Looking back on last year’s tremendous 50th anniversary celebrations, it may be hard to imagine Doctor Who being anything other than a roaring success. However, rewind ten years to 2003 and the 40th anniversary was a different story…
Doctor Who hadn’t aired since 1989 and the 1996 Paul McGann TV Movie had failed to pique enough interest for a new series. The show had entered the ‘wilderness years’, where loyal kept the Doctor alive through other media such as audio plays, magazines, comic strips and books. Although the BBC created the short flash-animated series Scream of the Shalka for the 40th anniversary, the possibility of the show returning to television seemed slim, with only vague hopes for another movie deal.
It’s no surprise, then, that “Rose” dives straight into the stunning pre-credits sequence. Viewers are immediately presented with the time vortex, an updated version of the iconic theme tune and a police box hurtling through time and space. The credits fade into the very first shot of the series, as the camera pans from Earth hanging in space down into the bedroom of a young woman. No name is given, but instead we’re given a snapshot of her ordinary, everyday life: the council estate home with her mother (Jackie Tyler, played by Camille Coduri), the hustle and bustle of present-day London, a lunch date with her boyfriend (Mickey Smith, played by Noel Clarke) and her job at Henrik’s, a local department store. It’s only by chance that she is the employee asked to take the store’s lottery money down to the basement, at which point her name is finally revealed to be Rose. Shop window mannequins (or Autons, as they are more familiarly known within the Whoniverse) come to life and Rose is left helpless, until a man grabs her hand and tells her, quite simply – “Run!”
Christopher Eccleston brings a breath of fresh air to the role of the Doctor. Gone are the days of long stripy scarves, a stick of celery and garish coats of many colours – this Doctor is serious, with his cropped hair, tough leather jacket and Northern accent. Beneath the surface, he’s even more reckless than ever. He manages to blow up the Henrik’s building within the first 10 minutes of the episode, flippantly informing Rose of a colleague’s death and evidently enjoying himself while waving an explosive device around. For Rose, he is an explosion of energy and excitement, something actually important happening in her life. But in the next scene, she is banished back to her painfully insignificant life, which seems to dull in comparison to the Doctor.
When the Doctor turns up again, this time at Rose’s doorstep, we finally get to enjoy some of the fantastic dialogue and chemistry between Christopher and Billie. It’s quickly established that this Doctor is often a joker, through simple scenes like Rose offering him coffee to the pair of them teasing about the entire world revolving around them. But in a single moment, the Doctor’s mood switches to something we haven’t seen yet with his portrayal. Intensity.
“The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour. The entire planet is hurtling around 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.”
What’s even more incredible is that Rose takes this all in her stride. She isn’t fazed by this impossible man or the living plastic. Instead, she is concerned about Doctor being alone. She asks the right questions on the audience’s behalf and is always listening, even when she doesn’t believe him at first. But in the blink of an eye, the Doctor is gone and Rose is left to do some digging of her own – mainly in the form of internet conspiracy theorist Clive, who gives us some food for thought about just how dangerous the Doctor can actually be.
Although the Autons provide the fear aspect early on in the episode, some visual gags can border on the edge of being goofy and dated; the burping wheelie bin and Mickey’s plastic transformation are particular examples of this. However, using the Autons and Nestene Consciousness instead of well-known adversaries such as the Daleks and Cybermen was ultimately a clever choice. Firstly, for long time fans of Doctor Who, the Autons will echo back to Jon Pertwee’s first story Spearhead from Space. The Autons had not been seen on television since the 1971 serial Terror of the Autons, therefore a perfect monster to update and bring into the 21st Century. Those unfamiliar with the show’s history would still never be able to look at a shop window dummy in the same way.
Additionally, “Rose” manages to strike the balance perfectly between paying homage to the past of Doctor Who and not confusing new viewers with too much technobabble. The shop window dummies are never actually named Autons in this episode, and we never hear that the Autons have invaded twice before, instead leaving viewers to discover for themselves the previous history. Russell T Davies isn’t ignoring the show’s past, but instead understanding that new audiences only need to know the basics at this point – the Doctor, companion and TARDIS.
The new TARDIS interior reveal is a particular highlight of this episode. Fans will be familiar with the basic layout of the console room, the bigger-on-the-inside element and the ability for the TARDIS to travel in time and space. But for new viewers, they can immediately relate to Rose’s stunned reaction as she circles the TARDIS in awe and tries to comprehend the amazing machine inside. The sonic screwdriver even gets a mention, and at no point does this scene exclude new viewers. There’s no complicated references to the past, instead just an impossible Doctor and his blue box.
You would think that the aim of this episode is for the Autons to invade, the Nestene Consciousness to be defeated and for Earth to be saved. Though that does ultimately happen, it isn’t the intended aim of “Rose”. Instead, the focus is entirely on Rose Tyler. It’s for the audience to put themselves into Rose’s shoes, to focus and care more about the ordinary woman with no A Levels, no job and no future, than the amazing alien with a time machine. She ultimately saves the Doctor’s life when he cannot defeat the Nestene Consciousness, and we’re made to feel like we can join the Doctor and Rose on their adventures. Christopher and Billie are truly tremendous in this episode because they instantly fall into their characters. We are given hints of a darker side of the Doctor through his dangerous personality and flippant remarks, such as using the term ‘stupid ape’, and the mention of his involvement in a war. Rose ultimately understands that he is dangerous, but she also recognises how much her mundane, ordinary life can change with him.
This is perhaps one of the trickiest first episodes for Doctor Who since An Unearthly Child. The show absolutely needed to pull in the ratings in order to survive. It needed to pay homage to the past without carrying too much baggage, and it also needed to introduce the world of Doctor Who to an entirely new audience at the same time. David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi could not have taken on the role of the Doctor without Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, as the show might well have failed without their magnificent performances in this first series. “Rose” truly marks the beginning of a new era for Doctor Who; the most successful and popular era yet. As the Ninth Doctor would say:
Tomorrow: It’s Chriiiiiiistmaaaaaas! But will the newly regenerated Doctor be able to save Christmas Day? Find out when TGT writer Patrick Webster reviews The Christmas Invasion!