I have complained here about how I don’t like the current iteration of The Doctor in Doctor Who. Recently I have been thinking back to a lot of stuff from the earlier parts of New Who and I am going to write a series of posts about each episode in at least the first series. I am doing this as a recovering English major who thinks that the first series was a very well written set of episodes and tells a very concise story about a pair of dynamic characters who change and are changed by one another.
It is interesting to go back and look at “Rose” from the perspective of knowing just how huge Doctor Who would get in the ten years after the show premiered. I will confess to being rather late to to Doctor Who bandwagon. I believe I began watching the show in real time in either Series 5 or 6. I tried, like most people, to get into the series by watching “Rose.”
“Rose” isn’t a bad episode, per se, it is just very weird for someone who has no idea what to expect from Doctor Who. I was expecting Doctor Who to be kind of like a cross between “Lost” and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” I was not expecting how dark it would get. Even though Mickey comes back from the dead, you have a scene where he basically gets murdered by a plastic mannequin and you see this really bad special effect/makeup job on the actor wandering around saying “Pizza!”
Another thing I find interesting about “Rose” is the actual introduction of the companion. We see Rose wake up, go to work, eat lunch with her boyfriend, and basically have a typical, lower-middle class existence. Her life is perfectly serviceable, if somewhat boring. She works in a shop and has a boyfriend. She probably does not expect to have a lot of upward social mobility and she doesn’t seem particularly interested in trying to get any further than she actually is. She doesn’t seem to be aware of it and it doesn’t really bother her. She is like the main character from “Flowers for Algernon” who isn’t really viscerally aware of the fact that there is more to life than what he knows. Ignorance is bliss.
Compare that to the other series where you are introduced to the companion. Most of those stories are about The Doctor. As the show has progressed, The Doctor has become more and more the focus of the show. The companion is chosen now because the companion is somehow special. Amy Pond with her crack in the universe in her wall. Clara, whose iterations show up over and over again. The Impossible Girl.
Rose is not an impossible girl. Rose is a common girl. Except she isn’t.
If we look as Series One as a whole, we are at the beginning of The Hero’s Journey. We are in “The Ordinary World.” Rose is Bilbo Baggins, snug and safe in her hobbit hole with no aspirations to go on any sort of adventures.
When we meet The Doctor for the first time, it is an exhilarating experience. She, as well as us, are curious about him. She goes and tries to research him on the Internet. She wants to know more about him. She is actively discouraged by her family from trying to find out more about The Doctor. When she goes to talk to the guy from the Internet, Mickey insists on taking her there to keep an eye on her because he thinks she is going to be murdered by an insane internet lunatic. It’s clear from their behavior that neither Mickey nor Jackie thinks Rose can make her own choices or take care of herself. They mean well, but they treat her like a child.
These changes mark the beginning of a metamorphosis that will transform Rose by the end of the series. Had Rose only met The Doctor once, she might not have changed. She would have thought it was weird, but then ultimately would have moved on and forgot. The speech where The Doctor tells her he can feel the Earth hurtling through space, you know Rose will never be the same again. There is a part of her that awakens to the possibility that exists in the Universe.
So far I have only spoken about Rose. It is equally important to mention The Doctor. He is recently regenerated, as we can tell when he looks at his reflection and comments on the ears. The Doctor is badly damaged at this point in time due to his decision to destroy the Timelords and the Daleks.
It is hard to determine how The Doctor feels at this point in time. The Doctor picks up companions because he is lonely. He is even more lonely at this point in time because he just destroyed his entire race. (Yes, I know this was retconned.) The Doctor needs a companion to avoid losing touch with the people he has dedicated himself to saving, but he is a broken man. He brings death and destruction everywhere he goes and he is reluctant to bring another person along and place them in danger.
The biggest thing that sells their relationship in this episode is the chemistry between Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston. Eccleston, one of the greatest living thespians we have, does an excellent job of selling us on why someone would be fascinated by him. Piper, however, has the harder job of selling us on why The Doctor would invite her to travel the Universe with him. Even though we see initially that Rose is a rather ordinary and common person, there is potential within her. She has a spark of curiosity and imagination missing from everyone else we meet in the pilot.
One of the great, defining moments in the pilot is the part where Rose realizes that the London Eye is the transmitter and The Doctor figures it out. There are so many times in life when you are looking at things from the wrong angle and you need a change of perspective. It was this moment when The Doctor realized that he needed Rose, or someone like her.
The moment when Rose realizes that she can be more than she is is slightly later, when The Doctor needs to be saved. We get the great line from Rose:
I’ve got no A-Levels, no job, no future… but I tell ya what I have got – Jericho Street Junior School – Under Sevens Gymnastic Team – I got the Bronze!
This is the point where Rose reaches “The Call to Adventure.” She has somewhat reached rock bottom. She realizes consciously for the first time that she is asleep. Her normal, comfortable life has been turned upside down and she is painfully aware that she has no hope of doing anything better than she is doing now. This realization galvanizes her to strive to be more than she was.
Both Rose and The Doctor are changed by their encounters with one another. The Doctor has recovered enough from his damage by his encounter with Rose that he feels comfortable inviting her to come with him. He realizes on a fundamental level that he needs her to recover from what happened with the Time Lords. He also recognizes the potential in her to be more than she is.
You can contrast her reaction to The Doctor with Mickey’s. Mickey also had an encounter with the strange and unknown. His reaction was entirely different. The unknown frightened him. It pushed him further into his small world view.
Look at the invitation the Doctor extends to Rose, but not to Mickey:
ROSE: You were useless in there. You’d be dead if it wasn’t for me.
DOCTOR: Yes, I would. Thank you. Right then, I’ll be off, unless, er, I don’t know, you could come with me. This box isn’t just a London hopper, you know. It goes anywhere in the universe free of charge.
MICKEY: Don’t. He’s an alien. He’s a thing.
DOCTOR: He’s not invited. What do you think? You could stay here, fill your life with work and food and sleep, or you could go anywhere.
At this point, we see Rose reach “The Refusal of the Call” point in the Hero’s Journey. Changing your life is scary. Going on an adventure with The Doctor will fundamentally change who she is. She won’t be happy doing the same things she did at the beginning of the episode. She will evolve into another kind of person, leaving Mickey and Jackie behind her. Hell, when she gets invited, Mickey throws his arms around her and clings to her like grim death to keep her from going. That is a scary thing. It is hard to leave people behind that you outgrow. But if you are going to be more than you are, you must do so. She isn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the person she was to become the person she is going to be, so she turns him down.
The look on her face watching the TARDIS disappear is heartbreaking. She knows that this was a chance that she will probably never get again to be more than she is. She gave it up to stay with the people she loved. She resigns herself to going back to the way things were. Then the TARDIS comes back. She won’t make that mistake again.
MICKEY: Thanks for what?
I do find it rather interesting that later in the show they do explore what happens to another prospective companion who turns The Doctor down and regrets it. We meet Donna Noble in a Christmas special. She turns down The Doctor, and we get a season of Martha Jones. A year later we see that even though Donna did not take The Doctor up on his invitation, she could not avoid being changed by him.
Sometimes in life events force you to change. You might want to cling to the person that you were, but that person is essentially gone. Lewis Carroll has a wonderful quote: “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”
I have, in the course of my life, encountered a lot of people who absolutely do not like change. Change frightens them. They bury their heads in the sand and try to avoid dealing with the fact that everything is constantly changing. Your cells replace your organs every few years. We have change built into the structure of our DNA. It is unavoidable, yet people run and hide from things that are inevitable.
One reason I am focusing on this season is because I find it fascinating that the writers generated these characters where you have one dynamic character surrounded by static ones. One issue I have with the newer seasons of Who in the Moffatt era is that none of the characters really grow or evolve. Amy Pond was kidnapped, held hostage, and had her only child stolen from her, yet it never seems to affect her in any meaningful way. She is temporarily affected because it means she and Rory can’t have children, so she leaves him so he can have them with someone else, which is complete and total bullshit.
I identify with Rose very much. I have had several transformative experiences over the last two years and watching this season resonates with me a great deal. I hope that my analysis of these episodes is somewhat interesting or entertaining. If not, I promise to talk more about programming soon.