Doctor Who at 15: Episode 1 – ‘Rose’

It's been 15 years since Doctor Who rebooted, and we're starting at the very beginning.

rose

It’s like when you’re a kid. The first time they tell you that the world’s turning and you just can’t quite believe it ’cause everything looks like it’s standing still… I can feel it: the turn of the Earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at 1,000 miles an hour and the entire planet is hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, and I can feel it. We’re falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go… That’s who I am.

Before I start, I have two confessions to make. Firstly, I really love setting myself impossible challenges and then trying to do them. My first contribution to this website was a two and a half year retrospective analysis of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, one book at a time. So surprise, I suppose – guess what my new aim is? To celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the rebooted Doctor Who, a show that had a crazy impact on my life, I’m going to revisit it, episode by episode, and see what’s changed and what has stayed the same. I only watched Nine and Ten, or the first four series, and then had a break for Stephen Moffat related reasons before picking it back up with Jodie Whittaker. Let’s see how far we get.

My second confession is that I really love Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. Don’t get me wrong; I adored David Tennant, as did a lot of people. But Eccleston is the one I think of as ‘my Doctor’. It has been a long time since I revisited him, and I am keen to see how he stands now.

So to episode one, ‘Rose’. I have a vivid memory of sitting down and watching this the first time around. The only thing I knew about Doctor Who was my mum’s reminiscing about the old show with the wobbly sets and the funny man in the long, colourful scarf. But I’d been brought up on Star Trek, so I knew sci-fi, and I knew I liked it. I didn’t know at the time that Doctor Who would become so formative for me, just like no one ever knows these things. But it must have made an impact, because that memory is so clear.

Russell T Davies, and the makers of the show, really made what I think was their best decision for series one in casting Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, the Doctor’s first new companion, and beloved fan favourite. Back in 2005, no one was using the word relatable, but that’s what Rose is – super relatable. It’s a standard trope, obviously; the character who is brand new to the world and asks all the questions the audience has, sees it all for the first time, experiences the same highs and lows as the people watching at home. Rose is the absolute perfect way to bring us into this world. Technically an adult, at nineteen years old, but young enough that the child audience can almost see her as a peer.

At the beginning, she is just hanging out with her boyfriend and working in the shop. She is completely unremarkable in any way, except for the streak of iron that we see the moment she starts wandering round that monster infested basement instead of getting the heck out of there. Or when she decides that she isn’t going to leave the strange man to die, and hurls herself into the unknown when she tarzan swings off a metal bridge and saves the Doctor, as well as the planet and I think, most importantly for her, her mum who Rose knows is out and about doing some shopping when the plastic mannequins start their murderous rampage. Nothing Rose does is out of the realm of possibility for someone like her, or someone like us watching at home. But she is brave, aspirationally so, for the younger viewers.

To the Doctor himself then, first introduced in the same plastic mannequin monster infested basement that Rose is exploring. He grabs her hand and drags her out of there, then sets off a homemade bomb and disappears. Next time we see him, he’s turned up at Rose’s flat, and we have a comedy routine where the plastic arm he was following tries to strangle him. A minute after that, when Rose asks who he is, he gives that first iconic speech about being able to feel the world turning underneath their feet.

What I’m saying is that his introduction is whirlwind, not giving us time to focus on one aspect of his character before we are shown another. Rose is just as baffled by this, and resorts to her own research to try and find out more about who he is. This switch between near manic energy and sudden moments of extreme seriousness follow Eccleston’s Doctor throughout his time. Nine is quicker to anger than Ten, but he is also – I think – more emotionally available. This makes sense, as we know now that Nine is fresh out of the Time War and the terrible destruction he was forced to commit against his own people. He is suffering; guilty, lonely and afraid of the person he was forced to be. Looking back, we get hints of all these aspects in this very first episode, if only we cared to look closely enough. There’s real desperation and panic in his voice when he tells the Nestene Consciousness that there was nothing he could do to save anyone in the war.

Although it really has not aged well – why did all TV in the early 2000s still look like it was filmed in the 90s? – ‘Rose’ is a cracking first episode of New Who. Introducing us to Nine, Rose, Jackie and Mickey, we get a grip on these four important players, the people who will carry us through the series. Watching it back, I was getting very reminiscent about our human cast, and how much they go on to change and grow as people by the time of the end of David Tennant’s run. It’s fun to see Jackie try to flirt with a very uninterested Doctor, or how naive Mickey was, or how Rose had no hope for her own future being anything special, because they are about to become so much more.

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