Nine years passed between the failed television movie in 1996 and the beginning of a new series of Doctor Who. When it was announced that the series would return in 2005, produced by BBC Wales, and driven by well-known TV writer Russell T. Davies, there was much trepidation. Now we know that the key question was would Davies be able to rebuild the three pillars which formed the foundation of the shows’s past success?
If Doctor Who was to succeed again, there needed to be three primary ingredients: the programme needed to present the Doctor as a mysterious outsider rather than a protagonist (which, by implication meant that someone else had to be the protagonist); its story needed to be one which supported that view of the main character by having him intrude into a scenario in which something was already happening rather than be the centre of attention; and the programme needed to connect to a modern British audience.
The first story of the new series was called ‘Rose’. That was a good sign. It suggested that the focus, at least of that initial narrative, was to be a young woman, Rose Tyler, rather than the Doctor himself. And the opening scenes build on that hope: Rose Tyler wakes up one morning, gets ready for work, and says goodbye to her mother Jackie before catching the bus to Henrik's, the department store where she works. So far, so good: this is human-centric, and what’s more is welcoming to brand-new viewers, with no mention of the show’s mythology. In fact, whereas the 1996 movie began with a voiceover giving the audience a glimpse of a Dalek-sponsored trial of the Master, this new story starts with no reference to the show’s past at all. As far as contemporary Britain was concerned, Davies had hit the nail on the head by choosing a protagonist who was very ‘ordinary’ indeed - like the couple of school teachers, as in the original episode ‘An Unearthly Child’ in 1963, or the feisty journalist Sarah Jane Smith who joined the Doctor for its very successful run in the 1970s, Rose is a shop assistant who is clearly bored with her life, whose talents are underutilised, whose prospects look pretty low-key.
At the end of the day, as Hendrik’s is about to close, Rose goes to the basement of the store in search of a colleague but he is nowhere to be found. In a storage room Rose is disturbed to see a group of moving shop window mannequins that surround her and raise their arms threateningly. For new audience members, this is chilling enough; for fans of the classic series, this is goosebumps material: the Autons were the Third Doctor’s first foe and even make the same special effects noises in this new appearance that they did back in 1970.
Suddenly, a man whom we have never seen before takes hold of her hand and tells her to ‘run!’ This is the first appearance of the Doctor, and he is apparently - for new watchers - unencumbered by the past interpretations of the character: he is in a leather jacket and has a Northern accent. For watchful fans, though, his opening utterance, ‘Run!’, suggests the Second Doctor, who used the word often.
A quick introduction, a short explanation of what he is doing, and an exhortation to run for her life, and Rose is on her way. As the camera shows her running away from the explosion (which results when the Doctor blows up Hendrik’s as part of his plan to defeat the Autons) it lingers on an old battered police box. Fans of the show cheer.
The audience then follows Rose on her quest to find out more about what just happened to her. Here the story reveals that it has updated itself in tune with the society - Rose uses a computer and the internet to search for ‘the Doctor’ and eventually tracks down a man called Clive who shows her images of a man called ‘the Doctor’ from history, including at the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the sinking of the Titanic and the explosion of Krakatoa. Clive tells her that he believes the Doctor is a dangerous alien.
Outside in the car Rose’s boyfriend Mickey is attacked by a wheelie bin which swallows him. When Rose returns to the car, convinced that she's wasted her time, she doesn't realise that Mickey has been replaced by a plastic duplicate who soon starts to grill her about the Doctor. The Doctor himself then makes his second appearance, exposing Mickey as a duplicate and helping Rose escape, and she ends up in the Tardis, which then moves to the banks of the Thames in pursuit of the Autons.
The point here isn’t only the fast-paced, often witty story-telling, which would have made for an amusing hour of television had it been a stand-alone story: the point is that the three pillars of Doctor Who are being rebuilt with every scene. Our attention is with Rose; we perceive everything from and understand everything through her eyes. She is the protagonist, and takes action: she is the one who assists their escape from the artificial Mickey by activating a fire alarm; she is the one who spots the Nestene transmitter (the London Eye, another contemporary British reference). She is the bridge to the audience: on stepping inside the Tardis for the first time, her first reaction is to rush out again, thinking that she is going mad. The Doctor is positioned as the outsider, intervening in a series of events, coming and going in the narrative.
As the Doctor and Rose run together across Westminster Bridge, it’s Rose who quickly finds an entrance to an underground base beneath the Eye. Only in the confrontation with the Nestene Consciousness does the Doctor with his alien knowledge begin to dominate the stage, as it were. When the Doctor explains that he couldn’t save the Nestene home planet - ‘I couldn't save your world. I couldn't save any of them!’ - the Consciousness begins its invasion ahead of schedule.
But we do not linger with these larger-than-Earth events: Rose’s chief concern, on hearing about the invasion, is her mother, Jackie, who is shopping in the Queen's Arcade mall. This very British activity is interrupted, however, when the shop-window dummies come to life, breaking through the windows. Clive, also on the street, is confronted by an Auton who detaches its hand and shoots him dead in front of his family, starting a panic. Autons start blasting shoppers who scatter in all directions. Our sympathies as an audience are with the ordinary people here, not with the cosmic background. Autons are everywhere, bodies all over the place, people running in all directions; a very British double-decker bus at the end of a street crashes into a very British post-box and bursts into flames. A London black cab has its rear windscreen shattered by a bullet. Everywhere are symbols of Britain and of ‘ordinariness’, but juxtaposed with alien violence. Jackie takes cover behind a car, as three 'bride' Autons crash through the window behind her.
Back below the London Eye, Rose decides to take the initiative, like a true protagonist. Breaking free one of the chains on the wall with an axe, she swings down to the Autons, freeing the Doctor and pushing the Autons, along with the anti-plastic, into the vat containing the Nestene Consciousness. The Consciousness is destroyed.
In the mall, when they are just about to shoot Jackie dead, the transmitter shuts down and all the Autons return to lifeless mannequins again. The Nestene's base starts to collapse and explode. Escaping a huge explosion, the Doctor, Mickey and Rose board the Tardis.
With the Earth saved, the Doctor suggests Rose join him on his adventures; they can go anywhere in the whole universe but Rose, much to his disappointment, refuses. The Doctor leaves. A regretful Rose turns to look after a terrified Mickey. We share the regret. But then we hear the familiar wheezing noise of the Tardis reappearing and the Doctor emerges to tell Rose that the ship can also travel in time. Immediately, she kisses Mickey goodbye and runs straight into the Tardis, to start her new life in time and space.
And so do we.
Apart from being the first episode of BBC Wales’ Doctor Who, the first new episode of the show since the 1996 telemovie and the first story to be part of a regularly airing programme since ‘Survival’, the last serial of the ‘classic’ series, ‘Rose’ introduced Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, and recurring supporting cast Camille Coduri as Jackie Tyler, with Noel Clarke as Mickey Smith. It was a huge, instant success. At current writing, it remains the most-watched first episode for any new incarnation of the Doctor, with an audience of 10.81 million, higher than the previous record-holder, Tom Baker’s debut story ‘Robot’, and was not outdone by David Tennant’s first full story, ‘The Christmas Invasion’, Matt Smith’s first appearance in ‘The Eleventh Hour’, or Peter Capaldi’s initial story, ‘Deep Breath’. Only ‘Destiny of the Daleks’ (which scored very high ratings due to the fact that ITV were on strike at the time in the classic series’ Season 17) beats ‘Rose’ as a series-opener.
It was also the first single-episode, 45-minute story, and the first to be produced in widescreen. The Nestene Consciousness and Autons appeared for the first time on television since ‘Terror of the Autons' in 1971. But all these records and firsts are secondary to its achievements as the pillar-building triumph that it was.
The Doctor had been returned to television, but correctly, as a mysterious alien: the introduction of the Ninth Doctor in no way explained what had happened to his predecessor, nor did it illuminate the life he led during the Last Great Time War, nor did it explain much of anything about who the Doctor was. Just as in 1963, there was no mention of regeneration and no hints of earlier incarnations. The enigma of the Doctor had been restored: viewers wouldn’t get their first glimpse of the other Doctors until two years later, and then only briefly, in ‘Human Nature’. Specifically with regard to the Ninth Doctor's origins, they were not fully clarified for eight years, with 2013's ‘The Day of the Doctor’ eventually revealing his immediate past and linking him in with the 1996 telemovie. Whatever fans might later say about Eccleston, who left the series amid rumours of his dissatisfaction with the way he was treated, and who has since refused to return to the show, his portrayal of the character as a gruff Northerner with an air of sadness and vulnerability was spot on, comparable to Hartnell’s original depiction.
The shape of the story had held to its most successful form: a very human and recognisable protagonist had become caught up in a strange adventure, to be rescued by a wise and obscure figure who came and went as the narrative progressed.
And the culture had been captured and reflected: Rose’s ordinariness, her ennui, the modern early 2000s shopping milieu, search engines and the internet, double-decker buses, the London eye, black cabs - it was almost as though Davies had compiled a list of specifically British things to make sure that the story was ‘anchored’ properly in the real world of the viewing audience.
And it had all worked. Doctor Who was back.