Sandwiched between two exciting two-part stories, Boom Town is a chance to pause for breath and tie up a few loose ends. Necessity is the mother of invention, and this is the cheap episode, utilising an existing monster costume and locations close to the studios in Cardiff. It also makes extensive use of the standing TARDIS set. Self-contained episodes like this often make up for the lack of big thrills by going big on interesting ideas instead, and Boom Town is a prime example of that, challenging the moral core of Doctor Who.
Annette Badland returns as Margaret Blaine, the most entertaining of the Slitheen, who we last saw being blown up at the end of World War Three. Rather conveniently, it turns out she had a transporter device. This is undoubtedly in the best traditions of Doctor Who baddies surviving apparent destruction, but why didn’t they all have one? The episode is also a chance to explore the broken relationship between Rose and Mickey, which has reached a crossroads. Mickey is no longer willing to wait forever while Rose travels the universe, without some assurance that she will return to him for good one day. This sort of thing helps to offset the more fantastical elements of the series by grounding it in the reality of everyday life. Never before has a companion’s life been as scrutinised in Doctor Who.
The Doctor effectively has three companions for this story, and this illustrates another benefit of exploring Rose’s personal life. It allows for the best of both worlds, with the different approaches of a single companion or multiple ones within a single series. The Doctor can go off travelling with just Rose (or Rose and Captain Jack at this point), or can come back to Earth for some familiar faces. It is generally a good idea for any series to build up a larger cast as it progresses, and Doctor Who is following the example of many other genre shows at this stage.
Boom Town is one of the funniest episodes of the series. The Doctor’s date with Margaret is great fun, if a little cartoonish at times (the Doctor catching a dart in mid-air is hard to believe), but the best sequence of the episode is Margaret’s attempted getaway, with the Doctor and his companions in pursuit. The sight of Margaret trying to transport away while the Doctor repeatedly brings her back is hilarious. And never was the contrast between two of the Doctor’s friends more obvious than the scene where Jack jumps heroically over a trolley, and then Mickey crashes into one, running off with toilet roll attached to his leg.
This is all a lot of fun, but the episode’s big strength is the moral debate between Blon and the Doctor. What makes it so interesting is that they are both actually morally questionable individuals. In fact they are the reverse of each other, with the Doctor being a hero who often beats himself up about failing to save one person without congratulating himself for saving millions, whereas Blon is not bothered by causing death on a grand scale and congratulates herself when she lets one of her victims go.
Margaret: I spared her life.
The Doctor: You let one of them go but that’s nothing new. Every now and then a little victim’s spared because she smiled, ’cause he’s got freckles. ‘Cause they begged. And that’s how you live with yourself. That’s how you slaughter millions. Because once in awhile—on a whim, if the wind’s in the right direction—you happen to be kind.
Margaret: Only a killer would know that. IS that right? From what I’ve seen, your funny little happy go-lucky life leaves devastation in its wake. Always moving on because you dare not look back. Playing with so many people’s lives you might as well be a god. And you’re right, Doctor. You’re absolutely right. Sometimes you let one go. Let me go.
Blon is clearly twisting things here but the god issue she raises is one that will be a central theme of Doctor Who for several years after this point. As cleverly as the Doctor deals with the challenge to his morality (with pithy lines like “you’re pleading for mercy out of a dead woman’s lips”, and also some disappointing ones such as “not my problem”) it clearly touches a nerve. The most fascinating moment of the episode is when Blon challenges her captors to look her in the eye, on the night before they are about to take her to her death. We expect the Doctor to be able to do so, even if nobody else can, but he cannot manage anything more than a fleeting glance. It is left ambiguous as to whether he is choosing not to play her games or if he is genuinely troubled. I think the latter.
Having set up this fascinating moral dilemma, Davies obviously tied himself in knots here and couldn’t come up with an answer to the question, so instead goes with a rather unsatisfying deus ex machina resolution. Whilst it is not a bad idea to explore the nature of the TARDIS in greater depth, ideally it should not be used to resolve the plot. It’s a lazy way to tell a story, and far too convenient a get out clause for the Doctor, who was facing a tricky moral dilemma. It would have been interesting to find out if he would really have sent an enemy who was begging for mercy to her death. Presumably Davies couldn’t answer the question he had asked. Somehow, there must have been a clever answer that was neither (a) letting her go, or (b) sending her to her death, but I’m at a loss to say what it could possibly be. I suppose (c) turning her into an egg, is as good an answer as anything. Not every moral conundrum has a solution. RP
The view from across the pond:
Joe Straczynski, the lead writer of Babylon 5, used to be on a discussion forum where he would share a lot of his creative thoughts about the show with his fans. During one of those discussions came this genuine piece of wisdom: as a writer, you can’t bombard the viewer with bad things week after week without giving them a chance to breathe. Looking at The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, I can see why those show are getting tired. There’s no rest; no chance to take a breather. Nothing good ever happens. It can wear out even the most diehard of fans. By contrast, Babylon 5, which centered around a war, I might add, managed to have lighter episodes that made the weight a little lighter, like A View from the Gallery where two maintenance men are followed around the station.
And that’s what Boom Town is. In the middle of a run of heavy episodes that include the death of Rose’s dad, World War II, the death of a companion (Jack), the death of Lynda with a “why” (as in “why did you kill her off, RTD!?”) and the death of the Doctor himself, we needed something to lighten the load. “She’s climbing out the window, isn’t she?”
Like the former Slitheen storyline, this episode gives us a character study about who the Doctor is as a person. Unlike the former, this one focuses almost exclusively on the Doctor rather than his impact on the companion. And it does beg the question that he will ask again later: is he a good man? The jury is out if one were to look at this story by itself. Returning to Russell’s pen after Moffat’s The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, the fairy tale is gone and in its place is a much darker Doctor.
For instance, when Blon tells the Doctor that Raxacoricofallapatorius still has the death sentence, his cold response is “not my problem”. The Doctor takes a very lackadaisical approach to the imminent death of his captive. When she calls him out on it, suggesting he look her in the eyes, Jack and Rose look away because they can’t do it in good conscience, but the Doctor looks away because he’s working on something presumably “more important”. And you remember that very humorous dinner scene? It masks a darker truth: the Doctor put a poisoned drink in front of his enemy. This is the same man that, pre-Time War, was willing to risk life and limb to save even the most vile villain, the Master. The loss of his people must have had a very deep impact. Post-Time War, we have a man telling Cassandra as she dies horribly, “everything has its time, and everything dies”, and then he lets her explode! Now he’s prepared to hand deliver a criminal to her home planet to be boiled away. Who is this man?? Clive said it in Rose, “… and his one constant companion: Death!”. Brigadier Bambera knew it in Battlefield, wherever the Doctor goes, hell follows. And now, poor Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen, gets a hint at who this man is. (The same man who condemns the Family of Blood to a particularly nasty fate 2 seasons later!)
Now as deep as all of that is, the episode is still treated as comedic, full of humor and laughs. Like the dinner scene, it hides the truth behind a lot of comedy. Whether Blon is on the run climbing out a window or being “beamed” closer to the Doctor, there are laughs throughout. Even the aforementioned dinner scene is incredibly funny. And the episode is like that from the start. The moment Mickey comes to visit “big ears” and watches the crew give each other high fives as they take off “into time! And Space!” it’s set firmly in a comedy. And Mickey went from useless to deeply sympathetic and will eventually become the hero, but right now in Boom Town, he’s still hurting from Rose leaving him. That, and stumbling over buckets in the most non-heroic way imaginable.
Annette Badland has to get special mention as Blon. In the 2 part Slitheen story earlier in the season, she’s a villain, but by Boomtown, she’s a character and she plays the part well: an enemy who lost her own family and is now, maybe, having a change of heart. The Doctor speculates that she was not genuine with her “change of heart”, that she’s a villain through-and-through, but I’d argue that the TARDIS proved him wrong, giving Blon her fondest wish: a fresh start.
Boom Town is not likely to ever be considered a classic along the lines of Dalek or The Empty Child, but it has an important place in the Doctor’s story arc, because it shows the Doctor as the hurt survivor of a very cataclysmic war. It shows how it affected him. And it’s far from pretty. But it is a step in the healing process that he’s going through and the results of that healing pop up later in the series.
As for the phrase “Bad Wolf”… well we were given the biggest hint of all when Rose asks “how could it be following us?” Don’t tell Susan, but maybe it’s already inside one of the crew… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Parting of the Ways