Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "Rose"

Brace yourselves people, this is going to be a long one....

This was the first episode of the new series when it launched in 2005. I've already covered the fall of Doctor Who in 1989 HERE and I've covered the roots of the 2005 new series HERE so there isn't much more to say by way of background. Therefore... on to the review!

The Plot: Young Rose Tyler has a working class life -- living with her mother and working the sales floor at a department store. Then, one night, all that changes. She has a run-in with living store mannequins, meets a strange man in a leather jacket, and watches as the department store is blown up.

The universe isn't done with Rose Tyler yet though and strange events spiral around her... events which keep coming back to the mysterious man in the leather jacket. A man known only as... the Doctor. Rose doesn't know it yet but she's in for the time of her life.

My Take: One can see producer Russell T. Davies' vision for the new Doctor Who right from the start; right form the very name of the episode: "Rose". No other companion ever got a story named after them. And it is Rose's story. In fact, that is one of the complaints to be had here -- this story isn't really about the Doctor, it's about Rose.

This was all part of the change that RTD had for the show; he wanted to emphasize ordinary people who find it in themselves to be extraordinary or to find the extraordinary in the mundane. He tried to combine that philosophy here with the traditional companion role of being the audience stand-in -- the bridge between the audience and the Doctor -- but it comes out skewed. In the past we have met the Doctor (or a new incarnation of him) alongside the companions. With "Rose", however, we see him only through her eyes. This actually ends up kind of limiting the Doctor.

Christopher Eccleston chose to do only one year of the series and I've seen a number of fans sadly say that just as they were really getting to know Eccleston's Doctor he was gone. The thing is, this isn't a fault of Eccleston's performance, to me this is the fault of the scripts. We, as the audience, take so long to really get to know the Doctor because we're only allowed to know him through Rose. It's a weakness of the format which starts here. Later seasons and series would not have as much trouble because they had the benefit of building on what had gone before.

There were also complaints over the decision to put Eccleston's Doctor in more modern dress. It's true that the later seasons of the Classic series got carried away with the quirkiness of the Doctor's outfits (*cough*ColinBaker*cough*). In fact, there is a great bit in the recent series 5 story "Amy's Choice" in which the villainous Dream Lord says: "If you had any more tawdry quirks you could open up a tawdry quirk shop. The madcap vehicle, the cockamamie hair, the clothes designed by a first year fashion student; I'm surprised you haven't got a little, purple space dog just to ram home what an intergalactic wag you are." which seems to sum up the history of the show's costumes. Putting Eccleston in modern clothes was supposed to emphasize the modernity of the series. It also pushed Eccleston harder to get the Doctor across. By that I mean that the Doctor's quirky and/or anachronistic clothes were always a shorthand way of showing audiences how 'odd', 'crazy', and/or 'alien' the Doctor was. It helped sell the Doctor as 'not from around here'. Eccleston didn't have that to fall back on and so he had to sell the Doctor's alienness with words, inflection and mannerisms. It was a bold move and a part of me applauds it but it shows up another place where "Rose" falls down on the job.

There are some great lines of dialogue and they are delivered excellently by Eccleston. Many of them have become modern classics -- quoted and re-quoted time and again by fans -- but aside from this there isn't much there to show us the Doctor as a being who is truly alien in his thoughts and perceptions. We, as the audience, don't really get to see the Doctor figuring things out or being so very, very clever. For example, the Doctor waves around the bomb which will destroy the department store -- he's already built it. He waves around the vial of Anti-Plastic which can destroy the Nestene Consciousness -- he's already whipped up a batch. Heck, from the very start of the story he already knows that it's the Nestene Consciousness behind it! We don't get the tension or the insight of seeing him puzzle things out and cobble together solutions.

The one area where the script really does do Eccleston justice is with the new, harder edge to the Doctor. Past incarnations have been arrogant and dismissive of humanity but Eccleston delivers a kind of cold, faintly sneering edge to his arrogance. This, combined with his actions at the climax, gives viewers their first hints that this version of the Doctor is 'walking wounded' -- scarred by war and loss. This is a Doctor we've never seen before. This is a Doctor with new vulnerabilities.

There is a bit of a creepy side to the Doctor, however, that I actually didn't notice the first few times I watched the episode. The Doctor essentially forces Rose into the TARDIS. When being chased by the Nestene duplicate of her boyfriend the Doctor could have easily helped Rose to escape and told her to lie low for a few days until things were all clear. But no, instead he leaves her with two choices -- enter the TARDIS with him or face a raging Auton. And don't try to tell me that he was trying to keep Rose safe. He, himself, admitted that the Autons were after him and he was going to confront them. Was she really any safer with him? It really comes off as... well.... as I said -- creepy. The Doctor has already made up his mind that he wants Rose to travel with him and he manipulates her into it.

"Rose" would also set a pattern in which companions were "wrong", "broken" or "needed" the Doctor to fix them or make them something more. In the classic series there was generally nothing wrong with the companions and in many cases they had quite nice lives with budding careers which they put on hold to travel with the Doctor. But here the audience is pointed out at every turn that Rose doesn't have much of a future. No college education, no chance for career advancement where she was working, facing an uphill battle to find a new job and a mother and boyfriend not likely to push her to become more out of fear that she might end up thinking herself "too good" for their way of life. Enter the Doctor to take her away from all of that. Similar themes would be explored in nearly every companion after this. Which really gets annoying after a while.

As for the performances -- well, everyone involved turns in a good performance given what they have to work with in the script. Some characters are little more than broad stereotypes and you know exactly what they will say and how they will say it before they do. If there is a misstep among the cast it is Noel Clark's who just seems uncomfortable in the role of Mickey, Rose's boyfriend. He never seems to settle and there is always a sense that you really are just watching someone act rather than disappear into the role.

Overall, "Rose" is important in relaunching the series. It was yet another evolutionary leap forward for a show that has been making such leaps for decades, A new series for a new generation and I have to admit that the special effects and lighting are wonderful here. The music sadly drowns out the dialogue in some places though. There is also a lovely refurbishing of an old Doctor Who villain in the Nestene Consciousness and it's Autons and one still gets a shiver when hearing the old, familiar sound of the TARDIS dematerializing with the new effects.

"Rose" isn't ideal -- it has flaws as a story in general and it has some deep flaws as a Doctor Who story specifically. It should not be missed, though, because everything the new series is builds from here (or in some cases builds in opposition to what comes here). There are some good ideas and concepts which balance the bad and as long as you don't think about the plot too much it passes muster and is entertaining.

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