And off we run. Your shelf may have comics on it, but there’s a good chance it also has several TV box sets on there too, and now Shelfdust is expanding the remit somewhat so we can write about television episodes as well as single-issue comics! The sell-out starts now, with Doctor Who the first show getting capped here on the site. Now there’s little chance I’ll have much new to add to these episodes, but perhaps something might spark you to grab the boxsets off your shelf and, well, dust them off, as is the very premise of this here site. That’s the hope!
We start with the first episode of Doctor Who’s revival, with Russell T. Davies regenerating the show with Christopher Ecclestone stepping into the storied role.
What “Rose” aims for is a sense of an authentic portrayal of everything as you might expect to find it. Planet Earth is asleep, with humanity cut off from the greater galaxy and all the possibilities which might be available to them. The Doctor is out of sight, adjusting to a presumably new regeneration and trying to work out what his place in the world might be. And Rose Tyler is full of untapped potential, her life cut down into a montage of three or four equally slight sequences. From there, it’s figured, we can go anywhere.
From the opening image of the galaxy, which spins away and focuses on Earth before zooming to Rose Tyler’s bedroom, the show is remarkably contained considering it’s rebooting a decades-old franchise with more history than perhaps any other television show before it. Economy is key, as we shut out the time-travel and galaxy-jumping in favour of sticking ourselves in a small flat in London, where a young girl doesn’t realise how trapped she is by her life. As evidenced from the title, “Rose” points Billie Piper’s character as the centre of the show here, and Piper spends her time ensuring that Rose feels authentic and true,even as the situation slowly gets away from her.
There’s a conversation between her and Christopher Ecclestone’s distracted Doctor partway through the episode where they each accuse the other of thinking that “the world revolves around” them, and it’s key in understanding how the show wants to develop outwards. The Doctor has just survived what sounds like a traumatic event, and Rose has spent her life having her desires dictated towards her by the people around her. Her mother bosses her; which she breezes other, whilst her boyfriend treats her like a trophy he’s accomplished and can objectify however he wants.
Rose, in turn, is shown to be incredibly empathetic, turning at several points to worry about how the science fiction of the show might affect people in the factual world. And her perspective is emphasised as important in the way writer Russell T. Davies casually approaches death. Here, we see Rose’s boyfriend Mickey apparently killed before the episode then concludes with a mass-murder at the hands of the creaky 1970s villains ‘The Autons’, living plastic who in this case have taken on the form of shop dummies. The episode gets a lot of comedic mileage from these corny villains, who squeak whenever they move and are dressed in silly period-accurate clothing, which makes them hard to take as a threat.
When they kill Mickey, it’s because they take the form of a wheelie bin and eat him – complete with burping sound effect afterwards with the lid swinging up – whilst another scene shows the Doctor fighting off a severed arm whilst Rose dismisses it as a prank. They aren’t serious, they’re silly, just like the old Doctor Who series was remembered to be by most fans – that it then turns into a fairly horrific shooting in a shopping centre is a bit of a change of pace for the viewers. For one thing, it takes the life of Mark Benton’s conspiracy-theorist character, who is the one to first connect the new events happening in the episode with the Doctor’s lengthy past.
As a whole, the episode keeps the Doctor out of the way. He’s still operating as long-time ans might have expected, but all his quirks are hidden until they’re needed. We get an early glimpse of the TARDIS as set-dressing, then in another scene it teleports away off-screen. Rose takes a few moments before she finally runs inside in a third scene, and it’s only then that we get to see just how wide a world the Doctor runs in. His TARDIS is function-only, perhaps because of the Time War he’s only just come out of and is clearly still recovering from. It’s huge and empty, really, with just a central control panel and no real quirks or personalised aspects aside from the cobbled-together control system made up of human junk.
It’s a reminder that, despite his frequent protests to the contrary, there’s a lot that connects the Doctor to this version of modern-day Britain. His TARDIS is a bit of a shambles, but then so is everywhere – Mickey’s car is ridiculous, the Autons look silly, there’s rubbish on the road and broken streetlights overseeing the final scene. It’s all so very ordinary, in its own way, which is why Davies and director Keith Boak are able to get away with the sci-fi silliness that enters the story halfway through and gets intense by the end. We get a glimpse of the Doctor, and he acts in roughly the way old fans would expect a Doctor to act. We get to see the alien menace, and they’re menacing in the way they always were.
The stakes are different, however, and so is Rose’s role as companion to the Doctor. That’s perhaps where things catch new viewers and hook them in. People die, here, straight away, despite the fact they’re being killed by shop dummies wearing seasonal wedding dresses. Rose’s world doesn’t actually change from the realisation that aliens are real and walking amongst us – she just gets a bit of extra context she was missing before. That puts her in the same place as the viewers, and helps sell her as a character. Because she feels authentic and her world feels authentic, we’re able to better understand things once the science-fiction begins and a strange Northern Doctor grabs her by the hand. It’s corny, but it’s realistically corny – and that’s going to become the centre of Doctor Who’s regenerated world, with everything else revolving round it.
Doctor Who Series 1 Episode 1: Rose
Written by Russell T. Davies
Directed by Keith Boak