Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Review: Doctor Who "Rose"

Russell T. Davies, the showrunner and writer of this episode, had a tall order to fill. In order for Doctor Who to finally be able to cement its return, this first episode would need to land like the TV Movie never could.

Boy, did it ever. Even with a leaked version available on every file-sharing site before the premiere (one of the first shows to be leaked like this), “Rose” had nearly 11 million viewers tuned in. Rave reviews were everywhere. The positive reception to this episode alone earned the show a Christmas Special and a second season.

And yet… I don’t much care for this episode.

It pains me to admit that, but I feel like there are a lot of people out there who also feel like this isn’t exactly Doctor Who’s best.

“For shame!” people are probably saying. And I’m certain that someone out there is cracking their knuckles in anticipation as they arrange the words of their 300 word rebuttal in their mind. Feel more than free. After all, you’ve been kind enough to read my opinion, the least I can do is extend the same courtesy to you.

But before you tell me how amazing this episode is, let me ask you one question. If “Rose” is good enough to win viewers over on its own merits, then why do I know quite a few Whovians show their friends “Blink” first?

I think it's a fair question.
Look. “Rose” is a good episode. I’m not disputing that. But it’s simply not as good as later episodes.

And that’s mostly because of what Doctor Who has become since this episode. I hate to compare it to later entries in the series with larger budgets and the kinks worked out, but the simple fact is that when you return to this episode after having seen later ones, it doesn’t hold up as well. I can’t give an objective review. I give everything I cover a fair chance to impress me, but this is all just my opinion in the end.

And my opinion is that this episode, while good, will be surpassed in no time. At the very least, this episode unintentionally dates itself hard. Things start off looking like they do now, only for somebody to whip out a cell phone that's ten years or more out of date, for example. Heck, Rose has to head over to her boyfriend's place to look something up online instead of doing it on her own phone. I know that's kind of unfair to say, but this episode is more jarring than watching an episode from the 70's. At least those episodes look like period pieces the whole time.

So now that I've talked about why I personally don't much care for this episode, I'll start talking about how amazing it is.

This episode is, at its core, a modern update of the Third Doctor’s first episode, “Spearhead from Space,” which was also the first appearance of the Nestene. It also mirrors the final story of the Classic Series, “Survival.” Both stories feature classic villains in what was then modern-day London.

This episode needed to explain a lot of things about Doctor Who to a new audience. The Doctor, the companion….

All that jazz.
Not only does it succeed at getting the basics across to the audience without assuming they were familiar with them already (looking at you, TV Movie), but it also manages to tell a pretty good invasion-style story. I mean, the Nestene invasion itself is nothing special, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s merely the background for the first meeting of Rose and the Doctor. It’s not about whether or not the Earth is conquered, it’s about learning who this mysterious man in a box is. And I have to say that Rose’s perfectly average life sets up a really nice contrast for the events that follow the opening montage.

There’s definitely a theme of change throughout this episode. Not only is there a new Doctor, but Mickey gets replaced with a plastic duplicate, Rose’s job disappears overnight, and even the Nestene Consciousness finds itself in new circumstances, without a home. And as we’ll find out later, that last point is a separate theme in and of itself.

Also, get used to running. Lots and lots of running.
The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston)
Christopher Eccleston was chosen over the other favorite for the role, Bill Nighy, partially because he was a friend of the showrunner, Russel T. Davies, and partially because he expressed an interest in helping return Doctor Who to TV.

Hmmm. What if...?
He may have only lasted for one season (for reasons I’ll get into in a later Review), but this first outing shows how marvelous his take on the character was. You can certainly see shades of Tom Baker's utter Tom Baker-ness, a touch of Peter Davison’s genuine warmth and charm, and even hints of Colin Baker’s temper. But in the end, this Doctor is Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal of a broken man who can never show his pain.

Sometimes hiding it in rather over-the-top displays.
Even the accent lets us know that this is a different Doctor. While other incarnations tended to use a standard Received Pronunciation accent (save for the Seventh Doctor’s Scottish accent), this Doctor sounds like he’s from the North, which played with people’s expectations of what the Doctor is “supposed” to be.

There are allusions to the Doctor being involved with some kind of war (which will be picked up on later), and this has clearly taken its toll on the Doctor. Not only has he regenerated, but he’s traveling without a companion. When the Doctor breaks down in front of the Nestene’s accusations, it becomes clear that something happened between the TV movie and now.

But in the end, the Doctor is as he ever was. Clever, snarky, and however callous and alien he might appear, he has a heart of gold deep down. But don’t ever confuse that for pacifism. If you eliminate all other choices, he will end you. But that’s why he needs somebody with him. To remind him of the lives that get swept up in the madness.

In his first incarnation, he was fully prepared to kill a caveman in his own self-interests before his human companion stopped him. And here, Rose Tyler reminds him that Mickey is more than a victim of the Nestene; he’s a person. I mean, the Doctor probably cares more for the sonic screwdriver than Mickey's well-being. Incidentally, the new prop looks great, and it even kept the classic sound.

What? I'll freely admit that I like the Doctor's sonic screwdriver more than Mickey Smith.

Rose Tyler (Billie Piper)
Billie Piper was a bit of an odd choice at the time. Before Doctor Who, she was a singer; a teen pop star like Miley Cyrus. Only, she became well-known as a pretty good actress as opposed to being well known for… I don't know, twerking?

Rose Tyler is your average person. She’s got a boyfriend, a job, some common sense, and she’s overall content with the direction her life is taking. Until work blows up, that is. In fact, that might be why it took a little convincing to get her to travel in the TARDIS. Who knows if she'd have said "Yes" if she still had a job? I mean, Mickey's apparently not worth sticking around for, but Mickey and minimum wage? She might have to think that one over.

Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke)
Noel Clarke was overacting because was under the impression that he was on “a kids’ show.” He’s admitted as such several times. Luckily, his subsequent appearances are a bit less cartoonish. Of course, he gets put through the wringer by then, but I’ll get to that eventually. Here, he’s sort of the third wheel/ball and chain keeping Rose and the Doctor apart.

Jackie Tyler (Camille Coduri)
The character’s not my cup of tea. She nags, she’s quick to attempt to “seduce” what she believes is a lawman, and she’s more than a little greedy. Luckily, we don’t see much of her here.

Monsters of the Week
Nestene Consciousness/Autons

Evil mannequins.


In the 1970’s, they were created by writer Robert Holmes as a response to people's fear of, and the backlash to, this newfangled, unnatural substance called "plastic." It seems silly now, but the strange, synthetic material was seen by some as an unnatural substance of pure, synthetic pollution. So having plastic men invade was the obvious story to write. But now, plastic is everywhere. So instead of the Autons playing on the fear of the unknown, they’re now playing on our fear of being betrayed bby that which constantly surrounds us. Like the later episode where Steven Moffat made shadows scary.

Hey, at least the limited budget worked to the Classic Series's advantage just this once.
Yes, I finally called the mannequins “Autons.” The Autons are never called that onscreen, probably because that name involved an evil corporation from the original Auton story which isn’t involved with this particular story. (They are officially listed as “Autons” in the credits, though.)

The Nestene Consciousness itself was voiced by Nicholas Briggs, a lifelong doctor Who fan who kept interest in the series alive during the hiatus by working on audio stories, where he voiced more than a few monsters. From this point forward, Briggs will basically be the voice of most of the show’s recurring monsters.

This episode is often said to be the first episode of Doctor Who filmed in HD. It isn’t, but it is in widescreen, which is still a step up.

The visual effects, done by a group called “The Mill,” are uniformly great and make the most of the relatively increased budget that the show has to work with. The opening titles show the TARDIS spinning through the multicolored time vortex. The orange/blue/green coloration owes a lot to the Third Doctor’s Technicolor opening, but the overall sequence looks like a jazzed-up version of the one from the TV movie.

The TARDIS interior looks amazing. The switch to an organic look may have been a bit jarring...

Especially when it used to look like this.
...but the moody lighting and attention to detail makes this a beautiful machine, though every Doctor Who fan has their favorite control room.

Sorry, New-Who. My heart belongs to the TV Movie in this case.
Fandom being what it is, the main problem people had with the new interior was how it changed to look like this, not that it changed. But one of the changes that everybody seemed to uniformly like was the fact that you can now see the control room through the TARDIS door instead of the black void from the Classic Series. And vice versa; the interior of the Police Box door can now be seen from the control room.

When you talk to most fans of the Classic Series about “Spearhead from Space,” they’ll probably gush about how utterly creepy it was when the Autons smashed their way out of the storefront windows. That never happened. Don’t get me wrong, the Autons smashed their way out of the storefronts. It just happened off screen because the BBC didn’t have the budget to show them breaking through the glass. So the effect was achieved by cutting away from the Autons as they prepared to break through. But here, they finally get to do the effect.

I mean, yeah, the CGI ages like milk, but that's what CGI does. And there are enough practical effects to make up for whatever CGI might be dated. Which... is nearly all of it.

Final Thoughts
When all is said and done, it’s worth watching. but probably no more than once. It’s enjoyable, certainly, but I don’t think it’s something people are in a hurry to rewatch. I mean, after this episode introduces you to the new status quo of the Revived Series, it loses a lot of its purpose. And if you're looking for a Ninth Doctor episode, there are better ones than this.

So good, maybe even great, but it gets even better from here.

Next time, the world ends. No, really. The world actually ends, and it isn't undone. In any other show, that would be the final episode, not the second. See you then!

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