Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Doctor Who 52: 03 – Ten Reasons to Watch Rose
Introducing Doctor Who – Rose…
The first new Doctor Who story starts with an ordinary person who follows someone extraordinary to a blue box that’s larger on the inside than the outside and travels in time and space. Again.
Fast, funny and fantastic, Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston burst onto our screens and deadly dummies burst through shop windows in the perfect Doctor Who relaunch, choosing strangeness over normality, running towards adventure and reinventing British television. And it all looks glorious. It’s nearly Christmas, but it was at Easter 2005 that Doctor Who – Rose.
“Right. Where d’you wanna start?”The biggest question for me: how do I choose only ten reasons to watch this?
I’m celebrating Doctor Who’s fifty-second anniversary with one story every week for a year – and my husband Richard is joining in with his own eclectic choices if you want different recommendations. You can read more of what this Doctor Who 52 is all about here. But if I were you I’d just read on, then press Play on the DVD.
Ten Reasons To Watch Rose (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – Rose. This episode is built on Rose Tyler, and Billie Piper is perfect. It’s Rose’s story, the story of a young woman who doesn’t know she’s looking for something better in her life until it runs into her – and who then goes after it. She’s completely normal – and smart, fresh and funny. She works in a shop. She knows nothing about the Doctor or walking dummies or miraculous travels. With the new audience, she comes in half-way through the story, tries to make sense of it all, and won’t let go when it’s horrifying, intriguing or joyous. The Doctor’s in a story of living plastic “Autons” animated by the alien Nestene Consciousness, but that’s just window-dressing. The story we’re watching follows Rose as she almost-unwillingly picks at the weird thread of the Doctor’s world intruding into hers, rather than us or her being given the whole lot in one big splat of culture shock or backstory. And she makes it an achievement – increasingly determined first to find out what’s going on and then to do something about it, even when her family tell her she shouldn’t bother and the Doctor won’t answer her questions. Her ‘hero moment’ comes when she swings in to save the Doctor with a great piss-take of a motivational speech:
“I’ve got no A-Levels. No job. No future. But I tell you what I have got – Jericho Street Junior School under-sevens gymnastics team. I got the bronze!”But for me I was really sold on Rose, and Billie, in two moments where she shows she’s not just a foil to the Doctor but brings something more: when it seems her boyfriend Mickey is dead, Rose’s first thought is that she’ll have to tell his mother, grounding the series in consequences from the start; and her brilliant comic timing with just a nod and an eyebrow when she’s being smarter than the Doctor.
Above all, Rose is the symbol of the new audience who didn’t know they were looking for Doctor Who until they started watching, embodying the message that the series is for everybody – not least young women – so why don’t you demand something more interesting from your television set?
2 – The Doctor. Christopher Eccleston is, like William Hartnell before him, at first a mystery to the ordinary person who doesn’t know what to make of him, but also fantastic from his first moment. When Rose and we first meet him, he’s a baffling mixture of reassuring and alarming as only
“Nice to meet you Rose. Run for your life!”while waving a bomb could be. Of course he has to be the Doctor when he starts with “Run!” Speaking to Rose, he’s upbeat and engaging, but when he turns away that all switches off – and when he talks to someone who knows of his world, he can’t hide his pain. And at the same time he can be as innocent as a new-born about our world, from his appealing faith in a not-totally-a-disguise to having to be reminded that death might upset people, that there are details as well as the big picture. Rose keeps trying to make the Doctor pay attention to what she thinks is serious, and when she tracks down someone else who’s been trying to find out about the Doctor he’s even more so, telling her that “The Doctor is a legend woven throughout history”… When back at her flat, the legend had been worrying about his ears, losing control of a card trick and dismissing the celebrity gossip with a glance:
“Hmm. That won’t last; he’s gay, and she’s an alien.”But then, he doesn’t seem quite human, dismissing the whole of humanity as “boneheads” and “stupid apes” to our faces… Only to stick up for us as “capable of so much more”. Christopher Eccleston is brilliant casting to relaunch the Doctor, a very serious actor who you wouldn’t expect in the role but who’s utterly right for it, bringing dramatic credibility and all the range of the Ninth Doctor: lonely, angry, hurt, wrapped up in survivor’s guilt… Yet surprised and delighted by Rose – and very funny.
3 – That introduction to the TARDIS.
“Right. Where d’you wanna start?”This is the heart of Rose – when she walks into the Doctor’s world, coming up to two-thirds of the way into the episode. It’s one of the most wonderful moments – or series of moments – in all of Doctor Who, and I could easily find ten reasons to watch this sequence alone. But I’ve not put it first, because there’s a reason the story doesn’t start here. You have to earn it, to discover the wonder and terror and sheer fun for yourself alongside Rose. And though it runs across several different settings, it’s also a big, long talky scene. In disguise.
“Um – the inside’s bigger than the outside?”
“It’s – it’s alien.”
“Are you alien?”
“Yes. That all right?”
Before Rose aired, I’d admitted to three big fears – beyond the unsayable, existential one that Doctor Who would come back, only to go away again. I’d worried that pop star Billie Piper wouldn’t be able to act. I’d worried that the Doctor wouldn’t be likeable, as I’d seen Christopher Eccleston in many things and he’d been many things – intense, mostly – but not fun. And I’d worried that they’d mess up the TARDIS and not introduce it properly (like the TV Movie, starting off inside it rather than letting us find out). This was the point where I knew without a doubt that I’d been deliriously wrong on all three.
Rose keeps teasing the TARDIS before revealing it as the Doctor’s impossible time and space machine: a blue hut glimpsed in the shadows as Rose runs from her exploding workplace; the Doctor striding off towards what looks like another wooden booth with a light on top on another street in the light of day, a wheezing, groaning sound, Rose turns, and it’s gone – a scene with a special magic for Richard and me; the same blue box standing by the bins behind the restaurant in which a plastic facsimile of her boyfriend is going berserk.
And then a place of safety can be weirder than the threat.
Rose has seen Auton Mickey smashing everything in sight. Obviously she wants the Doctor to undo the padlocked gates. So why is he strolling to a wooden box that can’t possibly protect them? He walks in. She follows… She has to come straight out again. She walks all the way round. Then she takes the plunge. A gloriously huge space, with a turquoise undersea glimmer, great coral arches and a control console and the Doctor at the centre, both packed with weirdness. It’s the best introduction to the TARDIS since An Unearthly Child, and even as the Doctor gently takes her through his and its strange origins, there’s a hint of more strangeness to come that he doesn’t even explain right now:
“The assembled hordes of Genghis Khan couldn’t get through that door. And believe me, they’ve tried.”But it’s not just a surprise for Rose. The Doctor’s brought her world into his, too – not just in carrying an alien replica of her boyfriend’s head that he’s trying to trace a signal from. No, something much more alarming. He asks about her culture shock and gets instant culture shock whiplash back from her asking if this means her boyfriend’s dead. And he’s panicking and petulant at losing the signal, too, so he goes back outside. Where, obviously, it isn’t safe. Then Rose looks through the door. And they’re on the Thames Embankment without having moved.
The Doctor’s explanations are unspeakably joyous to watch. Sulky:
“We’ve moved. Does it fly?”Angry:
“Disappears there and reappears here. You wouldn’t understand.”
“I’ll have to tell his mother. Oh… Mickey! I’ll have to tell his mother he’s dead, and you just went and forgot him, again! You were right – you are alien.”Hilarious pouty non-answer:
“Look, if I did forget some kid called Mickey –”
“Yeah, he’s not a kid –”
“It’s because I’m busy trying to save the life of every stupid ape blundering about on top of this planet! All right?”
“If you are an alien, how comes you sound like you’re from the North?”And, best of all, so proud of his toy, so wide-eyed and so endearingly clueless:
“Lots of planets have a north.”
“What’s a police public call box?”I can’t imagine more perfect dialogue and actors. Rose has stepped into the Doctor’s world and out the other side; now he’s telling her more about it, but in the way he does so telling her and us much more about himself, while Rose brings her ordinary life with her by being the adult, constantly taking a deep breath and moving on rather than reacting with a ‘What?’ or a ‘You’re joking’ or a ‘You unspeakable git’ to the countless ways in which he’s completely self-unaware.
“It’s a telephone box. From the 1950s. It’s a disguise.”
And there’s one more thing, after the Doctor’s mini-1970s-Who-style lecture on ecology: the transmitter he’s come to track down. Something the alien Consciousness needs to boost its signal to control every single piece of plastic. How can you hide something that big? Which is where Rose shows just how useful she can be to the Doctor, and Billie Piper completely steals the show without saying a word. The Doctor’s on the Embankment, his head framed like a halo by the lights of the London Eye on the opposite bank, wittering on all night about how it must be round, and massive, like a dish, like a wheel, radial – “Must be completely invisible.” All the while, Rose is looking straight at him, and it, and raising her eyebrow, and giving little nods to point past him. And I was nearly crying with laughter. A perfect five minutes.
The TARDIS. Always the bridge between different worlds.
4 – The opening. A thrilling version of the Doctor Who Theme – electronic and orchestral, with new bits to surprise even old viewers and to entrance the new audience. A blue box slipping through a scintillating time tunnel from blue to red (and still to find out the reimagined significance of both).
A zoom-in from a view of the Earth in space right to Rose’s estate, Rose’s bedroom, Rose waking up, montage of her Mum who’s settled for nothing much, the bus, the big shop where she works and which she can’t wait to escape, modern London whizzing around her, her boyfriend making her laugh, all in a couple of minutes of energy energy energy and fast music that keeps skipping playfully in and out of diegetic (with fabulously massive bass in the new Blu-ray mix), establishing her life in two minutes flat. And, for long-term viewers, a visual nod to the openings of Spearhead From Space and The Ark In Space – both stories major influences at the start of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who – for Rose On Earth.
Then the end of the working day and the end of Rose’s old life: she goes down to the basement to collect the lottery money but finds creepy walking dummies and a man telling her to run instead. And to cap it all, he blows up the store. All told, seven minutes to grab your attention at breakneck pace and with a more complete mini-adventure than a James Bond pre-credits or The Avengers – The Town of No Return. Though with its mix of drama, comedy, British iconography colliding with strangeness and a man who does this for a life a woman who does this for fun, the closest thing TV’s come to The Avengers for a while, too.
5 – A man screams first. A subtle reinforcement of ‘this is not the sneering stereotype people put the show down with’: the first person we see letting out a real cry of fear is a terrified man, who clutches the woman he’s with and screams his head off – just after fake Mickey’s head comes off. The real Mickey has been almost as useless a boyfriend, even before dissolving from laddish swagger into scared, helpless victim. Rose, meanwhile, hits the fire alarm to get everyone out to safety and saves the Doctor at the climax, too.
6 – Choosing strangeness over normality. Those fantastic trailers spoke the truth. The Doctor told us “It won’t be quiet, it won’t be safe, and it won’t be calm”; Rose told us, “I’ve got a choice” between home, Mum, boyfriend, job – or chucking it all for danger, monsters, life or death. “What do you think?” And that’s what Rose is all about – taking the risk. Because choosing safety and normality is the obvious choice, and this wants to show you the other side.
It’s not that normality doesn’t have its appeal. It’s comfortable. You don’t need to think. And it’s safe. That’s the word that keeps pounding at us, from Rose’s Mum, from Rose herself, and the Doctor simply says, no, it won’t be. This first episode of the new series is not quite yet, as Russell T Davies described the Doctor’s constant companion, “Death,” and Doctor Who, “steeped in death” – even as killer shop window dummies break through their shop windows and start shooting, we don’t yet see the impacts and the bodies, but we know they’re there, and if he’s a little hesitant to start with on the danger (even the Autons breaking windows lack punch), the director excels in showing us weirdness colliding with modern soap-style life.
TV, chips, department stores, beans on toast, Mum and boyfriend. Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who was grounded in ordinary life as never before, and many fan critics complained that it was “soap opera”. The point was that the mass audience saw what was different instead. That it showed both sides, or there wouldn’t be a choice – but that it made the choice to go with ‘different’. Rose cares about her ordinary life. We all care about ours. She reacts as a real person when her boyfriend or her Mum are in danger. But that doesn’t mean she has to be forced to settle for them as the only thing in life. Both are in their own ways the anti-Doctor: her Mum Jackie tells her not to better herself, not to get airs and graces (she thinks even the upmarket store her daughter worked in was too good for her), not to stand up or stand out, to be safe, “There’s no point in getting up, sweetheart”; her boyfriend Mickey is an easy relationship to pass the time, but he cares more about the pub than her and they don’t have anything to say to each other and no longer even listen to each other, absurdly highlighted when she doesn’t even notice he’s been replaced by a plastic impostor.
The point of Rose, of Doctor Who, is that there’s more to life than being the same. Not everyone will make Rose’s choice, but this programme will. You can just eat, sleep, work, never looking for anything different, never mixing with anyone different. From the start, Doctor Who was about opening your mind and life to the strange, the different, the alien. In 1963, that meant a mind-expanding TARDIS and allegories of fascism; by 1988 it was confronting racism head-on; in 2005, no-one mentions the new central character has a black boyfriend, but life’s got to reach higher than just the new normal. Mickey’s the one who bundles all the weirdness together, the good and the bad, when the Doctor asks Rose to come with him:
“Don’t. He’s an alien. He’s – he’s a thing.”The show rejects xenophobia instead: not just about its alien hero, but even in his first reaction to the would-be invader:
“I’m not here to kill it. I’ve got to give it a chance.”Rose could settle. But she makes the choice. Be outward-looking, go beyond the obvious, find out what her true potential might be – part of Russell’s optimistic, outgoing vision of humanity for the series. It’s completely at odds with so much of modern life and almost all of modern TV, but both Rose and Rose know the risks and take them anyway.
7 – Choosing strange TV over normal TV, and reinventing British television. 2005 doesn’t seem like that long in the past, but they did things differently there. Russell T Davies and the BBC took a massive risk. There was nothing like Doctor Who on then. Well, there isn’t anything else like Doctor Who, but the BBC and ITV had been stuck for many years making virtually nothing but conveyor-belt banality. Reality shows, cop shows or medical shows or medical-cop shows, and that was it until a very different doc show threw a bomb into British TV. If you wanted anything remotely different then you had to pick up a vintage TV DVD or a vintage TV channel. No Merlin, Primeval or Robin Hood. No The Sarah Jane Adventures, Wizards Vs Aliens or Wolfblood. No Hyde – not even Jekyll. No Life On Mars, Torchwood, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell or Being Human. Nothing interesting made for the TV wasteland in years, and everyone told by a complacent media that anything different would be crap even if anyone dared show it, so no-one should even try. No wonder every industry expert said Doctor Who would be a flop. But because it was so brilliantly conceived and made, it became one of the biggest hits on television, all over again, and suddenly people started making shows that might be interesting again. Thank goodness.
Can you imagine how soul-destroyingly boring all of British TV would still be without it?
8 – Looking back… Since Doctor Who finished its original TV run in 1989, stories had flourished in novels, CDs and other media, but the only attempt to bring it back to TV had flopped. The 1996 TV Movie gave the impression you had to know everything before you even started, and was crammed with indigestible torrents of backstory. Rose wasn’t. It introduced the viewers to the bare basics of the series and only slowly filled in more, taking Rose and the audience with it. But at the same time the series was marketed as new for a new audience, it was clearly carrying on from all that had come before if you looked and listened carefully. Russell T Davies’ instinct for appealing to the widest possible audience was underpinned by a deep and abiding love of a show that was worth getting people to love all over again.
So notice how even the opening moments echo two influential stories from the 1970s, one suggesting a more Earthbound Doctor and the other an alien Doctor who both admires and is frustrated by humanity, and see how both run through Rose and the 2005 series, with the walking dummies once again an ideal way to introduce new viewers to a weird-but-not-too-weird alien attacker. See how by starting with an ordinary person becoming intrigued by the steadily more extraordinary and discovering the Doctor for herself echoes the pattern of the very first story, An Unearthly Child, even down to the title having a similar focus with an inverted meaning (and a nod to the day before it was first shown)… Right through to the cat-flap mystery on a council estate evoking the very last TV story in 1989. And that’s before it becomes clear how much the underlying story owes to the novels from the years in between…
9 – Looking forward… You expect a new TV series to start with a bang. Whether it’s the most explosive spaceship battle or the most explicit sex scene, producers show us the biggest money shot they can afford up front to get people watching, get people talking and get people to come back – even though what follows will never deliver quite as much again. This might be their only chance with the viewers, and they’re desperate not to blow it. Russell T Davies knew all that: it’s how he’d launched Queer As Folk. But his renewed Doctor Who held back instead. Doctor Who isn’t like any other show. It can go anywhere in time and space, and in almost any style. How do you show that all at once? You don’t. Doctor Who is too broad and too deep for any one piece of television. You have to get people to tune in again and again. You could call it caution – starting slow, letting an audience fed on years of banality discover the Doctor’s world with Rose one step at a time rather than frightening them off with every weird thing all at once. You could call it confidence – that the show would be so appealing that people would want more, and it would deliver much more. I call it amazingly good judgement.
Like Robert Holmes – the most celebrated writer for Twentieth Century Doctor Who, name-checked in the credits here – Russell drops in hints of history way beyond the plot’s requirements. I love a writer who leaves tantalising threads of backstory dangling, ones which may or may not ever be picked up (and am always put off by those which, like the endless post-Frank Herberts of Dune, or Revenge of the Sith, beat the life out of these intriguing hints by telling us exactly and only what we already know in the most banally obvious way and with no dangling creativity whatever).
Rose looks like a simple alien invasion story, but is packed with other layers, promising more to come. What’s startlingly new about the way Russell does it is that he begins with the characters: much of what we see of the Doctor here only makes sense in a context we don’t know yet, but we can already see what he’s feeling. We don’t get introduced to the Last Great Time War with a space battle or a portentous voiceover hitting us in the face in the opening scene: that’s all about Rose, sketching in a life we recognise. It takes us longer to recognise that the jolly terrorist Doctor we first meet rattling off words as top-speed gags puts his survivor-guilt death wish right in the middle of them (and blowing up a London landmark won’t be a one-off, either). How do we know the War mattered, was so great and so terrible? The pain cracking the Doctor’s voice as he desperately pleads,
“I was there. I fought in the War. It wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t save your world – I couldn’t save any of them!”This isn’t a history book. It’s still-raw personal anguish. And long before – or long after, according to taste – The Night of the Doctor, the Nestene Consciousness doesn’t recount but reacts to that backstory, too: it starts the invasion in panic, because it recognises a TARDIS. As my husband Richard puts it, “Terror of the Autons”, indeed. What did the Doctor, his people and their War do? Rose asks if the Doctor’s on his own; we don’t grasp the full implications of that yet, but the way the Doctor’s expressive face shuts down cold as he turns away from her tells us more. We get to feel it all before the second week gives us more of the story of just how he’s “a long way from home” – and a special effects extravaganza. In retrospect, reminders of weddings terrifying Jackie take on extra meaning, while even a shuffling wheelie bin looks like it’s foreshadowing a kid pretending to be a Dalek.
And there’s one more thing Rose promises us, right at the end, if it’s still not grabbed you…
10 – Running towards…
“By the way, did I mention – it also travels in time?”The whole story runs towards the moment of choice. For Rose, and the viewer. It’s shown you so much already – and here’s the promise of more. “Is it always this dangerous?” asks Rose as her boyfriend literally holds her back. “Yeah,” says the Doctor, and suddenly she has too many everyday things to do, and he steps into the TARDIS, and we see the light flash, a wind rise, and it fades away.
And then Doctor Who comes back.
Rose has made the Doctor’s world so utterly compelling that it fills sixteen seconds away with the yearning of sixteen years, for Rose and for the audience together, old and new. Then we all feel the joy of an endless wait fulfilled when the TARDIS rematerialises and the Doctor steps back into our lives again. It travels in time? We’ve all just felt forever in sixteen seconds. The loss had already told Rose she’d made the wrong decision, and now there’s more even than she’d thought there would be. And when the first thing the Doctor said to her was “Run!” it wasn’t just a warning, but a promise of danger.
Rose runs towards the open door of the TARDIS with a massive smile on her face, slow motion prolonging the moment so we can delight in the sheer joy of it as the thrillingly deep musical sting of the Doctor Who Theme crashes in.
Of course we all want to go with her.
What Else Should I Tell You About Rose?
London-Eyed viewers will spot that this should have been published a couple of Saturdays ago. That means this is the late one, despite having managed to write 52s in advance so they’d publish while I was on a different continent. However, of all the complications in my life that have meant it’s taken me a while to write this, you should know that none of the delay was any lack of enthusiasm for Rose.
That may be why this has grown to about a million words to compensate, which is really rather too long for a ten-list, but it’s too late to curb this one. But back to 2005.
After all the wait, Rose was fantastic. It got ten million viewers – still one of the highest ratings for the Doctor in the Twenty-first Century. Within days, the BBC confirmed there would be another series, and a Christmas special. In retrospect, it looks like an inevitable rise. But at the time, when news also leaked that Christopher Eccleston was to leave the show after the trip of a surprisingly short time, it all felt terribly fragile. I was wrong there too. Just as I was about Jackie and Mickey only being comic relief characters, or the plots being perfunctory (Rose walks in half-way through the story of the Autons, but this is her story, not theirs, and you can tell that because her name’s the title and theirs are only in the credits), or the tone not being sinister, or the music not being grand or scary yet. All these things would develop. You can’t do all of Doctor Who in one episode. And this is still the best of all the season-openers this century.
One more thing about why Rose is special to me. Richard and I had friends near what on TV was about to become Rose’s estate. One day in July 2004, he went to the doctor – and saw the TARDIS. He rang us, and so that evening we saw Rose turn back and look into the sudden wind at something that wasn’t there, then run back, longing for it. We knew. We knew.
[I’ve still got that ancient phone because I can’t get the pictures off it.]
And, if you need one, my score:
Usually this is a simple mark out of ten, the crudest possible metric of how good I think it is. Some weeks there will be exceptions.
9/10 says my head
But the joy it always sparks in my heart is 10/10.
If You Like Rose, Why Not Try…
The 2005 season re-establishes where the series can go so perfectly that the same sort of pattern’s been followed almost annually to introduce new viewers, taking us to past, present and future in the first three stories. So it’s pretty much a perfect start to follow Rose with The End of the World and The Unquiet Dead. Or, for me, the whole Christopher Eccleston season, which whether you call it Series One or Season Twenty-seven is one of the few Doctor Who years where I can cheerfully enthuse about every single story without looking shifty. Or there’s the earlier season that most resembles this one, Tom Baker’s first, Season Twelve, from 1975 – or for a single story, Spearhead From Space introduces both Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and the Autons.
Not the Autons, but with a terrific monster that looks very like a modern take on an old-school Nestene, there’s Invasion of the Bane, another terrific launch episode in which Russell T Davies and Elisabeth Sladen spearhead Doctor Who spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures. Or from just the year after Rose, director Graeme Harper’s Rise of the Cybermen shows us an even more smashing entrance for a monster as the Cybermen break windows with stunning pace and energy.
But in particular I’m going to recommend The Christmas Invasion, seasonal and the final Doctor Who story of 2005. The series had returned and become a massive hit – but could it continue without its first Doctor? Once again, Rose is the crucial character in discovering and accepting not the Doctor’s world, but the new Doctor. It’s a terrific alien invasion story in its own right, but Rose carries it all the way until David Tennant’s ready to step up. And it may not be the Nestene Consciousness behind it this time, but there’s still something ordinary turning deadly to keep you on the edge of your seat – are you going to get killed by a Christmas Tree?
Meanwhile, On the Other Side…
Richard is watching… Dalek. The returning series started with an ordinary person discovering the Doctor and the TARDIS, and brilliantly re-established both. But there’s one more essential icon of the series to come, and if the new era started by only hinting at death, perhaps it was only building up to the mid-season big event…
From beginnings to an ending of sorts, a final evolutionary form…? Except, of course, there’s no such thing.