Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Postclassical Who - "Rose"

So after another wait Doctor Who returns to the screens in this revival spearheaded (reference intentional) by Russell T Davies, who shall henceforth be referred to almost exclusively as 'RTD'. Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately depending on your opinion of the quality of this revival Paul 'The Man' McGann was not asked to resume his post as the great Eighth Doctor, although he was already starring in unrelated Big Finish audio adventures at the time. Instead, we are presented with Christopher Eccleston as the affable Ninth Doctor, a fresh incarnation of the adventurous Time Lord.
As much as I can and probably will disparage the first few series of this revival, I do quite like the Ninth Doctor. In spite of being rather unconventional in appearance for a Doctor, with his leather jacket and short hair, he does come across as rather alien and a little superior and grouchy in the manner of the First and Sixth Doctors. The new TARDIS interior is also very alien, but it seems to take some of its cues from the Eighth Doctor's TARDIS, including the large central columns and its sheer size and openness compared to that used in the classic series. There is, perhaps, something a little bland about it though; the Classic series console room was rather featureless as well but the size of the new one makes the actual console seem rather small and odd. This also began the production team's habit of putting not-so-amusing mundane Earth objects in as part of the console in what I see as a somewhat misplaced attempt at humour. We know the TARDIS is meant to be old and shonky by Time Lord standards but look at the console from the classic series and it's still rather mechanical and futuristic even with its outdated design. I suppose they wanted to emphasise the bigger-on-the-inside aspect.
So, new Doctor and new TARDIS, now let's look at the new companion. I suppose Rose is a decent companion as they go, at least at the start. She can be a little tedious at times - she seems very serious and frowns a lot, and is perhaps not so far a cry from the alleged 'screaming woman' archetype which many detractors claim dominated Who in the Sixties and Seventies, but quieter. I realise that they needed someone for the audience to identify with but there is just something about a working class shop assistant that I find a little insipid. It's odd, perhaps, that the 'screaming woman' trope exists considering that the only times the Doctor had a single female companion with basically no skills were when the Third Doctor was with Jo and when the Sixth Doctor was with Peri. Even Sarah Jane was a journalist and (for some reason) a crack shot with a rifle. I suppose the point is even your average person can be a companion of the Doctor. Then again, he says Mickey's not invited, which makes it seem a bit like the Ninth Doctor (who may at some point be referred to as 'Eccly') is just an interstellar player who nicks people's girlfriends from right in front of them, which is a bit dodgy.
Anyway, on to the story. In spite of being a revival we see the return of a Classic Series villain, in this case the Nestene and the Autons, not seen onscreen since Terror of the Autons during the Third Doctor's tenure. The Autons are menacing enough, I suppose, and the scenes of mass panic on Earth are equally evocative of Spearhead from Space. Indeed this story owes a lot to Spearhead - new series, new Doctor, new companion, the Autons... it's a wonder that the Brigadier never shows up. We get the first mention of the Time War, which will come to weigh rather heavily on the story under RTD's tenure.
Speaking of which, this first episode highlights some rather interesting aspects of the writing of the new series. RTD is great at writing light-hearted, humorous, believable dialogue for a domestic setting with domestic characters - just look at the conversations in the flat between Rose and Jackie, for instance, or with Mickey. It fits. It's unfortunate then that he's basically rubbish at writing Science Fiction. I would imagine he is probably one of those people who, if you asked him, would claim that Doctor Who at it's heart is not really a Science Fiction program. Then again it has a time machine and its main character is an alien, so it's hard for it not to be Science Fiction. Yet when the Doctor starts soliloquising about feeling the planet turning and Clive the arbitrary fat conspiracy theorist says his only companion is death and so on the melodramatic purple prose starts to be shovelled on, and this problem will only get worse as the new series continues. It induces a bit of a cringe, and all seems a bit self-aggrandising and silly. The idea of the London Eye being a transmitter seems to exist purely for the sake of a joke, and the "anti-plastic" is absolutely MacGuffin-tastic. Sure, it's not essential to the plot, but it is an easy one-shot weapon for instant-killing the Nestene and immediately solving the major dilemma of the story. It's a shame the Nestene isn't a horrific tentacled eldritch abomination as it was in the old days because that would probably be a bit more creepy than a big plastic face sitting in a tub.
But in all honesty Rose is an adequate, if unspectacular, piece of television and a serviceable reintroduction for a series which had, admittedly, become rather fan-focused and innaccessible by the conclusion of its original tenure. Now I don't think that's necessarily a good thing - I'd argue that dumbing down any piece of art or entertainment to suit the requirements of a lowest common denominator in order to garner a popular vote is never the right decision. I think, perhaps, the show could have been a little more intelligent than the easy option of contrasting Rose's dull urban life, annoying mother and weak boyfriend with the prospect of adventure with a mysterious stranger, or plumping for cheap scares in the form of living shop window mannequins. [EDIT in 2015: What am I going on about here? The Autons were featured as living mannequins in "Spearhead from Space" in 1970, and are proper scary; I'm no fan of RTD's New Who but this was hardly an unprecedented element.] Some would argue that it is an inevitable consequence of a 'Family Show' - the message has to be clear to children as well as adults. But are children really watching for the message or to see the Doctor fight monsters? But at this early stage the show was not really making those mistakes and it's perhaps too much to ask for much more. I think this episode serves as a practical, if somewhat unambitious, example of how Doctor Who could be modernised for the demands of a broader audience and a medium which had changed significantly since its original run.

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