Monday, 29 October 2012

Night Of The Noticeably Fed

Doctor Who
Aliens Of London and World War Three
Series One, Episodes Four and Five

In his first two episodes, Russell T Davies gave us two distinct types of Doctor Who.  There's the bawdy, silly, just-a-bit-of-fluff monster mash, and the emotional character-developer using sci-fi as a backdrop.  Which do we get in Aliens Of London?  Um...

Above: character development.
To be fair, it's often both.  There are some great ideas, and some moments that really say something about the characters.  There's genuine creativity here as well, handling an alien invasion story with wit.  But make no mistake, we're in flufftown.  Triple-digit IQs need not apply.

If we absolutely have to return to the Powell Estate a few short episodes after leaving it, and I'm not sure we do, at least it's an excuse for some meaty character stuff.  The Doctor means to drop Rose off twelve hours after she left (not something he'd ordinarily bother to do, but apparently she's worth it), but there's been a slight hiccup and it's actually been twelve months.  Whoops!  Rose is listed as missing.  Her mum's been worried sick.  Mickey's been accused of murder.  It is one hell of an opening, both horrifying and (thanks to the bashful way the Doctor breaks the news), shockingly funny.

In a couple of seconds Rose goes from having an exciting TARDIS-themed hobby to dealing with the consequences.  It's not something Doctor Who used to think twice about, so it's absolutely ripe for a going-over.  Come to mention it, yeah, it's a big deal when someone drops their entire life to travel with the Doctor; most of his past companions didn't end up back where they started either, meaning they pretty much vanished without explanation.  Episode Four seems a bit soon to worry about all this, but it's a pleasant surprise to be thinking about it at all.

Having said that, it is a bit of an overreaction, if not on Jackie's part then on Davies'.  Rose left the flat a couple of days ago to have an adventure, and thanks to a quirk of the TARDIS she's paying the price but she hasn't actually done anything wrong.  (Well okay, the way she did it, hanging up on Jackie and disdainfully ditching Mickey, left a lot to be desired.  But that's just her natural, er, charm.)  It's a curious double standard, that we should expand our horizons and see the universe, but not if it means actually leaving the house.  Does Russell have issues about leaving home?  What's so wrong with getting out there and doing stuff?  So Rose went and got a life.  The horror, the horror.

He was acquitted of murder, but he'll always be guilty...
of hilarity!
It's not exactly consistent.  Jackie's initial outrage lasts a couple of scenes, but then she's sat with the neighbours chatting about boyfriends as if everything's fine.  And Mickey, who's had a pretty rough year, is reintroduced by doing a comedy pratfall into a fence.  Slapstick didn't suit him last time, and it's still an awkward fit, especially given what he's been through.  I know life doesn't stop being funny when awful things happen, but couldn't this stuff be taken just a little bit seriously?

Anyway, on with the plot, which arrives so suddenly you wonder if Russell had the first five minutes finished before he even came up with it.  A spaceship crashes in central London, and before you know it everyone, not just Jackie, is worried about aliens.  This helps make a natty point about Jackie et al having no reason to trust the Doctor, but also gives us a lovely insight into why he does what he does: Eccleston's irrepressible thrill at seeing history in the making is a big part of who the Doctor is.

Once the alien invasion hits full swing, things get decidedly fluffy.  Rather than investigate, the Doctor plonks down in front of the TV, giving us some curiously emotive news reporters and that American channel Jackie's TV apparently defaults to every few minutes.  Meanwhile, in Downing Street, the real villains are gathering, and they are farting.

Ah yes, the Slitheen.  There's a lot to like about them: the fact that they're a family, not a species, because not every member of every race acts the same thankyouverymuch Star Trek; the way their plan plays on what you (and the Doctor) expect of an alien invasion, which wittily rewards any sci-fi fans in the audience; and the general creepiness of a bunch of aliens wearing human skins like lycra.  I'm not so keen on their motive for blowing up the Earth, which just like Cassandra's is a boring bunch of dollar-signs.  But it's probably supposed to be a reversal of the usual Today London Tomorrow The World schtick.

They work best when they go against convention.  They even call the Doctor on his own flim-flam when he threatens to sonic some alcohol at them.  "Your device will do what?  You're making it up!"  It's a bit risky making fun of the sonic screwdriver and its limitations, given the rubbish it's capable of doing, but hey, they're right.

Less good, though, all that farting.  I said in my review for Rose that New Who feels awkwardly obligated to poke fun at itself (and that there were "worse bodily functions" ah well), and that all goes a bit far in this one.  From giggling at their own naughtiness to stopping and talking about the fact that they're farting, they seem determined not to be taken seriously, because who could take a bunch of green blobby aliens (or worse, fat people) seriously?  Um... people who watch Doctor Who, perhaps?  Their general disgustingness is played for laughs, but so is their murderous nature.  Even their death is coupled with a comedy swearword.  As for the unzipping effect, so unsettling at first, it's way overdone and eventually, yes, played for laughs.  How many times do they need to get their kits off?  And seriously "literally hair-raising"?

"Yes, Prime Minister, I see what you did there.
Please stop explaining."
Oh well.  They are funny a lot of the time, especially David Verrey as the greasy acting-Prime Minister, and their plan's pretty cool.  If they seem overly stereotypical in spite of all the smart touches, that's probably because Aliens Of London is trying to celebrate the general monsterness of Doctor Who.  It's got the first New Who cliff-hanger, which goes laboriously all out juggling three perilous situations and ending, of course, on a malevolent chuckle.  Just like the old days!  There's also a rather familiar morgue scene with something knocking on the freezer door (shades of the TV Movie, perhaps?), and that time-honoured solution to an alien menace, blowing them the hell up.  Make no mistake, this episode's got its nostalgia on, complete with references to the Doctor's career with UNIT (and more pressingly, the Doctor's name and the TARDIS being red-flagged by the government – no wonder he didn't want them to find the TARDIS, he doesn't want to get drafted!).  It's a lot of fun in that regard.

The second episode is more about hurriedly putting the plot to bed than carrying on the character development, but there's some there.  We have a nice thread about Mickey and Jackie working together because, presumably, they're all they've got; the Doctor gradually overcoming his (random) dislike of Mickey, and eventually offering him a place on the TARDIS; and Jackie wanting to know if Rose can ever be safe if she travels with the Doctor.  It's an understandable thing for a parent to worry about, but her request that Rose "always be safe" couldn't be granted even if Rose lived in a one-horse village and slept in a house made of pillows.  It's probably meant to be hard-hitting that the Doctor leads a dangerous life, but isn't any life potentially dangerous?  I know the Doctor's meant to be murkier than just some wonderful guy who's fun to be with, but Rose hasn't made any Faustian deals here  she's just seeing the world and helping people.  The constant guilt-tripping doesn't compute for a show that's also trying to encourage a life of adventure.

Meanwhile, there's a lot of running through corridors (because apparently No. 10 Downing Street is massive), including some unwise Benny Hill-esque chase sequences, because apparently some of us didn't get the memo about this being comedy.  And how could I forget some of the most hilariously terrible computer hacking ever put on screen?  Mickey can, from his home computer and using one password (which is one word with no numbers, symbols or different cases, none of which asterisk out when he types them), launch a missile at Downing Street.  It's easier than eBay.  There's even a big red button marked FIRE!  In a self-deprecating story about blobby green aliens that fart, it takes some doing to cross the line into unbelievability, and this bit does it with a pole-vault.  (Rose's "ingenious" solution of surviving by hiding in a cupboard isn't much better.  Oh, so the three-inch steel walls won't help, but wait until you see the cloakroom?)

Junior School Under 7s Missile Survival Team.
She got the Bronze.
It ends on a sour note.  Despite the Doctor being warm enough to let Mickey come aboard if he wants (he doesn't), he still forces Rose to choose right now between one life and the other, with no question of co-existing in both.  He becomes in that scene exactly the sinister git Jackie thinks he is, and between him putting the screws on Rose and Rose leaving Jackie miserable once more, I'm left wondering who the hell we're supposed to actually like.  (Oh, and another random thing: why do characters keep saying "Who the hell" and "What the hell"?  Is it supposed to sound gritty?)  It's not exactly out of character for him to get possessive, so fair enough to an extent, but really... this over Rose?  I'm just not seeing it.

Cast-wise, it's a strong one for the Doctor, although his possessiveness doesn't make much sense right next to his offering Mickey an olive branch.  Mickey grows, despite some lingering slapstick tendencies.  The Slitheen are all having tons of fun; it's not their fault the comedy's so broad.  And Penelope Wilton is a constant highlight as bright spark Harriet Jones.  Maybe it's her vague resemblance to Elisabeth Sladen, but she strikes me as a better and more useful Doctor Who companion than Rose could ever be.  Shame we can't keep her.

It's unwieldy, and on a constant humour offensive that cannot help but miss half the time.  But when it's funny, it's very funny; when it's thoughtful, it's refreshing.  The good stuff's trapped inside a wacky, often annoying pantomime, but squint and you'll see it.

1 comment:

  1. It's nice that New Who was able to do something fresh and original for once (examining the disappearance of the companion from their life) - it must be tough coming up with any ideas that aren't old when your show started forty years ago.