Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Aliens of London/World War Three written by Russell T Davies and directed by Keith Boak

This story in a nutshell: The Slitheen make their debut and want to turn the Earth into molten slag…

Northern Adventurer: This is was the story where I was finally convinced that Christopher Eccleston was the Doctor. He was superb in the first three stories but he felt like a new kind of Doctor; a rougher, ruder, unstoppable sort of Time Lord. There are so many moments in this two parter where Eccleston charms and I can see many shades of previous Doctors. I don't think anybody else could have pulled off the anger and quiet sadness at the death of the space pig and its disgusting treatment at the hands of the UNIT soldiers but that moment that absolutely sold him for me as a Doctor for the underdog. Equally compelling but in a very different way is the scenes where he squares up against the Slitheen and tries to bluff them for information brandishing a decanter. This is still the war torn, self destructive Doctor but it is clear that Rose is having a profound effect on him. She's humanizing him. He doesn’t do families and doesn’t want the TARDIS to become domestic (he probably remembers the days when he was shuttling Tegan and Adric about and return to those days is a far worse face than the Time War). To experience anything new at this point in his life is a marvel and in 900 years of time travel the Doctor has never been slapped by somebody’s mother. Then again he has never faced anybody as formidable as Jackie Tyler before ('Stitch that mate!'). He travels to see history happening right in front of him. This is an event in history that has nothing to do with him (and given the amount of history he has been directly responsible despite his apparent aversion to interference that is quite a rare occurrence) and he seems genuinely thrilled about that. He grins in the face of so many guns. When Mickey looked up the Doctor online he found him followed by a list of the dead (ouch – for more of this see how this is spelt out in Journey’s End). Who is the biggest expert in alien affairs? UNIT or the Doctor? He cuts right to the heart of the matter, which makes him an instant target by the Slitheen. His warm relationship with Harriet is more validation of this dark character. She certainly seems like a good judge of character to me and she affirms that she likes him. Suddenly this Doctor is witty and wonderful; taking on aliens, making friendships and saving the day in style. He cannot guarantee that Rose will be safe in his lifestyle, something we have already experienced and would return to time and again throughout the first series. The Doctor threatening Margaret Slitheen is sold purely on Eccleston’s stony face. He usually saves the world and moves on, no fuss. But with Rose around now he has consequences to deal with, whether he wants them or not. After all the slapstick, high drama and campery it all boils down to the relationship between the Doctor and his companion and the people that she is going to leave behind. He tempts Rose away with a seductive description of the wonders that she could experience but is smart enough to recognise that she will miss Mickey and offer him a place by her side. He's keen to wipe all trace of his existence online, to remain a mystery.

Chavvy Chick: This is Rose at her height. She is described as being employed as the Doctor's companion. Some people might not like that the series went there but I for one feel that asking the questions of whether their relationship is sexual or not is a valid one because you don't usually find 19 year old girls knocking about with middle aged guys. The last thing she wanted to do was hurt her mum and needs to hang around for long enough to give her some assurances. With Ace the missing person element was only a throwaway reference but here it is handled to its fullest dramatic extent and it makes Rose a brand new type of companion, one that has a genuine life to return to. Suddenly the question of which life is more enticing is an issue, an idea that would be taken to it's fullest extent with Amy and Rory down the line. Rose is far to bewitched by the Doctor and this lifestyle for the conundrum to even be an issue but with her situation it is the pain she is causing to the people left behind where the drama lies. She asks the Doctor not to leave without her and she has earned herself a TARDIS key. It’s nice to see Rose looking so sheepish for a change, seeing how many lives she has ruined by selfishly running away and not thinking about those who might have missed her. Did she genuinely think that the Doctor would get her home five minutes after she left or did she simply not care? Suddenly people asking interesting things of the companion and considering the experience of travelling with the Doctor rather taking at as a given. Ace was the pilot scheme for this kind of approach but it feels like it has been streamlined and perfected with Rose. She is a far more believable character, one based on Davies' observation on real teenagers. Try hard as I might I can't imagine Andre Cartmel ever knew any baseball wielding, explosive making teens that talked in such florid slang. Rose makes a dark joke about her weight and squeezing into clothes a size smaller and Harriet calls her a very violent woman. I love all the silent stares between the Doctor and Rose as Jackie asks if she will be safe in her travels – this script is laden with lovely moments like that that show how far these characters come in five episodes. Rose steps into action as soon as a massive missile tears towards her. Another gorgeous moment, Rose gets to pack a bag and sign up this time unlike all the previous companions that only have the clothes they are wearing on their backs when they step on board. You understand completely why she takes the Doctor up on his offer but you still can't help but feel she is being a little bit selfish when she is leaving behind a heartbroken mother and boyfriend.

Monkey Boy and Mouth Mum: Real effort has gone into taking the caricatures from Rose and turning Mickey and Jackie into living, breathing, thinking characters. Jackie’s insane anger at Rose really sells their relationship and the depth of feeling they have for each other. You’ve got to love Jackie’s priorities after an alien body is reported as being carried from a crashed spaceship...enthusing about the latest guy to ask her out! I love her reaction to stepping into the TARDIS and the Doctor's world, it is one of absolute horror and she straight on the phone to the emergency services in fear for her daughters life. It feels like a perfectly rational reaction to me. She demands to know whether Rose will be safe with the Doctor, a promise he can't make. How wonderful is the moment when she warns Mickey that she could stop him deploying the missile that might murder her daughter? Davies has characterised her so well that a scene like this where she is threatening to actively work against the Doctor seems completely reasonable. Her ‘Don’t go sweetheart’ will break your heart, Davies really is mining a rich seam of character drama between mother and daughter. Camille Coduri is given a great deal of scope in this two parter and never disappoints. Poor Mickey suffered terrible treatment when Rose hopped into the TARDIS, he was questioned five times, had Jackie pointing the finger and things stuffed through his letterbox.That his colour was a factor is never shied away from. Mickey clutching the baseball bat and Jackie opening all the jars in the cupboard to bring down a Slitheen with pickled gherkins – suddenly these characters are working like a dream! Mickey gets to save the world by blowing up Downing Street, an act that on its own instantly redeems him from any misdemeanours in Rose. Don’t you think Mickey works so much better as the brave wimp that he is here rather than the muscle head he would become?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘History just happened and they’re talking about where to get dodgy top up cards!’
‘Why would we invade this god forsaken rock?’
‘You’re making it up, aren’t you?’
‘Mankind stands proud, and tall, undefeated.’
‘For all I know he eats grass and safety pins.’

The Good Stuff: There are two brilliant ideas in the teaser - taking Rose home one year late and her alleged abduction, both so good you have to wonder why nobody thought of them before? The spaceship flying over London, crashing through Big Ben and diving under the Thames is one of my favourite moments in the Davies era. Not only is it a hilarious gag (poor Rose), stunningly realised but it also changes the landscape of Doctor Who on Earth permanently. Interesting considering how many invasions of Earth we have been through that it has taken this long to be treated as an international event. Penelope Wilton’s ‘not a babe, just a faithful back bencher’ is immediately likeable. No wonder she was pencilled in for a quick return visit. I love the scene with Tosh and the Space Pig because it is filmed in the style of a spooky horror but turns out to be something far more bizarre and poignant, typical Davies subversion. The scenes in the TARDIS are warmly lit, I really love this organic, pulsing version of the console room. The aliens have been here for a while, sending the ship up deliberately to crash and cause panic and spectacle (another new approach to the series). I love the real life treatment of the characters that is injected into the into the first episode, the Doctor and Rose surrounded by armed soldiers, escorted to Downing Street and attacked by the press, this is truly contemporary Who that sets the scene beautifully. The Prime Minister is found dead in a cupboard...a fate some would say he richly deserves. No cliff-hangers in sixteen years and then three come along at once. Jackie being attacked in the kitchen brings the danger right into your home, something the show tended to shy away from in the past. The Slitheen are easily the most prolific monsters of the Davies era with countless return appearances, references and even a leap over to The Sarah Jane Adventures (where technically they are much more suited to). They haven’t quite got the design perfect (it was much better in Boom Town) but I love the cheekiness of these monsters; the desire to be naked, the love of the hunt (and the stink of fear) and the baby faces with blinking eyes are a touch of genius. They are great fun and wouldn't look out of place in a Williams story. The fact that people get wound up because they don't take their work altogether seriously, well that's just a bonus. ‘If you’d just like to go through and get changed’ – I love the idea of hanging the flesh suit on a coat hanger. That's just cheeky. Once again Doctor Who is making policemen sinister. Barry Letts would not approve. The whole sequence with the policeman Slitheen attacking Jackie and Mickey whilst the Doctor, Rose and Harriet try and figure out their planet of origin and weaknesses is superb. The scripting is sublime and the performances treasurable; suddenly Russell T Davies’ modern, confident, characterful Doctor Who makes perfect sense – it's sublimely handled. The Slitheen plan to get the codes, release the missiles, start World War Three and reduce the Earth to molten slag and sell it cheap. Who guessed that was the ultimate goal in Aliens of London? It is rare that a Doctor Who invasion story is subverted this cleverly and I am kep guessing right until the climax. ‘The telephone is actually red!'‘Ring damn you!’ and ‘Oh boll-!’ – the Slitheen are delightfully silly and had me laughing out loud. How awesome are the scenes of the missile flying over the cliff and weaving its way through London? Downing Street is left a fiery wasteland…could we possibly love Davies more than at this moment? The ten-second ending left me devastated. Poor Mickey and Jackie.

The Bad Stuff: Laughter and farts were a bit too much for some people but I bet the kids loved it (I’m on the fence). I don't object to the idea (it's a laugh, isn't it?) but it is hardly what you would call underplayed. There is an obvious difference between the dexterity and realism of the Slitheen when brought to life in CGI and when they are actors running around in cumbersome costumes. The Acting PM is too broadly played at times, it's almost as if he knows he is a Doctor Who villain and behaves accordingly. The first ten minutes of World War Three meander before it settles down into something rather special. It's like Davies had to get all the running aroud out of his system before he gets the chance to truly prove his worth with two cracking set pieces ('Narrows it down!' and 'Hannibal!'). Is it really that easy to hijack a missile?

The Shallow Bit: The PMs aide is gorgeous (love grey eyes).

Result: The first two parter in NuWho has aged very well indeed. It might not be a popular opinion to praise this story but I have never cared to go with the masses, I genuinely believe that this is the sort of show that the show needed to be putting out in its first season, one that showed the potential of old school Doctor Who marrying up with Davies' new domestic version of the show. Often condemned as the worst episodes of the first year, I find this a delightfully quirky spin on an alien invasion and a genuinely funny and exciting piece of drama in it's own right. You can literally hear the gears grinding into place as the Davies era suddenly realises what it does best and starts delivering. It is the story that turns the ninth Doctor, Jackie and Mickey into truly wonderful characters and gives fantastic material to Rose, Harriet and all the wickedly naughty Slitheen. The first episode shoves the existence of alien life in the face of the public and enjoys all the dramatic consequences that come with it and episode two has two of the best set pieces of the entire year, breathlessly well scripted and directed with punch. Those moments are so good it has made me reassess my opinion of Keith Boak as a director, slapdash in some areas but capable of bringing great drama and pathos to the screen too. The Slitheen are here whether you like it or not and whilst the design needs some tweaking they are brilliantly conceived and played. Annette Badland is always good value and I relish the chance to see her chewing the scenery, especially with dialogue as good as she gets here. If you could snip out a few moments where the story runs on the spot and a touch of bland direction this would get full marks for its audacity and confidence but it will have to settle for near perfection: 9/10


Exlonox said...

It's nice to hear this story get some praise for a change.

Peakius Baragonius said...

As harsh as I am on what I've seen of the RTD era, I must admit that I'm rather fond of the Eccleston era at this point thanks to stories like this one. An underrated gem!

Daniel Leonard said...

I don't object to the farting itself, but the fact that the aliens find it funny takes me right out of the story every time it happens.

Other than that, good review. Identified everything I liked about the story.

David Pirtle said...

I agree with Daniel. The farting isn't nearly as off-putting as all the jokes ABOUT the farting. Between that, the awkward mix of practical and CGI effects, and the Scooby-Doo bit in the middle, the Slitheen make for one of the least serious threats in the history of the show. Their most effectively menacing moments are when they put all that aside, but those are rare. I'm not saying that you can't have such a silly villain be effective, but it is an unusual choice upon which to anchor the series' first two-part epic. You are right when you say that all four principle characters have never been better (I think this is about as good as Mickey gets), and it does give us Harriet Jones, but the rest of it does nothing for me.