Sunday, 30 March 2014

'Aliens of London'

‘I don’t do families.’

Can the best Doctor Who stories be summed up in a question?
What was missing from every Aliens-invade-Earth Doctor Who story of the 1970s?

Best moment for Old School Who?
Glimpsing elements from the 1970s UNIT stories, but watching them being played out in this new version of Doctor Who is wonderful, surreal and exciting. While Twentieth Century Who excelled (and probably peaked) in the first three episodes of ‘Terror of the Zygons’ in 1975, with misty moors, spooky pubs, country lanes and space ships made out of pizza toppings – that story really came apart when we followed it to London for part four. Doctor Who in 2005 brings us the wider picture –  smashed landmarks, 24 hour media coverage, traffic jams, chaos and intrigue in the halls of power, and the reactions from council estates. And still the Doctor is at the heart of every one of these scenes. He’s the best expert on aliens that the world has ever had – still. Just as he was back in the day. He just hangs out in people’s living rooms as often as he does secret laboratories.

Best new thing?
These two episodes form the best-structured story Doctor Who has ever had, up until this point. Hands down. Everyone gets something to do. It even pulls off a triple-headed cliffhanger. It’s the same length as an old school four-parter – and it orchestrates itself beautifully. There are no slack bits, boring bits, or characters who don’t get their moment to contribute or shine. This is the biggest new thing in New Doctor Who at this point: characters who stay in character and say and do things beautifully in character.

They’d never have got away with that in the 20th century…
It’s the way it cuts straight to the heart of the story. Aliens land on Earth. Or rather, aliens fake aliens landing on Earth. What happens? Why? Where’s the real story? It’s in the juxtaposition of the cabinet room at Number Ten Downing Street with Mickey’s skanky kitchen and that of activated nuclear warheads and pickled gherkins. Doctor Who has never been as confident in its use of bathos and outrageousness as it is here. Also, it’s very political – the script is filled with references to bogus evidence of weapons of mass destruction and UN resolutions and very direct references to the ‘War on Terror.’ The comedy of it all allows it to be much braver in its satirical targets.

Hurray for Jackie Tyler – best guest moment?
I’m tempted to say Jackie Tyler again for almost every scene she’s in, but my favourite here is Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North. Penelope Wilton is the spiritual descendent of Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in New Who – kindly, bewildered and ultimately courageous. Her reactions to the unmasked Slitheen family members are absolutely priceless. Everything she goes here is golden. She didn’t return to the series half enough, as far as I’m concerned. I was longing to see at least one story in which she went to another planet. Something along the lines of the Brigadier trying to remain unflappable in the universe of anti-matter in 1973. Maybe it could still happen.

The ‘I love me Nan…’ moment
I don’t feel any of the emotions or character work are over-milked here. Everyone is spot on. I love Jackie’s reactions to seeing Rose again and the tears and shock of her coming back from the presumed-dead. The very human reactions to alien invasion are wonderful. Watch it happen on telly. Have a party to celebrate first contact. The other very welcome injection of pathos comes with the fabulously old-school scenes with the space-pig. Even that tiny walk-on / drop-dead role is imbued with proper emotion. He’s a victim and the Doctor’s righteous anger is marvelous. Nothing and no one is beneath this Doctor’s notice. He even finds a way, late in the story, to pay Mickey a compliment.

Here the mythos-building is to do with the way the Doctor is remembered on Earth. The internet knows about him. Mickey has been looking him up in the year that has passed since ‘Rose.’ When the word ‘Tardis’ is mentioned alarms are tripped, and the military are waiting for the Doctor, who hasn’t been seen around these parts for quite some time. In this story we get a great sense of the mysterious history of the Doctor on Earth and his secret career in foiling invasions. Of course, it’s less mysterious to us than it is to his new friends, and there’s a great frisson in the fact that this new series is embracing all those past adventures. Both old fans and new are being welcomed equally warmly.

Mickey’s getting into the UNIT files from his back bedroom and activating submarine missiles to destroy Number Ten really works here. It’s outrageous and we believe in it. But… Jackie says that she could stop him, any second, and save her daughter. And it’s true – all she’d have to do is smack him one or, even better, unplug his PC at the wall. This little moment stayed in my mind because, over the next few seasons, Doctor Who – like any other SF TV show, had quite a lot of computer screens on show. Cast members gazing at screens and clicking buttons very quickly and saving the day would become a bit too common for my taste. Here though, it works, because it’s still real and palpable somehow.

Where was I?
We watched this back in Norwich, on a return visit. We watched it with old friends. People I’d watched old Who with into the early hours over quite a few years, and we’d often have those conversations about what Doctor Who might be like if it came back. And here it was. I never gave a hoot about farting aliens and the comedy aliens because it was clear that they were nasty deep down in the good old-fashioned way. The story struck me then as great fun, and a way of resurrecting all those fabulous UNIT adventures of the past, but in a wholly modern way. Watching it again now, it’s clearly the best constructed and performed story in New Who so far.

Singlemost fabulous thing
I think it has to be the Doctor’s grinning excitement when he finds out that aliens are invading, and the way he sparkles whenever things take a turn for the worse. He reacts like someone has laid on a surprise party for him.

1 comment:

  1. I'm loving these retrospectives. Keep them coming, please.

    Here's a question for you Paul; if Big Finish ever won the rights to produce "new" series Doctor Who stories (and fingers crossed for this) would you personally be interested to write for Nine, Ten, or Eleven?