Doctor Doctor Who Guide

A quandary for Russell T Davies, back in the planning stages. Rose was to be an alien invasion of contemporary London. The End of the World would do exactly what it said on the tin, a race through space five billion years in the future. The Unquiet Dead would be a ghostly adventure in period drama history. So what to do with that tricky fourth episode, once things had been set up and the polar extremes of time-travel already explored?

Easy. Another alien invasion of contemporary London... but this time with fart jokes.

Aliens of London was always aiming to feel like traditional Dr Who. As a two-parter, it matches the screen-time of a classic four-episode story. The trailers hinted at soldiers, spaceships, and women screaming in the dark. Even the title seemed to promise a retread of almost every story made in the early 70s, when Jon Pertwee would pit his wits and venusian karate against a succession of rubber monsters in the streets around BBC TV Centre. A bold move, when the series had only just dragged itself free of all those cliches to recreate itself for the twenty-first century - but then, as you might expect, Russell T's version of traditional Who isn't quite the Saturday night runaround you remember.

On first viewing at least, this is a strange story. Russell deliberately eschews the sci-fi antics for soap opera domesticity, trapping the Doctor in a flat full of screaming children where he's reduced to watching the alien invasion on TV. Much is made of Rose's life-left-behind, her relationship with the Doctor and those around her, with the actual plot left to new characters to explore (who in doing so, thankfully, are given more room to breathe than in single-episode stories). It has to be said this doesn't always work: an emotional situation is set up that's slightly too big even for a two-part story to explore, and which is therefore abandoned unconvincingly abruptly. The self-consciously domestic setting, too, gives a sense of unreality, of a lack of focus, to the bigger events of the story, although this is swiftly rectified. And there are moments when the pacing is a little off, either blipping the tension up so high the following scene feels anti-climactic (as happens when the Doctor is confronted with the helicopter), or simply by events taking up more screen-time than they justify. This is more an editing problem than a script one, with the two-episode format perhaps responsible for a loss of tightness in places, particularly in the rather distended cliffhanger, but it's noticeable. And surely someone must have noticed the Next Week preview, devised as a substitute ending for episodes without cliffhangers, utterly undercuts the tension now that there is one.

However, that's all on the first viewing, when your Inner Geek is still expecting a cliffhanger after 25 minutes, and the Brigadier to turn up with a twitchy moustache and a request for explanations. Watching it again, with those preconceptions eroded, such worries evaporate. Just as Clive in Episode One felt like a geeky-injoke-too-far for some fans, while actually forming a chilling and effective prologue to the series for new viewers, so the pacing and focus on relationships here works far better than a self-confessed fan might realise. The episode manages to balance all this with intriguing, teasing suggestions about the alien incursion, along with humour, emotion, and some genuinely scary moments. Russell T plays expertly with audience expectations (and fears of low budget nonsense) with an ingenious, unpredictable and deeply satisfying plot-twist, and even the reviled 'farting' element - greeted with outright fan-horror when slipped into previews - somehow manages to be, not silly toilet humour at all, but wonderfully sinister. The exploration of what might greet one of the Doctor's companions upon returning home will of course frighten and confuse long-term fans, who are shy, nocturnal creatures with deeply ingrained habits, and who expect such things being swept under the carpet. But this is exactly the sort of emotional realism the new series has been praised for, and rightly so.

There is, moreover, much to be admired in Aliens of London, and not limited to the grandstanding effects shot of a UFO crashing through Big Ben. The supporting cast is large and impressive, with everyone from Penelope Wilton to Andrew Marr cropping up, and, remarkably, hardly putting a foot wrong. Two actors who attracted some negative criticism in Rose return, albeit with more mixed results: Rose's mother is less convincing than on her first outing, seemingly limited to stretching out her hands at people in place of emoting; while boyfriend Mickey, now with a more interesting emotional position, is vastly improved. The incidental music is excellent throughout, the sound design and location work terrific, and the lighting isn't bad either (even if it is slightly out of sync with the sfx in one scene). But of course, that's still the sort of thing only a geek would notice. So what would a real viewer see? Spaceships, soldiers, guns, explosions, helicopters, invasions, aliens, drama, adventure, action, havoc... And, yes, rubber monsters.

With claws.

Roll on next week.

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