Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Get in the Blue Box (Part The First)
When I pitched a full series retrospective to Ethan (Editor’s note: That’s me!), I wasn’t actually expecting him to say yes – certainly not immediately.
More fool me.
I don’t know enough about the production circumstances of the Revival to do a ‘material’ retrospective. I don’t know enough about the history of the show before the Revival to do an ‘in-context’ retrospective.
But I know the stories and the arcs and the themes of the Revival like the back of my hand. My handy spare hand. So… That’s what we’re gonna do.
Join me as I sit down and shake out what I think each individual series of post-revival Doctor Who is talking about, what points it’s making about life, the universe, and everything (including the show itself), and how it evolves aesthetically and conceptually under three distinct showrunners and innumerable permutations of the main cast.
And it all starts with one word.
SERIES ONE (26th March 2005 – 18th June 2005)
EPs: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner, Mal Young
DOCTOR: Nine (Christopher Eccleston)
COMPANIONS: Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), Adam Mitchell (Bruno Langley, The Long Game), Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, Boom Town – The Parting of the Ways)
So says Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor – only eventually confirmed as the Ninth Doctor, later revealed in numerous ways to not be the actual ninth life of the eponymous Doctor (Ed. note: We’ll get to that, the long way round) – as he seizes the hand of shop assistant Rose Tyler and whisks her away from certain death in Rose, the explosive debut episode of this, the first series of the revival of Doctor Who.
By the standards of the show – by the standards of this specific series! – Rose is a C+ or B- episode, but it does a remarkable job setting up all the crucial stuff that will define showrunner Russel T. Davies’ run on the programme. Companion suffocating under the exhausting mundanity of early-21st-century living? Check. The Doctor, framed as an achingly humane being who is nonetheless unfathomably old and dangerous? Check. A lot more sexuality (of all kinds) than Who Classico ever dreamed of? Check and check.
And of course (as was once observed by the venerable dead site TV Without Pity), this season is also very preoccupied with a kind of bonkers, baffling Gnosticism, putting it on the kind of footing you’d expect of, say, the revived Battlestar Galactica or The Chronicles of Narnia or, I suppose, His Dark Materials. The arcs and themes of this one series will echo in long-form format over the following three-and-change. I say ‘and change’ because some very specific real-life circumstances meant that there wasn’t a ‘proper’ fifth series in 2009, but instead a scattered array of bumper-sized special episodes. (Ed. note: Again, we’ll get to that.)
Rose kicks all this off by establishing that the titular Tyler is excruciatingly normal. She’s the most normal a companion character has ever been in the Revival, and it works like gangbusters. She’s got a shit phone, a shit job, and a mum (Jackie Tyler, played by Camille Coduri) who’s ‘wacky’ in the way only a normal, single mother is – a bit sex-starved, a lot mouthy, and above all deeply concerned about the safety of her just-turned-nineteen daughter. (Ed. note: An icon.)
This is where I’d talk about Mickey Smith, Rose’s harmless-but-useful stay-at-home boyfriend, but unfortunately there are some extremely upsetting real-life circumstances surrounding his performer, Noel Clarke. So I won’t. (Ed. note: I’ve linked the original reporting by Sirin Kale and Lucy Osborne on these circumstances here.)
Eccleston is the anchor for this series, and he’s fucking phenomenal, which is legitimately impressive considering that the production was so troubled he became rather unwell. His is the perfect vector to reintroduce the Doctor to a modern audience, an elegant synthesis of Tom Baker (Fourth Doctor)’s pop-eyed chicanery and wit and Sylvester McCoy (Seventh Doctor)’s half-clown, half-bastard portrayal. He’s a man of action who loathes violence, a superhero who never throws a punch. He’s not prone to speeches or didacticism, but to direct and straightforward resolutions and carefully-chosen words.
Which all makes perfect sense, because the Ninth Doctor is also the sole survivor of his species, the Time Lords – a species he himself made extinct in the final moments of the Time War.
This is Davies’ masterstroke in reintroducing the programme. By removing the Time Lords from play, he removes a large number of the ‘rules’ the older version ran on (after all, there’s no one to enforce them) and is freed up to make everything more cosmic, more weighty. The Paul Cornell-penned episode Father’s Day is an excellent example – the absence of Time Lords makes a single paradox a catastrophic event, unleashing as it does a kind of macrocosmic bacteria in ‘the Reapers’.
Father’s Day also demonstrates the efficacy of the storytelling in this series. Rose is only convinced to come aboard the TARDIS after the Doctor mentions it can travel in time, and here the Doctor recalls this after she intervenes (on impulse) in her father’s death (Ed. note: This was the first time I cried at Doctor Who, it wasn’t the last). Grace notes like this litter the individual episodes, creating a cohesive, compelling whole.
There is a distinct look and feel to this series, too – a smeary-lensed, soft-focus approach that would fall by the wayside as the programme became bigger and HD became the norm – that is at equal turns reassuring and haunting. The Powell Estate (the council flat that Rose and Jackie live in) is always soft and cosy-looking but also drab and washed-out. You understand, implicitly, why Rose would choose to leave it behind. Likewise, the far-far-future observation satellite Platform One is huge and the vistas of Earth below striking (accepting that Who has significantly limited VFX), but it’s still possessed of a certain understated ‘wrongness’. Nowhere is truly comfortable in the universe – not even the TARDIS, that fathomless space stored inside a Police Box. Sure, it’s an alien wonder machine, but it’s also emphatically a machine and emphatically alien, full of warped coral structures and bare metal.
The universe being fundamentally ‘unsafe’ is a vital visual and narrative concept for this series because, as mentioned, it all leads to a Gnostic revelation in Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, where it transpires that the Dalek Emperor – the leader of the Daleks, those wicked pepperpot baddies who were the ‘other side’ in the Time War and thought to have died in the Doctor’s inferno – has been fucking around with human sociology for a long time. (Ed. note: Rhi wrote a great article on those little green blobs in bonded polycarbide armour that you can read here.)
The Dalek Emperor frames itself as ‘the God of All Daleks’ because, of course, Gnosticism is based on the notion of the ‘Demiurge’, the false god who makes the material universe. In Davies’ heady sci-fi interpretation of this, that amounts to manipulating the media apparatus of the future Earth, creating the optimum social decay to sneak in unnoticed and abduct “the refugees, the dispossessed” and fillet, filter, and purify their cells to make a fresh batch of Daleks. These Daleks are bonkers, because as a race of eugenicist psychos, they intimately despise their own existence – thus forcing (‘forcing’) the Dalek Emperor to substitute religion for fascism.
A recurring theme in Series One, complementing the Gnostic hobnobbing, is best described as ‘this, but bad’, and starts showing up in Robert Shearman’s Dalek. There, the Doctor and Rose’s lifestyle is contrasted to the avaricious and slimy Henry Van Statten (perennial ‘Hey, it’s that guy’ Corey Johnson), who seeks out the alien so he can stick it in a private museum and reverse-engineer it for profit (Ed. note: Fun fact, Dalek is based on an audio adventure Shearman had written for Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor called Jubilee. It’s available for free on Spotify and well worth a listen). Dalek also presents the Lone Dalek, assumed to be the only survivor of the species, and makes a lot of hay out of comparing it to the Doctor, especially as he goes increasingly off-the-rails in his quest to destroy it and it, in turn, becomes more human as a result of contact with Rose.
Dalek also introduces Bruno Langley as Adam Mitchell, a dogsbody for Van Statten who comes along as a one-episode companion. Unlike the wide-eyed and innocent Rose, Mitchell is conniving and tries to smuggle knowledge from the future back to his home time, resulting in his immediate exile back to Earth. That episode, The Long Game, also introduces Satellite Five, which itself becomes ‘that, but worse’ as a direct result of the Doctor trying to fix things. Satellite Five is the broadcaster for the year 199,909 and has been hijacked (not literally) by an agent of the Dalek Emperor, arresting and perverting the development of the human race. Removing it does not fix things – the Daleks simply take over and make things much, much worse.
An additional parallel figure appears in Boom Town, which is by and large a character study for the Doctor and Margaret Blaine/Blon Fel Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen, who tried to nuke the world in Aliens of London/World War Three for fun and profit. As the sole survivor of her extremely criminal family, returning to her home planet would be a death sentence – something that ruffles everyone’s feathers, even the Doctor’s – although Eccleston plays it very cool, passing his obvious discomfort off with a performatively dismissive exterior.
There’s also a focus on redemption – perhaps fitting, given the overt religiosity of the series – that surfaces in a number of interesting shapes. There’s Mickey’s transformation from meek geek to domestic hero, uninterested in travelling with the Doctor but keen to mitigate the damage he and other aliens cause to Earth. There’s the aforementioned Blon, who, in the final moments of Boom Town, is stripped of all her years and turned into an egg, giving her a clean slate. There’s Jack Harkness, played (regrettably) by Scottish-American actor John Barrowman (Ed. note: For more on Barrowman’s regrettable association with the show, click here). Jack is introduced as a ‘this but bad’ slick conman riff on the Doctor but wraps up the season dying heroically and admitting he’s grown as a person in the Doctor and Rose’s company.
Also he snogs both of them. This was a big deal in 2005.
The costuming of the series is pretty interesting. Davies and co neatly sidestep the problems so many Classic Who episodes run into (everyone wears jumpsuits in the future) by discretely combining conventional items in unconventional ways during The Long Game, and reverting to conventional 2005 gear during Bad Wolf – perhaps as a method of demonstrating how stagnant human society has become? Rose’s clothing is all very understated and often leans on reds and blues. It’s often loose-fitting and casual, befitting a young woman who has yet to find her feet in the world or indeed, the universe.
And then there’s Eccleston’s look, which is deliberately and tactically an ‘anti-iconic’ item. Standing in firm contrast to literally every single Doctor before and after him, Eccleston wears what amounts to a (gay jargon follows) leather otter’s ensemble, all blacks and earth tones. Slightly battered leather jacket, trousers, jumper (does he have a shirt under it?), shit-kickin’ boots. It’s grounded, tactile, and distinctly queer-ish.
Likewise, the redesigned TARDIS exterior is a straightforward build. There are no airs and graces or complicated patterns like the one in the Paul McGann-helmed TV movie – it’s notable largely by virtue of being the biggest televised box at the time. It’s also slightly abstracted from the original Police Public Call Boxes by virtue of being explicitly wooden (real PPCBs were concrete), which is a good example of an early occurrence of the show getting high on its own suffusion of in-universe and real-life mythology.
There are a lot of celebrity cameos, too, which is another thing RTD and company really brought to the table. Big names in British television are in this show! Zoë Wanamaker is a bitchy trampoline! Simon Pegg is a scary businessman! Simon Callow is Charles Dickens! Richard Wilson is a hi-then-die (Ed. note: Then, just this once, un-die) doctor in The Empty Child!
Oh man, The Empty Child. This was the big-ticket story of the season, the one everyone pointed at and said “This is the show firing on all cylinders”, which would become a trend for Scottish writer Steven Moffat during the RTD run. Moffat will be very important later, so here are some cliff-notes: he was best known at the time for a sitcom called Coupling and some Expanded Who Universe material, and is now best known for running Who between 2010-2017 and for co-creating Sherlock.
I am decidedly critical of the man’s body of work. I will try to be balanced when he becomes the Main Character. (Ed. note: I fear this is where Rhi and I are going to have some disagreements.)
Child, a two-part episode with The Doctor Dances, is extremely good. It’s a downright spooky tale about a kid who can’t die and spreads a plague of undying to other people via touch. He has a face that’s fused with a gas mask (it’s set during the Blitz, the period in WWII when London was getting bombed to shit) and he just wants to find his mummy. It’s all very moodily lit, exquisitely designed, eccentrically shot, and extremely slick and skillful – all hallmarks of the Moffat run as it came to be. The first episode has a beat that is brutally unpleasant for tea-time viewing, depicting Doctor Constantine (Wilson) metamorphosing into a gas mask zombie with some truly gnarly morphing effects and sound work.
So that’s Series One of Revival Who. It is, frankly, the most bonkers season of the RTD run – none would ever stuff quite so many high and heady ideas into a single 13-episode selection – and it holds up remarkably well. The biggest problems it has are largely in orbit around the budget, which Davies has said he did not manage to the best of his abilities and which really dates some of the VFX work.
The story wraps up with the Ninth Doctor heroically sacrificing himself (Ed. note: He was fantastic, absolutely fantastic) to save the life of the woman he loves (she is dying of Knowing Too Much) and promptly regenerating into some wiry bloke with a big floppy fringe.
Ladies and gentlemen, David Tennant is here.
(Ed. note: Thanks to The Black Archive for the images used in this article. See you next week!)