Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: Rose

By Jim Smith on 29 April 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

‘Rose’ starts out as normal television and slowly and inexorably turns into ‘Doctor Who’.  To take this approach is intelligent, brave and not something that I was expecting, to be entirely honest. But then I was hoping to love it anyway, and there’s a far tougher audience than me waiting for our show out there; people who need to be seduced if they’re going to succumb to this most peculiar of institutions.

The gaudy zip, edge of camp and slightly hyper attitude to the mundanities of ordinary life that dominate a certain kind of contemporary British TV are very much in evidence in the early minutes of this opening episode. In it we, the audience, follow Billie Piper’s surprisingly effective and endearingly puppy-ish Rose Tyler as she goes about her ordinary, everyday, about-to-be-turned-upside-down, life.

The alien-invasion plot, a use of most of the story elements of 1970’s ‘Spearhead from Space’ that didn’t make their way into the abortive 1996 ‘TV Movie’, is largely irrelevant here. It merely provides backdrop for the growing, oddly platonic, love-at-first-sight relationship that develops between Rose and Christopher Eccleston’s, grinning, bewildering, jug-eared and utterly alien Doctor.

More urban than urbane, a desperate, brightly difficult and instantly effective presence, Eccleston does all the things that we’ve rarely seen this impressive, yet often dour, actor do. He’s funny. He smiles. He flirts. He runs and fights and laughs and shouts ‘Fantastic!’ in a way that makes it seem he means it. He even delivers lines of dialogue that obliquely refer to involved off-screen backstory elements without batting an eyelid.

For most of its long life ‘Doctor Who’ was an odd fusion of ordinary television and itself. That’s something that we who love it have lost sight of in the years it’s been away, looking at it as a genre of its own, and a thing unto itself, and it isn’t either. It really isn’t.

It’s always a product of its time, whatever time that is, kin to whatever other TV is being made around it. (Even that TV movie is like a clueless Anglophile  ’The X-Files’.) For ‘Doctor Who’ to leap out of the gate like a cross between ‘Casanova’ and Barry Letts shouldn’t be a surprise then, but it is.

The  tone oscillates wildly, from near enough out-and-out horror, to bouncy comic farce and from scowling council estate melodrama to fantastical space adventure, throwing in a couple of other sub-genres on the way. This is initially difficult to get a handle on. It’s something I appreciate in ‘Teachers’ et al and applaud in television generally, but it’s deeply weird to see it applied to something like ‘Doctor Who’.  Because UK television has long lacked anything that’s like ‘Doctor Who’.

There are nods to all three decades of ‘Doctor Who’ in these forty five minutes, from mentions of November 1963 to a setting that recalls the series ‘1989 finale, ‘Survival’ in its use of real life London in a casually fantastical way. There’s also a well-deserved, well-managed swipe at certain elements of fandom thrown in there too.

These are all also good. It’s time for ‘Doctor Who’ fans, of which I am unequivocally one, to let their programme go. Not completely you understand, not to the point where we don’t watch it any more, but still to a greater, rather than lesser, extent. This is everyone’s programme again and that’s the very best thing of all.

Next Episode: The End of the World.

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