29 March 2005

Brides of the Autons

The most impressive thing about the Doctor Who episode Rose was its sheer contemporariness. The tight scripting and editing allowed enough material for a four-part Doctor Who story (an hour and a half in old money) to play itself out in 45 minutes; and the televisual vocabulary and grammar in use throughout were those employed in Russell T. Davies' earlier, impeccably modern drama series: Queer as Folk, The Second Coming and the like.

The second most impressive thing about the episode was the way this traditional Doctor Who plot -- and it was traditional, with a hidden monster-mind controlling the ground-level menace, and the Doctor having to employ a repertoire of technological McGuffins to track down and defeat it -- was seen entirely through the viewpoint of a normal person who hadn't a clue what was going on. The specialist fan in the audience, having naturally seen Spearhead from Space, may be able to decipher the underlying plot, but young Ms Piper is as in the dark as the mainstream viewer. And that's how it should be, because this story isn't about how the Doctor defeated the Autons and the Nestene Consciousness. It's about how he met Rose -- or rather about how she met him.

For make no mistake, Rose is the central character: baffled, exasperated, furious and comforted by this bizarre Northerner who claims to be an alien and appears to have the inexplicable toys to prove it. It's An Unearthly Child with sexual tension. What's more, Rose's storyline (as Not Invented Here has pointed out in this very venue) follows a very old and archetypal pattern, vacillating in the face of the call to adventure, seeking outside help and descending into the underworld from which she cannot return unchanged. It's the strongest introduction of a Doctor or companion which Doctor Who has given us to date.

The third most impressive thing about Rose was the dialogue -- not quite as sharp and witty throughout as we've come to expect from Davies, but with some smart lines from the Doctor and others. The "Lots of planets have a North" line is bound to be the most quoted, but for my money "It's a disguise!" (its proud owner's explanation of the TARDIS's surreally incongruous 1950s exterior) was the funniest.

Surprisingly, though, it's only when we get to number four on the impressiveness list that Christopher Eccleston's performance as the Doctor gets a look-in. Fantastic actor though he is, and highly charismatic though he was in the part, he still seemed a little unconfident. He overplayed the Doctor's cheery, smiling enjoyment of adventure -- as if the character's other moods (his anger when arguing with the Nestene, his various arrogant dismissals of Rose and her species, his enigmatic weirdness shortly before he first enters the TARDIS) were somehow less valid. Apparently Mr Eccleston wants to cast off his reputation for playing miserable gits, psychopaths and traumatised survivors, but it is possible to swing too far in the opposite direction.

For certainly none of this is to suggest that Rose was without faults. On the contrary, they become more apparent with the time that elapses since the broadcast. Ms Piper's performance, while light-years from the disaster some fans feared, was competent rather than stellar. The "anti-plastic" plot device seemed contrived even in a story where the plot explicitly didn't matter. The computer-generated special effects were frankly on the naff side. The belching wheelie-bin came precariously close to snapping the thread on which the disbelief of viewers over ten was suspended.

And if anything, rather too much of the original series was kept in place. There was no need for Eccleston to comment on his own face, particularly when the programme ensured that the records of his historical appearances all showed him looking as he does now. The TARDIS design is probably too iconic to change, but the episode would have benefited from a revamped dematerialisation noise -- equally eerie, but less antiquated and, above all, shorter. Wierder still, the Auton dummies sported the wrist-guns they wielded in Spearhead from Space and Terror of the Autons, despite the fact that we had already been shown at least three ways in which living plastic could kill without them, and nothing in the extant plot prepared the viewer to expect shop-window mannequins to be fitted with projectile armaments.

But none of this matters. The very brilliance of Rose lies in the ease with which it covered up these problems, which in any other series might have been disastrous. And these missteps, these teething problems, almost certainly arise from the fact that this is the first episodic Doctor Who to have materialised since 1989.

In fact, I think I may have been wrong about the most impressive aspect of Rose. Because what got me most excited -- the single thing which impressed me the most on first viewing, and continues to impress me now -- was the trailer for next week's episode, The End of the World.

While it's always fun to see the Doctor in a contemporary setting, it was the imagination of the otherworldly stories -- the alien planets, the far futures -- which formed for me the original series' strongest appeal. No longer concerned with introducing us to the Doctor and his world, episode two can look outward, introducing characters we now know well to an altogether weirder, stranger place: a future where humanity is extinct, and the Earth itself is dying; a world populated by giant disembodied faces, living trees and a woman made from a stretched-out sheet of skin.

All of which, or most of it, seems to be done with models and make-up, rather than with computer animation. In effect, The End of the World promises to be The Curse of Peladon with decent special effects.

And that, if nothing else, would have been worth waiting sixteen years for.

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