Thursday, February 24, 2011



[2005, Season 27/Series 1, Episode 1]

How do you begin the return of a low-budget sci-fi show that, other than an unsuccessful TV movie, has been off the air for 16 years?  With cool titles created with dazzling effects and topped by an amped-up version of the familiar theme.  And then a great F/X shot of the Earth and the Moon, slowly zooming in on London.  It’s back, and this time with effects worth of the title “special”!

The montage that follows introduces us to Rose Tyler, and writer Russell T. Davies shows why the return of a long-cancelled show could work so beautifully: it remembered that the most important element of Doctor Who – and almost all the best television shows of any kind – is character.  Rose is complex and well-written; she can be self-absorbed and even narcissistic to the point of unlikability, but she’s also funny, brave, good-hearted, and very sunny.  She can be totally appealing and usually is, and her character flaws aren’t about plot conveniences like so many character flaws, but simply because she’s a person.  Davies also gets one other crucial element: she’s lonely.  She has a loving (if overbearing) mother and a dedicated boyfriend, but she’s also somehow very alone in this world.  She’s the center of this story – and, indeed, the entire first season – and through her eyes we meet the Ninth Doctor, who, as it turns out, may in fact be the loneliest creature in the entire universe.  It’s this element above all that makes this one of the most intriguing and moving of all the Doctor/Companion relationships, and that isn’t to be taken lightly.

And the gorgeous Billie Piper nails the character right from her first moment.  The casting couldn’t be more perfect.

It isn’t five minutes in the episode before she’s being attacked by living manniquins… and saved by a mysterious, anachronistically-dressed man, who tells her just one word:


And with that, the Doctor has returned.

Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor is an odd one: although it isn’t revealed for some time, it eventually turns out that this Doctor carries a terrible burden.  He ended the most horrific of wars in the most horrific of ways.  He had no other choice, but it’s a terrible burden nonetheless.  Eccleston does seem like a curious, adventurous alien, but he’s much darker than his predecessors, very intense, making his serious moments edgy and his silly moments somehow even edgier.  His silly faces have a strained look and a hidden tragedy.  It’s not how I’d want every Doctor, but one of them this way is fine, and it’s fantastic with an actor as good as Eccleston.

The characterizations are terrific, as is the relationship, even in this limited time.  It’s both funny and dramatic, and pulls both off very nicely.

            Doctor: What are you doing here?

           Rose: I live here!
            Doctor: Well, what do you do that for?

The scene when Rose first enters the TARDIS is excellent.  There’s the sense of wonder from the whole “bigger on the inside” aspect, and the inside of the ship is great.  Not quite as good as the original ’63 set or the stunning ’96 vision, but still very cool.  But better is the dialogue that follows.  Rose comments on the size, the Doctor acts all non-chalant while totally failing to hide his delight, and then Rose starts crying.  The Doctor assumes its part of the shock of entering such a wild place, but…

            Rose: Did they kill him?  Mickey, did they kill Mickey?  Is he dead?

            Doctor: Oh.  I didn’t think of that.
Rose: He’s my boyfriend.  You pulled off his head, they copied him, you didn’t even think… and now you’re just going to let him melt?

It’s a great little piece of characterization in just a few lines.  And this, above all, is why the new Doctor Who works as well as the Old.  After all, without any money to spend, the old had to rely on characterization and imagination to be compelling, and that’s what sustained it for so many decades.  Here, character is priority one, and it nails it.

Unfortunately, with only 45 minutes instead of the old 90+ for the story, the plot has to be left behind for the characters.  This would be perfectly fine if the plot that’s here wasn’t so lame.  RTD made a great decision emphasizing character, and in theory, the decision to use the Autons as the villains was a good one.  After all, they’re terrific bad guys, but they weren’t on the old show much, so there’s no globs of mythology to bog things down in exposition.  Unfortunately, they’re just not very scary, at least not in comparison to the old times.  In Spearhead From Space, they’re terrifying.  In Terror of the Autons, they’re not as effective, but they’re still eerie and threatening.  Here… they’re just plastic things going around.  Particularly lousy is the far-too-obvious plastic copy of Mickey.  It’s ridiculous that Rose doesn’t figure out the ruse sooner, even as self-absorbed as she is.

Nope, nothing obviously evil and inhuman here.

I mean, they're a little creepy, but not very much.

The storyline follows a series of minor mysteries, but they never really come together in any meaningful or interesting way.  To be honest, the plot is just a thread to hang the character stuff on and a way of spinning the wheels long enough to get to the climax.

The Doctor’s showdown with the Nestine Consciousness starts out well; it doesn’t let us hear what the Consciousness is saying, only the Doctor, and not only does Eccleston show the tremendous authority you’d espect, but what he says is wonderfully intriguing and mysterious.  The consciousness is represented by a CGI creature that looks imperfect and cartoonish but nonetheless imaginative and impressive.  In the end, though, the Doctor doesn’t really do much in the climax, just gets captured until Rose too easily rescues him.  I mean, it’s nice to flip the tables and have the companion rescue the Doctor, but not when the Doctor doesn’t actually do anything or it isn't really clever.

Everything is solved in a brief and unsatisfying matter after an interesting build-up.  It's a clumsy, anti-climactic way to end a potentially gripping showdown.

So the character stuff is good, the plot isn’t.  Still, it’s a pilot episode, which are always a struggle. This particular journey may not have been particularly impressive, but at the end, we’re off on brand new adventures with characters we’re already interested in. 

And the next episode does a vastly better job of showing us what Doctor Who is all about and why it’s awesome.

* * ½


  • After that awesome remix of the title theme, Murray Gold’s score unfortunately degenerates into little more than irrelevant and distracting techno and rock beats.  There are times when Gold’s music for the series is terrific; this, unfortunately, is far from one of those.  It seems more concerned with sounding “modern” and “big” than “dramatic” or “having anything to do with what’s going on onscreen.” 
  • I like the subplot about Clive.  He's a guy who, through vast amounts of research, actually has a pretty good idea of who the Doctor is.  You'd expect the two of them to meet up, but that doesn't happen.  His beliefs are rewarded in a tragic way, and he never meets the man he studied for so long.  It's one part of the finale that does have a real impact.


  1. No, I don't care if they were silly, mannequins are the worst. They should all be destroyed.

    1. Man, you should see the '70s episodes with them.