Doctor Who: Slitheen – The Green, the Good and the Ugly (Whovember #9)

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The first retrospective of the new series finds the lonely Ninth Doctor on his short travels. In particular, a look at his complete adventures involving the new series first recurring villains. Bold and unforgettable maybe, but were they any good: The family Slitheen.

New-Whovember, the sequel to Whovember as Doctor Who Series Eight returns…

#9: The Return of the Returning Monster: Aliens of London, World War III and Boom Town

IT’S APRIL 2005 AND THE DOCTOR’S ADVENTURES HAD PROVED AN UPROARIOUS SUCCESS. Four episodes in, after visiting the past and far future with new companion Rose, he returns to London for the first time. We’d already learned about the Time War, the TARDIS, the Time Lords, met old rogues in the Autons and new villains in the Gelth. But now there was something more crucial. Episodes four and five formed a two-parter. The first two-parter of the New Series. This wasn’t just show runner Russell T Davies’ chance to create a feature film for Sunday afternoons (ahem, still not happened BBC…) but also the return of the one giant and so far missing Who staple… The Cliff-hanger.

 Aliens of London (Series One, 2005)

 …While the TARDIS is graffiti’d ‘Bad Wolf’, Rose is in the dog house

And what a great and powerful start Aliens of London has, not only giving a brief and wise recap of all adventures Tyler (with that run into the TARDIS) but dramatically filmed reminder that the Doctor’s not infallible. Assuring Rose that she’s been away 12 hours, it’s reassuring for us to know he still mixes up hours and months after a few episodes of uncharacteristic accuracy. After the sting, while the TARDIS is graffiti’d ‘Bad Wolf’, Rose is in the dog house.

The domestic drama works really well here, tugging heart strings, adding depth to TARDIS travels and hitting some comic highs. The copper quizzing the Doctor about the sexual nature of their relationship, her mum quizzing the Doctor on his age (“One hell of an age gap”) before and whacking him. Escaping to the roof, Davies even takes the chance to seize the word “gay”. He’s clearly having a whale of a time with this distraction…

While on the roof of the Powell Estate, sirens buzzing, there’s a neat counterpoint to Rose’s dilemma of a life with her family or aboard the TARDIS. Neat counterpoints become a running theme in an excellently plotted adventure. The crash itself is a brilliant, long set-piece. Brilliant model work, soaring shots of the capital, fine CGI and a retro-slicing shot on Big Ben before a plummet into the Thames. “Oh it’s just not fair” is all Rose can say as the Doctor laughs, not even needing to shout “Run”.

It’s then the benefit of the soap family really comes into play. The hook here is great. As the Doctor says, he “travels to see history”. Here there’s no fore-knowledge, no fixed point in time as there could be in later adventures and no need to address humanity’s short memories. That is a given in Who, but that doesn’t mean the show can’t have the cake of a first contact story with it.

 Trotters

 From tension to action to pathos…

Of course, Davies subverts the formula. This is a story that unfolds without the Doctor, and one he has to watch on a TV back in Peckham’s Powell Estate. Against the backdrop of more domestic turmoil, grappling with a toddler for the remote and even a post-modern Blue Peter cake. Red caps appear, hinting at classic science fiction. Cameos by the likes of the BBC’s Andrew Marr deepen the mystery of the Prime Minister’s disappearance, while in the hospital – the Albion hospital we will see again later in the series – there’s the alien mystery. The story balances both the classic alien and what’s surely its biggest focus; a lot of close to the bone satire.

At Number 10, amid the junior minister’s panic, the spin doctoring and of course, Harriet Jones, there unravels one of the neater invasions in Who history. While the Doctor enjoys being lost, the main tragedy is that, while he relishes that lack of interference, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the crash is a hoax. In the background, Bowie’s Starman adds some fitting soundtrack class.

Away from the crowd, the Doctor takes his time. A rare occurrence of the Doctor enjoying some discrete and measured TARDIS navigating, with room for some Mickey comedy as well.

The ‘alien’ escape mirrors the TV movie, surely a thought at the time. It’s quite chilling, and when the Doctor’s reversal as he takes charge of the army switches from tension to action to pathos. “It was scared” …

“Seems very human to me”

… A tale where cause and effect is centre stage

There’s clearly more to these still unseen villains than meets the eye. In Number 10, the silly flatulence jokes were heavily defended at the time, but they serve a purpose. The Doctor’s discoveries build the ideas of a hoax that builds nicely to the bodysnatching. Back in Peckham, Rose is still caught between reality and TARDIS life – the man “much more important’ than a boyfriend.  It’s the Doctor who actually terms the disturbance a “domestic” amid great banter with Mickey. As with many parts of the plot, it serves a purpose. Jackie’s call, responding to the television ‘appeals’ triggers what may be the cleverest ruse of all: Number 10’s CODE 9 TARDIS alarm. Despite prostrations to stay undercover, the Doctor is overjoyed to be cornered, to be “Noticed” as “the ultimate expert in extraterrestrial affairs”.

UNIT receive a subtle introduction, befitting such a media focussed tale. “Good people” the Doctor muitters.  The Patrick Moore joke would be picked up by Steven Moffat in his first tale as show runner. But of course in a tale where cause and effect is centre stage, Jackie faces the anguish of seeing her daughter hauled off in the trap she triggered.

Politically, Davies picks up the game as the Doctor speeds to Number 10. “Lloyd George used to drink me under the table” says the Doctor – not knowing the Prime Minister of the time and setting in motion the precursor to Harold Saxon via Jones.

“Not a diversion, it’s a trap”

An over-baked cliff-hanger

For such a measured and plotted opening, the journey to the end has one major weakness: struggling under the pressure of over-baked cliff-hanger. Of course, it was a great temptation. With the main players split, the Doctor’s in the briefing room taking charge with the main villains; Rose, Harriet and Junior Minister are uncovering dead Prime Ministers falling from cupboards like they’re on the Ark in Space with another Slitheen and;  and Jackie is trapped in her flat with a dubious policeman with a zip in his head. By the cliff-hanger sting, Davies has added electrocution, physical violence and kitchen cowering.

Those physical, proper zips in the forehead is a nice touch, capturing the ragdoll nature of the Slitheens’ brand of ridiculous bodysnatching, even if the transformation is a little strained. There’s no doubt that the Slitheen, despite being large and green are distinctive. It’s a real shame that the live puppetry doesn’t match the CGI speed and feral movements.

World War III (Series One, 2005)

A loaded cliff-hanger infinitely more forgivable as it’s not cheated…

What a title to use this early on in the show’s run – but not an inaccurate one. The over-egged cliff-hanger is made more apparent by the trimmed down reprise, although it’s infinitely more forgivable as it’s not cheated as later cliff-hangers will be. The Doctor, albeit using some Alien mojo solves it, triggering ET style reciprocation in the other Slitheen threatening the tale’s heroes.  There then follows a race through the corridors of power, where the jarring CGI is most apparent – and some fine comedy and tension latched as Doctor Who’s stab at Silence of the Lambs locks the main protagonist in the cabinet room for the resolution.

“Let sport begin”

…These monsters become far more inept

The Slitheen make for a curious creation as they mastermind this Die Hard style clamp down at the centre of UK politics. There’s a weird solidarity in their out of persona chat and then the interesting revelation during the stand-off with the Doctor that they aren’t a species at all, but a family. Nice twist, but maybe not as original as it seems. After all, Dalek are generally a little more than cousins.

Alongside the ill fit between the cute puppetry and feral, speedy CGI, the oddest part is that once their plan is fully in motion, these monsters become far more inept. That matches their true form and family jabbering, but it’s not panic in the face of the Doctor’s actions. They aren’t all comedy however. Their baby faced-doll quality adds sinister to their gratuitous violence and super strength. And in their stand-off with the Time Lord, they are smart enough to call the Doctor’s bluff and let him talk himself into the smugness of the 1991-installed 4 inch steel-lined cabinet room – not that this doesn’t play into his longer game.

The closed confines of the Cabinet Room bring some more sublime Davies moments (“I never asked his name” as he moves the corpse of the Junior Minister). The remote support and sub-plot comes from Mickey and Jackie’s rapprochement in the face of danger. It may not be as apparent as the first part, but the story remains brilliantly paced and plotted.

War of the Worlds

This is the most overtly political story ever told in Who

In an episode almost entirely centred on Number 10, this is the most overtly political story ever told in Who. It wasn’t missing from the classic series of course. Robert Holmes often probed politics with his scintillating dialogue, no more than the satire of The Sun Makers. Before that, Malcolm Hulke’s tales had plumbed environmental concerns as much as his left-leaning convictions, from The Silurians to Frontier in Space among others.  Near the end of its run, Graeme Curry’s The Happiness Patrol, a thinly disguised observation on Thatcher’s Britain, may be the most cutting of its first 26 years. New Who would and does continue to dig with lines here and there, but here the message couldn’t be clearer.

World War III was produced eight years into the Blair administration, a few short years after the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq. The resolution hinges on the ‘nuclear’ codes that reside with the UN “Given our past record”. The danger, it’s suggested is this time very real with “weapons that can be deployed in 45 seconds”. Here it is England who provides convincing evidence to the UN that these weapons of mass destruction do exist. At home Jackie is glued to the TV.

If there is any doubt, the story ends with Number 10’s complete and very real destruction after a Bond-plot ruse. Of course, there would be repercussions, hinted at the by the Doctor’s inability to remember where he has heard Harriet Jones’ name before. Her glorious destiny as the glorious architect of the golden age of Britain would prove to be a movable point of time – thanks to the Doctor’s intervention.

A New Connection

…Davies not only destroys Number 10…

It’s a great and real advent of the show’s wilderness years that proves pivotal. The Doctor uses the internet to foil the aliens’ plot, albeit remotely. In Rose it had been obvious; here it’s a real example of the Doctor using, or having not to ignore it, to save the day. A real strength of the show, the time traveller who can just accept change isn’t scuppered by it.

There’s time for some red herrings before. In a nod to The War of the Worlds and The Day of the Triffids, vinegar (acetic acid) proves to be an excellent delaying tactic if not fatal weapon against the Slitheen. Having hooked up and empathic aliens, the resolution couldn’t be that simple. A lot of the tale is shown from the Slitheen’s perspective, not from main characters. While there are tests of devotion in the close confines of the Cabinet Room, the real star is the modern’s series Harry Sullivan. No, not medically but as an imbecile. “Mickey the idiot, the world is in your hands”.

“Oh B…” the Slitheen’s last words cut out… And Davies has managed to not only destroy Number 10 but replace the head with a character of his own choosing!

Then there’s just time for the resolution of Rose’s choice. Of course, it wouldn’t really be resolved for a while yet. The long, emotional goodbye and then Jackie and Mickey’s sloping off in opposite directions prove that.  Telling that the Doctor insisted the responsible party removed the “Bad Wolf” graffiti from the TARDIS exterior instead of the winds of the Time Vortex. Stacked in broad comedy and possibly one of the best plotted serials in the whole of Who, the contemporaneity of the two-parter’s plot has probably left it further out in the cold than the intervening nine years.

Laced with some silliness, but some also real sinisterness, and kept hidden in human disguises for long swathes, the Slitheen’s first adventure has improved with age. Really, it’s the mildly Dalek voices, stereotypically green hue and ill fit for physical and CGI that hurt them the most. But clearly they are utterly alien.

Boomtown (Series One, 2005)

So much had changed by the time Series One reached its climax. The Daleks had returned, or one at least, in a chilling, dramatic and brilliantly paced showcase of their abilities. The Long Game had provided a fitting tribute to classic Who while throwing up light mystery that, little did we know, would come to bear on the climax of the series. Father’s Day had brought paradox back into the Who fold far more than any story since 1972’s Day of the Daleks and given us a far greater insight into the universe post-Time Lord. Perhaps the biggest impact came with the series’ second two-parter. Not only had The Empty Child introduced Steven Moffat as a Who writer, but also raised the bar for special effects, drama and scares far beyond expectation. That was a difficult act to follow, and the task fell to the Slitheen’s return. Boom Town.

Preceding the two-part finale, Boom Town may well have been a Doctorless episode in other years. Good thing it wasn’t, considering how little of the Ninth Doctor we actually saw. It is however, clearly a bottle episode. Another trick picked up from American TV, along with the sweeps-like episodes, two-parters and 45 minute format, it was the chance to fill the schedule inexpensively. And what better way than to bring back an old monster, the first recurrence in the new series, and take the TARDIS interior and Cardiff as its setting.

First comes a recap of the events of Aliens of London, odd out of context, but ensuring a high octane start to the episode by association. And very relevant.

Six months later…

Not groundbreaking, but solid…

It’s almost a step back to Third Doctor territory with a corridor shot of a civil office and an anxious architect imploring a civil superior to abandon a project. That superior is none other than Lord Mayor Margaret, clearly not deceased following her last adventure thanks to a wrist transporter. It is the transformational the Slitheen reveal that breaks for the titles, although this time the monster is wisely covered in shadow – a lesson learned from the first appearance no doubt.  With a city threatened to be wiped from the map and high level corruption it’s apparent that while Boom Town won’t be groundbreaking it should be solid.

We meet the TARDIS crew as part of a jolly jaunt around Doctor Who’s adopted city. Cardiff station and Mickey alighting a train. Cardiff bay looks resplendent, especially with the TARDIS parked there.  There’s the neat little reference to the rift and the previous adventure The Unquiet Dead, but little do we know that the Torchwood Hub lies under there. Of course, with the Ship parked up for refuelling, this nod ads an immediate time factor and a chance to explain the TARDIS’ outdated appearance.

Onboard we find the fullest TARDIS crew yet as Mickey joins Rose and Jack. It’s an interesting combination, pulling some great banter from all, especially with the Doctor still insisting on calling Mickey Ricky.

If there’s an oddity about Boom Town, it’s that the Slitheen as we know it makes an appearance. It’s strangely and commendably laced with ambiguity. The main story kicks off with a rather strange trinket at the press unveiling of the Blaidd Dwrg project, continuing the theme of the Slitheen using power to cause destruction. The journalist who confronts Margaret covers tension, subversion of expectation, as well as the obligatory Slitheen jokes, some great comedy dismissal and the only real look at a Slitheen itself.

Not only does the journalist escape, but the press conference handily gives the TARDIS crew some focus. The newspaper reference is a nice media continuation of the television as a magnifying glass on the action of the Slitheen’s first adventure. This is proto-Torchwood, not least in showcasing Jack’s strategy and intelligence, but also so much simpler and neat

The Chase

“Slitheen heading north”

After a comedy chase – again reinforcing Mickey the idiot as the new Harry Sullivan – the comic climax of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver disrupting Margaret’s teleport – Boom Town hits new territory.

Plot-wise, the model was the trick (an unwitting precursor to Iron Man II!) – with a pan-dimensional surfboard that allows the character’s to hauntingly ponder the recurrence of the Bad Wolf motif (here, with the apparently randomly named Blaidd Dwrg) with its haunting Murray Gold score. And with a “nah, just a coincidence” the Doctor dismisses it… And we settle into a moral quandary.

Life and Death

“Technology of the Gods”

The idea of a death penalty quickly ruins Rose’s fun, but the Doctor is strangely certain. Surely that “Not my problem” response can’t be retained. The TARDIS necessitated 12 hour delay gives plenty of time for contemplation aboard the ship Margaret terms as “technology of the Gods”. Little religious quips like this help immeasurably in backing up the moral issue at stake. When Margaret succeeds in her last request, a strangely jolly walk see the Doctor and Margaret on their date as Mickey and Rose similarly dine over a difficult topic. There’s lovely balancing and a sea of greys. And still writer Russell T Davies gets to shoehorn in some physical comedy and a slight love note to his Cardiff.

The earlier side note with the journalist adds weight to Margaret’s claim that she’s changed. More than a red herring, there’s little reason to believe she hasn’t – even when her true plan becomes apparent. Boom Town wends its way a little more cleverly than it first appears.

A Female Resolution

“Pleading for mercy from a dead woman’s lips”

Russell is playing with dark themes for the majority of the tale, so any resolution or fall to a one-dimensional resolution would be a letdown. Fortunately, against expectation, it retains a strong line in cause, effect and morality. It’s not the thunderous TARDIS explosion that proves to be a typical Davies deus ex machina here, but the TARDIS itself. When Margaret’s plan B proves effective, using the power of the alien TARDIS to cause the destruction that the power station would have wrought and secure her escape on the Extrapolator.

The moral quandary is lost the moment that Margaret uses physical force against Rose, but it’s the TARDIS who intervenes and fittingly, gives her the route out. The opening of the heart of the TARDIS and its hypnotic effect on Margaret leading to her simple “Thank you” and the Doctor’s calm response. Some things are best left to his wife after all. With the explanation of telepathic understanding, Margaret gains a new chance at life, regressed to an egg by powers even beyond the Doctor’s true understanding. With Mickey abandoned by Rose, the question left is whether Rose could ever get that chance.

It’s a satisfying conclusion for a nuanced if slight tale, and one that makes a rather subdued conclusion to the political bombast of the giant green alien’s first appearance.  As we head into the series’ final two stories the TARDIS fades against the inscription on the Wales Millennium Centre. The fitting Welsh and English combination “Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration; In These Stones Horizons Sing”

Boom Town may get an unfair wrap in the history of the show’s triumphant first series. Perhaps it’s given slightly too much credit thanks to Ecceleston’s disappointingly short tenure. In any event it stands little chance sandwiched between two two-parters that remain some of Doctor Who’s high points.

Many a thing is consolidated and foreshadowed in this slight tale. The heart of the TARDIS and the power of the time vortex would prove vital at the series conclusion and even up to 2013’s Day of the Doctor. The idea of an abandoned TARDIS would similarly come up again and again. Perhaps most crucially, Boom Town was a dry run for Torchwood that would appear in the mythos the following year and a welcoming thank you to the City that provided such a welcome home for the show’s return.

The mystery of Bad Wolf would soon be solved and this serial further overshadowed as it was. But really, for a monster that so surprisingly took the crown of the New Series first returning villain, the family Slitheen’s tussles with the Time Lord have stood up incredibly well.

 TIMEY-WIMEY:  Coming next…  The Tenth Doctor’s Historical Japes

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