How do you reinvent a TV series, originally screened over forty years ago, for the Internet and mobile phone generation? How do you take something quintessentially British and try and sell it to a nation and a world that has changed beyond recognition since it was last broadcast? Is such a resurrection a good thing, or is it best just to let sleeping dogs lie?
I think all of these questions and more must have been eating away at the back of my mind as the time approached for the first broadcast of a new TV episode of Dr Who in nearly sixteen years. I had read some damning reviews from fans that’d managed to find this episode on the Internet, but to balance this out were some cracking trailers in the last couple of weeks before kick-off. But still, a little lump of anxiety was buried within me as the time came to finally see the finished result. No chance of appealing to dodgy production values of pirated copies now, I thought.
The title sequence was encouraging; there was the familiar Ron Grainer/ Delia Derbyshire soundtrack, jazzed up a bit for stereo broadcast. The imagery of the Tardis flying through the vortex was somewhat reminiscent of the Sylvester McCoy era although the spirit it portrayed was frenetic as opposed to self-satisfied. The opening shots of Earth from space and then plunging down into Rose’s bedroom were also a nice touch. This set the viewer up nicely for meeting the new assistant.
A good start then.
Rose is very different from the Doctor’s previous assistants. She works in a department store and has a boyfriend called Mickey who dotes on her in his own way. The nearest equivalent to her would be Alison, the assistant to Richard E. Grant’s Doctor in ‘Scream of the Shalka.’ Both are ordinary working class women who are bored of the humdrum lives they lead on Earth. Both have very wet, annoying boyfriends and with Rose there is also her mother, played brilliantly by Camille Coduri. Jackie has brought Rose up by herself and they live on a council estate in London, she is always looking out for Rose in ways which are uniquely her own. When Rose escapes from the department store she works at after the Doctor firebombs it, Jackie is adamant that she should sue for compensation for traumatic stress.
Then there is the Doctor himself, played by Christopher Eccleston. I must admit I was apprehensive when I saw the publicity stills: He just didn’t look like the Doctor I thought. No woolly scarves or Edwardian Frock Coats here, just a beaten up leather jacket and a pair of jeans. I needn’t have worried; Chris Eccleston’s Doctorishness comes out in his personality instead.
This Doctor, as fits the pace of the show, is acerbic and frenetic by turns, but not condescending in the way Pertwee’s Doctor was for example. He stumbles across Rose whilst in the middle of a mission to stop the Nestene consciousness from taking over the Earth. He comes across as very disparaging and a little scary at first: “Don’t tell anyone about me as they’ll only end up dead,” he tells Rose, shortly before detonating a bomb on top of her work place.
Rose cannot help but tell others about the Doctor and after another couple of odd encounters she searches out stuff about the Doctor on the Internet. (A little parody here, surely!) She comes up with a site run by a conspiracy theorist called Clive. “Doctor Who? Have you seen this man?” Clive is married with children but Mickey insists on waiting outside in the car whilst Rose goes to visit him, ‘just in case’. The irony of this is well played out as it is a prologue to the by now notorious scene of Mickey being eaten by a wheelie-bin.
Rose is greeted at the door by Clive’s sarcastic son who announces that ‘another one of your nutters is here to see you!” Clive tells Rose that the Doctor is a mysterious character who pops up throughout history in times and places where trouble is about to strike. Here I have to agree with the critics that the photo-shopped picture of the Doctor at Kennedy’s assassination is awful. But, like most of the criticisms levelled so far at the show so far, it is misplaced: For I think it gels well within the context of the scene. Rose is dubious about Clive and naturally alarmed when he tells her that he believes the Doctor to be an alien from another planet. Dodgy photo shopped pictures would seem appropriate from someone whom she sees as either deranged or a charlatan. She returns to the car telling Mickey that he was right after all and that he was a nutter.
Mickey meanwhile has been replaced by an Auton double after being eaten by a wheelie bin. Many have criticised this scene for having poor CGI and for being unconvincing. I think these people need a sense of humour transplant- is there any special effect in the world that would make a wheelie bin look fearsome? And the follow up, where Rose sits next to a shiny reproduction of her boyfriend is actually very funny as well as disturbingly weird. I think the comedy elements work better than the horror elements and given the pace and the fact that it was a complete story meant that there was little time for tension to develop.
The plot is really just a loose framework around which the Doctor and Rose are introduced to us and to each other. In this way the use of shop dummies that come to life as the first monster to be confronted was an astute one. The Autons facilitate the transition from the ordinary to the extraordinary in the story line and provide a continuity link for the new Doctor.
Opinions about Eccleston’s portrayal of the Doctor seem to be mixed at the moment. For example, at my work place today one of our admin workers was saying how she enjoyed the show but wasn’t completely taken with Chris Eccleston yet as he is so different from previous Doctors. I remain optimistic however. There is a wonderful scene of the Doctor explaining to Rose how he can feel the Earth turning beneath his feet, can feel the planet racing through the universe at thousands of miles per hour. Some of this seems reminiscent of Paul McGann and then there are other parts where he reminds me of Sylvester McCoy. But I think he is a more compassionate Doctor than Sylvester’s; he at least tries to reason with the Nestene before destroying them. He doesn’t trick them into blowing up their home world, but pleads instead for the people of Earth. I think this is important, it shows that despite the action heavy plot there is still some room for the Doctor to retain some heroism.
One cannot of course have the Doctor without his Tardis and it is interesting how Russell T. Davies introduces us to the famous blue telephone box. In the original series the Tardis is first seen in a scrap yard, here it is left parked on a housing estate. Rose, unlike the characters in the original Who story, does not know what a police telephone box is. The Doctor explains what it is to her; ‘a disguise’, which amuses her given its general incongruity. When she first enters the Tardis she runs straight out again and then does a circle round the outside in disbelief. This was interesting to me as I grew up with the middle period of Doctor Who’s history, where the concept of bigger on the inside was already well established. It was fantastic to watch this concept being delivered a new.
The inside of the Tardis is very impressive, a major departure from not only how it was portrayed in the original series but also the TV movie. The Tardis really is huge inside and seems very powerful and alien. It handles short trips better than it used to, the Doctor uses it very much like a car in this episode. ‘Its not just a London hopper you know,’ he says to Rose near the end. “Did I mention it travels in time?”
This last bit is enough to tempt Rose to take up the Doctor’s offer of a place in the Tardis. In this way she is like the audience, being invited to come on a journey. This first story was in the classic science fiction mould of ‘they come to us’, now we are being invited out to visit them in return. And you know what, I think I might just take them up on the offer!