Sunday, 26 January 2014

Rose written by Russell T Davies and directed by Keith Boak

This story in a nutshell: Doctor Who returns to the small screen after a lengthy spell away and picking up the thread that started with Survival, urban sitcom seems to be the approach...

Northern Adventurer: Looking back on series one is interesting in the light of Christopher Eccleston’s comments after he finished playing the role. What seemed like a confident performance at the time (and compared to David Tennant’s self-assured portrayal) now seems…awkward in his opening adventure. Eccleston reminds me of Sylvester McCoy (bear with me) in that he looks very stiff and embarrassed when asked to perform something that plays against his natural personality. The shows I can remember Eccleston playing roles in are Cracker and Heroes and in both of those he was an arsehole and he also had memorably dark turns in The Second Coming and Shallow Grave. Clearly he enjoys playing shadowy characters and shoehorning him into playing the Doctor is fine when he gets to dig under the surface and see what makes him tick but when asked to crack jokes and lighten the mood he isn't really in comfortable territory. But that's fine, it's good for an actor to play against type and by the end of  the season (and despite the fact that he has given up on the role), Eccleston had completely embraced all aspects of the Doctor's personality and was clearly having a great deal of fun with him. Like a whirlwind he enters Rose’s life and straight away we see him running down corridors and letting off explosions. Sums up his lifestyle in a nutshell really. He certainly hasn’t lost his flair for melodrama, telling Rose to ‘run for your life!’ When studying himself in the mirror it appears he has only just regenerated (or not looked in a mirror since he has regenerated) but we never do learn how long it has been. I'm guessing given the reveal of Hurt's Doctor that he heads straight for the Henriks after Day of the Doctor with his makeshift bomb. I loved the image of the Doctor through the cat flap, playful and quirky. ]Eccleston is especially impressive during the Doctor's 'turn of the Earth' speech, one of the first times when I realised just how much gravity that he was going to bring to the part. He makes that speech count, it is a rare glimpse into how the Doctor sees the world. Rose is one of the only Doctor Who stories that is specifically built around the mystery of who the Doctor is, a necessary and fascinating step after the series' long absence from the small screen. Davies manages to paint a vivid picture of the character; appearing in conspiracy theories, political diaries, online blogs and ancient artwork. It's great that there are obsessive Doctor Who within his universe that accumulate as much data on his activities as we do. Davies would take this theme to extremes in Love & Monsters. He was at the Kennedy assassination, the eve of the launch of the Titanic and at Krakotoa. I'm starting to wonder if there isn't a single historical event that the Doctor wasn't present at. As much of a myth as a man (you can see why he asked Mickey to erase all trace of him online in World War Three). This begins Russell T Davies' obsession with turning the Doctor into a mythological icon, which was picked up by Steven Moffat and led to insane depictions of the character in stories such as A Good Man Goes to War (where entire armies tremble at his name). But that's for later. There are lots of intriguing hints about the Doctor fighting a war and not being about to save worlds. What could all this mean?

Chavvy Chick: Billie Piper plays Rose far more naturally than any of the companions of the 80’s but even she hasn’t quite got it right this point. It really bugged me how she kept getting on her high horse (‘and you forgot him again!’) with the Doctor and having a go at him. For a second I thought we were going to get another Tegan in the TARDIS but her acerbic attitude soon calms down. Rose pretty much lives up to every working class stereotype; being brought up in an ugly council estate with an absent father (okay he died) and a scrounging mother who is as common as muck and keeps going on about compensation and handouts. Jackie goes one step further by being a total tramp, coming onto the Doctor (a complete stranger) in her dressing gown. But what salvages all of these characters is the natural good humour that they express and the fact that they all seem so real. Comparing the Tyler clan (including Mickey) to Clara's family introduced in Time of the Doctor just goes to show how much better Davies is at bringing real people to life than Moffat is. Davies is a great observer of people, of their quirks and flaws. It humanizes them. Jimmy Stone was the reason Rose left school and look where he ended up. Rose has a very natural reaction to the TARDIS, running around its exterior and nearly breaking down when she comes to terms with its size and reality. It is probably the most natural reaction since Ian and Barbara's (Tegan's might have counted if she wasn't so hysterical). The eighties was full of people barely raising an eyebrow when they are shown the magic of the TARDIS ('Strike me pink!'), it is almost enough to take such a glorious device for granted. She has no A Levels, no job and no future – perfect companion material then. The Doctor can whisk her off into time and space with no real hang ups that she is missing out on anything important. Or so they both think... Strange how she turns down his first invitation into the TARDIS to stay with Mickey when he has behaved like such a chimp but as soon as she learns that it can travel in time she has uncoiled herself from her boyfriend and hops aboard. Father's Day seems to suggest that it was the opportunity to go back and visit her father that was the clincher but as directed it doesn't look as if that much thought has gone into her decision.

The Good Stuff: Murray Gold has written a great, punchy version of the theme tune. I love the rush in on the Earth, effortlessly taking us from the magical to the ordinary. That's Davies' approach in a nutshell. Without a word of dialogue we have an impressive character building montage, which tells us everything we need to know about Rose (mum, boyfriend, job). He does pretty much the same thing with Martha when she was introduced, summing up the character vividly in about a minute. Try hard as I might I've spent over half a season with Clara and I'm still searching for who she is and why she might want to travel with the Doctor (because she fancies him, apparently). The scenes of Rose locked in the basement are rather wonderful, opening the show with a decent scare. Looking for the Doctor online is a great contemporary spin on the mystery of the Doctor. I really liked the Mickey Auton getting a cork in his face and then having his head yanked off, finally we get some fun with the monsters (plus the headless Auton tearing up Pizza Express is wonderful - nothing as exciting as that ever happens when I go out for dinner). The new TARDIS set is gorgeous; warmly lit, cavernous, with the outer doors visible on the inside and a mushroom like growth for a console. It feels like it is alive. Doctor Who has never been shy of using famous London landmarks and the London Eye stands proud next to Westminster and St Paul's as iconic imagery. Much of the condensed Auton rampage didn't work for me (the static direction sabotages most of the material), but I did like it when they took the streets and starting bursting from windows.

The Bad Stuff:  What the hell are those Autons doing mechanically stretching through the bars? Keith Boak is clearly not the most dynamic of directors and this is the sort of bizarre inconsistency that really fails to come off. The Doctor and Rose arsing around with the Auton hand fails to convince as either slapstick or horror, it looks cheap and embarrassing when the show should be coming back with an expensive bang. There is an impressive tracking shot that follows the Doctor and Rose as they leave the Powell Estate but it is a shame that the backdrop is so plain and uninteresting. Doctor Who has never looked more like a cockney soap opera, two commoners strolling through some garages. Noel Clarke really fudges Mickey in this episode; he’s at his worst when he’s grunting at Clive’s neighbours for no good reason. Mind you there is something to be said for starting low because the character undergoes an incredible renaissance in the second season. ‘She’s read a website about the Doctor…and she’s a she?’ – humour doesn't work for me when it is that obvious. Davies proves time and again over the next five years that he is better than that. A homicidal wheelie bin? It feels like such a cheap trick. You can understand why the critics might have been reluctant (although I have a sneaking affection for the burp).  It is still a remarkably mundane way of suggesting the Auton’s ability and the effects are a little rough at this stage. Fake Mickey is where I wanted to turn this episode off, a horrendously played sequence where Clarke is made to look like a ken doll and so obviously fake that it serves to make Rose look completely clueless. The anti plastic resolution lacks any finesse; the solution to the episode is an unnamed substance that the Doctor just happened to be carrying with him. The Consciousness is another failed special effect, looking like something from a low rent b movie. There really should have been somebody for the Doctor to butt heads with because chatting away to an amorphous blobs fails to come off with any great panache. The Autons come to life mechanically in the shop windows, it isn’t scary or exciting and certainly isn’t a patch on Spearhead from Space’s far more effective sequence. The baby dolls dancing around the food court look especially unconvincing. We keep cutting back to lots of scenes of the Doctor struggling ineffectually with the Autons. I started to feel as though I was in a time loop. The bride Autons look distinctly unthreatening.

Result: Not the classic that everybody makes it out to be. I sometimes think we were so happy to have Doctor Who back we could ignore the manifest of flaws in this story, especially in the direction. There’s a real feeling of everybody feeling a little uncomfortable in their roles and the decent character work comes at the expense of the lousy, barely glimpsed plot. I can see exactly what Russell T Davies was getting at; seeing the story from the point of view of the companion, learning about the basics of the show for the new audience but the direction lacks fluidity and dynamism and the story lacks atmosphere. Compared to later season openers it really underwhelms and despite a rare moment of choking depth it’s a remarkably quiet episode. The invasion plot barely gets started before it is over and the story is far more interested in the personal lives of it's characters than it is in exploring this latest threat to the Earth. Christopher Eccleston has yet to perfect his character but shows a great deal of promise, Billie Piper is a revelation in an episode that gives her a great deal of exposure but Camille Coduri and Noel Clarke do possibly their worst work in their first appearance. I can remember being underwhelmed when I first watched Rose back in 2005 but subsequent re-watches have introduced me to some of it's charms. The Eleventh Doctor makes for a far better introduction to the world of Doctor Who than this and anybody who reads this blog on a regular basis will know that it is rare for me to favour anything from the Moffat era over the Davies one: 6/10


Paolo said...

Pretty fair review there I think. I was (and am ) glad that Doctor Who is back and it got a lot better but Rose was an iffy story for me too.

Anonymous said...

I can't quite agree on the last sentense. I was introduced to DW through this, and I am fairly sure that if anyone started watching DW with the Eleventh Doctor, they'd be confused as all hell. Mostly because the story has moved forward on that point, and throughout his three series Smith's Doctor's stories give rather important and poignant references to his immediate past, as well as Old Who. The first series with Eccleston, on the other hand, was far more subtle on that regard, and for an introductory series, it was perfect.

David Pirtle said...

I might give it a 7, but I cannot disagree with any of your criticisms. It certainly isn't a classic. It is funny how your comments regarding Eccleston at this stage mirror your comments about McCoy at the end of his role. McCoy was a great entertainer but lacked the chops to pull off some of his darker scenes, whereas Eccleston looks a bit awkward playing it light but revels in his darker, more complex material. They are like two halves of an incredible Doctor. For what it is worth I think Eccleston does get better at playing the lighter scenes, or at least he works his awkwardness into the role. That is the mark of a talented actor.

Guy Grist said...

Well I rewatched it this morning and it is an incredibly mixed bag it doesn't really come together at all. There's a some nice moments throughout though a very odd start even though I absolutely loved it as a child I find I tend watch the classic show a lot more than the revival.