather than a set example of what the series would be.
Davies’ writing has also come in for criticism. He would write eight of the first thirteen episodes of the show, so the first season really offers a compelling illustration of his strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Those strengths and weaknesses are quite evident even here in the first episode. Davies writes superb characters – the cast of the new Doctor Who all seem relatively fully formed in this pilot, despite the fact that Davies is working an alien invasion into his forty-five minute story.
We also have a lot of solid thematic stuff. Even if the details are a bit hazy, it’s easy enough to see where Davies is going with the show. The Doctor never explicitly uses the words “Time War.” He wouldn’t discuss his history until the end of the next episode, but it’s immediately clear that our central character is dealing with his own version of post-traumatic stress disorder. Similarly, Davies does an excellent job explaining why he cares about this ball of dirt, even implying something that he wouldn’t state explicitly for a while: Earth is now the Doctor’s de facto home.
However, these strengths are balanced out by some weaknesses, and they are quite obvious here. While Davies does fantastic work with characters and themes, his plotting is often a bit elastic. In many respects, he contrasts well with his successor, Stephen Moffat. Moffat’s character work occasionally feels a bit jumbled, but his plotting is a lot more precise. Here, trying to fit absolutely everything into forty-five minutes, some of the specifics are a little bit hazy and some of the plot points are a bit convenient.
Doesn’t it seem a bit strange, for example, that the Autons are waiting to ambush Mickey outside Clive’s house? If the Autons can replicate human beings with enough skill that they can fool Rose, how come their invasion force seems to be primarily composed of store dummies? How exactly did they do all this, given that all we see of them are shop-front dummies? I know that the Doctor forces their hand and leads them to kick-start their invasion, but it all feels a little clumsy.
I’ll be the first to concede that Davies isn’t necessarily the best writer when it comes to structuring a story. Quite a few of his later plots (particularly his season finalés) threaten to fall apart if you think about them too much. However, he does an exceptional job capturing the essence and wonder and enthusiasm that one expects from Doctor Who. Christopher Eccleston provides easily the most cynical and cranky version of the title character to date, but it’s clear that beneath the leather jacket lurks at least one romantic heart/
Consider the Doctor’s description of his travels and the nature of the universe to Rose:
Do you know like we were saying about the Earth revolving? It’s like when you were a kid. The first time they tell you the world’s turning and you just can’t quite believe it because everything looks like it’s standing still. I can feel it. The turn of the Earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour, and the entire planet is hurtling round the sun at sixty seven thousand miles an hour, and I can feel it. We’re falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go…
That’s who I am. Now, forget me, Rose Tyler. Go home.
It’s an almost poetic introduction to the character, and it tells us everything we need to know without cluttering the script.
It’s worth noting that Davies’ script is quite light on exposition about who the Doctor is and what he does. I think that was a shrewd approach. The Nestene Consciousness addresses him as “Timelord”, but we get no clunky dialogue about Gallifrey or about his history or past. Davies would do an exceptional job reintroducing all these concepts, but he’s smart enough to know that entertaining the audience and grabbing their attention must take priority over the back story.
So he shrewdly introduces the Ninth Doctor, without any indication of what happened to the Eighth. He doesn’t mention the word “regeneration.” Instead, he makes it quite clear that the Doctor has gone through a massive change lately, and Rose suggests that this is the first time he has seen himself in the mirror. Seasoned fans (or even those revisiting Rose after a year watching the new show) will immediately grasp the implication. For those new viewers, it’s merely another intriguing facet.
Here, of course, is another example of how Davies favours character and thematic development over plot work. It is important for the audience to understand that the Ninth Doctor is still working out his issues, and that he is still something new. However, Clive presents pictures of the Doctor at events like the eruption of Krakoa, the assassination of JFK and the sinking of the Titanic. It seems unlikely that he travelled that far without encountering a reflective surface. It also seems unlikely that these are later trips, as Rose is nowhere to be seen.
You could argue that he does all that between the first time he invites Rose to come with him and the second time. If so, it would be nice to get a bit of conformation one way or the other. It would, at the very least, hint at the possibilities of time travel in a way that Davies generally didn’t. I know that the season’s big arc works backwards, but it feels like the clumsy execution of a fascinating concept. The idea that the Doctor had a considerable amount of adventures in the few seconds he was off screen would be an excellent way to demonstrate how elastic time is to him. (And perhaps foreshadow the temporal mess-up in Aliens of London by demonstrating that time inside the TARDIS does not directly correspond to time inside the TARDIS.)
I know this seems like a bit of a strange choice, but Eccleston is my favourite Doctor. There are a lot of reasons for the choice, but the most obvious is that he’s really the only version of the character who has a clearly-plotted character arc that runs from his first appearance through to his eventual regeneration. Only Peter Davison’s interpretation of the character comes close, and he is my second-favourite.
Eccleston’s Doctor is strangely and uniquely human. He’s glib, he’s sarcastic, he’s cynical. The Seventh Doctor could be manipulative and the the Third Doctor could be dismissive, but the Ninth Doctor seems like a bit of jerk. He’s constantly making belittling remarks about Rose’s “little life”, and he’s also quite fond of telling her to shut up, in as many words. “Are you going to witter on all night?” he asks, after she finds out her boyfriend is alive.
Indeed, after disabling the not!Mickey double, he neglects to point out that the Autons probably kept Mickey alive. “Yeah, that was always a possibility,” he concedes. “Keep him alive to maintain the copy.” Given the speed at which his mouth moves, it seems unlikely he forgot to tell her. It seems more likely he was concerned about giving her false hope – which betrays an understanding of the human psyche that so many other iterations of the Doctor sorely lack.
At the same time, this version of the Doctor seems oddly aloof from humanity, perhaps too focused on the big picture. The show (especially the revived show) has suggested that the human companions serve to ground the Doctor, and to keep him focused so that he doesn’t end up detached. Here, we already see evidence that Rose does something similar:
Look, if I did forget some kid called Mickey…
Yeah, he’s not a kid.
… it’s because I’m trying to save the life of every stupid ape blundering on top of this planet, all right?
There’s also a sense of very human desperation from Eccleston’s Doctor, and it’s fantastic that the show began with a leading actor with this sort of dramatic ability. He arguably lacks the charisma of Tennant, but that is perhaps the point. Eccleston seems to play the Doctor as a man dealing with his own loss and failure. Even before the details of the “the last Great Time War” are fully revealed in The End of Time, it’s clear the Doctor did a lot of stuff that he’s not quite capable of processing.
It raises all manner of interesting ideas. For example, is anything that happened really the Ninth Doctor’s fault? Given he doesn’t even know what he looks like, it would imply that the Eighth Doctor was the one who ultimately ended the conflict, and so can the Ninth Doctor be held accountable for that? After all, all the Doctors are the same person, and yet strangely different. Eccleston plays the Ninth Doctor as a man born with blood on his hands, and it’s a powerful portrayal.
That desperation bleeds through here, even in his first appearance. No Doctor has ever seemed quite as broken as Eccleston’s Doctor pleading for the opportunity to end the crisis without mass murder. There’s a sense that this is a man who really needs that “everybody lives!” moment that he finally gets in The Doctor Dances. Even though he has a weapon to destroy the Nestene, he begs, “This planet is just starting. These stupid little people have only just learnt how to walk, but they’re capable of so much more. I’m asking you on their behalf. Please, just go.”
Indeed, even his invitation to Rose seems strangely needy. “What do you think?” he asks. “You could stay here, fill your life with work and food and sleep, or you could go anywhere.” His flat-out refusal to take Mickey feels a little pointed. In fact, he even comes back to ask her a second time, perhaps an indication of just how much he wants a companion. In a nice moment foreshadowing Father’s Day, it’s the second invitation that convinces Rose. “By the way, did I mention it also travels in time?”
However, as fascinating as the Doctor is, the episode really belongs to Rose. It’s her name that gives the episode its title, and it’s through her eyes that we first encounter the Doctor, much like Ian and Barbara introduced us to him fifty years ago. I’ll be the first to concede that Rose eventually wore out her welcome, but it’s easy to overlook just what a clever concept she was when first introduced.
While the classic series had used its fair share of contemporaneous companions (most notably those of the Third Doctor’s era), we’d never really received too much insight into their personal lives or their circumstances. It seemed like the Doctor could just pick them up and drop them back without anybody really noticing that they’d been gone. With Rose, for the first time, we get a sense that the character has roots, background, an origin – that she isn’t just a person without any ties who can hop in a spaceship with a strange man without anyone noticing.
The idea was (and still is) fascinating. To be fair, I think that the series milked that a little bit too much – after seven years, I’d love a steady companion who isn’t from the modern day and who doesn’t come with a bundle of emotional baggage. Still, it was a great idea at the time, and I think it helped a lot in the first year of the show. It demonstrated that the world (and television itself) had changed in the Doctor’s absence, and that Davies wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that.
More than that, though, it allows Davies to really explore what the Doctor means as a concept. Moffat would emphasise the Doctor more as a childhood imaginary friend, but Davies still paints the character as something from a romantic fantasy. He’s a character who drops out of the sky and sweeps you off your fight into some vast adventure. He broadens your perception of the universe, shows you the impossible, takes you away from the mundane and the dull.
Rose is effectively and immediately characterised as somebody decidedly working class. She lives in a flat in Central London. She works in a department story. After the Doctor blows up the shop, she considers her options. “Do you think I should try the hospital?” she asks Mickey. “Suki said they had jobs going in the canteen. Is that it then, dishing out chips. I could do A Levels. I don’t know. It’s all Jimmy Stone’s fault. I only left school because of him. Look where he ended up.” For her, more than anybody, the Doctor represents the exotic and the impossible.
As an aside, it’s interesting how much of a jerk Mickey appears in his first appearance here. His posturing in front of Clive is hilarious, but he’s presented as pretty much the worst boyfriend imaginable. After Rose’s workplace explodes, he pops by to check in, only to nip off down the pub to watch the last five minutes of the match. Of course, he’s a jerk so that the choice to abandon him is much easier to make, but it feels liek convenient plotting and characterisation. Luckily enough, then character would develop substantially in following year.
I should also mention the episode’s climax, which unfolds beneath the London Eye. I love the set, which looks suitably mundane for the headquarters of an alien invasion. It calls to mind – in a good way – the use of quarries and other locations on the classic television show. It’s an illustration of how, even with the bigger budget and the modern sensibilities, Doctor Who never lost sight of its roots.
Rose isn’t the best episode of the season, but it does represent a solid start. Things are still a bit ropey in places, and there’s a sense that the series is still trying to figure out how much or how little camp is ideal, and there are some plotting problems that result from trying to introduce the cast and tell an alien invasion story in forty-five minutes. Still, as a place to start, it demonstrates the potential of the show, and sets up a lot of the great stuff that lies ahead.
Filed under: Television Tagged: | Auton, Billie Piper, christmas, christopher eccleston, Davies, doctor, doctor who, Jimmy Stone, Krakoa, Mickey Smith, Murray Gold, rose, rose tyler, russell t. davies, Shrubs, steven moffat, titanic