Doctor Who: Rose
By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 325
Possibly the most significant moment in the first episode of the new Doctor Who series, "Rose", is the one in which Rose, the Doctor's new companion, walks into the TARDIS and breaks down at the sight of the bigger-on-the-inside interior and the revelation that her host is an alien, which the Doctor casually puts down to "culture shock." While the new episode is absolutely the start that the new series needs, watching it can lead to a sense of culture shock among long-time viewers of the series.
One of the things which usually goes unremarked about Doctor Who in general is its sense of the contemporary. For most of its history, the series has had its finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary trends and issues--environmentalism and self-sufficiency in the early 1970s, for instance, anarchy and rebellion in the late 1970s, or nostalgia and right-wing politics in the early 1980s. Indeed, one of the complaints voiced against the periods of the series where it is seen as having gone off the rails is that it started to lose touch with the contemporary mood. Consequently, one of the most important--and most positive--things about "Rose" is that it has a strong sense of the contemporary. The Doctor, at a time when regional culture is being celebrated, has a Northern accent. Rose, like many young women in Britain, works in the service economy and worries about the fact that she has no A-levels. Internet-based conspiracy theorists (albeit one, we are pleased to note, who evidently "has a life" outside of his hobby, as evidenced by his child and rather attractive wife), aggressive compensation claiming, the London Eye and shopping malls all get a name-check. Parts of the story reference action films and series of recent years--notably the Terminator franchise and Total Recall, though the idea of a creature which swallows organic beings and produces less-than-perfect replicas also recently appeared on Lexx (on a more classic note, one of the Autons is dressed like, and resembles, the dummy of Patrick McGoohan in the last episode of The Prisoner). Like contemporary television series, it is fast-paced and, although it must be said that the dialogue is not always as witty as it might be, there are a number of good lines, particularly from the Doctor. "Rose" thus captures the contemporary mood perfectly.
In many ways, however, this is actually a bit of a shock for the long-term viewer. Although the earlier series did change with the times, in this instance we have had virtually no televised Who since 1989. Consequently, an audience used to thinking of Doctor Who for the most part in terms of pre-1990s issues, trends and visual conventions, will now have to adapt very rapidly to a Doctor Who which is unashamedly of 2005.
Despite being so contemporary, the story does manage to reference the fact that the series has a past without being obtrusive about it. Although Clive hints that there have been other people called the Doctor, the pictures he shows Rose depict only Christopher Eccleston, in keeping with the tradition in Doctor Who, up until the John Nathan-Turner era, of treating the current Doctor for the most part as if he had been the only incumbent in the role. Although there are references to earlier stories (e.g. Eccleston's comment about his ears recalling Tom Baker's famous remark that his nose is a definite improvement on his predecessor's, and the Nestene Consciousness keeping Mickey alive to give the duplicate form referencing "The Faceless Ones" and "Terror of the Zygons" as much as it does "Spearhead from Space"), these are not likely to alienate the non-fan. Likewise the reference to John F. Kennedy's assassination will cause fans to see allusions to the circumstances of the programme's first broadcast, and possibly to Who Killed Kennedy, but it is also such a common interest of conspiracy theorists that non-fans are unlikely to see anything out of place in Clive's interest in it. The sequence where the Doctor attempts to do a clever card trick and fails is funny, but takes on an added significance for people who remember that the last two incumbents but one were occasionally given to irritatingly showy magic tricks. "Rose" thus manages to pull off the difficult task of referencing continuity without making it the whole of the story.
There are, inevitably, one or two minor aspects which are less good than others. The Doctor's speech about feeling the Earth turning seems a bit irritating, although that might simply be the effect of having seen it over and over again in the previews for the series. Likewise, the scene where he tells the Nestene Consciousness that humanity deserves better sounds a bit too much like the Doctor's speech in "The Ark in Space". Rose's Mum, in this story, comes across as something of a class stereotype, going on obsessively about claiming compensation, and flirting heavily with the Doctor when he stops by her flat. It's a very minor point, also, but Oxford Street does look abnormally empty for that time of the evening. Other areas which people have singled out for concern did not bother us quite so much; the disembodied Auton arm effect worked fine, and the fact that Rose fails to notice that her boyfriend has been replaced by an Auton simply speaks volumes about the lacklustre nature of their relationship, to say nothing of his driving skills. It also doesn't actually matter to the viewer how the Nestene Consciousness wound up under the London Eye, and in fact this aspect arguably works better without the viewer being subjected to tedious backstory. The complaints that one might make about the first episode are thus fairly minor.
The question is, of course, does this story have a message? The answer is yes, and a good one as well. The Doctor complains to Rose about how the bulk of people on Earth simply live their lives eating, sleeping and working, not caring about anything outside of this simple, Darwinian daily round, or looking for anything different. At the end of the story, the Doctor offers Rose a choice to come with him, in which the alternative is staying at home, finding a new job in a shop or hospital canteen, taking care of her unintelligent mother and ungrateful boyfriend, and, significantly, she very nearly accepts the second option rather than look for adventure. The story is thus a wake-up call to people who aren't living up to their full potential, or who are not willing to have their preconceptions shaken up or to look beyond the obvious. If the series delivers on this promise, of looking beyond the ordinary to find the fantastic, than it will be a good one.
The Guardian television review of "Rose" complains, somewhat unfairly, that the special effects will look dated in ten years' time. Leaving aside the fact that this is the case with any television series or film, it has to be said that its contemporaneity is a good, rather than a bad thing. The best Doctor Who has always been of its time, and "Rose" keeps strongly to this tradition.