...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, January 26, 2009

Day 2946: DOCTOR WHO: Rose


With no PROPER series of Doctor Who on the telly this year, I had already decided that I would be getting Daddy Richard to go back and write reviews of all the stories that he missed out (because I hadn't started writing my diary yet!) when what should come along but The Doctor Who DVD files*.

Part one takes back to the very first adventure (well since I arrived, anyhoo) where Mr Dr Chris met Ms Billie Piper and everything changed!

The first thing to say about "Rose" is that it was and remains a cracking piece of television.

It's all but impossible to review this "as if it was on the night". We know now what we didn’t then, that the series would be a huge success, reshaping the whole idea of modern television, spawning a slew of imitators ("Robin Hood", "Primeval", "Merlin", "Demons") none of which can quite get the mix right in the way that "Rose" and all the Doctor Who that followed has done.

And yet, even standing on its own, "Rose" is really good. The pace is astronomical: never mind the time-travelling alien, we learn about Rose's whole life, her mother, her boyfriend, the inadequacies of her relationship, her unsatisfying life… and that's all in five minutes without dialogue.

In 1996, Paul McGann starred as the Doctor in what has come to be known as "the TV movie", or "Enemy Within" or "Grace 1999" though we prefer to call it "Time Waits for No Man" (which, at least, was on all of the advertising). As a "back door pilot", and an attempt to relaunch "Doctor Who" for a new audience, it did just about everything possible wrong: we start with the Doctor (the unknowable alien) as our central figure; we start inside the TARDIS (the impossible space-time craft) we start, in other words, just about as far away as possible from anything that might be recognised as the "real world", whatever that might be!

(And that's without mentioning the great galloping mouthfuls of infodump that Paul has to speak over the opening of the show, followed by brief appearances by the (old) Master and the Daleks as though they are supposed to mean something to the viewer. Though if you think that's bad, just wait for the bit where the Doctor gives Grace the entire potted history of himself, his ship and his enemy the Master in two sentences. Which is even more of a shame coming as it does right after the best line in the thing! (The one about shoes, obviously). Look, I'll be more positive about it if I ever review it!)

"Rose" gets it right by doing the complete opposite.

Actually, "Rose" gets it right because it's written by someone who has a grasp of how real people behave, how they talk and the sort of things they talk about. The recurring motif of "chips" as a metaphor for "ordinary human life" begins here. Where the McGann movie tries to thrust all of the answers at us, "Rose" reduces the key facts to one succinct exchange:

Rose: are you alien?

The Doctor: Yes. Is that okay?

Having begun with the assumption that we – like Rose Tyler, everyday shopgirl – know nothing about the Doctor, we follow her discoveries as he appears out of nowhere, rescues her from freaky walking dummies and then blows up her job. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? There's this blue box thing that we see a couple of times, and the camera seems to dwell on it like it's important, but what's that all about?

There are four moments where the plot – and the pounding incidental music – pause to highlight each crucial development.

After escaping from Henrick's basement the mysterious stranger shoos Rose away almost contemptuously, go back to your little life while I deal with the monsters. And he shuts the door on her.

And then, in the pause, he opens the door again to say:

"I'm the Doctor, by the way. Pleased to meet you, Rose Tyler. Run for your life!"

And then the music restarts and Rose scampers away, half turning to look back at the shop and then – and I like this – looking away so she actually misses the moment where Henricks (i.e. Harrods) explodes. (Blowing up a major London landmark on your first day out? Start as you mean to go on, I suppose.)

The next moment, the next point of transition or revelation if you like, is outside the TARDIS. Having just, literally, walked Rose though the plot, disguising the exposition as a walk in the park, and tossed in a couple of references to the war that's going on around us (it seems like an incidental detail at the time; oh how unprepared we were for the hugeness of things), but then the Doctor pauses and sets out what is probably the manifesto for the series emotional content.

He tells Rose that he feels the turning of the world.

It's the flip-side of what Paul Cornel will later describe as "burning at the centre of time"; it's the thing that sets him totally apart form everybody else. In fact we will learn (as soon as next week) that there aren't even any more of his own kind any more. The message of this scene isn't "I'm different" or "I'm scary", it is "I'm, lonely; utterly, utterly lonely".

We'll come back to this central emotion over and over again as the series goes on, and it's a brilliant conceit, actually, giving us a new dimension to a heroic character, like the way that Star Trek II turns about Kirk's emotions on getting older. And it's a continuing character thread because we know that change is in the DNA of this series: that companions, even Doctors, come and go. And so it seems completely natural and honest that the Doctor would miss them more and more. In fact, the surprise is that it hasn't been played more in the series' past, what with it going back all the way to the first Doctor losing his granddaughter Susan, and we see his loneliness several times, when Ian and Barbara leave and again when he thinks Steven has deserted him.

So it's only now, after introducing the Doctor and then giving us his emotional core, that we move to the biggie: the ventral point of the series that is "Doctor Who".

The reveal of the inside of the TARDIS, including that quote, is one of the perfect moments of television.

We know – we know because we were fans, or we know now because there's no one left in Britain who doesn't know – that it is bigger on the inside than the outside. But not really since "And Unearthly Child" in foggy November 1963 has the full stunning impact of the Doctor's just impossible machine been so hammered home. To Rose it is no more than a "blue hut", so when she runs in, convinced that the plastic monster that's after them will get them, she cannot believe it. And we don't see what she sees, only her against the interior doors and a sense that it doesn’t match the outside. And then she staggers back out and, in spite of the danger, has to gawp round the outside again to convince herself of – and tease us with – the fact that it is small. And then we see the inside. The full glorious slow crane shot. And the haunting Time Lord theme. It's a small still point to say: "look, this is something wonderful".

And then the pace cranks back up again, and Rose says something very human about Mickey, asks whether he's dead, and we're off again on the madcap chase across London to the Nestene Consciousness.

Almost without noticing, that still point has bridged us from Rose's world into the Doctor's.

The final moment comes at the end, obviously.

"Oh, did I mention it also travels in time."

Having teased us with an almost TV-movie-like "no I'll stay behind" moment, the Doctor returns to play his trump card. And Rose's slow-motion run towards the waiting doors speaks for all of us who by now, after the last forty-five minutes want to run away into this world of wild adventure.

"Rose" isn't completely perfect, of course, just very nearly. Ironically, it seems to be Eccleston who has the most wonky moments as he tries to do light and frothy and seems to be pushing it just a bit too hard. But then he'll do something completely brilliant, like the way just after he leaves Rose after the "turning of the world" and his face goes totally dead, like he knows he's just turned his back on life. So with hindsight it's difficult to say that it's Chris acting badly when it appears more likely that it is the Doctor who is acting, acting "normal", and doing it badly.

And Noel Clarke hasn't yet found his feet as Mickey, though in fact he is hilarious as the Auton Mickey (and doesn't it speak volumes about Rose's relationship that her boyfriend is replaced with plastic and she doesn't even notice! "I'm sorry, were we talking about me for minute there," she asks with total unselfconsciousness.) And actually, there's something slightly more endearing about the "wet" Mickey, something that isn’t as damaged as the one who he becomes later, defeated in love by a man with a time machine.

Not all the humour works. If your upset by a burping wheelie bin, then you've got no soul, but Auton Mickey's p-p-p-ppizza is a bit forced, and perhaps surprisingly "he's gay and she's an alien" seems a bit flat on re-hearing it. Having said that, the show would be nowhere without humour, and where it works, it's often priceless. ("It'll look like a transmitter: round and massive. It must be totally invisible." Rose just stares… etc!)

And you have to admit. the Auton Invasion at the climax does appear to consist of an attack on one shopping centre. Later, "Love & Monsters" will try to retcon this; and future episodes will get better at achieving a sense of true scale to planetary invasions. (Let's be fair and say that the series' success will let the producers demand the resources to achieve this properly.)

In spite of all that, though, this is really one of the best "invasion of modern day Earth" stories, because the invasion itself is almost incidental; it's about the ordinary people caught up in the Invasion. Some later stories will lose that, focusing instead on the bizarre and extraordinary people at the expense of the real. (Hands up the students of the Rattigan academy for not being audience identification figures!)

From here, Doctor Who is going to be utterly transformed into a huge, huge monster of a television show, its key episodes becoming must-see event telly, even its behind the scenes events becoming headline news. With that will come an urge to make the episodes bigger, glossier, louder, starrier. That hasn't happened yet, and in a sense that makes "Rose" a more naïve version of the series to come, and perhaps a better episode because of it.

"Rose" remains a terrifically good piece of television because everyone involved has put all that they could into making it not bigger and better than anything we've seen before, but just right.

*Now you might call this yet another part-work that mugginses sign up for, but I say think of it as an exciting new way to keep the money circulating and the credit crunch at bay while getting even more Doctor Who DVDs!



Andy said...

"future episodes will get better at achieving a sense of true scale to planetary invasions."

Yes, but to be honest I could do without the recurring device of rolling news channels telling us that an invasion is happening on a planetary scale. I prefer DW to be about claustrophobia than scale, myself. Maybe that's just me...

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I think I agree with Andy. Personally I have grown entirely weary of these Earth-in-peril plotlines and the complete failure to discuss how half a dozen alien invasions hasn't turned the UK into a police state (it's a shame SJA doesn't explore this either, what with the topicality regarding ID cards, etc).