While the rebooted version of Doctor Who is going to be launching its ninth series this fall, this year marks the 10th anniversary of the world getting its first glimpse of the Ninth Doctor. That’s right: on March 26th, 2005, Russell T. Davies’ long-gestating retooling of the perennial British sci-fi staple aired its first episode, “Rose,” and a juggernaut was born again, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. It was a simpler time. Nobody knew what a Weeping Angel was, or gave any thought to what an actor named David Tennant was doing with his life (though it was announced Christopher Eccleston was leaving the show almost immediately after “Rose” aired. Bad timing). While the BBC chose to focus on the property’s 50th anniversary back in November of 2013, we can’t discount the importance of Series 1, and what its successes and failures ensured about the prosperity of the program past Eccleston, through Tennant, across Matt Smith, into Peter Capaldi, and with a little John Hurt thrown in for good measure.
Davies did a few things wrong with the first series, but he did a whole lot right. One of the things he, executive producers Julie Gardner and Mal Young, and producer Phil Collinson, under the aegises of Jane Trantor, did very right was to allow themselves to make these mistakes. Doctor Who is as malleable of a property as any that has ever been on television, and when it was being revamped and developed, it’d hadn’t been on the air in any significant manner since 1989. There had been a lackluster TV movie in 1996 which did things that Davies took and made better, but as it stood, the series, in its new 13-week, 45-minute format, could be anything he wanted. Was it a comedy? Was it a drama? Was it for kids, families, both, neither? It was beholden to no one and no thing aside from what its creators wanted.
That said, here are five things Series 1 did very well, and five things it didn’t do so great.
1. First and foremost, the show’s biggest accomplishment was in casting a prestigious actor like Christopher Eccleston in the role of the Doctor. Even though he ultimately didn’t have a good time doing it, departing the series at the end of the 13 weeks, he was exactly the mixture of serious and goofy that the series needed to maintain credibility early on. Nobody was really big on the show for the last 5-ish years of the Classic Series, and its tone was a big problem, especially for the Doctor himself. But Eccleston was as respected an actor as any they could have hoped to get. They allowed him to keep his Salford accent, let him dress normally (not a question mark in sight), and they gave him the attitude of a war veteran still reeling from the decisions he’s made. We didn’t know exactly why he was so angry right away, but we knew he was damaged in some way. And Eccleston was an AMAZING Doctor; we can’t let his relative briefness in the part diminish that. If people didn’t connect to him, there wouldn’t have been need of a Tennant.
2. Rose. While I’ve made no secret about not enjoying the Rose/Tenth Doctor relationship, I think she was the perfect companion for the Ninth Doctor. The series couldn’t let the Doctor be the focal point, because he was a mystery to so many, which is why Rose was SO relatable, and so likable, and yet still so brave and heroic. She had a family who were actually important to her life, and the consequences of them on her traveling. She was the audience’s gateway into the Doctor’s world, and her learning about him allowed all the backstory to seep in slowly. If RTD had tried to shoehorn all the 26 years of history into this one series, or even in an episode or two, the casual viewer, who were the lifeblood of the success of the show, would easily have turned off. But, that’s what Rose would have done as well. Billie Piper’s performance is layered in such a way that we really see her trying to decide whether she wants her “normal” life or would rather go with the Doctor forever. For all the importance they unduly lay on her later on, she’s lovely in the first year.
3. The Daleks. The series’ oldest and deadliest recurring villains almost didn’t get to return due to copyright issues with writer Terry Nation’s estate. When the pepperpots finally did return, first in Rob Shearman’s excellent “Dalek” and then in the two-part finale “Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways”, they meant business. Without doing much to update the sort of janky design, the writing and direction gave such gravitas to everything they said and did. They were overused in the future, of course, but that doesn’t mean that, in this one series, they weren’t done immaculately. Through the Daleks we learn about the Time War which has plagued the Doctor since before this series began; we know it was terrible, and we know the Daleks are to blame. It was this idea that flowed through the whole of the first seven series and the 50th Anniversary special. Such a genius idea.
4. Allowing other old fans to write. RTD had been a Doctor Who fan for decades and he brought his love of the series along with his ability to write good TV to the show. While he wrote the bulk of the episodes, certain fantastic episodes were also written by other luminaries in the fan world who eventually became book, TV, and comic writers themselves. Mark Gatiss of The League of Gentlemen used his love of period-set horror to great effect in his “The Unquiet Dead”; Rob Shearman adapted an audioplay he’d done into the brilliant “Dalek”; Paul Cornell, who had authored several New Adventures novels, wrote the paradox-laden “Father’s Day”, which also happens to be the first episode I saw and largely the reason I kept watching; and of course Steven Moffat penned the two-part “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” which introduced another series highlight, Captain Jack Harkness, and is still hailed as one of the best stories in the new series by far. These different voices were so important to the continuation of the show.
5. It handled regeneration well right away. Even though Eccleston left, it necessitated the need to explain regeneration to the audience right away, which is something that could always get a bit tricky. Because of this, the point wasn’t belabored and the passing made too sad as to make the audience despondent and inconsolable, like they’d do later on; it merely happened — the Doctor explained it briefly, threw his hands out, and turned into David Tennant with a smile on his face.
1. The differing tones. While I do think the changing tone was a learning curve, especially early on, a lot of it just flatly doesn’t work. The show needs to be funny, but not at the expense of the drama. “Rose” contained some of the dumbest comedy bits ever attempted with Mickey getting sucked into a trashcan and replaced with a very obviously plastic replica, and “Aliens of London/World War Three” contained the stupidest aliens the show ever tried, complete with farting air-releasing when they put on their human suits. That episode nearly killed my enjoyment; thank god it was followed by “Dalek.”
2. Adam. While I suppose it’s good to see what a “bad companion” looks like, I just think of the greedy young douche whom Rose picked up during “Dalek” and the Doctor kicked out the next week in “The Long Game” was just a failed experiment, and a waste of time ultimately. He’s barely even involved in the plot of that second episode, just off on his own little knowledge-hungry scheme, and then he’s gone. Who cares?
3. The “Bad Wolf” episode. While I said I appreciated the Daleks in their appearances, I really only like “The Parting of the Ways.” It dates the show way too much to have the characters go to “futuristic” versions of modern-day popular TV shows like The Weakest Link, What Not to Wear, and Big Brother. It’s good for a half-a-second joke when the Doctor looks into camera in the cold open, but beyond that, it’s as dumb as it gets. People in another ten years won’t even remember The Weakest Link, I’m sure of it. The throughline of “Bad Wolf” also didn’t work for me, but it’s so barely-there that it doesn’t matter all that much either way.
4. Being tied to Earth, and Cardiff specifically. Now, I know this series had a very low budget, which is very evident when you go back and watch it now, but just because the show was filmed in Cardiff doesn’t mean it needs to take place there. The Doctor and Rose go back and forward in time, but they never leave Earth beyond going to a space station orbiting Earth. It made the series seem very terrestrial and not in a UNIT years kind of way.
5. There isn’t more of it. Seriously, I could have watched another 13 episodes of Eccleston, Tyler, and Barrowman on adventures but, I guess, as Uncle Miltie said, always leave them wanting more. It makes me said that those 13 episodes are all we have of them all together, especially considering only about half of the episodes are good. They were hitting their stride, all of them on the cast and crew, toward the end, and while it made for good series to follow, one always wonders what might have been.
And so, ten years later, now on our fourth full-time Doctor, I think it’s important to look at the beginning of this whole new journey and thank and respect everybody involved. They all had more to say, but the Ninth Doctor’s story ended right here. He was a pivotal figure in the show and one of the most important. He was, to coin a phrase, fantastic.
What are your favorite Doctor Who Series 1 moments and episodes? Tell me below!