Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Review: Doctor Who 1.4-5: Aliens of London and World War Three

"I could save the world but lose you."
Cliffhangers on Classic Who were a big deal. They were the long-lasting, make or break judge of a story's quality, the scenes which the viewers remembered for long afterwards. In NuWho's first two-parter, RTD returns as writer and delivers a story which aims to show exactly what the modern series' cliffhangers could do. Unfortunately it also stands out as a story with a lot of internal strife of the sort that I've already mentioned when discussing RTD's work - brilliant satire and social commentary mixed in with appeals to younger children. As will become the norm now, I'll be covering this two-parter in one sitting.
     As I mentioned, RTD's tenure on the show saw us explore companions' private lives so much more than before - the predecessor, really, to Moffat's very character-based arc. At the time it was an innovation in storytelling that felt completely modern and cutting edge (in Who terms anyway...}. Despite how advanced it seemed, this focus only really equated to two characters, Jackie and Mickey, as well as more frequent trips to the "present." The Aliens of London two-parter was, for convenience, filmed with the last "present" episode Rose as one of the first episodes shot. But that's not why it's rough around the edges, so I'll move on for now.
     After the future-past tour, The Doctor takes Rose back to London to see her mother and boyfriend. Despite his best efforts at arriving twelve hours after she left, he finds out too late that she's been gone a year and Mickey's been suspected of her murder in the mean-time. Despite how whiney Camille Coduri's portrayl can sometimes get, I do enjoy these scenes at the beginning of Aliens of London because of their realism and how they explore what was then unknown territory. This is followed by a discussion on the rooftop - a rather obvious greenscreen set, but it's perfect for what happens next - a spaceship flies over London and takes out Big Ben before crashing in the Thames. The world thinks that this is First Contact, and so while London celebrates and Rose faces Mickey's tale of the year he's had, The Doctor uses the Tardis to get a little closer to the action.
"It's only a model." "Shh."
     The scenes in the Morgue are some of the best in the first episode, despite sharing a lot of the episode's symptoms. The "alien" from the crashed ship was taken there and The Doctor follows the trail. They believe that it's dead, but when it awakens - in a scene that pays homage to one of the best scenes in the Movie - the current doctor there, one Dr. Sato (three-fifths of the Torchwood Cast is in Series One alone, it's awesome} ends up meeting The Doctor. The "alien," it turns out, is a pig with an augmented brain, and literally walks on hind-legs before being shot down by gunsmen, who are then berated by The Doctor. Ecclestone here doesn't betray the fact that this is one of his first episodes. In it, he portrays the vision of his Doctor that makes me like him so much - grief and sadness over the death of any living, feeling thing.
     The action segues into 10 Downing Street, where the majority of this story is set. Here we meet out villains for this episode, who besides being incredibly unbelievable in their characterisation are the sole reason that this story is on so many fans' worst episodes list. I'll spoil it now, because a point really has to be made. The villains of this story are ambitiously-used green aliens called the Slitheen, an evil family of gangsters from a tribal society that have inflitrated the UK Government by killing major figures and then using their skins as suits. To do so they wear a compression device around their necks, which due to pressure on either their bodies or the writer's spinal cord causes them to be incredibly, incredibly flatulent.
      Now, before I go any further, I'd just like to say that I am not a prude. I swear punctuatively. I do not "look down upon" certain types of humour - my only requirement is that I find it funny. I'll even allow it if I'm somehow not in the target audience - as long as I feel that it is funny to them. The Slitheen, on the other hand, belong in the same region of absurdity as burping bins and skin on a frame. RTD said his target age range was 8-12 years of age. I was 8 when this story first broadcast and like Cassandra, I didn't find it funny then and it's still bloody irritating now.
MP for Flydale North.
     The most mind-boggling thing for me is that when I think about it, the Slitheen work. I mean, they really are perfect in all but a few important respects. They've got a great design that scares kids and interests adults, a methodology that borrows from Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Tony Blair's foreign policy and they, like the majority of good Doctor Who monsters, are green! And then comes the problem. I mean no disrespect to Annette Badland or David Verrey, who played the main Slitheen leads in their human guises. I've seen them in other things and they are individually good actors. Therefore in my mind the blame falls soley on the writing. These villains, these creates with no regard for the six billion people on Earth, need to be intimidating. Threatening. Dare I say it, Scary. All impressions of fear vanish the moment that I watched Annette Badland have to act out a scene in which she shook her bottom and farted while grinning like a loon, and some small part of me died a slow death. They speak in baby-talk, act like children in a way that doesn't make them more terrifying and un-zip their heads every. fucking. scene. If it's so difficult to get into one of those skin-suits, then why do you keep taking them off?!
     Back to the plot. The Slitheen Leader, known by his human name Joseph Green, somehow ascends to PM in the incumbant's absence. He and his two friends are blasted by the head of the Army but they swap one of the bodies for him, giving them control over the military. Meanwhile, Harriet Jones (Penelope Wilton of Shaun of the Dead fame} is being a back-bench busybody and manages to accidentally discover the Slitheen's identities.
     Jackie, meanwhile, witnesses the Tardis and is scared out of her wits. She calls a Government hotline for sightings and his Years with UNIT have he and Rose escorted to Downing Street. The Doctor is sent to a meeting of alien experts while Harriet breaks down in front of Rose and reveals the Slitheen's existence, as well as finding the Prime Minister. On the estate, a portly-looking policeman with a flatulance problem visits Jackie and starts un-zipping his head. At the meeting all of the experts begin to be electrocuted as all of the our protagonists find themselves in danger in a three-pronged cliffhanger.
Green! Wicked.
     So, after a 16-year wait for a cliffhanger, how does Aliens of London shape up? Well... it's a double-edged sword. One one side, the cliffhanger is ambitious in its three-pronged approach and is quite exciting. On the the other side, there's no tension whatsoever, plenty of ways to escape the cliffhanger as readily avaliable and the fact that the Next Time trailer played a few seconds after it.
     World War Three is by comparison a much more interesting experience because it lays off the Slitheen (for the most part} and focuses more on character development. The Doctor turns the electric device back onto the Slitheen, whose psychic link makes it possible for all parties to escape. The Doctor, Rose and Harriet end up in the steel-reinforced cabinet room, questioning the Slitheen's intentions. Over the phone to Mickey, they help he and Jackie kill the Police-Slitheen by dousing it in Vinegar. In turn, The Doctor executes his contingency plan - he helps Mickey hack into the Royal Navy to send a missile to destroy downing street, where all of the Slitheen are gathered. To cut a long story short, it worked, and everyone lives happily ever after.
     There isn't that much to go at with World War Three because a lot of it is composed of tense faffing about. My favourite bits would have to be The Doctor's speech in the cabinet room, one of Ecclestone's best ever line-reads - "I could save the world but lose you." - and Joseph Green's excuse that the aliens have "Weapons of Massive Destruction, capable of being fired in 45 seconds," a clear dig at the Iraq War, which was still fresh on everyone's minds.
Can you have a cameo if your show doesn't exist yet?
     The Aliens of London two-parter will go down in Who history for its more infamous segments than its well-made ones, which is a real shame because one thing that RTD can do is domestic drama. The episodes were let down by their unconvincing and irritating villains, not to mention their posterial activity. (I sicked up a little in my mouth just writing that. Urgh.} A selection of ideas that would have worked perfectly well on their own and ones that felt better in a Seltzerberg movie came jumbled into this disappointingly bad 90 minutes, with only the main protagonists' performances to salvage it. To quote Nine, "What did you do that for?"

Thanks.

NEXT TIME: Dalek! Yay!

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