Q: How Many Doctor Who Fans Does It Take To Change a Lightbulb?
Rose didn’t change the world overnight, of course. It was more of a foundation than a seismic event.
Not over-reaching was an entirely sensible decision, a seemingly low-key beginning keeping most of the show’s eggs back for other baskets, allowing the audience a way in without trying to blow their minds. After all, it’s a new series, not a one-off. Best start relatively simple and build, rather than dazzle and leave yourself nowhere to go. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of praise that I can give Rose now that I wouldn’t have given it on first viewing. It isn’t amazing television in terms of pure entertainment, but it isn’t trying to be. At the time, this wasn’t at the forefront of my mind, rather a fannish inquisition was taking place.
Some context: I was a lapsed fan at this point, a VHS collection dispensed to attics and charity shops, a dozen or so BBC Books and a Trial Of A Time Lord tin on the shelf to store cables in. I was aware that Doctor Who was coming back and planning to watch but wasn’t actively looking for information about it until a few weeks before broadcast. I detected an undercurrent of pessimism.
The nearest Doctor Who had come to this situation was 1970’s Spearhead From Space or the 1996 TV Movie. Even without the re-use of the Autons from Spearhead it’s the Third Doctor’s debut that has more in common with Rose: trying to establish a new tone for a new series, with a new Doctor and the potential for cancellation looming.
A difference is that Rose was the first new episode of Doctor Who to be broadcast for nine years, and in 1970 the show hadn’t even been on TV for that long. The wait had been long enough to drain any hope of Rose ever happening, especially after the TV Movie proved a short-lived resurrection. No wonder people were nervous. And what sort of episode title was Rose anyway? Shouldn’t she be the something of something else? Billie Piper had released singles with more Doctor Who-y titles than Rose.
And yeah, Billie Piper: sure, she’d been good in that Canterbury Tales adaptation with James Nesbitt, but at that point her stock wasn’t dissimilar to the light-entertainment connotations that Christopher Eccleston’s casting avoided. Eccleston also brought expectations: a none-more-serious actor, another step away from obvious notions of ‘Doctor-ish’, a suggestion of grit and its accompanying darkness (Grit, we were eventually reminded, isn’t necessarily accompanied by darkness. It’s surprisingly versatile).
And these were just the big deals. What if the minutiae were fumbled? It wasn’t just the title sequence or theme music, but the fonts and logo, the lack of faces or middle-eights in the titles, even the technobabble. ‘Anti-plastic’ was a shock to the system for many of us, to whom rattling off the made-up science was part of the show, you didn’t just make it shorter (even if Anti-plastic acids and enzymes do exist, it felt wrong). There were many small differences that accumulated, but at the time, Rose wasn’t a massive shock for me. It did feel substantially different, and jarringly so in places, but it wasn’t as if the name of the episode wasn’t a clue to the change of focus, a sign that Doctor Who was seeking a new audience.
Possibly there was complacency after sixteen years of being thoroughly catered to – between 1989 and 2005 the majority of Doctor Who fiction was produced by fans for fans – that the idea of TV changing in the interim, or that Doctor Who would have to change with it, wasn’t an immediate consideration. The idea that Rose was going to be a foundation hadn’t occurred, surely it would be more of the same, the original series was a perfectly good foundation already. Russell T. Davies disagreed, but there was historical precedent for this: the most popular production teams of the original run had done the exact same thing, taking the basic premise and putting their own spin on it. The Ark In Space is Robert Holmes taking Doctor Who and shaping it the way he and Philip Hinchcliffe wanted it to be, even if that means departing from the already popular style of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks.
However, Holmes had already established himself as a Doctor Who writer. For many Rose was an introduction to Russell T. Davies’ writing, so there were assumptions confirmed or jettisoned, and a lot of novelty to take on board. As with many opening episodes, the initial reaction is to focus on its problems, even if there are another twelve episodes of the series left to fix them. Certainly by the time the ‘Next Time’ trailer for Boom Town there’s still plenty of cheek to Davies’ writing, but the tone is more serious, and the promise of a series finale has been delivered. I didn’t care if there was a spoiler in a trailer, it got me hooked. Rose is recognisably the same show, but it has certain aspects that didn’t make it that far into Series 1 or beyond.
Certainly I remember thinking the music in Rose seemed dated as soon as it was broadcast, the tone overly flippant in places, that Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith didn’t seem that interesting. These were all ironed out (barring a few blips) but in isolation their significance was magnified, the show being a work in progress wasn’t immediately considered, and previously supporting characters had rarely had so substantial a story arc.
The Tylers would grow into something akin to the UNIT family, albeit a more grounded one. Most people watching the Pertwee era were unlikely to be part of an endearingly blatant secret military organization, so it wasn’t something as many people could recognize themselves in. Like much of Rose, they weren’t spectacular to begin with, but the groundwork here is enough to enable later heights. A recent Radio Times poll confirms that the Russell T. Davies era finales are still held in high regard, with The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End gathering of familiar faces the highest rated of its kind.
Of course, in hindsight, it’s hard to see how any other approach could have been as successful, the other ideas for restarting Doctor Who are aiming for mass appeal but don’t seem to have considered the show having a different audience from its original run. Even if you don’t like this era, you can’t deny how much love there is for it. The changes that started in Rose are a huge part of this, giving the audience a lot to latch on to and make their own.
Archimedes is quoted as saying ‘Give me a place to stand and I can move the Earth’. Rose wasn’t the Earth moving, but it was definitely a great place to stand.
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