Department store worker Rose Tyler meets a mysterious Manc known only as ‘the Doctor’ when Autons invade her workplace.
I remember the excitement of Saturday 26th March 2005 very well. Like Rose, I was working in a shop, my life not really going anyhere. It was an incredibly long day, and I was clock-watching fairly constantly.
A week before I had watched the last (existing) Doctor Who story that I had never seen. I had seen all the others at least once years before, but one story always eluded me. I’d managed to miss every showing on UK Gold, and not got around to buying the video until now. That story was the Jon Pertwee classic, The Time Monster
Clearly I was aware of The Time Monster‘s reputation, but that wasn’t the only reason I wasn’t in a hurry to watch it. I also liked having one story still to out there. But now it didn’t matter any more, because Doctor Who was back. The expectation was huge, and all I asked for was for it to be utterly perfect.
The signs were promising: The new Doctor, noted British actor Christopher Eccleston, was talking enthusiastically about reading up on the series mythology; and honing his craft in the theatre between filming each series. A copy of Arena magazine, that I bought solely for the Doctor Who article, said it was like ‘the Tom Baker golden age with high-end special effects’; and Russell T Davies kept saying everything was ‘marvellous’.
So I took the new blank VHS cassettes I’d bought out of their cellophane wrappers and sat down to watch the first new Doctor Who in nine years. Now that the series has been back that long it doesn’t seem like a long time, but it bloody did back then.
The opening shot, zooming in on London from space seems to set it the stall for the new series; epic, polished and entirely focused on Earth. The story is at break-neck speed from the start, but it’s great that it slows down sufficiently to create creepy menace when Rose is in the cellar. The Autons slowly come to life and her dawning realisation that she is danger. Then the cartoony music undercuts things a bit once the Doctor turns up and they’re running away. I do think Henrik’s could invest in a uniform or dress code for their employees. Rose’s casual hoody doesn’t really mark her out as a member of staff. I’m not sure I’d know to ask her where to find something if I was perusing their wares.
The new Doctor is very promising in his first scene. He’s in charge, has a plan and is tackling the Nestene menace head on. He’s his own man, who eschews the help of mere humans. How things will soon change.
The Nestenes are a great alien to bring back the series back with. In their first two appearances, Spearhead from Space and Terror of the Autons, they are not lumbered with a complex backstory like the Daleks or Cybermen. There’s no civilisation sketched in like there is for Ice Warriors or Sontarans. Without the weight of continuity to crowbar in, or disregard, the story can focus on Rose and her induction to the Doctor’s world.
Clive is a great character. Could Russell T Davies have known women would take to Doctor Who in the twenty-first century like never before? He was clearly aiming for it with his focus on Rose’s family and her feelings. Clive’s wife’s amazement that a girl would be on the internet reading about the Doctor dates this episode more than anything else. Women now make a massive contribution to Doctor Who debate and opinion online. Had he survived a few more years to the explosion of social media, would Clive have been on Twitter and Tumblr? I think he would totes have shipped Ten and Rose. Clive’s death in the shopping centre is quite shocking. He’s shot in the face in front of his wife and child. It’s not clear when he looks around with more alarm that anyone else at the waking shop dummy Autons and says, “It’s all true. Everything I read, all the stories, it’s all true,” whether his researches have turned up information about the previous two Nestene invasions; but it’s nice to think he is aware of rumours of walking shop dummies.
Rose’s introduction into the TARDIS interior is very well-handled. As has been widely pointed, a huge improvement on the immediate reveal of the TV Movie. A whole new generation learns the secret with her, and it’s done with a great, sweeping crane shot.
Some of the humour is very broad in this episode. More broad probably than ever before in the series. The Auton arm throttling the Doctor while Rose makes a coffee, the burping wheelie bin the and one look-around too many that the Doctor does when failing to identify the London Eye as huge round dish. Besides the flatulent Slitheen in Aliens of London, this kind of thing thankfully settles down a lot over the course of the series.
I quite like the Doctor’s brittle aloneness here, and in hindsight it’s a pity the character softens fairly quickly, at least towards Rose. His total disregard for Mickey’s life and describing Rose as ‘wittering’ make him seem like Hartnell, Pertwee or Tom Baker on a moody day. Not as good clearly, but that kind of attitude. It helps the character seem more alien, and still feels like he needs that, as we’re battling against the Manc accent.
The scenes of the mass Auton activation are very well done, effectively recreating the classic scenes of the seventies, but this time they could afford to break the shop windows.
Rose’s callous disregard of Mickey, purely because he has an understandable shock at meeting hostile aliens, makes her seem very selfish. If anything this reaction makes him more interesting and human. As with the original run, the successive companions have become increasingly blase about aliens and danger over the years. Billie Piper actually does well with making the character likeable despite the shabby way she treats her boyfriend. This was a deliberate decision.
In her autobiography Growing Pains (2006, Hodder and Stroughton) (look, I only bought it because it was down to 50p in WH Smith) she says ( I thought I could sell it on eBay):
“Russell doesn’t just show women as sweet, emotional, happy-go-lucky. He shows them as needy and manipulative and conniving. Rose was all of those things and also insecure.”
(I only read the [Doctor Who](series:200668) chapters).
This is a strong, fast-paced story. It’s good to have the Doctor mid-adventure because there isn’t time to do much else. I prefer the new series when it’s this kinetic and moves around from location to location like this. I think one of the reasons I find The End of Time and The Time of the Doctor so unsatisfying is how static they are. Too much standing around and grand-standing. If Matt Smith’s exit had the energy of his debut, it would have been a far more exciting, memorable exit.
For completists, Charlie Higson’s ebook The Beast of Babylon is set in the gap between the Doctor leaving Rose and Mickey in the alley and returning to tell her the TARDIS is a time machine.
Next: The End of the World.
Originally posted on my blog, Trap One.