ALIENS OF LONDON– 16th April
Written by Russell T. Davies
Review and Commetary by Andrew Panero
After their adventures in time and space the Doctor returns Rose to London in the present day. Those of us who remember the original series know that the Doctor would often try and return his companions to their own time, but more often then not he would get it wrong; it’s nice to see that RTD is staying with tradition for as the Doctor and Rose soon find out they haven’t been gone twelve hours but in fact have been gone for twelve months.
Where the new series departs from the old is in how the effects on those left behind are explored. Rose’s mum, Jackie, is beside herself with grief over her daughter’s disappearance and Mickey, has been a suspect in a murder investigation.
Whilst the Doctor and Rose have to explain themselves to the police, a boy from Rose’s estate scrawls ‘Bad Wolf’ on the side of the TARDIS. This act of vandalism has attracted a lot of attention in fan quarters; as well it might, as it is part of a developing theme in the series. I am grateful to the author of one blog who was obviously a lot more observant than myself, who had noted the previous occurrences of the ‘Bad wolf’ theme. In episode two the Moxx of Balhoon mentions it in passing whilst talking to the giant head (something I only picked up by going over the episode with a toothcomb) and in episode three Gwyneth, who is reading Rose’s mind, says ‘the darkness, the big bad wolf.’ I think this demonstrates two things, firstly it illustrates why RTD is considered one of the best writers in British television at the present time. Secondly it is a sign of how this generation of Doctor Who is obviously aimed at an audience who have access to video technology and discuss episodes on the Internet. This may seem like a trivial observation, but it is worth reflecting on, particularly when one considers how in the original sixties show it was assumed that the audience would watch it once and that would be that. Having a medium one can revisit makes television a bit more like reading a book; one can pick up subtleties that were missed the first time around.
Rose and her mum find themselves at odds with each other, as Rose cannot really explain to her where she has been. Whilst they are being interviewed by the police the Doctor explains that he had employed Rose as his companion. The Policeman pointedly asks whether this was a sexual relationship, which both the Doctor and Rose vehemently deny. Jackie is less convinced, pointing to the age gap between them both and accusing the Doctor of seeking Rose out on the internet- the implication being that he is some kind of pervert of course. She gives the Doctor a slap, which causes him to remonstrate to Rose later on that ‘in 900 years of time and space I’ve never been slapped by someone’s mother.”
It’s interesting to see that the Doctor hasn’t aged much since Colin Baker’s time; for Rose this is an ironic confirmation of what her mother was saying about the age gap between them. She feels very isolated from her friends and family, no one else as seen what she has seen, no one else knows of the existence of extraterrestrial life. Right on cue a large alien space ship comes whizzing past the tower block where the Doctor and she are standing and flies out across central London, clipping Big Ben before crashing into the Thames.
So after a brief interlude for domestic consequences we are back in the realm of fantasy, the Doctor and Rose rush to the scene, only to find the roads blocked and the centre of London in chaos. The Doctor is very reluctant to move his TARDIS at this stage, given the heightened state of security. Rose suggests they go and watch it on TV instead.
We therefore return to the domestic as the Doctor tries to make sense of the news reports whilst Rose and her family and friends crowd around in the flat. This being the BBC they cannot help but plug themselves, using actual BBC News 24 reporters to relay the fictional reports of spacecraft crashing into the Thames. This reminded me of a similar science fiction show made by the Fox network that only seemed to show Fox news reports on the impending disaster. As if one would stick to a single channel when something that big was happening, but hey, it’s only television!
Shameless self-publicity aside this is actually a very funny scene and serves to illustrate the gap between the Doctor and his human hosts. Jackie seems remarkably tolerant of her daughter’s enigmatic friend at this point; one would have thought she would have barred him from the house. The Doctor comments to Rose that ‘history’s just happened and they’re talking about buying dodgy top-up cards’. Exasperated the Doctor disappears off to the TARDIS, his movements being watched by Mickey.
Mickey didn’t do to well in the first episode and to be sure in this one he is still portrayed as something of a prat. However, he has been to hell and back since we last saw him, a target of unwarranted suspicion and victimised by others on the estate who believe he did away with Rose. Not only that but he has been looking for the TARDIS, for any sign of Rose, for the last year. He has plummeted the same depths of the Internet that she did in episode one to try and find out about the elusive Doctor. In one very pointed bit of dialogue he tells Rose that ‘if you look hard enough you’ll find him, followed by a list of the dead.’
The list of the dead is about to grow as the Doctor unravels the mystery of the crashed alien spacecraft. He does use the TARDIS in the end and travels to Albion Hospital where the body of the ‘alien’ has been taken. Arriving at the hospital he finds himself confronted by a room full of soldiers, luckily a scream distracts them and the Doctor is able to assume authority instantly (‘defence pattern delta-move!’). The so-called ‘dead’ alien had escaped and was running through the corridors. Those of you who can remember the Muppets on TV will know what to expect at this point. I won’t spoil the surprise, suffice it to say that the alien turns out to be a common terrestrial animal with cybernetic augments. The unfortunate animal is shot dead by a trigger-happy soldier, leaving the Doctor with an even bigger mystery- why would aliens fake an alien landing?
Meanwhile the Prime Minister has disappeared and because of the gridlock in London a junior minister (whose responsibilities include ‘sugar standards in exported confectionary’) called Joseph Green assumes responsibility. Green obviously doesn’t seem cut out for the job and what is more seems to have a bad case of flatulence. Aiding him are Margaret Blaine from MI5 and Oliver Charles of ‘transport liaison.’ The military in the shape of General Asquith are not impressed with Green’s apparent inaction and threaten to relieve him of command. Green chooses this point to reveal himself to be one of the Slitheen, the race of aliens behind the hoax. Asquith is killed and replaced by Charles, who is also an alien impostor.
These are all well worn themes in alien invasion stories and to a certain degree RTD does his best to send them up. The Slitheen use human skins with zips on the forehead, in their true form they look a bit like ET on steroids and have to squash themselves down to fit in their disguises. They have problems with their ‘gas relays’, which is why the disguised aliens are always farting. A number of fans have complained about what they see as a puerile sense of humour, and of course it is puerile. However, as the episode progresses it also becomes a signal that an alien is around, admittedly a very silly signal but one as to remember that the target audience are eight to twelve year olds. Fart jokes are also an integral part of British culture, like the Germans we have a national obsession with what comes out of the rear end.
I suspect what many of the fans are getting at here is the kind of cognitive dissonance that Russell T. Davies’ writing is creating in the mind of the viewer. With other sci-fi shows, such as certain parts of the Star Trek franchise and The X-Files we have (for the most part) a consistently po-faced approach; in others such as The Hitch-hikers Guide and Red Dwarf we have a consistently humorous approach. The new Doctor Who is going for a kind of middle ground in much the same way as Farscape and Buffy. This is a hard trick to pull off and as good a writer as RTD is I don’t know if he succeeds all the time. In this episode I’m afraid he doesn’t, rather than deflating tension the humour tends to annoy the viewer instead (in my opinion). It’s interesting that the most successful episode so far has been written by Mark Gatiss; those of you who are familiar with The League of Gentlemen will understand what I mean when I say he has a proven track record of writing excellent dark humour. But I digress.
Finally we come to the element of the show that has been missing from the series so far, the cliff-hanger ending. Here RTD goes a little over the top, instead of serving up one cliff-hanger we have three at once, with Rose, the Doctor and Jackie all being threatened by the Slitheen as they unzip themselves from their human-skins. For long term fans we also have the reappearance of UNIT, minus the Brigadier, as well as lots of continuity references to the Doctor’s previous appearances on Earth. (Lloyd George could apparently ‘drink him under the table’- didn’t the third Doctor like a drop of wine every so often?)
The Doctor unravels the aliens’ true intentions- to summon all the extraterrestrial experts into one place so that they could be killed off prior to invasion. The aliens reveal themselves and use the dastardly ploy of live-wired ID cards to electrocute everyone. Meanwhile Rose and Harriet Jones (‘MP for Flydale’) have discovered a dead prime-minister and are being menaced by the Slitheen in Margaret Blaine’s skin. To cap it all we have Jackie being threatened by a flatulent Police chief.
I have mixed feelings about this episode; it demonstrates some of the best and the worst of the new series. On the plus side there is the character development and the use of ‘grown-up’ emotional content that helps to ground the show in reality. On the negative side there is a tendency for over-egging the mixture in terms of humour and the triple cliff-hanger back-fires in many ways. Rather than raising the viewer’s anticipation, (will the Doctor/companion survive?) we are instead overloaded with three versions of the same threat.
I hope the Daleks get better treatment than this!