“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’. 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. RTD’s first season makes sure to take it’s 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 is a regular, working-class girl who we’re vigorously brought up to speed on through a montage. I like that Rose’s introduction feels like a scene straight out of a horror movie. If you weren’t already aware Billie Piper was a main character, 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 pretty flaky and cowardly and would rather watch a pub match than spend time with her after a work accident. 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 she’s now stuck in a dead-end job with no prospects. All of these character-building details make it very believable that Rose would leap at the chance to run off with the Doctor at the end of the episode and have the adventure of a lifetime, assuming she could just nip back home at any time. Rose is the 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 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 but hard to identify with. The large prominence the companions have in NuWho doesn’t bother me because no matter which actor plays the role, the Doctor will always be a part of the series, while the companions come and go every year or two, so it makes sense to focus on giving them strong, complete arcs during their 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, and Series 8 is Clara’s story. Rose has seen impossible things and the Doctor is the only one who can make any sense of them all, so she tracks him down and gets involved in the Auton case. Throughout the episode, Rose demonstrates that she’s companion material: she investigates the Doctor instead of letting the mystery rest, she actually listens to what he has to say and tries to find a way to pitch in, and when the 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 going on 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 of that trait in Rose’s 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 RTD 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 the Ninth Doctor is instantly recognizable as the same man as his successors right from the first series, meaning Russell must have had a strong idea of what he wanted the Doctor’s character to be in NuWho. The Ninth Doctor is very stern, gruff and down-to-business, never wanting to waste a second and trying to cover as much ground as he can. He can also be condescending and dismissive, making it no secret that he finds talking to a species that’s as ignorant to alien matters as humanity difficult. But in his lighter moments, the Doctor has a cheeky, boyish sense of humor, a sharp tongue and a sort of sassiness 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, almost seeming to become lost in his description. It’s a rare glimpse at how a time lord perceives the world, and for a moment, the Doctor 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 and the big endgame that he sometimes forgets the collateral damage, the little people who get hurt – which quite rightly pisses their friends off. Characters like Donna and Rory would keep that part of the Doctor’s personality in check later on, but I’m not as sure about Rose.
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 ‘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 comes off as rather sinister, especially given what we the audience actually know about the Doctor. It’s the first appearance of a major recurring theme in NuWho, particularly during the Moffat era. 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. In fact, the influence the Doctor can have on human history later plays a part in the Series 1 finale, so this scene counts as a nice bit of foreshadowing from Davies. It’s worth noting the Doctor rarely 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 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 (the pair of them hit it off well), and a major point in his character arc is that he doesn’t start to enjoy saving the world again 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 in the earlier paragraphs as the designated nuisances, but I do like these characters. Mickey has layers beyond being a bumbling boyfriend that we’ll start to see as early as “Alien Of London / World War Three“, and poor Jackie gets put through hell as a consequence of Nine and Rose’s fun. In fact, an interesting switch-up happens over the course of RTD’s first two seasons. Mickey and Jackie become more and more sympathetic over time, while Rose and the Doctor become increasingly annoying, 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 super harsh but fair break-up. Except, it’s not. Even though she’s clearly lost interest, 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 “Rise Of The Cybermen / 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” trick 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 RTD’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.
You’ll notice that the stuff I’ve been praising about “Rose” has been the writing and character building. The direction from Keith Boak is also 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 though are easily the weakest part of the episode. CGI for television is always pretty dodgy, but TV CGI from thirteen years ago looks about the way you’d expect. People usually single out the evil plastic bin that nabs Mickey, but I am all about the textureless blob churning away furiously in a vat, like an escaped video game character, as Nine shouts at it. It’s a testament to Eccleston’s skill as an actor that this scene still manages to be engrossing, despite the fact that he’s clearly looking at nothing physical. Murray Gold serves as the series’ composer, and he would go on to write some great pieces for “Doctor Who”, but he was still growing into the job in Series 1 and trying to find the right style for the series, occasionally misfiring. “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 crooning is often mistaken as music for the Bad Wolf entity, but Murray wrote it for the Ninth Doctor: 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 theme 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.
* A cool detail that it took me a surprisingly long time to notice: 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 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 so loudly it makes your ears bleed in seconds.
* “I’m the Doctor, by the way. Who are you?” “Rose” “Pleasure to meet you, Rose. Now run for your life!”
* “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.
* “Don’t read my emails!” Now I’m intrigued what sort of secrets Mickey keeps.
* “Listen, if I did forget some kid called ‘Mickey’-” “Yeah, he’s not a kid-” “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?”
* So, can we all agree it’s pretty funny to watch an adult man be repeatedly held back by plastic mannequins? I’m going to assume those mannequins 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.
* “Thanks” “For what?” “Exactly”.
* 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.