Doctor Who: Boom Town
By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 328
"Boom Town" is a story which, initially, would not appear to have much going for it, being a sequel to the two weakest episodes of the season so far, and having been heavily trailed and previewed as, essentially, Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with a Slitheen. Instead, the viewer is pleasantly surprised to discover an episode which manages to blend farcical comedy with thought-provoking moral issues.
The main problem with the first Slitheen story, "Aliens of London/World War Three", was that it fell between two stools, wavering between wanting to be a screaming farce and a deadly serious satire, but never quite having the conviction to go far enough in either direction to work. "Boom Town", however, does pull off this trick. This time, the comedy goes straight into Blackadder territory almost from the opening moments, as a group of reporters, civil planners and minor local politicians politely toast the Lord Mayor of Cardiff's plans to demolish Cardiff Castle and build a nuclear power station in the centre of town, as Margaret Blaine comes up with increasingly ridiculous excuses for the unfortunate deaths of the naysayers (decapitation due to slipping on the ice, the "accidental" electrification of a swimming pool, Blaine herself running someone down with her car), and as the regulars engage in camp banter and cheery quips while marching, A-Team-style, into City Hall. Only in this sort of situation could Davies actually be able to get away with a story in which Margaret turns up six months after being involved with the "Aliens of London" fiasco, under her own name and with her own face, as Mayor of Cardiff: by painting it as an extended comedic riff on the notorious (and, some might feel, only slightly exaggerated) propensity of Londoners to ignore anything going on more than five miles beyond the M25; if you take the scenario seriously, nothing about it makes sense, but if you take it as comedy, then it all works well.
At this point, however, the story pulls the rug out from under the viewer. As Margaret reveals that bringing her to justice entails handing her over to executioners to face a gruesome death, we have a sudden shift into the sort of ethical territory previously explored by "Dalek". Although the comedy does return-- for instance in Margaret's various attempts to poison the Doctor over the dinner table-- the issue of whether killing a murderer makes you no better than they are is never far behind, as when Margaret undercuts the earlier comedy by pointing out that the Doctor, too, has the mind of a killer. In some ways, the shift is aided by the fact that "Aliens of London/World War Three" were not terribly good, as the viewer is lulled initially into thinking that this will be another action romp in which the Doctor will foil the Slitheen's highly unbelievable plan at the last moment (an impression bolstered by the episode trailer) but when the plan is foiled within the first twenty minutes and the rest of the story is all about the consequences, the viewer is forced to rethink this impression. This adventure is, effectively, "Aliens of London" without the brakes: the comedy is ludicrous, the drama is serious, and the two feed off each other to contribute to the whole.
The characterisation and performance are also generally strong. After a bit of a rough start in the previous story, Captain Jack has integrated well into the TARDIS crew; the somewhat forced jealousy between him and the Doctor has been mercifully dropped, and the action has been structured to take him into account, highlighting the character's action-loving, technology-fetishising traits (and, indeed, making a plot point of the latter). Annette Badland (who seems to be everywhere on television at the moment) turns in a very good performance as Margaret, managing to be in turns funny, pathetic, bitter and deeply afraid; she pulls off the difficult balance of leaving it unclear during the dinner whether Margaret really does want a chance to reform or whether she is just playing on the Doctor's emotions.
Mickey, always a somewhat controversial figure, is here someone that it is hard not to feel sorry for. He still carries a torch for Rose to the extent that he would abandon everything and run up to Cardiff to see her, but when he arrives, he finds her fully integrated into a social group and lifestyle that he can never achieve; they are the superheroes, he is only human (a message reinforced in the chase sequence in which Captain Jack's spectacular leap over a dinner trolley is contrasted with Mickey crashing into a cleaner's cart and getting his foot caught in a bucket). Mickey and Rose's night out is intercut with Margaret's discussion with the Doctor on the negative consequences of time travel, serving to highlight that, much as the viewers may like and sympathise with Rose, she, while not being deliberately cruel, is playing with Mickey's emotions, running off and leaving him and, when she returns, expecting to simply hook up again as if nothing has happened, until the next time she wants to go into time and space. She reacts angrily to Mickey's revelation that he is seeing Trisha Delaney, even though she herself has been making eyes at Adam and Captain Jack over recent episodes; when trouble starts, she runs to the Doctor without a second thought. It is hard to fault Mickey for feeling bitter, as we see something of the negative side of Rose.
The best characterisation is, however, reserved for the Doctor. Although his teasing of Mickey isn't as nasty as once it was, he still comes across as a bit of a bully, unthinkingly grabbing a newspaper out of an old man's hands without it ever seeming to occur to him that the man might feel a bit threatened by this sudden action on the part of a tall, crop-haired Mancunian. There is also a nice contrast between his lengthy diatribe on how people can fail to notice the incongruity of a police box in the middle of modern Cardiff, and he himself failing to explore the significance of the recurring words "Bad Wolf." Margaret's remarks about how the Doctor knows what it's like to be a killer clearly hit home; he cannot deny this, as this is the side of the Doctor that we have seen in "Dalek" and "The End of the World", but it sits ill with his persona of being a fun-loving, jolly wanderer, and contrasts with his jovial "everybody lives!" in the previous story. Her comparison of the Doctor to a god has a certain amount of truth to it, in that he is outside of the normal rules; he can get away with things that normal humans cannot, which is a dangerous power for anyone to have. Issues that have pervaded the whole run of the series-- the Doctor's refusal to face consequences and tendency to run off leaving lesser mortals to clean up the mess-- are finally addressed here head on. Eccleston's performance is always best in stories in which the Doctor has something of a nasty edge to him, and this is certainly the case here; his "hang on-- naaah" look during the Bad Wolf revelation sequence is priceless, and he genuinely seems shaken and affected by his conversation with Margaret in the restaurant.
The central ethical dilemma of the story picks up on the themes of "Dalek" and "The End of the World" regarding the question of what to do with a defeated enemy. Here, the Doctor is not administering vigilante justice or defending himself, but is given the chance to take the miscreant back to her own planet to face the penalties of her own legal system… but, if he does so, he will knowingly be taking her to her death, whereas if he lets her go she will undoubtedly kill again. Here, punishment is deserved, and justice can be carried out, but in doing so, the Doctor will be hardly better than she is, particularly when (as seen in "Dalek") he has learned the most evil beings are capable of reform. Even Mickey, who asserts boldly that Margaret deserves to die and that this makes her execution justified, doesn't quite believe his own pronouncements, averting his eyes, blustering and changing the subject. To this is added an astute consideration of the psychology of the murderer: it doesn't make Margaret any less of a criminal just because she didn't kill the nosy reporter (had the woman not unthinkingly mentioned her fiancé and pregnancy, she would have been just as dead as the other whistle-blowers). The viewer is led to an uncomfortable comparison with the Doctor, who will also save one person on a whim but be responsible for the deaths of thousands within the same story-- or, as is highlighted by the Rose and Mickey subplot, capriciously take a human along on his travels without considering the impact this has on her friends and family. The issue is also rather close to home at the moment, as the question of whether or not Britain should deport convicted terrorists knowing that they would face execution in their home country comes up in the news. As in "Dalek", we have a story in which the Doctor resembles the villain in some ways, the issue of whether the villain is capable of redemption, and the question of who has the right to determine just punishment. As with "Dalek", too, the ending here is redemptive, as Margaret is allowed the only possible way of redeeming herself: that of going back to infancy and having the chance to do it all again, for good or ill. As this solution was brought about by the TARDIS after, it is implied, reading her mind, this suggests that she really did want a chance to do better; now, of course, she can.
Visually, this story is quite good, with Joe Ahearne once again showing his skills as a director: the ending, as the lettering on the building fades in through the TARDIS, is lovely, and the Slitheen are much better this time. Possibly this is simply because Margaret doesn't have to do any running or attacking on camera (which is where the contrast between costume and CGI Slitheen showed up most strongly in the first story), but the Slitheen face did seem more mobile this time, and the sequence where Margaret sits in the ladies' toilet thinking about her dead family showed excellent facial expression and body language. The flatulence has been toned down to tummy rumbles for the most part, which is just as well.
The antecedents of the story are most notably Paul Cornell's Virgin novel Timewyrm: Revelation, in which the Doctor gives the Timewyrm a second chance by placing her soul in the body of an infant which can then grow up for good or ill, and also the similar situation in "The Leisure Hive" (picking up, perhaps, on the earlier links between the Foamasi and the Slitheen), in which Pangol, regressed to infancy, is given a second chance to grow up again. There are references to "The Web Planet" novelisation (venom grubs) and "The Green Death" (environmentally suspect shenanigans in Wales), "The Ark" (the Doctor returning to the scene of a previous adventure to discover that not all the loose ends have been tied up) "The Power of the Daleks" (like the Doctor in that story, Margaret is "renewed" by the agency of the TARDIS), the 1996 telemovie (a power inside the TARDIS intervening to return a person to an earlier state of being), and, as Doctor Who: Confidential points out, to any of the numerous earlier stories in which the Doctor solves the problem and then cheerfully travels off in time and space without much consideration of the mess he has left behind, or what the consequences will be for those who clean it up.
Comedy stories in Doctor Who are seldom popular at first but, as the recent reassessment of "The Myth Makers" suggests, can sometimes have some quite clever things to say. "Boom Town" is a story which presents the audience with serious issues within a strongly comedic framework.