Doctor Who was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its burial was signed by the BBC bigwigs in 1989 and countersigned by the 1996 TV Movie. It was unloved by audiences and TV commissioners alike. It was seen as cheap, hokey nonsense whose time had well and truly past. Doctor Who was as dead as a door-nail.
But then – 2003, when Russell T Davies used its revival as a bargaining chip to come over to the BBC. That he and a few key allies within the BBC like Lorraine Heggesey and Jane Tranter conjured it into existence at a time when it was still seen as a laughable remnant of TV past, was an enormous achievement. But there was a bigger mountain still to climb.
The broadcaster might have ordered 13 episodes for an initial season, but had the ratings not been there – if an audience could not be found and sustained further than the first few episodes – the show would likely be rapidly moved to a late night throwaway slot and its death sentence reapplied. Davies’ career would have suffered a severe setback. And Doctor Who would be the show with two failed reboots, making it TV poison. The stakes were never higher.
So with episode 1 of this new series, Russell T Davies had to achieve one thing only: he had to make a modern audience fall in love with Doctor Who in 45 minutes. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that he pulled this off brilliantly. But he also did something else in that first episode, something even cleverer and more cunning.
He taught a whole new audience how to watch Doctor Who.
His first step: reassurance. This episode doesn’t start like the TV Movie, in deep space, with planets and shadowy aliens and so on. It starts with a swan dive from space to Earth, down into an ordinary council flat. In a music clip montage, we meet Rose (Billie Piper) and she goes about the familiar routines of her life: getting ready for work, catching the bus, lunch with her boyfriend, folding up clothes.
The importance of this sequence is that it disarms. It captures viewers who would turn off at the first sight of a laser beam or a spaceship. It sends a powerful signal that this is a series for people who go to work, catch buses and do jobs they don’t particularly love. The lack of dialogue and the pacey cutting all help. Stick with us, this opening sequence says. It’s going to be OK.
Rose is our central character and casting Billie Piper was crucial to both selling the character and the show itself. Piper manages to look like the girl next door while also being charismatic enough to signal that she’s much more than that. Positioning this as her story – making the female sidekick (always a secondary presence in the classic series) the focus of the first episode is a huge signal of intent.
Not only is this a story set in the real world, the world which viewers live in, one of our own is the hero. One of our own is someone important enough to be the centre of this story and to give her name to the story. The old series, even in its later years, never gave us a story called Ace. Or even Mel (can you imagine?). That Rose is fundamentally about Rose is a quiet but fundamental shift.
Next step: the hook. Post our music clip opening, there’s the sequence with the Autons in the basement of the building. It’s textbook Doctor Who: monsters made out of everyday objects, creepy simulacra of human beings, someone trapped within a darkened room and the creeping threat of death at the hand of something bizarre but terrifying. This will be familiar to those who remember the classic show, and in its capacity to intrigue and excite, it crosses televisual generations. Davies shrewdly doesn’t lead with this. In a narrative sleight of hand, he lulls his audience into a sense of comfort with science fiction with the “day in the life of Rose” sequence and then grabs them with some ol’ fashioned thrills. He tops off this sequence, by introducing us to the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston).
Davies keeps the Doctor at arm’s length. He’s an enigma who Rose has to decode in increments. She meets him in a series of events, getting deeper each time. This is what Davies wants his audience to do. He wants them to seek him out, in the same way Rose does. He wants to them to go on the internet to find out about him, just as Rose does. (And didn’t the BBC have several dummy websites from the show’s fictional world set up for them to discover?) By the time we get to the pivotal “turn of the earth” speech, we’re hooked. This drip feed of information avoids the TV Movie’s info dump approach, but it also positions the Doctor as a man you have to spend time with to understand. He’s a man of secrets and you’re going to have to hang around all season to find them all out. But if Rose is willing to, then so are we.
Having made Rose and us fans, Davies warns viewers about capital F, Levine level super fans. Clive (Mark Benton) is one such fan, who Rose meets on the internet. Clive’s way of following the Doctor is not the right way. He lives in a shed. He’s a bit obsessed. A short meeting with him is enough to convince Rose to keep her distance. Clive’s inclusion here is crucial to normalise the process of watching Doctor Who for new audience members. When Rose walks away from Clive, repelled but with her curiosity about the Doctor maintained, she’s showing that you don’t have to be an anorak to watch this show.
And as Rose continues to decipher the Doctor, to explore the TARDIS, and to help him defeat a big tub of angry goo, Davies is stating what viewers can expect from the show. Expect Rose to be an active participant in the story, he’s saying. Expect her to battle aliens. But also expect her to have a family, have a home base and be grounded in the real world.
Then in the very last frame, she runs into the TARDIS, completely buying into future adventures. Again, this is what Davies wants the audience to do. Throughout this whole episode, he’s used Rose as an avatar for the viewer. It’s almost like neural linguistic programming or subliminal messaging – making Rose the stand-in for an audience learning about Doctor Who. It’s what makes Rose such a crafty, disarming and ingenious piece of work. It’s a trick which got – and kept – so many of us watching.
And this weekend, the show will attempt the same trick again. A brand new Doctor, but for the first time, a woman. Reassurance, intrigue, old-fashioned thrills and enough mystery to keep us hooked for a season worth of adventures. My prediction? There’ll be plenty of Rose in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. A trick that good is worth pulling again and again.
LINK TO Kill the Moon: Tension between the Doctor and his companion’s boyfriend.
NEXT TIME… Are you secretly a badass? We’ll find out in Extremis, baby doll.
The old series may never have given us a Mel, or an Ace, but it did give us, in episode 1 1963, An Unearthly Child – a story about and named for Susan. Rose was terrific – however you want to interpret that sentence.