Be careful what you wish for.
After years of wanting new Doctor Who stories on television, we fans finally got our wish in 2005 with a new series that starred Christopher Eccleston as the ninth regeneration of the Doctor. I remember feeling quite excited that the show was coming back with modern sensibilities and updated special effects.
Almost a year after the new Doctor Who series aired in the UK, I’ve purchased the newly-released Canadian DVD box set so that I can finally have a look at this new take on the old Doctor. I’ve tried to avoid too much spoiler information, but it’s impossible to avoid all details if you spend any time on the web, which of course I do. Consequently, while I was looking forward to the new series, I was prepared to be disappointed as well. I’ve read about the Doctor swearing, the flatulent aliens, the same-sex kiss, the Doctor having romantic inclinations towards Rose, the belching trash bin, etc., all of which are things the original series never delved into, and are not necessary to make Doctor Who fresh and successful. So I wondered whether the show would be worth watching and whether my favorite show had become another failed modern remake, bereft of the charm of the original series, despite the high ratings and generally good reviews.
Does it hit all the right notes? The answer is: mostly. As I opined to my wife after having seen the first seven episodes, the new show is generally good with objectionable bits. Obviously I like it well enough to have watched the episodes, and to watch the rest in time, but I can give few episodes gushing enthusiasm. It’s more of a restrained enjoyment for me. There’s a lot of room for improvement on the show. I do think the new theme arrangement is outstanding, probably the best since the Troughton/Pertwee/Baker version. The special effects, while not 100% convincing in some cases, are light-years ahead of the original series. The music is generally good, though it overwhelms the dialogue sometimes and ought to be a bit more restrained. The 45 minute format seems to work quite well, and we get an occasional two-parter, so we’ve not lost cliffhangers entirely.
Getting down to the story at hand, I have to say that “Rose” is generally quite good. I’ve watched it twice now, and it holds up well. It’s a pretty straightforward story. The Nestenes, having evidently lost their planet in the time war, are intent on taking the Earth for their own. The Doctor is trying to track them down and stop them. Rose Tyler gets dragged into events and like so many before her, ends up becoming involved in the Doctor’s life and traveling with him.
I’ve read a lot of ‘there’s no plot’ comments about “Rose”. The introduction of Rose is the plot, is it not? The Autons are important, but they dominate the last third of the story rather than the whole episode. We skip the Doctor’s discovery of the threat and the way he works out how to defeat said threat, but admittedly we’ve seen that before, many times. As viewers, we can get straight to the business of defeating the Autons, or we can take a fresh approach and join Rose as she continues to encounter and learn about the Doctor while he’s on the hunt for the hidden Nestene Consciousness. I’d rather take the latter journey. The notorious plot contrivance of ‘anti-plastic’ is admittedly a quick way to finish things off, but dropping it on the consciousness is the equivalent of poisoning someone. As such, it’s a concept that’s sci-fi in name only.
There are a number of good things about this episode. Showing us events from Rose’s point of view is exactly the right way to go about things. The quick view of her home/job/boyfriend/general daily routine is a very nice encapsulated display of her very ordinary life. Then we see the disruption of that life by the Autons and the plot gathers pace from there. This allows us as viewers to see events unfold from the outside along with Rose and identify with her rather than being thrown right away into the Doctor’s world. It’s not only appropriate to relaunch the series with a back to basics approach, but it doesn’t assume knowledge of prior stories. Both old and new viewers can follow along. Other nice touches in “Rose” include the use of Autons as the enemy of the week. Their use ties the new series in with the old right from the start, as do familiar sound effects like the TARDIS takeoff/landing sound and the Auton handguns. Rose’s use of the internet to gather information about the Doctor is a nice modern touch. Rose herself is a strong character, who gets scared, angry and confused, but also has it within herself to show some heroism when pushed. Billie Piper is quite good in the part.
Some not so nice touches include over-use of domestic life, which starts to get ‘soap-opera’-like at times. It’s restrained here in the first episode, and even somewhat appropriate given the need to show the ordinary life that Rose will (sort-of) leave behind, but it becomes intrusive later on in “Aliens of London”. Admittedly it is something new that we haven’t seen with prior companions, but I’m not sure I want to see too much more of it. If you’re going to travel, go travel for goodness sake! Enough with Jackie’s gossipy friends and Mickey’s goofiness. Why waste time on that when we could be seeing the universe? I watch Doctor Who for imagination and escapism. not fictionalized depictions of ordinary life.
Along those lines, the attempted seduction of the Doctor by Jackie was just silly. Introducing sex is an another attempt to make the show more ‘relevant’ and ‘adult’, much like Eric Saward’s tendencies towards including violence and high body counts were meant to make the show more ‘adult’. Both approaches come across as juvenile rather than serious. As do the flatulent aliens later on, but I’ll get to that nonsense when I review “Aliens of London”. The belch from the Auton trash bin is just as lowbrow and unwelcome.
Moving along, all of the plot and supporting characters are meaningless without a good Doctor, so how does Christopher Eccleston stack up with all of the other Doctors?
He’s a good actor, and very energetic. He’s a bit more cruel than past Doctors though. He’s very dismissive of humans in general, who have gone from ‘quite my favorite species’ (Ark in Space) to “stupid apes”. While the Doctor has criticized humanity in general in the past, this is certainly a harsher generalization and seems odd for the character. He does have character traits from past Doctors, reminding me of Pertwee on a bad day with his cutting remarks to several people and general short-temperedness. Skipping ahead a bit to “the Long Game”, his abandonment of Adam with the chip in Adam’s head seems especially cruel. Hartnell in the early days might have abandoned companions to their fate (as he suggests in “The Daleks”), but at least he had the excuse of trying to protect Susan. The Doctor grew out of that behavior trait, but seems to have regressed somewhat.
Eccleston’s Doctor does have the manic grin of Tom Baker’s version, though his take to the character is miles from Tom’s approach. Eccleston’s Doctor takes the ‘big picture’ view of history or a threat that reminds one of Hartnell or Tom Baker. The way he forgets Mickey reminds me of the fourth Doctor’s seeming disregard for Laurence Scarman’s death in Pyramids of Mars, where the good of the race is so paramount in the Doctor’s mind that individual deaths can’t be dwelt upon. However, in contrast to his seeming callousness, the 9th Doctor is still willing to risk his life for others, which says a lot for the selfless side of his nature. In short, I think Eccleston is generally playing the same character as all the others, with many of the same character traits, but with much less patience and likability. I presume a lot of his short temper is due to his losses in the Time War, which is clearly the backstory to just about every episode so far. He has survivor’s guilt and a lot of anger perhaps.
To wrap things up, “Rose” is a decent episode and a good start to the new series. It’s an improvement on the last few years of the original series, but does not hit the heights that the best serials of the old Doctor Who attained.