After another 8 years of no televised Doctor Who, but heaps and gobs of Eighth Doctor novels and Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Doctor audio plays, it came time for a return. In 2003, the show’s 40th anniversary, a Flash-animated web series called “Scream of the Shalka” was produced. However, the thunder from this was completely stolen, because it was also announced that a proper live-action series would be returning to BBC One, headed up by Queer as Folk and Casanova creator Russell T. Davies, who had also been a long-time fan and had written for the Virgin New Adventures novel range.
Since the show had been off the air since 1989, save for that one 90-minute period in May of 1996, it was deemed pertinent by BBC Wales’ Commissioner of Drama Jane Tranter and producers Davies, Julie Gardner, and Phil Collinson to have an established, name actor in the lead role, since they weren’t sure how the larger public would react. They decided upon character actor Christopher Eccleston, who had worked with Davies before and had been the writer’s first choice for a role in Queer as Folk.
The companion, a formerly thankless role, really, would now be coming to the forefront, as would their family and relationships. Davies was key in turning the show into more of a character-based adventure drama than a strictly sci-fi play, the way the classic series had largely been. Ace’s turn in the last two seasons of the old show, as well as Dr. Grace Halloway in the TV movie, must surely have influenced Davies in the creation of Rose Tyler, a 19-year-old shopgirl from London with a flirty mom and a dumb boyfriend.
To play this part, Davies cast pop star Billie Piper, which at the time must have felt a bit like stunt casting, or at least trying to appeal to the younger audiences with a known personality. I had no idea who she was, so it didn’t do anything for me but upon retrospect. It is largely through Rose that the story of the first series of the rebooted Doctor Who played out, and it’s much easier for the audience to side with someone they already like.
Now, whether it was always intended for Eccleston to do just one series of the show or not is debatable, but what is known is that he was not pleased with the first batch of filming, which it has to be said produced possibly the worst episodes of the series. And, it’s also sad that the night of the premiere in 2005 came with the announcement that the actor wouldn’t return after this series.
Series 1 – 26 March 2005 – 18 June 2005
But forget all that. Let’s talk about the episodes themselves. Because this show was for all intents and purposes brand new, it wasn’t clear what tone the show would take – if it would be straight drama, horror, comedy, or a mixture of the three. Certain people involved in the making of the early episodes, namely director Keith Boak, clearly thought this show was to be campy and silly because the three episodes he shot are the dumbest and most ridiculous, despite some decent character stuff.
The first of these Boak monstrosities is Rose, the ostensible pilot. It introduces us to Rose and her mother Jackie (Camille Coduri) and boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clarke). One night while staying late at the department store in which she works, young Rose Tyler is set upon by violent living mannequins. (It’s the Autons, you guys!) Almost immediately, she is saved by a mysterious man who takes her hand and pulls her away from danger. He says he’s the Doctor and then he blows up the store. But, that’s not the end of the plastic terror. The Nestene Consciousness is somewhere in London, and Rose eventually (mainly because her boyfriend gets EATEN BY A GARBAGE CAN AND REPLACED), she helps the Doctor.
In this episode, we learn a lot about this strange man, but not too much. Unlike the TV movie, which tried to force-feed 26 years of continuity into the first 20 minutes of a movie, “Rose,” and all of Series 1, doled information out gradually, so Rose learns about the Doctor as the audience does. He’s still a mystery to us for a while. It also sets up that Rose is plucky and clever without being superhumanly smart like a Nyssa or Adric. She’s normal, but with the ability to be extraordinary, which is something the Doctor immediately latches on to. We know he’s been traveling on his own for a while, but he likes having someone around.
While “Rose” isn’t the best opener, it did a lot of things right, but without the next episode, The End of the World, probably a lot of viewers would have tuned out. The Doctor takes Rose 5 billion years into the future to Platform One, an orbiting space station used for people to look at the Earth, which has been left empty for ages. Today is the day the sun expands and many different species of alien elite come to watch the world burn. That’s where you take a girl right away, eh?
The “last human” arrives, and it turns out she’s just a sheet of skin with a face and a brain in a jar. Her name is Lady Cassandra and she’s the worst, which I think we can all agree. She’s racist, too, saying she’s the last “pure” human that hasn’t mixed with alien blood or been cloned or whatever. She tries to get everyone on the station killed so she can collect insurance money. The Doctor figures it out and saves most everyone.
Why this episode is great is that it does a myriad of continuity things without really going anywhere beyond a platform. 1) It tells us that the Doctor is a Time Lord and the last of his kind, 2) It sets up the idea of the Time War, which becomes all too important later on, 3) It lets Rose know that the Doctor can be merciful, but can also just as easily not be, and 4) It lets Rose realize that time travel means being outside of whether or not your family is alive or dead. That is a TON of stuff. It’s also a whole lot of fun, despite the use of Britney Spears.
After that, as would become customary, the Doctor takes Rose from the distant future to the nominal past, ending up in 1869 Cardiff and meeting Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead, written by Mark Gatiss. In it, an alien vapor species known as the Gelth are inhabiting the bodies of dead people and making zombies out of them. Scary, huh? I really love this episode, because it shows right away that this version of Doctor Who is not afraid to do horror and because it’s got a lot of humor, a lot of pathos, and a lot more of the Doctor’s backstory. He’s done some bad things in his life, especially in the Time War. We also get the idea that Cardiff has a rift in it, which is convenient because the show is shot there, but also because it sets up the later spinoff series Torchwood very nicely.
Next, we go back to Earth for a two-parter called Aliens of London/World War Three. These were the other two episodes directed by Keith Boak. He’s a terrible director. There are big farty aliens. I really dislike it. But, we do get some important things, which is irritating given how much I wish I could write it off entirely. The main thing is that the Doctor brings Rose back home a whole year after she left. Her mother thought she was dead, and her boyfriend Mickey had been the suspect for a while. We learn that time travel isn’t perfect and we, for once, actually see the familial problems that it creates. Second, we are introduced to Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North, who becomes important. And tertiarily (not a word) we’re re-introduced to UNIT. The rest of it can go away in toto.
Next is Dalek, written by Rob Shearman. It is to many people the best episode of the series, and it gives new viewers their first (of way too many) glimpses at the Doctor’s oldest foes, the Daleks. Or one Dalek to be specific. This one is being held prisoner by a rich American collector in an underground bunker in the desert. It, too, is apparently the last of its kind, and the Doctor is terrified of it, then is spitefully thrilled when he finds out that it’s all but deactivated. Rose’s compassion gives the Dalek strength and it goes on a rampage, EX-TER-MIN-A-TING just about everybody in the place. The Doctor, showing his coldest side to date, wants nothing more than to wipe this thing out. He doesn’t, though, thanks to Rose calming him down. A triumph, this episode.
“Dalek” also gives us the character of Adam (Bruno Langley), who is the first new companion since the FIRST new companion. He doesn’t work out, though. The next story, The Long Game, takes the travelers to Satellite 5, a space station orbiting Earth in the year 200,000. People are obsessed with news and are forever looking at some kind of screen. While the main plot involves the Doctor finding out the satellite is under the control of a big frozen mouth, Adam gets a brain implant to absorb knowledge far beyond any he should. This pisses off the Doctor and he sends Adam out. Rose loses her companion, which is fine.
Speaking of Rose losing things, next we have Father’s Day, written by Paul Cornell. This is the very first episode of the new Doctor Who that I watched, and is largely responsible for me continuing on and becoming the insane nerd about it you all know. In it, the Doctor allows Rose to see the moment her father died, when she was just a baby. Morbid. She turns away, though. Then she wants him to show it to her again, which means they have to stand further back than their previous selves. This time, she yells out, causing Pete Tyler not to die and the earlier them to go away. Changing the past is bad news, and soon things called Reapers, which basically eat time, show up and start picking off people. Rose is able to meet her father and learn that he might not have been the great guy she always thought he was. Eventually, she has to come to terms with the fact that if he doesn’t die, the timeline will continue to be eaten. It’s a “fixed point” in history, if you will.
What a great concept. Show us how messed up things can get if anything particular gets changed. We also see how dangerous it is to cross your own timeline and to meddle in the past (I mean, without being the Doctor and meddling on purpose). Here again, we get a lot of stuff about Rose’s family and the Doctor proves himself to be even more alien, which is always a plus in my book. He gives up at one point and decides these people aren’t worth saving, but then changes his mind. It’s delightful.
Next we have current head man Steven Moffat’s first foray into the new series in the form of the two-parter The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. Moffat would be the only writer besides Davies himself to write for every series of the Davies era, and thanks to him taking over as EP and head writer, Moffat is now the only writer who has written for every single series since 2005. That’s quite a thing, isn’t it?
Anyway, we’re taken to WWII London, where the Doctor and Rose are chasing a piece of space debris. They quickly meet Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), a roguish 25th Century man who used to be a Time Agent but has since become a con man, trying to swindle the Doctor and Rose out of money. This isn’t the bad stuff, though; there’s a creepy kid with a gas mask on who continually asks for his “mummy” and who apparently spreads some kind of infection. This infection, we soon learn, makes other people have a gas mask and ask for their mummy too.
The boy is Jamie, the “brother” of a young girl named Nancy. She’s really his mummy, though, and it’s her he’s been looking for. Turns out, the gas mask zombies were the work of nanogenes from the piece of space debris, an ambulance in reality, and they stupidly tried to fix the hurt Jamie but didn’t understand human biology, resulting in a gas mask face. The Doctor is able to get them to be less stupid and fix people through Nancy’s admission that she is Jamie’s mummy. Then “Everybody Lives!”
Really a terrific story, and it introduces us to Captain Jack, who is saved from self-destruction by the Doctor and becomes a new companion. Third new companion of the year, oh my. Everybody loves Captain Jack. He sticks around for the next episode, Boom Town, in which one of the farty aliens who didn’t die in the earlier story is now getting ready to blow up Cardiff with nuclear energy so she can get off of the planet. The Doctor catches her and says he’s going to bring her back to her planet, even though it means she’s going to be executed. It’s a moral dilemma the Doctor has. The alien woman didn’t kill a pregnant woman, so you know she’s not all bad, but she is a war criminal, which is pretty much terrible. Luckily, it all works out, because she tries to use the TARDIS to jump start her alien skateboard thing, but it just makes her an egg so that she can, indeed, start life over. Touching and gross.
Finally, we come to the two-part finale of the series: Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways. I haven’t yet mentioned “Bad Wolf,” and that’s because it’s kind of dumb and doesn’t make sense. It’s a pair of words that, apparently, Rose used in the future to let her or the Doctor know something about something. I don’t get it, I’m sure most of you do. Anyway, the words are in almost every episode of the season.
The first part takes the Doctor, Rose, and Captain Jack to Satellite 5 again, but way in the future even from the last time they were there. The Doctor awakens in a futuristic version of Big Brother, Rose in The Weakest Link run by an Anne-droid which kills the losers, and Capt. Jack in What Not to Wear with robo-clothiers. It turns out, though, that all of this had been a cover by the Daleks, who have kidnapped Rose as a way to keep the Doctor from interfering in their invasion scheme. The Doctor says he’s going to save her and wipe them out. Like a boss.
He does end up getting Rose back and realizes the only way out is to blow up the station with him on it. He sends Rose back to her own time in the TARDIS but she’s not prepared to be helpless and go back to her normal life. Even though her mom and Mickey ask her just to stay and be safe, they eventually help to try to get the TARDIS back in working order. She ends up opening the console and absorbing the time vortex energy. She goes to the future and thoroughly disintegrates the Daleks. She even, unknowingly, brings Captain Jack back from Extermination, though he’s got a whole bunch of new problems which we find out about later.
Eventually, the TARDIS energy becomes too powerful for her and she’s going to burn up, so the Doctor, with possibly the cheesiest line in television history, kisses the energy out of her and absorbs it into himself. When Rose awakens in the TARDIS, the Doctor is in pain. The energy was too much for him, too, but he had to do it, and he has a way of cheating death. He says goodbye to Rose before regenerating into the new-teeth-having Tenth Doctor.
The first series of the rebooted Doctor Who certainly had its ups and downs, but largely these were far more up than they were down. Eccleston was a brilliant Doctor who sadly didn’t have a good time doing it. For years after, he wouldn’t even really talk about his experiences on the program. Still, it set up right away the idea that the Doctor can change and that it’s not the end of the show, or indeed the world, when the lead actor changes. We’ll talk more about that next Friday, and will do it again, I’m sure, this Christmas.