It was a monumental occasion when Doctor Who returned to British television on 26 March 2005, some 16 years after its original run ended under something of a cloud. Back then, BBC bosses saw the show as a burden, as tired concepts eventually made for rather trivial viewing.
Yet its status as a national treasure was undeniable, and the loyal fanbase remained hopeful over the intervening period that the long-running programme may make a comeback. Audio serials and novelisations kept the flame ignited, but it was only when Russell T Davies made his successful pitch to the BBC in 2003 that those apparently fanciful hopes became reality.
It was an incredible feat for Davies to convince the BBC to resurrect a show that was both loved and maligned in equal measure, and had such a chequered history, but his presence ensured that it was now in very safe hands. His prowess as a writer, and the budget laid down at his disposal, helped bring together a terrific and richly talented crew, and a fine cast would soon follow.
Securing Christopher Eccleston for the role of the Ninth Doctor was a masterstroke. He perfectly suited the profile of a character ridden by guilt and grief in the aftermath of the Time War; a tormented soul with the most brilliant of minds that had to carry on in the knowledge that all of his fellows had perished.
Throughout the opening episode and the series as a whole, Eccleston conveys these feelings perfectly, but also embodies the mystical spirit of the character by showcasing a softer side, helped along by companion Rose, whose gutsy nature and very human levels of empathy guide him on a journey to redemption.
Rose is portrayed magnificently by Billie Piper, who at the time had very little acting experience following her career as a teenage pop star. She takes the character of Rose and uses the material she’s been given to create someone who the audience can immediately identify with, and we’re all too happy to enjoy the ride with her.
As for the episode itself, it relaunches the programme in a highly satisfactory way. The first and most obvious change from the original series is that it’s the 21st century, and the way people live their lives has changed, and also that it’s the responsibility of television dramas to provide a fulfilling visual experience to the viewer.
The opening shot shows the Earth from space, and the camera quickly zooms in to Rose’s home, a humble flat within a friendly, if fairly run-down estate. We get a general picture of her life; we see her single mother fussing over her; we see her laughing with her boyfriend, Mickey; we see her on the bus travelling to work. It is obvious already that there will now be greater emphasis on the companion than ever before.
It doesn’t take long for danger to arise, as Autons begin to rouse in the creepy basement of the shop in which Rose works. Then comes the Doctor’s entrance, containing just one word: ‘Run!’ Their ensuing escape gives way to a massive explosion, the first of many impressive effects that The Mill would produce during the series.
The Doctor is treated as a mysterious figure, possibly even dangerous, and Eccleston wonderfully delivers on that, shifting deftly between moments of priceless comic timing to feelings of loss and hopeless vengeance.
What is particularly impressive here is that as Rose gradually comes to trust the Doctor after initial reservations – unperturbed by the eerily apocalyptic warnings of obsessive shed-dweller Clive – the audience does so too, even after he shows relish in the act of beheading Auton Mickey.
The Autons act as frightening, threatening villains, while the showdown beneath the London Eye reveals the Nestene Consciousness as a menacing presence. In its ability to animate plastic such as a wheelie bin, and create a copy of Mickey which a momentarily dim Rose cannot see to be a forgery, its power is unmistakable.
But in the final reckoning, Rose saves the day with a marvellous – and pretty daring – piece of athleticism. It begins an occasionally irritating trend of someone other than the Doctor proving to be the enemy’s downfall, but in this instance it’s handled well, as it allows the Doctor’s faith in humanity to be somewhat restored – having taken to referring to us as ‘apes’.
And then Rose decides to ditch her life and her rather useless – for now – boyfriend, in order to travel with the Doctor. The TARDIS set is dark and unearthly, yet at the same time strangely welcoming. However, what adds to the intrigue ahead of the stories to come are that we still don’t know who this particular Doctor really is, as he continues to suffer from some form of PTSD.
On the whole, Rose was a very solid first episode for a unique series that was making a comeback after so many years away. Davies’ script wound everything together nicely, providing a significant enemy threat while introducing the characters and adapting the show for the 21st century. It was the premise upon which the last 12 years of Doctor Who have become a major success.