...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Day 3065: DOCTOR WHO: Aliens of London


Well, since MPs' reputations are currently nose-diving faster than a Space-Pig in a Slitheen Battle Cruiser, and what with more damage having been done to Parliament than Big Ben getting clipped by a crash-landing spaceship, when has there been a better time to get out the old DVD of that story where Dr Woo discovers that the Cabinet have been replaced by a bunch of RAPACIOUS alien MONSTERS disguised as greedy, giggly human beans?

Who says SATIRE is DEAD?

Now, before I let Daddy Richard start his review, I'm just going to have to check his forehead for zips…

The farting aliens are, of course, a distraction. The story is even cheeky enough to say out loud that their whole plot is a bluff.

The important part of this, in spite of or perhaps because of the Time Lord's protestations that he "doesn't do domestics", is all the stuff that happens between Rose and Jackie and the Doctor. It's a great big dose of "they meet a new man, they leave home, they never call" all wrapped up in the stonking Doctor Who idea of "it's not twelve hours; it's twelve months. You've been gone a whole year. Sorry."

The episode itself is visually striking, full of huge vibrant colours – particularly noticeable in the scene with the Doctor and Rose on the roof of the Powell Estate. The episode begins in broad daylight for the spectacular spaceship crash-dive and slowly darkens into night as the story darkens with it. The tones inside Downing Street being noticeably more shadowed than the ones in Rose's home.

And it's incredibly funny. Nobody but me knows about aliens, moans Rose… and a dirty great spaceship roars overhead, honking at her to get out of its way.

The "Pig in Space" is brilliant, and at the same time the whole fake alien mermaid is a really interesting idea, one of many tossed into the mix. I love the way that the whole scene, the blue-lit mortuary, the white-coated technician, the unearthly hammering from inside the locked cabinet, it's all so obviously spoofing the (sensational) TV Movie with Paul McGann. And is it also worth mentioning that, when we see an alien that looks just like an Earth animal – something this series is going to do a lot more from now on – this first time we see it, it's a piss-take by other aliens?”

Eccleston, in particular, can do funny. Mostly it's his, often-exaggerated, reaction shots as Rose's world consistently refuses to behave like a world in a Doctor Who adventure ought to. Landing the TARDIS in a cupboard is a classic gag; and his face when he steps out straight into a dozen armed guards tells the story perfectly. Meanwhile, his childish spat with Mickey makes his seem very human. And then, just as he promises to go undercover, he's nabbed by the biggest army Doctor Who has ever seen. At least he gets to say "take me to your leader!"

But it's the impact of the Doctor's world colliding with real people's lives that is clearly at the heart of the Doctor Who that Russell Davies had been thinking of for sixteen years or more. It's clearly, and rightly, bugged him that the classic series would dodge the question of "what happens to those left behind?", or at best gloss over it with an "aww, she/he is a orphan" as though that meant there would be no aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins-who-visit-all-the-time or people-who-care-of-any-variety to miss the departed companions.

This idea of "being left behind" gets rolled around a number of permutations too.

Notice how even incidental character Dr Sato (before Torchwood retconning) finds herself talking to an empty room, not once but twice as first General Asquith strides off without answering her question about the Prime Minister, and then the Doctor disappear in the middle of her question about aliens faking aliens.

Seeing the Doctor in front of the telly trying to follow events is hilarious, but it's also his version of being left out. Then Rose is struck by paranoia that the Doctor is going to go off and leave her, and in fact he does just that. And Mickey gets to see that happen, which resonates with his own being left behind in "Rose". (Incidentally, and despite his slapstick running slap-bang into a wall, "Aliens of London" sees a huge leap in Mickey’s gaining a character.)

This tangle of emotions is what leads to the crucial dramatic moment of the story: where Jackie betrays her daughter to the authorities. It is Mickey's aggrieved sense of betrayal, and fair enough Rose treated him badly and Jackie treated him appallingly – Jackie’s mob mentality against Mickey is massively underplayed, and done for laughs, which is one of the moments when the tone feels wrong – that leaves him rather nastily telling Rose that the Doctor has abandoned her in turn, which leads Rose and of course Jackie outside to where the TARDIS re-materialises, which leads to her culture-shocked flight and to making that phone call.

(Sadly, nobody actually uses the word TARDIS in front of Jackie, so it's a shame that that is what triggers all the alarms, but ho hum.)

She'd probably say that she was thinking of Rose's safety, but really her actions are still being driven by that fear of being left behind again.

The irony, of course, is that the outcome of her call is that Rose and the Doctor get taken away (and Mickey runs away too, and that's another abandonment) and Jackie is left behind howling that "That’s my daughter!" – but she was the one who called up and sold them out. And there’ll be a much more sinister version of this in a couple of years at the end of Martha's story arc…

If there's a flaw here it's that the episode doesn't follow the emotional story and see the outcome for Jackie, but gets caught up in plot points, Rose and the Doctor being carried off to Downing Street and the more mundane business of alien invaders.

Well, I say mundane, but these aliens are rather magnificent. It's easy to dismiss the Slitheen as comic relief, but actually they're rather more unsettling than funny – they're unsettling because they find it funny, and the inappropriate giggling makes the serious more serious not less. And obviously they are written as psychotic five-year olds, which – like the burping bin in "Rose" – might be a possible take on the expected age of the audience, but being child-like doesn't necessarily make them childish.

Stand-in Prime Minister Joseph Green (David Verrey) is an absolute hoot. There's a sly nod to the media not seeing what's right under their noses when the BBC's Andy Marr dismisses Mr Green as merely chairman of the committee for sugar standards in confectionary exports. That's just his cover story; he's basically Secretary of State for Extraterrestrial Affairs, and under the circumstances, when the emergency protocols are activated, that's why that he ranks as deputy PM. He's not a nonentity.

Hugely enjoyable to watch as he revels in the carnage, he's able to turn sinister at the drop of a fart. "Would you prefer silent but deadly?" is a splendidly nasty riposte to the Doctor's put-down, and a challenge to the po-faced in the audience at the same time.

Rupert Vansittart clearly has a whale of a time too, playing first pompous General Asquith and then the much earthier Slitheen inside his now-vacated skin. Annette Badland gets to play Little Miss Psychopath, sweet and sinister in sugary spoonfuls, but we don't get to see enough of her – let's hope she's back later in the season, eh.

On the side of the angels, along with the regular cast, is Penelope Wilton as not-yet Prime Minister Harriet Jones. Actually, given her future re-involvement she probably qualifies as regular cast too.

She's marvellous, though a lot of the reason we love her character has to be down to the portrayal. Ever so slightly, Russell's writing lets him down here. Harriet's reason for hanging around in Downing Street is that she has thought of a way in which Cottage Hospitals need not be excluded from Centres of Excellence. Riiiight. So she's saying: "I have an idea how to modify some bureaucracy so that this category of hospital isn’t excluded from another set of bureaucracy". And her solution is to put it on the agenda for the next meeting. Whenever that might be.

There's something a bit wrong when you find yourself sympathetic to the villain as he shouts in her face: "By All the Saints, woman, get some perspective! I'm busy!" She sounds like she's got her own little hobbyhorse and won't be distracted by genuinely important events around her. In fact, she sounds not a little demented.

If the aim is to make an equivalence with Jackie and Rose's story – all these wonderful things happen, this brave or frightening new world, but people still have to be worried about their domestic lives and their nearest and dearest – it falls flat because we never see Harriet's old mum so we never have that human connection. If we're meant to sympathise with Harriet because of the beastly way the Slitheen treat her, it fails because they're right, this is more important and Harriet herself sounds as though she is completely blind to other people's needs and concerns especially in a time of crisis.

Worrying about a hospital for her mum is fine and humanising, but this is huge, and life-changing, and the threat to her mum's hospital is rubbish.

A simple redraft that, for example, said the cottage hospital in her constituency is about to be bulldozed, giving her an urgent reason for bothering the Prime Minister, would have hugely improved our sympathy for her. Instead we have her say, in a clear reference to the Iraq War, "well, I never voted for that" which is just crass.

And then she potters off and starts to read highly confidential Cabinet briefing papers! While still sat in the Cabinet room. Which makes her both nosey and stupid.

(In fact, compare Harriet to the journalist Penny from season four's opening "Partners in Crime" who has many of the same characteristics but is treated as foolish and slightly wicked.)

The Prime Minister – found dead in a cupboard, by the way – was clearly supposed to be Tony Blair, even if the hired looky-likey didn't look much like. Harriet refers to "the Babes" (she isn't one), and the portraits on the Downing Street stair (of every former Prime Minister) stop at Mr Major. 2005 was an election year (remember the RadioTimes award-winning "Vote Dalek" cover?) but because of the Doctor's temporal mishap, Rose has missed a year and, in this context more importantly, the election. So it wasn't impossible that the PM could have changed. Mind you, politics in the Whoniverse will only get weirder from here on in.

The other dialogue disaster is Rose's "you're so gay" response to the Doctor whinging about being slapped.

Russell has defended this by saying: it's how real people talk. Hmmm, realistic dialogue in a story that next week is going to expect us to cope with the word Raxacoricofallapatorius. Real people use the n-word as well, but if Rose referred to Mickey by that term the show would be off air faster than you can say "differential standards".

He then goes on to claim that having a person we know to be "good" use a term that is "bad" is to challenge the audience to think. Or, since no one on screen challenges this thinking, quite possibly it reinforces the use of "gay" as equivalent to "bad" by kids who justify themselves by comparison to hero Rose, and thus you help the entrenchment of homophobic bullying in schools.

The same scene gives us our first throwaway continuity error. Or maybe not.

In "Time and the Rani", the Doctor claims that his age is the same as the Rani's and that it is nine hundred and fifty-three. (And if you read the books, he allegedly passes one thousand during "Set Piece", and lives at least one hundred and probably two hundred years in his ninth incarnation.)

But in "Aliens of London", the Doctor says he is nine hundred years old. Or rather, he refers to nine hundred years of phone box travel, and Rose then asks if that's his age, which he confirms. Only, of course, he was already a few hundred years old when he first stole the TARDIS, so it doesn't have to be an error (yet); the Doctor is actually twelve hundred and something, but "rounds down" when Rose gives him the opportunity.

What's that you say? The man in a leather jacket lying about his age to impress a girl; mid-life crisis, what mid-life crisis?

(Mind you, a recent Big Finish has the McGann Doctor sojourning for six hundred years sans TARDIS on the planet Orbis. Which, frankly, is taking the Ricky.)

But these are niggles. They're minor quibbles that arise mostly because of the sheer volume of invention that has been thrown at the screen. There may be flaws but they're born out of enthusiasm and out of trying new things out, not from laziness or repetition. Later Doctor Who episodes will come to scrape on through with poor stories and reliance on the star's charisma; "Aliens of London" is really trying to present you with something totally new.

This looks different to anything else you might see on the telly and that is its job done. The bright colours catch your attention, the rocketing plot carries you along, and the story draws you in.

Then there's the cliff-hanger. Ah, the cliff-hanger. Even though Mark Gatiss has shown them how to use the pre-credit sequence to generate a mini-cliff-hanger, and arguably "Rose" finishes on a "the story continues…" type freeze-frame, this is the 2005 series' first attempt at doing a proper one. So you can't entirely blame them for going berserk and doing three cliff-hangers at once.

Three identical cliff-hangers at once, in fact, as a Slitheen reveals itself in flickering light effects to the cowering horror of one of our Downing Street-trapped regulars, followed by another doing the same and then, in a surprise twist, a third one doing likewise in the Tyler residence.

In one sense the triple cliff-hanger is saying "they're everywhere!", which is scary (if slightly exaggerated) Bodysnatchers territory. In another, though, it's saying "ah, you can't guess how the Doctor will get out of that because all his allies are in the same trouble."

But the producers are still very much learning here, as further evidenced by the "Next Time" trailer coming before the end credits and thus instantly blowing any sense of suspense. Will they survive? Ah, they have! But given time – and a strongly worded request from the Grand Moff – the BBC Wales people are going to work this out. At the time it seemed like overkill, but with the benefit of hindsight I find myself more indulgent of the over-enthusiasm.

Moreover, it is a genuinely biting piece of political satire as, in the hands of an untrustworthy Government, the "innocent seeming" I.D. cards turn out to have a sinister other purpose.

"Thank you all for wearing your ID cards! They’ll help to identify the bodies!"

This was the first Doctor Who line, credited it as such, that Alex used a in a speech to Federal Conference. It was Autumn 2005, in an ID cards debate. Hurrah for this!

Next Time…How can they possibly get out of that? Oh, all right… Rose and Harriet face the new series' first Scooby-Doo chase. Does it matter if the CGI doesn't match the prosthetics? Could anyone get away with that Massive Weapons of Destruction gag? Has Russell written himself into a box? And is it deliberately? The Doctor is trapped inside… Downing Street hang on, someone's changed the episode title!


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