Tag Archives: slitheen

Dates, fates and Boom Town (2005)

boomtown

In much the same way that 21st century Doctor Who used to have celebrity historicals, it also used to have “bottle shows”. As Russell T Davies explained in The Shooting Scripts, the bottle show is the cheap episode in a season. One of the side effects of having fewer episodes per season is that the budget seems better spread across each episode. If there’s a bottle show in series 9 and 10, it’s not immediately apparent.

Certainly not in the way that it’s apparent in Boom Town, the eleventh episode of the first series of Doctor Who’s modern run. Watching it again for the first time in yonks, I was struck by just how low-budget it looks. Davies claims that he wanted to show off Cardiff in this episode, in order to thank the city and its people for hosting the show, but sticking close to home is also the cheapest way to shoot something. Not for Boom Town exotic alien spaceships, CGI monsters or the London blitz brought to life. It’s a drama played out in council offices, restaurants and public squares.

On paper, it doesn’t sound like a setting guaranteed to captivate an audience. But Davies spots the opportunity to use those mundane backdrops in a story of interpersonal drama. The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston, pitch perfect) and Blon Fel Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen, AKA Margaret (Annette Badlands, equally pitch perfect) spend the episode sparring verbally, as the Doctor prepares to pack her off for execution by her own kind. And as Davies has said, with two actors of this calibre, that’s all you need.

To save Cardiff from a catastrophic nuclear explosion, the Doctor must return Margaret to her home planet, where she faces fatal retribution. To save herself, Margaret must convince the Doctor to spare her.

In its understated way, Boom Town positions the Doctor in a stark new light; for once, he has a prisoner, who is begging him for her life. And despite the fact that Margaret is sly and treacherous throughout –  it turns out, she has engineered the whole sitation – her appeals are enough to give the Doctor (and the audience) pause for thought. This episode remains the one which most keenly questions the Doctor’s levels of mercy.

The crucial moment in the episode is when Margaret pleads that she’s capable of compassion, arguing that only that afternoon, she refrained from killing a pregnant woman. The Doctor’s response is shrewd but reveals more about him that he intended.

DOCTOR: You let one of them go, but that’s nothing new. Every now and then, a little victim’s spared because she smiled, because he’s got freckles, because they begged. And that’s how you live with yourself. That’s how you slaughter millions. Because once in a while, on a whim, if the wind’s in the right direction, you happen to be kind.

MARGARET: Only a killer would know that.

The point Margaret makes is telling because she’s not relying on the mercy of a pure heart. The mercy of a killer is surely harder to secure than that of a simpler hero. Earlier in this same season, we saw the Doctor coldly watch as Cassandra was ripped apart, making no effort to save her, passing judgement on her for her crimes. So we know he’s prepared to draw a distinction between good and bad, and he won’t shy away from capital punishment, as long as he’s given the villain a chance to give up the game. For a person who is such a defender of life, he’s prepared to take other lives in that defence.

That’s an inherent contradiction in the Doctor that long term viewers are familiar with. The question that Boom Town poses is, will the Doctor relent and show Margaret the mercy he didn’t show Cassandra?

*****

While all this is going on, Rose (Billie Piper) is also on an awkward date. She’s summoned Mickey (Noel Clarke) to Cardiff to bring her passport, but it’s a ruse; she just wants to see him again. So they head off into the night to paint the town Welsh red. Not that I’ve ever been to Cardiff, so I shouldn’t really slag it off, but I notice this doesn’t take long and so they end up aimlessly wandering the streets, presumably looking for an open kebab van.

During all the time they spend eluding Cardiff’s nightlife, they recap on the state of their relationship. Initially, it looks like they might sneak away for a dirty overnighter, which would have been an unexpected innovation for the new series (they should watch out, though. We know what happens Doctor Who characters who sneak off for a quick shag.) But then it transpires that Mickey has hooked up with another girl next door and Rose isn’t at all pleased.

There’s a surprising amount of screen time devoted to these scenes; much more than would be given over to similar domestic drama these days. I mean, Amy Pond lost her baby in fewer scenes than this. But we never get to a resolution because soon enough the city is being torn asunder and Rose is racing back to the Doctor’s side. Mickey presumably has to go find a hotel on his own, which will be much less fun.

On the face of it, there’s not much linking the Rose/Mickey story and the Doctor/Margaret story. But if there is, perhaps it’s this: the whiff of sexism. It’s the women who are the instigators of trouble here. Rose and Margaret are the schemers, manipulating the men around them, hoping to have their cakes and eat them too. Neither of them get to do so, of course, but still, the impression is that the women are the ones playing the men.

We never get to find out if the Doctor would spare Margaret’s life. Without warning or explanation, a panel of the TARDIS console flips open and a white light turns her into an egg. She gets to live her life again, a second chance that Rose wants too; another admission that it’s the women of this piece who have sins to atone for.

But more to the point, the Doctor is spared facing the moral dilemma he’s been contemplating all episode. Like the much promised big explosion which never actually happens, so the question of how much mercy the Doctor has never gets answered. The boom fails to go off in Boom Town. Twice.

Still, worst off in this episode is Jack (John Barrowman), who spends most of it in the TARDIS fiddling with wires. If only he’d known his future Torchwood self was outside somewhere in Cardiff, standing precariously on buildings or wiping people’s memories, he could have found and hooked up with himself. Taken poor Mickey’s empty hotel room for a bit. You know he would have. Hopefully, he would have bought himself a drink first. If he could find somewhere open in Cardiff, of course.

LINK TO Smile: In both, the Doctor sits down for a meal.

NEXT TIME: I never will be able to find the words. But I’ll give it a shot anyway with World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls.

 

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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.