Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Morally Challenged

Doctor Who
Boom Town
Series One, Episode Eleven

I remember seeing this one advertised shortly before it aired.  It promised the return of "an old enemy".  Call me naive; I expected someone from further back than, say, six episodes ago.  The Slitheen again?  Really?

When the TARDIS parks to refuel in Cardiff Bay, leaving Rose free to pal about with Mickey, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was the kind of stuff that should go between episodes, and not be the subject of them.  Rose even describes some impressive-sounding adventures that happened off-screen.  Wait, so you get worlds made of glass and we get Cardiff Bay, or at a push, London?  Look, by all means set the show's horizons by what the budget can do, that's the way it has to be after all, but don't pretend there's other less crap-looking stuff going on as well.  It just means we wish we could see that stuff instead.

"She's going to blow up Cardiff, and kill millions."
Oh no, she isn't!
Oh well, better set your expectations to frothy, as the gang joke, flirt, go for lunch and generally behave as annoyingly as possible.  It's all in the name of character development, of a sort: Mickey is feeling increasingly alienated by Rose and the Doctor, and now Captain Jack has joined the fold, they've gone from a weird twosome to a nauseating threesome.  I'm just not sure about this.  How can you not side with Mickey?  Setting aside how repellantly smug they all are, viewing them from the outside in the first place seems like a silly idea, since they're meant to be the guys we tune in to watch.  Even when it turns out there's a Slitheen in their midst, they go to work like the cast of a Christmas panto.  Couldn't they take things just a little bit seriously?

It all tries a bit too hard to make us laugh, especially when there's quite grim stuff under the surface.  For all his outsider blues, Mickey's back on the comedy pratfalls, tripping over a trolley and getting his foot stuck in a bucket.  When they finally catch Margaret, who murdered someone at the start of the episode and plans to nuke Cardiff (and then the world, mua-ha-ha) later on, we go straight to the Doctor eye-rolling when Rose can't pronounce Raxacoricofallapatorius.  This isn't black comedy, it's pure farce with ill-fitting black bits.

With the Mickey stuff having run out of steam for now, we settle down to the plot.  Margaret Blaine aka Blon Slitheen is still at large, having murdered her way to being Mayor of Cardiff.  (Without Harriet Jones or anyone else noticing, apparently.)  The Doctor's not having any of that, so he effortlessly scoops her up using the sonic screwdriver to disrupt her teleporter.  (He did something similar in The End Of The World, only there was an explanation for it then.  Also, he discovers Margaret's secret weapon hidden in a model of Cardiff for no reason at all.  Just a cursory "Oh, but she's clever!" doesn't explain how he knows it's there.  Urgh you can do the handwavy bit to make sense of a complicated explanationey bit, but you do need both or it's just cheating.)  Well, that was easy.  All that's left now is taking her home to face the music.

All of a sudden, it's moral dilemma time.  Take her home and she'll get the death penalty.  But let her go and she'll start all over again.  What to do?  (We'll have to forgo the possibility of taking her somewhere that won't execute her, because they sure do.)  The whole cut-price-episode approach might work if we're focussed on a puzzle at the heart of it.  It has to work, though.  Moral dilemmas aren't just about asking tough questions, you also have to stick the landing and answer them in a way that says something.  This "dilemma" just isn't a tough one, whichever way you cut it.

"It's not my fault, that I'm, so eee-vil.
It's society.  Society."
I might be missing something here, but taking her home seems like a pretty good idea.  Yes, it's a shame she'll die as a result.  It's also a shame she killed all those people, and had loads of fun doing it.  She says she can change, but she can't even go the length of that conversation without trying to kill the Doctor three times.  Pull the other one, Margie.

But wait, there's more: the Doctor's got to physically take her to her doom, which in her book is the same as pulling the trigger.  Well, it isn't.  She made this happen, there are going to be consequences, and here they are.  "Which makes you better than me how, exactly?" asks Margaret.  How about the obvious: he's not murdering people for profit or for fun, and nor is he the one setting the death sentence.  Next stupid question?

Can he look her in the eye and still do it?  Er, probably, yeah.  This is the guy who covered the Nestenes in anti-plastic, and brought about Cassandra's, the Jagraffess's and oh yeah, the Slitheen's explodey deaths.  Chucking one murderous bastard to her peers won't make him bat an eyelid, let alone lose his nerve.  Want to tickle the Doctor's sympathy bone?  Simple: don't get your kicks from killing people.

Eventually the "dilemma" runs out of steam, so it turns out Margaret was just biding her time (and wasting ours) so she could surf out of there, leaving devastation behind her.  Like the Gelth going all world-conquery in The Unquiet Dead, this makes any deathly reaction from the Doctor totally justifiable.  But wait, there's still more: in an act of random magic that's backed up by nothing, the TARDIS turns Margaret into an egg so she can start her life all over again.  Setting aside the fact that by this point there's no longer a moral dilemma to resolve (as Margaret's made it clear she's going to kill everyone anyway, because evil), how massively, massively rubbish is that?  Has there been any hint of this magic power before?  Is it ever likely to happen again?  Nope.  There's a phrase for this kind of thing, and it rhymes with beus ex nachina.  Search your feelings, you know it to be true.

Next Time: Let's De-Age Hitler!
Does any of it work?  Well, Annette Badland is fantastic, and Margaret gets in a few good points during those juicy (albeit pointless) dinner scenes.  She's right that the Doctor isn't used to waiting around like this, even if she is way off about his apparent blood lust.  She's also partly right to draw parallels about occasionally letting her potential victims go.  Well, the Doctor does kill people, albeit for different reasons, and it's nice to acknowledge that.  It's all good exercise for Christopher Eccleston, showcasing the Doctor's sympathy (with a last meal) and darkness (steadfastly refusing to let her go, even if the execution's really going to hurt), quite a potent Doctorly mix.  Once all that ghastly Team TARDIS stuff is out of the way, it's another strong one for Eccles.

And ditto for Noel Clarke.  Aside from "hilariously" tripping over things, Mickey's story is brilliant, even poignant.  Shame it reflect so badly on Rose.  It turns out he's desperately miserable waiting for her all the time, and has another semi-girlfriend to make up for it.  Rose mocks him for this, despite her own wandering libido.  So you've got Mickey begging Rose to stay, and Rose stopping by Cardiff for a roll in the hay before going right back to the smug single life.  Approximately one person emerges from this with our sympathies, and it isn't the one we're stuck with on a weekly basis.  This was a good idea why, exactly?

As for Jack, John Barrowman seems to be on cloud nine, and that's nice for him, but he doesn't impact on the story at all.  Can we send him back?  (Perhaps we can trade the pair of them in for Nancy and Harriet.)

With its recycled baddie, set-adjascent locations and Abra Cadabra solution, Boom Town feels like something they knocked together to fill space.  Points for trying something new there, but it'd be a lot nicer if it worked.


  1. NAIVE!

    Quick question: why can't she go to prison in Wales, since she's a murderer and has a nuke? Is there some reason human prison can't hold her?

  2. You wrote: "But wait, there's still more: in an act of random magic that's backed up by nothing, the TARDIS turns Margaret into an egg so she can start her life all over again. Setting aside the fact that by this point there's no longer a moral dilemma to resolve (as Margaret's made it clear she's going to kill everyone anyway, because evil), how massively, massively rubbish is that? Has there been any hint of this magic power before?"

    Erm... Neil... Either you didn't watch/blocked out the ending of/don't consider cannon/take your pic... the Paul McGann TV Movie. If you recall, the Eye of Harmony link in the TARDIS coughed up some magic dust and brought Grace and Chang Lee back to life. So yea, the "act of random magic" has happened before and will happen again... as we see in The Parting Of The Ways and... *Cough*The Time Of The Doctor*Cough*Timelord crack magic pixie dust*Cough*

    1. Hi! (My name's not Neil.)

      You're quite right, though: I had momentarily forgotten the ending of The TV Movie. The "canon" issue is a tricky one, thanks to the half-human stuff, which doesn't fit anything. But I suppose we have to accept it, because we accept Paul.

      If I can be very picky, bringing people back to life is not the same as turning someone into an egg. But yes, on these occasions, the TARDIS has exhibited magic powers. Fair enough: I would rewrite the review, but your comment probably gets the job done!

      They certainly did feel at home with the "act of random magic" after this point, didn't they? The Time Of The Doctor still stings, by the way. That's your solution? Please, Time Lords, can he have some more? Christ.

  3. I didn't think the movie was cannon. I know Paul McGann is, but I thought the events of the film were so confused (half human) that fans just ignored it. Then again, in something that's been on so long and been written by so many different people as Doctor Who, who can say what is and what isn't. I still think the second Daleks episode where the Doctor says that is set before the first one in their timeline is bullshit.

  4. Doctor Who is known for its retcons. Typically any episode involving the Master ('80s version!) ends with him trapped or apparently dead. Next time we see him, the Doctor just shrugs and says "So you survived Castrovalva/Xeriphas/being burned alive". They didn't even TRY!