❉ Jon Arnold on the impact of the story that made Doctor Who mainstream again.
“It’s easy to forget after fifteen years how remarkable Rose’s achievement is, how it’s simultaneously the shock of the old and new. Even Russell T Davies’s magnificent novelisation, which expands it into something beyond even the biggest movie budget’s scope and places it in the context of the show’s subsequent history, can’t quite capture that.”
Fifteen years on it’s almost difficult to remember what an impact Rose made. That’s as it should be: a show which failed to evolve or build on its initial impact would essentially be a creative failure. There’s no doubt either that it’s a flawed production, with an uneven tone, behind the scenes difficulties and reshoots meaning the shoot overran in terms of time and budget. Even on its first broadcast a technical issue meant that an open microphone from Strictly Dance Fever host Graham Norton was heard over the scenes of Rose’s initial encounter with the unknown. And yet, for all the issues it’s proof that perfection isn’t necessary to achieve your aim. Rose ends up being as effective an introduction to the series as An Unearthly Child was in 1963.
It starts with Russell T Davies’s script: an energetic whirl which begins with portraying Rose’s everyday life in a form familiar to the viewers of popular dramas of 2005. This is the trojan horse that made Doctor Who mainstream again – instead of hitting viewers with the show’s history and expecting them to be wowed, viewers are given a relatable avatar of normality in the same way Ian and Barbara acted as the grounding figures for the viewers of 1963. The casting also helps: in 2005 Billie Piper was still a teen pop star making her way into acting. By the time the 2005 series had finished – perhaps even by 7:45 on the 26th of March – she was clearly a star. On stage at the Gallifrey One convention fifteen years later the nominal star of the show would ruefully (and perhaps overly self-deprecatingly) reflect that Piper’s presence was so dazzling that he was often lost in its radiance. Fifteen years on, it looks one of the smartest decisions of the revival: not only did she match Sir John Hurt in The Day of the Doctor, she would manage a clean sweep of the six available theatrical Best Actress awards for her leading role in Yerma: the only living actress to accomplish that for a single performance.
Rose is equally effective when the strangeness invades: the Autons, monsters which explicitly alter the familiar to a menace, are a perfect choice in a way the clearly alien Daleks or Cybermen wouldn’t have been. And then there’s the Doctor: A Doctor outwardly very different from his eccentrically dressed predecessors but inwardly the same person who keeps the monsters at bay. While Christopher Eccleston’s subsequently spoken of the personal difficulties he was going through and being out of his comfort zone it ends up being exactly the performance needed: a traumatised character who needs with the perspective of a god who’s in need of a companion to remind him that the universe is still a place of wonder. His departure from the show turns the season into an almost perfect dramatic story: not only does it end up being about an ordinary girl literally becoming empowered, it ends up with the Doctor healed and able to make a fresh start in the way only he can.
The final ingredient for success is the sheer brio involved, and its magpie attitude to the best parts of popular culture. Davies’s genius lay in remembering that Doctor Who was a Saturday night show and to do that he would need to borrow not only from contemporary drama but also from the familiar underlying dramatic structures used by popular light entertainment shows such as The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing.
In 2005 the only ones waiting for a Doctor were the dedicated fans who’d evolved the possibilities of the series with books, audios, comics and videos – there’s a good argument that Paul Cornell’s novel Timewyrm: Revelation is the first piece of Doctor Who of the modern era with its liberal pop culture references and emphasis on character over a simple linear plot. No one else actually knew they needed the show back until the advertising campaign kicked in with billboard campaigns and an impossibly thrilling trailer where Eccleston directly asked viewers if they wanted to come with him. By the time we’d seen Rose’s tale, of shop dummies coming to life, of monsters hiding under the London Eye and a man who could actually show you a life less ordinary than the one you’d settled for, the show had added a new audience from a new generation.
It’s easy to forget after fifteen years how remarkable Rose’s achievement is, how it’s simultaneously the shock of the old and new. Even Russell T Davies’s magnificent novelisation, which expands it into something beyond even the biggest movie budget’s scope and places it in the context of the show’s subsequent history, can’t quite capture that. And yet it altered the way people in the TV industry thought not only about the series itself but about Saturday night schedules. It turned the show from a nostalgic punchline into a popular culture juggernaut with the ultimate accolade of a place at the heart of the Christmas schedules: the equivalent of being acclaimed a national treasure. It bequeathed us a series where the presence of popular, busy actors such as Catherine Tate, Sir John Hurt, Peter Capaldi, Matt Lucas and Bradley Walsh in regular roles was not only possible but almost mundane. And perhaps the ultimate accolade: on two separate occasions an episode of Doctor Who would be the most watched programme of the week.
In under forty-five minutes it rewrote our world into a stranger, more exciting place, one of empty children, rhino police, living statues, gender swapping Time Lords and space Amazon. Rose is the ultimate foundation on which modern Doctor Who is built, where the Doctor and his companion win the greatest battle of all: the one for a twenty-first century mass audience.
Did we want to go with him? Hell yes. After an episode bursting with such brio and verve, how could we not?
❉ Watch ‘Rose’ on BBC iPlayer HERE. To follow along with the fan rewatch of Rose this evening (Thursday 26th March), simply start watching the episode at 7pm and use the Twitter hashtag #TripOfALifetime.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jon Arnold is the author of three volumes of the Black Archive series including ‘The Black Archive #1: Rose’. Obverse Books have created a code that lets you do a 3 for 2 on electronic copies of all the Black and Silver Archives the Obverse Books website – buy three electronic copies of titles from either or both ranges and enter this code: 9V3CVNOTA to get one of the three books free!