Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting ROSE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting ROSE

Tony Fyler returns to the start of the run!
Doctor Who turns sixty in 2023.

There are many points in its history at which the show could have died, becoming one of those cult classics remembered only as a show that once existed, rather than a show that’s alive and thriving and making new fans with every year that passes.

Twice in its history, it stumbled into that abyss, and might never have returned.

As we come full circle in 2023, getting not one but two new Doctors and two new beginnings, with the return of Russell T Davies to the big chair for a brand new renaissance of the show, it feels as though the time is right to re-watch the stories that built the success we’re celebrating.

The RTD1 years.

And it all began with a very different Doctor Who story.

The thing to keep in mind is that in 2023, as well as it being an anniversary for all the hardcore Classic Who fans, millions of fans who have been captivated by the show since 2005 will be celebrating the old-new evolution of what we’re still, with some degree of perversity, calling New Who too. We’ll be celebrating not only the history of the show stretching back to 1963, but in particular the 21st century energy of reinvented Doctor Who that only came about because of the commitment of Russell T Davies.

And the public at large, as well as the hardcore fan base, know about Doctor Who now. They sort of knew about it in the Classic years too, but now it’s as much a part of the pop culture zeitgeist as it was during the early years of Dalekmania, when suddenly everyone was getting to grips with time, space, the Tardis, and the Pepperpots of Death known as the Daleks. That level of cultural awareness is where we are as we head into the RTD2 era.

Back in 2005, that was very much not the case. The show had been off the air for almost a decade, and while the likes of Virgin, BBC Books, and ultimately Big Finish had kept the flame alive, there was a very great difference between their hardcore fan audience and the general public, who had to be persuaded to care about the show again.

Before Rose was broadcast, there had been a relatively rapid sequence of PR trails. We knew that Christopher Eccleston (famous at the time for his hardcore dramatic performances and his equally hardcore socialist politics) was going to be the Ninth Doctor. That was an anchor-point of curiosity for the public. Eccleston? Doctor Who? It was both intriguing and persuasive that at least the BBC were taking the show dead seriously.

We knew that, contrary to almost all of the previous Doctors since the First, his outfit would look more or less like “just clothes” rather than “wacky alien outfits.”

We knew that Billie Piper, the former teen pop sensation, would be joining him as the companion – a move that worried some people, given she was relatively untested as an actress at that point. We knew that the Tardis would still look like a police box, and would still make a wheezing, groaning sound. And we knew there would be lots of running from evil aliens.

That was about it.

When Rose debuted, the risks involved in resurrecting Doctor Who were huge. The TV Movie of 1996 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 Doctor Who in the 21st century, what it would be, and what it would bring to viewers both old and hopefully new.

If tone 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 of the episode are a masterclass in economic storytelling, taking us through a day in the life of this ordinary Earth girl. And watched with 17 years of hindsight, it’s immediately apparent how different Rose is in her first episode to the confident woman she became. She’s a teenager with a really grotty bedroom, and more front than confidence.

Another new thing that’s immediately apparent is that she has a home. We’d seldom seen companions in their home environment in Doctor Who before – they were almost by necessity divorced from those connections to a time and a place. And there were people connected to her – a nagging mother and a 21st century horndog boyfriend. Rose was a fully realised modern young woman, relatively unchallenged and . 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, 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 (including the news that the Doctor is a survivor of war, with all the guilt that entails).

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 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 Doctor’s wife, the Impossible Girl, to Yasmin Khan (the Girl Who Wanted?) 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.

The choice of the Nestenes and Autons as the first 21st century villain allows for a perfect blend of heritage and newness – the Nestenes ushered in the era of Doctor Who in colour with Jon Pertwee, and they ushered in the era of Doctor Who with contemporary relevance under Christopher Eccleston. If you watch their performance, it’s unnerving how much more realistic the Autons look in Rose than they did in either of their Pertwee-era outings. The Nestene has, somewhat thankfully, ditched its octopoidal look, and is now an impressive vat of roiling CGI goo. We will be bringing back some Classic era villains, it said, but they may well look different (and probably better) than how you remember them. You’re going to want to keep watching.

And there’s also some deeply dodgy camp humour in Rose – the burping wheelie bin, the plastic Mickey with cartoonish sledgehammer-hands. At the time it was broadcast, some of these elements made old fans groan, being slightly reminiscent of Graham Williams/Douglas Adams era humour.

But they were there on purpose – silly humour would be part of new Doctor Who just as much as more involved family backgrounds and the Doctor as someone who has seen impossible, horrifying things that affected them personally, because in the 21st century, Russell T Davies knew you had to balance the operatic with the commonplace, and the darkness with silly gags (we only had to wait a handful of weeks before the sentence “D’you mind not farting while I’m saving the world?” would be etched into Doctor Who legend forever).

Competent companions, dramatic Doctoring, contemporary mindsets, Classic villains, new technology and budgets, full darkness and silly gags – when it hit screens, Rose, and new Doctor Who, had everything it needed to succeed in the 21st century.

The 2023 specials are a kind of bubble universe of their own, because they’re aimed more or less squarely down the tube at fans who have history with the show – the return of Tennant, Tate and the gang, the likely return of a one-shot Classic villain and a storyline taken from a classic comic-strip.

But what will the RTD2 era really bring when Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson start their journey?

We’ve had some hints. Possibly a multiverse of side-shows, the like of which we’ve fantasized about for generations. Possibly even things like an Unbound series, allowing for non-chronological or non-canonical Doctors to strut their stuff. We’ll have to wait and see. But one thing we know as a guaranteed certainty. If there’s one person in television today who can judge what the show needs to take it forward beyond its sixtieth anniversary, it’s Russell T Davies.

We know that because he’s already created the zeitgeist once before. And he did it with Rose.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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