Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

Rose, by Jon Arnold

Given the very encouraging news that Russell T. Davies is returning to Doctor Who, it's by fortunate coincidence that today I am reviewing a study of his first ever Who episode back in 2005. I actually wrote most of this entry over a week ago, little realising how appropriate the timing would turn out to be.

Second paragraph of third chapter of Rose by Jon Arnold, with footnotes:
This makes them [Ian and Barbara] outliers in terms of Doctor Who companions. Of the companions during the remainder of 20th-century Doctor Who, only Steven truly carries a whole story by himself (The Massacre). With Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis reformatting the series from one about exploration to a more standard 1960s adventure format, the companions become mainly a plot function, asking questions and keeping the plot moving. Verity Lambert’s era is rightly celebrated for establishing Doctor Who, but the changes made by Lloyd and Davis have greater consequences. They move the Doctor to centre stage, allowing him to initiate adventures and become the central character, something that’s made more overt by the introduction of Patrick Troughton as the Doctor. He is better able to carry the role of action-series lead than the older Hartnell. But this also makes the role of the companion far less interesting, and for all the quirks and foibles of various characters their roles are essentially interchangeable. And to maintain their ability to keep the plot moving they’re in stasis character-wise – Jamie and Zoe are left unchanged by their travels thanks to memory wipes, Liz Shaw returns to Cambridge, Sarah Jane apparently returns to journalism.2 Even Leela, expressly written to be developed from an alien savage to something more civilised, is all but indistinguishable in character from first story to last, before she suddenly decides she fancies a random Time Lord. The only character development we tend to see comes in the stories where companions have to be written out. Jo leaves to marry a man she sees as a human version of the Doctor; Romana’s sole development before suddenly being inspired to become an interuniversal refugee coordinator is when she regenerates due to Mary Tamm’s departure; and Tegan is just as suddenly sickened by the violence of the Doctor’s adventures3.

2 The 2006 episode School Reunion imposes a degree of retrospective character development on Sarah Jane to explore its theme of the effect the Doctor has on the lives of the people he travels with, but mainly limits this to a backstory of the time after she left the Doctor. It also ignores the events of The Five Doctors (1983) to present its theme more elegantly.
3 At the end of Resurrection of the Daleks, which has the highest onscreen body count in series history. Why this is more traumatic than the Master killing her aunt then wiping out half the universe, possession by the Mara, the death of Adric or the slaughter on Sea Base Four is never satisfactorily explained.
I've been shamefully slow about getting into the Black Archive series, published monthly by Obverse Books since 2016, each time looking at a Doctor Who story and digging into it for 100 pages or so. If I start reading them at the rate of two a month now, I should catch up with their current production in late 2026.

I should also in future months do things the other way round from this month, where I read the first two Black Archive books, hugely enjoyed them, and then went back and re-watched the relevant stories and read the novelisations. I nnow realise that I will get even more out of the experience if I take the Black Archive analysis last, after re-watching the original and re-reading the novelisation (if there is one). So I'm going to pretend that I did that this month, even though I didn't.

The first Black Archive book is about the first episode of new Who, Rose, broadcast in 2005. After I first watched it, I wrote:
Look folks, let's be honest.

It was good.

Eccleston is good - seriously alien and believable. Piper is good - not just screaming. Even Clive was good - the comic, self-referential moments didn't overwhelm it. The settings were good (even if I now know that some of them were in Cardiff not London). The background music was OK, certainly not as bad as Sylvester McCoy warned. The only thing that didn't quite gel for me was the climax, which I thought was drawn out a bit too long.
When I re-watched in 2012, I wrote:
Rose is a great beginning to New Who. The mistake made by other reboots was to take for granted that viewers would take an interest in the central character. Russell T Davies turns convention on its head by making this a story mainly about the Doctor's companion - with the partial exception of the first episode ever, Old Who had precisely one story which was companion-centric, The Massacre, though the Doctor-lite episode has now become a feature of New Who. Rose leads a fairly normal life - dead-end job, mum but no dad, boyfriend who is not quite on her wavelength - and the Doctor arrives to explode her workplace, break her mother's furniture and drag her across London to face militant plastic aliens. Yet we move from Clive's suspicions to the point where there can be few viewers who do not cheer Rose's joyful slow-motion run to the Tardis at the end. One can see why the bat-shippers decided that this was a show about Rose rather than the Doctor.

The two principals are great here, and Ecclestone has some brilliant moments as the damaged soldier trying to stop things going wrong again. There are some minor flaws - Jackie's seductive fumbling, the burping bin, the sequencing of the climax, the precise nature of the Nestene plans - but it is an excellent bit of television, in which almost the only elements of Who continuity are the Tardis and the Autons. In contrast to The Movie, or Scream of the Shalka (or indeed The Twin Dilemma) you end the story wanting to know what happens to these people next.
On (at least) the third time of watching, all of the above points re-occurred to me, and I actually found myself more tolerant of the humour - more on this below. But I also found myself cheering for the relatively few moments of reference to the past - for instance, the shot at 7:49 where we first see the TARDIS lurking in the background as Billie Piper runs past it:
Rose runs past the TARDIS
And thanks to Arnold's book, I realised that the Nestene Consciousness actually refers to the Doctor as a Time Lord.

The other thing that jumped out at me is that while Eccleston's Doctor is brave and heroic here, he's also very scared for a lot of the time, and needs someone to help him out. Eccleston himself of course was fighting his demons, as we now know. Fortunately he seems to have come to terms with them.
me with Christopher Ecclestone

Arnold's Black Archive book was actually published before the novelisation of Rose, which came out in 2018. When I first read it, I wrote:
Back in the bad old days of 1996, Russell T. Davies wrote a Seventh Doctor book called Damaged Goods (more recently adapted for audio by Jonathan Morris for Big Finish). It included the following interesting points:
  • The first character we encounter in the story is the daughter of Mrs Tyler, who is a single mother
  • She says to the Doctor at one point, "You think you're so funny", a line almost echoed by Rose Tyler a decade later
  • The Tylers live on a council estate where strange things are happening
  • The strange things include (but are not restricted to) a doppelganger of a black neighbour created by an evil alien intelligence
  • The Doctor's female companion is Roz
  • At the very end the Doctor goes back in time to meet the young Tyler girl before the adventure started in her time line
  • As the alien invasion fully manifests lots of people die horribly and swiftly
So this novelisation is actually the third time, not the second, that Davies has visited some of these themes.

Of course he needs to use the script of the 2005 story as his basis, and also has to make it accessible for the younger audience whose aunts and uncles may have bought this, but he adds a lot more material here, starting with a great pen-portrait of the office caretaker, Bernie Wilson, who is the first of many characters to die horribly in New Who. Most notably, Mickey gets considerably more depth and characterisation than he was ever granted on screen, and it turns out that he is in a band including a trans woman and two young men who are just on the cusp of realising their true feelings for each other. The treatment of Jackie on the page seems much more sympathetic than she got on the screen, and poor Clive gets an expansion to his background as well:
And now, in sudden coordination, every dummy in every window lifted its arm and swung down. Row upon row of glass shattered, bright chips cascading to the floor. All along the street, people screamed, yelled, some still laughing. Caroline said, `Well that's not very funny,' and she grabbed hold of the boys to pull them back.
   But Clive was staring. With horror. And yet, with delight.
   Because he remembered.
   In his files. In those mad old stories of monsters from Loch Ness, and wizards in Cornwall, and robots at the North Pole, there had been tales, from long ago, fables about shop-window dummies coming to life and attacking people, a slaughter, so the secret files said, a massacre on the streets of England, hushed up ever since by the Powers That Be, the population doped and duped into forgetting. And Clive, even Clive, had read those stories and thought, How can that possibly be true?
   But here it is, he thought. It's happening again.
   Which meant the Doctor was true. Every word of him and her and them. All Clive's fantasies were now becoming facts, right before his eyes. But if the glories were true then so were the terrors. And Clive felt a chill in his heart as he watched the plastic army step down into the street.
   He turned to his wife and children.
   He said, 'Run.'
   Caroline stared at him, more scared by the look in his eyes than by the dummies. He said quietly, 'I'll try to stop them. Now for the love of God, run.'
   And Caroline, at last, believed. She looked at her husband for one last time and said, 'I love you.' Then she took hold of the boys' hands, and ran.
The one character we don't learn so much more about is the Doctor himself. We get a bit more circumstantial detail about the Time War, but Davies put more than that in the 2006 Annual. Of course, this is sensible enough; the book is told from Rose's point of view, and for her the Doctor is a mysterious stranger who disrupts her ordinary life; the cosmic adventures are yet to come. But having seen how some of the other characters are enhanced by Davies from the printed page, the enigma of the show's central personality is even more palpable than it was on the screen.
On re-reading, I loved the extra characterisation even more - another footnote to the TV script who gets fleshed out here is Jimmy Stone, Rose's dubious ex-boyfriend. But two passages also struck me in the light of Jon Arnold's analysis (which I'll get to real soon, promise):
‘So you’re saying the world actually revolves around you?’
   ‘Sort of, yeah.’ He had a massive grin on his face.
   ‘You’re full of it.’
   ‘I’ve missed this.’
   ‘Missed what?’
   ‘Little human beings trotting along at my side and asking daft questions. Those were the days!’
   And now Rose stopped. Making a stand. ‘Hey. I’m not your secretary. And I’m not your pet. Have you got that?’
   To her surprise, he stopped and looked at her with genuine alarm. ‘Oh no, no, no,’ he said. ‘You don’t understand. Those people, asking questions. I loved them. Oh my God, I loved them all.’ It was the strangest thing, he looked as though he could cry. Then he turned and walked away.
and
She said, ‘Why are you such hard work?’
   ‘I had a bad day.’
   ‘No worse than mine!’
   He looked up, eyes blazing. ‘No, I had a very bad day. I had the worst day of all. I lost everything. I lost everyone. I lost myself. In one single moment, gone. And I have survived since then, very nicely, without a little human standing at my side going yap-yap-yap, so if you don’t mind, shut up.’
   She was outraged. ‘You wanted me to ask questions!’
   ‘I did not!’
   ‘You did! You love it!’

Both exchanges are important insights into the Ninth Doctor's can't-live-with-'em-can't-live-without-'em concept of companions. (And neither made it to the screen.)

And here I'm going to finally turn to Jon Arnold's book, which is not just about Rose the episode but about Rose the companion. Before I get into it, I'll observe that in the whole of Old Who, there was precisely one episode that name-checked a companion - "The Feast of Steven", the Christmas episode of The Daleks' Master Plan. A few other episode titles indirectly referred to companions - the very first episode ever, "An Unearthly Child" (Susan); "The Bride of Sacrifice" (Susan again); "Guests of Madame Guillotine" (Barbara, Ian and Susan); "Prisoners of Conciergerie" (poor Susan again, and others); "Death of a Spy" (Steven); and "Don't Shoot the Pianist" (Steven again). After Rose there were a few more name-checks in New Who - Martha Jones in Smith and Jones, Amy in Amy's Choice and River Song in The Wedding of River Song - and some indirect references too - arguably School Reunion (Sarah Jane Smith), certainly The Runaway Bride (Donna), Partners in Crime (Donna again), and The Girl Who Waited (Amy), and arguably The Witch's Familiar (Clara, probably).

Arnold starts his book with the strong statement that Rose is the most radical episode ever broadcast under the title Doctor Who. In the rest of the book he tries to prove the point, and I think comes quite close. The first chapter looks at Rose as a launch compared with the original 1963 "And Unearthly Child", and with the unsuccessful 1996 reboot with Paul McGann. He makes the point that unlike, say Batman or Superman, the 1963 Doctor Who successfully avoided an origin story for its hero  for several years, and Rose takes a similar approach by not giving too much away, except through the research of the unfortunate Clive.

In the second chapter Arnold makes the point that the romantic relationship between Rose and the Doctor was core to Russell T Davis’s concept of the show, and also key to its success. I think this is uncontroversial. In Old Who, there was no hanky-panky in the TARDIS; Paul McGann's snog in 1996 was seen out of order by fans; but Rose adopted romance from the very beginning, starting as RTD meant to go on.

The third chapter makes the point that Rose reimagines the role of Doctor Who companions who in the old era, as Arnold puts it, become a plot function, asking questions and keeping the plots moving, while the show centred on the Doctor. But Billie Piper is given equal billing from the beginning. She was already more famous than any previous companion from Old Who had been, with the exceptions perhaps of William Russell and Bonnie Langford.

The fourth chapter looks at how Davis successfully inserted Doctor Who into the pop culture of the time, and talks about the disconnection between what the fan audience and the mass audience want. The fan audience generally prefer a program with a darker tone that has internal continuity to fascinate us; the mass audience just want an entertaining program for Saturday night. Arnold makes an interesting contrast with Davis's gritty adult Who novel, Damaged Goods, which as noted above has a number of similarities with Rose, but some big differences too.

Arnold concludes that Rose is one of the most remarkable pieces of television made in the UK this century. It’s a very sympathetic analysis which I largely agree with. I think he misses two important and related points. The first is the very strong and convincing performance of Christopher Eccleston in the lead role - it is crucial to the show's success as Billy Pipers. The second thing is that it’s actually quite funny in places, and the humour is usually delivered by Ecclestone. I think the charm of the writing and the chemistry of the principals combined are fundamental to the success of the rebooted show. Let's hope that he is able to deliver that again, seventeen years on. (Imagine if Verity Lambert had been brought back in 1980, instead of John Nathan Turner!)

Apart from that, I found this a very interesting analysis and I learned a lot from it. You can get it here.

book cover book cover
Tags: black archive, bookblog 2021, doctor who, doctor who: 09, writer: russell t davies
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