Doctor Who: Aliens of London/World War Three
By Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 326
The first two-parter of the new Doctor Who series has been much anticipated in terms of seeing how the team handle a long story with a central cliffhanger. The result is, however, mixed: an adventure which has a number of good elements, but somehow never manages to quite make it over the edge to genuine brilliance.
On the face of it, "Aliens of London/World War Three" has plenty going for it. Visually, it continues to be strong-- the spaceship-splashdown-into-the-Thames sequence is iconic, and there are a number of quite funny lines and one-liners. The fact that the Time War isn't even mentioned is good, as one can't keep on hyping it in every single story (although the continued presence of the "it's a big universe and most people don't bother to explore it" theme is getting repetitive). The idea that the Slitheen make a point of hunting/killing while naked brings in a nice bit of alienesque culture. Multiethnic Britain is refreshingly in evidence; in far too many television stories (SF and otherwise), supporting characters are only played by non-White actors if there is a plot reason for them to be so, but this is most definitely not the case here. The pig sequence is absolutely brilliant, being funny, touching and intelligent, and is one of the best scenes in the story, if not the series as a whole so far.
The problem with the "Aliens of London" two-parter, however, is that it seems uncertain whether to go for out-and-out comedy (along the lines "City of Death", or, perhaps, the film Men in Black), or to play things straight (as in "The End of the World"). Were the story an out-and-out comedy, the ridiculousness of the idea that the Slitheen can pass for human ("compressor fields" aside, how do they get around the fact that their hands are the wrong shape? And precisely how is one of them apparently able to maintain a busy bisexual sex life?) would be part of the fun-- even the blatantly obvious zip-fastener on the head of the policeman. Were the story played in deadly serious mode, then the audience would be drawn into accepting notions like the idea that these aliens can turn corpses into "human suits" that are somehow elastic and unrottable, much as we accepted talking trees and homicidal stretched hides in the same author's "The End of the World"; the idea of a fat, farting and giggling alien which is nonetheless bent on hideous acts of destruction could easily be horribly sinister. As it is, however, the story never quite steps over the boundary into out-and-out farce, and yet contains too much comedy to take it totally seriously.
This is also in evidence in terms of the politics of the story. It is serious enough to try to provide an explanation for how a very junior Cabinet nonentity might get to be Prime Minister in such a way as to allow him to make some very drastic decisions unchallenged. However, the idea that nobody would think of airlifting the Cabinet into London until after the decision was taken to name Joseph Green acting PM, or that nobody would consider reconvening Parliament at Chequers or out in the regions is unbelievable in a serious story. The idea that Harriet Jones, brilliantly played by Penelope Wilton, would risk delisting to creep into the Cabinet Room in a state of national emergency to sneak her bill into the red briefcase (and then stop to read the emergency protocols while there) might work as a satire on Jo Moore-style forcing unpopular political motions through during times of crisis, or as a biting implication that even seemingly nice politicians can be corrupt and nest-feathering. However, the Doctor's remark that she will become Prime Minister and usher in a new Golden Age for Britain is made without a trace of irony. This raises a slightly problematic note, as it could be taken as reading that the "good politician" has now come to replace the "bad politicians" and make everything "all right," which is more than a little naïve; one saving grace is, however, that Jones is so obviously selfish (her reason for pushing the cottage hospital bill through apparently being that her mother is in one and, as Jackie points out, she is happy to take all the credit for foiling the invasion) that one rather doubts her premiership is as positive as the Doctor claims. Unfortunately, the fact that Jones does attempt an act of self-sacrifice during the scene where she and Rose are being chased by the Slitheen (and that Jackie is not the most charitable of individuals) make this possibility a tenuous one, and rob the character of this satiric element. Finally, the political situation of the story swings uneasily between general and topical satire: on the one hand, the Prime Minister who falls out of the cupboard is clearly neither Blair, Howard nor Kennedy (nor even Gordon Brown), suggesting a more generic Yes Minister-style satire on politics, and on the other, we have references to real-life political figures such as Ken Livingstone and the Blair Babes which suggest a deliberate satire on present-day politics. The story is also clearly dated to next year (the presence of the date 6 March 2005 on Rose's missing posters is hardly an accident or oversight in a programme made for an era when viewers make extensive use of the zoom function on DVDs/digital televison), meaning that the events are supposed to take place in the specific context of the March after the general election. The story thus contains elements of political satire and drama, but seems unclear which to focus on.
The Iraq War satire is similarly played. This sequence in some way makes a rather clever point: that New Labour and the Bush administration distracted the public (and their fellow politicians) with show, spectacle and media manipulation, such that they were able to get away with going to war on blatantly ridiculous grounds. However, so many people, in both comedy and serious drama, have made the point that the 45-minute claim was an unbelievable piece of blatant scaremongering, that to hear it referenced again feels less like topical satire and more like a repetition of something that has been said far too often. The subplot about getting the UN to release the nuclear codes is a little hard to swallow as realism (why would Britain, with its tradition of xenophobia and defensiveness, hand over its nuclear codes to anyone else?) and, as satire, seems to be attacking the wrong target (as the UN Security Council actually tried to block the Iraq War, rather than rapidly rolling over as in this story).
There are also aspects of the story which, unfortunately, don't really make sense. There's no narrative reason for the policeman Slitheen to try to kill Jackie Tyler, as she is clearly not an ally of the Doctor's if she is informing on him, and if it is trying to kill everyone who knows about the Doctor, then it is going to have a very difficult time tracking them all down. Gathering together and killing the alien experts seems a bit futile, as the room surely can't contain all the experts in the country (UNIT, at least, must surely be larger than the three or four people we see), and also begs the question of why the Doctor doesn't have any other contacts bar the ones dead in Downing Street (at the very least, why not contact the rest of UNIT?). Why none of the experts try to take action in the time between the revelation of the Slitheen and the activation of the nametags is also unexplained. One also wonders why the whole Slitheen family decides to gather in 10 Downing St. for the activation of the codes, rather than most of them taking shelter straight away on their ship in the Thames (which is still a pretty unsafe place to be in a case where Britain is about to become the instigator of nuclear Armageddon, meaning that London would be a prime target), and how the Doctor knew they were there (as even if he had actually seen the TV news broadcast, he has no way of knowing that this means all the creatures have assembled in the building). The whole sequence at the end with Mickey hacking into the Royal Navy (using the Doctor's UNIT password, which implies that UNIT have an incredible degree of access to Britain's conventional arsenal) and managing to fire off a submarine missile, aimed in the correct direction, with minimal trouble or resistance (to say nothing of preventing it from being destroyed or intercepted) is unfortunately a bit of a deus ex machina.
In terms of performance, Billie Piper is a standout once again (although Eccleston does come across here as a bit irritating), and Penelope Wilton and Noel Clarke are also good. Andrew Marr is so much better than the actor playing the BBC reporter that one rather wishes the team had gone the whole hog (so to speak) and had him played by a genuine reporter as well. In terms of characterisation, Mickey is the one who most comes into his own: his response to the events of "Rose", turning to the conspiracy theorists because no one else will believe him, and becoming obsessed with the Doctor, is wholly credible, and his relationship with the Doctor develops from mutual antagonism to grudging respect. Unfortunately Jackie Tyler still comes across as fairly one-dimensional, and seems to have quite a nasty edge to her, harassing Mickey over Rose's disappearance and refusing to apologise to him afterwards, shopping the Doctor to the authorities, and taking a distinctly narrow-minded view of her daughter's life choices; her question "will she always be safe?" practically cries out to be answered with "well, no, but if she stays in London she could be hit by a bus tomorrow, so what exactly is your point?" Despite what some have said, the soldiers' following the Doctor in the hospital scene of "Aliens of London" is not a problem, as they only do so once he shouts out "Defence plan Delta!" indicating that this phrase is enough to convince them he is a person in authority. While much of the design of the story is brilliant, there are a few minor quibbles, most obviously the strong difference in the way in which the costume and CGI Slitheen move (and the CGI Slitheen also get around in a very generic-CGI-alien-monster sort of way); the forehead-unzipping effect is good but, by the fifth or sixth time, starts to become a bit wearing. While some people have complained (including to Ceefax) about the cliffhanger being followed by a preview for next week's story, this is hardly a problem, as the suspense in cliffhangers was never so much the fact that the Doctor is in peril per se (as most viewers would be familiar enough with genre conventions to know that he will survive) but how he manages to escape in this particular case. Characterisation and design are thus as mixed as the plot itself.
This story is, if anything, even more thick with references to earlier Doctor Who stories than the three previous ones. The whole UNIT canon is referenced both directly and indirectly; the pig-revival scene is an obvious homage to the 1996 Doctor Who telemovie, down to the blue lighting, and the pig itself could be seen as an oblique reference to "The Talons of Weng-Chiang". We also have references to" City of Death" (humour, aliens compressed into human disguises), and two other aliens-in-human-suits stories, "The Leisure Hive" (with a profit-minded alien family attempting to gain control of a planet to make money out of it, with no concern for the indigenous population) and "Terror of the Zygons" (female PM, North Sea connections, plus climax in London). The idea of the nuclear defence codes being entrusted to a third party comes from "Robot", and "The Dominators" features invading aliens bent on turning a planet into a nuclear fuel dump. The story also owes a great deal to Men in Black, as mentioned above, and Quatermass II, and the Slitheen resemble the baby-faced nightmare creatures of Brazil.
Finally, in the celebrity-events watch, Sir John Mills' death was announced on Saturday 23 April. The lack of such announcements in the previous week suggest a consistent trend, so far, of major events coinciding with the end of each Doctor Who story. Stay tuned.