Written by Russell T. Davies
Directed by Joe Ahearne
My favorite Doctor is Christopher Eccleston. I know it’s not a terribly popular position, with his having been followed by one of the two most beloved Doctors in history and all, but I think Eccleston is actually an extraordinary actor who provides a level of depth and complexity to the role that neither David Tennant nor Matt Smith can match (though their Doctors are, of course, intentionally different and do not have the level of guilt and darkness that Eccleston’s Doctor has, so this is a comment as much about the characters they play as about the performers’ talents). His exit is one of the more fun episodes of the show’s history, even if it still has some of the rough edges that characterize the first season, and it’s no small part due to his performance.
(I should point out, though, that easily my least favorite companion is Rose Tyler. I think she’s a horrible person and Billie Piper is every bit as weak an actor as Karen Gillan once was but never showed the improvement that Gillan did during her time on the series.)
The Doctor, Rose, and Captain Jack Harkness find themselves on a floating TV studio wherein reality shows are constantly being run. However, these aren’t the reality shows we know now–losing on these shows results in death and recruitment is done with no consent. Anyone can get grabbed and forced into a game, and they all face the threat of death for losing. It’s not any kind of unique concept, but the way that the Doctor and the then-mortal Captain Jack deal with the shows is both hilarious and a fun use of their characters as they exist to that point. Rose, meanwhile, provides the more serious component, making sure that we’re aware of the threat that’s present in these games.
And then Rose, for the first time, shows why the Doctor keeps her around: her loyalty is what allows and drives her to use the TARDIS time vortex to gain the powers that let her save the day. It leads to some very unfortunate special effects (Again, a season one problem.), but it’s a better-than-usual deus ex machina for this series that allows the Doctor and Rose’s relationship to grow deeper and more complex and makes Rose into a useful character–something that had otherwise only been true before because of her “gymnastic” skills in the pilot.
The episode also introduces regeneration and explains it for us, and it lets Eccleston leave as simply as he arrived, without the sort of overly elegiac swan song that the next Doctor would receive. He gets to say goodbye, but he doesn’t get to check up on all his favorite people and places, because he doesn’t have them. Eccleston’s Doctor is a tortured, anhedonic soul, and it’s his sacrifice to save Rose from her own sacrifice that lets the Doctor begin to move on from the death of Gallifrey.