Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Having criticized the new series for being rather light on plot due to the constraints of single forty-five minute episodes, I had high hopes for the first two-part story, since it would allow more time for the story to unfold. In fact, I found myself watching ‘Aliens of London’ and ‘World War Three’ and thinking that the rot has started to set in; there is much to enjoy here, but the two episodes are also horribly flawed in some major respects.

The first five minutes of ‘Aliens of London’ are abominable. With the TARDIS returning Rose home to visit her mum, the Doctor tells her that she’s been gone for twelve hours, only to sheepishly reveal moments later, “It’s not twelve hours, it’s, er, twelve months. You’ve been gone a whole year. Sorry.” Cue extended scenes of pure soap opera, as we see the consequences for one’s family of vanishing into space and time. As an attempt at realistic characterisation I can understand the reasoning behind it, but this isn’t in depth moving adult drama, it’s overwrought slop in the vein of such televisual excrement as Hollyoaks. The problem is not simply that it is present at all, but that it feels like it’s been crow barred into the series and it is mind-numbingly dull. Some of it has potential such as the fact that as the missing Rose’s boyfriend Mickey was quizzed five times as a murder suspect, but it’s hard to separate such promising strands of dialogue from Camille Coduri’s profoundly irritating performance as Jackie, who shrieks lines such as “What can be so bad that you can’t tell me sweetheart? Where were you?!” in a voice that could strip paint. In fairness, such soap opera leanings again juxtapose banality and fantasy as in ‘Rose’, such as when the Doctor is slapped by Rose’s mother, prompting him to complain, “Nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never been slapped by someone’s mother.” Several times during the story the Doctor proclaims, “I don’t do domestics” which begs the question, why do we have to then?

However… despite my feelings on this subject, the unexpected side effect of Rose’s return home is to make Mickey work extremely well. Having been more artificial than an Auton in ‘Rose’, Noel Clarke puts in a much better performance here, for example getting a great deal out of the simple line, “Oh my God!” when Mickey sees the Doctor. When Rose asks him, “So, in twelve months have you been seeing anyone else?” his reply is, “No. Mainly because everyone thinks I murdered you” which made me chortle. Mickey’s banter with the Doctor I found genuinely entertaining here, especially the Doctor’s eye-rolling exclamation, “Yes, I get the football” when Mickey is presented with the sheer marvel of the TARDIS’s technology and thinks first about sport. Understandably angry with the Doctor, Mickey asks him, “I bet you don’t even remember my name?” prompting the Doctor glibly reply, “It’s Ricky” What follows is a daft but amusing battle of wits between them, as Mickey corrects him, “No, it’s Mickey… I think I know my own name” prompting the withering response, “You think you know your own name, how stupid are you?” Other nice touches for the character include Mickey awkwardly comforting Jackie, and the fact that Rose knows where to find vinegar in Mickey’s flat whilst Mickey doesn’t, which strangely is far more convincingly done as a piece of realism than Jackie’s squawking about her missing daughter. This also prompts one of the Docor’s wittier lines here, as Jackie finds pickled gherkins, onions and eggs, and the Doctor incredulously asks Rose, “You kissed this man?” Most notably however, Mickey gets to make up for his (admittedly realistic) gibbering cowardice in ‘Rose’, as the Doctor tells him, “Mickey the idiot, the world is in your hands.” The scene between the pair at the end is rather touching, as they reach an understanding and the Doctor even offers, “You could look after her, come with us.” Mickey declines, unable to face such a lifestyle, but asks the Doctor not to tell Rose, whom the Time Lord tells, “No chance, he’s erm, a liability, I’m not having him on board.”

So I liked Mickey here, but found most of the human drama cloying and tedious. Happily, this being Doctor Who one can always rely on the plot to entertain. Unless of course, it’s complete bollocks. ‘Aliens of London’ starts out quite promisingly in this regard, as an alien spaceship weaves around the London skyline before crashing into the Houses of Parliament clock tower and then landing in the Thames. However, reasonably exciting though this is, it soon leads into the larger plot, and we learn of the Slitheen plan, which is ridiculously overcomplicated. The audience is expected to swallow such claptrap as the fact that the UK has given all of its nuclear missile codes to the UN, that the Slitheen aren’t nuclear capable (it would have been far easier for them to nuke Earth from space), and that British naval missiles can be launched from a website that is protected by a ridiculously easy to hack password. The return of UNIT is nice, except that it will be meaningless to new fans, and will leave old fans trying to swallow the implication that the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce consists of four men in suits, all of whom are killed here. The politics are fairly badly mangled as well, with suggestions that the Prime Minister is the head of state. There is some interesting stuff in here; the whole Iraq war metaphor is too unsubtle to be called subtext, with non-existent weapons of mass destruction that can be deployed in forty-five seconds, and an illegal war fought for the world’s resources. Doctor Who has been doing barely disguised social commentary almost since it began, and it does at least mean that there is more to the plot than the simple message of not judging by appearances that we got a brief nod to in ‘The End of the World’. Nevertheless, the inclusion of such subtext is bound to annoy some audience members, whatever opinion they actually have on the Iraq war; a brief but similar throwaway line in ‘Scream of the Shalka’ proved rather controversial, and this is being watched by a lot more people.

There are other problems with the episodes as well. Most of these are minor irritations, such as the fact that there isn’t any blood left in the cabinet chamber after Asquith is killed and apparently skinned, and the sheer incompetence of the Police backing the Doctor against a lift is unbelievable, as is the fact that they just stand around looking gob smacked whilst he escapes, instead of riddling him with bullets. Indeed, gormless would-be comedy policemen litter the storyline like dog turds on a pavement. And in the midst of all the factual inaccuracies about the British government, Harriet delivers lessons for the kids about Hannibal and making acetic acid from ethanol, which is strangely twee. I also have issues with the production, including Keith Boak’s direction. Whilst I like the Slitheen spaceship (which reminds me vaguely of Thunderbird Two), the Slitheen themselves, and the infamous Pig, the CGI used for the first two occasionally looks unconvincing, and the decidedly rubbery nature of the Pig doesn’t do anything to silence its detractors. The Slitheen costumes are also obviously men in rubber costumes, which this being Doctor Who I don’t have a problem with; they are occasionally realised purely by CGI however, and it doesn’t mesh convincingly with the costumes, especially during the chase through Number 10 in ‘World War Three’. Mind you, the destruction of Number 10 Downing Street is well realised, and if that bloke who complained about the BBC blowing up a church during ‘The Dæmons’ is still alive and watching, he must have soiled himself. The incidental music also grates once more, acting yet again as a pompous intrusion during the more dramatic emotional scenes in the second episode. What really annoyed me however was the horribly mangled cliff-hanger, which showed various characters in peril, only to be immediately followed by the trailer for ‘World War Three’, which showed the same characters in rather less peril. I didn’t think that the Doctor or Rose would get killed, but I didn’t even get to spend a week hoping that I’d be spared any further appearances by Jackie. It didn’t help that the resolution at the start of ‘World War Three’ was effectively a pre-credits sequence, making the whole thing feel horribly disjointed.

‘Aliens of London’ and ‘World War Three’ also mark the point at which I finally start to find the Ninth Doctor irritating, although still not as much as some critics. It’s Christopher Eccleston’s gurning that irritates me, and there is an appalling scene in the TARDIS as the Doctor repairs things in fundamentally annoying slapstick fashion, grinning like a tit throughout. On the other hand, he gets plenty of decent moments here, including the Doctor’s laugh of delight when the ship crashes (and Rose’s stunned “Oh, that’s just not fair” is great). There’s a nice moment when he gives Rose the TARDIS key, but best of all is the fact that he’s at his most proactive here, such as when he takes charge of the military in the hospital, overcomes the Slitheen trap at the end of episode one, works out how to defeat them with vinegar (The “Narrows it down” scene allows Eccleston to show the cogs in the Doctor’s mind whirring overtime), and gives Mickey instructions on how to blow up Downing Street. Eccleston conveys the Doctor’s fury at the shooting of the pig, of which he snarls, “What did you do that for? It was scared!” and the Doctor’s obvious glee and waving at the cameras when he’s escorted to Downing Street is amusing. The Doctor quietly saying sorry to the dead, nameless secretary also achieves minor greatness. Eccleston sounds deadly serious when the Doctor tells the Slitheen, “I’ll give you a choice, leave this planet or I’ll stop you” and his line, “This my life Jackie, it’s not fun, it’s not pretty, it’s just standing up and making a decision” is designed to be quotable. However, I do find the Doctor’s dithering over whether to save the world and risk losing Rose frustrating in a way that brings back unpleasant memories of ‘Neverland’ and it again suggests that he’s lost some perspective since Episode Seven of ‘The Evil of the Daleks’. Rose incidentally gets less to do here than in previous episodes, most of her scenes revolving around the tedious domestic rot of her relationship with her mother, and attempts to explain her non-sexual relationship with the Doctor via dialogue such as “’E’s not my boyfriend Mickey, he’s better than that.” She also utters the controversial line, “You’re so gay” which I find more crass than offensive.

With more time to play with here, Davies does score with the some of the supporting characters and the guest cast is generally very good. Penelope Winton is great as Harriet Jones, who is obviously terrified by what she’s seen, but brave enough to try and do what is right, prompting the Doctor to tell her, “You’re very good at this.” As soon as the Doctor recognizes her name, it’s obvious that she’ll become Prime Minister, but it still works quite well. Mind you, her line, “When they fart, if you’ll pardon the word” is an example of misfiring would-be comedy. Navin Chowdry is also good as Indra Ganesh and whilst Davies might overdo the human drama in some scenes, the small kindness of a cup of coffee manages to be strangely poignant. Mention must also be made of Andrew Marr who does a fine job of playing himself in ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek style. The various “fat” actors all seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, especially David Verrey and Rupert Vansittart, and Annette Badland manages to be gleefully sinister.

But my favourite aspect of ‘Aliens of London’ and ‘World War Three’ is the Slitheen, who work for me simply because they seem to having so much fun. Yes, their plan is ridiculous, but aliens who giggle at their own colossal flatulence and are obsessed with nudity entertain me on the basest possible level. “I’m shaking my booty” is an appallingly bad line, but it is compensated for by the brilliant, “Excuse me, your device will do what? Triplicate the flammability? You’re making it up!” and “I rather enjoyed being Oliver. He had a wife, a mistress and a young farmer. God, I was busy.” They look great too, in a rubbery, traditionalist sort of way, and their big eyes are rather striking. On a less silly level, Davies makes an attempt to flesh them out as characters, with their hunting rituals and details about their rather novel calcium-based physiology, which memorably makes them vulnerable to vinegar. The fact that Slitheen is their family name, not the name of their species is a nice touch, as are their convoluted and overlong names. In a possible nod to ‘The Leisure Hive’, we also get an acknowledgement of the fact that they hide inside fat humans, as the Doctor explains, “They’re big old beasts. They need to fit inside big humans.” The fact that they sober up when they learn that one of them has died, allows them to show just enough emotion to add depth, and I also like their final scene, as they bicker over costumes before their leader casts his eyes skyward and cries, “Oh, boll-”.

Overall, ‘Aliens of London’ and ‘World War Three’ form the first real disappointment of the new series, but they aren’t entirely without merit. It might be worth noting that we get the first proper reference to regeneration in the new series, just as people are wondering if Christopher Eccleston really quit or if he only ever signed up for one series. And whatever the shortcomings of the episodes, everything suddenly feels terribly exciting at the end with the trailer for ‘Dalek’.

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