“Rose” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 3/26/2005)
(Available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)
When this episode premiered in March 2005, Doctor Who had been off television for 9 years, and it hadn’t aired a full season since 1989. It’s perhaps appropriate then that “Rose,” unlike just about every other episode of the new series, doesn’t open with a pre-credits sequence. Instead, the very first thing the audience sees is the time vortex, and the very first thing viewers hear is the updated version of the iconic theme music. And then, four seconds in, it appears: a big blue box with the words “Police Public Call Box” written on all sides of it. In case new viewers—justifiably unfamiliar with the show after it spent 16 years in the wilderness—don’t quite believe what they just saw, the box slows down so that the audience can get a good, clear look at it. Those opening credits and the subsequent establishing shot of Earth and the Moon hanging in space affirm the promise of the title card: At long last, Doctor Who is back. But when the camera zooms down through the atmosphere and finds itself in a young woman’s bedroom, it becomes clear that this isn’t quite the same show that went away, at least not yet. This may be the return of Doctor Who, but it’s definitely the beginning of “Rose.”
The young woman isn’t even named at first. It doesn’t matter, because she’s nobody important. She lives with her mother in one of London’s housing estates, she has a job at the department store Henrik’s, and she shares a pleasant lunch with her boyfriend. The only reason why anything ever happens to her at all is down to random chance, as she happens to be the employee asked to take the day’s lottery money down to Wilson, the chief electrician. It’s only then that she reveals her name—Rose—and the episode takes its turn. The department store basement is creepy enough before shop window mannequins start coming to life, although Rose initially assumes that bit is all some weird prank. At the last moment, just as Rose starts to realize the strangeness unfolding around her might be deadly dangerous, a man grabs her hand and says the word I quoted up top: “Run!” There’s really no more perfect word with which to reintroduce—or, perhaps more to the point, introduce—the Doctor.
Not that this strange man looks like any Doctor the audience has seen before, regardless of whether they have any previous familiarity with Doctor Who. It isn’t just the superficial things, like the short-cropped hair, the leather jacket, and the Northern accent (Manchester, if we’re being specific). This Doctor only appears for a little less than two minutes in the episode’s first ten, and the overwhelming sense is that this is a very dangerous man. He distractedly informs Rose that Wilson is dead, and he tells her of his plans to blow up the building in a tone that can best be described as petty annoyance. There are hints of something greater, as when he earnestly asks Rose to explain just why she thinks the walking plastic men must be students and then commends her on her impeccable but wrong logic. Even his last little moment of warmth—in which he reopens the door and asks a still stunned Rose what her name is—is followed immediately by the jaunty “Run your life!” The fact that he only seems to be enjoying himself while waving an explosive around makes it clear that this Doctor is capable of anything, especially when the building does in fact blow up about 30 seconds later. But just like that, Rose is banished back to her old life with her mother and her boyfriend, a life that now seems painfully inconsequential.
I focus so much on these first ten minutes because they feel fundamentally different from everything that follows, both in the episode itself and in the series in general. As soon as the Doctor and Rose lock eyes through the cat flap, the archetypal Doctor Who relationship—in which Doctor and companion team up to solve an impossible mystery—is established, even if neither party initially seems all that thrilled with the prospect, to the point that they both walk away from each other at various points throughout the rest of the episode. But the opening quarter of “Rose” is so crucial because it lays out just what sort of universe this is when the Doctor isn’t around; it provides a context for his otherworldly lunacy. “Rose” was the fourth major attempt to introduce Doctor Who to a hopefully massive new audience. Its predecessors are “An Unearthly Child,” the 1963 serial that started it all; “Spearhead From Space,” the 1970 adventure that kicked off the color era of Doctor Who and introduced its new Earthbound, UNIT-heavy format (and from which “Rose” borrows its monsters, the Autons and the Nestene Consciousness); and the 1996 TV movie, in which Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor regenerated into Paul McGann and fought the Master in San Francisco.
Most of those earlier stories understood the importance of anchoring an impossible character like the Doctor in a more understandable setting. “An Unearthly Child” is all about the mystery of the Doctor, his granddaughter Susan—the eponymous unearthly child—and their strange blue box, but that first episode is seen through the eyes of a pair of inquisitive schoolteachers who just can’t leave well enough alone. It’s a structure that establishes the quest for knowledge as essential to Doctor Who, an artifact of the show’s initial brief to provide education programming for children and something that has endured to wildly varying degrees over the subsequent half-century. “Spearhead From Space” leaves the Doctor unconscious in a hospital bed for much of its first episode while Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT begin their own investigations; the show is still science fiction, but it’s also just as much an action adventure show. The TV Movie is the major exception here, as its central failure—well, one of its central failures, at any rate—is the decision to introduce the show from the perspective of the Doctor, when that’s something that can only be done once the audience understands who it is they are dealing with. It leaves the TV movie worryingly disconnected, especially when the Doctor randomly turns into another Doctor halfway through. Doctor Who is a show that needs a few limits, at least in the early going.
“Rose” needs those first ten minutes to reveal what sort of show this new Doctor Who is going to be. If the program was inquisitive science fiction in 1963 and an alien invasion thriller in 1970, then in 2005 it must be considered a character drama. The goal here is for the audience to understand and empathize with Rose Tyler, to care more about the young woman with no A-levels, no job, and no future (although she does have the bronze from the Jericho Street Junior School under 7s gymnastic team, so that’s something) than the alien genius with the time machine. After all, it’s Rose who saves the Doctor’s life once the Nestene Consciousness turns on him, and the episode ends with the Doctor offering her a ride on the TARDIS and her running toward him; how the Doctor feels about that development can be inferred, but it isn’t really essential to the emotion of that final moment. For the first time in 27 seasons, it’s the Doctor who is the glorified plot device, primarily there to make the companion look clever.
After all, this episode takes a longstanding notion of what the dynamic is between companion and Doctor—that the former is simply there to ask questions to the latter—and deconstructs it. That’s because the answers don’t matter, at least not yet. “Rose” writer and showrunner Russell T. Davies makes that perfectly clear when Rose asks how the Doctor plans to defeat the Nestene Consciousness, in response to which he grins, holds up a vial, and offers just one word: “Anti-plastic!” Outside the closing credits, the episode never bothers to identify the plastic men as Autons, and it certainly doesn’t mention that they invaded Earth twice before. It’s not that the episode ignores the show’s past, as the final Auton attack sequence is deeply inspired by one of the most iconic sequences in “Spearhead From Space.” But Davies understands that there are only two truly wondrous things the audience needs to know about here, and those are the Doctor and his TARDIS. Everything else can wait for later, and the technobabble is kept to an absolute minimum, which again are major points of separation from how the TV movie tried and failed to bring back Doctor Who in 1996.
The emphasis then isn’t on the Doctor providing answers, but rather on Rose asking the right questions and being willing to listen to the answers. As the Doctor himself notes, Rose doesn’t believe him when he says the plastic men are trying to invade Earth and conquer humanity, but she’s still listening. She wants more from her life, which is why she ultimately accepts the Doctor’s offer, but she also just wants to understand the impossible things that are going on around her. And it isn’t just her interactions with the Doctor that are important. Her trip to Clive’s shed is also useful in reminding the audience how insane the entire concept of Doctor Who truly is. Even though Clive is basically right—he misses out on the time travel aspect, but since the Doctor is effectively immortal, it’s hard to not give him passing marks—and Rose is wrong when she dismisses him as a nutter, the key there is that she is wrong for the right reasons; Rose isn’t going to abandon all logic and reason without some fairly compelling evidence. And that fact makes the moment Rose finally steps inside the TARDIS all the more magical.
“Rose” is far from perfect. It’s remarkable how dated a show can become in just eight years—the Nestene Consciousness is a particularly cheesy effect—and it’s fairly apparent that all involved are still trying to figure out just what the hell this new Doctor Who is actually going to be. Mickey and Rose’s mother Jackie are fairly one-dimensional here, and it isn’t a terribly pleasant single dimension, considering their main narrative function is to make Rose feel justified in abandoning them for a trip in the TARDIS. Both Noel Clarke and Camille Coduri grow into their roles over time, but they have precious little to work with here. Russell T. Davies displays some early examples of a sense of humor that is goofy at best and cringe-worthy at worst; the belching rubbish bin is a particular lowlight.
But all that is still so secondary to what really matters here, which is the nascent relationship between Rose and the Doctor. I’ll have plenty more to say about Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston in subsequent reviews, but both deserve tremendous credit for how instantly they find their characters. The most audacious decision made by Russell T. Davies and the rest of the creative team in bringing back Doctor Who was to cast Eccleston as a Doctor who broke all the rules about what the character should be. Indeed, that remains the most fundamental break from the previous revival effort, as Paul McGann’s Doctor was very much intended to be the quintessential dashing yet eccentric alien adventurer. The Doctor we meet in “Rose” is an abrasive, clearly traumatized being, one who has trouble thinking about individual humans at all, and when he does he’s given to using terms like stupid ape. Again, there’s really only one word to describe this Doctor, and it’s found in the question that Rose asks right at the end of the episode: “Is it always this dangerous?” The Doctor says yes, because how could it not be? As Clive tells Rose and ultimately learns in the most tragic way, death is the Doctor’s constant companion. Above all else, “Rose” understands that Doctor Who is dangerous. That’s why it succeeds.
- Welcome to TV Club Classic’s reviews of the first three seasons of new Doctor Who. With the show’s 50th birthday right around the corner, now seemed like the perfect time to look back on those that predate the beginning of TV Club’s regular coverage. That means we’ll be looking at everything from “Rose” to “Last Of The Time Lords” (plus the mini-episode “Time Crash,” because there’s no way I’m not going to write about Peter Davison, my co-favorite Doctor). My plan with these reviews is to look at the episodes in three different ways: how the stories work on their own terms, how they fit into the larger Doctor Who mythos, and how subsequent adventures have affected our understanding of these stories. As you can hopefully tell from the review, the first two of those will be intermingled in the main review, while the final one will be placed in its own spoiler section below, which should allow first-time viewers of these episodes to read along without fear. Also, I guess I’ll do grades for the sake of consistency, but I’ll warn you right now that I find Doctor Who murderously difficult to reduce to a single letter.
- Meanwhile, for those wondering about another sci-fi show I’ve written about for TV Club Classic, Farscape has indeed been placed on indefinite hiatus. I’m as disappointed about this as anyone, but as you may have read elsewhere, my editors have been fighting incredibly hard to keep the TV Club Classic section alive, Farscape included, and unfortunately the economics just don’t really work anymore. Still, the hope is that coverage will return eventually, perhaps next summer once the busiest part of TV season has wound down. If anyone wants to start a thread about this in the comments, I’d be happy to answers any questions that I can.
- This Week In Mythos: One of Russell T. Davies’ wisest decisions as showrunner was to reintroduce the show’s ridiculously complex mythology as gradually as possible, so I’m going to keep track of what references can be found in each episode. “Rose” features the Doctor, the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver, and the Nestene Consciousness, plus the unnamed Autons. There’s also an early reference to the Shadow Proclamation to the war, though just what war isn’t confirmed yet.
- If you’re wondering what sort of context new viewers might have had for Doctor Who before “Rose” aired, check out this trailer that went out in the weeks before the premiere. Somebody at the BBC had clearly just discovered some new editing tools.
- Incidentally, if anyone thinks I’m giving the TV movie a hard time, I should say that I love that thing, for all its faults, and Paul McGann remains one of my favorite Doctors (more on that next week). But my goodness, it’s pretty much the perfect blueprint for how not to introduce Doctor Who to a new audience.
Time and Relative Dimension in Spoilers (don’t read beyond here if you haven’t watched the rest of the new series):
It’s fascinating to look back on “Rose” in light of the newly released mini-episode “The Night Of The Doctor,” which presents the final moments of the 8th Doctor. If “The Night Of The Doctor” sees the Time Lord give up that title and all it represents, then “Rose” can be seen as the 9th Doctor relearning just what it even means to be the Doctor. He’s frequently callous and quite explicitly uninterested in the fates of individual humans when entire civilizations hang in the balance, which is a major departure from who the Doctor is supposed to be; even here, Rose helps him begin to rediscover his empathy, but it’s clearly been deeply buried by his experiences as the War Doctor (or the Warrior, or the John Hurt Doctor, or whatever it is we’re calling him). One exchange in particular feels more significant in the light of the mini-episode. When Rose asks whether “the Doctor” is meant to sound impressive, he responds, “Sort of.” Strictly in terms of the episode, that line is bouncing off of an earlier “Sort of” from Rose, but it takes on new meaning if we assume the Doctor is still getting used to thinking of himself in that way once again. After all he did during the Time War while not being the Doctor—something we’ll hopefully have a greater understanding of once “The Day Of The Doctor” airs next Saturday—it makes sense that the Doctor is not entirely convinced that his old title really is all that meaningful.
While “Rose” features no regeneration scene—another colossal miscalculation of the TV movie, it must be said—there is that scene in Rose’s flat where the 9th Doctor does appear to comment with some surprise on his new features. It’s very much open to interpretation how this Doctor’s timeline should fit together, and again it’s possible that “The Day Of The Doctor” will provide some clarity here. But for now, I subscribe to the interpretation that the Doctor has indeed regenerated only recently, and that “Rose” is his first adventure. That opens up the question of just where to place his apparent solo travels, with the most typical solution being to place a substantial gap between the first and second times he invites Rose aboard the TARDIS. The 50th anniversary ebook The Beast Of Babylon does explicitly take place during this gap, which offers a bit of latter-day credence to this idea.
Next week: As you might well have heard, Doctor Who turns 50 years old next Saturday, and it’s going to be a pretty crazy week for all concerned. Here’s a brief, probably non-exhaustive list of what to look out for here on the A.V. Club.
- On Saturday, November 23, I will have the review of the 50th anniversary special, “The Day Of The Doctor.” There aren’t going to be any screeners for that, so expect the review sometime in the evening. I will also have a mini-review of “The Night Of The Doctor,” because it’s pretty much the greatest thing ever.
- Also on Saturday, my esteemed colleague Christopher Bahn will have an anniversary-appropriate review of “The Five Doctors,” and he will likely have some thoughts on “The Day Of The Doctor” as well.
- Earlier in the week, my also esteemed colleague Caroline Siede and I will take part in an epic Crosstalk, in which we will settle once and for all who the better showrunner is, Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat. We’re also going to try to heal the divisions Doctor Who fandom, because that shouldn’t be difficult at all.
- This Friday, BBC America is airing the docudrama An Adventure In Space And Time, recounting the behind-the-scenes story of the show’s early years. Look for my thoughts on that in the TV Reviews section.
- Finally, I will be back next Sunday with the next two episodes of Christopher Eccleston’s tenure as the Doctor. So I’ll see you a week from now for “The End Of The World” and “The Unquiet Dead.”