Musing on From Hell and its connections to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Alan Moore posited that in holistic detection “you wouldn’t just have to solve the crime, you’d have to solve the entire world that the crime happened in.” Brilliant. Slap out some business cards. Philip Sandifer. Holistic media critic. Get to work. Except this terrain is slippery. The distinction between world and crime becomes vague,until everything becomes a crime scene, ready for its evidence bag giftwrap and careful analysis. Still, in a world of crime scenes there must be kings. The random acts of vandalism, wall scrawl fiction for the anoraks huddling under the bridge, must in time add up to something. To the big one. The shocking crime in an otherwise nice neighborhood. “These things don’t happen here.” Of course they don’t. Ropey sci-fi programs that haven’t been popular since the 1970s don’t come back to be the biggest thing on television. That’s not how this works. And yet here’s the crime scene, splatters of anti-plastic everywhere. No point in getting all holistic now. This time we keep it simple. We just solve the crime. Tape off the scene, form a perimeter. Perform whatever banishings you feel appropriate. And then let’s get to work. Forty-four minutes and ten seconds of history, rounded by yellow caution tape. Go slow, be meticulous. What the hell happened here?
A brief stab at showing the world – a perfectly ordinary thing for what we might charitably call “this sort of show.” The music swells, the camera accelerates, and we plunge breathless. (Already we are invoking old things – Doctor Who has begun an episode like this before.) We fall into the world, towards Britain, towards London, and then… into an alarm clock.
This is not where we’re supposed to be; drum and bass montage of Billie Piper, eponymous Rose, in a high speed run of fast cuts, going about her day. A banal shop-girl’s existence in the buzzing heart of London. Trafalgar Square, in amongst the swirl of double decker busses, what stands out is the aggressive willingness of the episode to date itself, from Rose’s trendy-almost-to-the-week overly pink bedroom to a Starbucks and an advertisement for The Lion King appearing in shot. It takes all of a minute for us to know Rose, to know her living situation, her well-meaning but slightly oafish boyfriend, her uninspiring job. We all know her. There’s not a viewer in Britain who does not know her after this sequence. Ten point eight million of them. More than anything else on television that week save four Corries and a pair of EastEnders. Eighteen percent of the country. In unison run smack into Rose Tyler, Sun-child of the popular culture.
And yet haunting this montage is a series of odd cuts and shot framings. A camera staying on for a second after Rose has left the shot, focusing on a lone mannequin, or a shot inexplicably framed so that a trio of mannequins are the focal point instead of Billie Piper. There’s something ever so slightly wrong about this – an oddness from outside this sphere of television that haunts proceedings. And by the time she arrives in the basement the nature of the scene has shifted.
Still, we’re in the realm of the firmly understandable. Show this to someone who has no idea what they’re watching and they’ll make perfect sense out of it. It’s self-evidently a horror movie. Billie Piper is playing the first reel sacrificial lamb – the one who’s about to get horribly butchered by some slathering beast. Or it’s a detective show, and she’s going to find Wilson’s body, leading to the real plot. One or the other. But it’s completely straightforward. That’s what happens on television when attractive blonde things wander around in the dark.
Two things, however, interrupt this scene. The first is the haunting we’ve already spoken of – these strange mannequins. Yes, the viewer has a pretty solid idea of what sort of story this is, and once the scene of Rose calling out for Wilson stretches beyond a few seconds any possibility that this is going to resolve into a “find the body” plot evaporates. Instead we’re firmly in the reach of horror. We ought contrast these first two stretches of the program. In the first minute or so we get a swift montage of who Rose Tyler is – an extremely deft and efficient bit of characterization. In the second, we get over two minutes of luxuriation in content-free shadow lurking. Over a minute of air time is spent with Rose walking around in the basement of the shop, over which hangs the knowledge that something bad is going to happen.
But let’s pause here and look at our overall televisual literacy and what it’s telling us. On some level we know Billie Piper is going to be OK. (And we should note that she is still Billie Piper – nobody has called her “Rose” yet.) A brief glimpse at the paratext reveals that the episode is named after her character, which is as good insurance as anyone gets (though I suppose she could still end up Laura Palmering some murder mystery from this setup). But more to the point, we spent a minute getting to know her character. The montage was curiously too much and too little. We know her too well for her to be cannon fodder. But it’s a slender reed – less something that drains the suspense out of the scene and more something that nags at us, haunting what we see.
And then there are the mannequins, which are clearly still important to this – and important even within the context of this basement scene. Watch the scene where she flicks the lights on, ostensibly ratcheting the danger back down by removing the darkness. But the lights are positioned so that all they illuminate are previously unseen mannequins. The mannequins have been haunting this show for its entire (three minute) run-time, lurking Chekovianly over its mantlepiece, aching to fire. But, of course, it doesn’t make sense how or why they would. Not within the logic of what we have here. There’s a coherent litany of things that could be waiting in that basement to butcher Billie Piper, and evil mannequins are decisively not on that list. And yet after two minutes of teasing, that is exactly what we get. Evil mannequins.
But there is a second interruption; to the caution-tape perimeter we’ve set up. It is about to be breached. The perimeter demarcates forty-four minutes and ten seconds of televisual space. But it does not merely encompass a set of filmized video frames and an audio soundtrack that have been captured on our DVD sets, or digital format of choice. We’re tracking a live transmission here – a signal that was actually beamed out at a specific time, into people’s houses and lives. Rose is not a text. It is an event. It happened. And as it happened, in the course of that transmission there were what are conventionally described as “technical difficulties.” Twice through the cellar sequence – once about a minute into Rose’s Wilson-calling, and once as the Autons are menacing Rose, audio broke through from a set on which Graham Norton was preparing for the next broadcast of Strictly Dance Fever. And so as Rose wanders around calling for Wilson there is a round of applause, and then, as she cowers from the onrushing mannequins, Graham Norton inquires as to where he should be sitting.
Let us pause to consider this piece of evidence for a moment. It is immediately recognizable to anyone even remotely familiar with occult technique as an inadvertent execution of the cut-up method. Originated by William S. Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, the cut-up method involves taking fragments of one or more existing texts that are physically cut up and reassembled to form a new text. Where Burroughs mainly used the approach textually, Gysin became interested in it as an auditory technique, crafting pieces like “Pistol Poem,” a 1960 cut-up of gunfire and disordered counting, for the BBC. The premise of the cut-up is early postmodernism: the technique of transporting something out of its natural context so as to inject that context into some new context. By reordering the conceptual space of a soundtrack we reorder the ideas, changing the symbols themselves. It’s as old an alchemic process as has ever existed: by manipulating the symbol, you manipulate the thing.
(The cut-up technique was also influential in the creation of early electronic music, which had a similar approach of physically dismantling and reassembling media. “Pistol Poem” was recorded the same year Delia Derbyshire started work at the BBC. Derbyshire would go on to use electronic cut-up techniques to produce the theme to…)
And so Graham Norton is cut-up into this broadcast, right along with the ill-fitting mannequins. The result is a strange miasma of television and culture, only jumbled together wrong and turned into a nightmare that closes in, ready to swallow Billie Piper. It’s exactly the scene we expected – Billie Piper’s butchery, her grisly and spectacular death at the hands of some lurking horror. But it’s not just shop mannequins now – it’s expanded to be an attack from the entire culture, from the very fabric of TV. From Graham Sodding Norton.
Joss Whedon has said that the original image for Buffy the Vampire Slayer was him imagining an inversion of the standard horror opening of the blonde girl getting butchered. He imagined it playing out exactly like you’d expect – the character who the audience knows is a vampire luring the dumb blonde down an alley, getting ready to kill her, and then, right where we expect the money shot, she fights back and kills the vampire. But when he actually did the first episode of Buffy he ended up inverting his own first image, instead having it be that the dumb blonde is the vampire and the boy is the helpless victim who gets eaten. And so his original opening, his brilliant invocation and inversion of the horror movie trope, remains slightly erased, lurking in the background of Buffy. Waiting to get nicked by Russell T Davies, who here sets up the exact same thing. Rose, the blonde pop star, is in the basement, ready to get butchered. Only instead of revealing that she’s secretly the vampire slayer, Davies makes a very different revelation: she’s secretly a Doctor Who companion.
It’s a perfect invocation of strangeness. The utterly pointless (save for making a nice visual) shot of the Autons karate-chopping a steam pipe open. The way in which the Doctor enters the narrative, a hand from off-screen grasping Rose’s. (Note that the Autons are also threatening her with hands.) This is old magic – an invocation of a deep-lying tradition otherwise forgotten. It is worth noting that there is no reason for the Doctor to take Rose’s hand here, and less of one for them to continue holding hands as they begin running through corridors. It’s pointless. It’s silly. It is, in its own way, a conceptual cut-up – a random detail from an older legacy, specifically the tendency in Doctor Who’s eighth through tenth seasons of having Jon Pertwee hold Katy Manning’s hand while they ran, which he, in reality, did mainly because Manning was blind as a bat without her glasses and when she attempted running for the first time on-set ran smack into a tree. Here the act is shorn of its context, injected into Rose’s little horror story, and we’re off to the races, Rose’s story intruded upon by this mysterious Other.
We should observe how the act is not entirely faithful to the original either. The Auton hand attack is not actually from the same set of iconography as the Doctor and Jo holding hands and running. It’s from the same era, but these are things that are linked in ideaspace, not in any real temporal sense. The bulk of the Auton hand imagery comes from Spearhead From Space, Jon Pertwee’s first story, whereas Katy Manning and the hand-holding are very much from Pertwee’s fifth story, Terror of the Autons, which Rose also invokes, but completely separately. Terror of the Autons isn’t the mannequin one. It’s a small point – I mean, they’re both Auton stories – but it’s a significant one, in that Doctor Who is also being cut up and reassembled, creating a sort of summary of itself – the key points of Doctor Who distilled and rearranged.
Notably, once the Doctor shows up all notion of the horror plot is banished. Billie Piper is fine. This strange man in the leather jacket has control of this narrative, and Billie Piper has fallen out of her world and into his, at least momentarily. Because it is momentary. The scene of the Doctor and Rose together and in the same show lasts all of ninety seconds before Rose is bounced out of this new show she’s found herself in and is given leave to return to her own show. But in these ninety seconds several things of note are established.
First, there is the banishing of Graham Norton. “Am I here,” he asks, and mere moments later the Doctor tacitly answers: no, you’re not. I am. In doing so he immediately restores our sense of a perimeter, even as he intrudes upon the scene from outside. He has absolute control of this narrative space; it extends around him. And it is tangibly huge. The ninety seconds are full of strange dissonances – the caged mannequins in the hallway struggling to get out, for instance. Now that we have, broadly speaking, identified the mannequins as his the general strangeness of them stands out. They are, after all, occupying their space strangely; there are far too many of them, the camera hangs on them oddly, there’s the business of turning on the lights only to reveal them. And, you know, they’re moving around and homicidal, so that’s a bit strange too. But stranger still is the sense that there exists some explanation buried beneath all of this. It’s not just that there’s this shop full of evil mannequins – it’s that there’s evidently some sort of plan going on behind the scenes. The way in which the Doctor makes the jump from “Wilson’s the electrician” to “Wilson’s dead” points towards a logic we never see, a bare sketch of some hopelessly elaborate scheme on the part of the Autons to take over the world that self-evidently requires the electrician of this particular department store to die. (Watch how the rapid speed of this implies heavily the sheer size of this. Everything in this story is buzzing and moving about. There’s too much here. It’s joyfully excessive.)
Second is the fact that Billie Piper is able to function in this world. She falls out of her show (twice over – once into the horror movie, and then again into Doctor Who) and, upon landing in Doctor Who, is perfectly capable. That’s the entire point of the “is it students” conversation – and Eccleston plays it well, meticulously conveying the information. This stretch of television is his home turf, and he knows what’s going on. He has to – his confidence that the plot makes sense is what dictates that it does make sense. (The image of sense becomes sense.) But he hadn’t considered Rose’s theory. It’s wrong, obviously, but what’s crucial is that when she first expresses it he can’t figure out how she came to it. And when he asks her, idly testing her, playing, for a second (since he’s in an elevator anyway), with this strange woman who’s wandered into her show, she impresses him. It’s a barest hint, but she can hold her own in this show.
Third is the fact that Rose is named here. For the first time in the show, she is addressed by name. Naming a thing is, ritualistically, an important step. Names have power. Rose can be invoked now, and, crucially, she only gains that ability when she’s inside the same show as the Doctor. She gains identity by the proximity to his show. And yet after ninety seconds it shatters – Rose is left in her own show. She may have briefly fallen out of the world, but she’s quickly shooed back in.
Structurally, this is inevitable. The malign influence of Joseph Campbell plays out irritatingly over the entirety of this scene. A key step in the hero’s journey is the refusal of the call. The adventure must be rejected first before it can be truly accepted. This practice has great spiritual import – consider the practice of rejecting a convert to Judaism three times before accepting their conversion. Rejection and abandonment are a standard part of many occult initiations – magical societies will claim to reject a candidate just to see what they do, then accept them later with the revelation that it has all been a test. Or, if you want a more pop culture version of it, given the subsequent explosion of the department store, consider V’s false rejection of Evie in V For Vendetta, where it turns out that an entire middle section in which Evie is seemingly arrested is an elaborate mind game.
Already a theory is shaping up: this is Rose’s initiation. That’s what this whole scene is – an initiation ritual for Rose Tyler. It’s a familiar structure – the way you do these things. We’ve got it now, surely. The scene described. The perimeter made meaningful. We know what this is. Except… there’s still something off. Not the blue box that haunts Rose as she runs – that we expect, her world having been infiltrated by the Doctor and his show. Even if we don’t know what it is, we’ve been primed by the mannequins to get how these uncanny objects play out. (The TARDIS as an inexplicable conspicuity, of course, dates back to An Unearthly Child and the first shot of the series – more cutting up.) No, what is stranger are the thirty seconds of her running, afraid from the shop. It’s shot horror-movie again – lots of time for anticipation and dread of what might be about to happen. But we’re out on a London street now, right by Trafalgar Square. This is firmly Rose’s space – where we began in her minute montage. And while thirty seconds isn’t a lot, let’s remember, this show did her characterization in a minute. When it slows down like this, forcing us to drink in the moment, we must take note of it.
The incongruity here is, of course, that the terror of Rose’s world should be irrelevant. After all, the point of her initiation is to move her from this world to the Doctor’s. That the Doctor’s world haunts hers is necessary, but there’s no reason to linger within the terror of her world that follows from the Doctor’s intrusion. That’s irrelevant if she’s going to be taking up a permanent residence on the other side of the portal. So no. This is an initiation, yes. And a ritual, clearly. But it’s not Rose’s initiation. It’s someone else’s.
Keep surveying the scene. We move to watching telly on telly – a BBC News broadcast about the department store. So we’ve switched shows again. But the switching lags – we go from that to a single shot of the mannequin arm on an armchair, quietly reminding us that the barriers between shows are porous. (How else would Graham Norton have gotten through?) But now we’re firmly in her show – a working class soap opera. Note how her mother’s immediate concern is getting her back to work, the night shots of the council estate, Mickey’s utterly pedestrian interest in getting to the pub to watch the tail end of the match. This is a perfectly familiar setting. We know this show, just like we knew Billie Piper at first.
Still, to hammer home the point, we get a redo of the alarm clock. But instead of launching Rose into a dizzying characterization montage it launches her into the drear of day-to-day existence. Still, this sequence is all about characterization, and wonderfully deft characterization. Jackie Tyler reveals more about her fears and desires with her complaint that Rose’s job at a high-end shop was “giving her airs and graces” than any amount of exposition could ever tell us. But also observe the tight angles and close-ups. The camerawork changes as we shift among shows. But quickly we’re back to changing things up as we get the second encounter between Rose and the Doctor. Notably, it’s only been a few minutes, but the trip through an entire new show – EastEnders, basically – makes it feel like a larger gap than it is.
What happens next, however, is revealing in several ways. Clearly the meat and matter of this ritual is the crossing of the boundaries among television programs and genres. But again, all evidence is that the end goal is crossing Rose into Doctor Who. Given that, what happens in the next scene is bizarre: the Doctor strolls into Rose’s show. Or, more accurately, Rose grabs hold of him and yanks him in. There’s a cheek here – the threshold of her apartment marks the physical line between the two shows. While he’s outside the door he’s in charge of the narrative space. But once Rose pulls him in he’s distinctly not in his show anymore. This further rubbishes our briefly held notion that this is Rose’s initiation. In fact, it’s possible that it’s the Doctor’s – that this show is some sort of Mork and Mindy/Dark Shadows mash-up about the alien living on the council estate saving the world periodically.
It would be easy to play this as the fish out of water approach, where the joke is that the Doctor is utterly out of place here and doesn’t know what to do. Indeed, that’s what’s expected. But that expectation is trivially subverted from the first moment. It’s not that the Doctor slots straightforwardly into the soap opera; he doesn’t. But all of this is exposed in the brief scene where he talks to Jackie. At first he plays along, giving the exact right responses to Jackie’s flirtations. But once she comments that “anything could happen” (in the next half hour) and he realizes what game he’s playing he demurs and wanders off. It’s key that this is done with Jackie as well. Already we can see that she is the most soap opera of the soap opera characters here – cut from the Hilda Ogden cloth. So making the Doctor able to both fit into a scene with her and, crucially, trump her and wander out when he wants to quickly establishes that the Doctor is capable of functioning inside a soap opera.
Having established the point, the show presses it. Rose carries on her business, trying to talk to him, but the camera frequently wanders back to the Doctor as he looks about Rose’s flat. This is the closest the show comes to the fish out of water joke, but the real joke is that he’s not a fish out of water. Instead he’s more than capable of flipping through celebrity magazines and weighing in on the latest gossip. It’s worth remarking in particular on this bit, since it’s one of the things glommed onto by a certain segment of the audience as a complaint. The issue, apparently, is that the Doctor is enough of a reader of celebrity magazines to be up to date on the gossip (and indeed, an expert on the gossip – he knows secrets the tabloids don’t), which seems unlike him. But what this complaint misses is that this is the only scene where he displays knowledge of this sort. It is, in other words, because he’s basically in EastEnders at the moment that he knows about celebrity gossip, and as soon as he goes back into his own show, or to some other show, that knowledge dissipates. What it establishes, in other words, is not that the Doctor keeps up on celebrity gossip, but that the Doctor can seamlessly enter EastEnders if he wants to.
There is a second aspect of engagement with what we might call “old school fans” involved here. The act of dropping the Doctor into a soap opera is, of course, impish. But it’s impish because of the very underlying problem we’re trying to solve here: old sci-fi shows like Doctor Who don’t fit with populist things like soap operas. Part of what’s going on in this scene is a blatant and noisy rejection of the usual logic of these things – a recognition that the border between these two things is existent, but that it is permeable. But there’s a larger issue, which is that Doctor Who, historically, has a bit of a poor relationship with soap operas. First there’s its failed effort in 1982 to work like one, ratcheting up its cast size and playing with story arcs and twice-weekly airings. Then came its disastrous period of airing opposite Coronation Street in the late 1980s. But the crowning agony was 1993’s Dimensions in Time, a Children in Need sketch that mashed up Doctor Who with EastEnders in a deeply painful and embarrassing fashion. Putting the Doctor inside a soap opera, in other words, isn’t just a cheeky bit of populism designed to piss off all the right people. It’s playing with fire, allowing the series to come in contact with the iconography that eventually did it in.
The problem with the Doctor walking into a soap opera, of course, is that Doctor Who is likely to follow him. And so, of course, the arm attacks. But let’s pause and look at how utterly different this attack is from the basement attack of the mannequins. There the mannequins were built to as objects of horror, and their attack was played like something scary (ludicrous as it was). But here the mannequin arm attacks in the context of a quick bit of farce in which Rose and the Doctor are in different rooms carrying on parallel monologues instead of communicating. There’s a big set piece in which Rose thinks the Doctor is just messing around with the arm in the same way Mickey was earlier, at which point the arm hangs in the air and does a very silly looking swivel before it flies to attack Rose.
The physics of this are one thing – what, exactly, propels the plastic hand through the air? It’s just about intelligible that the Autons can control anything plastic, and if you really scrunch up your face and put your mind to it you can figure out why the mannequins have hand guns, but there’s nothing that explains why the plastic arm can fly through the air. It’s deeply, deeply silly, and it’s there only to provide a deeply silly fight scene. But in doing so it reiterates a key truth about how this divide works in the first place. Simply put, the Autons are also transformed by crossing over the doorstep and entering the soap opera. They go from horror movie threats to comedic threats, switching from something out of Dawn of the Dead into something a bit more Shaun of the Dead. Even still, however, there’s a carefully policed set of rules here. There’s a shot of Jackie Tyler starting up the hairdryer so as to answer the question of why she doesn’t come out and get involved in the arm wrestling, which is important given that she really can’t be in that. Rose can cross the line between these two shows and function, but Jackie does not belong in the same shot as an Auton in a very different way to the way in which Rose is jarring.
This also leads us to what we might call the Problem of Jackie Tyler’s Coffee Table. The coffee table, you see, is shattered in the fight with the arm. But it’s never mentioned again. This is, of course, fine within the rules of Doctor Who, which we’ve already seen is the sort of show where aliens have elaborate plots that involve murdering electricians. But it’s not at all fine within the rules of Jackie’s show. The character who mere minutes earlier was complaining about how the shop gave Rose airs and graces is not one who could have a coffee table completely shattered and never complain about it. On a basic and practical level, replacing the coffee table would be a non-trivial expense for her, especially after losing her daughter’s income. Beyond that, she’s just not the sort of person to let that go. Obviously the rules of Doctor Who trump the rules of Jackie’s show here, but it’s still shocking how quickly that happens. Ostensibly the Tylers’ flat should be much more durable than this. The Doctor is the one out of his element here. And yet his plot logic quickly reasserts itself, revealing just how fast and thoroughly he deforms the narrative space around him, leaving it almost unrecognizable to itself.
Following this, the Doctor attempts to leave Rose behind again. Again, there are some rules quietly being broken here. The format of an initiation – refused calls to adventure and the like – is still there. But there’s no reason for Rose or the Doctor to refuse the call twice like this. Tellingly, the refusal is itself delayed. The Doctor tries to leave Rose almost immediately after, but instead finds himself caught in a ninety-second tracking shot as he walks from Rose’s flat to his blue box. The tracking shot is firmly within Rose’s visual grammar. The extended shot makes it feel like it comes out of a documentary – the sort of kitchen sink social realist approach that’s usually used to depict the working class. Note that while it’s not a jittery hand-held camera, the tracking shot is allowed to bob and jerk around a little, making the presence of someone holding it tangible. The entire sequence clearly comes out of our soap opera and not out of Doctor Who. And throughout it the Doctor is trying to get rid of Rose while she persistently refuses to leave. It is, in other words, an extended demonstration of Rose’s narrative power over the Doctor.
So Jackie both can’t get brought into the Doctor Who narrative – c.f. the hairdryer – and can’t maintain the purity of her narrative in the face of it – c.f. the coffee table. Rose, on the other hand, can get brought into Doctor Who and encounter the Autons, but can also impose her narrative on Doctor Who. The ability to have your perimeter breached by the outside world is, in other words, strangely central to the ability to maintain a firm definition of the border itself. Only by falling in and out of worlds do we define what those worlds are. Observe also that when Rose decides to engage with the Doctor and listen to his story – i.e. when the Doctor allows his world to be breached by Rose – the long take ends and we go back to telling the story through editing.
(A nervous glance at our caution tape, standing ominously strong in the wind as we continue our investigation.)
So Rose is brought back into the Doctor’s world. But this time as a transaction – as a deal. She’ll give up her control over the camera if he explains who he is. And so he does in the “we’re falling through space” monologue. We started in space, remember, and then fell into the world. So this, on one level, briefly restores the initial scale of things that we sacrificed to get to Rose. But the effect is rather more striking than just that. The monologue is well-crafted to produce an immediate sense of scale: we’re genuinely taken aback by just how massive the Doctor’s sense of scale and perception is. It’s not just the description of the Earth’s astronomy, but his plaintive exclamation, “I can feel it.” Also, the symbolism of hands is back – the Doctor grasps Rose’s again as he says he can feel it, playing off the hand’s role as a sensory organ. And then, at the end of the monologue, as he rejects Rose a second time, he lets go again, breaking the connection. He goes back to his blue box, and it vanishes, falling right out of the world.
And so we acquire another key dimension of things: the eccentric and excessive spaces that can be carved within the world. What is so compelling is not merely the scope of the Doctor’s perceptions and his world, but the fact that the sense of space widens so quickly once Rose steps into his world. The threshold of his world is not just a genre switch – it’s a switch into a whole new sense of scale. His world is big in a way that the world around it isn’t.
There’s a phrase that describes that…
(This also marks the first appearance, musically, of what Russell T Davies and Phil Collinson cheekily refer to as “Flavia’s Theme.” It’s the musical cue with the single female vocalist oohing around on it that they use whenever Time Lord stuff comes up – that is, when the show gets a bit poncey in its sense of mysticism. Embedded in this is a fascinating double-edged joke: on the one hand the mysticism is named via a reference to a dense and fannish continuity point – Chancellor Flavia is in fact most notable for becoming Lord President of Gallifrey in The Five Doctors and then never appearing or being mentioned ever again. But there’s also an embrace of the camp here – Flavia is given an exceedingly stoic performance by Dinah Sheridan that makes her an immediate camp sensation destined to be loved by the sizable contingent of gay Doctor Who fans. It’s not just that mysticism and fannishness are twinned here, but that the slightly cheesy music trotted out when the mysticism gets a bit excessive is itself a self-conscious celebration of camp excess within the program.)
But what is the role of this deferral? If it is inscrutable in terms of the initiation ritual that this scene is rapidly turning out to be, it is at least straightforward in terms of the basic grammar of television. This is a return to the old model of television as a system of anticipation. This was, for a long time, how television worked – a constant game of anticipation and payoff, where much of the pleasure was the approach of the inevitable. “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” And so part of the structure of Rose is the deferral of the inevitable. We know as soon as the Doctor grabs Rose’s hand and says “run” that she’s a Doctor Who companion. But again, the initiation isn’t hers. She’s initiated then and there. The point is instead the extended lingering – the anticipation as the inevitable wedding approaches. This is foreshadowed in the program’s earliest trailers, which proclaim that it’s almost time for Doctor Who… but not yet. The point isn’t the events that unfold, in other words, but the act of watching the events.
And so Rose, having been kicked out of the program twice, starts to try to figure out about this whole Doctor Who thing. Here we run into an interesting problem with this entire structure and theory. On the one hand, the evidence for the claim that Rose is an initiation ritual seems watertight. Everything is pointing to it. But there’s no opportunity. A key step is absent. Already we’ve had to take as evidence the cut-up presence of Graham Norton, a broadcast phenomenon without author. We’re far from the realm of plausible authorial intent. Simply put, Russell T Davies isn’t the type to execute the sort of ritual that’s shaping up here. The crime is intelligible, the suspect isn’t.
But does a ritual need a ritualist? Here we are, playing in the detritus of ideas and culture, the seeming payoff to Lawrence Miles’s hypothetical ritual the month this series was announced. (Such a masterful build and use of anticipation, that.) Do we need to have someone consciously pulling the strings? At some point these things move on their own momentum. I say all of this mostly because the logo of the fake search engine Rose uses looks shockingly like some sort of Lovecraftian horror of the sort that might be lurking under the surface of the world. Then again, it could also just be made to look like the Nestene Consciousness on the cover of Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion. (Of course, in the Virgin books it was established that the Nestene Consciousness was the offspring of H.P. Lovecraft’s Shub-Niggurath…)
So Rose goes on the Internet and meets herself a Doctor Who fan. That is, after all, clearly what Clive is. He is us. Caught dead to rights, he is us, the fat, sweaty bastards of us. Nutter anoraks buying memorabilia from a washed-up sci-fi show. That’s who we are. We who paw about the edges of this thing, discontent to just let it be a fun television show. We who are dragging the holy and sacred (or at least reasonably popular for a few weeks) Billie Piper through the filth of our childish obsessions. We who (*sob*) blog. Paranoid conspiracy theorist out in the shed stitching up his little obsession. Unfit for human consumption. Ashamed.
Actually, he’s got a wife and kids; seems a perfectly pleasant bloke. So maybe we’re not so bad after all.
[Watch Mickey play at being a chav. The class tone has changed again. Think whose neighborhood this is, then look at the black kid from the council estate. Who do you think bought Match of the Day last month? Who do you think watched it? Who do you think bought Dreamtime? Whose computer was new enough to watch Shalka? And Mickey larks in it, pretending he’s bad news and come to open up a can of ASBO on their ass. He’s not – he’s an oafish sweetie. But he can play the part.
But note the gulf in sincerity as well. Clive’s wife jokes, “she?” as Rose arrives, because none of Clive’s nutter friends are girls. But watch, Elli Garnett then plays it a bit too much like a TV ad, doing this self-aware little hip shake as she descends closes the door on Mickey Smith, carrying the basket of laundry. Meanwhile, Mickey is scowling it up in the car, looking absolutely ridiculous in this middle class neighborhood, without a care in the world.]
The lighting goes blue, nervously tracing the outlines of a paranoid conspiracy theory. A little claustrophobic and nervous – designed to put us on edge. We want to get out of this place. Again, the anticipation crackles. We know what we’re in the midst of – some glorious popular culture obscenity. Strictly Plastic Fever And How To Cure It or something. (Mickey’s in a yellow car.) What is this Doctor Who fan doing in the middle of it?
Actually, in ironic fact, a fair number weren’t. The show launched without a US distributor. Nobody picked it up. This didn’t air in the US until nearly a year later. And they didn’t even give us the DVD set. You wanted Doctor Who, you had to know how to BitTorrent. And we bloody well did. We got onto Mininova and we downloaded this thing.
So actually, in all likelihood Clive isn’t actually here, or is here for purely sentimental reasons. He probably watched it back around March 8th when it became one of the earliest and most high-profile pieces of video to leak on the Internet prior to its correct release date. Albums and songs were being leaked all over, but television? Global Frequency didn’t leak until July, and so infuriated Warner Brothers that they killed a promising pilot. And here was the BBC’s new flagship, their secret weapon to take back Saturdays, and everyone could see it a month early, decide whether to cut its throat with Ant and Dec or get out of its way and watch it sink.
In the end it appeared a blessing this time. The fans were always going to do what the fans were going to do. Some were going to adore it because it was new Doctor Who and actually pretty well made, and some were going to hate it because hating Doctor Who is what a Doctor Who fan does. And we yaffled on with all our nonsense early. And, you know, it wasn’t so bad we all hated it. It was better than the McGann movie, or so would readily admit virtually all of us. (Just scale the McGann movie down a bit in judgment to make room for Rose above it. Plenty of us did.)
So, you know. Tabloid story defused. The Sun couldn’t run Ian Levine smashing his telly in rage. These things matter when you’re playing in the arena Rose is. This is a high stakes game. You cannot lose control of the story. If you do, you’re gutted.
(They immediately lost control of the story when the fact that Eccleston had quit leaked. It was lost before The End of the World. Oh God, this is going to be a disaster.)
Meanwhile, observe that the Doctor is spotted on November 22nd, 1963. This is not an accident. The levels of in-joke here are, for a brief moment, slathered so thickly you cannot breathe. They use the same bloody frame of JFK as Who Killed Kennedy, for Christ’s sake. But look at the bigger picture. Look at the metaphor that’s inflating here. The Doctor isn’t even in this bit of the story, but he’s gone and circled his own history. Now think about the question of the McGann regeneration – is this or is this not Eccleston’s first adventure? Did this man who has gone back to the day before he was born fight in the Time War? What is he doing there?
[But look, Clive is having so much fun here. He’s loving this delivery. He’s done this a dozen times before, but now he gets to do it for a pretty girl. “The Doctor is a legend woven throughout history.” It’s his own version of Mickey’s “glare at everybody because he’s protecting Rose” look.
Mickey, meanwhile, has gotten bored of this television program. This is not for him. This is not his milieu. He wants out. “What’s that Mickey Smith,” Doctor Who says from within his magical box of wonders. “You want to fall out of the world?” And so out springs the evil wheelie bin!]
So Clive’s hilarious mistaking of eschatological fandom for how you impress pretty girls gets paralleled with Mickey’s descent into danger. There’s a lovely flipping here, the two worlds of television intermingling and performing each other’s functions. The very silly Mickey scene debuts Doctor Who’s awful CGI in the most gratuitous and over-the-top way, while Clive’s in the basement being a complete nutter. Nothing about Mickey’s scene looks intimidating, though the music says it is, but Clive’s depiction of the horrors of Doctor Who provide the tension.
[But let’s not forget that this is the worst thing that has ever happened to Mickey. This is a serious psychological trauma for which he will undoubtedly require extensive therapy that will be difficult to procure even under New Labour’s generous expansion of NHS funding as afforded through policies to create a business-friendly economy and, on occasion, a teensy-weensy smidgen of debt.
And that ultimately manifests as Mickey’s getting pulled into the garbage can. Watch how Noel Clarke maintains his slight overacting. He’s doing something hilariously savvy throughout this episode; he’s playing a bad actor. He looks like an embarrassment of a character. And by shoving him into this overwrought joke of a scene Davies instantly secures a vocal segment of the audience’s dislike for this character.]
And then, to make it all worse, the trash can burps – a seeming example of the absolute worst excesses of Davies’s style. It’s astonishingly puerile and stupid. But let’s be honest about what it feels like, given the context. It’s not that it’s an incredibly immature and lame joke. It is, but nobody hates a series for one or two horribly cornball moments, no matter how much some of us may fear that they do. No, it’s that it’s so avoidably lame. And so it immediately puts us in mind, say, building high for happiness, or the Bandrils, or the Magma Beast, or Kroll, or the Axons, or the Quarks, or the Zarbi. All the things we apologize for.
This coincides with Clive’s failure to convince Rose. Because, of course, the joke here is that everything Clive says is completely true: he’s an immortal alien, and all of these historical appearances of him are, in fact, the same man. Hit the nail on the head. (Actually, missed a key part of it, but, hey, it’s the thought that counts.) And Rose, quite sensibly, decides he’s a complete nutter because he is a fat man in the shed talking about aliens.
[Never mind that the Doctor was talking about aliens before and that this is obviously the best explanation for him. Rose isn’t in Doctor Who right now, and she doesn’t have those powers. She’s Billie Piper in the shop again, able to get along with this middle class man out of her own charm, but manifestly not going to fall for a story like that. Fandom’s account of the show is inadequate. It will have to be left behind.
But not before it does some damage. Mickey is, in effect, destroyed here. He gets swallowed up, in part because he can’t cross genre lines skillfully enough, but also, crucially, by fandom. The same people carefully primed to reject him for his overacting and the stupidity of his plotline are the ones who, by exposure, kill him.
(We should remember here the way in which the First Doctor dies: from exposure to the qlippothic energies of Mondas. The parallels here continue to echo ominously, threatening to completely break through our perimeter. Looking up from the crowd scene, the problem is obvious. Ten point eight million people clustered around the caution tape, peering in, trying to see what’s going on. Is the suspect in the boat or not? How long can this perimeter hold them? And who within this place is working against us? This, our base under siege.)
And, of course, we also assume he’s dead. I mean, this is a Robert Holmes pastiche. Of course the useless supporting character bites it the moment it’s useful to the plot. And a possession too. The original of the Auton Duplicate is always dead. Who cares? He was a prat. We’re disappointed to see him live at the end, frankly. Feels like a cop-out.
We now, of course, begin Mickey’s plotline over the course of the next two seasons.]
So Rose fails to heed the warning, and returns to her car. But something is wrong. These two universes were never supposed to touch. And here we’re in the boundary between existence as she knows it and the other universe that she doesn’t understand. And so the relationships between the different molecular bonds and the actual shapes form a crystalline structure of ratios. Without the web to support it, the local space will fold up into itself, leaving scar tissue, cracks in the skin of the universe. And in those corners of the universe breed the most terrible things. Evils from the dawn of time.
Also, her boyfriend looks like a rubbish plastic version. (Which is arguably literally true – there’s no reason the plastic bin should hold its shape. It’s the most obvious thing to sculpt into Mickey on the fly.) And its played for stupid laughs again – the obnoxious inheritance of the burping trash bin. It’s all over. This is horrible. Nobody is going to like this, and we’re all going to be humiliated again. Time for Plan B. Operation “This Is Worse Than McGann.” We can go sob into The Gallifrey Chronicles in a few months.
And then, oh God, the bloody restaurant scene, with the stupid Northern Doctor with his stupid grin and stupid ears does that stupid stupid thing with the stupid cork, and then bad CGI Mickey smashes everything up. Though actually, Sylvester McCoy said that was the best bit, and it is kinda fun. The kids probably loved it.
And my God, doesn’t the Doctor look at home. This is what the man belongs doing. He’s got total control of this. And look what sort of “this” it is – in particular the way in which Mickey’s visual tick that Rose picks up on looks like a video glitch. He’s at home in the complete breakdown of the narrative. Which is good, because Rose is going the wrong way, abandoning Doctor Who in favor of the mundane concerns of getting another job, deciding that this whole Doctor Who thing is far too dangerous.
It is easy to miss the fact that the Clive/Mickey section of the episode is an eight-and-a-half minute stretch of the episode in which the Doctor does not appear. Well, actually, that’s hard to miss. It’s designed to be the rubbish slow bit in the midst of the episode. You can, of course, get away with these if you need to. You just need to build a structure of anticipation. We know the Doctor and Rose are going to reunite, so that means we know we have to get through the awkward middle bit. It’s a part of the episode we’re designed to like less. And it’s allowed to mulch out of the worst instincts of fandom, and then the Doctor swoops in and rescues us from them, and we’re off on another corridor run!
Then the Doctor disappears into his strange blue box, leaving Rose in a suspense scene as she runs around the locked yard trying to find an escape. It’s another scene in which a lot of time is spent on the same note, much like the shop cellar, devoted to putting her in immediate, present danger until, finally, out of pure desperation, she runs into the blue box.
And suddenly everything changes. It’s another portal. She switches shows again. The lighting changes, the music changes, the shots change – we were cutting around the outside of the box a bunch, and now we’re inside it and on a still shot. Then, to highlight it in the language of the preceding scene, a visual joke. Whatever is inside the box is more terrifying than what was outside it, and so she runs back to her previous show and, of course, the previous music starts up again.
But now her phobia has changed: she circles the box. Last time she was in this running around scene she looked at the outer perimeter. Now she looks at the inner one – this emboited space she recoiled from. She’s ignoring plastic monster boyfriend entirely until he finally bursts through the door and she remembers her original problem and nips back into the box, urgently bringing her chase scene in with her.
The Doctor shoos the chase away, and we get to see this space again. And we’re back. We’re back in the space we were in when last we saw the Doctor, clinging to the skin of our tiny little world, falling through space, out of stories, out of time. The camera pulls up in a long, languid pan, revealing the secret of this blue box:
It’s bigger on the inside.
The Doctor calmly gets on with the plot. As calm as we’ve ever seen him, in fact. Casually moving about, solving the problem, getting ready for episode three. But note the fleeting moment of embarrassment that he’s an alien – all but asks Rose’s permission to bring his wacky sci-fi concepts into her show. Even in his space, he’s meeting her halfway. In fact, she still asserts considerable authority over the narrative space, lighting into the Doctor on a point he’d not considered, namely whether or not Mickey was alive. (Why would the Doctor care? I mean, the bodycount of the story is hardly the interesting thing, now is it?)
But she can’t actually disrupt the scene. The Doctor gets back to solving the plot, smashing some buttons and levers and then running outside. Rose, silly girl, stays behind, pointing out that it’s not safe, but he tears out, ready to keep solving the plot. And for a moment we don’t even realize what’s wrong. Of course the Doctor goes on solving the plot. That’s how this works. Why is she mucking about inside the TARDIS? Because that’s how Doctor Who is put together; you can jump across narrative spaces like that. But it’s not how Rose Tyler is put together, and so she lags behind.
(This happens as we transition from inside the TARDIS to outside. Again, the concern here is that of narrative thresholds and borders – the lines between worlds. The Doctor and Rose cross them differently, and in that slight tension is a gap – we stay with Rose as the Doctor’s show plows on. This seems to be the focus of the ritual: this act of crossing the threshold. An initiation ritual about initiations. But again, that nagging problem: who is being initiated? Who is doing the initiation? What’s going on here?)
The dialogue gets back on track a few seconds later, and their earlier disagreement persists. He is trying to run around in a Doctor Who story and save the world, and she’s obsessed with whether one of the supporting cast is dead or not when he obviously is. This is, as it turns out, a really significant point of disagreement between them, and they almost storm off again as the Doctor defends his larger perspective.
But then they gel again. There is no particular reason for this. The scene just turns, becoming easy double-act banter about lampshading the series’ conventions: lots of planets have a north. The tension fades out, we joke about the silly way the TARDIS looks, and she asks for the plot to be explained for her. And he’s happy to play along because, actually, secretly, he doesn’t know the next step of the plot. He’s ready for the conclusion, but nobody’s told him where the monster’s lair is. And so he sits around waiting for an answer, and we slow down for a moment to catch our breath.
Then, slowly, we snap back to the elevator scene, where Rose thinks something through in a way he doesn’t. Except this time she’s not wrong. See how the camerawork allies itself to Rose, even in the Doctor’s story – it frames the Doctor with the very thing he’s talking about so that the audience figure it out at the same time Rose does, leaving the Doctor in a comedic turn, the silly one in his own show.
The plot twist settled, it’s time for another corridor run, this time over Westminster Bridge, slated for a good Dalek menacing in 2150. The hand symbolism’s back again, but in a new way – they start running separately, then the Doctor looks, notices he doesn’t have her hand, and reaches for it. Not to save her. Not to teach her. Just for the sheer joy of it. The musical cue resolves to the theme that played for Rose’s montage, slightly off-kilter variations on it having been used for the last two corridor runs, thus symbolically connecting these stretches across the episode. They keep larking about (“the breast implants,” Rose asks, and the Doctor looks rather concerned at the prospect of his show taking that plot twist), and then the Doctor pries open the door to the glowing red lair of Shub-Niggurath, the music withers, and we cross into yet another narrative space.
In a breath, it’s all changed – from the enthusiastic long shots and energetic music to a sense of claustrophobic space. Tellingly, both the Doctor and Rose are nervous here. This isn’t someone’s television show. Not anymore. It’s not even the horror space beneath the department store, but rather the horror that space represented. This is the land of monsters.
(And suddenly we know we’ve found it. The buried monster this ritual was always seeking to awaken. The horned god to whom we are initiated.)
Note the interplay between claustrophobia and vastness – the vast maze of scaffolding that lines the edge. Also, observe how Rose is properly afraid here, not in the sense of jumping at shadows, but in the sense of wanting to not be here, telling the Doctor to get it over with. Whereas the Doctor is at home here as well. This cannot be described as surprising as such; the Doctor is at home in any narrative space. That was the point of putting him in Jackie’s flat earlier and watching him suddenly become hyper-aware of celebrity gossip.
And yet there’s something wrong with being at home in this narrative space. If it is a necessary consequence of the Doctor’s status as the master of all fiction that he be at home in any narrative space, including this one, then it is in no way a desirable consequence. Observe how even the most dedicated of fans are pushed out of the narrative by this scene. The Nestene Consciousness is conspicuously not a giant octopus like it used to be. (Although it is voiced by Nicholas Briggs now in a nod to the wilderness) And when the Doctor addresses the Nestene Consciousness he makes what sounds like it should be a continuity reference to “Convention Fifteen of the Shadow Proclamation.” But it’s not a reference to anything – it’s something Davies made up, like Zogs of the Planet Zog. The result is unsettling – the Nestene Consciousness is something fans expect to understand, and we’re not allowed to.
But, of course, that impact only works for fans. So there’s a second disturbance of the order of things for people coming at the show from another direction. Rose finds Mickey, to the Doctor’s obvious disgust. There’s a degree to which this is subtly pushed too far for logic. That the Doctor doesn’t think much about whether a supporting character is killed off is one thing, but this reveals it to be a slightly more disturbing and radical formulation of that approach: the Doctor simply doesn’t care about questions like that. In fact, he’s aware that Rose’s entire approach of “caring about other people” doesn’t fit in with this genre, suggesting they “leave the domestics outside” where outside, of course, means “in an entirely different television program.” (Also crucial, of course, is that Mickey is completely useless in this scene.)
There is also, of course, another bit of initiation, or, at least, of the form of initiation. The Doctor descends into the underworld, but, more to the point, Christopher Eccleston earns his wings by doing one of the fundamental things actors playing the Doctor have to do in the course of the job is attempting serious acting opposite something completely ludicrous. In this case, he has to talk to a churning mass of CGI. (In fact, Jon Pertwee was also blooded by the Nestene Consciousness as he attempted to convincingly wrestle around with a foam octopus arm while steadily realizing he had a really weird job now.) And the Doctor, accordingly, does a big “the human race is wonderful” speech, and Eccleston basically nails it.
But this isn’t the place for that. This is the land of monsters, and while the Doctor may be comfortable here, he is not safe here and he does not control this space. And immediately it gets away from him: the mannequins are back, and the beast in the pit howls with rage. It’s the end of all things.
And then the blue box enters the land of the monsters. And the entire narrative slips away. Suddenly we’re talking about some unknown war, and the Doctor is begging, saying he fought in the war, pleading that he “couldn’t save any of them” as the Nestene recoils, terrified.
What do we make of this blue box, then? It’s made two substantial appearances before, both as a source of wonder. But the nature of its wonder is sublime – a sort of righteous fear. Remember, the blue box is inexorably linked to the vast interior space emboited by the Doctor’s description of feeling the turn of the Earth and of clinging to the skin of the world. The blue box is a source of awe, but that can so easily turn into fear. And brought into the land of the monsters that’s what it becomes: the thing monsters have nightmares about. What is this thing, and just how big on the inside must it be to scare even the devil himself?
Clearly, then, it’s time for more Jackie Tyler. This sounds facetious, but there is, by this point, real power coursing through this space, and a move like this, cheeky as it sounds, must be taken seriously. From the land of the monsters we cut to the single most normal character of the series – the one who has been so systematically set up as outside the narrative that she can’t even play with the evil arm or notice that her coffee table was smashed to pieces.
And yet we find Jackie at the police station, the words “Police” written out in font and color to match the Doctor’s box. Her space quietly, and without her realizing it, mirrors the space of the monsters. The fear of monsters is about to bring this whole thing crashing down. Jackie, of course, doesn’t know it, staying firmly within her own narrative space. Look at the lovely detail of her “late night shopping.” Inexplicably it’s at the Queen’s Arcade, which is in Cardiff, not London, but in terms of appearances and tone it’s obviously a posh and tourist-centered shopping mall. This is not, in other words, a place where Jackie Tyler is going to spend any money. She can’t afford anything here. She’s just going to look.
Meanwhile, hell itself is being torn apart by the Doctor’s error. The beast below London awakens, opening its Eye to look upon the city. It is, as Rose puts it, the end of the world. (Actually, that’s next week) The eschaton we thought we’d deferred is unleashed – the very city itself turned against us, deciding that it will take its tribute in blood.
We cut to another thing we did not expect – though for the second time in a row it is a case of cutting from something completely mad to something altogether mundane. There is no reason why Clive should reappear at this point, after all. But here he is, dragged out shopping with the family, complaining bitterly about spending “summer money in winter months,” and he’s just in time to witness the end of the world.
Which, of course, he recognizes immediately. Even as his wife looks excitedly at the dancing mannequins, albeit having initially been frightened, Clive knows something’s wrong. Of course he does. He’s a Doctor Who fan, after all. He’s seen Spearhead From Space a dozen times, and knows the mannequin attack scene perfectly. He knows exactly what this is, and mouths the paranoid’s most dreaded conclusion: “It’s true. Everything I read, all the stories, it’s true.”
But this isn’t just his nightmare or his experience anymore. This isn’t just any alien attack. (There’s a pattern here – something that doesn’t fit inside this forty-four minute perimeter.) This is, as mentioned, a remake of a scene from Spearhead From Space. Actually, though, it’s showing off a bit. Spearhead From Space meticulously cut around the Autons actually breaking through the windows because it couldn’t afford the glass-break effect, and so this time we revel in that exact effect. It’s self-consciously Doctor Who only better done.
It’s also, however, self-consciously a very specific bit of Doctor Who. The Autons, as a whole, are a bit hyper-specific – a returning monster for the die-hards. But the mannequins? They’re part of television lore. Watched by fifteen percent of the country in 1970 and remembered with a vividness that few other pieces of Doctor Who come close to mustering, the mannequins are a long-buried part of British popular consciousness. Suddenly we cut through all the crap and get to the part of Doctor Who that everybody always liked.
And at the moment this beast awakens two things happen. First, Jackie Tyler arrives on the scene, momentarily finding herself in the same place as Clive. Again, keep in mind the class difference here. It’s not just that Jackie Tyler, soap character, does not belong in the same program as Clive’s anorak conspiracy theorist. It’s that Jackie shouldn’t be shopping at those kinds of malls. But in the face of Doctor Who those differences are erased.
Second, and more importantly, Clive bites it, becoming the sacrificial supporting character. Note that he’s the only character who both gets a line and dies in the entire story. He plays the role we thought Mickey was supposed to play – the character who gets gratuitously killed when his role in the plot is up. Only its even more gratuitous – he’s actually brought back for the sole reason of killing him off. On the one hand, this is a rather grim joke about the necessity of killing off a particular sort of fandom. (Observe Clive’s resigned expression before he gets shot. “Bollocks,” he’s thinking.)
But it’s also, symbolically, the sacrifice to the beast. Some blood had to be spilled to release the monster, and now it is loosed upon the world, loosed so thoroughly that not even Jackie can hide from it. Whatever this ritual was, it is completed now. The thing it sought to unleash has come out, is free, is feasting upon the world. Not just the mannequins, but the idea of them – everything they symbolize, their role as critiques of television and capitalism, but also the sheer, barmy, wonderful madness of them. It has arrived.
(What is it, though? Slowly we realize, that’s what all of the eleven million people pressed against our caution tape perimeter want to know. Not who did it, or why, or how. Just what happened. What is this crime scene? Whose blood is all over the ground?)
Tellingly, the Doctor is useless here. As is the TARDIS. Rose and Mickey shelter in its light (the lone source of cool light in the land of the monsters), but it cannot protect them. The Doctor doesn’t have a solution. All is lost. It must be – it is, after all, his TARDIS and his comfort within the land of the monsters that has awoken the beast, caused it to gaze out of its sleepy Merlin Entertainment-owned eye. The most transgressive force within the narrative has led us down a blind alley, and now we are all damned for it. To seal the deal, the devil even names the Doctor: Time Lord, it says, and with that our fate is written.
Except, of course, the Doctor isn’t the only transgressive force in the narrative. He’s not the only one who has calmly stepped into genre after genre over the past thirty-eight minutes. And so, as the world crumbles and her mother is about to be shot by a roving mob of plastic brides, Rose Tyler steps up to the plate. Masterfully, crucially, she does not step up with any skills outside her own narrative. She is the working class London shopgirl, estuary accent and no prospects. The thing she draws on to defeat the Nestene is thus sheer brilliance: Jericho Street Junior School Under Sevens Gymnastics Team. An utterly small scale, ordinary, unimportant athletics competition. Which she didn’t even win.
What matters, in other words, is not what Rose Tyler brings, but merely that she brings something – that she is willing to assert her narrative nature even here, in the land of the monsters, where all hope has fled. She is willing to emboit herself, to insist on her interior dimensions, to insist on being the council housed shopgirl with no A levels and no prospects even in the face of the end of all things, and to throw that fact into the story, to insist, in one supreme magic act of will, that she is Rose Tyler.
It is in this regard telling that the mere fact of her deciding to grab a chain and swing madly into action is sufficient to save the day. The Doctor throws his Auton guard into the pit without Rose actually hitting him or doing anything, and the other guard stands dumbly around and lets Rose kick the anti-plastic out of its hand. It is, in other words, the fact of Rose’s transgression against the narrative laws of the land of monsters, which say that she is small and nothing, is in and of itself enough to empower the Doctor again. It is not what she does, but that she does.
Tellingly, the scene is chaos. The Doctor and Rose running to the TARDIS and escaping, that’s sensible enough, all makes sense. (And look at Rose’s cheeky little grin at the exploding basement before she ducks into the TARDIS. She’s loving this.) But there’s something wrong here. The winding down calliope music as the Autons malfunction, moving from onrushing horrors to jerky, silly mannequins again reveals the extent to which Rose’s victory involves a defiance of narrative conventions. The Autons weren’t made to function in a world of Rose Tyler.
So there we have it. It was her initiation all along – her ascent to being a Mistress of the Land of Fiction, to assert her will over genres. It is the story of Rose Tyler becoming a magus, and all those red herrings where we thought otherwise were just that. The scene’s identified, we can all go home now.
(And yet they’re still there. Eleven million people, ringing our yellow tape, looking in. Staring. What are they looking at? What do they see?)
Except… a stray detail. The anti-plastic is blue, and as it pours out over the Nestine it arcs with the same blue-white light the TARDIS casts. Actually, if you want to be technical about it, that was the color of the Nestene’s control ray that woke up the mannequins too. It was, as we observed, very much the TARDIS that set the Nestene off – its presence in the land of monsters that unleashed this strange hell from Britain’s medial past across the land. Something is still unresolved here. Something’s not right.
Indeed, the comedy of the winding down Autons gives way to Jackie nervously surveying the rubble and the dead. Something has gone wrong with the world. Jackie and Mickey understand this, cowering, as one would, from this terror. Only Rose seems unmoved, chiding Mickey for his uselesness. Why couldn’t he defy his narrative conventions and kick some ass? What’s wrong with him? He’s even scared of the TARDIS, for God’s sake.
And the Doctor is calm. Even as he admits that Rose saved his life and the planet, and that he needed her there, he’s calm. This is, in fact, his show they’re all in. It’s just that it’s been incomplete. There’s been something missing. Some key component of its premise that he hasn’t had. The Doctor needs a companion. That’s how this works. The companion is why the Doctor can go to the land of monsters and simultaneously fit in as a part of the land of monsters and be OK. Yes, of course Rose saved his life. That’s how it works. He knows that. And so he asks Rose to come with him – to travel across the universe.
And she refuses again. Decides to stay in her world of work and food and sleep; to forego the danger and look after her stupid lump of a boyfriend. And so the Doctor leaves, his show incomplete, the initiation incomplete. Whatever we awoke goes back to sleep. We linger there for a moment – Rose and Mickey, in the alley, shocked and beginning their walk home. And it’s all over. The town never lets us go.
(“One day he dropped me off at a rally, and when I got back he told me he’d just popped off in the TARDIS for a while. A pretty long while, actually – like a year.”)
Or not. One more stroke of the pen. One more little detail. The TARDIS comes back, the Doctor pops his head out, and he makes his final pitch. The one bit we’d managed to miss all this time.
It also travels in time.
And Rose takes off. At long last, she falls out of the world completely, unmoors herself into this bold new premise. That is, after all, what that final revelation promises. After all this, all of these genre mash-ups and pile-ups, it calmly adds one line to its pitch. “And then we can do other stuff too.” It’s done more varied stuff than anything else on television, and then it calmly, casually lets slip that it’s just getting started. That this wasn’t setting up all the tenets of the series, but just showing us one set of tricks it can do. And Rose runs towards the TARDIS to see what else there is, the final shot the door closing behind her. (It is perhaps important to note that the “next time” preview is, in fact, a part of our forty-four minutes and ten seconds. Rose is, in fact, initiated into the future of Doctor Who, a self-conscious parade of bizarre aliens. The show doesn’t just hint at its future promise – it promises us that next episode is completely insane.)
And that’s it. That’s our perimeter explored. Forty-four minutes and ten seconds. But the mystery stands. What happened here? A television show launched, yes. A pair of decent characters. A pretty cool premise, though, somewhat puzzlingly, a premise that is not actually explored in the course of this episode. But somehow this does not add up to the experience of the moment. We’ve inventoried the contents, bagged and tagged every detail, but we somehow do not have the whole of it. Not yet. Not quite yet.
We have forgotten something. At the very beginning. Before the shot of the Earth and the zoom to Rose Tyler’s alarm clock. Before Graham Norton and Billie Piper. Before any of it. Forty seconds of music. Rose is the lone episode of the new series to begin without a cold open – to go straight into its theme song. In the March 8th leak, in fact, the music is a remix of the original Delia Derbyshire cut-up electronic soundtrack, but by the 26th it had been replaced by Murray Gold’s complete re-score of it, adding the so-called “chase” to it (the set of strings that run alongside the main melody).
Observe that the theme music begins with the sting – the high-pitched crash that kicks it off. The Derbyshire remix (which really doesn’t belong over these credits) does not, starting straight with the ethereal weirdness of the tune. But the broadcast version uses the sting, originally developed for the end of episodes to segue smoothly from the cliffhanger to the music. (Its apex, of course, is in Terror of the Vervoids Part One, in which Bonnie Langford obligingly screams at the right pitch to tonally lead into the sting.) In other words, the music and the opening credits, the thing that names what we are watching, that symbolically sets the tone for this entire ritual, begins with a bit of sound designed to create a sharp, screaming demarcation between narrative spaces.
And suddenly it becomes clear. Suddenly we can make sense of everything we’ve seen. It hasn’t been Rose’s initiation, or the Doctor’s, or anyone else’s. It’s been ours. From the moment we turned on BBC One, from the moment this program began, it has been us being initiated. All of us. Fans and viewers alike, eleven million of us pressed up to the glass, staring at this thing. This ritual to awaken a dead god from within the national consciousness, to release it out into our cities and our world. It has been our initiation all all along. Eleven million of us, brought into Doctor Who.
An initiation is, of course, the imparting of a secret. A piece of knowledge – an idea that changes who we are. We gaze into the depths of this vast thing that slept within the popular culture, and we know ourselves anew. We become different people, with new faces, new selves. That’s it. We’ve been renewed.
Shall I tell you the ultimate secret, then? Yes? Are you seated comfortably? Then I’ll begin. The ultimate secret; how it’s bigger on the inside.
Look up again, at our perimeter. Our caution tape ring-road of these forty-four minutes and ten seconds that are Rose. It defines the space of our inquiry. The whole of what we talk about here. And on the outside are the eleven million, all of them, all of us, watching, being initiated into its secrets.
But wait. What, exactly, is encircled. The border of Rose and the border of everything that is not Rose are, after all, the same thing. A ring of caution tape encircling these forty-four minutes and ten seconds and a ring of caution tape encircling the rest of the world are, in the end, indistinguishable. And so this brief stretch of time rings the world like an ouroborous, ensnares eleven million people in its web, takes hold of decades of history, of everything else on television. Forty-four minutes and ten seconds of television in which sit, emboited, the whole of the world. Everything that’s ever happened. Everything that ever will.
It’s March 26th, 2005. Tony Christie is at number one with “(Is This the Way to Amarillo)”, featuring Peter Kay. Gwen Stefani and Eve’s “Rich Girl,” Nelly and Tim McGraw’s “Over and Over,” and Jem’s (actually quite good) “They” also chart, as does Elvis Presley with “Return to Sender,” a strange but, for the circumstances, fitting throwback to the past.
In recent news, James Callaghan, Prime Minister who oversaw the Winter of Discontent and whose defeat led to the rise of Margaret Thatcher, died, his death announced on BBC One at approximately 7:45 this evening. A revolution in Kyrgyzstan has resulted in the overthrow of Askar Akayev. An explosion took place at a BP-owned oil refinery in Texas City, killing fifteen. The Constitutional Reform Act, creating a Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and enshrining a more thorough separation of powers, received its Royal Assent and became law.
Doctor Who has returned to television.