Ten years ago to the day, Doctor Who returned to television screens. It’s been a wild decade so far, and for many fans, this was where their Whovian journey began. But with a show that evolves so quickly and so often, it can be easy to forget what made the world love Who all over again. For many of us, “Rose” was a gateway into the world of the Doctor and his TARDIS.
And what a gateway it was.
Now, there are plenty of “jumping on point” lists for New Who, but I have rarely seen “Rose” make the short list. Everyone wants to impress their friends by slamming them with “Blink” or making them teary with “Vincent and the Doctor.” They want to start with a higher production value and a closed-circuit story, or maybe they just love a specific Doctor and want their friends to start with him. And that’s really too bad, because the pilot of the new series—“Rose”—is still a fantastic (catchphrase intended) introduction to Doctor Who and everything it has to offer a modern day audience.
It’s been torn apart the world over for its camp and plenty of other reasons besides, and I am not going to address any of them. Because the first time I saw this episode, my mind was blown. Because, you know, my life had been filled with stories where weird kids like me were never the focus. I loved Star Wars and Star Trek and Farscape and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and tales that generally fell within that sort of purview on the sci-fi end of things.
And then an alarm clock went off, and this nineteen-year-old shop girl went to her boring slog of a job, and one seemingly-normal day got whisked away by a grouchy, grinning, bossy maniac who just happened to notice that she was special.
I had no idea about the Doctor-companion dynamic that formed the core of the show, but here is what I did know: I was nineteen. I was an only child with a mother who enjoyed conducting my life in a spectacularly Jackie-Tyler-like fashion. I was confused about how life was meant to map out post-high school. I had worked some crap jobs already. And if a mysterious stranger had accidentally introduced me to the existence of time travel and aliens and world-saving shenanigans? It would have taken the invention of an adamantium person-sized lockbox to prevent me from diving through those blue doors.
Was… was this for me?
It was a strange thought, one that I so rarely glimpsed in the stories I loved. And Rose meant that to many people. She felt more real than most characters I knew; dressed like an actual teenager, spending lunch breaks with her goofy boyfriend, ready to mouth off at any explanation that didn’t make sense to her, completely ignorant of her own worth and potential. Someone who had big dreams, but knew better than to leave the ground for too long or reality would snatch her back down. Our generation is a disillusioned one, so it seemed fitting.
And then she met the Doctor.
Christopher Eccleston was a truly special incarnation to serve as an introduction to the character, though it seems he has never enjoyed the magnitude of popularity he rightly deserves. We never got enough of him, and that will always sting, like making a friend only to lose touch too quickly. But he was wonderful, a flurry of extremes. He was funny and frightening, seemingly angry but also afraid. Even with that darkness, there was a perfect enthusiasm to him. And for all that the Ninth Doctor shrouds himself in layers of metaphor and intrigue, his desires are transparent so quickly. From the moment that he grabs Rose’s hand in the basement of the shop where she works, you know he’s searching for someone. That he shouldn’t be alone.
In fact, everything that has been and remains true about the character is put across quite succinctly in this first outing. The Doctor is dramatic. The Doctor needs an audience, even if he doesn’t want to endanger people. The Doctor often does endanger people, and it costs lives. The Doctor is stupendously clever, but frequently cannot see what is directly in front of (or behind) him. The Doctor needs someone to share the journey with him.
The Autons made a great initial villain for a number of reasons, first being that they were an excellent low-threat Classic Series baddie, which assured fans of the show that the original continuity was alive and well. It was a smart way to harken back without tipping their hand on the more dramatic foes that would reappear later on. The second reason why they were a prime pick is because they let the new viewers know, in no uncertain terms, how ridiculous Doctor Who could be. Sure, evil invading forces are a terrifying prospect, but sometimes they will attack in the form of shop window dummies… which is simultaneously creepy as all get-out and totally absurd. The first episode proved that camp and danger could co-exist, a bold attempt for any show at all, much less one in this unique position.
Poor Clyde bites the dust in front of his family, poor Mickey gets eaten by a trashcan, poor Jackie drops her shopping and flees the mall for her life. It may have seemed silly to consider the threat at first, but the consequences were still real. And in the end, the only reason anyone survives at all is because Rose Tyler realizes that she’s more powerful than she feels. That she can do what the Doctor cannot. That is essentially what the show is about, isn’t it? About the Doctor convincing people to discover the extraordinary in themselves. To understand that good test scores and steady employment can never replace sheer nerve and the desire to do good.
When the Doctor offers her a way out of humanity’s grind, Rose almost makes the mistake that most of us might when faced with a string of unknowns. And while you can’t help but feel bad at Mickey and Jackie being left behind, it’s so vindicating to watch her say, forget it. I deserve this. I deserve everything the universe has to offer, and more. It’s a reckless choice, and it’s a real one, born out of fear that there will never be another opportunity to get swept away like this again.
Because at its core, Doctor Who is a story about leaping. With faith or without it, out of curiosity or terror, in the name of knowledge or whimsy or truth. It’s about opening your arms wide to every possibility, the profound ones and the scary ones and the beautiful ones. It’s about how every one of us deserves to do that.
Every important episode of television has a crystalizing moment, it seems, a place where you can see the path stretching out ahead and sprint to catch up to it. For “Rose,” it’s the moment the Doctor takes her hand:
Do you know like we were saying, about the earth revolving? It’s like when you’re a kid, the first time they tell you that the world is turning and you just can’t quite believe it ‘cause everything looks like it’s standing still. I can feel it. The turn of the earth. The ground beneath out feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour, the entire planet is hurtling around the sun at sixty-seven thousand miles an hour, and I can feel it. We’re falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go…. That’s who I am. Now forget me, Rose Tyler. Go home.
In that moment, we have the same choice to make as Rose; we can turn off the television and forget the whole thing, as he suggests. Decide Doctor Who isn’t really for us. But if there’s a forming Whovian lurking somewhere in there… you never had a chance. And he knew it, too. He usually does—those TARDIS keys don’t go to just anyone, after all.
And by the time you get the chance to question what you’ve gotten yourself into, you’ve already had tea with a conspiracy theorist, the shop dummies have devastated several shopping centers, and you’ve killed a living plastic alien that threatened the existence of all life on Earth. It was never meant to be the ultimate crash-bang-shazaam episode, a this-is-the-best-we-can-offer extravaganza—it was meant to be a taste. Here are just a handful of the possibilities that await you. Can you bear to turn down the rest of them?
Whatever Doctor Who has become, whatever it might be in the future, that is where it began (again). With Rose Tyler running onto the TARDIS, grinning and giddy, perpetually inviting us on the adventure of our lives. And ten years later, we’re still along for the ride.
Emmet Asher-Perrin talked about falling in love with the help of the Doctor and Rose in Queers Dig Time Lords as well. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.