21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Rose

Sorry folks, but this review begins with one of those “I was there when...” anecdotes.

Oddly enough though, it's probably the most terrified I've been when watching Doctor Who, even more than when I was three years old and running out of the room screaming at the title music. No – this time, I was fearful of the much-touted revamp being a complete dog's dinner.

So there I was with my wife Ally, along with our friends Jacqui and Richard. It was, I think, the Saturday of the Easter weekend. We'd heard all about the big, exciting relaunch of Doctor Who, now bang-up-to-date for a 21st century take on a show that had once been scorned at for being cheap old hat. My expectations were not particularly high, to say the least.

Out of all of us, I was the only Doctor Who fan in the building. Ally, Jacqui and Richard had vague memories of Peter Davison and Colin Baker stories, but that was all. So they wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Meanwhile, all I could think about was whether we'd be sitting through a wretched 21st century version of Time And The Rani.

But you know what? They all enjoyed it. They liked the new Doctor. They thought that the plot was good, amusing fun. Ally and Jacqui vowed to stay away from shop window dummies for good. A good chunk of the British population enjoyed it too. About 10 million viewers tuned in, which is a hell of an achievement when you're broadcasting against popular Geordie munchkins Ant And Dec.

The hype seemed to have worked, since it was announced in 2003 that Doctor Who was to finally make a big comeback. Compare that with the reaction to the show from BBC controllers and the general public in the late 1980s – that's a gratifyingly big turnaround.

So how did this happen? After the TV Movie fiasco, fans thought the final axe had fallen. With swanky blockbuster films, the fans thought that there was no way that Doctor Who could match up – especially since the Beeb were back to their old tricks and dishing out the usual staple diet of crass, lowest-common-denominator schlock that wouldn't satisfy a class of playgroup kids in a million years.

Interestingly though, the tide was starting to turn in favour of fantasy drama. Not only were shows like Buffy and Angel hugely successful in Britain, there were also big, home-grown films, which were capturing the imaginations of kids everywhere. The most notable example is Harry Potter, a series of films about a raspy-voiced, bulgy-eyed toddler doing battle against a snarly Duncan Goodhew lookalike. Even though they took about 191 years to complete, there's no denying that the Harry Potter movies were a phenomenal success.

All of a sudden, programme makers were also slowly catching on to the fact that viewers wanted escapist drama rather than cheap 'n' nasty docusoaps. And by 2003, the BBC realised that they had a potential ratings hit which they'd left down the back of the sofa – with a bit of snazzy updating and the right creative team, it was possible that Doctor Who could become a popular phenomenon again.

Russell T Davies thought so too. Davies had made his name with a string of TV dramas and comedy dramas like Bob And Rose, Queer As Folk and The Second Coming. However, being a huge Doctor Who fan, Davies was keen to bring the show back to a brand new audience who had missed out on the antics of the ages-old time traveller. Fortunately, he got his wish, as in September 2003, he was given the green light to produce 13 brand new episodes of Doctor Who.

So here we are, 13-odd years down the line after Rose went out. It's hard to remember what it was like without Doctor Who on the telly. Everywhere you look nowadays, Doctor Who seems to be there. Not only on the telly, but on the web, in toy shops, DVD shops, bookshops – heck, I'm surprised that my next door neighbour isn't living in a TARDIS. Say what you want about RTD's handling of the show (and yes, there are some problems), but thanks to his constant pestering, Doctor Who's sticking around.

Rose itself, then.

A story that's theoretically impossible to achieve. Not only does it have to reintroduce the Doctor to a brand new audience, it's got to also relaunch a bit of background (the TARDIS etc), as well as introduce a new companion, her family, and a returning set of monsters. Oh, and it's also got to tell a story, too.

Furthermore, it has to do so in 45 minutes. Modern-day dramas normally tend to tell their stories in three quarters of an hour. That's just the way it goes these days. There's more of an emphasis on telling quickfire stories rather than dwelling too heavily on talky background infodumps. Doctor Who will largely follow this trend, although there will be about three two-part stories, which equate to the four parters in the old days.

Rose sets out the stall straight away for this new faster style of storytelling. There are what seem to be about a thousand different shots in the first minute alone, as the camera coolly pans from deep space to a close-up of the planet Earth before hurtling at a million miles an hour into the planet before reaching a bleary-eyed Rose in her bedroom. Cue several fast cuts of an average day in Rose's life. Gets up. Says goodbye to her mum. Goes to a thankless job at a department store. Breaks for lunch. Larks around with her goofy boyfriend, Mickey. Back to work. Gets bored. 5.00. All of that background told in the space of a minute – that's actually very clever storytelling, relying on fast visual images that manage to throw some light onto Rose's rather mundane life.

It's this sense of the mundane that tends to run through the new run of Doctor Who stories, particularly in the first series. It's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the Doctor shows Rose a life that's anything but mundane, taking her to far-away planets and showing her new life-forms and lifestyles. We frequently visit Earth in the first season, reinforcing how much Rose prefers her new, exciting and dangerous adventures. By the time Parting Of The Ways comes around, this is the ultimate slap in the face. The very humdrum existence that a lot of people seem to go through contrasts sharply with the Dalek battle – not only that, but Rose ultimately learns to realise that just making do and letting things happen aren't the ways to go.

By contrast, the Doctor, at times, seems to be jealous of this mundane life. He seems to appreciate, or wish for, the smaller things in life, like meeting the future wife at 2.00 in the morning (Father's Day) or eating a well-prepared meal with all the trimmings (The Empty Child). Right from the word go, Davies shows us two very different sides of everyday life.

With the scattergun approach in mind, Davies thankfully doesn't tread the same path as the TV Movie, which demanded that you knew all about regeneration, Daleks, the Time Lords and Doctor Who culture. It launches bang into the action. There's no regeneration scene. The first we see of the Ninth Doctor is a close-up of his hand, before telling Rose to “Run!” from a gaggle of Autons. There's an oblique nod to his new incarnation, as he quickly studies his reflection in the mirror, and muses on his new ears – but it's glossed over in less than five seconds.

Over the course of the next few seasons though, we get plenty more background on the Doctor. Davies tells the story of the Doctor in a measured way, gradually throwing up random details such as the death of Gallifrey, his feud with the Daleks or his past lives and friends. In the first story though, the Doctor is an enigma, a mystery man with a blue box who appears and disappears throughout history. Newcomers will learn that he's an alien with a fantastic spaceship that looks like a Police Box, but is bigger on the inside than on the out. That's pretty much it – much like An Unearthly Child, the character called the Doctor is a difficult one to read – breezy and chirpy one minute (“Hello!”), morose the next (“Go home, Rose Tyler!”), and also mysterious (the speech in which he describes the world turning and how he can feel it).

Welcome to the new Doctor, Christopher Eccleston. It seems so long ago that he was the Doctor. Eccleston decided to only do one season, which is a shame, since we don't really get to see his “journey” (ugh) so much. For want of a better phrase, this incarnation is “Damaged goods”. In keeping with the show's back-to-basics return, the new Doctor's appearance and demeanour are more minimalist. There's none of the eccentric clothing – no ties, bow ties, scarves or waistcoats – just a black leather jacket, trews and jumper, which, coupled with his often surly manner, make him resemble an angry debt collector at six in the morning.

The new Doctor's no-nonsense attitude is quickly established in the first episode. He evidently doesn't have much time for human relationships at this time in his life. He abruptly dashes Jackie Tyler's hopes of a crafty morning snog. He has little time for Mickey, and is callously unmoved by the fact that he might be dead. He's also prone to making angry snap judgements about “Stupid apes” (That's us humans, in case, you didn't realise). Battle-scarred and bullish, this isn't a Doctor that suffers fools gladly – in fact he'd probably lift them by the scruff of the neck and throw them down an empty elevator shaft.

Mind you, the Doctor does have a more gleefully comic side, although at this point, it's more by accident than design. He keeps bounding onto the scene like he doesn't belong there, whether it's in Rose's department store or at the front door of her flat. When he does try to be funny, it seems a lot more forced – take the way in which he initially bids Rose farewell. He waves with the disembodied Auton arm, but when his back's turned, he's got a face like thunder, as he contemplates ridding the planet of the dreaded Autons.

Christopher Eccleston generally does well as the new Doctor, although like his character, he's evidently more comfortable with meaty drama than with comedy. There are some amusing moments, such as his awkward mooching around Rose's flat or when he's desperately trying to free himself from the attacking Auton arm. But sometimes he does have a tendency to gurn like a loon – count the amount of times in the season that he pulls that face which makes him look like Bruce Forsyth in the aftermath of a visit to a military barber shop.

Fortunately, Eccleston does very well with the dramatic side of the role. He makes for a commanding presence when he's facing off against the Nestene Consciousness (“I AM TALKING!”), but just as effective are his quieter moments, such as when he matter-of-factly replies to Rose's questions in the TARDIS. Altogether, despite the less convincing comedic moments, Eccleston's début is spot on.

Billie Piper was just as important, since many times, we see the adventures unfolding through Rose's eyes. At the time of her casting, there was some disquiet over her teenybop, bubblegum pop background (although I'll happily defend Honey To The Bee – sssshhh, don't tell anyone).

In fact though, Piper proved to be the surprise success of the season, showing off her acting chops in stories such as Father's Day and the season finale. Piper adds a lot of infectious charm to Rose – well, for this season at least. The Rose of the first season is smart, funny, down to earth, and relentlessly loyal to her new friend. That's all the ingredients you need for a good companion, and Rose has these qualities in spades. Quite why the programme makers would later turn the character into a smug, possessive pain is a huge mystery, but at least for this season, Rose quickly earns her place as one of the companion success stories.

We also get two other notable additions to the ranks. Jackie and Mickey at this point are no more than stereotyped clichés. Jackie's the sort of woman who you'd either catch in the audience of The Jeremy Kyle Show or dancing round her handbag to I Will Survive in a ropey old dive while swilling copious amounts of Lambrini. Mickey, on the other hand, is the rubbish boyfriend – a cowardly wimp who makes Shaggy from Scooby Doo seem like He-Man by comparison. Forever blundering about moaning and whinging, while walking like a duck on acid, Mickey clearly can't hold a candle to the Doctor in Rose's eyes. Mind you, she obviously doesn't think much of him anyway, since she doesn't even notice that he changes into a LazyTown character halfway through the story.

Camille Coduri and Noel Clarke are still excellent choices. At this point, they're not really given much to work with. Coduri makes a great start though – I'd always remembered her as Faith from Nuns On The Run, but her character here is sufficiently different, and as we'll see in the future, there's a great deal of hidden depth to Jackie, who ultimately becomes one of the mainstays of the era. Noel Clarke's first performance is a bit OTT at times, whether he's scowling furiously in his car or doing silly comedy walks, but he'll get a lot better in the future and contribute much to the big success of Mickey.

No other important characters of note, apart from the bumbling Clive, the stereotypical Doctor Who nerd, who despite pottering around in his dingy memorabilia shed, still has a wife and a kid. Clive is the lone believer, the man who has faith in the Doctor's crazy paving life – ironically, this comes back to haunt him as he finds himself on the receiving end of an Auton thunderbolt. It's a good cameo from Mark Benton, which kick-starts the trend for lots of big name guest star appearances.

The Autons themselves are well realised, although they are not as spooky as they were in Spearhead From Space. There are a lot of visual nods to that story, most notably the opening sequence homage and the scene in which they go on the rampage in a shopping mall. Fortunately, the Nestene Consciousness looks a lot better than the rubber octopus or the white video effects blob as in the early 1970s.

The production values are excellent, and the story has a glossy, high-budget feel that makes it look like a mini feature film. Some well-judged and well executed shots include the pans/cross fades from Earth and a dustbin through to Rose's alarm clock; the Nestene Consciousness; the shot of the Doctor outside the London Eye, and that lovely shot of the Doctor and Rose running along the streets of London, holding hands. Keith Boak's direction is generally fine, although there are some odd choices, such as the weird close-up of Jackie screaming unconvincingly at an advancing Auton.

Visually though, Rose successfully brings Doctor Who into the 21st century – there's very little to criticise about the production. Same generally goes for the script, which while lightweight, manages to tell a good, coherent story and reintroduce the Doctor to a new audience. Some bits don't quite work: The burping wheelie bin is the sort of thing you'd find on a Dick And Dom TV show, Jackie and Mickey are rather crass comedy buffoons, and the Autons are a bit of an easily-defeated menace. All that happens is that Rose does an impression of Tarzan while knocking a vial of anti-plastic into the angry Consciousness. Not a particularly great denouement to the story, and worse still, it starts the trend of making anyone but the Doctor save the day.

Another notable problem is Murray Gold's score. I actually quite like some of Gold's musical contributions to the show, but more often than not, the scores are too loud, too brash, too inappropriate and too domineering (And don't even get me started on Murray's Pompous Choir, which I'm going to have to talk about from Dalek onwards). A common complaint is that there's simply too much music, which kind of bullies the audience into feeling a particular emotion. Sad? Cue lots of slushy strings and pompous choirs going “Aaaahhh”. Excited? Lots of big bass drums and violent orchestration. Annoyed? That's some fans who actually want to listen to what's going on without being deafened by Gold's relentless histrionics.

That said, the title music arrangement's pretty good, with a faithful nod to the original arrangement – much like the titles, which take inspiration from the time tunnel of the Tom Baker stories. Not quite sure about the new logo, which looks like an elongated novelty boomerang.

All told though, Rose is a triumph. It manages to launch a new era of Doctor Who with confidence, style and wit. The new leads have the makings of being a strong Doctor/Companion team. Best of all, it's thoughtful, well-crafted storytelling that manages to be accessible to people who hadn't really followed Doctor Who before.

And it'll always bring back happy memories of that night in March 2005, when my wife and our friends thoroughly enjoyed it too. Good times.

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