Vizzini said to go back to the beginning. This is where Russell T. Davies began his reboot of Doctor Who, so here I am.
I previously wrote a bit about some of the Christopher Eccleston episodes over at my erstwhile blog Geek Philosophy (now incorporated into MaryAnnJohanson.com; the post that includes “Rose” is here). Those posts were written back when the show was new, when we’d heard that David Tennant was taking over the role but before we saw him as the Doctor. Now, we’re got a lot more perspective on what Davies was up, what this new Doctor Who was gonna do, and how deeply, geekily involving it was all going to be. So it’s high time for a look back.
It’s a measure of how deeply, geekily involved I’ve gotten with the new Doctor Who that I wasn’t at all upset to have had to wait almost a year after these episodes debuted in the U.K. to have a chance to watch them here, when they finally aired on the Sci Fi Channel in the spring of 2006. I wasn’t terribly optimistic, for one, that a new Doctor Who would be worth watching (even given that I was already a big of Eccleston as an actor). Now, I cannot tolerate waiting even a day. But then, it was all worse than an unknown quantity: it was something to be dreaded. There was no way in hell anyone could possibly redo Doctor Who right.
Except Russell Davies got it right.
Davies doesn’t start with the Doctor. He starts with a day in the life of Rose Tyler, all chips and mass transit and alarm clocks and meaningless makework and a boyfriend who’s concerned about her safety and well-being unless there’s a match on… and then the Doctor is there. The Doctor who spouts nonsense and uses a wicked grin to disarm and blows things up and has a spaceship that’s also a timeship and it’s bigger on the inside.
Rose is bored with her life, and then something exciting happens: the Doctor! Oh, how I’ve fantasized about that, and Russell Davies has too, of course: that’s why he framed our (re)introduction to the Doctor like this. Because in a lot of meta ways that will become more apparent in later episodes, this new Doctor Who is about us: we fans, and the longtime relationship we’ve had with the character and the show.
But this new Doctor Who is about the Doctor, too, in a way that the old show never was. The Doctor as a character never changed or grew, and he rarely seemed to be impacted in any great way by the things he’d done or seen or had done to him.
The Doctor is just as mysterious, in some ways, as he always was. He’s clearly been through something terrible when we meet him again here, yet we don’t get much hint of what except that there was a “war,” and that he’s torn up about stuff that happened during it: “I couldn’t save your world,” he tells the Nestene Consciousness, “I couldn’t save any of them.” He’s also a man who never before resorted to blowing things up, at least not as a first resort, and not after trying everything else he could. Arguably, we missed what would have been, in the old series, the first half of this story, the part that involved the Doctor discovering the problem that needed to be solved and trying to find the not-blowing-shit-up solution before conceding that only blowing shit up would do the trick. But that’s a marker of how different this new Doctor Who is, too: it skips over the bullshit and gets to the nub of the matter. Not that I mean that trying to find peaceful solutions is bullshit: I mean that we can take it as a given that the Doctor tries to find them and so we don’t need all that tedious narrative mucking about to get to a foregone conclusion.
I mean, even here, the Doctor can still say to Rose, about the Nestene Consciousness, “I’m not here to kill it — I’ve gotta give it a chance.” He still hasn’t learned that if you have to say something like that, it probably means that you do have to kill whatever it is.
But even while the Doctor keeps his secrets and his contradictions, he’s more human: or at least more a man, if still a Gallifreyan rather than a human one. The Doctor was never a man before — he was removed from humanoid concerns except on the grandest of scales. Save a planet? Sure. But when it came to saving individuals, you never got much of a sense that he put any one life much above another, not even those belonging to his supposed friends. He was aloof from any kind of real intimacy.
Now, he’s positively craving actual, real contact:
If handholding could be elevated to the level of pornography, then this new Doctor Who does it. Granted, it’s not much, as contact goes (or as porno goes), but it’s a helluva lot more than the Doctor’s former companions ever got (that we saw, at least).
And other characters see him as a man, too. Jackie hits on him!
And he knows that’s what she’s doing:
(The Doctor previously would have just ignored her. Not that the Doctor getting hit on is something that would have ended up in an episode, anyway… except, perhaps, in the most oblique way that could have been interpreted as such by only the dirtiest of fannish minds.)
He rejects her, of course. But that only makes it sting harder: he knows what he’s saying no to!
The thing is this: The Doctor has changed since we last saw him. Withholding information about this war business is good for suspense, naturally, and it explains sorta what the Doctor’s been up to since we last saw him. But the best thing about it is that it’s the best thing about Russell Davies’ reboot: He made the Doctor the real man we fans always had to imagine he was. He’s a mess, but that’s progress, too: You really could not have ever honestly characterized the Doctor as even a mess before.
He’s not even sure what to do about Rose. He likes her — he likes her right away, with her smart hypothesis about the walking mannequins being some sort of student prank, with her insistence on being told everything about the living plastic situation — but then he tells her to forget him, and he walks away from her. He’s wants company and contact, but he doesn’t know how to cope with it. Later, though, he asks Rose to come travel with him, and that’s something he never would have done before, either — people ended up with him accidentally, not because he particularly wanted their company. She saved his life, she’s clearly smart and good in a spot of trouble — he must have noticed how she kept her head when Auton-Mickey lost his, and set off the fire alarm to clear the restaurant and keep people from getting hurt. Maybe it’s just that he’s having such a good time and he wants to share it.
Random thoughts on “Rose”:
• The Doctor takes his coffee white, no sugar…
• This is the first look the Doctor is getting of his new self:
It seems wildly implausible to me that he could have regenerated and not gotten a glimpse of himself up till this point. I’d love to have some more details.
Also: Clive has images of this ninth incarnation of the Doctor doing things he cannot have done yet, if he’s only just regenerated into this form… and they’re things that we did not see him doing (like witnessing JFK’s assassination, or befriending a family in Southampton in 1912). Which means there’s lots of room for fan fiction!
• And our first look at the TARDIS in the new series:
Rose’s, too, though she doesn’t realize it…
• That search engine that Rose uses to google the Doctor, Search-Wise.net, is a “prop” search engine, cleared for use on film and television productions. If you try to actually use it to search, you end up at a page listing all the other fake sites the same company offers for production use, including Defending the Earth, a site that has appeared repeatedly on Doctor Who (and has lots of fun “content” to explore). Neat.
• Clive’s wife is surprised that Clive’s Web site about the Doctor drew the attention of a woman? Interesting… Perhaps it’s just Internet nutters with conspiracy theories to investigate who usually bother Clive (and we all know Internet nutters tend to be men). Perhaps all the actual women who traveled with the Doctor and are still living in London — like Sarah Jane Smith — are protecting the Doctor’s secret…
• Mickey must be really dumb if Rose doesn’t even notice that he’s been replaced by plastic, or else she simply doesn’t care much about him to ever pay him much attention…
• I love it that when Auton-Mickey’s head pops off in front of the couple sitting at the table in restaurant, and then the Auton-Mickey head talks, it’s the guy who screams, not the girl.
• The Doctor is wearing a watch:
Is it just a fashion accessory? An affectation? Or does it serve some mysterious purpose we’ve yet to be clued in to?
• First mention of the Shadow Proclamation!
• Great quotes:
“That won’t last: she’s gay and he’s an alien.” –the Doctor, as he flips through a celebrity gossip magazine
“If you are an alien, how come you sound like you’re from the North?” –Rose
“Lots of planets have a north!” –the Doctor
“The assembled hoards of Genghis Kahn couldn’t get through that door, and believe me, they’ve tried.” –the Doctor, about the TARDIS door (What could the Doctor have done to piss off Genghis Khan?)
(next: Episode 2: “The End of the World”)