Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Some stories just don’t stand a chance. Aliens of London, after the gothic grandeur of The Unquiet Dead? Flabby, modern-day rot. The Long Game after the monument to Who history that was Dalek? Laughably flimsy runaround. And anything at all after the genius of Stephen Moffat’s flawless contribution… Well, like I said. Didn’t stand a chance.

And yet we present, ladies and gentlemen, in defiance of all the odds, the Little Episode that Could.

The pressures against Boom Town were unprecedented. After his introduction as a spanner in the works of the Doctor and Rose's relationship, it had to see Captain Jack cosily inserted into the TARDIS crew with all their disagreements ironed out. After an effects laden two-parter it had to be made for virtually nothing: reusing the Slitheen (never a popular monster with long-term fans anyway); set in a contemporary, undressed (for which read boring) setting; using few, simple effects and a lot of cheap (ie TARDIS) scenes. And for season-arc purposes it had to feature Mickey, thus handling an unprecedented four-strong TARDIS crew, as well as provide some crucial TARDIS backstory; paint the Doctor as dangerous and unhappy with what he’s become; re-open the time-rift, establish a theme of consequences and – finally, as if that wasn’t enough – talk about Bad Wolf.

To think Peter Grimwade thought he had it tough sorting out Turlough, Peri and Kamelion in Planet of Fire. At least he got to go to Lanzarote. Russell T Davies had to do it in Cardiff – and it’s much, much the better for it. Because he, at least, knows he can’t make a sci-fi spectacular, and therefore doesn’t try. Instead he throws all the budget for explosions and Bugs-style chase sequences into the first opening 15 and closing 10 minutes, and spends the rest creating a tiny, intimate, personal character piece.

Make no mistake, the result is very odd. Every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end, and while this has all three, there’s an ending barely a quarter of an hour in (all but literally “I would have got away with it too if it wasn’t for you pesky time-travellers…”), and then two or three middles in a row before the ending appears, which turns out to come from a completely different story anyway. Informed sources had promised that the reintroduction of the Slitheen would be dealt with in the first ten minutes: what they didn't make clear is that the entire plot, at least as first presented, is dealt with in those ten minutes, with only a brief encore half an hour later in order to arrange a suitably satisfying finale. Perhaps it would have been better if they’d gone with Russell T’s alternate title, “Dining with Monsters” so that audiences had expected less boom, and rather more scenes in restaurants, for their boom-town buck. That’s certainly what you get – and when the audience is ready for it, for instance because they’ve already watched it once and want to know if their initial negative impression was fair, it’s exactly what you need.

This isn’t a story about explosions. It’s not a story about Mickey and Rose and Captain Jack, either, which is why they tend to get shunted off into soap-opera sideplots or locked in the TARDIS like a second-rate Nyssa. This is a story about the Doctor facing his oldest, quietest nightmares: long goodbyes; responsibilities; blame. Forced for once to face the consequences of his easy heroism, we’re in for just as uncomfortable a time as him, shown the stark realities of the life he leads and led to question – quite genuinely, in fact, not the empty moralising ‘Do we have the right?’ of the black goat Star Trek and its thousand young – whether he’s actually doing the right thing.

If this doesn’t feel quite like Dr Who, that’s not surprising. Russell T has insisted from the start that every episode should have a different tone, and for every uber-traditional Long Game and Unquiet Dead, there’s a Father’s Day or Aliens of London waiting ‘round the corner to surprise us. These days we never quite know what we’re sitting down to watch, and it’s one of the show’s greatest strengths. Who, after all, expected Dalek to make them cry? This isn’t a show that’s going for the obvious, plodding through the same round of corridors, guns and traitors every week. We’d have grown tired of that by Episode Eight, which in the classic series would have been called Day of the Fathers and involved endless running around in a crypt before the Doctor saved the day with a time-oscillator. No, Boom Town is what you get when you move away from what people expect, and it works like a charm.

Protesting too much? Well, perhaps. There are elements that while undeniably cool – the hiding-place, and revelation, of Margaret's technobabble mcguffin, for instance – don't seem to make an awful lot of sense. There’s a horrible Deus ex machina solution to the Doctor’s dilemma, which could be seen as rather avoiding the point. The aha-well-you-see ending, where the plot is explained after it's already happened, is considerably less satisfying than the usual kick-yourself-oh-of-course denument. There’s a feeling in the final act that Russell T is repairing a slightly shoddy plot rather than revealing a clever one. The TARDIS crew veers from the charming to the smug. I don’t like Jack’s coat.

But they’re not, in fact, major concerns compared with the plus-points. Margaret Blaine becomes one of the most effective enemies we’ve seen, even at her least powerful. Annetta Badland is simply magnificent in the role, withering, pleading, dismissive, cathartic – a genuinely complex character. Noel Clarke finally gets his teeth into Mickey and delivers a truly affecting performance, making us question Rose’s actions as much as Blaine does the Doctor’s. The Slitheen costume, in its rare appearances, is extraordinarily effective, even moving at times, light-years ahead of its Aliens/War appearances. While the pacing is odd, almost every individual scene is an absolute zinger. (The toilet sequence in particular is tremendous: powerful, unexpected, perfect.) Arguably it’s one draft away from completion – an explanation here, an intercut something-going’s-wrong-in-the-TARDIS scene there – but it’s still nothing short of astonishing.

We’ve grown too used to the snappy one-liners, the zip-a-long plot, the emotional depth and the seamless cgi. We barely register Billie Piper’s perfection, or the fear and anger in Eccleston’s eyes. It’s easy now to miss them altogether, and focus on the less-than-perfect moments. But watch again. The ghost music over the Blaidd Drwg scene. The look on Eccleston’s face when he’s told he’s a killer. “Let’s see which of you can look at me in the eye.” Where else are you going to see stuff of this quality on British tv?

And that’s before we even reach the last three seconds.

Come on. You’re telling me you’re not gonna keep watching? Tell that to the big bad wolf.

Filters: Series 1/27 Ninth Doctor Television