There are debuts, and then there are debuts. The risks involved in resurrecting Doctor Who in the 21st century were huge. The TV Movie had shown that even the most well-intentioned attempts to bring back the Doctor could flounder and die in the age of the internet, mobile phones, new lads and ladettes. Aliens wandering around looking like Bill Hickock, companions who screamed and needed rescuing all the time, cackling villains and monsters that looked like cruet sets all began to seem a bit twee, a bit 20th Century.
The reinvention of the show in 2005 would probably be the last throw of the Doctor Who dice. If it didn’t work this time, it would probably be regarded as an idea whose time had come and gone.
Under that sort of pressure, every decision about that first new season was crucial. Every decision about the first story had to be about establishing the viability and the tone of Who in the 21st century, what it would be, and what it would bring to viewers both old and hopefully new.
If the tone was what was all important about Rose, take a look at it from the start. First of all…it’s called Rose. It declared to the world “The age of sweet little girlies who twist their ankle and have to be rescued by the alien knight errant is done. Companion – front and centre.” The first three minutes are a masterclass in economic storytelling, taking us through a day in the life of this ordinary Earth girl. Another new thing – she had a home. We’ve seldom seen companions in their home environment. And there were people connected to her – a mother, a boyfriend who really couldn’t dance. She was a fully realised modern young woman. By the time we’re five minutes in, the shop dummies at her place of work had started creepily chasing her, and Who fans around the country punched the air at the return of the Autons. But crucially, people who weren’t Who fans were already entirely absorbed, because in those first five minutes, Rose had wound us around her little finger with her likeable ordinariness. Halfway through the fifth minute, it looks like Rose has had it – then a hand reaches out, grips her own. A grinning maniac appears. “Run!” he commands, and off they go.
And off we go with them.
That’s how you reinvent Who for the 21st century. Funny, dark, creepy, mad and running, always running. The banter between Eccleston and Piper popped, a mixture of silliness and solemnity all the way, but always obeying the rules of good screenwriting – advance the plot, deepen the characters, make us care and stop us switching over. This was Who like we’d only seen before at the highest points of the Classic series, but delivered with a pace, an economy and an equality that was bang up to date and altogether new.
The newness continued to set out a blueprint for 21st century Who – Rose’s mother wasn’t someone she could just run away from to join the alien and see the universe, a thread had to be maintained, leading to what some fans call the “soapification” of the show. All this really means is a brand new rooting of the science fiction and the fantasy in the realities of modern life – an absolute necessity to address the previous lack of dimensions in the companions’ lives. When we meet Rose, she’s clearly in a normal, 19 year old, sexual relationship with Mickey too – another brave new direction for a show famous for its previous asexuality. The Doctor is mythic, so the companion has to be our touchstone, and for that we need to connect with them, which meant for the first real time in the show’s history, they had to be believably real.
The reality of our modern world was given another expression too: the Doctor’s past on Earth is not only acknowledged, it’s confronted in real, modern terms by Clive the conspiracist, using the internet to try and unravel the mystery of the Doctor. He’s also a useful device for those brand new to the show, to give them a primer in the character’s essentials – the Doctor lives a long life, travels in time, and changes bodies. He goes everywhere. And Death is his constant companion.
It’s all there, including the shiver down the spine. Even today, as we prepare for the debut of Capaldi, you can watch Rose and get completely up to speed with the essentials of the show and the character.
The episode though starts with Rose, and has Rose stamped right on the cover of it, so it’s Rose who figures out where the Nestene is hiding. It’s Rose who takes the demented alien to task about melting her boyfriend’s head and brings him down to Earth. And ultimately, when the cleverest man in the room turns out to be not quite as clever as he thinks he is, it’s Rose who saves the Doctor and the world.
Rose is a debut on every level. New Doctor, new dynamic, brand new pace, new production values, new balance of writing between the comic and the deeply profound (if you’ve forgotten the “Earth revolving” speech in just ten years, you’re not the human being you think you are). But more than all that, Rose is the debut of a new audience, a female audience, who switched on out of curiosity, and stayed because the dodgy sexual politics of the past had been jettisoned, leaving a great show with a new sensibility where companions are special, where they’re capable, and where they’re right at the heart of the story. Rose spoke to a whole new generation of female viewers and turned them into Whovians, and she set a trend that goes on ten years down the line – through Doctor Jones, through the Supertemp, and the omnisexual con man who lives forever, through the Girl Who Waited and the Last Centurion, and on to the Impossible Girl and beyond. All the grandiose titles express an idea whose time had well and truly come. The Doctor was special, yes – but so were we, embodied in his travelling companions. Rose – the episode and the character - stamped the pattern of their DNA on 21st century Who, and we continue to reap the benefits to this day.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk