Doctor Who holds the distinction of being one of the most enduring science fiction programs on either side of the Atlantic. Debuting in November 1963 on BBC One, the series was originally intended as a history lesson, but quickly blossomed into a nationwide television phenomenon, featuring a time-traveling hero and his companions righting wrongs and confronting moral and ethical dilemmas and universe-threatening catastrophes. With a rotating cast and a stable of talented writers making up for a notable lack of budget, the program underwent several reinventions; in its original run, it saw seven actors assume the iconic role of the the mysterious "Doctor," whose origins and even name remain to this day shrouded in mystery. The first of these actors was William Hartnell, who was followed in the role by Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy. The program ran for twenty-six series in Britain before being cancelled during McCoy's run in 1989. An unsuccessful television movie aired in 1996 introduced a new Doctor in the form of Paul McGann, whose singular appearance was the last many thought they would ever see of their beloved hero. But in 2005, a new Doctor Who began airing on BBC One. Masterminded by writer-producer Russell T. Davies, the new program is a direct continuation of all that had come before, but was designed to be younger, fresher, and edgier - in short, Doctor Who for the 21st Century, at least in the eyes of studio executives. The details of the production, and of the whole program's complex history, are widely available elsewhere on the Internet, but given the context, it is easy to see why the premiere episode of the new series, entitled "Rose," was so hotly anticipated before its release. In a new recurring feature here at StefanClaypool.com, I am going to be viewing and analyzing each episode of the revived series, exploring what works and what doesn't, and attempting to draw some conclusions about why the Doctor's story seems destined to go on forever. Rather than present an exhaustive scene-by-scene recap of the episode, I'll be discussing the importance of key themes and events to the overarching story, while at the same time analyzing the development of characters, ideas, and the production as a whole.
"Rose" is about introductions. It is less a compelling story in and of itself than a proposition: will you come with me? It presents both Rose Tyler and the viewers with a new and exciting world, and hopes that they will follow. This is made explicit at the end of the episode, when the Doctor offers Rose a place on the TARDIS. She accepts enthusiastically. Clearly, Davies and his crew hope that we as viewers will accept the offer with similar enthusiasm.
The original Doctor Who was creaky and bound by its obvious budgetary limitations. More importantly, it was made in an era when expectations for television were low. But in the post-Twin Peaks, post-Buffy world, old Who wouldn't play. Davies begins the episode with a whiz-bang montage of Rose Tyler's (Billie Piper) daily life, set to a thumping electronic soundtrack (composed by Murray Gold, who will rapidly evolve into one of the series's most important contributors). Davies uses the montage to both introduce Rose's life - decidedly normal by British standards - and to make a promise to viewers: this is not the Who of old. Throughout the episode, Davies strains to convey this message, and for the most part he succeeds. In his introduction of Rose Tyler, a simple girl living a simple life in 2005 London, he succeeds.
In this montage, we are introduced to two characters who will become more important as the series progresses: Rose's mother Jackie, and Rose's boyfriend Mickey Smith. Neither is given much time or development in this particular episode, though, so we'll hold off on discussing them in depth, but they represent something else that Davies will prove adept at doing throughout the episode and the series: planting seeds, in both the narrative and in the minds of the viewers. But more on that (much) later.
Later, we are also introduced to our first extraterrestrial threat: the Autons, creatures of living plastic, most commonly shown in the form of storefront mannequins. The choice is an interesting one, and clearly one that Davies must have agonized over. With only two prior appearances, both during the Jon Pertwee era, they were not the most obvious choice, but their presence serves important plot and thematic purposes. In terms of events, they are relatively bland and uncomplicated, allowing for an easier introduction into the Doctor's world than some companions (or audiences) receive. They are slow-moving, relatively non-threatening, and dangerous only for their numbers and persistence. Thematically, they fit the "first monster" role nicely as well, as their intrinsic blandness places the focus of the episode squarely on the protagonists. In a way, they also reflect the emptiness of Rose's existence to this point. Before her encounter with the Doctor, Rose was not terribly different from these plastic people - a point which the Doctor himself emphasizes when he tells Rose that all humanity does "is eat chips, go to bed and watch telly." The Plastic Mickey, which plays an important role in the episode, further expands on this theme. What is Rose Tyler's life? Is she really anything more than another piece of plastic, or is she something more? This is a question that the series will endeavor to answer, and to which the Doctor himself is crucial.
And then there is the Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston. For the new viewer - the viewer who has never seen Doctor Who before "Rose" - what do we learn about him? He's an alien - a "Time Lord" - but he looks human. He appears at various points in history, and people have noticed. He is in possession of two marvelous pieces of alien technology - a sonic screwdriver, which can do seemingly anything, and the TARDIS, an object that looks like a 1950s Police Box from the outside, but is bigger inside and, oh by the way, travels through time and space. He was on the Titanic and present at the Kennedy assassination. He appears seemingly at will when danger is near, and danger is always near him. He is often callous toward human connections, and makes passing references to disappointment with his ears, as though they were new. He mentions something called the "Shadow Proclamation," from which he seems to derive some kind of authority. He is merciful when he can be, but decisive when he needs to be. He is often serious, sometimes cheeky, and always attempting to appear in control. He avoids connections, but is terribly lonely. He looks down at humanity, while at the same time revering it. And he has been through a war.
The war itself is only referenced, but it is clearly weighing heavily upon the Doctor, and on the rest of the universe. In fact, the plot of the episode itself is driven by the unseen, unexplained "war," which supposedly destroyed the Auton's home - an even for which the Doctor expresses profound regret. But why? What was his involvement in this war? Who fought it? And how did humanity escape - if it did?
These are the questions that Davies wants us to be asking at this point, and he succeeds in making them interesting enough to keep our attention, despite the episode's occasional missteps. The BBCGI is sometimes comically bad. Rose often comes across as less than compelling and less than intelligent - not noticing something being wrong with Plastic Mickey doesn't inspire confidence - and is generally a cipher at this juncture. Attempts to be edgy and sexy occasionally degenerate into "action movie" cliches, Rose's reference to gymnastics being the worst culprit. And Davies makes the mistake of giving the whole of Britain "Sunnydale Syndrome" - there is no reason for people to forget the terrors of the Autons, yet they do and do quickly. In a small town, it stretched the boundaries of belief and become a recurring joke. Here, it is simply inexcusable. There are other problems as well, all generally stemming from Davies' attempts to sugarcoat the episode for public consumption. For an audience with no history with the program, this may have helped, but it looks foolish in retrospect, especially considering how successful the new series has become.
But there is one note that Davies hits perfectly, and he will hit it repeatedly throughout the series: he raises the critical question of the Doctor's existence. Is the Doctor a hero or a harbinger? Does he save people or destroy them? The character of Clive - an innocent family man whose life only indirectly crosses paths with the Doctor's - shows that the Doctor , while perhaps beneficial to mankind as a whole, often leaves a trail of bodies in his wake. His impact on Rose is also rife with tragic potential. He may shake her out of her humdrum existence, but he makes her into a killer first. It is Rose, not the Doctor, that defeats the Autons by killing their collective consciousness. However justified her actions may have been, she has already allowed herself to be fashioned into a weapon. And when presented with the opportunity to travel with the Doctor, she callously leaves her boyfriend and mother behind. Over the course of the episode, Rose abandons her entire life for the opportunity to run off with a man whom she has only just met. Is this a positive? Contextually, perhaps, but it is not an action that is without consequences, and those consequences will come into play down the road.
So who is the Doctor? Does he make people better or make them dangerous? What sort of impact does he have on the lives of his companions? And how does he reconcile the often paradoxical nature of his existence with his need to do good? These are the questions that will drive the series, and each of them is introduced in "Rose." And as the episode ends, and Rose runs smiling into the TARDIS to begin her adventures in space and time, we in the audience are left with a choice: will we accompany her and her mysterious Doctor, or will we tune out?
"Rose" does not tell us everything, but it makes us want to know everything. Despite its flaws, it succeeds as what it is meant to be: an introduction. And that's why we enter the TARDIS, ready for whatever comes next.