10 years on, and it’s hard to remember what a nail-biting moment it was. As fans we’d been let down by the TV movie, and made to feel like weirdos by the BBC. 45 minutes later, it was almost just a relief that Russell T Davies hadn’t mucked it up. At the time I just thought, ‘thank God it was good’.
Subsequently, Rose has become probably the most picked-over 45 minutes of television ever. Probably had been even before The End of the World broadcast, because by 2005 internet fandom was properly established, and the episode leaked online before transmission.
In retrospect, Rose isn’t a hugely surprising episode for anyone familiar with Davies’ previous work, including Damaged Goods, or for anyone aware of the way Doctor Who had been developing since Survival. I’ve already covered making the ‘Wilderness Years’ for a new audience in the Scream of the Shalka post.
What is surprising is that, of all the options open to the BBC – making a feature film, co-producing with an American partner, or just rebooting the show – a continuation of the 1963 series was one of the least likely. Especially when there was a consensus view that among the TV movie’s biggest mistakes were including Sylvester McCoy and an info-dump of arcane mythology.
So Rose has to answer the question: how do you resurrect a long-running TV programme where the past is widely seen – including by the production company – as a bit of a joke? How do you simultaneously make Doctor Who Season 27 and Doctor Who Series One.
Davies’ solution is the Time War, clearing the decks of the mythology – of rival Time Lords and regeneration limits – that stifled the TV movie. The Time War isn’t a BBC Books’ style continuity reset, a negation of the past. Everything is still there. It’s just time-locked, safely segregated from the rest of the universe. It doesn’t prevent Davies from telling stories about Gallifrey and the Master. But it’s a way of closing the door on the past, from keeping it from impinging on the new series until Davies is ready. It is even used (bizarrely, for long-term fans) as a justification for his not going back for Sarah Jane. The Daleks and the Master are explicitly said to have escaped the time-lock, slipping through the cracks – which also allowed the Parallel Cybermen into our universe. The Sontarans and the Nestenes are said to have been affected by the war, even if not directly involved. In The End of Time the Doctor says, ‘If the time-lock’s broken, then everything’s coming through.’ He mentions the Horde of Travesties and the Skaro Degredations but he might as well add the Borad, the Quarks and Faction Paradox. The time-lock is there to keep them all safely contained. Anything returning from the show’s own history is explicitly linked to the Time War, which therefore becomes the watchword for pre-2005 Doctor Who.
The shadow of the past becomes one of the most interesting aspects, both of Rose and the whole of the Davies ‘era’. The ninth Doctor isn’t just the only survivor of the war. He was part of it, soaked in blood. He’s tainted by association with the past. We’ll learn he committed double genocide on the Daleks and the Time Lords. In Rose, the Auton killing spree happens because the Doctor blunders into the Nestene base and causes the Consciousness to accelerate its plans for conquest. Clive, the only speaking character in Rose to get killed off, becomes just another in ‘the ranks of the Doctor’s fallen extras’ as Davies called them back in Damaged Goods. Earlier in the episode, he’s predicts his own fate when he tells Rose: ‘The Doctor is a legend woven throughout history. When disaster comes, he’s there. He brings the storm in his wake and he has one constant companion. Death.’
This theme runs across the Davies series. The Doctor might be wonderful, but he’s also ‘the storm in the heart of the sun’. Dozens of people die in 1913 because he hides there ‘on a whim’. Even Martha becomes wary of him, telling Donna, ‘He’s wonderful, he’s brilliant, but he’s like fire. Stand too close and people get burnt.’ It’s summarised in Boom Town, when Margaret Blaine challenges the Doctor:
Only a killer would know that. Is that right? From what I’ve seen, your funny little happy go lucky little life leaves devastation in its wake. Always moving on because you dare not look back. Playing with so many people’s lives, you might as well be a god. And you’re right, Doctor. You’re absolutely right. Sometimes you let one go.
The Doctor has no glib answer. And I think it’s because neither does Davies: these are questions about the Doctor that trouble him, he keeps replaying Margaret’s criticism – through Joan Redfern and Davros and Adelaide Brooke. These ideas were there as far back as Damaged Goods, and they’re definitely there right from Rose. Again and again through Davies’ scripts, we see a character torn between being a ‘vengeful god’ and a human – ideas raised in Davies’ first collaboration with Eccleston, The Second Coming.
At the end of the season, Rose says the Doctor showed her ‘a better way of living your life’. But I think she does the same for him. All along, the Doctor’s needed us ‘stupid apes’ – to stop him from going too far, from braining a caveman to exterminating the Racnoss. The tension between the Doctor as the lonely god, the last of the Time Lords, the ‘Time Lord victorious’, and the Doctor as a ‘man of peace, never cruel or cowardly’ runs right through to the end of Davies’ tenure, when he realises that there’s no point having epic adventures if he can’t save one old man.
So Davies makes the Time War/history of Doctor Who more than a convenient piece of backstory. It’s like the Big Bang – the thing that the entire universe, including the Doctor, is rushing away from. The ninth Doctor’s first word is, ‘Run!’ And he never stops running. This forward momentum is typical of Davies’ writing, which is both fast-paced (the biggest innovation of Rose is its speed, so much quicker than any previous Doctor Who in any medium), and looking to the future. Of 31 episodes Davies is credited for, only two are historicals (both set in Victorian Britain). That’s six per cent, compared with 40 per cent of Moffat’s 31 episodes to date. This might just mean Davies is less interested in writing historicals. He clearly doesn’t have a massive issue with them, he just prefers to give them to Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts or Moffat. But it’s interesting because I think we can infer something of Davies’ mindset about ‘the past’ in general: he doesn’t have a problem with it, but he’s not much interested in revisiting it.
I think it’s also representative of Davies view of what Doctor Who should be: exciting, pioneering and optimistic: ‘You never take time to imagine the impossible, that maybe you survive.’ History might therefore seem a bit dull. On the rare occasions the TARDIS goes back in time, it’s to go to pop concerts or plays: the running gag in Series One and Two is the Doctor trying to take Rose to see Venice, or Ian Drury and the Blockheads or Elvis and getting it wrong. Davies’ Who is both more grounded in the real world, and more interested in adventures that demonstrate the excitement of human endeavour. Rose ends on a Next Time trailer for The End of the World, which says a lot about the tone of the new series: Ian and Barbara met the first humans, Rose gets to meet the last one.
Though the first companion to get her name in the titles, Rose isn’t exactly unprecedented: every one since Grace has been the Doctor’s equal. But she’s more solidly ‘ordinary’ than any of them. The gets at the other thing I think Davies strives for: authenticity. Rose is a shop girl with no A-levels, who left school because of a boy. She’s sexualised – ‘Any excuse to get in the bedroom’ – and she drinks. She feels authentic, grounded in real life.
Equally, the ninth Doctor has an authenticity to him that’s beyond the frock coats and eccentricities of his predecessors. Not even the Shalka Doctor foreshadowed this version. The northern accent adds to this sense of bluff honesty. It’s probably a coincidence that these authentic leads are pitted against monsters made of plastic, with its connotations of artificiality and fakeness, defeating them through a mix of Rose’s practical gymnastics and the Doctor’s anti-plastic. But it fits a trend. Next episode, the villain’s a plastic surgeon’s wet dream, and throughout the season the Doctor and Rose get pitted against fake space refugees, fake politicians, even fake Daleks. Davies was candid about wanting to avoid stories set on ‘the Planet Zog’, which lacked realness or relevance to a contemporary audience. In Damaged Goods and Rose the only thing that makes the lingering after-effects of a Time Lord war important is the effect it has on the real life of people on a council estate.
This real-life ‘authenticity’ is something new, albeit the direction Doctor Who was moving towards in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While a backdrop of mainly present day Earth / future spaceships might recall the Pertwee era, Davies’ Doctor Who has practically nothing in common with it. Instead, the entirety of time and space becomes a social commentary on early Twenty-First Century England.
In Rose, there’s one character out of step with this: Clive. On one level he’s clearly a parody of the BBC’s view of Doctor Who fans. By killing off Clive – and only Clive – you could uncharitably argue Davies is demonstrating that this series is no longer for old-school Doctor Who fans, and he’s “killing” their influence on the show. He’s always been candid, not least in The Writer’s Tale, about his unsentimentality, of always putting the good of the programme first.
But that’s not quite how Clive is positioned. He is the link to the past of Doctor Who – quite literally to its beginning, when he shows Rose a photo of the ninth Doctor at the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd 1963. By overtly referencing the day before Doctor Who started, and putting the ninth Doctor there, Davies is connecting Rose to An Unearthly Child, and the previous 42 years of the show. Through Clive, fans are reassured this series is a continuation, not a reboot.
I think the real purpose of killing Clive is to kill off the BBC stereotype of a Doctor Who fan, putting a bullet through the head of the sniggering condescension of stuff like Doctor Who Night, which portrayed fans as slightly unsavoury middle aged men. The clincher for me is that Clive is a nice man who never deserved to be treated he was. I think there’s a flash of anger in his death, Davies’ veiled criticism of his new employers’ failure to cherish the show.
The other thing is, Clive is always right. When he says of the Doctor, ‘I think he’s immortal. I think he’s an alien from another world’ he’s absolutely on the money. So, it’s a lovely, generous gesture that Clive’s last words are, ‘It’s true. Everything I read, all the stories. It’s all true’, I think in that line Davies is acknowledging everything that’s gone before. The Sensorites; the Myrka; Timewyrm: Genesys; the Chelonians; Paul McGann; War of the Daleks; Beep the Meep: all of them are in the canon, all of them had value, they’re all part and parcel of the 2005 revival. It’s a measure of the inclusiveness of Davies’ vision of Doctor Who. This is absolutely for old-school Doctor Who fans like Clive, or Russell, or me. It’s just, now it’s for everyone else as well.
Next Time: ‘Now they’re all gone. All gone. None of them could understand… Perhaps I should go home, back to my own planet. But I can’t. I can’t.’ – The Runaway Bride