"Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!"
IN THIS ONE... The start of a new era, with a new Doctor, a new companion, and the same old Autons.
REVIEW: Visually, it's a good thing that we didn't get to the first New Who episode straight from Survival, but it's still a bit of a chock. The video-for-film, the wall-to-wall music, the blown-out lights giving everything a diffused glow, the SHEER VOLUME OF PINK, and of course, starting with a young shop girl's day, in frenetic montage... It's all designed to look like a funky British sitcom (at the time, it looked to me like one I used to see on Showcase... in some kind of holiday camp? Don't know the title). There's an early clue it isn't. The dive from space and onto Earth, borrowed from Spearhead in Space (most crucially) and Remembrance of the Daleks, but Rose's world is a sitcom one. Her family is a sitcom family. Her mum Jackie, with comedy put-downs and completely oblivious to what's really going on (as exemplified by her hair dryer covering a fight with an animated plastic arm, but it happens again and again). Her boyfriend Mickey more interested in the football than in her job problems, with Noel Clarke making cartoon faces for the camera (and not just when he's playing plastic Mickey). While the show will remain funny when the Doctor's around and/or Rose is away from all this, the Whoniverse is still an intrusion into the comfortable, predictable world of TV comedy, burping CG bins and all.
And that's really Russell T Davies' plan here. Where previous efforts failed, pushing the audience too far in the deep end or playing to a core geek audience, he's plainly making this for the kind of teen-to-20something girls who made Buffy the Vampire Slayer a crossover hit. I'm going to watch Doctor Who regardless, but he's trying to attract that wider public who wouldn't. And cheers to that. I can't even count the number of non-Whovians, female and otherwise, I got into the program using this first series. Some were even open to the classic stuff. All are still deep into New Who to this day, enough so I can have a proper 50th Anniversary party with mild cosplay in three weeks time. But I digress. The point is, this is EXACTLY the strategy RTD should have been using, and the show's success proves it. He even makes jokes about it, with Clive's wife making a big thing about a girl having read his website about the Doctor. The first of many, Mrs. Clive!
So we're brought into an every day kind of world, of low rentals and blue collar jobs, by Rose Tyler, who's just about as ordinary as they come, even after her world is turned upside down by alien shenanigans. But as we'll see again and again, the 9th Doctor's whole deal is that he helps you realize your potential, turns YOU into the one who saves the day. His guilt (more on this in later episodes) seems to prevent him from fully taken on the hero's mantle. Ordinary she may be, but she's curious, and a little bored with the life she's settled for. She asks questions, she tries to track down the Doctor, and ultimately, thinks of evacuating people when Autons attack, and saves the Doctor's life. A key shot in the episode is Rose in a protective position over Mickey. She's heroic, a cut above "normal" (which is what Mickey is, presumably), and open-minded enough to accept what the Doctor tells her. When she finally accepts his invitation, she's leaving foolish people behind, characters the audience doesn't particularly find worthy of its attention, which is why we accept Rose's cruelty in that moment. (Dislike the slo-mo though, it's a bit too cheesy.)
But we can accept almost anyone as companion. Whovians are usually more wary of new Doctors. And Christopher Eccleston is an atypical one. His regional accent forces the script to make a joke and his mode of dress isn't, for once, Edwardian (nor earlier) or eccentric. He's a working-class bloke, not the kind of aristocratic roustabout we've been used to. That's perfectly appropriate. In real world terms, it makes him more approachable to a new audience. In-story, the Time Lords are no more (not that we know that yet), so the monarchy has fallen, and what's more, the Doctor is now a war veteran, one that's blamed by the Nestene Consciousness for its homeworld's destruction (so the Time Lords did some very bad things). He seems to be working hard to fix the fallout from the war, and all those zany smiles look like over-compensation for soul-crushing guilt. The Doctor without a companion, a theme that occasionally crops up in RTD's Doctor Who, is cut off from his humanity. Companionless, he participated in a double temporal genocide, and now he's a crazy person, thinking of the Big Picture while dismissing the smaller stories around him. He blows up Rose's shop, which is essentially a terrorist act. He thinks she's in shock when she gets overwhelmed inside the TARDIS, but she's thinking of Mickey and whether he's alive, something he hadn't even thought of. And he gets short with her any time she gets "domestic" and shows she cares about Jackie or Mickey. The Doctor has enough self-awareness to see that Rose would not only make a good companion, but allow him to reconnect with something he's lost. Her rejection of his invitation looks like a devastating blow, and one he ultimately can't afford to accept, returning seconds later (or after innumrable adventures if you want to fill out Clive's research or write lots of fanfic about Doc9) with one last plea, after she's had a moment to regret her decision.
The plot of this thing is really secondary. The Autons, never even called by name before the credits, are a good, spooky monster from the past with which we get onboard in medias res, as it were. It's a plastic invasion, run from a famous London landmark (something RTD is obsessed with), and it'll all end in explosions. RTD at least has the wherewithal to throw older fans a bone, with child Autons and bridezilla Autons, small but fun twists. Did Clive had to die though? The real highlights are the small, fun, witty moments peppered throughout the script. His first word being "Run!". The speech about feeling the Earth turning. His pride at the TARDIS' "disguise" and Rose's complete generational puzzlement at it. Their first conversation inside the TARDIS, his fear that she will disappoint him by freaking out. Great stuff.
Just a few quick notes on the technical stuff... The new opening sequence looks cool, closer to the TV Movie's than I realized, though I've never been in love with that horizontal, eye-shaped logo. Murray Gold's music is playful at this point, rather than epic, and I because I bought and repeatedly listened to all the soundtracks, I'll admit here and now a certain fondness for it. Yes, there's probably too much of it in the mix, and old themes will end up getting used later and not always appropriately, but I do love it. At worst, it just doesn't bother me. The new console room is strange, lending credence to the idea that TARDISes are living things (see Journey's End under Versions for more), and it's huge and strangely lit. We'll see more of it in the next episode. For now, all I can say is that I probably thought it looked too much like fiberglass when it originally aired, but that it stuck around so long, it became as acceptable as the original design. The thicker-set exterior is gorgeous though. The sonic screwdriver's new design is a bit discreet, like a pen-torch, but it's not something I care a whole lot about. Maybe I thought there were a couple of odd takes on familiar tropes, here and there, but certainly nothing I hated.
THEORIES: Those watching "Rose" back to try and spot a "Bad Wolf" reference will be disappointed, though you could certainly use Clive's speech as foreshadowing. He says the Doctor has a constant companion - Death! Well, Rose will become the actual companion and as the Bad Wolf will have control over life and death too. Is it a coincidence that he's the only character with a speaking part to die in the whole episode, and that he had contact with Rose prior to his shopping trip? Over the course of the rest of the series, RTD will be training us to spot patterns, many of which were meaningless. However, watching Rose "googling" the Doctor and narrowing down her search did bring to mind the "Narrow it down" scene in World War Three. Was the Doctor also using some kind of TARDIS-Net (Matrix) search engine there too?!
REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Why not High? Well, "Rose" does the job it was made to do, and that's introducing the Whoniverse to a completely new audience. Once it's done that job, seeing it again can be a more tedious affair, especially since the plot is so thin. Still, lots of great moments to revisit in there.