Q. How many Doctor Who fans does it take to change a light bulb?
A. None; they just sit there and hope it’ll come back on.
Cast your mind back. It’s the turn of the millennium, or thereabouts, and you find this hidden amidst a collection of emailed gags – one of those things that do the rounds on a Friday when the office is anxious to avoid doing any actual work. And until 2003, it was funny. Doctor Who was one of those series forever consigned to the archives: a show that had had its day, one that had ended not with a bang but with a whimper, sputtering out in declining ratings and corporate disinterest (at a period when, ironically, it had just started to recover its creative momentum). Seven years after the fact, there was a brief glimmer of hope in the form of a TV movie; a supposed resurrection which turned out to be a death spasm. The Eighth Doctor would go on to be quietly huge, at least off-screen – but the show’s televisual future was, it seemed, dead and buried.
You can’t make that joke anymore. It’s like the one about the newspapers (“What’s black and white and red all over?”) – it no longer works, although you can still, as we go to press, actually get printed newspapers, even if these days they’re all in colour. It’s a fixed point in time, forced eternally into a particular context. So I rewrote it:
Q. How many Doctor Who fans does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Ninety – one to change the bulb, twenty-four to rant about how much they preferred the other one, and sixty-five to produce identical animated GIFs of the bulb being changed to post on Tumblr.
Cue image of David Tennant standing in the rain, accompanied by the words NEVER BEEN THE SAME SINCE THIS MAN LEFT. Actually, you can only stretch the light bulb joke so far – because in the absence of any official TV content, it was the user base who stepped up to the plate with all manner of spin-offs, further adventures and other Whovian delights (and not a few disasters). Even some of the audio dramas were written by fans. Nature abhors a vacuum: so, it seems, do science fiction buffs.
And now it’s been back for years, and many of us are a little jaded, and – let’s be honest – some of us are probably a little sick of Nu Who. You’ve seen us on the forums, and your response is usually “Well, why do you still watch it?”, which is something I don’t have time to unpack. But here’s a mindset précis: we quietly rejoiced in the news that Steven Moffat was stepping down, before learning who was replacing him. We get annoyed with the catchphrases and the navel-gazing. We like Capaldi but don’t think he’s had the chance to shine yet. Some of us (whisper it) wouldn’t mind if the show was rested for a few years; it’s not like we don’t have enough unread books and unheard Big Finish releases to fill the gap.
But think about something. Think back, if you can, to that night in 2005. Remember how it felt to have the announcer say “Coming next, a brand new episode of Doctor Who“. A decade later, that sort of thing ties my stomach in knots for entirely the wrong reasons (particularly if said brand new episode involves Maisie Williams, but let’s not go there). Eleven years ago it was just about the most exciting thing to happen since the moment in Attack of the Clones when Yoda ignites his lightsaber. It was Doctor Who. It had a former pop star who had yet to prove herself as an actress, and the cliffhangers were all but gone, but it was Doctor Who, and you finally knew it was Doctor Who when you felt that thrilled sense of anticipation, the moment you saw the TV spots with the Doctor and Rose in the TARDIS. Hell, it seemed, had finally frozen over.
Superficially, Rose is a remake of Spearhead In Space, right down to the Autons breaking the shop windows. It even concludes with a battle with a tentacled monstrosity, although there is noticably less gurning from Eccleston. Crucially, it’s the companion who saves the day, even if Liz and Rose cut their bread from very different loaves. Such a scene is vital: there is no other good reason for the Doctor to take Rose with him, and if the ending established something of a formula for the Ninth Doctor’s general incompetence, perhaps it was a necessary evil. (More unfortunate is that Rose set something of a precedent for the current trend of making the companion the centre of the universe. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.)
But for many of those watching in 2005, it would be the 1996 film that sat freshest in their memories, and I wonder how much that might have skewed our perspective. If 2005 pulled out all the stops to create something that was accessible – irrespective of how much it had to steamroll in order to do it – then 1996 couldn’t have been more different. The problem with the TV movie is that it’s neither one thing or the other. The opening voiceover from McGann is where things begin to go wrong, and it’s basically downhill from there. Having introduced us to one villain who was about to be exterminated by another who is not seen again, on a planet that is never mentioned again, and having been given a fudged explanation of Time Lord physiology by a man who then doesn’t actually appear for twenty minutes, we’re expected to invest in his immediate predecessor, who says nothing coherent or useful before he dies in theatre, and not in the same way that Carrie: The Musical did.
All of this would be acceptable (just) had the TV movie not been trying to appeal to a potentially new audience – something Davies understood, having realised that it was not enough to expect children to watch Doctor Who simply because their parents always did. Its muddled beginning might pay homage to the established fan base, but unless you’re a part of that fan base (as many viewers, particularly on the other side of the pond, were not) then you’re going to be wildly confused. That’s bad enough, but having spent the first twenty minutes hearkening back to the past, Matthew Jacobs spends the rest of the film messing around with the canon. He places the Eye of Harmony in the TARDIS. He has a half-human Doctor (not a throwaway line, but a vital plot point) snog Daphne Ashbrook under a tree. And he turns the Master into a snake. The film takes a bouquet to the grave of the deceased TV show, and then urinates all over the tombstone. I suspect Ian Levine simultaneously loved and hated it.
It’s easy to be scornful in hindsight. (The most recent Doctor Who Magazine has a cover feature about “Celebrating the TV movie”, whereas I think many of us would rather treat it as something that happened and that we’re trying to forget.) Its legacy, however, is unmistakable. It gave us the Eighth Doctor, who has gone on to hold his own. And crucially, when it came to the 2005 re-launch, it gave Russell T Davies a laundry list of Things To Avoid.
Davies may have been a little too fond of the kitchen sink stuff, but he knew what he was doing. The first thing he does is regenerate the Doctor off camera. It is implied in the scene in Rose’s flat that this has happened recently, although to the uninitiated, it needn’t have happened at all. Perhaps the Doctor has recently had a haircut and simply hasn’t had the chance to look in a mirror yet (this is baffling seeing as he’s just spent the preceding few minutes in a department store, but if we start looking at plot holes we’ll be here all day). It seems absurd to even mention it, until you get under the skin of the character. A recent regeneration explains a little of the fire and edginess that haunts the Ninth Doctor throughout his first and only series – Dalek being the closest he gets to outright violence, before stabilising. Or perhaps Eccleston just wanted to play him that way. The likely truth is a combination of both.
The past, then, is an undiscovered country. Those of us who know our Doctor know where we sit (eight years before Moffat would yank away the rug), but it’s no accident that every image in Clive’s collection contains the Ninth Doctor, and only the Ninth – all the in-jokes with library cards and UNIT IDs would come much later. It goes further than this: Rose is a clean break with the old school. There are hints of the revisionism that would set up camp in later episodes. The Doctor refuses to name his species or planet (the Nestene Consciousness, as it turns out, is not so coy) but there is a blustery sense of irritation in his demeanour – he can’t be seen to be saving the Earth unless he’s complaining about it (and already, the ‘stupid ape’ rot is setting in). The much-quoted (and frequently memed) ‘turn of the Earth’ speech is perhaps the biggest hint that there is a darkness within him, and it’s a shame it has to be hidden beneath such theatrical absurdity.
But perhaps the real secret to Rose’s success is its companion-centred focus. It’s not enough that we only meet the Doctor when Rose does; we only see him when she does. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s no accident that the action unfolds through her eyes, and it’s to Piper’s credit that she carries the burden of responsibility so well. Rose appears in every scene in the story, save the Autons’ attack on the shopping centre and Mickey’s stage dive into the dustbin. (We also need, at some point, to deal with the fact that ‘Christopher Eccleston’ is an anagram of ‘Eccentric Rose plot – shh’. You can’t look me in the eye and tell me that’s not a coincidence.)
Compare and contrast. The Doctor is aloof and preoccupied, the sort of mystery that only a conspiracy theorist can uncover, and indeed Rose’s conversation with Clive is a metaphor for every noob who ever asked the wrong question in rec.arts.drwho (which proves, once and for all, that no, he’s not just called ‘the Doctor’). Rose is the new or casual fan, diving into a strange, dangerous but somehow accessible world, where the established fans have to learn to adapt or find themselves at the end of an Auton laser. (Somewhere out there, someone’s presumably written fan-fiction that establishes Clive as a former LINDA member, who left to save his marriage, or who was kicked out because his poetry was rotten.)
There are other things. Companions have families, and the families are no longer simple plot devices but people of substance. The psychic paper (not seen this week) becomes a convenient get-out-of-jail-free card; essential for any writer who needs to cram exposition, narrative and character development into forty minutes. For better or worse, the show has a pace and energy that would have given Jon Pertwee a coronary. This is television for the digital age, overclocked and edited down to the wire. And Murray Gold’s reworked theme seems very… busy.
But there’s a constant throughout all this; there’s a reassurance. There’s – look, David Lynch talks about something called the Eye of the Duck. It’s the single scene in any film or TV show that encapsulates it in one breath, the ‘eye’ that turns a vague duck-like shape into an actual duck. It’s there in the best Who episodes, and even in some of the worst. It’s in Blink and Turn Left and The Day of the Doctor. It’s even in Love & Monsters. And it’s there, in Rose, right at the beginning. It’s when Billie Piper is in the basement, surrounded by living plastic, unnerved and out of her depth and really not sure what’s about to happen next. Because that’s when the Doctor extends his hand, and shouts “Run!”.
And that’s exactly what Rose does. And instinctively we follow, just as we always will.