It’s been a funny few weeks in Doctor Who fandom! First we had some long-awaited trailers finally hit the airwaves, then the “leaks” happened. It seems somebody figured out how to access BBC worldwide servers in Florida, and discovered scripts and a few “screener” episodes left unsecured. Don’t worry folks, I don’t plan on downloading the leaked Peter Capaldi episodes, much less writing about them, mainly because they aren’t full episodes and have no special effects (or so I’ve heard). There was one time where my willpower wasn’t as strong, and I immediately remember what the Doctor Who community was going through almost NINE years ago (it doesn’t seem like that long ago). Take a walk down memory lane with me, as we discuss Rose, as the first in a series of “backlog reviews” to fill in my review catalog.
Way back in 2004, I joined a now defunct Doctor Who message board to fulfill a nostalgia trip I was having. As a small child, I absolutely LOVED Doctor Who. It ran on my local PBS station late at night, and I always looked forward to staying up late with my mom and watching one of the most exciting TV shows I had ever seen at the time. This eventually faded, as PBS stopped airing the show around 1990 and Star Trek: The Next Generation became “my thing”. It wasn’t until college when I started seeing tapes of various episodes coming into my college retail job, that I thought “hey, I miss that show!”. I started renting DVDs and joined this message board to see if the show was still continuing in some way. I had no idea that there were audio dramas, comics, books, and all the other material that populated the “wilderness years”. Then I learned it was coming back!
Flash forward to 2005, and I find myself downloading a “leaked” copy of Rose on Bittorrent. As I recall, I excitedly woke my (now) wife up at some alarming time like 8:00 am on a Saturday (I’m a night owl) and basically forced her to watch it with me. I had secretly found out about it the night before, and wanted to surprise her. It was like Christmas morning for a small child, I simply could not wait any longer to dig into my presents. The leak of Rose, The very first Christopher Eccleston episode of the show, was one of those things that I suspect everyone on that forum did secretly, then pretended they did not online. I have no regrets for doing it as I ended up getting even more excited for the show’s return, and downloaded all the rest of the episodes. This was before the show was airing in America, before it was one of the more popular nerdy fandoms over here.
With Doctor Who coming back, there was a lot of pressure on the show to perform. Not too far from 2005, the whole idea of the show was something of a laughing stock after it was unceremoniously divorced from the BBC airwaves. Rose had two things that it absolutely HAD to get right for the show to succeed. Firstly, it had to introduce a new sidekick character, a person we would be viewing the show through. He/She had to be good enough to attract the old fans back to the show, and attempt to gain new fans – namely the criminally overlooked female market. Some might say that such a character isn’t wholly necessary, but I disagree. The Doctor NEEDS someone to talk with, teach, learn from etc. Secondly, and more importantly, Rose had to re-introduce the concept of The Doctor himself to a whole new generation of TV viewers, many of which were probably not even alive when the show was yanked off the air in the late 1980’s!
Rose is essentially a second part of a two-parter that we do not see the beginning of. When we join up with Rose herself, she is going about her typical day at a retail clothing store, only to find something strange going on. She notices an army of walking plastic mannequins in the stores basement, and is almost attacked if it wasn’t for the appearance of a strange man calling himself “The Doctor”. It seems that something bad is going on regarding the window shop dummies, and he needs to blow something up on the roof to stop them. Rose escapes just in time, only to see life explode right in front of her eyes, as The Doctor presumably destroys her workplace. From here on, Rose is left with what we can see is an unsatisfying life. Her boyfriend would rather be at the pub watching a game than spending time with her, and her mother is somewhat classless and controlling. Rose perhaps puts it best herself: “I’ve got no A-Levels, no job, no future…” The only bit of excitement left is attempting to figure out exactly who this “Doctor” is, and why he’s doing the things he’s doing.
As a character, Rose is fairly atypical for the female lead in Doctor Who (up to that time) , and in many ways she isn’t all that similar to those that came before her. Both are from lower-class upbringings, and both have the “street smarts” that some of the other, more refined companions may have lacked. That isn’t to say all previous companions were the often-stereotyped “screaming girl that gets in trouble/twists her ankle”, but he large majority ended up that way. Unlike Ace, Leela, or even The Brigadier, she isn’t a warrior by any means, but she’s determined and brave. She feels like she has nothing to live for, so being with The Doctor is her escape.
I recall being less than enthusiastic about Billie Piper‘s casting, as she was presented to me as “The UK’s answer to Britney Spears” according to various message boards and magazines. To me, she sounds like any other 90’s pop singer that was trying to copy the popular vibe of the Spice Girls and failed at it. She reeked of “stunt casting” and that sort of thing never usually works out very well here in America. Many TV shows make a habit out of jamming popular singers into cameo roles that they have no business taking part in, Justin Bieber comes to mind for one of the more egregious examples. At least for me, this fear was put to rest pretty early on in Rose, as I felt the character was something refreshing to the show, and Piper was doing an adequate, if not pretty good job portraying the character.
Rose is joined by a few characters that aren’t really companions, (at least not yet) but exist to keep her grounded on Earth in some capacity. Not only does this give The Doctor and Rose a group of recurring characters to work with, but it helps explain why his adventures had a tendency towards taking place in London rather than the other nearly infinite amount of places he could have been traveling. One will immediately look back to Jon Pertwee‘s tenure on the show for an older example of this, but in the case of the 2005 series of the show, I can only assume that budgetary limitations were the main reason behind this. In the case of Rose, these characters are a bit different from agents of a military organization that The Doctor is working for, because it’s Rose’s own family we get to see a lot of. Camille Coduri plays Jackie Tyler, Rose’s own mother, and Noel Clarke plays her somewhat estranged boyfriend Mickey.
There isn’t really a whole lot of big special effect showcases in this episode to write home about, and the few instances of computer generated effects or creature make-up we do see is somewhat average at best. Things like the Auton costumes (the aforementioned mannequins) are hard to be wowed over because it’s just a guy in a mask walking like he’s made of plastic. The Nestene consciousness is a blob of CGI in a pool, and things like a fake Mickey that pop up are decent, but not great. Later episodes in this season have amazing special effects, so it seems the production staff kept it reigned in a bit for this first outing.
The only issue that I have always had with Rose is it’s tendency towards childish slapstick. Being ever so close to the eighth season of the show as of this writing, looking back at this first season is sort of jarring. Once David Tennant really got a few seasons in the can, and especially with Matt Smith, the show itself took a far more serious turn. That isn’t to say this season is “fluffy”, it’s just a bit weird in tone. One can see that Russell T. Davis was attempting to play all of his cards to see what stuck, and that means we get some “kiddy stuff” occasionally.
One scene in particular is pretty rough, and it’s an infamous one involving Mickey being eaten by a sentient trashcan. It seems the Autons place a possessed garbage bin at the front lines in their battle with The Doctor, and it decides to eat Rose’s boyfriend to gather intel. This already sounds dumb on paper, but it gets worse when the whole thing is punctuated by a cartoonish “burping sound” once Mickey enters the bin. Luckily, the second half of this season finds a better balance between comedy and drama.
Earlier I compared Rose to a Jon Pertwee episode, and there are many reasons I get this vibe and keep making such comparisons. First and foremost, this episode stars the villainous Autons. The Autons are a race of living plastic creatures, last seen in a few Pertwee episodes and most notably his very first serial Spearhead from Space. I think the Autons worked better in the 70’s as a commentary on commercialism, but it’s cool seeing them once again so many years later.
Rose is basically nothing more than an average episode of Doctor Who, but it is elevated quite a bit, as it is arguably the most important “average episode” produced since An Unearthly Child. I don’t actually like using this episode to introduce folks to the show due to it’s all over the place tone, and almost embarrassing trash can scene, but it still holds a warm place in my heart. I will always remember waking up early, only to watch a pirated copy of a leaked episode of the show, as stupid as that sounds. I have a better memory of this than other things that folks are expected to remember vividly, things like watching Star Wars for the first time. Nine years on, Rose is still one of my favorite episodes of this new series.
Notice how I didn’t even mention Chris Eccleston’s portrayal as The Doctor? Check back next time, and I’ll chime in when I’m talking about The End of the World!