...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Day 3072: DOCTOR WHO: World War Three


Big Ben is a hundred and fifty, and in all that time it has never been hit by a crash-landing alien spacecraft. Well, except once…
It is considered to be a universal truism of Sci-Fi two-parters that the second part is never as good as the first. And in this regard, "World War Three" does not disappoint: it isn't as good as "Aliens of London".

It doesn't have the frenetic fizzing energy of the first part; it doesn't have the super-abundance of ideas; it doesn't have – being mostly set during the night and inside Downing Street – the eye-catching vibrant colours. But that's not to say that it's actually bad.

It hangs between two particular standout moments: Jackie Tyler exploding a Slitheen (Sip Fel Fotch Pasameer-Day Slitheen, if you insist) with a jug of pickled eggs; and "oh bol…!"

Before we get to those, the episode opens with the resolution to last week's hyper-manic triple cliff-hanger. It's always a shame when the Doctor has to resort to pulling an unexpected super-power out of his hat, and that's just what he does here with a cry of "deadly to humans, maybe!" A moment's thought could have cured it too – if the iconoclastic Doctor had taken one look at his I.D. card in "Aliens of London" and just chucked it away, or better still snapped it in half, that would have been a funny moment that suddenly took on greater significance. The Doctor's snapped I.D. fizzling out, allowing him to snatch up one of the others and stick it on the unmasked General Asquith.

On the other hand, it's quite nice that the Doctor actually resolves all three cliff-hangers simultaneously as Sip Fel Fotch (formerly Assistant Commissioner Strickland) and Blon Fel Fotch (formerly Margaret Blaine) get caught in the fizzing energy too. And there's a nice mirroring between Rose dragging mother-figure Harriet out of the Cabinet Room and Mickey dragging Jackie out of her kitchen.

We get the new series' first (though tragically not last) "Scooby Doo" chase: seen from side-on, our heroes run across a room to be followed moments later by this week's monsters. A couple of minutes later they chase back the other way. Oh the hilarity.

The CG Slitheen beasties look good… in fact they look rather too good, because, not only do they not match the rather-tottering animatronic costumes, but they are clearly moving so fast that they ought to catch Rose and the also-tottering Harriet. It's a shame because in "Aliens of London" the suits had been most effective by generally keeping their use to a close-up of a slashing arm or a baby-faced head. Cutting between full-length CG and full-length latex just makes the former look like a cartoon and the latter look like a pantomime horse. Which is a great pity because so much obvious effort has gone into making the Slitheen look convincingly powerful and alien. It seems likely that the perceived "failure" of the much-mocked Slitheen has at least a small part in the step back to more conservative monster-design, cat-people, rhino-people and the rest, from season two in.

The heart of the story, though, is the Doctor trapped in a single room, but still able to save the World, because he's smart. Admittedly, it's also because he's got the cheat codes for the UNIT website and a "Time Lord magic" chip in Rose's telephone. So this does feel a little like that episode of "Poirot" where he bets Inspector Japp that he can solve a case without ever leaving his apartment… so long as he can send Hastings out to ask questions and look for evidence. It's not quite living up to the spirit of the idea. On the other hand, do we really want to see the Doctor going all A-Team on the contents of the Cabinet Room? His bluff with the port – threatening to "triplicate its flammability" with the sonic – is charming precisely because it is a bluff. And charming too when Jocassa Slitheen (formerly acting Prime Minister Joe Green) sees through it.

Have you noticed, incidentally, a slight parallel between the Slitheens' Slitheen names and the human identities of their borrowed skins?

Jocassa Fel Fotch is Joe Green; Blon Fel Fotch is Margaret Blaine; at a pinch Sip fell Fotch is Strickland… though his is played by a man called Spiers.

Anyway, from within his box, the Doctor puts the pieces together based on the clues that the Slitheen have let slip to work out who and what they are and what they're up to, particularly in the glorious "narrows it down" scene where the gas from their farts (if you'll pardon the word), their familial names and so on add up to Raxacoricofallapatorius.

Actually, he doesn't need to figure out the planet name, because it's that they are calcium-based lifeforms and that their calcium bodies will have been weakened by the compression they use to fit inside their human skinsuits that is what enables Jackie and Mickey to save themselves in the first of my "glorious moments". However, it is a gloriously silly name for a planet, and very Doctor Who in the Douglas Adams tradition.

Meanwhile, if the visual effect doesn't quite work, the gunging of Mickey and Jackie and their expressions really sell the scene Poor old JNT, he must be sobbing over "The Mysterious Planet"… from beyond the grave. Ahem.

The second half of the episode is then a rinse-and-repeat job, as he puts more clues together and works out the big scheme, impressively spelling it out in his sparkling, snarling confrontation with Margaret Slitheen. It's actually the sheer tawdriness of the Slitheens' scheme that brings it home how evil it is.

Not that the satire is particularly subtle. Even if we hadn't mentioned the Massive Weapons of Destruction and the lying to the UN ("worked last time"/"I for one did not vote for that"), the destruction of a beautiful planet just for fuel is rammed home to make the point. To be fair, this is very old-school Doctor Who.

There's certainly a sense of heritage in this episode. The anti-war, anti-capitalism message could sit quite easily in any Barry Letts story from "Day of the Daleks" to "The Green Death"; while the raw fuel of the plot, nuking a planet until it glows and using the bits to power starships, comes from the second Doctor's era and the story of "The Dominators"; and the idea that the nuclear launch codes might be handed over to the United Nations for safe-keeping goes back to Tom Baker's opener "Robot".

"World War Three" suffers much the same problem as "Robot" too: a plot in search of a McGuffin. The mystery elements are all very engaging – whether it's fascist scientists constructing an unstoppable but emotionally immature giant robot or calcium-based capitalist aliens using a flying pig to terrify the whole world – but both "solutions" rely on the Government having done something almost as unbelievable as the baddies' plot. And since the "Robot" fiasco you would have thought that people would have learned their lesson by now.

If in doubt, bung in the apocalypse.

Admittedly, you can also use it as a gauge of how the zeitgeist has changed. In the Seventies, we all feared that nuclear war was inevitable because of the narrow-mindedness of bureaucrats; in the Eighties we all knew that nuclear war was inevitable because some vast computer somewhere was playing a game or would blow a fuse; in the Twenty-first century, we're now all certain that a nuclear war will be because someone thinks they can profit from it.

The Doctor's solution then, blow up Downing Street with himself inside it. Is this "Doctorish"? Well you could see it as a more extreme form of "hand over the keys before I shoot myself", but it also seems to add to the idea that this Doctor may have a bit of a death wish. The revelation in "The End of the World" that he is now the last of the Time Lords, supported by Chris Eccleston's superb acting are giving us more of a picture of this man with the wacky personality as a cover for a deep personal trauma. Now, he may just have found the person to help him start to heal, but he knows the dangers that go with his life.

In this regard, Jackie and Harriet both speak with the voice of the Doctor's conscience. Jackie's argument that the Doctor should promise to keep Rose safe is fundamentally wrong – if the Doctor fails to act, the Rose is just as dead – but it gains weight because it's the voice of what the Doctor wants to do; Harriet, on the other hand, speaks to what he must do.

Harriet taking charge and, on behalf of the people she represents, ordering the Doctor to take any action necessary to save the World is a defining moment for her too, and interestingly it also darkly foreshadows her own later decisions to use "any means necessary" to secure Earth's safety when it comes to instructing Torchwood to go Death Star on the Sycorax, employing alien technology, under human orders; the Doctor is alien, so he's hers. But that's another story.

Does the Doctor actually remember Harriet as Prime Minister before his intervention stops the Slitheen destroying the World? It's quite possible that he's just being absent-minded… but the way it plays on screen it's almost as though he can't remember who she will be until he's put her on a timeline that will see her rise. This is perhaps subtly playing with his remarks in "The Unquiet Dead" that history can be changed like a snap of the fingers. Has he just re-created history with Harriet now being a significant figure? Here, the Doctor predicts she'll have three terms as Prime Minister, but it seems that he'll topple her after only one election. So does time get changed again?

The conclusion – as the words "Bad Wolf" are scrubbed from the TARDIS – redefines the Doctor's relationship with Mickey while underlining the connection both Mickey and Jackie have with Rose. Once again, Jackie tries to persuade Rose not to leave in the TARDIS, and Rose promises that she'll be back in ten seconds. Of course she isn't. So Jackie shakes her head and walks away… but Mickey settles back down to wait.

The two-part "Aliens of London" (or "Aliens of London"/"World War Three") is the conclusion of the opening movement of Russell's Doctor Who. We've seen the collision of the Doctor's World with ours; we've seen past, present and future, and now we've sorted out the Doctor's place in Rose's world. They're ready for the real adventure to begin. If "Rose" to "World War Three" are a five part adventure called "Doctor Who and an Earthly Child", then next time we begin the eight-part adventure "Doctor Who and the, er, Metaltrons".

Next time… Exterminate… Exterminate… Exterminate. Exterminate! EXTERMINATE!


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