...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Day 3345: DOCTOR WHO: Boom Town


Daddy! Daddy! Daddy… stop watching the trailer for the 2010 series and see if you can't finish reviewing the 2005 one!

Oh, all right. Once more…

…satisfied? Right.

This is an odd little story, much derided at the time though for no obvious reason, because it's brilliant.

The title is (nearly) a triple pun, playing on both the Gold Rush boom town that Mayor Margaret promises and the "boom" that will inevitably destroy the "town" at the conclusion of her scheme, while also slyly referencing the Butetown district of Cardiff where, by an extraordinary coincidence, the episode is filmed.

And this is an episode of connections. It's the episode that actually ties this first series together. The rift in Cardiff is only there as a consequence of what happened with the Gelth in "The Unquiet Dead"Margaret Slitheen is the first returning villain for the whole new series – though in a way that foreshadows what is about to happen; her return says that people you thought you'd defeated can come back to haunt you.

And there's the "Blaidd Drwg" or "Bad Wolf" project: the great big connection that the Doctor very nearly spots but then talks himself out of!

But it's not just that. We also see the first actor to have played a role in both old and new Doctor Who: William Thomas here playing the unlucky Mr Cleaver in the pre-title sequence was previously the undertaker's assistant in "Remembrance of the Daleks". We have the first reference to the "supplementary material" or spin-off novels as Rose mentions their visit to the planet Justicia from "The Monsters Inside". We have the first reference to the Hartnell era of Doctor Who, the venom grubs – from the novelisation, no less, of "The Web Planet". The "soul" of the TARDIS living under the console: that goes back to "The Edge of Destuction" for goodness' sake, but it's got the sparkly pixie-dust of "Time Waits for No Man" (and it's not a coincidence – the TV movie needed you to "look into the heart of the TARDIS" for it to affect your soul or give someone a whole new life too).

This is Russell's manifesto piece: all Doctor Who is one: nothing is left out; not the Dalek movies; not the books and audios; not the sky-ray lollies and Weetabix packs. You half expect a Pescaton to surface from Cardiff bay!

And Margaret's surf-board is described as a "tribophysical waveform macro-kinetic extrapolator" scoring double points for taking in both "Pyramids of Mars" and New Adventure "Damaged Goods". (Points probably deducted, though, for the author of "Damaged Goods" being a Mr Russell Davies!)

Of course, there's also the "connection that isn't". Namely Torchwood, and just where the hell are they? It's not like the Hub isn't supposed to have been down there yet, as we will see episodes of "Torchwood" in our future but set in the relative past.

Of course, it's been suggested that Torchwood "doesn't exist yet": that is Torchwood isn't part of history until the Doctor's next incarnation gets all cocky with Queen Victoria in "Tooth and Claw". It's a lovely theory, and would help so much with so much of the series (lack of) continuity if you could put things like that down to "ah, but he changed something which is why it wasn't always there before". Unfortunately, Russell out-clevers himself by having Torchwood save the day/commit genocide (delete as per your moral preference) at the end of "The Christmas Invasion". So they definitely do exist "before" the Doctor causes them to be created.

A slightly more esoteric, even metaphysical suggestion is to do with the Doctor's regeneration. I should take the time to write up the whole "cog theory" of Doctor Who continuity because it was a brilliant suggestion – not mine, I hasten to add – but the quickreads version is that when the Doctor regenerates it rewrites the history of the whole universe. In other words history tends not to contradict itself within the lifetime of the current Doctor, but anything before/after that (i.e. anything earlier than Terrance Dicks can remember or that he hasn't written yet) is up for reinterpretation / flat out contradiction.

Of course a Torchwood Institute exists in the Ninth Doctor's Universe – it's the answer to one of the Anne Droid's questions in next week's "Bad Wolf", and that's Russell setting up next year's linking theme, for you.

(Spot-the-difference trivia point: on broadcast, the "Next Time" trailer at the end of "Boom Town" included the rather enjoyable line: "Rose, you leave this life… with nothing". But evidently they finished editing "Bad Wolf" quite late and that didn't make the final cut. So for the "official" DVD it has been replaced with a transmitted-in-"Bad-Wolf" moment of Rose panicking that the Doctor must be coming to save her, which is less interesting and not exactly her finest moment. Sadly, both versions give away the presence of the Daleks.)

But, if you want to squint and wish for luck, you could point out that there's nothing to say that that Torchwood is the same Torchwood as the alien-scavenging maniacs who employ Captain Jack. i.e. There really isn't a Torchwood Hub under Roald Dahl Plass until the Doctor's regeneration tangles up the timelines and rewrites the history of a perfectly innocent Scottish institute for researching laughable old werewolf stories around the Doctor's companion Jack.

Or you can read Gary Russell's Torchwood novel "The Twilight Streets" which explains that Jack just kept everyone out of the way to avoid a Time Paradox.

Regardless of that, though, it's certainly true that the future "Torchwood" series will heavily connect to this story too, from the "invisible flagstone" where the TARDIS landed to the central conceit of the Cardiff Rift.

So what's not to love?

Perhaps it's the derisively named "soap opera" elements, though that is just the arrested development crowd not understanding that drama is about people. A lot of the episode is "talky" and people think that this means un-dramatic (confusing "dramatic" with "exciting" there, or worse with "pyrotechnic") as though words are somehow not as important as actions. Try telling that to a writer.

It is through words that great changes are wrought in this story. The words that Rose says to Mickey. The words that Margaret says to the Doctor. Ultimately the unheard words that the TARDIS says to Margaret.

(Yes, all right, the QI klaxons should have sounded right there and the words "Russell Davies' Deus ex Machina" should have started flashing on the screens, but at the time and in context it's actually rather wonderful – Margaret literally seeing the light before it unravels her timeline.)

The core of this story is about second chances. The great big science-fiction monster gets one, but Rose – who is offered a second chance with Mickey – fluffs it. She still doesn't really know which world she wants to be in, Mickey's or the Doctor's – she actually makes that choice in "The Parting of the Ways" but you probably miss in among all the CGI – and that causes her to give them both mixed signals. Notice how both the Doctor and Mickey see Rose leaving them for the other one in the course of the episode and both then go and do something stupid as a result.

Noel Clarke is a lot better this time out and has clearly been on an upward curve since saving the world in "World War Three". Mickey's still not quite right, but he's on the cusp between the comedy dork from "Rose" and the macho dick of "Journey's End" and "The End of Time", so at least that's a good thing. Billie is given the difficult job of being a particularly conflicted Rose this week, so when it seems like she's acting distracted it's possible that it's because she is acting.

Or perhaps it's the return of the unlovely Slitheen. Their first appearance in "Aliens of London" was not universally popular. The mix of giant men-in-suits puppets and glistening CGI didn't come off well and their childishness, while appealing to the majority of the target audience, affronted the dignity of a certain type of fan. Which just shows how much you can miss the point.

It's obvious that the suits were designed to be huge, an enormous physical presence to really show something monstrous up close and personal, in a way that the series has never achieved before. Unfortunately, they're just too unwieldy for even the super-talented performers of the Cardiff monster troupe. As a result they totter about a bit: not so much threatening as funny. And not in a good way. ("The Sarah Jane Adventures" have made good use of the Slitheen's comical appearance by making them act sinister and look funny; "Aliens of London" failed because it was going for the exact reverse effect.)

This time out, though, director Joe Ahearne dispenses with the CG almost altogether and keeps the animatronics to a minimum – one near-tableau in the pre-title sequence and one unexpectedly sympathetic moment in a toilet. By defeating our expectations of the monster-suit he manages to make it work for drama, and that's classy.

Mostly, though, he avoids the rubber altogether and instead employs the enormous charisma of Annette Badland. It's clear that she really gets what the Slitheen are about. She's evil, and she knows she's evil, and she's positively revelling in it at times. But she's also very, very clever and knows how to manipulate people and events to (very nearly) turn disaster into triumph. She has a really good "Plan B", one that actually relies on her having understood the Doctor well enough that she can keep him distracted thinking that she only thinks she understands him – all the business in the restaurant when he thinks he's smarter than she is is really a huge deception – when in fact she really really understands him – the real trap is the technology itself, though funnily enough that's exactly what the Doctor did to Davros in "Remembrance of the Dales" so he's got no excuses for falling for it himself.

One of Russell's strengths is that he writes really well for powerful, wicked women, and here he gives Annette a joy of a part that she can really get her teeth into, venomous finger-darts, poisonous breath and all, subtly swaggering from kinky to crushed, mixing all the nuances of a genuine villain, the little sadnesses and the snarling contempt.

(Though quite how she gets to be Mayor of Cardiff while insisting on no publicity is a mystery all it's own – clearly she's a Chief Executive rather than the Mayor, a backroom figure rather than the accountable elected politician… what's that you say, the BBC neither knowing nor caring how politics works? Next thing you know they'll be thinking that a panel of Daleks could represent Liberal-Democrat-voting Cardiff on "Question Time"…)

He also writes really well for the ninth Doctor here, with beautiful little moments ranging from "…and I was having such a nice day" to "she's climbing out of the window, isn't she" Ethical dilemmas and being forced to confront his own consequences are exactly what Eccelston's troubled, multi-layered performance is perfect for, as he allows Margaret's needling to peel away the layers of the Doctor's defences and reveal the brooding, unhappy man within. He can do funny. And whimsy and slapstick. And even screwball comedy (with hilarious teleport!). But it's informed by the pain underneath. This story is why you need an actor of Christopher Eccleston's calibre in the title role.

In the end he feels as redeemed as Blon fel Fotch when the TARDIS gives them both a second chance: she can start again and he doesn't have to collude in anybody's death. This reminder that there is a "find another option" option completes his journey back from the abyss at the end of the Time War. He is, at the end, genuinely ready to die now, and it's time to face the Daleks with his better answer.

Next Time… Bad wolf. Bad wolf bad wolf bad. Wolf bad wolf bad wolf bad wolf! "Blaidd Drwg" hahaha. Bad wolf bad wolf bad wolf: "Bad Wolf!"


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