Doctor Who: Series 1 Part 1 Retrospective

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The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). Copyright: BBC

With a long wait until Christmas when incumbent Doctor Peter Capaldi will depart and new Doctor Jodie Whittaker will debut, I thought it high time to revisit the past of Doctor Who, with a rewatch of the new series starting with Series 1 (or Series 27 if you’re getting technical); starring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor and Billie Piper as Rose Tyler.

The first half of Series 1 gets off to a very strong start. Showrunner Russell T Davies writes four of these six episodes so without further ado let’s get underway.

Main Cast: Christopher Eccleston (The Doctor), Billie Piper (Rose Tyler)
Recurring: Camille Coduri (Jackie Tyler), Noel Clarke (Mickey Smith), Penelope Wilton (Harriet Jones), and Bruno Langley (Adam Mitchell)

 Rose by Russell T Davies

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The Doctor and Rose hunt for the Nestene’s lair. Copyright: BBC

Staying late at work one night, shop worker Rose Tyler is attacked by living plastic dummies and rescued by a mysterious man called the Doctor. As Rose continues to bump into the Doctor and his continuing battles against the living plastic, she attempts to find out more about him but is soon sucked into the Doctor’s dangerous world and finds an adventure she will never forget.

Rose had a massive task to fulfil. Not only did the episode mark the return of the series to screens for the first time in 16 years (9 years if you count the movie starring Paul McGann), but it also had to appeal to classic series watchers and to people who had never seen Doctor Who before. In this manner it succeeds, in various levels. Which isn’t to say Rose is bad in any form, it’s just not exactly a very good way of selling exactly what the show excels at. But that said, Rose is still a very strong start to the series. Much like many companion introduction episodes, the Doctor himself appears in a reduced capacity in this episode; being kept mostly off-screen until the back half of the episode. Billie Piper however shows strong acting talent and is able to carry the episode herself until the Doctor steps in to take over. We aren’t given much chance to get to know Eccleston’s Doctor in this episode; with lines indicating that he has only recently regenerated allowing us to see the Ninth Doctor at the beginning of his life; oddly not showing the “regeneration sickness” his later incarnations would show (which usually amounts to a great deal of confusion as the Doctor’s mind adjusts to his new body). Eccleston manages to make an impression though and he and Piper share a wonderful chemistry that is a joy to watch on screen.

The episode itself has a rather simple plot, seeing the Doctor dealing with an attempted invasion by the Nestene Consciousness and Rose getting caught up in the middle of it. This is one of those episodes where it doesn’t really matter who the monster is; they’re here just to provide some form of threat for the Doctor and Rose to overcome and seal their friendship. But what shines through in this script is Russell T Davies’s absolute love for Doctor Who; the conspiracy theorist Clive is a loving nod to the fans, the TARDIS is treated with almost reverence within the script, the Doctor’s personality is like a “best of” of previous Doctors and the script is filled with small nods that fans can pick up on. While Rose may not be RTD’s strongest script, it’s one that serves its purposes well and is still very entertaining to watch; in spite of it being rather forgettable overall.

7/10

The End of the World by Russell T Davies

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The Doctor and Rose prepare to witness the Earth’s destruction. Copyright: BBC

For her first trip in the TARDIS, the Doctor takes Rose to a space platform in the far future where the rich and powerful have all gathered to witness the end of the world itself. But one of the guests has a killer ulterior motive and soon it’s a race against time to save everyone on board before they are all destroyed along with the Earth.

In what has now become Doctor Who tradition, The End of the World takes new companion Rose to the far future for one of her first trips in the TARDIS and confronting a dark truth about the human race; with no humans doing anything to stop the destruction of the Earth and the implication that none of them even care. The episode also sees Rose come face to face with an eventual future of the human race; while other humans have mingled with other species so to speak, the Lady Cassandra has resorted to surgery in order to keep herself “pure”; now being nothing more than “skin with lipstick” as Rose puts it nicely. The fears of “plastic surgery gone mad” are still very relevant today, so to see the show make its first major attempt at social commentary was nice to see.

This episode also saw the debut of some wonderful alien designs and concepts; most of which were never seen again after this episode. It would have been nice if some of these alien characters could have gone on to become recurring characters, but the team did a fantastic job with the costumes. Eccleston is again fantastic in the role, but the episode makes the poor choice of keeping the Doctor and Rose apart for most of the episode; when allowing the Doctor and Rose’s relationship to grow would have been a smarter move. The plot of the episode then isn’t exactly great. It’s functional, but it’s nothing really memorable; a very “safe” episode of Doctor Who. As the show was still trying to establish itself, this was perhaps a smart idea even if it makes the episode a little forgettable overall and really only memorable for a few specific moments. The episode’s guest cast fare a little better with Zoe Wannamaker being a delight as Cassandra while Yasmin Bannerman really impresses as Jabe of the Forest of Cheem. There’s also a handful of rather hilarious jokes; of note is Cassandra wheeling out a jukebox and proclaiming it to be an “IPod”. The End of the World is an entertaining enough second outing for Eccleston’s Doctor, but really isn’t one fans will find themselves revisiting all that often.

7/10

The Unquiet Dead by Mark Gatiss

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The Gelth appear via a psychic link with Gwyneth (Eve Myles). Copyright: BBC

Arriving in 1869 Cardiff on Christmas, the Doctor and Rose encounter Charles Dickens. A nearby Undertakers though has a problem; the dead just won’t stay dead. With the help of Dickens and a young maid with a peculiar ability, the Doctor and Rose discover the cause of the “undead”. Can these mysterious beings be trusted?

The “unofficial Christmas Special”, The Unquiet Dead is not only the first Doctor Who script by Mark Gatiss nor the first script not written by Russell T Davies in the new series, but it’s also the New Series’ first attempt at a “celebrity historical” and a horror episode. A “celebrity historical” is a term used to describe when an episode focuses on the Doctor meeting an iconic figure from history, in this case Charles Dickens, played marvellously by Simon Callow. Callow’s Dickens is perhaps the highlight of the episode and delivers some of the episode’s best lines (“What the Shakespeare?!”). Incidentally, the episode started the trend of having a famous writer from history encounter what they were famous for writing; with Dickens encountering ghosts and, in later episodes, Shakespeare encountering witches (The Shakespeare Code) and Agatha Christie being involved in a murder mystery (The Unicorn and the Wasp).

This episode is a chilling experience to watch, perhaps the first truly scary episode of the show. The antagonists, the Gelth, are a macabre idea and truly one that could only have come from the mind of Mark Gatiss. This episode is incredibly dark and gothic, yet also has that tinge of humour that Gatiss is known for. The Unquiet Dead is a fantastic script and perhaps one of the best in this first batch of episodes. It’s also bolstered by a fantastic guest cast; with a pre-Torchwood Eve Myles being of particular note. The Unquiet Dead is an episode I often find myself drawn to watching and that is perhaps it’s an utterly unique episode; there hasn’t been an episode quite like it since.

8.5/10

Aliens of London/World War Three by Russell T Davies

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The Slitheen plot in Downing Street. Copyright: BBC

The Doctor takes Rose home to visit her mother, only for him to accidentally bring her home one year after she left where in the time since, Rose has been missing presumed dead. But that’s not all, an alien spacecraft crashes into the Thames and with the Prime Minister nowhere to be found, an acting Prime Minister is named and the Earth’s greatest alien experts (along with the Doctor) are called in to help. But this is all a sinister trap and the Doctor must soon make a difficult choice.

The first two-parter in the new series also sees the debut of one of the most iconic new series monsters; the Slitheen. Despite it’s, at times, immature humour; there’s a well written script here in a (very) thinly veiled criticism of Tony Blair’s government with many high ranking government officials revealed to be Slitheen in disguise. While most may remember this story for “farting aliens”, there’s a bit more to it than that. This was the first story to really examine the effect on the people left behind when the Doctor takes his companion away. Specifically; we see Rose’s family and friends searching for her and suspecting she’s been murdered by her boyfriend Mickey, due to the Doctor getting the dates wrong and taking Rose home 12 months later and not 12 hours. Seeing the effect this has on Jackie is almost heart-breaking. Camille Coduri delivers a fantastic performance across this two parter, being able to make us laugh and cry at the drop of a hat.

This two parter is where Series 1 really begins to hit its stride; with the personalities and dynamic between the Doctor and Rose fully established; allowing Eccleston and Piper to fully let loose with the roles. Penelope Wilton does a fantastic job as Harriet Jones, with her emerging as one of the episode’s strongest points – an MP that actually wants to help people.

The reveal that most high ranking officials are actually giant green aliens in skinsuits is the stuff conspiracy theorists dream of and the Slitheen are certainly memorable antagonists, mainly because unlike other Doctor Who villains, the Slitheen just want to make a profit, not invade. Many may deride them for the running fart jokes, but considering Doctor Who is primarily a family show it has to be a little silly at times. Especially since it leads to one of Eccleston’s best lines in the entire show; “Do you mind not farting while I’m saving the world?” The Slitheen are a truly fantastic monster design, despite very obvious changes from the costume to the CGI version. This storyline is a particularly great one; the entire climax featuring the Doctor having to choose between Rose and the world is great stuff. I feel this two parter often gets forgotten or pushed to the wayside for its perceived immaturity, for even though the episode is littered with fart jokes galore it helps hide a rather great story focusing on first contact between humans and aliens; and makes us wonder how much we can actually trust that those in power aren’t just aliens in skinsuits wanting to sell the Earth off to the highest bidder (one wonders what fun RTD could have had with Theresa May’s government). The story also has a great heart, focusing on just what effects running off to see the universe has on the family you leave behind. Aliens of London/World War Three is highly recommended. Oh, and keep a look out for an early appearance by Torchwood character Toshiko Sato.

Aliens of London – 8/10
World War Three – 8.5/10

Dalek by Robert Shearman

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Rose encounters the “last” Dalek. Copyright: BBC

Answering a distress call, the Doctor and Rose arrive in an underground museum devoted to aliens and alien artefacts owned by billionaire Henry van Statten. As Rose forms a close bond with one of van Statten’s employees; young genius Adam, the Doctor discovers the source of the distress call. For deep within van Statten’s base lies his prize exhibit… one of the Doctor’s oldest and deadliest enemies.

And here we are at last; the long-awaited new series debut of the Doctor’s most iconic foes. Dalek is a fantastic episode, easily one of the better episodes in Series 1 as a whole and the best in this first batch of episodes. This is the first episode to truly focus on the Time War and the sequence where the Doctor and the Dalek discuss being the only survivors (or so they thought at the time) of the Time War is a fantastic sequence. This episode features perhaps Eccleston’s finest performance as the Doctor, within this first half of the series anyway. The pain visible on the Doctor’s face as he discusses the Time Lords being all but gone is clear to see and Eccleston manages to convey a complex set of emotions all at once; regret, anger and sorrow.

But perhaps what this episode is best remembered for is the Dalek itself; and boy does it deliver. The Dalek is truly terrifying as it slowly makes its way through Van Statten’s base floor by floor killing everyone it encounters (over 200 people according to one character). This is one of the few times the Daleks have been utterly terrifying and it’s amazing. The episode brings the Doctor’s iconic foe back to life in the best way it could.

What’s most interesting is Rose and her interactions with the Dalek. With the Dalek having absorbed Rose’s DNA to restore itself, the Dalek finds itself changing and Rose begins to see parallels between the Doctor and the Dalek. And we the audience do too; for Rose not only healed the Doctor (metaphorically) but she also healed the Dalek.

Composer Murray Gold also debuts his iconic Dalek theme in this episode and it’s still just as bone chilling 12 years on. The episode’s guest cast is fine but not particularly memorable. Bruno Langley does fine as Adam and paves the way for a bigger role in the next episode. Nicholas Briggs meanwhile manages to bring the Dalek’s screechy voice to life and takes it to the next level, giving us a voice that will haunt nightmares for years to come.

All this would be lost without some truly fantastic directing by Joe Ahearne and a marvellous script by Robert Shearman (it’s a crime that he has yet to return to the show). Dalek is one of those Doctor Who episodes where everything comes together perfectly delivering an absolute masterpiece. Dalek is supreme. All hail Dalek.

10/10

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The Doctor and Rose. Copyright: BBC. 

This first crop of episodes are a great start to Series 1, with not one weak link amongst them. Russell T Davies did the impossible here; he brought Doctor Who back and make it sleeker and bigger than ever without losing the show’s magic touch and charm. The only real flaw in this bunch is the budget; CGI has not aged well and the mastering on the episodes has equally not aged well; the episodes just don’t look as shiny or sleek on flat screen 4K TVs – perhaps indicating BBC should consider a full remaster of the episodes in years to come. But aside from that, the show looks fantastic for its time and this run of episodes is a fantastic way to start the series. Check back next week for retrospectives on the next 7 episodes of Series 1! And check back weekly for new Doctor Who retrospectives all the way until Christmas.

Doctor Who Series 1 Part 1 Average Score: 8.1/10

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