"Oh, go back and watch Rose again" they said "I am sure that all the things you so dislike about Chris Chibnall were just as much problems in the Russell T. Davies era: you were just so excited about having Doctor Who back that you couldn't see them." You happened to be in the mood to like Doctor Who then and not in the mood to like it now.
I remember watching Rose for the first time. Due to a catastrophic error of judgement I was living in Macclesfield. It seemed like a big deal: an event. Midnight showings of Star Wars movies were not yet an institution. Geek culture was not quite so mainstream. A company called Netflix sent me an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer each week in a cardboard envelope.
We tend to see Shakespeare as a point of origin: we see the way he affected every writer who came after him, T.S Eliot and Ibsen and Bernard Shaw and Stan Lee. But we could also see him as an end point: we could read the Canterbury Tales and the York Mystery Play and the Castle of Perseverance and see how Shakespeare was the culmination of of everything which came before him.
In 2005, Rose was a revival of the Old Series; interestingly distinct from the abortive American pilot; influenced by, without being a continuation of, the Virgin Books and the Big Finish CDs. (Big Finish became unwieldy and fan fictional and predictable and overwhelming but for six years it was all there was.) But now it is the origin of what Doctor Who became: it is primarily interesting because it prefigures Tennant and Capaldi and Moffat and Chibnall.
So, I watched Rose again.
The main thing which strikes me about it, compared with the new series, is its exuberance: Russell T Davies' sheer joy in invention, in creating fun stuff and putting it on the screen, of having more ideas than he can squeeze into 45 minutes. From one point of view, there isn't that much to it. A big plastic amoeba is living under the London Eye; it brings plastic dummies and a wheelie bin to life with its big plastic amoeba rays and the Doctor destroys it with his big-plastic-amoeba-destroying potion. But from another point of view, it is bursting at the seams: the introduction of Rose and Mickey as ordinary people; the montage of Rose's day at work; the tiny little character cameos with her mum; Rose stuck in the basement with the zombie dummies; Rose meeting the crazy mystery man; Rose meeting up with a crazy conspiracy theorist off the internet.... There is something extravagant about the way R.T.D introduces a funny character called Clive and kills him off before the end of the episode.
The things which annoyed me at the time now seem to be part and parcel of this narrative profligacy. In 2005 I believe I said that the animated wheelie bin indicated that the series was not taking itself seriously. There cannot possibly be any story internal reason for it to belch; and the idea that Rose can't spot that Mickey is a replicant undermines her whole character. And I still don't really know, narratively, what is supposed to have happened. Mickey falls into a plastic bin, and is next seen semi-conscious in the aliens' base. Did the wheelie bin trundle home with Noel Clarke inside it? And where did Auton-Mickey come from. Has the Nestene Consciousness been reimagined as a plastic Mysteron, possessing the ability to recreate the exact likeness of an object or person, providing they have destroyed it first?
But in retrospect, this is all part of the fun. The opening scene, in which the auton dummies come to life in the basement of the shop where Rose works, is genuinely scary. (I think the trick is that Davis first makes us think about how frightening it would be to be accidentally stuck in a shop basement overnight, before adding the fantasy element of the plastic zombies.) But the scene in which Rose eats pizza with the evil robot Mickey -- and Mickey starts to glitch, and his hands turn into shovels and the Doctor rips his head off -- has shifted to something much closer to Scooby Doo.
"Why does the Consciousness's ability to animate plastic also give it the ability to remould it like silly putty?"
"Because I say so."
This lack of world building -- this lack of interest in world building -- will come to undermine the New Who project. But for now, the idea that one forty five minute story can modulate between soap opera (Rose and Mickey), horror (the auton scenes), slapstick (the pizza), science fiction (the TARDIS scenes) and Indiana Jones action (the climax) is exhilarating.
And it's a very good way of selling Doctor Who to millennial audiences. Remember that TV series your granddad used to like in the 1980s? The one with the impenetrable sci fi jargon, the thirty year back story, the theatrical overacting and the primitive special effects? Well, it's nothing like that.
It doesn't rely on Whovian iconography. The TARDIS interior doesn't look like the TARDIS interior; the title sequence doesn't look like the Doctor Who title sequence, and the theme tune doesn't sound like the Doctor Who theme tune. Only the 1950s phone box gives us a hint that we have come to the right place. We fans know that the scene in the shopping centre is a riff on Spearhead From Space, but no-one else does. How very tempting it must have been to drop a Dalek into that very first episode, and how very sensible it was not to do so.
Davies proceeds on the assumption that we don't know who the Doctor is: everything is resolutely presented from Rose's point of view. And he doesn't give any pat, elevator pitch explanations -- "I'm a Time Lord"; "I travel in Time and Space"; "I travel around the universe fighting monsters." Instead we get an exposition of the Doctor's alien consciousness."We're falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go we die. That's who I am. " (Eccleston had previously played Steve Baxter, a very ordinary man who happened to be carrying God in his head, in Davies' 2003 series The Second Coming.) This could have been irritating: "Yes Russell: we know who the Doctor is already; can we please cut to the chase." But the script's refusal to take anything for granted means we fall in love with the idea of Doctor Who all over again.
Of course, we can't possibly do a "cold reading" of Rose: Chistopher Eccleston's picture was on the cover of the Radio Times, on the side of busses, on every poster-hoarding in London. But the episode is directed at an imaginary viewer who might be surprised when the youngish brash Northern guy in the leather jacket says "I'm the Doctor, by the way", in the same way someone in 1966 might theoretically have been unable to accept that Patrick Troughton was now playing William Hartnell.
How can you be the Doctor? I know what a Doctor looks like, and you aren't it?
Rose's question about the Doctor's accent doesn't really admit of a good answer: other planets may have a North, but presumably relatively few of them have a Salford. (We readily accept a Lancastrian Doctor, a Scottish Doctor and a Received Pronunciation Doctor but some of us apparently still find a Black Doctor too much of a stretch.)
"Bigger on the inside than the outside" is somewhere between a catch phrase and a cliche: but RTD holds off showing us the TARDIS interior for as long as possible. We get a reaction shot from Rose before we see the control room for ourselves. The theoretically ignorant viewer would be thinking "What has she seen? What is so surprising about that phone box?" even though the answer has been spoiled by thirty years of history and a three page fold out in the Radio Times.
Rose is surprised when the TARDIS moves. She is surprised when the Doctor says that it can go anywhere in the universe. And brilliantly, the one thing which everyone knows, the unique selling point of Doctor Who, is held back and delivered as a punch line. "Did I mention it also travels in Time?"
This is a sales pitch: the idea of Doctor Who, shorn of its baggage, presented to people who didn't know they cared.
It doesn't feel like a reboot. The McGann cul de sac downloaded a lot of post Deadly Assassin backstory, giving the impression that a fan had explained Doctor Who to an American executive who wasn't fully paying attention. We now know that they had built a backstory out of the wreckage of the original series, a Journey of the Hero in which Rassilon's half human son tries to stop his evil brother from changing history.
Rose gives the impression, not that we are starting over, but that we are resuming after an interruption. The Doctor has spent seventeen years doing stuff we don't know about, and we have now crossed over with him and are going to have to pick up the threads. That's how everyone else interacts with the Doctor. Rose and Mickey and as it will eventually turn out Sarah-Jane see fragments of his life, non-sequentially. Clive the conspiracy theorist is trying to put the fragments together; to see the Doctor as we viewers, on the outside, see him. By the end of the episode, Rose knows what we know, or think we do: he's an alien, he travels in Time and Space, the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than on the outside. But we have discovered there is another layer to be unpicked: stuff about the Doctor which nobody knows. It turns out that references to "the war" are foreshadowing a multi-season story arc, whereas "the shadow proclamation" is pure lore-babble. But it hardly matters: we know stuff about the Doctor that Rose doesn't know; but the Doctor knows stuff about himself that no-one knows. "I was there. I fought in the war. It wasn't my fault. I couldn't save your world! I couldn't save any of them!" This counts for more than twenty volumes of Looms and Dark Times and Others.
I suppose that if Mickey were introduced to the series today, the alt-right orthodoxy would condemn him as "woke". And I imagine that R.T.D made a positive decision that the pretty white lady would have a nice black boyfriend: a conscious piece of diversity in what had previously been a rather aggressively caucasian show. This was before racists had developed a vocabulary (cancel/ woke / identity politics) which allowed them to say that black people shouldn't appear on TV without actually saying that black people shouldn't appear on TV. I don't say that the UK was less racist in 2005 than it is in 2021; but I do say that racists had not yet infiltrated Doctor Who fandom.
It was said at the time that a similar American series would probably not have featured a white heroine with a black boyfriend; but that if it had done so, it would certainly not have depicted the boyfriend as such an unmitigated idiot. Noel Clark is a fine actor and Mickey is a funny character and I think I preferred him as a comedic foil than as a Cyberman slaying hero. But I do feel uncomfortable with the final scenes. It is completely appropriate for Mickey to be traumatized by what has happened: it needs to be made clear to the audience that the Autons have manifested in the normal world; a world where aliens and robots and replicants are completely not normal. It is completely appropriate and in character for Rose to have to support him -- to affectionately refer to him as a useless lump. But there is something unfortunately simian about the way he clings to her leg. I am sure it wasn't intentional. I take it that the actor didn't mind. But I do think it's a glitch.
Rose was the first Doctor Who in 16 years (or 12, or 9, or 6 depending on how strict you are about canon.) It was our last chance of Doctor Who continuing into the future. Now it is one of 147 episodes of a series which is almost certain to stretch on to the crack of doom. Rose was a pitch and a promise: if it had failed Doctor Who would have receded into the same limbo as Star Cops and the Tomorrow People. Revolution of the Daleks was a more or less workmanlike attempt to carry the baton for a few hundred yards without tripping up or dropping it. If we like it, fair enough. If we don't, then they'll be another one along in a minute. But we can no more be excited about Revolution of the Daleks than about digestive biscuits or PG Tips tea. Perpetual revolution is neither possible nor desirable. But TV shows die when they become complacent.
"Oh, go back and watch some Tom Baker stories" they said "I am sure that all the things which annoy you about New Who were just as much problems in the Classic Era. I shouldn't think Phillip Hinchcliffe could sustain the level of scrutiny you are directing at Russel T Davies."
Hindsight isn't as good as it used to be. Nostalgia is always 2020.