“Aliens Of London”/“World War Three” (season 1, episodes 4 and 5, originally aired 4/16/2005 and 4/23/2005)
(Available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)
“I think you will find the Prime Minister is an alien in disguise! That’s never going to work, is it?” “No.” “Fair enough!”
“Aliens Of London”/”World War Three” reminds me of This Is Spinal Tap’s eternally useful observation that there’s such a fine line between stupid and clever. The first two-part adventure of the revived Doctor Who spends most of its 90 minutes perched precariously on that line, never quite sure if it wants to be a subversive deconstruction of Doctor Who alien invasion stories or just a deeply stupid comedy. On balance, these two episodes tend to be more the former than the latter, but it’s not difficult to see why this story earned such a mixed to poor reception when it initially aired, as it’s easy to miss the smarter aspects of the storytelling when a bunch of farting aliens are front and center. Yet that ignores how these episodes attempt to articulate a radical new way of thinking about the relationship between the Doctor and his companion, and what their travels together mean for those left behind. That’s a magnificent question that classic Doctor Who never pondered, even if I’m not entirely convinced by the answer that this two-parter provides.
But first, let’s talk about the flatulent, extraterrestrial elephant in the room: the Slitheen. Since the initial broadcast of “The Aliens Of London” and “World War Three,” the phrase “farting alien” has become a derisive shorthand for everything wrong with this particular adventure—one only need look at the results of a Google search for that phrase—but the implied criticism deserves a bit more nuance than that. After all, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a good fart joke, and Doctor Who is hardly so serious and high-minded a show that it can’t theoretically stretch to include the occasional flatulence gag. As far as I can remember, classic Doctor Who never made such jokes, but it was hardly above juvenile humor, and future showrunner Steven Moffat came up with some rather ingenious fart jokes for Rowan Atkinson’s Doctor and Jonathan Pryce’s Master in the 1999 Comic Relief spoof “The Curse Of Fatal Death.”
The problem then with this two-parter is less in the conception than in the execution. Beyond the flatulence gags, Russell T. Davies’ sense of humor in this story is heavily reliant on would-be catchphrases. Penelope Wilton’s Harriet Jones is the major examplar of this; her repeated introductions as “Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North” are harmless enough, if never really specifically funny, but her inability to say “fart” without an apologetic “If you'll pardon the word” is grating. A toned-down version of that line might work all right as a mildly amusing way to demonstrate Jones’ propriety, but this line sounds more like a silly caricature of something a real person might actually say, so it doesn’t work as a character moment. Otherwise, Davies’ script never offers a flatulence joke more complex than the sight of large men and women breaking wind, with the possible exception of the exchange at the end of “Aliens Of London” in which the Doctor must offer the immortal riposte: “Excuse me, do you mind not farting while I’m saving the world?” In theory, this is a line ideally suited to a Doctor as serious as the ninth incarnation and an actor as serious as Christopher Eccleston, but Joseph Green’s mockingly over-the-top response—“Would you rather silent but deadly?”—is cringe-worthy.
Neither actor David Verrey nor director Keith Boak seems quite certain how to play lines like this, which perhaps isn’t all that surprising considering this two-parter was only the second new Doctor Who story produced after “Rose.” Everyone involved in the making of this story—with the possible exceptions of Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, who play their parts of the story as drama—thinks Doctor Who should be comedic, but the question is what elements of the show should be mined for jokes. Davies’ “The End Of The World,” broadcast before but filmed after this two-parter, is more successful as comedy because it takes the Douglas Adams-approved tack of presenting the mundane madness of the universe, mining humor from the clash of impossibly different alien perspectives. Jokes about the National Trust rearranging the planet’s continents back to a classic configuration and Lady Cassandra’s belief that “Toxic” is one of old Earth’s most moving ballads are still plenty silly, but they are more natural byproducts of the inherent, wondrous ridiculousness of Doctor Who’s premise, as opposed to direct mockery of the premise itself. That can be a tricky distinction to make, but, even in the early going, it probably should have been possible to tell that farting aliens were on the wrong side of that line.
Still, Davies’ scripts offers some context for the fart jokes, suggesting the Slitheen take so much sick pleasure in killing humans and destroying the planet that they can barely be bothered to treat this whole business as anything but a big joke at humanity’s expense. But even if something like Margaret Blaine’s cry that “I’m shaking my booty!” makes sense in the context of her character, it doesn’t make the specific line as written, directed, and delivered any less embarrassing. It’s fine if the Slitheen don’t take their invasion plans seriously, but these episodes don’t take the Slitheen themselves seriously. It’s at that point that Doctor Who comes perilously close to being the silly children’s show its detractors have so often accused it of being. That’s a shame, because there’s plenty of intelligence in how the two-parter portrays the Slitheen, including that hedonism previously discussed. The Slitheen are amoral hunters who delight in playing with their prey before closing in for the kill. That need to enjoy their own depravity helps paper over some of the plot’s logical gaps; they make the sort of silly mistakes a more calculating group of invaders would not.
Then again, the Doctor stresses that this isn’t a proper invasion, and the reason he knows that goes back to one of the cleverest notions in Davies’ script: “Slitheen” is the aliens’ surname, not the name of their species. Compared to the other great behemoth of TV science fiction, Star Trek, Doctor Who doesn’t really feature aliens in the technical sense; rather, its antagonists are typically monsters, creatures from another world mindlessly united by a common purpose. There was no individuality among the Gelth in “The Unquiet Dead,” for instance, and the Autons in “Rose” were explicitly under the total control of the Nestene Consciousness. While the Slitheen don’t show much variation within their little group, there’s still the possibility that their behavior is not representative of (deep breath) Raxacoricofallapatorians in general. That lends their portrayal more nuance than would otherwise be present; their ludicrous, over-the-top might be features of their individual personalities rather than generic aspects of their species. This fact also sets up one of the cleverer sequences in “World War Three,” in which the Doctor uses all available information on the aliens to identify their species and figure out a weak point; it’s hard to argue with the triumphant glee with which Christopher Eccleston says the word “Raxacoricofallapatorius,” even if that moment is bookended by Harriet Jones’s discomfort with the word “farting” and Mickey Smith getting covered in exploded Slitheen.
The faked spaceship crash is also a clever way to explore what an alien invasion might mean to the human race without ultimately having to commit to a fictional universe in which the existence of extraterrestrials is common knowledge. There’s some precedent for the alien invasion under false pretenses in classic Doctor Who, notably in the Jon Pertwee serials “The Ambassadors Of Death” and “The Claws Of Axos.” In both instances, the real antagonists prey upon the human emotions engendered by first contact with aliens, with the former focusing on paranoia and the latter focusing on a mix of earnest awe and exploitative greed. “Aliens Of London” and “World War Three” features all of those qualities—although it’s the aliens, not the humans, who display most of the greed—and the Doctor often appears disgusted by everyone involved. The “mermaid,” the genetically altered pig, is a prime example of this; the Doctor is repulsed by beings who would mutilate a sentient animal for their own obscure ends, but he’s just as infuriated by the UNIT soldiers that shoot the terrified creature dead. He makes a halfway earnest effort to stand back and let first contact go on without his interference, but he’s soon forced back into the role of disapproving parent, cleaning up the messes left by Slitheen and humans alike.
Notably, the alien presence here remains just clandestine enough that a newspaper can plausibly claim the whole thing was a hoax by episode’s end, particularly when an amused Doctor points out that humans excel at seeing impossible things when they aren’t there yet denying those same things when they are actually standing in front of them. In the meantime, Davies’ script is able to consider the public psychology of an apparently confirmed extraterrestrial encounter in 2005, and this seems like an appropriate time to reuse the phrase “mundane madness.” The denizens of the Powell Estate prove too human for the Doctor to handle for very long, as they spend the most important day in human history discussing where to find dodgy top-up cards for half-price. Davies is fond of using news coverage and other television programming—in this case, the children’s magazine entertainment show Blue Peter—to provide a cultural snapshot, and the script presents a believable arc of public response from wonderment to vague boredom to abject fear to ultimate denial.
Still, the crucial human story is focused entirely on Rose, Jackie, Mickey, and the Doctor. It’s often said that one of the innovations of new Doctor Who was its increased emphasis on the companion and her family, but that isn’t strictly true; Russell T. Davies made history simply by acknowledging the existence of Rose’s family. Classic series companions generally joined the Doctor because fate left them nowhere else to go, and a surprisingly high percentage of these companions were orphans. Indeed, several such companions actually lost a parent or loved one in their debut story, although such tragic origins were more narrative conveniences than the foundations of more nuanced character work. As much as “Rose” saw the beginning of the trip of a lifetime, it also saw Rose effectively abandon her mother and her boyfriend; as seen at the beginning of “Aliens Of London,” she assumed she was returning just 12 hours after her initial departure, but the matter isn’t even broached when she first runs toward the TARDIS. The great triumph of “Rose” was to make that rash, vaguely selfish choice to run off with the Doctor seem like the most natural decision in the world, and it is the task of this two-parter to explore the repercussions of that choice.
The main consequence, it seems, is that Jackie yells a lot. That’s unfortunate, because the more intriguing interaction between Rose and her mother comes right at the beginning of “Aliens Of London,” as a shocked Jackie realizes her daughter is alive after all. It’s heartbreaking to think that Rose and the Doctor inadvertently put Jackie through the torment of believing her only child was dead, and that probably would have been the best way to garner audience sympathy for a character who came across as shallow and obnoxious in “Rose.” Instead, the episode skips such sorrow and jubilation, instead skipping ahead to the angry phase. That’s an understandable emotion in its own right, but neither Davies’ script nor Camille Coduri’s performance is able to find the necessary shading to make Jackie seem like more than a shrill caricature. She is just unpleasant, and the fact that both the Doctor and Rose refuse to engage her theoretically reasonable demands for information only makes her look worse. That isn’t fair to Jackie on any objective level, but that’s the problem with serving the narrative function of killjoy, especially on a show as fundamentally joyous as Doctor Who.
Mickey Smith comes across better here, in part because Noel Clarke is able to focus on his character without worrying about a goofy Auton impression and in part because Mickey comes into this story with significantly more knowledge of Rose’s whereabouts. His transformation into a master hacker is dubious (and very, very 2005), but the two-parter succeeds in positioning Mickey as someone who understands who the Doctor is and who fears that man and his blue box. Over the course of the story, Mickey recognizes that the Doctor might well be surrounded by death and destruction, but that’s only because he is willing to fight those things that others won’t. On the flipside, there’s no stated reason behind the Doctor’s total dismissal of Mickey—it might be jealousy over Rose, or he might just be stinging over Mickey’s anti-alien bigotry at the end of “Rose”—but he too comes to appreciate the value of Mickey the idiot and, by extension, the human race. Rose may have restore the Doctor’s faith in the notion that there are exceptional people out there worth sharing his journeys with, but it’s Mickey who proves to the Doctor that even the average stupid ape is good for something. Their final scene together, in which the Doctor offers Mickey a spot on the TARDIS and then covers for him in front of Rose after he refuses, is a lovely place to pause in their story. They definitely aren’t friends, but they have reached an understanding, and that’s not an easy thing to achieve with this Doctor.
Even Jackie improves over the course of “Aliens Of London”/“World War Three,” as her initial rage focuses on one entirely valid question: Can the Doctor keep Rose safe? That question hangs over the climax of “World War Three,” as the Doctor hesitates to put a plan into action because he can’t guarantee the safety of Jackie’s daughter. As he explains, his life isn’t fun and isn’t smart, “it's just standing up and making a decision because nobody else will.” The Doctor can seem feckless when he tells Rose that he’s not sure if he’s willing to save the world if it means losing her, but the line is so important to understanding the arc of Eccleston’s Doctor. For reasons that the show has still only hinted at, the Doctor needs that personal link to keep him grounded; without that connection, he cannot fairly judge whether the survival of the many really justifies the sacrifice of the few. On this occasion, he is not forced to make that particular hard choice, because Harriet Jones pulls rank and orders the missile launch.
But for all his mockery of Jackie and Mickey, the Doctor doesn’t really have a good answer for the difficult questions they raise. For now, his overriding excuse is that Rose is there voluntarily, something he forces her to reaffirm when he makes her choose between dinner with her Mom and a trip through a plasma storm in the Horsehead Nebula. The Doctor might even think that he is being fair in laying out the terms of TARDIS travel, but he knows that someone like Rose will never turn down a journey as incredible as the one he describes. The Doctor is willing to admit the dangers of his lifestyle, but he sells it to Rose—and, most likely, to himself—as the greatest adventure. The job of worrying can be left to those still standing there when the TARDIS dematerializes, desperately waiting for those ten seconds to end.
- As much as I don’t like certain aspects of Harriet Jones’ characterization, I really should point out that Penelope Wilton is excellent in the role. She does as best as anyone could with some of the sillier lines, and she’s entirely convincing as she starts to take charge near the end of “World War Three.” For all her earlier timidity, it doesn’t seem ridiculous when the Doctor calls her the architect of Britain’s Golden Age, and that’s a credit to the strength of her performance.
- Fine, one final knock on this story—the entire story does hinge on the idea that the United Kingdom requires United Nations approval before it can launch its own nuclear missiles, which seems like a massive contrivance. (My 20 or so seconds of research seems to confirm the implausibility of that, but I’m willing to hear counterarguments.) There’s any number of logical questions that this issue raises, including just why the Slitheen would choose to go through the UK to get to the codes when other countries presumably still have ready access to their nukes. I can only assume that the UK was easier to infiltrate than other nations; I can see the heightened security and clearer command structure of the United States making a takeover difficult, for instance.
- This Week In Mythos: The Doctor’s old employers UNIT make a welcome return, although this is the last time their acronym will stand for United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. It’s confirmed that the Doctor used to work for them, and there’s a cryptic reference to how much the Doctor has changed since his days working for them. He also mentions “900 years of time and space” in apparent reference to his age, though that could technically refer only to how long he has been traveling in the TARDIS.
- It’s a brief sequence, but I love the bit in “Aliens Of London” where the Doctor takes his TARDIS to the hospital so that he can do a little sleuthing. Christopher Eccleston’s tenure was so short that there are precious few moments of him just adventuring and investigating—he tends to have more “important” things to do—and so it’s nice to see him just quietly being the Doctor.
- For the record, I didn’t need to look up the spelling of “Raxacoricofallaptorius.” I’m both proud and ashamed.
Time And Relative Dimension In Spoilers (Don’t read if you haven’t watched the rest of the new series):
Right then, so let’s talk about what “The Day Of The Doctor” means to the 9th Doctor’s era. Interpretations vary as to just what happened at the end of the 50th anniversary special, but I’d say the balance of textual evidence suggests the 11th Doctor and company did in fact rewrite history; in other words, John Hurt’s War Doctor did indeed once burn Gallifrey, but now he didn’t. Either way, he regenerates into a Doctor who believes he committed double genocide, leaving Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation as broken as the Time Lord has ever been. Personally, I tend to think “The Day Of The Doctor” reaffirms rather than rejects the 9th Doctor’s arc, because it’s made clear in the special that only the 11th Doctor, with the benefit of 400 years of development, can see a way to save Gallifrey. Without the 9th Doctor’s fierce effort to reassert his own identity as the Doctor, his successors would never have found that other path; his incarnation’s suffering enables that subsequent triumph. The War Doctor, for all his last-minute redemption, still abandoned so much of what it means to be the Doctor, and one might even place his actions in the larger context of his immediate predecessors, who also struggled to define just what it means to be the Doctor; it’s Paul McGann’s dashing, romantic 8th Doctor who agrees to become a warrior, after all. In 2005, I didn’t quite understand why the Doctor would risk the deaths of millions just because he couldn’t guarantee Rose’s safety—especially since she wasn’t any safer if the missile wasn’t launched—but that stance feels more justified in 2013, now that I understand just how heavily that calculation weighs on the Doctor’s soul. But yes, reasonable people can continue to disagree.
Next Week: I’ll be taking a closer look at one of the best and most important episodes of this or any other Doctor Who season, “Dalek.”