Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Ahh, contrived cliffhanger resolution. Don't you just love it?

One of the immutable edicts of Doctor Who lore, ritually spoken by fans through the decades, is that Episode Three Shall Consist Mainly of Padding. However, in the new 45 minute format, episodes three are a thing of the past, with the second episode of this two parter forming the equivalent, in screen-time terms, of both three and four of a traditional four-part story. Thus there is the potential, in theory at least, for two-parters to lose the sagginess of the original format, combining the aimless running around of the penultimate episode with the climactic action of the finale without spending too much time on either.

Does World War III manage this? Does it ever.

Picking up from where Aliens of London left off, the cliffhanger is wrapped up in traditional Deus Ex the Doctor style, leaving room for a packed forty minutes of monster-filled mayhem. It may feel oddly paced to the committed fan, used to cliffhangers like clockwork every 25 minutes, but both the story and character development is well structured, the plot playing out intelligently, with a real sense of creeping menace towards the end. As you might expect from Russell T Davies, there is much playful subversion of expectation - a neat spin on the splitting-up-the-TARDIS-crew idea, some deliberate undermining of our expectations of the Slitheen and a genuinely surprising way to Save the Day - but happily he never loses sight of the essential 'run-away-from-the-horrible-things!' feel of a monster-based story.

The visual effects go a long way to helping this impression, of course, and thankfully the Slitheen turn out to be very impressive in the flesh, both as full-suit prosthetics and as CGI work. Nitpickers might complain of a certain costume-wobble in the head department, as well some repetition in terms of reveals, but reactions from children bear our Russell T's claim that these are great monsters, their baby faces and digestive problems belying their thoroughly bloodthirsty nature. Helpfully for parents, though, he makes a point of providing step-by-step instructions for dealing with them, revealing just what sandwich snacks to leave on the bedside table in case of nightmares.

While the cast is of course largely the same as that established last week, it's worth noting that Christopher Eccleston's awkwardness in last week's episode - a reflection of the fact that it was the first to be filmed - has by now disappeared, with the actor having apparently settled much more into the role. And with such a strong guest cast, even Penelope Wilton was hard pressed to outshine those playing the Slitheen, making her final scenes all the more satisfying to a die-hard fan of Ever Decreasing Circles. Less impressive were Jackie and Micky, noted in the past as the weakest regular performers, unfortunately made all the more obvious here with them being teamed up for large periods. However, while Jackie once again feels a bit out of her depth emotionally, with her talents clearly lying more in the comedy area, Micky manages to excel himself, helped by a strong and satisfying character arc playing on his relationship with the Doctor.

While the plot is still straightforward, there's a lot in this episode, from cosy domesticity (despite the Doctor's continuing insistence that he "doesn't do families") to gruesome comedy, to outright scare-the-kiddies-shitless monster moments. Luckily the Slitheen also get plenty of comedy to relieve the tension, as well as some subtle and not-so-subtle satirical jibes by virtue of the political setting - some of them almost too timely a fortnight before the UK's general election. With some nice directorial touches, including good use of live tv reports as established in Aliens of..., the whole thing fairly flies by, a million miles from Colin Baker's lumbering first season, which was also made as thirteen 45-minute episodes (albeit alll multi-parters), and yet all but universally derided as the worst in the programme's history. It may be too early to say, but it's hard to believe such a fate lies in store for this story - by turns scary, funny, tense, dramatic, emotional, visually stunning and very, very silly, it feels on the contrary like exactly what Dr Who should be.

(Although, having said that, it was the one thing WWIII didn't have that really made the highpoint of the episode - the final two minutes, when all the Slitheen nonsense was done with, the story was over, and we could get a preview of next week's episode... Dalek. Now that's worth turning on for.)

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