Tag Archives: eccleston

Celebrity, history and The Unquiet Dead (2005)

unquiet

Remember the celebrity historical? It used to be a thing. A real, live, it-can-be-our-second/third/fourth-episode kinda thing. Through it we met all sorts of famous dead people – Queen Victoria, Madame du Pompadour, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie. And it starts here, with a tale of ghosts and walking cadavers with Charles Dickens in ye olde Cardiff.

It was a shrewd move by showrunner Russell T Davies to include this episode in the revamped series’ first year. Those first three episodes of his version of the show are set in the present, the future and the past respectively; a shorthand statement of what the show’s about. A historical adventure tells a new audience that this series isn’t going to be all spaceships and laser beams every week. But the inclusion of a famous historical figure, plus some alien bad guys, gives that same audience a way into these old world adventures without them feeling like they’re being subjected to some snoozy old history lesson.

It also gives the production personnel something on which they can show off their skills: period drama. Former script editor Andrew Cartmel first vocalised what had been staring viewers in the face for years – that the BBC could pull off a more convincing historical drama than a science fiction epic. Despite new Who‘s increased budget, there’s still some truth in this, plus time and money saved in recreating familiar historical sets and costumes rather than dreaming them up anew. Not to mention that a well known star playing a well known historical figure makes for great publicity.

Writer Mark Gatiss sets the template for the celebrity historical in this macabre episode. He chooses a well known historical figure, one with an inkling for the the supernatural. Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) might be a daunting figure for viewers (me included) who have never finished any of his mighty tomes (I know, I know! I’ll get to them! Right after The Doctor Who Cookbook) but he proves a prudent choice, with the Doctor (an energized Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (an energetic Billie Piper) turning up just at a point of personal existential crisis. He teams up with the our heroes, becoming a de factor companion and along the way, his life is changed for the better by the experience. It’s a pattern which holds more or less up until and including Vincent and the Doctor.

Then things change. With The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, where Richard Nixon, who under the old template for celebrity historicals might have been expected to be the episode’s focus, but now becomes just a notable supporting character. In their respective episodes, Queens Nefertiti of Egypt and Elizabeth I of England are similarly exotic side dishes, not the main meal. By the time we get to Peter Capaldi’s era, the celebrity historical has been dropped altogether. Clara makes do with sly references to her flirty adventures with Jane Austen. That name dropping’s enough; we don’t need to see the Doctor meet another historical British writer. We’ve been there done that.

(Thank Rassilon. I can’t stand Austen. A Doctor Who encounter with her sounds awful. It’d be called Time and Temerity, or Space and Speciousness or something. Clara would be proposed to by some alien dressed up in period costume, via a series of letters delivered by horse and cart and everything would take weeks. Yawn. Unless it was a Blackadder inspired version where Jane Austen turns out to be “a huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush”. Yes, I’d watch that.)

So now the celebrity historical, once a mainstay of any Doctor Who season is out of vogue. No doubt famous people from history will continue to turn up, but more episodes showcasing any given figure of history seems unlikely. It’s a shame, because having our heroes rub shoulders with someone we know from history is one of those uniquely Doctor Who ideas. And it’s been with the show since its earliest years, where we met Marco Polo, Nero, Richard I and Doc Holliday. If you squint, it even stays true to the show’s original remit to be slightly educational. The Unquiet Dead, for instance, manages to trickle out an abbreviated biography of Dickens and his work.

Still, it’s fun to fill in future fantasy seasons with celebrity historicals which still one day might come to pass. Oscar Wilde’s episode would riff on The Picture of Dorian Gray.  That other OW, Orson Wells already has one in Big Finish’s universe – by Mark Gatiss, no less – which could be adapted. Sylvester McCoy’s suggestion of the Doctor meeting Richard III could finally come to fruition. What about JFK, given his and the show’s association with November 1963? Galileo? Da Vinci? The Beatles? Surely we can’t let Timelash be the definitive Doctor Who appearance by HG Wells. Nor let Einstein be claimed by the ignominious Time and the Rani.

As for the story itself, it’s pleasingly creepy, with enough black humour in it to recall more than a few camp, schlocky horror films. Its gleefully brash use of walking cadavers as monsters is stronger stuff than the show eventual settled into; to this day Mrs Spandrell can’t get past the opening pre-credit sequence with old Mrs Peace (Jennifer Hill) stumbling through the streets, howling. It strays into interesting moral territory when the Doctor finds virtue in the Gelth’s alleged plan to inhabit the bodies of human dead to save their species, and Rose is opposed to the idea. But the last minute u-turn of the Gelth into treacherous invaders neutralizes that debate which might have lead the story to something other than a “it’s time to stop the monsters now” kind of ending.

Truth be told, as good as The Unquiet Dead is, nearly all its tricks – be they ghost stories, Victoriana or zombified monsters – have been done better by later stories. Its lasting claim to fame is showing us how these celebrity historicals work and inventing a new sub-genre for 21st century Who. If they really have gone forever, then that’s its legacy – creating a Who specific subset right up there with ‘base under siege’, ‘pseudo-historical’ and ‘multi-Doctor’.

But if they ever come back, I’ve still got my list of candidates: Michelangelo, Louis Pasteur, Elvis, even Mrs Malaprop… sorry, that’s Time and the Rani again. It sneaks in everywhere!

LINK TO Into the Dalek: uncertainty about whether the monsters are good or evil.

NEXT TIME… well, he didn’t come by Shetland pony, Jamie! We defrost The Ice Warriors

 

 

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Goosesteps, quicksteps and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (2005)

empty-child

I’m thinking of a Doctor Who DVD box set – the World War II stories. It consists of Let’s Kill Hitler, The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe (the first bit), The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe (the rest of it), Victory of the Daleks and The Curse of Fenric. It could come in a special edition gas mask shaped tin. You could press a button and hear it say, ‘are you my Mummy?’ It would fly off the shelves like a Lancaster bomber or maybe float off gently like a barrage balloon.

Why has World War II proven such fertile ground in which to grow Doctor Who, particularly as conceived by Steven Moffat? On the face of it, it’s subject matter which should be too edgy for the series. Perhaps it’s because the two have long been connected.

When Doctor Who started, it was 18 years since the war had ended. Its influence was still being felt; in the series’ initial conception, you’ll recall, the Doctor was fleeing from a galactic war. The first Dalek story references the Nazis heavily, and the second imagines Britain overrun with fascist invaders. Even The doddery old Sensorites is a story of soldiers left behind, fighting a war long since over.

And when the show returned to 1963 for Remembrance of the Daleks, characters like Ratcliffe and Harry recalled the war; the novelisation has Rachel Jensen remembering surviving the blitz. So the genesis of this show is linked to the war, and to British pride of triumphing against overwhelming odds. In The Empty Child, the Doctor (U-boat captain Christopher Eccleston) gives voice to this pride:

Right now, not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like dominoes. Nothing can stop it. Nothing. Until one, tiny, damp little island says no. No. Not here. A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing, the lot of you. Don’t know what you do to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me.

William Hartnell’s Doctor never did end up running from that mysterious alien war, but Eccleston’s Doctor did. It’s odd that of all the stories in that first year of rejuvenated Who, this one, set in a war so close to the series’ home, is the one that dwells on the time war the least. Not at all in fact, even though our war veteran Doctor is smack in the middle of events which should feel grimly familiar. But that’s because cosmic angst is not on Moffat’s agenda.

No, he wants to scare children and get the Doctor laid.

***

The first part of that he does with consummate style. He begins with a haunting image: a five year old boy in a gas mask. This boy terrifies those around him, but his plaintiff cries resonate with any adult who has half a heart: ‘Please let me in, Mummy. I’m scared of the bombs’. Who wouldn’t want to embrace that child, take him in, make him safe?

But touching this boy is the one thing you can’t do. It’s the next of Moffat’s steps towards creating something really creepy. Touch the boy and you don’t quite die, but your life is emptied out of you. The next thing you know a gas mask is forcing its way up your throat and then your face becomes the gas mask. A physical amalgamation of flesh and object. There’s never been anything quite like it in Doctor Who.

His final trick is to set it in the Blitz, where death could fall from the sky at a moment’s notice. The characters we meet are already living under incredible stress. They’re permanently scared and hungry and under siege from an enemy they can’t protect themselves from. The threat represented by the empty child is not that dissimilar from that brought by the Germans, though far more insidious.

From there on in, Moffat pulls the familiar tricks to bring the scares: you’re surrounded by them, don’t let them touch you, you think you’re safe but you’re not, time’s running out and it’s actually in the room with you. Those are standard narrative driven frights, brought to life by James Hawes’ vivid direction. But they are the symptoms, not the cause of this terror. The cause is those bold, unsettling concepts: a boy in a gas mask, a mask that eats your face, death calling at any time and you with no defence.

***

Moffat ignores the time war. But this first series’ other major obsession, the burgeoning relationship between the Doctor and Rose (Billie Piper), is front and centre. Earlier in the season, wannabe companion Adam Mitchell had been introduced to throw a gooseberry at the Doctor and Rose’s quietly developing romance. But he proved no contest. In the previous episode, Father’s Day,  Rose wondered, ‘Why does everyone think we’re a couple?’ Well, because you constantly act like one, I suppose.

Moffat introduces a new competitor for Rose’s affections, and this one’s a contender: tall, dark and handsome, plus he’s got his own spaceship. Captain Jack (John Barrowman) will become very familiar to us in future years and his omnisexual appetite will become one of his defining characteristics. But here he’s the Doctor’s rival and Rose feels an immediate attraction to him. It’s clear the Doctor’s going to have to lift his game.

There can only be one winner. But Jack eventually retreats to his spaceship, shamefully realising his responsibility in bringing the Chula nanogenes to Earth. The Doctor solves the problem at hand, by a combination of luck and smarts, and brings everyone back to life. There’s no contest between these two, in the end. ‘I’m on fire!’ he roars in triumph as the story comes to close.

So of course he gets the girl. And they end up dancing joyously around the console room in celebration. For the first time, we see dancing presented as a metaphor for sex, so it’s hard to see that hop as anything but a hugely enjoyable post-match shag. It’s even in the title: The Doctor Dances.  Well, perhaps it would have been a step too far to call it The Doctor Loses his Cherry.

Hey, maybe there’s another potential boxset here: the (ahem) Dancing Stories. It would go The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace… and um, does the Drunk Giraffe count?

LINK TO Planet of the Dead. Both have Captains.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: a howler when during the performance of ‘It had to be you’ when the lyrics ‘with all your faults, I love you still’ becomes ‘when I uphold silence still’. Um, what?

NEXT TIME: It’s time to step out on the balcony and wave a tentacle at Terror of the Zygons.

Television, resurrection and Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways (2005)

badwolf

Does any story start and end in such wildly different places as this odd combo we call Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways?

It starts when the Doctor (angsty Christopher Eccleston), Rose (punky fish Billie Piper) and Jack (flashy John Barrowman) find themselves trapped within three different television shows. The Doctor is in fly on the wall voyeur-fest Big Brother. Rose is on quiz show The Weakest Link and Jack on fashion advice whatsit What Not to Wear. They have obviously landed in the reality/lifestyle/game shows department (they were lucky to avoid Celebrity Wrestling). What a pity they didn’t land in the drama department though; we might have seen them in Spooks, or EastEnders. Or maybe even Doctor Who. Now that would be meta.

(If they had, perhaps one of them could have landed in 1966’s The Celestial Toymaker, where Doctor Hartnell and co found themselves competing in a range of deadly games.  Or perhaps in 1985’s Vengeance on Varos where a docile populace is kept oppressed through a steady diet of torture videos. Or maybe in 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks where a human is wired into the Daleks’ mainframe to provide the imagination and innovation the Daleks have bred out of themselves. Even in the first year of its relaunch, Doctor Who was happy to mine the best of ideas from its past.)

The episode suggests that these shows, transmitted ad nauseum, survive until the year 200100, but with hindsight that’s obviously wishful thinking. Even watching it in 2016 is like watching a historical re-enactment. Big Brother may be struggling on in some jurisdictions but is no longer the cultural phenomenon it was. The Weakest Link is long since broken and What Not to Wear has been consigned to the great charity bin in the sky.

So what felt like up to the minute social commentary in 2005, feels passé now. But such is the risk of referencing any contemporary cultural products in any piece of media, and it’s happened ever since Susan Foreman grooved out to Johnny Smith and the Common Men so many moons ago.

But what might get forgotten watching Bad Wolf now, is the common thread through those TV shows our heroes are catapulted into. It’s not just that they were so called ‘reality TV’. It’s also that they were unrelentingly cruel and humiliating.

The acid hosts of What Not to Wear regularly reduced their guests to tears with their brutal commentary. The Weakest Link’s host harangued and insulted the show’s contestants, augmenting a format which required contestants to vote each other off. And Big Brother’s cameras never shied away from a contestant reduced to tears, and zoomed in mercilessly on any faux pas. In each case, it wasn’t such a leap to imagine new versions of these programs where people were executed, not simply evicted.

Bad Wolf comes to us pre-spoiled these days, but in 2005, had you remained spoiler-free, you may not have known that the Daleks were going to turn up (although I suspect that most shrewd fans had guessed that they would show up for the season finale). The surreal placement of our three heroes in twisted versions of popular TV shows helped maintain the uncertainty about who the masterminds were behind this plan.  We may not have been surprised if an ethereal Toymaker or a power crazed slug or some similarly bizarre adversary had dreamed up this nutty scheme. But it doesn’t seem like the Daleks’ style at all. That’s nice misdirection from writer Russell T Davies; giving us a plot too surreal for the Daleks and them placing them right in the middle of it.

But actually, surrealism and the Daleks are not necessarily the strangers we might think. As early as 1965 we saw them as exhibits in a space museum, sight seeing on the Empire State Building and sharing the screen with Frankenstein’s monster. The Evil of the Daleks has some of them turned into playful children, and Revelation of the Daleks has them running a funeral parlour. Victory of the Daleks has them serving tea and last year’s The Witch’s Familiar has them consumed by their own excrement. And next random is Daleks in Manhattan which mixes a plot to turn themselves into human hybrids with depression era musicals. So in fact, there’s something about their unstinting metal villainy that makes us want to juxtapose them with the unexpected, in a way which doesn’t happen to say, the Cybermen.

Even so, the madness of Bad Wolf readily gives way to the more traditional action adventure of The Parting of the Ways. We’ve had nine seasons of finales now, so we’ve come to expect a big finish at the end of any given run of episodes. But each one has got successively more complicated, often requiring a detailed understanding of what’s happened in the previous 12 episodes. The Parting of the Ways feels much simpler. There’s a shedload of angry Daleks on the way. The Doctor’s got to stop them with not enough time or resources. As simple and as brilliant as that.

It’s also very grim. Everyone dies, as if in repudiation of the Doctor’s happy exclamation at the end of The Doctor Dances. All the humans, all the Daleks. The cruellest (though most stylish) death is that handed out to would-be companion Lynda with a Y (Jo Joyner), exterminated from a window outside a spaceship by a Dalek, whose headlamps illuminate its famous catchcry in the silent vacuum of space. The most brutal and perfunctory though is all those people in Australasia, whose fate is potently demonstrated through a simple pixelated outline, melted like ice-cream in the sun.

Only our three heroes survive, and they all have to die first and be resurrected, in various fashions. Jack’s revivification will be enough to fuel four seasons of Torchwood. Rose turns into a superbeing with the power to save the day; this will become a recurring theme in RTD’s Who, with the same thing happening to the Doctor and then Donna in subsequent season finales. The Doctor, of course, regenerates, the final iconic element of the old series to be introduced in the new.

What will happen to the Earth, now free of its malevolent broadcast empire, but dealing with melted continents? What happens to everyone still trapped in the games? Doesn’t matter, we’ve moved on. A flash and a bang, and David Tennant’s smile gives us an early but unmistakable signal that we’re in for a very different Doctor to Eccleston’s tortured loner. This story started by presenting reimagined versions of famous TV shows, and it ends as a reimagined version of itself, a famous TV show.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: There is an inventive stab at Raxacoricofallapatorius.

LINK TO The Monster of Peladon: Like the apparitions of Aggedor, the games of Satellite 5 are not what they seem.

NEXT TIME: You put the devil in me. We’re off to old New York for Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks.

Eccleston, explanations and The End of the World (2005)

endworld1

There’s something about rewatching Christopher Eccleston’s episodes of Doctor Who which takes me right back to 2005. No other series of the show has so potent a transporting effect. I think, as I’ve alluded to before, watching the show be so successfully revived in 2005 was a unique thrill. It was a great time to be a fan. It was a time for rejoicing.

But just before the broadcast of the second new series episode, The End of the World, we got our first sense of there being trouble in paradise. The BBC announced that Eccleston would be leaving the series after its first year. Then it was revealed that the BBC’s statement was falsely attributed to Eccleston, and that they had broken an agreement to stay quiet on the length of his tenure. All in all, it seemed that this happy show had an unhappy leading man.

Ever since then, and to this day, there has been speculation about why Eccleston left. He doesn’t say much about it, but when promoting the many other projects he’s tackled post-Who, he inevitably gets asked about it. What he does say is short, guarded but tantalizing. He didn’t see eye to eye with the production team. He didn’t like the culture of the show. He didn’t like the way cast and crew were treated. And most recently he gave the clearest indication yet of the internal conflict which lead to his departure. In an interview on BBC Radio 4 with Emma Freud he said:

“Myself and three individuals at the very top of the pyramid clashed, so off I went. But they are are not here to say their side of it, so I’m not going to go into details.”

Whatever the circumstances, it’s easy to sympathise with Eccleston. Many of us have had difficult, unpleasant or simply bad jobs which we’ve left which various degrees of acrimony. Few of us will be asked time and time again about the circumstances of those jobs years after we’ve left them. Even fewer of us will have to do so in public fora. And Eccleston probably wants to talk about his more recent work and leave the past behind. Sadly, public interest in Doctor Who just isn’t going to let him.

Doctor Who fans are used to reticence from some of those who worked to the show to discuss it publicly. Tom Baker, Janet Fielding, Paul McGann and Peter Purves were among those who had long periods where they wouldn’t talk about the show. Script editors Andrew Cartmel and Eric Saward stayed similarly quiet for a long time. Eventually, they relented and opened up about their time on the show, often addressing the difficult circumstances which prevented them from talking freely about it before.

And for long term fans, Eccleston’s silence may feel like one of these temporary hiatuses, which will hopefully end one day and he’ll embrace discussing the show. It may not, but it seems to me like he’s going to be dogged by questions about his departure at every launch and talk and press conference until he opens up more fully. Seeking out an interviewer with a sober, balanced approach – probably from Doctor Who Magazine, I suspect – and telling his story in a controlled manner, may well be the only way to stem the tide.

Also on BBC 4, he said:

“I think I over pitched the comedy. If I had my time again I would do the comedy very differently. But I think, where I possibly succeeded was in the tortured stuff.”

I agree with him about “the tortured stuff”. He’s famous for it, he could be tortured for England. Of course he’s going to do that well. But I think the lighter side of his Doctor is also on display and Eccleston manages these nicely. In The End of the World, there’s the moment where he gives the various alien thrillseekers gathered to watch Earth’s fiery demise the gift of air from his lungs. There’s also when he grooves out to Soft Cell and when he warns Rose about the size of her phone bill. I’d say when he gets a comic moment to play, he plays it adeptly.

And throughout this first year, he’ll find various opportunities to crack that goofy grin and go for the laugh. Personally I’ve always liked the ‘passing the port’ routine in World War Three. And he’s funny chasing down Margaret Slitheen in Boom Town. And, as might be expected in a Steven Moffat script, he gets plenty of smart one liners in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. If he’s not as fed as many of these funny moments, it could be that the Doctor’s angst is one of this season’s key themes. What would have happened, I wonder, if he’d stayed for another year? Might there have been more of a chance to build on his Doctor’s sense of humour?

For me though, it’s not the mix of comedy and gravitas which makes the ninth Doctor stand out. All the Doctors have those qualities to various extents. What marks Eccleston’s Doctor as unique is his variation from the Doctorly norm. Think of the Doctors who followed him, Tennant and Smith. Each are much more traditionally Doctorly: charming, witty, leisurely charismatic. Eccleston though is the very opposite of frock coated familiarity. His leather jacket, short cropped hair, Northern accented Doctor feels like something new and dangerous. He fits no standard Doctorly type. He talks and dresses like a human but his opinions and reactions are alien. He’s like no Doctor before or since.

It’s this uniqueness which leaves us wanting more than one season of this Doctor, not how he played the comedy or the drama. And it’s also why we’d love to know more about why Eccleston didn’t want to stay on our favourite show. Us fans, we’re like nervous hosts and Doctor Who is like a grand house party we’re throwing. We hate to think anyone’s not having a good time, let alone our a-list guests.

“Everything has its time and everything dies,” the Doctor says in this episode. This proves as true for this incarnation as for the stretched canvas which is Lady Cassandra (Zoe Wanamaker) or for the doomed Earth itself. One day perhaps, Eccleston might tell us why.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: The Adherents of the Repeated Meme and renamed “the Adherents of the Repeated Mean”. Which makes no sense of course when the Doctor says a repeated meme is just an idea. And the Moxx of Balhoon’s Bad Wolf scenario becomes a ‘bad move scenario’. Which, given this phrase’s importance in Series One, is unfortunate.

SACRIFICIAL BLAM! Or rather burn, when Jabe the Tree (Yasmin Bannerman) catches light.

LINK to Black Orchid. Both feature “Ladies”: Cranleigh and Cassandra.

NEXT TIME… Don’t turn your back, don’t look away and don’t Blink.

World leaders, world events and Aliens of London/World War Three (2005)

aliens of london

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.