Now that ‘series 7’ of Doctor Who is out of the way, I’ve found that I miss writing ten points about an episode. So I’ve decided to carry on – rewinding all the way to 2005’s Rose, and continuing from there. Doctor Who Magazine has chronologically looked back with its Time Team features – but their conceit is that they’re watching as if for the first time, and without reference to any stores broadcast after the one they’re watching.
My posts will most definitely be written from a 2013 perspective, introducing thoughts about how the series has changed – or not – since its return; other shows the series has influenced, or been influenced by, offscreen and on; and any old randomness that comes into my head. Please do chip in in the comments below each post if you have your own thoughts about the episode in question.
Don’t expect the frequency to always be weekly, although I will try and keep up the pace. If you want to know when each one has been published, you can follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my public posts on Facebook.
And so sit back, press Play, and rejoice in the fact that on DVD, the department store basement won’t resound with the echo of Graham Norton doing a sound check for Strictly Dance Fever.
1. Opening titles
After seven full series and numerous specials, it’s remarkable how odd it feels not to have a pre-credits scene starting the story. Fading directly in to the swirling graphics has an air of the familiar about it – save for a very few episodes, (Remembrance of the Daleks episode 1, the TV Movie, any more for any more?) pre-credit sequences were a no-no for the episode.
The titles themselves feel oddly antiquarian now. I still like the Doppler-inspired colour reverse – the ‘time tunnel’ is blue to signify going into the past, red while the TARDIS heads into the future. The huge chrome lettering – to be a feature of the titles until replaced by more sensible typography in Asylum of the Daleks jars a little. I can forgive the producers, though: bringing back a TV series from presumed extinction into a Saturday night schedule which had had no family drama at its heart for years needed a who with bravado and swagger. The size of the lettering – CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON! BILLIE PIPER! – certainly ensures that this series is to be no shrinking violet.
One reason that does rankle with me over the lettering, though – and which continued until, again, Asylum of the Daleks – is that the designers mix their fonts so much. The lead actors’ names are different to the type in the logo, which is different again to the production credits laid over the opening scenes.
2. She who must be named
It’s certainly unusual for an episode to be named after the companion. While you could argue that First Doctor episode titles The Bride of Sacrifice, say, or The Feast of Steven referenced the Doctor’s companions, calling the first episode of the returned series by Rose Tyler’s first name lays down an important cornerstone of the new era’s mission. The companion is more than just a female sidekick, she is an important character in her own right.
That’s accentuated by most of the episode being told distinctly from Rose’s point of view. Apart from slight cutaways (Mickey throwing away the Auton arm, for example), Billie Piper is front and centre for nearly all of the first half hour of the episode. Through her eyes, we not only see the weirdness of the Doctor, but the slight crapness of her fun but blokish boyfriend and her crazy mother. And Billie Piper – who up to this point was not known for her acting, despite impressive appearances in Bella and the Boys and The Canterbury Tales – is the best, most consistent performer of the lot.
Although – and bear in mind this has bugged me for eight years – Rose doesn’t half dress sloppily for someone who supposedly works in a central London department store.
3. Nice to meet you… Run for your life!
Rose’s – and by extension, our – introduction to the Doctor is glorious. From the minute he turns up from nowhere, grabbing her hand, to the minute she walks blindly past the TARDIS she has no way of recognising, we get the summation of the man in a way that will be familiar to those who have known the series for years before, but intriguing and fun to newcomers as well.
This is a man who knows more about crazy things – living plastic? – than he’s letting on. He’s prepared to blow things up even if it means his death. And that short scene is topped and tailed by an exhortation to “run!”
Elsewhere, you can see why Christopher Eccleston has never really been known for comedy roles. His glib, smiling, “this is me, swanning off”-ness doesn’t quite gel with his more serious contemplative side. He nails the latter, as you’d expect – and as this series goes on, you can see that his portrayal of a deeply damaged man who hides his scars with ridiculous humour gets better and better. I remain convinced that his casting in the title role is one of the key reasons why the series became so phenomenally popular in the years since.
4. I’ll have to tell his mother…
Continuity: When Rose is first told Mickey has been abducted – and possibly killed – by the Autons, she tells the Doctor, “I’ll have to tell his mother.” In series 2, though, we find out that he was brought up by his grandmother, who had herself died some years earlier.
5. Cut off the head, and destroy the brain
Stories where destroying one item at the central core causes the entire threat to suddenly evaporate are not unique to Doctor Who’s revival period, nor to Doctor Who as a whole. Here, it’s just about tolerable, as it’s the Nestene signal which is activating Autons across London. Once the Consciousness is destroyed, the signal fades and the activation process is arrested.
Not every science-fiction invasion – including many attempted by Doctor Who villains – has quite such a cast-iron reason for invading fleets being rendered helpless by the defeat of a central intelligence.
6. Auton utility
The Autons (and the controlling Nestene) must be the only returning villains who have only ever been used solely in stories introducing a change in Doctor Who format. Their first appearance, Spearhead from Space, was Jon Pertwee’s first story in the title role, the first of the series’ Earth-bound years and the first story in colour. The following year, Terror of the Autons introduced the Master, who would wreak havoc in the Doctor’s life ever since.
And here, they are part of a story in which Doctor Who reformats to fit into the modern TV schedule. Single episode stories (with occasional two-parters) with a 45-minute length comparable to those made by US networks, and a restatement of the series as a whole to viewers old and new.
Ultimately, I think the Autons work in this context because they’re not all that interesting in themselves. The threat they pose is big enough for the stakes to be high – but not so big that there’s no room for introducing the new concepts and characters that will form the basis of the series’ future episodes.
7. She’s a she?
Mark Benton’s Clive is a lovely creation. Love & Monsters perfectly encapsulated the joy to be found in bringing people together over a passion for finding out more about the Doctor, but that portrayal of the fan archetype has its roots here. Clive is a happy family man, but he has his collection, his obsession. It is a solitary pursuit at times, and it is a type of hobby that tends to appeal to men.
Or at least, that’s what the “she’s a she?” line jokily suggests. Up until this series of Doctor Who, I would say that of the die-hard, core fans of the series, the majority were male – but there was, and always had been, a substantial proportion of fandom that was female. Stereotypes like that have a habit of becoming self-perpetuating, of course – the less visible women fans (or any other minority groups) are, the more likely they are to remain a minority in a given field.
In the eight years since Rose, I think people have, in the main, stopped thinking of fans in the way that made Clive such an archetypal character. Until you go on some internet forums (that may or may not rhyme with ‘Ballifrey Gase’) and realise the negative sides of that stereotype are alive and well.
Interestingly, while Clive talks about the Doctor’s constant companion being death, he is one of the only characters in this episode to die (it happens offscreen, but surely even an Auton can kill a man at point blank range)…
8. Burping bins
This first block of episodes – which also includes Aliens of London and World War Three – has elements of juvenilia which sit oddly with the rest of the series, and indeed within the episodes themselves. I’ll return to the Slitheen when the time is right, but the biggest example in Rose is the way in which the Nestene-controlled wheelie ben belches after it kidnaps Mickey.
I know that plenty of people wish that burp had been edited out. But I’d like to suggest an alternative. If Mickey’s attack by plastic bins had been as scary as it should have been, in dismal evening light rather than the bright, midday sun, say, and by a whole street of bins rather than just one – if that scene had had any sense of menace, then a slight belch would have brought some welcome comic relief.
9. London, dear London
There can be no doubt about the location of this first story. From the location filming in Trafalgar Square and on either bank of the Thames to the night-time hollering in the background as Mickey walks through the Powell Estate, there is a sense of place that makes this possibly the most English drama ever to come out of Cardiff.
Of course, it helps that so many high streets and shopping centres have no sense of their own identity any more – just as it helps that London itself is such a diverse and confused mix of geography, architecture and cultures that there is no one definitive “London look”.
10. Next Time…
Another innovation here is the advent of the ‘next episode’ teaser. Done well, as here, it intrigues and excites, while giving nothing substantive away. But it has a second function in Rose, too. With modern TV budgets, there was a concern that Doctor Who would remain on Earth as much as possible. If you were to look at Rose in isolation, you could believe that to be the case.
And then suddenly, we’re transported into the far, far future – the literal end of the world! – and the promise of many diverse and wondrous creatures. Trees! The Moxx of Balhoon! A face the size of a car! We’re not in the present day anymore, Toto…
All told, there’s only one word for the start of this journey.