Rose Tyler, brought to life in a rich and varied performance by Billie Piper, accompanied Christopher Eccleston’s and David Tennant’s Doctors in 2005-6. Some may remember her for her toothy smile or her heavy mascara or even her appealing personality and emotional intelligence, but one notable feature is especially clearly and directly established. Several characters pass comment on her
So says her future fellow traveler Captain Jack (John Barrowman), zooming in for a closer look in ‘The Empty Child’ (2005). Or, putting it another way and quoting the villainess of ‘New Earth’ (2006), she has a
‘Nice rear bumper.’
That rear bumper is one of the very first parts of her that we see, at the start of her very first episode, ‘Rose’ (2005), as she gets out of bed in her pajamas.
She’s next seen fully dressed, rushing out to work with a black thong peeking over the top of her jeans waistband.
And later in the episode, her boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clarke) affectionately greets her with an audible smack on the bumper.
So began the second attempt to reactivate Doctor Who after the original 26-year run ended in 1989, the first being the unsuccessful American pilot of 1996. In the stewardship of Russell T Davies, it proved phenomenally successful for four years, until Davies ran out of steam and wound down on a year of lackluster specials, and the series was then passed on to other hands that, sadly, steered it into a slow, terminal decline (as depressingly described and critiqued in earlier/later articles in this ‘backwards’ series). At the time of writing, it remains to be seen whether Davies will succeed in bringing Doctor Who back from the dead for a second time in 2023…
Key to the original Davies revival was the decision to jettison almost all the baggage and back-story that tend to enthuse the series’ hardcore fans and bore the wider audience, and concentrate instead on connecting with contemporary life. An important element of this was Rose, plucked by coincidence out of the mundane world of a tower-block estate to join the Doctor in seeing the wonders of the universe, and reinforcing Davies’ favored theme of the specialness of ordinary people.
Not at all key to Rose’s authenticity as an ordinary, relatable girl, but contributing just a tiny bit to the effect, is the intermittent ‘chavvy’ visibility of the top of her underwear above the top of her pants. Most often it’s a whale-tailing thong,
but occasionally it’s proper girls’ panties.
You might think those are just random wardrobe malfunctions during production, and in the series’ earlier days they would have been. But in modern times, everything is calculated and deliberate. Costume departments today log absolutely every garment a performer wears, even those not seen on screen: the logs for the pair of episodes that gave us the last set of pictures (2006’s ‘The Impossible Planet’ and ‘The Satan Pit’) not only listed the fuchsia-pink panties you can see, but also the black thong Billie Piper wore underneath them. In the event, even the thong made a guest appearance:
That probably was merely accidental, but the plentiful pink panty peeks were undeniably intentional.
They may, indeed, have been ‘political’ panties. Davies’ Doctor Who was socially progressive in all the right ways, favoring inclusiveness and diversity and human enlightenment; but it also achieved it in the right way, subtly and unobtrusively so that the audience could get on with enjoying the story, rather than be distracted with the kind of smug, divisive virtue-signaling that regrettably crept in later and helped to bring about the series’ destruction. So maybe it’s not altogether far-fetched or irrelevant to remember that in 2005, when the ‘Satan Pit’ episodes were being set up for production, there was a lot of press attention given to attempts in certain redneck states to criminalize the ‘lewd’ phenomenon of panties appearing above pants waistbands. Rose’s sartorial choices, which are so incidental and yet so repeatedly obvious in the ‘Satan Pit’ story, could have earned her jail time in illiberal Louisiana or Virginia.
The new series’ liberal take on sexual matters was described at the time as a ‘gay agenda’ (and Davies himself is gay), but it is better understood as a ‘sexual freedom agenda’ for all, regardless of orientation. The aspect of this that’s most relevant to the long-term development of the Doctor Who girl emerges clearly by contrast with the line taken by the previous production regime, also headed by a gay man, which controlled the series throughout the 1980s.
One of the big anxieties of that period concerned the Doctor’s sexuality. This had hitherto been a non-subject, but the ’80s production office went out of its way to declare that there was ‘no hanky-panky in the TARDIS’, and discouraged even the most innocent physical contact between the Doctor and his female companions. But this wish to make the character positively asexual was compromised by Doctor Who‘s long-term continuity, which needn’t have mattered if the series hadn’t also been going through a period of obsessive past-worship. The problem was that, back in 1963, the original Doctor had been a grandfather, which necessarily meant that, horror of horrors, he must once have had sex! They tried to force Carole Ann Ford, who played Susan, the granddaughter, to deny the blood relationship, but she refused…
The 2005 revival actively rejected this nervy stupidity and tentatively embraced the idea that the Doctor might be sexual and might have a romantic relationship with a fellow TARDIS traveler. It helped that, in the abortive 1996 reboot, Paul McGann’s Doctor, in a moment of sheer joy, kissed Grace, the one-off character who served the ‘companion’ function. Kissing the companion, not always romantically, became an ongoing trope in the new series, and the relationship with Rose in particular was overtly written as a developing love story. Partway through the first series, it was said that ‘the world doesn’t end because the Doctor dances’.
It’s obvious, to those old enough to understand, that dancing is a circumlocution for something else. Doctor Who is a family show, so the ‘sexual freedom agenda’ had to be pursued with a light touch, respecting the limits of what you could portray with a young audience watching. To see how skillfully that was done, it’s worth placing the minor issue of Rose’s intentionally visible underwear in the context of the rest of Billie Piper’s career.
She started out as a teenage pop star in the late 1990s,
then moved into acting in the 21st century, with a notable appearance in the modernized television version of the Canterbury Tales (2003),
and a less generally memorable role as an ex-inmate of a children’s home in Bella and the Boys (2004), which is worth mentioning for one particular flirtatious moment. Ready for your close-up, Miss Piper?
In Doctor Who she confounded some critics who thought she was just a pop celebrity casting stunt, and achieved fame and all that goes with it, including glamor shoots for magazines,
and long-lens pap snaps:
And after Doctor Who, she played the title role in four series of The Secret Diary of a Call-Girl (2007-11).
So unless you’re a demented conservative in Virginia or Louisiana, those Doctor Who panty peeks probably now look a whole lot more restrained: nothing to get the show moved to after the watershed, even if it is a slightly naughty phenomenon, for those inclined to take that kind of pleasure in it. (Remember: sexual freedom is for everyone, of every orientation!)
It’s the same story with that excellent bottom. Sometimes it just happens to be there when her back is to the camera.
But from time to time it’s overtly a featured part of the episode,
notably in a sequence in ‘The Satan Pit’ when Rose and some crewmen are crawling through a confined space. She makes a sarcastic comment on the unflattering angle of the man in front, at which the man behind remarks approvingly on the view he’s getting.
To which, rather sweetly, Rose responds with a protesting ‘Oy!’
Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who wasn’t perfect, but then Doctor Who never is: there are always some stories that are better than others. But this phase of the series was produced with love and respect by people who simply wanted to make Doctor Who, rather than wanting to possess Doctor Who by making it into something else that they could call uniquely their own. And that meant it always felt like Doctor Who, which meant in turn that there was scope for fantasizing scenarios along our preferred lines.
‘You’re not too old for a slap, you know,’ Rose’s mother tells her at one point.
A slap doesn’t necessarily mean a smacked bottom, though we can happily imagine that it might, especially as it’s presented as a maternal punishment ongoing from earlier life. And though, of course, the series never actually served up anything beyond that first smack from Mickey, at least the indefatigable Texas Jim can help us out there.
Whale her tail, Doctor!
This series continues here.