En route to 10 Downing St, the Doctor (Christopher Eccelston, half goofy, half broody) asks “Who’s the Prime Minister now?” To which faithful companion Rose (Billie Piper) wisely replies, “How should I know? I missed a year.” Which brings to mind Doctor Who‘s uneasy relationship with merging its own fictional universe with real life. And specifically, how it deals with world leaders.
The rules seems to be these: using an actual/historical world leader? Don’t mess too much with them. Contemporary politics though can be played with. And if you’re going to invent a fictional world leader, then feel free to put them through hell.
Let’s start with the British Prime Minister. History stands, up to a point. It would be difficult, for instance, to set a story in WW2 where Churchill is not Prime Minister. But some fun can be had with contemporary politics. The Green Death, which like all UNIT stories is set some few (but unspecified) years beyond its broadcast date, cheekily suggested that PM Edward Heath would lose the forthcoming election and Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe would succeed him. And Terror of the Zygons famously predicts a female Prime Minister, even though Harold Wilson was still in power.
Aliens of London manages to subvert this rule by sticking (kind of) to real life politics AND messing with it. In it, an unnamed British Prime Minister is killed. The episode was made in 2004 and set in 2006, both years when Tony Blair was the job’s real life incumbent. Writer Russell T Davies diplomatically shies away from assassinating the UK’s current PM on prime time television, but his very anonymity indicates that it’s Blair – otherwise why not invent a fictional leader to kill (which, as we’ll see, is often what happens)?
Plus the story goes on to unsubtly comment on the UK’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq based on false evidence of “weapons of mass destruction”, a scandal in which Blair became embroiled, so it’s hard to see the PM’s death as anything other than Davies passing editorial judgement. And in the following year’s Rise of the Cybermen, Mickey suggests that an alternative universe might be one in which Tony Blair was never elected. So we know Blair exists or existed in the Doctor Who universe, and although we don’t know to which office Whoniverse Blair was elected to, I think there’s enough evidence to say he was PM and he was killed by the Slitheen.
(Mentioning Mickey reminds me that at the end of this story he shows the Doctor a newspaper with the headline ‘Alien Hoax’, by way of demonstrating the world’s willful ignorance of recent events. Funny though that the death of the Prime Minister doesn’t warrant a mention.)
So while just about giving us a real life PM, Aliens of London follows the rule that you can muck around with contemporary politics. In subsequent episodes we learn the line of succession goes Tony Blair (probably), Harriet Jones (deposed, then dies) and Harold Saxon (deposed, dies, partly reincarnated, mutates into… Oh, I can’t be arsed. Let’s just say ’dies’). Torchwood: Children of Earth then offers us Brian Green, whose name plays on that of then PM Gordon Brown. Davies decides not to kill this one, but leaves him disgraced and about to be deposed. Being a fictional PM is dicey, and this makes sense in story terms; stories which deal with big world events naturally fit with the rise and fall of leaders. If you want to depose or kill a PM in order to show the scope of your story, you can hardly do it with a real life figure. You need to invent one.
US Presidents have a similarly tricky history. The Chase showed us Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address and The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon gave us Richard Nixon; again historical figures are not messed with. But The Sound of Drums offers us a fictional president, Arthur Colman Winters, who seems to be a stand in for then president George W. Bush. As a fictional world leader, his days are numbered and before long, Winters is gruesomely iced by the Toclafane. (Again, I suspect Davies is having a bit of fun there.) By the time we get to The End of Time, though, history has reasserted itself, and real life POTUS Barack Obama is in office. Being a real life leader, he gets to live.
Anyway, the vagaries of how the show deals with world leaders is just part of a bigger problem with classic Doctor Who always struggled with and that the new series, starting with Aliens of London, tackles head on. The problem is this: how do you show a world crisis, from a small setting?
There were two ways of doing it in the classic series. The first was to rely on “reports coming in from around the world”. Usually recited by a raspy computer. Or told in half heard telephone conversations around a busy UNIT operations room. Maybe plotting incidents on a handy map. The Tenth Planet even had a office in Geneva tracking Cybermen worldwide. Alien invasions of the world! All told without moving from Television Centre.
The other way is just to ignore the rest of the world. I’m thinking here of stories like The Web of Fear, where London is under attack and although the threat posed by the Yeti is formidable, there’s no call for assistance from any of the UK’s allies. Could the Yeti stand up to the combined forces of NATO for instance? Probably not. So let’s pretend those combined forces don’t exist.
The new series deals with it better and has even developed a house style for this sort of thing, and it starts with Aliens of London. We see TV reports from around the world (Trinity Wells becomes a recurring character as the US news anchor. With each subsequent appearance, she becomes an ever more knowing wink to this globe trotting technique). We get some special effects shots of aliens in front of world landmarks. We still get reports coming in from around the world. And the combination of these is enough to sell us the idea that aliens invade the world, not just London. Or in this case, aliens invade London, but the world is watching.
As for the story itself? Well, it was shot in the new series first production block and it shows new Who trying to define its tone, and not nailing it straight away. With its giggling, farting aliens, and its arch self awareness, this is much more camp than the new series will turn out to be. But in how it tells a story of scale, it sets up quite a few rules which the series follows.
LINKS to Death to the Daleks: this took me a while, but try this one on for size. In both, there’s a climactic act of self sacrifice that leads to the monsters being blown up (although in Death, the self sacrificer Galloway dies, while in World War Three, the Doctor, Rose and Harriet survive).
NEXT TIME… Back of the neck! It’s The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky.