“Doctor Who” is a popular and long-running British sci-fi series, and a personal favorite of mine, about a time traveler and his friends knocking about history and solving problems every week. The show is called ‘Doctor Who’ because no one knows the Doctor’s real name, he only ever gives them his title. The original run of the series lasted from 1963 to 1989, when the show was canceled and remained deceased for a decade, before it was revived in 2005 by Russell T. Davies and his crew and gained notoriety once more. The second iteration of the show is usually affectionately dubbed ‘NuWho’ by the fans.
The first episode lacks a pre-titles sequence, so I like that the very first thing newcomers to the franchise see is the TARDIS flying down the time vortex towards another adventure, because let’s be honest here, the Doctor may be the main character of this series, but the TARDIS is the main icon and the series’ mascot. Quite rightly so, because as far as sci-fi ships go, the TARDIS is a real beauty and full of deceptive surprises. In some ways, the TARDIS represents everything that makes “Doctor Who” unique.
Russell’s first season makes sure to take its time and ease us into the Doctor’s world fairly slowly, through Rose’s eyes. A lot of the time, “Rose” feels like your standard, unassuming episode of a British drama series, to the point where the sci-fi elements feel as incongruous and intriguing to the audience as they do to Rose. We don’t start to dive really deeply into the sci-fi aspect of the series until “The End Of The World” and “The Unquiet Dead“, and we start getting some more details on the series’ lore in “Dalek”. Nevertheless, “Rose” is a very busy episode, having to introduce a lot of different characters, locations, and ideas within forty-five minutes, so it moves along at a very brisk, calculated pace. It almost feels rushed at times, but it all manages to come together well.
Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler is the relatable everyman character of Series 1, who serves as a foil to the fantastical figure that is the Doctor. She’s a regular, working-class girl in London, who we’re vigorously brought up to speed on through a montage in the episode’s opening scenes. I like that Rose’s early encounter with the Autons feels like a scene straight out of a horror movie. If you weren’t already aware that Billie Piper was a main character in this show, you would immediately assume this shop girl was dead meat when she went down into the creepy basement by herself and got locked in with the killer mannequins. Luckily for Rose, her story does not end there.
The people closest to Rose generally mean well, but they’re also kind of annoying. She has a vain, gabby and somewhat overbearing mother, and her boyfriend is a pretty flaky and cowardly guy who would rather watch a pub match than spend time with his girlfriend after her workplace went up in flames. Rose is clearly unhappy with her life and feels unfulfilled, almost depressed. She’s not proud of the fact that she dropped out of high school and now she’s stuck in a dead-end job with no prospects. All of these little character-building details make it very believable that Rose would jump at the chance to run off with the Doctor and have the adventure of a lifetime at the end of this episode, if she was under the impression that she could just nip back home (unnoticed) whenever she wanted to.
Rose is the main protagonist of Series 1 and the audience surrogate, while the Doctor is the deuteragonist. The companions generally have a larger role in NuWho than they did in the classic series, to the point where people sometimes accuse it being ‘Companion Who’. I consider it to be a throwback to the earliest days of Classic Who, where Ian and Barbera were meant to be the audience surrogates, while the Doctor was the alien genius who was brilliant and funny but also hard for people to identify with. The large amount of focus the companions are given in NuWho doesn’t bother me much, because no matter which actor plays the role, the Doctor will always be an irreplaceable part of this series, while the companions come and go every year or two. So it makes sense to focus on giving them strong, complete character arcs during their relatively short tenures. Series 1 is Rose’s story, Series 3 is Martha’s story, Series 4 is Donna’s story, Series 5 is Amy’s story, Series 8 is Clara’s story, and Series 11 is Ryan and Graham’s story.
After several close encounters with living plastic, Rose has seen impossible things and the Doctor is the only one who can make any sense of it all, so she tracks him down and gets involved in his Auton case. Throughout this episode, Rose demonstrates that she’s companion material: she decides to investigate the Doctor instead of letting the mystery around him rest; she actually listens to what he has to say and tries to find a way to pitch in; and when the Doctor’s plan goes south, she’s brave enough to risk her life to finish the job when she’s the only other person who knows what’s at stake and Mickey is busy panicking in the corner. “Rose” also subtly establishes the title character’s main personality flaw. After talking to Clyde, Rose gets so wrapped up in her own problems that it takes her much longer than it should to notice Mickey has been replaced by a really fake-looking, plastic imposter. As much as she may roll her eyes at Jackie, Rose can be pretty self-involved herself, and we’re gonna be seeing a lot more of that trait in future episodes.
We don’t actually see much of the Doctor in this first episode – he mainly wanders in and out of Rose’s life, bringing chaos with him wherever he goes – but in retrospect, I’m really impressed by how Russell nailed the time traveler this early on. Normally, in a long-running series, there’s a large difference between the way the main character is written in the early episodes versus how they’re written for the rest of the show, but here the Doctor is instantly recognizable as the Doctor as soon as he appears, which means Russell must have had a very strong idea of what he wanted his character to be like in NuWho.
The Ninth Doctor is very stern, gruff and down-to-business: he never wants to waste a second trying to cover as much ground as he can. He can also be condescending and dismissive, making it no secret that he finds it difficult to deal with a species that’s as ignorant about alien affairs as humanity. But in his lighter moments, he has a cheeky, boyish sense of humor, and a sharp, sassy tongue that’s always fun to see. It can be difficult to believe the Doctor isn’t human – he sometimes seems like just an odd, talkative man – until he decides to enlighten Rose on the mechanics of the universe, going into minute detail with total seriousness for several minutes, until he almost seems to become lost in his own description. It’s a rare glimpse at how a time lord perceives the world, and for a moment, he seems totally alien. Like Rose, we get an early glimpse at the Doctor’s character flaws in this episode: namely, that he keeps forgetting Mickey. The Doctor spends so much time focusing on the big picture of saving the world that he sometimes forgets the collateral damage, the little people who get hurt – which quite rightly pisses their friends off. Thankfully, the Doctor’s friends usually keep that part of his personality in check.
Unlike his successors, Christopher Eeccleston was only part of the series for one season, so it can be easy to forget just how good he was in the role, but there’s a reason why ‘never skip Nine’ is a mantra in the fandom. He manages to easily lend the Doctor both humor and gravitas throughout his thirteen episodes, and he really gets to shine in “Dalek” and “The Parting Of The Ways“. There’s a scene in Clyde’s basement that is rather sinister, especially given what we the audience actually know about the Doctor at this point: it’s the first appearance of a major recurring theme in NuWho. The Doctor is only one time lord and he tries to go about his business unnoticed, but he’s meddled so much with time over the years that he’s had a tremendous amount of impact on not only the history of the Earth but the entire universe (which we’ll see later in the Series 1 finale, so this scene also counts as a nice bit of foreshadowing from Russell T. Davies).
It’s worth noting that the Doctor rarely ever stands still for a moment in this episode. Part of that is because he’s on a case and time is of the essence, but it’s also because the Doctor is just as unhappy with his life as Rose is currently, albeit for vastly different reasons (as we’ll discover in the next episode). The Doctor was basically just going through the motions and doing his usual routine on autopilot, until he met Rose and the pair of them hit it off quite well. He doesn’t really start to enjoy saving the world again on a daily basis until he has someone to share the experience with. The Doctor appears to have an angsty backstory, survivor’s guilt about a mysterious war, and he may be too proud to come right out and admit it, but he could really use a friend to talk to right about now, so he extends an invitation to Rose to come with him on more adventures on the end of episode.
Noel Clarke and Camille Coduri are very amusing as Mickey and Jackie. I ragged on them quite a bit earlier as the designated nuisances, but I do like these characters – particularly Jackie, who is such a shameless gossiper. Mickey has layers beyond being a bumbling boyfriend that we’ll start to see as early as “Alien Of London“, and poor Jackie gets put through hell as a consequence of Nine and Rose’s fun. n fact, an interesting thing happens over the course of Russell’s first two seasons. Mickey and Jackie both become more sympathetic over time, while Rose and the Doctor become increasingly irritating, particularly as we head into Series 2. At the end of the episode, Rose writes Mickey off as being useless and runs off with the Doctor, which is a harsh but fair break-up. Except, it isn’t one. Even though she’s clearly lost interest in him, Rose and Mickey put off breaking up properly until “Boom Town” at the end of the season, and even then, the uncomfortable feeling that Mickey doesn’t belong anymore persists until he finally puts an end to it in “The Age Of Steel“, halfway through Series 2. So “Rose” is just the start of the long, slow, painful-looking death of the Rose / Mickey ship.
The Autons serve as a nice, simple starter villain for the series – wax mannequins that have been brought to life and programmed to killed by an alien consciousness. It’s a common “Doctor Who” trope to take regular, benign objects and make them deadly (this is the same show that would later make stone statues trying to kill people menacing), and while Russell’s penchant for camp could sometimes veer into cringeworthy territory like “Aliens Of London” or “Love and Monsters”, I really enjoy it in this episode. Highlights include Auton Mickey scaring that couple in the restaurant, and the Autons attacking Jackie in the mall, causing Camille Coduri to turn and scream right down the camera.
Keith Boak’s direction for this episode is pretty solid with an impressive long shot of Rose and the Doctor leaving the Powell Estate bantering, in addition to some cool practical effects of a warehouse blowing up in the finale. The special effects however are easily the weakest part of the episode, and have aged very poorly after thirteen years. The worst offender of bad CGI has to be the Nestene Consciousness, a textureless blob of goo churning away furiously in a vat, like an escaped video game character. It’s a testament to Christopher Eccleston’s skill as an actor that his scene with the monster still manages to be engrossing, despite the fact that he’s clearly looking at nothing that’s physically there.
Murray Gold serves as the series’ composer, and he would go on to write many great pieces of music for “Doctor Who”, but he was still growing into the job in Series 1 and still trying to find the right style for the series, with some occasionally misfires. “Rose” establishes two prime leitmotifs for Series 1: “Westminster Bridge“, a pulsing electronic piece that symbolizes the raw energy and ambition of “Doctor Who” in it’s new incarnation, and “The Doctor’s Theme“. Melanie Pappenheim’s quiet, soulful crooning serves as the Ninth Doctor’s theme: it hints at his ageless, enigmatic nature and his inner turmoil about the past he’s running away from. After Nine regenerated into Ten, “The Doctor’s Theme” was retooled into more of a leitmotif for the Doctor in general than a specific incarnation, and it continued to occasionally crop up throughout the series, usually in episodes where the Doctor underwent character development like “Human Nature“, “Last Of The Time Lords“, “Forest Of The Dead“, “The Doctor’s Wife“, “The Day Of The Doctor”, and “Hell Bent”.
When you bring a show that’s been dead for over a decade back to television, you only really get one chance to get it right and make a good first impression, and “Rose” does a fine job of hooking newcomers onto the series and getting them to watch the following two episodes, which continue to demonstrate what NuWho is capable of.
* It took me a surprisingly long time to realize the musical sting that always leads into the theme song is the whirring noise the sonic screwdriver makes.
* As much as I like Series 1, the sound mixing this season could really use some fine-tuning, and thankfully it was improved upon by Series 3. Because you can go from Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston speaking so softly you can barely hear them to Murray Gold’s score blaring at full blast within seconds.
* “I’m the Doctor, by the way. Who are you?” “Rose” “Pleasure to meet you, Rose. Now run for your life!”
* “I know. It’s on the telly, it’s everywhere! She’s lucky to be alive. Honestly, it’s aged her. Skin like an old bible. Walking in now, you’d think I was her daughter” Damn, Jackie.
* “It’s Debbie on the end. She knows a man on the Mirror. Five hundred quid for an interview” “Oh that’s brilliant! Give it here. Bye”. Savage, Rose.
* “I’m in my dressing gown” “Yes, you are” “There’s a strange man in a bedroom” “Yes, there is” “Well, anything could happen” “No” Savage Doctor.
* “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”.
* “Don’t read my emails!” Now I’m intrigued about what sort of secrets Mickey keeps.
* The first time Rose enters the TARDIS, “Doomsday” is playing in the background, the very same music that will underscore her exit from the show at the end of Series 2, bringing her tenure as a companion full circle.
* “Listen, if I did forget some kid called ‘Mickey’, it’s because I’m busy trying to save the lives of every stupid ape blundering about on this planet!” That’s racist, Doc.
* “Why do you sound like you’re from the North?” “Lots of planets have a north!”
* “You knew that all along, and you didn’t say?” “Can we leave the domestics outside please?”
* There’s something rather hilarious about the sight of an adult man being repeatedly held back by plastic mannequins, even if those mannequins presumably have super strength.
* “Doctor-” “Just leave him!” That shout from Mickey always makes me laugh, because the Doctor is still standing right there when he says it. It was at that point that Nine officially decided he did not like Mickey.
* I like how the camera silently lingers on Rose looking sad and regretful after she’s turned down the Doctor’s offer to travel with him and he’s flown away in his ship. You can really tell that if the Doctor hadn’t returned to ask her a second time, she would have regretted that decision for the rest of her life.
* “Thanks” “For what?” “Exactly” Savage, Rose.
* I really respect how much work RTD put into trying to make this season succeed. Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat usually wrote five to six episodes per season, but there weren’t that many guest writers onboard during Series 1 – since reviving Doctor Who was still a pipe dream attempted by old school fanboys at the time. So Russell wound up writing eight episodes himself (about two-thirds of the season), as well as revising Mark, Paul and Steven’s stories. The dude must have been exhausted by the season’s end.