He already had, and would go on to, write better episodes of television, but “Rose” is RTD’s greatest ever achievement as a writer. Against all the odds, he successfully relaunched an old cult sci-fi show that hadn’t been regularly on air for 16 years, and according to all industry experts and media commentators, was out of place in the 21st century. To pull the show’s triumphant return off in that context is hugely impressive, and to write an episode that still sparkles in its own way, and carries the promise of further brilliance is no mean feat.
There are weak points, most of them linked to the alien invasion plot, which is threadbare: most revealed by the anti plastic being used to defeat the Nestene Consciousness, far from an organic plot resolution. There are also weaknesses in the effects and direction (although there are some brilliant visual touches too, which I’ll get into later), plastic Mickey in particular being a bit of cheap camp that never quite convinces (although it is reassuring to go back and see that the New Series, just like its predecessor, has aged somewhat poorly in terms of effects that are dated). Finally, the pacing sags a little between the Doctor leaving after his “Turn of the Earth” speech and returning to the story in the restaurant. But these weakness are mostly made up for by RTD’s brilliant decision to basically set the story in the final act of the alien invasion plot: “you lot, all you do is eat chips, go to bed, and watch telly, while all the time, underneath you, there’s a war going on” the Doctor tells Rose. As a result, RTD doesn’t need to worry about giving the alien invasion story a tight plot, because it’s just a backdrop to the episode’s real story: Rose stumbling into the world of Doctor Who at the end of a traditional alien invasion story.
And my God, everything else here is pretty much perfect: this remains the blueprint for the best way to launch a new show. But it’s not just in terms of functionality, the episode is packed with scenes that showcase superb writing and acting. The “Turn of the Earth” speech is the obvious highlight, with Eccleston giving an absolutely hypnotic performance, but there are other great scenes: the Doctor completely missing the London eye being the transmitter is a perfect demonstration of the series’ sense of humour. And Rose entering the TARDIS for the first time is beautifully done: the joke where she runs around the outside is inspired, the first shot showing the scope of the inside awe-spiring.
At the centre of the best bits of the episode are Eccleston and Piper, one of the best TARDIS teams, perfectly cast, and both, for completely different reasons, entirely left field choices for their respectively roles. Every scene with Rose and the Doctor is pure gold: they’re a funny double act, Rose challenges the Doctor in all the right ways, the Doctor opens Rose up to a new, mad and dangerous world, and they just look right running along the Thames hand in hand. Their characters are captured perfectly, and it’s this that gives the show the platform to go on and be, in the words of the ninth Doctor, utterly fantastic.
The dynamic between Rose and Mickey is also worth noting, and it’s genuinely well handled in this episode. Billie Piper and Noel Clarke capture the sense a couple who are comfortable around each other, but as a result a little too used to each other, perfectly. The scene where Rose play-trips Mickeys as he walks out to go the pub and they make faces at each other is genuinely sweet, but the scene where she talks about wanting him to actually wash his dishes shows the flipside: that they are used to each other in a way that perhaps means they are holding each other back, just coasting in their relationship. But there are also moments like the “don’t Read my Emails!” exchange, and Mickey using comforting Rose as an excuse to go and watch a football match: Mickey isn’t as completely the innocent victim in the falling apart of their relationship, as is often suggested by fandom. Rose is really callous in the “Thanks”/ “For What?”/ “Exactly” exchange at the end of the episode, but it’s not a callousness that is rooted in nothing.
Also key is the way the camera contributes to the characterisation of the Doctor: in each of his first three entrances to the scene, note the way he’s framed by the camera: he doesn’t come in all guns blazing, front and centre, to save the helpless Rose, but pops up in the corner of the screen, cheeky grin on his face, grabs Rose’s hand, and whispers “Run”. Then, when he comes to Rose’s flat, we first see him poking his face through a cat flap. Finally, rescuing Rose from Auton Mickey, in the scene where he finally lets Rose into the story, we spend a good extended period of time holding on the shot of him holding the champagne in the background of Rose and auton Mickey’s conversation, politely insisting that they pay him some attention. It’s a use of visual storytelling to emphasize what makes the Doctor an unusual Hero: he is not a screen hogging action man, but a cheeky, peripheral figure of impish subversion. It’s a good example of the way the visual storytelling is in sync with the script: the Doctor is a figure of legend and mystery, kept at the margins of the story as Rose slowly discovers more about him.
Underneath the fun, however, is a sens of the danger represented by the Doctor and his world: Rose’s store is blown up when, symbolically, it comes into contact with Doctor Who, Jackie’s coffee table gets smashed, and Clive, the story’s stand in for a Classic Doctor Who fan (portrayed in a mostly sympathetic manner, as an ordinary man with a wife and kids who happens to have an unusual hobby) warns Rose about this danger, only to be the named character killed in the auton invasion at the end of the story. There s a lingering sense that the competing worlds of everyday life and Doctor Who are not compatible, or that there will be damage as a result of the two worlds meeting.
More than just the competing worlds of the mundane and the fantastic, this is a story about crossing thresholds: there’s a clear preoccupation with doors and barriers, both physical and symbolic. Rose drags the Doctor through a doorway into her flat: just as he drags her into his world when rescuing her at Harrod’s, she drags him into hers, demanding that he participate in her world just as she starts to become a part of his. The story is also subtly aware of the barriers of class boundaries: Jackie suggests working in a posh department store was giving Rose “airs and graces”, even though it’s still very clearly a working class job, there’s a feel for the class dynamics at play within Rose’s own family as she gets a slightly higher paying job that is still incredibly low down in the paygrade in a capitalist economy. And working class girl Rose goes from her council estate to learn about the Doctor (and Doctor Who itself) from a middle aged man in middle class suburbia: and notably, Clive misunderstands Doctor Who in key ways, even if he has knowledge about the Doctor that Rose doesn’t: the lens through which Doctor Who is seen shifts from its arguably traditional middle England audience to a figure like Rose, whose take on Doctor Who hasn’t been valued in this way before. This is all buildup to the ultimate threshold crossing in the story, when Rose finally steps through the doorway of the TARDIS for the first time, discovering and feeling the world of Doctor Who in a way Clive, who theorises and gathers together information, never quite does. But this isn’t quite the ultimate threshold crossed in the story: that comes in the final scene. Over the course of the story we see her fly in the TARDIS, run with the Doctor, and battle monsters, but the final threshold to cross comes when Rose, runs away with the Doctor, leaving the world of her ordinary life for the world of Doctor Who.