It’s been 15 years since Doctor Who rocketed back onto our screens with “Rose”. To celebrate, Doctor Who fans tuned in simultaneously to host a rewatch, even trending on Twitter UK.
Starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper
Episode 1: Rose
It is strange to think of a time within public consciousness where Doctor Who was anything other than a beloved British institution. Where fans turned up in their droves to conventions the world over, and where it is even lauded in America. However, that was the world that Russell T Davies encountered when he revived Doctor Who in 2005. Back then, it was very tricky to convince people to take a chance on a revival of Doctor Who. Nobody was even particularly sure whether it would work or be accepted, even those within the show itself. It merely makes what they produced all the more impressive.
After all, Doctor Who had been unceremoniously cancelled in 1989, after 26 seasons, and a previous attempt at a revival – a film in 1996 – had not gone at all to plan. Doctor Who had become somewhat of a reputation as a programme to be mocked: with wobbly sets and questionable special effects.
So, along comes this adaptation of the beloved classic, and it is a true reinvention of what the programme had been. Along with the changing landscape of television, Doctor Who was now presented as a series of 13 45-minute episodes, instead of multiple 30-minute instalments, as classic Whovians had been used to. This changed the nature of the storytelling within from being a slow-build mystery into a more fast based action affair.
Along with this change, which was entirely necessary considering the vast differences in TV between 1989 and 2005, were the huge alterations made to the character of the Doctor and the role of the companion in the show. Firstly, there was the Doctor’s appearance: wearing a leather jacket, with a Northern accent. Throughout the entire episode he appears darker in many way than he has before. More emotional, more impulsive. Just as fun as he was before, but hardened by something that the audience is not yet privvy too. He still retains a sense of his alien roots, showing a strange impassiveness and a lack of understanding to Rose’s feelings; in a way that seems more callous than it has done before. In addition to this, there still seems to be a beating heart to it underneath. In particular, the scene where he comments upon feeling the spin of the earth, you can almost feel the entire audience collectively holding their breath, as enraptured as they are by Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. He is truly masterful in this part.
Then, alongside him is teenage pop-star turned actress Billie Piper, who was already subject to media speculation before the programme even began, expressing scepticism at her career change. Moreover, this episode is firmly told from the point of view of the companion. From the opening scene until the end, the story is told through Rose’s lens; a large departure from the original series treatment of the companions.
While that has kept with the revived version of the show, it was revolutionary to present the Doctor as almost a supporting player within his own series at the time. However, the huge success of this episode, and indeed the entire Russell T Davies era, is how real the characters feel. Within just a few minutes you feel as if you are meeting Rose midway through her life. She feels like an organic and natural human right from the very beginning, and it’s a great anchor for the audience to hang onto amidst all of the crazy sci-fi elements that are ingrained in a show like Doctor Who. Without these relatable and likeable characters, there is very little for the audience to hang onto. Seeing a character like them reacting to it all, like the companions frequently do, is integral to the enjoyment of the show. What’s more, seeing the Doctor from a different point of view is interesting to examine who he is as a character, something which hadn’t really been done on the show before that point. Ultimately, we as an audience are always going to feel a little bit distant from the Doctor, as we do not know the amount that he knows and we do not come from the same background to him. Rose, however, feels like somebody who you might bump into on the street, or go for a drink with of an evening. In just a few moments and a few scenes, Davies makes Rose feel thoroughly real. From her tower block flat, to her outspoken mother and to her slightly useless boyfriend, Rose feels entirely organic and fully realised. It’s a particular strength of Russel T Davies, in fact, as it’s something that he also excelled with through his introductions of Martha and Donna in later series.
The entire episode is told from the point of view of Rose. There’s not a single cutaway to the Doctor and what he is doing at this time, rather we, as the audience, learn of the strange new world through her eyes, and that is very powerful. It’s a bold move, and it’s a hugely successful one too. Throughout this time, we see that she is curious, adventurous, independent, brave, resourceful, heroic…all the elements that we have come to admire in companions, but here she is really allowed the chance to shine without having to be sidelined by the Doctor. Indeed, it’s even Rose’s job here to rescue the Doctor when he is peril, and not the other way round. It is Rose’s duty to save the day when the Doctor is unable to. She rises to the occasion in a key way, and she almost earns her spot in the TARDIS through this massive display of heroism and gumption. It isn’t just a case of a character stumbling upon the TARDIS anymore, and accidentally inserting themselves into the Doctor’s life as a dependable in a way, who is pretty much unable to get home. Instead, it’s a choice – a conscious choice that Rose and the Doctor make to travel together. Rose is more than an equal to the Doctor, and she demonstrates this time and again. While she may not know as much as the Doctor, she demonstrates strength that he does not have. She is resilient, she is resourceful. In times, she has a greater heart and a sense of empathy than the Doctor is capable of, which is often pivotal in solving a problem or finding a clue. The role of the companion here is majorly altered from just a body to ask the Doctor questions so that he can prove how intelligent he is. Instead, it’s a partnership. Even to the way that both of their names are featured in the opening credits, instead of just featuring the Doctor’s face.
Then, there’s the Doctor. A Doctor who spirals into this world and completely disrupts Rose’s own equilibrium here. He erupts into her life – and ours – in entirely chaotic fashion, and we have the sense here that there is something changed about him. Something that makes him slightly different to our version of the Doctor. Indeed, were I to be watching in 2005 and have actually been a longstanding fan, I might almost have been convinced that this man wasn’t the Doctor, but maybe some imposter. After all, there is no regeneration from Paul McGann into this Doctor, so it was, in fact, entirely feasible until later confirmation came that this was indeed the same Time Lord. He still has so many elements that are familiar: the TARDIS, for one, the inherent level of technobabble, but there’s something else too. There’s a coldness, in a way, and an anger and a dismissiveness. I cannot imagine any Doctor before him appearing and referring to humans as “stupid little people”, nor having a rant at Rose for trying to save the lives of everybody on the planet. There’s a guilt here, and almost a burden that the Doctor is carrying to try and save as many people as he physically can do. He even extends this courtesy to the Autons, though he is harsher than we have seen him before, arguing with them in a way that we haven’t seen before. The previous Doctors were much more bumbling and amusing, tricking themselves around a confrontation, and rarely raising their voices. Here is the Doctor, shouting at the Nestene, “This is an invasion, pure and simple. Don’t talk to me of constitutional rights!”. And then there’s the sheer emotion of “I fought in the war. It wasn’t my fault!”. Even though we don’t know the full details yet, we get the sense of the Doctor feeling this massive amounts of guilt and penance for his actions during this time. It’s a defining characteristic of this incarnation of the Doctor. Tennant’s Doctor only very rarely displayed the same level of darkness that Eccleston shows here, in just his first episode, and it’s such a far cry from where we have seen the Doctor up until now. It’s also significant that the Doctor explicitly invites Rose on his travels. Somebody who is so dismissive, and even does not extend the same invitation to Mickey, and yet is inviting Rose upon this journey specifically to join him. Opening up, in a way, to accepting culpability and responsibility for another person, but she has almost earned her place by showing herself more than capable in the crisis situations that the Doctor winds up in.
It’s also considerable that in amongst all of this discovering with both Rose and the Doctor there is, in fact, a compelling plot here. It’s hugely funny and entertaining, rolling along at a spectacular pace, and you never feel like any moments are rushed. While it is not perfect (I have a long-standing hatred of Auton Mickey and the burping bin fiasco), it is hugely successful in introducing the audience to the world of Doctor Who with fresh eyes. We are meeting the Doctor as if completely brand new, with no requirement of knowing what has happened before within this fantastical world. Indeed, Rose knows nothing of this history, and it’s almost as if we are dropped into this world along with her. The abrupt change in the Doctor’s character only serves to enhance this.
Rose is, and always will be, a wonderful piece of television. It completely reinvents and reinvigorates what was a tired and derided show into something entirely modern and fully developed. We were introduced to characters who no longer felt like childish caricature of humans but rather fully realised and nuanced people. We were taught that they were equally important to the Doctor, if not more so, completely shifting the focus of the series in a way that is still felt even in the most recent Who episodes. The value of Rose also cannot be understated. It was what sold the world of Who back to the audience, and justified its existence on the screen. While often the presence of Who now is taken for granted, or taken as a given (considering its global appeal), the early series definitely had a sense of fighting for its justification for existing. You never got the sense that Davies phoned anything in, or created an episode that was just middling. Every aspect of his era was meticulously crafted and thought out, to the extent that he even planned Rose’s return to the programme at the same time as detailing her departure. The story arcs that he set up were expertly crafted and thought through to be unravelled in an appropriate way to the audience over a number of weeks. This is a world that has been beautifully and studiously manufactured, and it really shows. The impact cannot be forgotten, nor its monumental successes.