Updated: May 22, 2020
The ongoing lockdown has impacted everyone’s lives in different ways. It has its restrictions and negatives of course, but it also provides opportunity. Opportunity to learn, to read, to discover, and to reflect, as well as to progress. For us at Fogo’s Free Tours it has brought about a long held ambition to create a Doctor Who walking tour in Cardiff, including filming locations, places you think are London but are actually Cardiff, where major events in the stories occur, and so on. While the programme has taken on world wide fame like never before in the 21st century, it is very much rooted in modern Cardiff and probably the city’s most popular export, after Gareth Bale of course.
Regarding the tour, it might still be some time coming. There are over 150 episodes of modern Doctor Who to dissect, and of course we still have no idea when tourism may be able to resume. Therefore, watch this space for more information. In the meantime, let’s use this opportunity to reflect on each series of new Who, review characters, stories and episodes, note some favourites, and perhaps look at some obvious and not-quite-so-obvious Cardiff buildings and streets.
Let's start with a bit of context first. Doctor Who had been off the airwaves for 16 years by the time it returned to our screens in 2005. The cult classic of the 1960s, 70s and 80s had been deemed a bit too silly and cringeworthy by the time it stopped in 1989. Despite that, especially into the new century, there was a growing clamour for a return, led by Swansea’s own Russell T. Davies. A lifelong Whovian himself, he had a vision to transform the show for a new generation, scaling things back initially to one Time Lord due to the Time War story, centralising locations and stories around Earth, particularly London, and humanity in general, while shortening stories but making individual episodes longer. Other changes came about too, of course, like sets and filming locations, tone and atmosphere, and BBC Wales very much stepped in from that perspective.
Welsh connections to the Whoniverse don’t end with Davies though. A Cardiffian, Terry Nation, created perhaps the second most iconic characters in the programme’s history, the Daleks. Often considered the best thing about Doctor Who in its very first incarnation over 50 years ago, their comeback was almost as highly anticipated as the Doctor himself.
A new generation needed a new Doctor as well. Christopher Eccleston took on the role and didn’t disappoint. Something of a surprise choice, especially considering the possibility that it may have been Alan Davies or even Bill Nighy at the time. However, it was a wise decision, as new Who needed not only a charismatic presence but also a strong actor that could carry the show. This is perhaps more evident 15 years later, as we can look back on his 13 episodes now and sometimes laugh at the quality of the costumes and effects and its low budget relative to later years. However, his constant charm, force of nature performances, wacky grin and dynamic relationships with other characters, most obviously Rose Tyler, gave each episode extra gravitas and carried it through the first year.
Which brings us to Billie Piper, who played Rose Tyler for a lot longer than Eccleston stuck around as the Doctor. However, her relationship with the Tenth was never as strong as with the Ninth, even if the show’s own writers wanted us to think otherwise. Rose is the quintessential noughties, working class, girl next door, supposedly ‘chav’, teenager. She is the audience’s eyes and ears, our voice and a fish out of water just like the rest of us. If anything, our journey is hers rather than the Doctor’s in that first year. Billie Piper would have been a questionable choice for the part, with no significant acting pedigree and more well known for marrying Chris Evans than anything else. Her casting even seemed like a move to pander to a younger audience and bridge the transition between old fans and new. Luckily, it worked wonders as she surpassed expectations, became a fan favourite, and a perfect foil for the Doctor.
The first series develops around this dynamic. If the Doctor/Rose relationship is not convincing then the show would fail. Thankfully, it succeeded in this regard, and then some. There was arguably not a single disappointing episode in the entire season, and if anything it went from strength to strength as the stories, characters and relationships got stronger along the way. It is a tough task to analyse the series however, as it was 15 years ago, it is certainly of its time and lacking the budget, glamour and effects of future installments. So, in the context of what has come since, and even what happened in the decades previously, it’s tough to reflect on 13 episodes without considering the hundreds before and since. However, more than any other it is something of an outlier, being the first, having a singular-series Doctor unlike any other since, and serving as a starting point. It can almost be taken as a stand-alone year in its own right, which is something many other seasons can not claim.
Therefore, let's get into the episodes as best we can...
The opening episode, ‘Rose’, is aptly named, establishes our heroine, her personality, her youthful exuberance and lust for adventure among the humdrum of her current life. Ultimately, she saves the Doctor from the mannequins of Queen’s Arcade, setting them up for further adventures with this charming, intelligent, manic and weird Doctor figure.
‘The End of the World’ brings our first adventure to outer space where Rose is very much the fish out of water, questioning why she is even there and facing almost certain death for the first and second times. We get an early look at a couple of characters we’ll meet again, The Face of Boe and Casandra.
‘The Unquiet Dead’ was something of an ode to the very first Who episode in the 60s in its name, while also serving as our first step into horror, as well as history with Charles Dickens. This is where we see Rose’s empathy and humanity come to the fore for the first time and begin to take a hold of the Doctor, particularly her encounters with Snead’s servant, Gwyneth. Also the first episode to be at least set in Cardiff (despite being filmed mostly in Swansea), and introduced The Rift.
‘Aliens of London’ and ‘World War Three’ represented the first two-part episode, more akin to the serials of the past. Here we see attempts at humour through the threatening yet still fearsome Slitheen. Interesting dynamics are created between the Doctor, Rose’s mother and Mickey, and we meet Harriet Jones (MP for Flydale North!) for the first time. Eventually, despite her suspicions, Jackie and the Doctor reach an understanding and an element of trust is established, furthering the Rose and Doctor bond.
The sixth episode is entitled ‘Dalek’. The re-emergence of the Daleks is given away by the name but there is genuine tension and menace within what is only one chained-up Dalek. The exchanges between the Dalek and the Doctor add mystery to the Time War and there is real hatred in the Doctor’s eyes for his great rival, inspiring one of his most iconic and powerful speeches. Rose, on the other hand, shows further warmth and compassion as a character, even to the Dalek!
‘The Long Game’ is a curious episode, probably serving more of a purpose in the longer term than it is here. It’s mainly noted for how annoying the character of Adam is, and the presence of, firstly Tamsin Greig, and especially Simon Pegg as the villain.
Rose and the Doctor really start to come into their own in ‘Father’s Day’. He begins to wonder whether she was worth bringing along after all, questioning her motives in saving her dad. Rose just can’t help herself really. For an episode set on a couple of suburban streets in ‘E15’ (Grangetown, Cardiff), and that probably only exists due to budget constraints, it asks a lot of questions about death, dealing with loss and looking to the future. The performances of the actors enhance the episode beyond its setting and make for as powerful a bit of television as you’re likely to find.
‘The Empty Child’ and ‘The Doctor Dances’ is the second double-header of the series. The first part is tense, uneasy and spooky, and even provides a dose of reality into the world of World War Two in London. The dynamic between Captain Jack Harkness and Rose adds a bit of charm and fun to an otherwise dark episode. The second part continues with the same themes to a point, and brings about a rare satisfying ending from the Doctor’s perspective, as, “everybody lives! Just this once.” Rose’s human touch is rubbing off on him by this point.
Cardiff comes to the fore in ‘Boom Town’, as it is not just filmed around Cardiff Bay and the Civic Centre but very much set in the city as well. Modern Cardiff Bay, and especially the Millennium Centre were not in existence very long at this stage, so it’s almost like a tourism advert for the city. Another fun episode, however, due to the presence of Slitheen again, especially her interactions with the Doctor over dinner. He eventually saves her rather than sentencing her to death, continuing his development over the series. The episode also features an unnecessary side-plot with Rose and Mickey.
Finally, ‘Bad Wolf’ and ‘The Parting of the Ways’ round of the first year of new Who. To some this really might seem dated. It shows how British-centric it was even as recently as 2005, as The Weakest Link, What Not to Wear and Big Brother parodies feature strongly when the trio of Rose, Jack and the Doctor are teleported back to Satellite 5 (from ‘The Long Game’). Ultimately, Rose saves the Doctor, and the universe, from the Daleks. She was returned to London (Loudoun Square, Cardiff), and with the help of Mickey and Jackie, saw into the heart of the TARDIS, making her strong enough to kill all the Daleks, and save the Doctor. He then saves her with a kiss and after some typically fun, rambling nonsense, regenerates into David Tennant.
Not a bad episode between them all, it is fair to say. What makes the first season so special is that it's a one off. They've got one shot to make this a successful venture, and it pays dividends and paves the way for the more spectacular scenery we see in later years. If there were no episodes prior or after it would stand alone as a great 13 part TV show in its own right. Not bad for a non-romantic love story between an alien and a girl next door. Yes, the stories are strong, the aliens are generally threatening, the world's are mostly interesting and the supporting cast grows on you, but without Eccleston and Piper the show could easily have failed. He is a bundle of energy ranging from comedic and silly to aggressive, and her growth from innocent, working class girl to strong woman in turn changes the Doctor from alien to almost human in outlook himself. Their respective journeys change and develop the other and that is the essence of the series. You can’t have one without the other and without both of them the programme wouldn't work. Their totally convincing relationship, whatever it may mean, is the driving force behind new Who and even though one of them technically steps out after 13 episodes, it's still at the heart of what is to come.
Favourite Episode - Father’s Day
Powerful performances all around, as described above, and a lot develops from what seems so little. For an episode set in a suburban church we have multiple time lines, aliens, time holes and great acting, including from Shaun Dingwall as Pete Tyler for the first time.
Favourite Character - The Ninth Doctor
No other option really. More than any other Doctor Christopher Eccleston embodies the character rather than already possessing a Doctor like personality like other actors who have taken on the role.
Favourite Villain - The Dalek in ‘Dalek’
In just one little Dalek we have tension, darkness and drama.
Favourite Moment - Whenever the Doctor does this...
Best Welsh Reference - Cardiff Slitheen mayor quote…
“The South Wales coast could fall into the city and London wouldn’t notice….
I sound like a Welshman”
Location you didn’t realise was Cardiff - Glamorgan Building in ‘The Empty Child’
Captain Jack spots Rose from a balcony with his binoculars, while she is flying through the London Sky in her Union Jack shirt.
Location very obviously Cardiff - Cardiff Royal Infirmary as Royal Albion Hospital in ‘Aliens in London’ and ‘The Empty Child’. Beyond the very obvious Cardiff Bay in Boom Town, anyone who knows Cardiff well would recognise the infirmary from Newport Road.
Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment and look out for more Doctor Who content every week.
Fogo’s Free Tours is an independent walking tour provider operating in Cardiff, and Swansea. We have been in operation for the passed two years, and have conducted hundreds of tours to thousands of people from one hundred countries. However, all tours are currently suspended indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, but they will return as soon as is possible. Please keep an eye on the homepage for further updates, tour information and more reviews and blog posts.
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