Doctor Who Series 1 Review: The Trip of a Lifetime

With everything to prove and nothing to lose, the first series of Revived Doctor Who truly demonstrates all that the show is capable of for a modern audience

Starring Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper and John Barrowman

The universe has infinite possibilities. It is commendable, in fact, that the original iteration of Doctor Who managed to last 26 seasons off the back of Sydney Newman’s idea of an odd man travelling around the universe in a mysterious box with an escort of human associates. The later development that the Doctor was a member of an alien race capable of full-body regeneration gave the show a longevity that nobody could have foreseen, enabling the show to go through an unprecedented number of revamps over the years. Despite this, in 1989, the BBC cancelled the show, believing that it had run its course and had stagnated, after multiple years of reducing episode counts and series budgets had backed creatives into a corner.

16 years after the BBC had pulled the plug, and following a failed attempt at revitalising the programme in an American co-production through the TV movie starring Paul McGann, Russell T Davies, along with BBC Wales head of drama Julie Gardner, were tasked with reviving the programme for a contemporary audience. Never before had a series of Doctor Who had quite so much to prove, with Davies truly tasked with the Time Lord’s final chance to prove their legitimacy on TV screens.

In retooling and representing the show to a new generation, Davies shifted the focus from the mysterious Time Lord at its centre to the audience surrogate: the companion. Instead of filling the TARDIS with a group of companions, as the series had started way back in 1963, Davies built upon the foundations built by Andrew Cartmel and last classic companion Ace (Sophie Aldred), the 2005 series heavily invested time and depth into the character of Rose, played by Billie Piper.

Additionally, Davies went to considerable length to show diversity and range in both the fantastical locations, but also the styles of story to be told, that truly showcase the versatility of the show to an audience. From space stations with all manner of bizarre alien species on them, to a time travelling tale of grief, to sinister gas-mask wearing zombies in the height of the London Blitz, to a re-examination of the Doctor’s relationship to one of his oldest foes, once again restoring them to their full, terrifying potential. Throughout the series, each individual story diverges dramatically in tone and setting whilst never losing the unique sense that each is a Doctor Who story.

The audience are challenged to look at the Doctor through new eyes. He is presented to the viewer through Billie Piper’s Rose, who is truly the emotional epicentre of this collection of episodes. Throughout the stories, viewers really latch onto Rose and it helps give all of the stories a grounded quality, despite the extreme events that occur around our characters. Rose is highly relatable and is crafted to be an ordinary human with perfectly ordinary qualities, placed into extraordinary situations. It is easy for viewers to put themselves into Rose’s shoes and this helps give all of the stories a sense of realism that might otherwise have been lacking.

Stories like “Aliens of London” and “World War Three” help establish the life that Rose has built on Earth and the life that she is leaving behind, giving us an unprecedented look into the backstory of our companions and helping the viewers to understand at a new level just how tremendously magical travelling with the Doctor is. But it doesn’t do this at the expense of jeopardy, also taking pains to illustrate to the audience how dangerous it can be as well, and Rose’s survival is never assured. “Father’s Day” is also a wholly unique, deeply personal and emotional tale that is rooted in Rose’s character specifically, delving into the loss of her father and helping the audience to appreciate her all the more.

The entirety of “Rose” is, fittingly, told from Rose’s perspective, despite it being the first episode of the revived series, demonstrating a creative commitment to putting the companion on an even footing with the Doctor. Rose never falls into the camp of lacking agency or being a stock character. Each story she is featured in, she performs a specific narrative purpose, even if it is secondary to the main plot. For example, “The End of the World” is mainly about her confronting her decision to travel with the Doctor, but Rose does not help the Doctor with saving the space station, falling into the more traditional role of damsel in distress. However, considering she saved the Doctor in the previous episode, it prevents Rose from becoming a cliché. Her parity with the Doctor is routinely felt.

The beginning of the series sees Rose lament that she has no A levels, no job and no future. By the end of it, however, she has found a purpose with the Doctor and optionally throws herself back into near-assured destruction, just in case she is able to help, because she cannot stand doing nothing. Rose is always a character with tremendous heart, grit and determination and travelling with the Doctor opens her up to her full potential.

The Doctor that Davies writes is drastically different to the one in the original run, however. No longer the kooky, madcap wanderer, bounding around the universe looking for adventures, Davies makes him more aloof, more guarded and more mysterious. The Doctor that Rose meets holds her at a distance. No longer does he adopt humans like strays, but his default reaction upon encountering Rose is to hold her at arms length. Davies truly conveys the whole weight of being a Time Lord through this ninth incarnation.

Through inventing the Time War, Davies is able to soft reset the narrative of Doctor Who, allowing both established fans and newcomers alike to appreciate the journey as well as be unaware of what could possibly come next. It also adds new layers and depth to the Doctor, allowing him to become more of a tortured hero, more nuanced and, ultimately, more realistic. It once again contributes to the grittier, more grounded nature of Davies’ series, which helps even the episodes which are comparatively lacking in plot more impactful.

In addition to this clear vision in the writing and the direction, the Doctor and Rose are played perfectly by Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper. Eccleston truly does convey the sense of age and damage the Doctor possesses, and it is without doubt that without an actor of his stature the revived series would not have been received nearly as well. Piper is incredibly likeable as Rose, but both performance and writing do not fall into the trap of making her perfect, as she is easy to root for but also flawed. Though she is driven, intelligent and capable, she is also shown to be self-centred and superior, but that doesn’t undercut the audience’s affection for her, so strong and commanding are the performances throughout the series, and especially in series standout “Father’s Day”.

Davies successfully balances many different types of stories in this first collection, from historical adventures to far into the future. A consistent, recurring feature is the pacing of these episodes, unravelling just enough mystery to capture the audience’s attention and see it through to their conclusion. Even the episodes which don’t have as much in the way of sophisticated plotting, such as “The End of the World” or “Boom Town” are still consistently engaging.

Doctor Who‘s 2005 run also features instalments that remain fan favourites to this day. Steven Moffat’s Who debut “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances” is consistently tense and undeniably creepy, keeping the audience perfectly in the dark whilst also maintaining their interest. It features well realised side characters and had a conclusion that feels wholly justified and not even vaguely like a narrative leap. It is one of the most cogent and successful stories that Moffat has produced for the show.

“Dalek” and “Father’s Day” are also wonderful episodes. “Dalek” reintroduces the Doctor’s most feared enemy and reinstates it as a formidable foe but also manages to balance the ruthless death toll with an emotional core, revealing new sides to the Doctor and his relationship with Rose. This episode demonstrated that the Daleks, when written well, do not need to be seen in their thousands to be a sinister, destructive force.

“Father’s Day” is a story that could only be told with Doctor Who and stretches the parameters for what was previously considered to be a children’s TV show. The themes of parental grief and loss displayed here, as well as a phenomenal performance by Billie Piper really makes this episode stand the test of time.

Davies also makes a massive spectacle out of the series finale, turning in an epic, emotional culmination to the Ninth Doctor’s tenure and to Rose’s journey with him. From witty parodies of well-known reality TV to then destroying the future Earth with the largest collection of Daleks the show has ever seen, Davies truly manages to balance an epic scope with a simple premise within the finale – something which finales since have struggled to match.

Ultimately, Davies reinvigorates what had become a tired show with a fresh set of eyes and a new take on the premise. Placing the companion centrally helps give Doctor Who a gritty realism it formally lacked, and the narrative addition of the Time War gives new depth to the Doctor that allows him to recapture some of the mystique that had begun to wear off towards the end of the original run. In his 2005 series, Davies assures Doctor Who‘s position in the 21st century television landscape, and it is probably the most fearless, cohesive series in the show’s existence.

You can catch up on Doctor Who on BBC iPlayer

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