Friday, November 22, 2013

Doctor Who Week: "Rose" (2005)

A young woman in London, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), unexpectedly discovers strange, living mannequins inhabiting the basement of the metropolitan department store where she works.  Rose is rescued from the hostile ambulatory creatures by a strange man who calls himself The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston).

After the Doctor blows up the store, thus destroying the mannequin threat, Rose becomes obsessed with him, and learns that the mysterious man has appeared again and again, throughout human history, in times leading up to disaster or strife.  He was present at the Kennedy assassination in 1963, and at the launching of the Titanic in 1912.

When she encounters the Doctor once more, Rose learns that he is an alien -- and a veteran of some cosmic war – who is hunting the master of those mannequins, or Autons: a giant being known as the Nestene Consciousness.  The Nestene, recovering from the same war, is planning to transform the Earth into one of its “protein” planets in direct violation of the Shadow Proclamations, and the Doctor is determined to stop it.

When the Doctor is captured by the Autons during a confrontation with the Nestene Consciousness, Rose comes to the rescue, and realizes that she possesses value beyond being a mere “shop-girl.” 

When the Doctor reveals his spaceship and time machine, the TARDIS, Rose decides to travel with him…

Doctor Who (2005 - ) made a triumphant return to television in the War on Terror Age, and the changes and updates to the series format reflect this historical context.  For the first time in his history, the Doctor is now a veteran, having served in the devastating Time War which destroyed Gallifrey and vast swaths of the galaxy. 

The other global innovation since 1989 that “Rose” reflects in terms of drama is the Internet.   Rose Tyler performs the equivalent of a Google Search in this episode to learn more about the Doctor, and she promptly discovers that there are web-sites devoted to the mysterious character. She is then able to track down a web master and get the skinny about him.  A discovery that once would have required a trip to the library and a table filled with dusty old books is instead a lightning-fast journey on the information super-highway.  In some ways, this aspect of the episode is a metaphor for the more pacey, more tech savvy new Who: It veritably races from discovery to discovery, and (delightfully) challenges the viewer to keep up.

Beyond these New Millennium touches, “Rose” -- again delightfully -- adopts a fresh stance in Doctor Who history: it dramatizes its tale from the perspective of the companion, not the Doctor.

We start this journey not with the Doctor landing the TARDIS in 2005 London, but with Rose waking up to the blaring of her alarm clock, and preparing to go to (joyless…) work at the shop.  The focus is thus on an “earthly” life giving way to a galactic one, and it is a remarkable re-vamp.  In many ways, this episode functions as a kind of Doctor Who fan’s “wish fulfillment” story.  It thrives on the notion of living one’s life, day–by-day, hour-by-hour, only to be plucked out of that monotonous routine and obscurity by a character who is God-like, and who sees the value in you that mainstream society, for whatever reason, simply can’t recognize.  We all believe we’re worthy of being the Doctor’s companion, don’t we?

The invitation to travel with the Doctor is the invitation, indeed, of a life-time (or many lifetimes…), and there’s such rampant joy and energy in this premiere episode of the re-vamped series precisely because it recognizes that fact. 

In short order, Rose becomes one of the most beloved companions in Doctor Who history, and this fact has much to do not only with Billie Tyler’s wonderful, charismatic performances in the role, but the fact that her character is expressly the audience’s surrogate, asking the questions we would ask, taking the journey we might hope to take.

Looking back at the series premiere with eight years of hindsight, it’s clear too that “Rose” features a surfeit of dodgy CGI special effects.  And the scene with an Auton version of Mickey (Noel Clarke) sharing dinner at a restaurant with an oblivious Rose is absolutely cringe-inducing.  It sets too jokey a tone, it seems on retrospect.  We recognize from a distance -- and not even knowing Mickey very well -- that something is wrong with him, both in terms of appearance and demeanor.  How could Rose -- at close-up range, and having a long relationship with the same man -- not know that something weird has happened?

Nonetheless, this premiere episode works marvelously because it keys in on that basic human desire to live a fuller life, to see things no one else has seen, and to be recognized as special.  “Rose” is really about yearning, especially the yearning felt by young people to find a place in a world that seems to want to limit them to many unappealing or unattractive options. 

Christopher Eccleston probably does not get enough credit for his re-invention of the Doctor as a man who feels “tremendous guilt” over what he has done (in terms of combat in the Time War).  He delivers an amazing monologue in this story, wherein he describes how he can feel the very turn of the Earth’s orbit.

Imagine for a moment being that sensitive to life, to the cosmos, to change, and then imagine that you are called upon to destroy such life.  It’s practically heart-breaking.  

Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor is occasionally prickly and rude, but again, the Doctor isn’t human, is he?  Why do we expect him to observe our social graces?  This incarnation carries a tremendous moral burden, it is plain, and that alone makes him different from the Doctors we knew in the classic series.   Eccleston’s incarnation is the first post-War Doctor, we now know, and must contend with being alone, and having no one to whom he can confess his sins.  I have always felt that The Doctor befriended Rose in the first place because he knew she would make him confront his actions, and help him to understand or contextualize them.  She reminds him that there is good in him, and that “the promise” of his name – to be a healer – can live again. 

In terms of internal logistics, “Rose” does raise some questions.  At one point, the Ninth Doctor looks in the mirror at Rose’s apartment and seems to see himself for the first time, as if he has just regenerated.  

Yet later in the episode, we see images and artwork that suggests this incarnation of the Doctor -- Eccleston’s -- was also present at the launch of the Titanic, the eruption of Krakatoa, and the Kennedy Assassination. 

How could he have experienced all these previous adventures if he just regenerated into this new form? 

The obvious answer is that these are Eccleston adventures “yet to come” (meaning that they follow “Rose” in terms of series chronology, but simultaneously occur in older historical time periods).  Yet we also now know -- since Rose traveled with this Doctor right up through his next regeneration -- that this is not the case.  We never got an adventure at Krakatoa, Dallas in 1963, or aboard the HMS Titanic.

This scene could have been improved in two ways. 

First, we could have seen that it was a different incarnation of the Doctor in that art work and imagery (one of the previous eight).  Such a change would have the added bonus of letting long-time fans know that this is a continuation and not a re-boot.

Or secondly, imagine Rose’s surprise if she instead found an artist’s rendering of herself, standing next to the Doctor at Krakatoa, before she ever traveled with him.  That would have made for an incredibly dramatic moment, I think, and added to Rose’s sense of paranoia.

As it stands, these references to past Ninth Doctor adventures are a bit confusing, especially given the facts we know of the Eccleston Era.

Finally, I love that author and producer Russell Davies finds time in “Rose” to demonstrate the Doctor’s core decency.  He has the opportunity to destroy the Nestene Consciousness, but states instead “I’m not here to kill it.  I have to give it a chance.”  In other words, he is re-establishing his moral high ground. At the time (2005), we took this to be a re-assertion of the Doctor’s long-standing goodness.  Now, we might view it as a return to the promise he knowingly broke as The War Doctor.

There have been many episodes of the new Who that are much, much better than “Rose,” but it seems churlish to complain about the quality of the inaugural installment, since it launched the series brilliantly, and is far, far better than any classic Doctor Who episodes/productions we got in the 1980s or 1990s. 

The kernels of greatness are here, and a new generation fell in love with Time Lord because of that…


  1. Amen. This ninth doctor series is an exceptional run and Rose really sets the tone. It has everything going for it including a knock out companion with real personality.

    The entire series is so good even I am willing to forgive any CGI deficiencies. : )

    1. I agree with you, SFF. Rose Tyler is a fantastic companion, and she makes everything come alive, in some sense. The new series is great, and Piper and Eccleston get things off to a grand start. When a series is this much fun, even dodgy effects don't take away from it.

  2. I would argue that putting the viewer in the companion's shoes isn't a new tactic, but in fact a very old one. When we first meet the Doctor, he is not our POV character. We view the show from the perspective of Ian and Barbara, something that pretty much remains true through their departure from the series in The Chase.

    Also one common explanation from fans that I like for The Doctor's myriad solo appearances in unseen adventures is that the gap between his first offer to Rose to travel with him and his second ("Did I mention it also travels in time?") is, for The Doctor, at least a year -- possibly a decade. He leaves, adventures on his own for a while, then decides, "You know what? I quite liked that Rose girl, time to give it another shot."

    1. Hi Nate,

      I love your explanation for the Doctor's appearance at those events (Krakatoa, etc.) -- the time gap between moments when he visits Rose. That's perfect, and it doesn't seem at all far-fetched!

      On the other hand, I stand by my argument that putting the audience in the companion's shoes is, if not a brand new approach, a fresh one. The big difference is that in 1963, we went in without knowing what was going to happen, or who the Doctor was. Here, it's different entirely, because we want Rose to go, and we want to go with her. The wish-fulfillment aspect has fully come into its own, I think.

    2. It's definitely fresh in the sense that the POV character represents what we come to expect from companions -- willing adventurers, sauntering into the unknown. I don't think anybody would really accept a modern companion who chafed at being stuck with a madman and his box.

  3. Poor Mickey. That's what kept running through my mind all through the first two seasons of 'New Who.' Of all the characters, he endures one of the bitterest lessons of all -- that no matter how much you love someone and are loved in return, the homily "love conquers all" is nothing but a comforting romantic lie. He has to come to terms with the fact that he will always be a distant second place in Rose's life. There's no competing with a Time Lord. Put it this way: If offered the once in a lifetime chance to run away on adventures through space and time, I can't think of a single thing that would stop me. Not my dog, not my house, not my job, not my girlfriend or my family. I would abandon them all without hesitation. I'm sure I'd feel awful about it, but it wouldn't even slow me down. Like the saying goes: I ain't cheap, but I can be bought. That's the bitter lesson that most people are never willing to (and often never have to) face -- you are never going to be the center of anyone's universe except your own. As much as I loved Rose, I think Mickey was the one I felt for the most.

    Anyway: A great episode, dodgy CGI and all. Wish Eccleston had been around for more than one season, though. He was a terrific Doctor.


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