It was either a legend majestically born or an annoying Ritalin romp pitched at Doctor Who’s youngest ever audience; an inspired return to form, or anathema to Who fans of old with nothing in common with the previous incarnation.
Reviewers variously found Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor to be outstanding, the best since Tom Baker, marvellously alien, surprisingly warm and dotty, sarcastic and wry, and a blind of muscularity and sensitivity. Alternatively, the Ninth Doctor was an off-puttingly goofy otherworldly buffoon who kept pulling weird, annoying faces. On Eccleston though, one point of consensus was reached: everyone agreed he was Northern.
Not Northern but almost unanimously called a revelation was Billie Piper, whose performance and nice-looking hair both came in for praise. Rose Tyler was labelled a chav, a sidekick, a post-feminist, and more the Doctor’s equal than previous companions. Practically everyone noted her tower block home, but only two newspapers deemed it relevant to note the ethnicity of her boyfriend.
The real acclaim though, was saved for Piper’s chemistry with Eccleston. Non-sexual chemistry, one reviewer called it, adding “Thank heavens Doctor Who appears not to have been turned into a love story”. Moving swiftly on…
Russell T. Davies’ script was lauded as being witty, brilliant and sharp, as well as derided for being exclamatory and clichéd. The special effects were either a dazzling, slickly impressive technological overhaul that proved the Doctor had entered the modern age, or else they were shonky and the only thing the show had in common with its wobbly sets and ropey costumed past.
“Davies and his team get everything right” said one lifelong fan of the original series. “It is not – and will never be – Doctor Who” said another. Kids were sure to love it, Who purists were sure to hate it, and nobody was sure it would survive until the next Regeneration.
The reviewers did appear to be united in two respects: they all loved puns (scan the headlines for March 2005 here for multiple, repeated use of ‘Carry On, Doctor’, ‘What’s Up Doc’ and ‘Who’s The Daddy?’) and everyone but everyone hated the burping bins.
As we approach this month’s tenth anniversary of Rose’s first broadcast, we take a nostalgic trip back to see what a cross-section of contemporary reviews in the mainstream press made of the Doctor’s first new episode in sixteen years…
BBC News Online – Sylvester McCoy, 6th of April 2005
“Christopher Eccleston was quite alien as the Doctor. He looked wonderful. He had this manic grin which worried me. We were not sure if he was on the edge of insanity or not, which was rather good. He just ran into danger with such gusto, he galloped at it joyfully.
Billie Piper was just quite fantastic, she really was wonderful in the role. The relationship between the two of them was quite extraordinary.
I was not so sure about the new Tardis, however. I loved the one they made for the 1996 Doctor Who movie, a fantastic Jules Verne-type of creation. The inside of this one looked more organic, like a skull or a brain held together by a bony structure. I’ll have to see whether it grows on me. […]
Overall I was left feeling very positive about the new series. It had a great pace, it moved really quickly and was witty.”
The Observer – Robin McKie 27th of March
“Bringing back the old boy was a courageous move and I’m pleased to say it was also an inspired one, a triumph of tight writing, wit, good editing and some smashing acting.
The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) is now a craggily good-looking bit of trouser with a fine line in leather jackets and a pronounced northern accent.
His assistant Rose (Billie Piper) lives on a housing estate, has flunked her A-levels, is stuck with a dodgy, compensation-seeking mum, possesses a fine estuary accent and has a black boyfriend.
Thus the adult half of the audience is – on the evidence of the first episode – well-catered for. It remains to be seen what younger, thrill-seeking TV-watchers will make of it.”
Radio Times – Patrick Mulkern
“In Rose, [Davies] and his team get everything right. As the episode title makes clear, it’s all about Rose Tyler – a young woman with a humdrum life, who’s sleepy in the opening moments but soon wakens to the mystery, the magic and enticing dangers offered by the Time Lord and his Tardis. And she takes legions of new viewers along with her.
The casting of Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper is spot on. He’s a leading actor at the top of his game, wanting to stretch himself, thirsting for good material. And while he doesn’t wholly convince me in the Doctor’s frivolous moments, I love the blend of muscularity and sensitivity he brings to the role – a Doctor really unlike any other. Piper, on the other hand, was more of a risk. A media darling for her teen pop career and marriage to much older DJ Chris Evans, she had more to prove – but is instantly “right” for Rose. Plus she draws in her fan-base and defies her detractors.
At last, we have a proper female perspective, which draws in a wider audience. Who cares if a few superannuated fan-boys are alienated? […]
As Rose rushes towards the Tardis in the final slo-mo shot, to the sound of Delia Derbyshire’s cliffhanger sting, you cannot help but share the surge of euphoria at a legend majestically reborn.”
The Guardian – Stephen Brook, 9th of March 2005
“The good Doctor is most definitely back… and many traditionalists are going to greet this radical new version with utter dismay.
Let’s start with the negatives – and there are many. This is Who for the attention deficit disorder generation. The wonderfully slow build-up of tension that was a hallmark of the series at its finest – think of the Hand of Fear creeping towards Sarah Jane! – was entirely absent from episode one, entitled Rose. […]
As for the cast, Billie Piper is an excellent companion as Rose, but as the Doctor rarely is Christoper Eccleston allowed to be anything more than a goofy, otherworldly buffoon. […]
This new Doctor Who is almost utterly action and humour focused but the strongest scene is between the leads on an ordinary London street, where the Doctor poetically reveals his alien otherworldliness to Rose and his reason for being. If only there was more like that for the older fans to enjoy. […]
As a diehard Who fan, I will watch all the remaining episodes wishing, hopefully not totally in vain, that they had laid off the Ritalin.”
The Daily Express – 9th of March, 2005
“So much of the BBC’s shiny new Doctor Who has been lovingly assembled according to a clear philosophy of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. … But it comes at a souped-up pace and delights in showing off the results of the huge resources of budget and talent that have been thrown at a programme whose sets were once only out-wobbled by those of Crossroads. Between [Eccleston and Piper] they are a revelation. … To be successful, Doctor Who needs to look brilliant, crack along with never a dull moment, and excite and amuse in equal measure. By the look of the first episode it will do that in spades.”
The Mirror – Polly Hudson, 29th of March 2005
“Billie’s acting was competent and non-showy. Oh, and her hair looked nice, too. I know the Doctor is meant to be a quirky, kooky guy, but the weird faces Eccleston kept pulling were a bit annoying. Maybe it was the first day of filming and he was showing off a bit. Hopefully he’ll have calmed down by episode two.”
All in all, this new Doctor Who confused me. It probably offended Who purists. And it’s neither funny nor glamorous enough to convert the Heat-reading generation they are so obviously aiming for.
So who does that leave exactly?
No doubt a lot of people watched the opening episode to see if it lived up to the hype. But will they be back? I probably will be – but only to see what Billie’s wearing.”
The Telegraph – Stephen Pile, 26th of March
“It works. Thumbs up. Let them live.
It is like watching a completely new programme but with enough references to the great tradition to make it authentic. It has the Tardis, the monsters, the female companion responsible for the sexual awakening of boy viewers everywhere, the sonic screwdriver and that crucial balance between scariness and comedy
Eccleston is such an electrifying actor that he conveys the doctor’s alien status (he is 900 years old with two hearts) by the means of wide-eyed, slightly unhinged over-enthusiasm.
He has real chemistry with Piper’s Rose, who is the most interesting development of all. Rose is post-feminist. Soft, feminine, caring and unashamedly attractive but she still saves her pathetic boyfriend, and even Doctor Who, with a moment of no-fuss girl power. Russell T Davies’s script is vastly better than anything before it.”
Sunday Herald – Graeme Virtue, 27th of March 2005
“Despite a heavy reliance on shonky CGI effects in the opening episode, Christopher Eccleston’s loopy performance bodes well for the future (and past, and present).
The only thing that didn’t quite chime for me was the new interior of the Tardis, the minimalist and claustrophobic white cockpit of old re-imagined as an enormous steel steampunk cavern. You might believe this Victorian-looking furnace could power a police box through time and space … but where does the Doctor actually hang out when he’s not battling Autons? If this was the Tardis’s engine room, I wanted to see the library, the cocktail lounge, the games room. But there’s time yet…”
The Observer – Rachel Cooke, 6th of March 2005
“The next day I sneak into the BBC for a private screening. What can I tell you? It is very slick, with some good lines and sinister moments. There is a great bit with the Millennium Wheel. I enjoy it, but it is not, and never will be – how shall I put this? – Doctor Who. I hear the theme music and my stomach flips. But then Christopher Eccleston appears, looking dour in his leather jacket, and I have an overwhelming sense of loss. I decide that the only way of dealing with this is to go home and watch a DVD I have bought to help me write this piece: The Robots Of Death, starring Tom Baker. But this is no help at all. How slow the whole thing seems, and how silly the robots look in their Camilla Parker Bowles-style green quilted jackets. Their spaceship, moving slowly across a strange planet, looks like a Dinky toy being pushed through a sand pit. A human is murdered. The mark of his death? A small red reflector, exactly like one you’d see on the rear mudguard of a bicycle, is stuck to his hand. Good grief.
In some ways, there has never been a better time to bring back Doctor Who. […] Perhaps, then, Russell T’s Doctor will find an audience. But these viewers must be young, they must know nothing of Gallifrey or Exxilon or Karn; they must see the Autons and the Daleks with new eyes. Anyone with precious memories – obsessive fans excepted – is probably done for so far as the Timelord’s ninth incarnation goes. Then again, as The Robots Of Death forcefully reminded me, the past is not always what you think, and little is to be gained by wallowing in it.”
The Daily Express – 28th of March, 2005
“The Tardis has landed. The Doctor is among us and all is well with the world. Or pretty much all. Christopher Eccleston makes a marvellous new Doctor Who. The special effects are dazzling, the script by Russell T Davies is sharp and witty. The opening episode was perfectly in tune with the show’s traditions but it could just as easily have stood alone”
The Times – Simon de Bruxelles, March the 10th 2005
“The new series has retained the best of the old, including the 1950s police box, the theme music, the Daleks, who first appear in episode 6, the Time Lords and the Doctor’s “sonic screwdriver”. Banished are the wobbly sets and creaky special effects. The new Doctor is mercurial, funny and ever so slightly camp – and he enjoys a closer relationship with his new female assistant than previous doctors.
The Sun – 9th of March, 2005
“The new Who doesn’t wear a scarf or fancy coat – but from the start Eccleston is outstanding. And the script from Queer As Folk writer Russell T Davies is sparky, witty and will please even the most ardent fans.”
The Sunday Times – AA Gill, 27th of March 2005
“What is it with sci-fi fans that they alone are incapable of moving on? They clutch at the past with a fantasy yearning in complete contradiction, you’d have thought, to the observations and lessons implicit in science fiction. Never mind, either way, they’re in a world of their own and the BBC has foolishly rebuilt it for them. […]
The best thing about it was Billie Piper, who was well cast as a modern, chavishly smart sidekick who runs well […] Piper has a face that the small screen just wants to lick. Christopher Eccleston though, is a less obvious piece of casting. He’s an intense, naturalistic actor with a dangerous edge; being a pre-watershed alien with comedy bits really isn’t playing to his strengths. […]
The authentic nostalgia lay in the crap special effects and hokey crowd scenes, where 10 had to make do for 1000. The dialogue was mostly exclamatory, interspersed with unbelievable explanations of bits of plot and lots of running. What killed off the original Doctor Who was jet lag. The rest of science-fiction passed it by, and unfortunately it still hasn’t caught up. The current incarnation of the Time Lord has barely moved and the one thing the future can’t afford to be is old-fashioned.”
The Times – Paul Hoggart, 28th of March 2005
“The gaunt, glowering and usually working-class Christopher Eccleston seemed an odd choice for the Time lord, but he gives the role a surprisingly warm, dotty energy. […]
Baby-faced Billie Piper is a suitably cute but feisty assistant, and Russell T Davies’ script has enough verve, wit and clever allusions to keep ageing fans of Doctors past chortling merrily. […]
Revivals are always risky but the new Doctor Who is a joyful, exuberant reinvention”
The Daily Mail – Michael Hanlon, 9th of March 2005
“Like millions in their thirties and forties, my childhood viewing was more or less defined by the antics of the good Doctor, his friends and his foes.
Doctor Who was consistently watchable and entertaining despite some atrocious acting, ropey sets and numerous plot inconsistencies.
However, it had a very British sense of humour, tongue in cheek but never overtly playing for laughs. So what is the new one like? In my opinion Eccleston is a return to form. We have been promised a darker, more knowing Who and although the new series is clearly aimed at a young audience, there is enough pace and enough knowing jokes to keep the over tens happy.
The Doctor, a conspicuously cool, sarcastic and wry incarnation of the Gallifreyan Time Lord, manages to save London, and the entire planet, by defeating the ‘consciousness’ that controls the animated mannequins that run rampage through the capital’s streets. […]
There is a spark between Eccleston and Piper at one point they run hand-in-hand across a bridge but any chemistry appears not to be sexual. Thank heavens Doctor Who appears not to have been turned into a love story. […]”
“As for his faithful companion, Billie Piper does an outstanding job as the practical, down to earth Rose Tyler. Proving she’s more than just a pop moppet or lads-mag model, the former Mrs Chris Evans shines as, perhaps surprisingly, one of the best things in it. […]
This is a bold restating of what Doctor Who was always about – scaring the kids and entertaining families on a Saturday night. Old series monsters the Autons – recreating the famous shop window breakout of their 1970 debut – keep the show in touch with its past, while the energentic direction and decent special effects show off its new coat of paint cheerfully. To coin a phrase – he’s back, and it’s about time.”
Digital Spy – Dek Hogan, March the 26th 2005
“A good-natured script in which the exposition required was skilfully blended into the plot […]
The bit with the burping wheelie bin elicited groans rather than laughs here at Hogan Towers […]
Eccleston takes to the role with a light touch with the serious side bubbling under the surface and it seemed very much to me along the lines of the late great Patrick Troughton’s approach.”
The real revelation though was Billie Piper as the trusty new assistant. From the looks of this she’ll be capable of far more than being Head of Screaming and it was a nice touch in the opener that it’s her and not the Doctor that manages to overcome the alien invaders.”
New Statesman – Andrew Billen
“The best thing about [Davies’] new Doctor Who is exactly what is always the best thing about his work: its commentary on contemporary life. […] But Davies’ larkiness, even when it has satirical edge, threatens the programme’s credibility and its scariness. When it comes to monsters, you must decide whether you want them to cause laughter or shivers. Davies, with his unforgiveable burping wheelie bin, has decided to made us laugh. […]
The great time everyone was obviously having, Davies included, was at the programme’s expense. For the fantastical doctor to stand out, his eccentricity must contrast with the seriousness of worlds that know they are battling for survival, not a ratings victory over Ant and Dec. […] I wouldn’t have missed this regeneration, but I’m not sure if I’ll be too sorry if this really is the last”.
Sydney Morning Herald – Robin Oliver May the 21st, 2005
“This new doctor also tempts because writer Russell T. Davies takes an adult approach to one of television’s most famous characters – and children will appreciate that. Davies overrides the cash-strapped production values of the past to make his new doctor competitive in a high-tech market, but keeps his soul alive with such jokes as bicycle-pumped gadgetry in the Tardis.
Playing this attractive hero with a cheeky north-country accent is Christopher Eccleston, the Christ-like enigma in The Second Coming, Davies’ most recent drama. Old sparks of sexuality between the doctor and his assistant are enhanced by the arrival of Billie Piper, pop star and rising actress. Piper plays Rose Tyler, a London shop girl, more the doctor’s equal than previous companions – no mean achievement against Eccleston’s acting skills.”
The Seattle Times – Kay McFadden
“The superb Doctor Who achieves something difficult for American shows: It makes TV look easy by demonstrating that intelligence and escapism are not mortal enemies.”
This week’s celebration of 10 years of new Doctor Who continues tomorrow.
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