Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Review: Doctor Who "Aliens of London"/"World War Three"

You know, I'm just glad that Michael Grade had to make due with using "Warriors of the Deep" as an example of terrible Doctor Who. If this two-parter had aired as part of the Classic Series, then the BBC probably would have canceled the show sooner and resumed burning the master tapes of old episodes.

Behind-the-Scenes Antics
I know I usually just mention the behind-the-scenes trivia as it comes up, but this bears setting some time aside to talk about it.

While this two-parter was written by Russell T. Davies, it was directed by Keith Boak, who later went on to direct “Rose.” (The episodes were not filmed in broadcast order.)

Keith Boak would never direct an episode of Doctor Who ever again.

Now, in all fairness to Mr. Boak, it was up to him to set the tone of these episodes. And the Revived Series of Doctor Who, while he was at it. No one knew what Doctor Who should feel like. There was going to be some experimenting with... well, pretty much everything on every level. Davies experimented with the sorts of stories they could tell, Eccleston experimented with a darker, angrier Doctor, and Keith Boak experimented with angering his lead actor. As well as how to interpret the script directions. Sure, Davies wrote the words, but it would be up to Boak to decide if the text would be played like a comedy or a drama.

He chose comedy.

I mentioned in my Review of “Rose” that Mickey’s actor, Noel Clarke, was under the impression that the new series of Doctor Who was going to mostly be aimed at a younger audience. Hence, his goofy performance. I can only imagine he was under that impression because Keith Boak was under that impression.

I've also read rumors that Keith Boak also decided to alter the episodes’ scripts as they were filming. Usually, this is done out of necessity; perhaps an actor broke his leg and can’t do a chase scene, or the sets got vandalized and can’t be used, or something. But apparently, Boak thought he could make the story funnier by placing more emphasis on the toilet humor, and I've seen rumors that Christopher Eccleston was already not too happy about the farting aliens to begin with. No wonder the two are said to have had a rough time working together.

I don't know to what degree Mr. Boak altered things as they were filming, but the shooting phase is pretty much the worst time to be altering anything. Especially on a whim. I mean, it puts everyone on the spot. Actors, crewmen, everyone. Scenes are rehearsed one way, time is scheduled, and then the director decides that he's going to make people do something different?

Christopher Eccleston, who prefers stage acting, is kind of impatient with how movies and TV are filmed as it is (which has given him the reputation of being hard to work with). So while various interviews with Eccleston and others are rather tight-lipped on specifics, there are two things that we can basically take away as fact.
  1. Christopher Eccleston clashed on set with Keith Boak at the start of filming the season.
  2. Christopher Eccleston got mad enough with how the show was being produced at the start of the season to decide to leave.
I don't want to point fingers, but those facts seem to hint that Boak’s antics were the last straw for Eccleston, and he decided to leave the show after a single season. Luckily, he made his decision early during filming, so Russell T. Davies had time to figure out a way to kill him off in the finale and give him a proper sendoff.

In fact, Christopher Eccleston ended up growing disillusioned with TV acting altogether, explaining why his character on Heroes ended up disappearing. It helped that his character literally had the power to disappear. It wouldn’t be until 2011 that he would do more than a single episode of any given show again.

I firmly believe that these episodes were unsalvageable. Not because of the director’s antics, or the poor script, or the bad effects. The story simply doesn’t work as a whole.

If you ask someone what this two-parter was about, they’d probably say “farting aliens.”

"Some people sum up my whole season like that."
But in reality, there are several plots jammed together. An alien invasion faked by aliens. An Iraq War allegory. A deconstruction of the Classic Series’ tendency to ignore the implications of traveling with the Doctor. Any one of those ideas could have made a good episode in and of itself, but they tried to cram all three plots into two hours. That’s pretty darn ambitious. And when you factor in that this was the first set of episodes filmed, then it just leaves one wondering why they didn’t want to stay on the safe side with these episodes.

Instead of picking one idea and going to town, they pick three ideas and bury them under each other. Though I will say this: Faking an alien invasion to gather all the alien experts in order to kill them is a great story hook.

Iraq Allegory
The allegory for the Iraq War is pretty pointless. There’s really no follow up on the references to the Iraq War, they’re just kind of there. If there’s a larger statement than “Look! It’s like real life events!” then I can’t see it. And they only become obvious about halfway into the second part, so the allegory can’t be the main point of the episode.

I think it’s also important to point out that, in the Doctor Who canon, Tony Blair was murdered by Slitheen. Originally, the Prime Minister’s face was going to be seen. But when they discovered that their Tony Blair impersonator didn’t actually look like Tony Blair, they kept his face hidden.

Deconstruction of the Classic Series
I do admire this two-parter for attempting to examine the implications of a young girl randomly running away with the Doctor for who-knows-how long. Especially when you consider that companions don’t always return. But the idea is never really explored; the deal with the cops is easily cleared up, and Jackie keeps forgetting that she hates the Doctor when it interferes with the plot. Later episodes will touch upon this idea and use it to make much more of an impact.

In the interests of fairness, I’ve thought long and hard about how to fix this episode into something at least watchable, while keeping the basic plot. Or at least, each plot in turn.

Option 1
Do a story about an alien invasion faked by aliens who have already infiltrated the Earth’s governments. Steven Moffat went on to use a similar plot to great effect.

Option 2
Have the villains be all too human.

Imagine this: Friendly aliens that look terrifying have popped by for a visit. But after the whole plastic people thing, the UK is on edge and remains utterly convinced that these aliens are hostile invaders. (And the UK has already been burned by supposedly-friendly aliens called "the Axons" in the Classic Series, which can't help matters.) The human prime minister spins a yarn about their destructive capabilities, in a meta reference to Tony Blair’s comments to the U.N. And in the end, the Doctor barely wins this one. Because while humans have the potential to take their place in the galaxy, the still need a little help from the Doctor, now and then. Less of a pointless reference to real life events, more of a metaphor for racism and suspicion in the wake of 9/11.

Option 3
Set the story from Jackie’s point of view as her daughter returns after a year abroad with a strange man. See the fear and terror through her eyes. See the sadness left behind when the Doctor comes in and scoops your loved ones away. Have flashbacks of the lies Jackie told about Mickey. Because sometimes, the Doctor creates monsters, too.

The Doctor

The Doctor is his normal self... mostly. Aloof and mysterious. Unfortunately, there’s a downright cruel streak to him in how he treats Mickey. I guess this could be chalked up to the show’s growing pains, as well as his trying to figure out how to make the character work, but it comes across very out of character for the Doctor to be such a jerk to an innocent man whose life he’d ruined accidentally.

But a detail that I do like is that the Doctor doesn’t get involved at first. Instead, he’s glad that humanity’s going to take its first baby steps into the galaxy… but he’ll double check on the alien. Just in case. And when he discovers that the body’s a fake, then he takes his usual course of action. Nice touch.

Rose Tyler
It’s very interesting to see exactly how time/space travel changes a person. And over the course of only a couple episodes, too. Alas, the possible negative consequences are swept under the rug as she insists that she’s fine and dandy; and we’re supposed to side with her, despite how she’s suddenly treating her loved ones after accidentally leaving for a year. Welcome to the origin point of the Rose hatedom.

Jackie Tyler
Jackie is really annoying in this two-parter. And part of that is because her story arc had no story and no arc. She’s just complaining and crying off-and-on through both episodes. No resolution, no arc, Rose just tells her not to worry. If she had some kind of story to her interactions with Rose, then I wouldn’t have much of a problem with her Coronation Street-style performance. As it is, she’s just a rain cloud over every other scene.

Mickey Smith
Mickey Smith is karma’s urinal. The Doctor ruins his life, Jackie makes him into a pariah, and nothing really fixes either of these problems. And the episode acts as if everything is just dandy with him in the end.

Harriet Jones (Penelope Wilton)
Harriet Jones is a stiff-upper-lipped woman who isn’t afraid to fight the good fight. Honestly, I really like the character. Penelope Wilton’s performance evokes professionalism and a very human vulnerability, tempered by a very British resolve in the face of danger. Plus, her down-to-Earth worldview contrasts nicely with the Doctor’s own alien point of view, reminding us that this man we watch on TV still thinks and acts with a different morality system than we do, on a different scale than we’re used to. With Rose going native in the TARDIS, she kind of fills the role of the companion in a way that Rose can’t anymore.

Monsters of the Week
Captain Pork
You know, it’s kind of funny. “Aliens of London” treats Dr. Sato like a bit of a fool for thinking that aliens might possibly look like a humanoid version of an animal from Earth. And yet, we’re less than ten episodes away from the introduction of alien cat people.

Close, but not quite.
There ya go.
The Slitheen simply do not work as villains in any way, shape, or form. While their plan and method are fairly interesting, well, let me count the ways in which they fail.

Apart from failing to pick up the phone that would let them destroy the world.
  1. Their “humor” pretty much consists of fart jokes, meaning that they don’t even work as comedic villains. At all.
  2. The costumes look fake.
  3. The CGI looks fake.
  4. The CGI and the costumes look completely different from each other.
  5. The pot-bellied, baby-faced design isn’t very intimidating.
  6. The actors’ performances are over-the-top and buffoonish, reducing their credibility as a threat.
  7. They explode when you toss pickle juice at them.
  8. Their obsession with hunting people is kind of random and adds nothing to them as characters.
  9. The zippers on their foreheads disappear and reappear.
  10. They have zippers on their skinsuits.
  11. They put said zippers on their foreheads.
  12. They’re slow, lumbering, and the actors clearly can’t see a darn thing in those suits.
Like I said, their plan was kind of clever, and killing the experts was a neat hook. But the overall effect is like casting Melissa McCarthy as a Bond villain. Still, at least they're not the worst-designed monsters in all of Doctor Who.

No, I'm not talking about the Sandmen.
Behold... the Vervoids.
"Why does everybody always bring up the vagina-faced plant people?"
Final Thoughts
This is a terrible two-parter.

The first part is marginally better than the second, but that’s not saying much. This two-parter is definitely the lowest point of the Ninth Doctor’s sadly-short run, and some would argue that it’s the lowest point of New-Who as a whole. But with episodes like “Love and Monsters,” “Fear Her,” “In the Forest of the Night,” and “Sleep No More” existing, the title of “worst episode” is completely up to the individual viewer.

But seriously, feel free to skip this two-parter if you haven’t seen it. It’s honestly one of the worst things I’ve ever had to watch for this blog.

Next time, we go from one the Ninth Doctor’s worst episodes to one of his best as an old foe returns….

See you then!


  1. Oh, now I remember! See, while I never watched Dr Who I did watched once The Sarah Jane Adventures. And guess who were the villains of the first episode. Yeeah, I recall not being impressed.

    - Faceless Enigma

    1. The Slitheen have three appearances (and one cameo) in Doctor Who and, like, five in TSJA. Might be one of the reasons that people tend to avoid that particular spin off.