Billie Piper’s character of Rose is the biggest triumph of Russell T. Davies’ first Doctor Who episode, entitled Rose.
How do you revive a forty-two-year-old television series, with twenty-six seasons and one TV movie worth of backstory and a dedicated fan base that has been keeping the flame burning for sixteen years? Doctor Who is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the one character who is the hero of the biggest collection of books in print (only Sherlock Holmes comes close). How do you reintroduce the series to a new audience with entirely different sensibilities than viewers had in 1989?
One way is to dump the fan base and reboot the series, starting from scratch and using the basic concepts of the old to fuel the new, as is the case of Battlestar Galactica, but Doctor Who producer and lead writer Russell T. Davies didn’t want to jettison the fan base. And he realized he shouldn’t have to. The Doctor pilots a time machine that can go anywhere and anywhen in the universe. Thanks to the most flexible format in fiction, you can take a holiday from the old continuity without abandoning it entirely.
So Christopher Eccleston is the Doctor. He’s does not play a rebooted character, he plays the ninth incarnation of the character, with all of the history of the eight actors (as recognized by the canon) before him. So, you’ve kept the fans. How do you win new ones? For Doctor Who to succeed, you can’t burden new viewers with twenty-six years of history. How do you introduce the series’ concepts without driving people away?
You start with Rose.
Russell T. Davies turns the companion stereotype on its head. Instead of someone who says “what is it, Doctor?” so that the Doctor can explain to the audience what is happening, Rose acts out for us “what the hell is going on?!”. By sticking close to Rose’s point of view, we the audience get thrown with her into the middle of one of the Doctor’s adventures. Do we not know who the Doctor is? Or how the aliens came to be there? Or how the Doctor dreamt up the solution of using anti-plastic? That’s okay: Rose is out of her depth as well. Be out of her depth with her as she struggles to keep up. As an “in” on the concept, Rose succeeds.
The new Doctor Who has been updated for modern sensibilities. One of the elements of the old program that has been sacrificed — at least, for this pilot — is its Gothic pace. Rose starts at breakneck speed. In the span of a minute and in a series of about nine clips, we are introduced to Rose’s mundane life. I could have used more time getting to know the girl and how fundimentally bored she was with her life, before she finds herself in a department store’s basement in mortal peril. This is almost a flaw, because at that point we don’t really know who Rose is and why we should care about her, but the character development catches up as the episode proceeds.
What makes the new Doctor Who the same as the Doctor Who of old is Russell T. Davies’ mix of humour and horror. The best moment of the show was just after the Doctor binged an Auton copy of Rose’s boyfriend with a champagne cork. Rose screams once. Then when the Doctor pulls the head off her copied-boyfriend and the head speaks to him — a moment when Rose would be expected to scream a second time — a male extra lets loose instead.
This is a moment of pitch-perfect comic timing, perpetuated by the sequence with the headless Auton trashing the restaurant — an image that is both funny and creepy.
The death of Clive Exposition however, hammers home the horror. Despite having not much reason to exist beyond giving Rose and the new audience some backstory on the Doctor, he’s a likable character, and then he gets shot in the head. Kudos to Russell for using a throw-away character for more than just plot development. Bringing Clive back not only meant one fewer extra, it gave us time to invest emotionally in him, giving us a moment where we’re forced to say “this is not funny anymore.”
The horror/humour balance seen in here in Rose is what most links the new Doctor Who to the old. It’s also something quite rare on American television at the moment, and it should give the new audience reason to tune back in.
I have a few quibbles. I do think that the music was too intrusive in places. And I was also thrown by the break-neck pace of the opening. But I understand the restrictions that the television medium places on the production, and I credit Russel T. Davies for getting his ideas into our heads in such a short period of time.
Thus the new Doctor Who is a triumphant balancing act, designed to introduce a new audience to the concept without throwing the old series away. It captures some (but not all) of the elements that so endeared the old program to me, and it works as a stand alone hour of television designed to appeal to the masses. There is no doubt: Doctor Who is back.
Eccleston’s Quick Departure Planned?
There has been much controversy over Christopher Eccleston’s quick departure as the new Doctor. Although the concept of replacing the lead actors for the role is well known, most of the actors had some time in which to make the character theirs. With only one season under his belt, and possibly next year’s Christmas special, Christopher Eccleston has the equivalent of twenty-eight old-series episodes to his name. By comparison, the next shortest-lived Doctor, Colin Baker (number 6) had forty-four. Tom Baker, the Doctor everybody remembers, had seven seasons and 172.
However, in recent news, the BBC has apologized to Eccleston for allowing news of his departure to leak out. Apparently it was supposed to be much more of a surprise.
Meaning that Eccleston’s departure was planned. Meaning that this was not an unexpected disaster, and that Russell T. Davies is being very clever.
Doctor Who’s concept of regeneration — the ability to fundimentally change the appearance and the character of the Doctor midstream — is a big part of the series. The dramatic blow of the death and rebirth of the main character is something no other show can duplicate, but it’s a big element to just dump on the audience.
You may recall the TV movie that appeared on the BBC and Fox back in 1996, and how the whole regeneration angle ate the first half of the movie. Despite this, the change from Sylvester McCoy to Paul McGann didn’t have the impact on the general audience than it had on the fans, making it a time waster that detracted from the story.
So… producer Russell T. Davies casts Eccleson for one year, gives the audience time to invest emotionally into the character, and then kills him off! That gives the concept of regeneration the dramatic kick it needs.
And now we can speculate on who will be Doctor #10.