This articles covers the Doctor Who episodes Aliens of London and World War Three, which together form a single story.
In Classic Doctor Who alien invasions were nearly always the result of whole races of aliens being evil, or having the same motivations. Things were often very black and white, even when they were colour. Russell T Davies immediately does something different, with his first two-parter. The invasion is a family, not an entire race.
But before we get to any of that, we have the best part of the story, before the Slitheen arrive. The Doctor and Rose crash back into Rose’s old life, but they arrive at the wrong time. It is good to see that the Doctor’s inability to pilot the TARDIS exactly as he would like has not been forgotten since the original series: last week he missed his intended location and date, and here he brings Rose home a year after she left. Camille Coduri and Noel Clarke return to their roles of Jackie and Mickey, and it is interesting to see that a companion’s departure from her family has had some effect – this issue has never really been tackled before, which is odd when you think about it, as many of the Doctor’s companions would have ended up, like Rose, on the missing persons lists. This is where the approach of exploring real-world themes in Doctor Who works so well (often referred to as soap opera, but that’s really just a slightly lazy shorthand for saying we are getting some realistic characterisation).
There were hints of the Doctor’s disdain for Mickey in Rose (jealousy? He does seems to be rounding down his age as if he is having some kind of a midlife crisis) and Aliens of London gives us more of the same. Noel Clarke is again impressive as Mickey. His best scene this episode is when he spots the TARDIS and rushes headlong towards it as it dematerialises, crashing into the wall behind – the look on his face and his body language as he gets up and dusts himself off are priceless. Oddly not doing quite so well on this occasion is Christopher Eccleston, whose Doctor seems to be rather flippant and offhand with people, but it is important to remember that this was recorded before his superior performances in Episodes 2 and 3 so he has not yet nailed down his version of the Doctor.
One of the episode’s funniest moments comes when the Doctor is watching the news amongst an ever-increasing number of Jackie’s friends and family, and a child changes the channel to Blue Peter – the little battle of wills that ensues between the Doctor and the child is wonderful stuff. Russell T Davies’s script is typically packed with humour, but it is more fart jokes than satire, despite the Downing Street setting. Having said that, the scenes set in Downing Street veer much more towards Yes Minister territory, particularly with Harriet Jones as a backbencher gaining power. The government we see portrayed here is cheekily grounded in the contemporary. Harriet says “I’m hardly one of the babes – just a faithful backbencher”, which is a reference to “Blair’s Babes”, a bit of media mysogyny that was being thrown around at the time to describe Blair’s attempts to have a reasonable representation of women in his cabinet. And of course the PM who gets killed in this story is obviously intended to look like Blair – Davies nearly hired a lookalike but stopped short in the end. It wouldn’t have been necessary; we get it.
Just like a lot of the fans didn’t like the burping bin (Rose), they really, really didn’t like farting aliens. But that’s fine because Doctor Who isn’t being made for the fans. This was something Davies was very clever to recognise right from the start: there are thousands of Doctor Who fans, but millions of non-fans who are potential viewers, and those are the ones who most need to be kept happy. His early work in particular was carefully positioned to be family viewing with a broad appeal that never excludes the casual viewers, so lots of family-driven character stuff and entertaining monsters that are easy to understand and sum up in one or two words: living plastic, Earth death, ghosts, farting aliens. It might seem a bit lowbrow, but all that flatulence is there for a legitimate, plot-driven reason, and not just for the sake of a cheap laugh and, what can I say? Farts are funny. I like it. It is also all part of an attempt to make something childish seem scary, which is playing on the fringes of a horror movie trope, complete with the childlike laughter.
A two-part story comes with certain benefits to the production team. Costs of sets and effects can be spread over two episodes, and a greater number of actors can be involved. This gives Aliens of London a more epic, big budget feel, and you can see where the money has been spent. Most breathtaking of all the effects shots is the much trailed moment when the spacecraft’s wing crashes through Big Ben – a wonderful piece of model work combined with CGI. The two episode format also allows for a slower build-up, and Davies holds off revealing the alien until the last possible moment – the first cliffhanger since 1989, and in its most classic form: the unveiling of the monster. We could have done without that pig in a spacesuit though. The ‘Next Time’ trailer reveals the Doctor and Jackie to be OK, which makes the very traditional approach to a cliffhanger a bit pointless. These were subsequently moved to the end of the credits for later two-part stories.
The first twenty minutes or so of World War Three are quite a disappointment. Firstly there is too much repetition: the head zipping thing is done too often, and there is rather a lot of running from room to room. Secondly, this is perhaps the first occasion that the new series has really over-stretched itself in terms of special effects. The Slitheen worked well as the shock revelation of the cliffhanger ending, but given much more screen time here they disappoint. There is a noticeable difference between the CGI and men-in-monster-suits shots. Also, the lack of facial movement is a problem, with the motion of the mouths appearing rather silly when coupled with the actors words. However, these are all fairly minor annoyances. The big alien in a regular-size human trick has been tried before in Doctor Who, and it never quite convinces, but at least technology has moved on to a point where it can be shown actually working in some way.
Things improve rapidly as the episode progresses, with the Doctor, Rose and Harriet trapped in the Cabinet room. It falls to Mickey to save the world and his relationship with the Doctor is the making of the episode. The banter between them is good fun, although the Doctor seems a bit harsh in his opinion of ‘Ricky’, but Mickey manages to earn the Doctor’s respect at last and even gets an invitation to join him on his travels. And this is one of the things that Doctor Who does brilliantly. Mickey started off in Rose as a pretty useless character, simply there to be the person who it is not worth Rose staying behind for. Now he is on a character arc that will take him from being Mickey the Idiot to Mickey the Hero. Once again Doctor Who gives hope to the downtrodden: anyone can be magnificent. RP
The view from across the pond:
Looking back on Aliens of London and World War III is a mixed bag.
At its strongest points, in the first 15-20 minutes, it offers a great look at the human drama that develops when the Doctor gets the timing a bit wrong. In 40 years of Doctor Who history, this is the first time we’ve ever seen fallout for a family of those the Doctor takes on his travels. It also looks at the relationship that’s been blooming between the Doctor and his companion; the trust she has in him and the care he has for her. This is some truly stellar writing.
But then things start going downhill… The aliens are baby-faced gas bags “fart” their way into power. Appealing to the Lowest Common Denominator, like a burping garbage can in Rose, is geared for a base mentality. To my mind, Doctor Who fans should aspire to better. We don’t want the spoon-fed trash that is network TV! (And frankly, why try to appeal to those who do want trash?) I realize Who may not be Cosmos, but it’s not South Park either! Sure it’s a funny line when the Doctor asks, “Do you mind not farting while I’m trying to save the world”, but it just doesn’t fit in with Doctor Who. The human drama that the episode started with is lost to a lot of methane.
Part two is the stronger half, and while I don’t typically like to rely on them, due to how new it was at the time, let’s hit some bullet points…
Some missed opportunities and blunders:
- Why would the soldiers follow the Doctor because he shouts “Defense plan delta”? Easily mislead military.
- Why not use the TARDIS key we all know, rather than a standard house key? Poor job on the production side.
- Shoe-horning “Bad Wolf” into the episode as spray paint felt too much like they couldn’t come up with a better use of it.
- Jackie says she would have been happy with “just one phone call” but we saw Rose make a call in The End of the World. In fairness, what we don’t know is when that call came in. It’s possible it came before the Nestene invasion in Rose. We simply don’t know the timeline.
- In Time and The Rani, the 7th Doctor says he’s 953, the same as the Rani. How is he now only 900? Rounding down? Vanity?
- How do you hide a zipper on the acting Prime Minister’s head, but when the cop takes his hat off, it’s clearly seen? (I’m reminded of the Foamasi; they must use the same technology in The Leisure Hive. I don’t recall them having gas although maybe they are on a high-fiber diet.)
- The Doctor comments that things are “a bit too human”. The Doctor should be above race and gender. I found this distasteful.
- “Victory should be naked!” For real? I shudder to think how Russell wrote the good scripts…
- If the Slitheen have such a powerful sense of smell, how come they don’t smell the Doctor? Higher grade cologne?
- Why do guards not shoot when told to, instead allowing a fugitive to natter on, then jump in a lift? Hopefully, being unarmed, they didn’t feel he was a threat!
- The secure room has two settings for closing the blast doors: “Hurry, the enemy is here” and “Close slowly to give me time to glare meaningfully at the enemy.” Construction in the UK is obviously of a higher quality than across the pond.
And then counter that with…
Some of the things it got right:
- The Doctor avoids “domestics”. Too close to home, since the demise of his own people, perhaps?
- I love a little snide commentary: “We can do what everyone else does: watch it on TV”.
- The Muppets’ “Pigs in Space” skit is brought to strange life in unexpected ways. The Doctor’s anger when said pig is shot is chilling. Eccleston shows his range with just 3 words: “It was scared!”
- Humor dulls the pain of an otherwise weak story. “Take me to your leader” could not have been better timed. Mickey’s collision with the fence, and his subsequent brush off/look around is quite funny.
- This episode does give the supporting cast some great material. Noel Clark and Camille Coduri are excellent together. When Camille and Piper interact, there’s the sense that they truly are a family. When Mickey tells the Doctor why he can’t travel but asks to keep it secret, it’s very believable. His silent vigil on the trash can later is bittersweet.
- Eccleston connects to past Doctors: Tom Baker’s Doctor with that manic grin, the excited joy at a calamity, the childlike excitement as he tells Rose that humanity has made first contact. McCoy when he disappears like a phantom from the alien autopsy.
- Harriet Jones, in part one, is only concerned with the country hospital but by part 2, she’s willing to make hard decisions, proving she may indeed be the leader of the Golden Age.
- “And you kiss this man?” When Jackie is going through what Mickey has in his kitchen, the list is alarming, but the Doctor’s response is hilarious. When the Slitheen explodes as a result of over-vinegar-ification, its reaction is funny, as is that of Coduri and Clarke.
- The special effects had ramped up from the “good old days”. Watching the Slitheen run through Downing Street makes us realize how far we’ve come.
And there are questions…
- “Deadly to humans maybe…” A great quote, but what does it say about the Doctor that he takes a murder weapon and uses it on those who would kill him. While we would never see Troughton, Pertwee, or any other Doctor be so cavalier in his use of a weapon, this Doctor is both a product of a post 9/11 world (in real life) and the survivor of a time war (in the fiction of the show.)
It’s clear that Russell T. Davies knows how to do human drama and gives us some great dialog. But when Aliens of London is strongest, it’s not in the villain of the week; it’s in the human drama that comes from it. There’s a telling commentary too illustrated by a scene when Harriet, Rose and the Doctor are talking. Harriet is disgusted at Rose’s ambivalence towards death as she cracks jokes with the Doctor.
Rose: “You get used to it being friends with him”
Harriet: “That’s a strange friendship”
Perhaps it speaks to some desensitization in Rose; something we fear for our children. She is only 19! That’s still formative, albeit at the latter end of the cycle. If Tooth and Claw is anything to go by, she’s on a bad trajectory, as she seems to be getting more at ease with watching people die. It’s exacerbated by her overconfidence that is evident in the opening scenes of The Impossible Planet. Does the Doctor, in fact, turn his companions into warriors?
At the end, we see a bit of the epilogue; the lost art from classic Who. Jackie wants to cook to get to know the Doctor a bit better but he won’t have it. Unfortunately the Doctor calls to Rose and effectively bribes her out of the house in a very teenage way. One that tests her loyalty, that clearly works as she comes running! Maybe that’s not his fault. At this point, we don’t know the circumstances of this regeneration, but we do know he lost his people. There probably is some bitterness and resentment that can no longer find closure. There was a time (Battlefield) that the Doctor would have sat for tea quite happily. But that was before the demise of Gallifrey; before he was the last of the Time Lords… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Dalek