|So my choice is “or death?”
It’s June 4th, 2005. Crazy Frog is at number one with “Axel F.” Coldplay, Akon, Gorillaz, Oasis, and Gwen Stefani also chart, the latter with “Hollaback Girl,” one of the most wonderfully awful things ever recorded. In news, Vanity Fair reveals the identity of Deep Throat, Bob Geldof announces the Live 8 concert to coincide with July’s G8 summit, and Scottish Gaelic is given formal recognition in Scotland.
The recognition of Scottish Gaelic was part of a general trend under Blair’s New Labour government towards devolution of powers towards Scotland, Northern Ireland, and, most importantly for our purposes here, Wales. The creation of devolved legislatures and a new push for use of their native languages were only facets of a larger tendency towards national pride in the countries.
In Wales, at least, another facet was the expansion of the existent BBC Cymru Wales. The BBC always had a Wales-specific arm that offered regional programming, including Welsh-language programming, and did in-house drama productions like the BBC’s longest-running soap opera Pobol y Cwm. But with the rise of the Welsh National Assembly it became terribly politic to bolster drama production at regional facilities (in no small part because doing so gave the BBC a wider base of political support). And so BBC Cymru Wales was used to produce an increasing variety of English-language programming for broadcast outside of Wales.
This process coincided neatly with Julie Gardner getting headhunted from London Weekend Television in 2003 to become Head of Drama at BBC Wales. Gardner brought with her Russell T Davies’s Casanova project, which had been kicking around at LWT. Julie Gardner was the Verity Lambert of her day – a tremendously skilled television producer who combined a knack for getting along with just about everybody ever with an absolutely obsessive love of the medium. In particular she was a devoted fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a fact that gets put in every description like this out of the not entirely mistaken belief that Buffy was the model for the new series version of Doctor Who. (A statement that is certainly part of the story, but as we’ve seen over the past month, only part.)
Meanwhile, over at BBC One, Controller Lorraine Heggessey finally clawed the internal rights on Doctor Who back from BBC Worldwide, which was continuing to be spectacularly inept at making a film. She and BBC Head of Drama Jane Tranter approached Julie Gardner, seemingly out of a combination of a desire to put a high-profile drama in Cardiff and the knowledge that Gardner was already working with Russell T Davies on Casanova. Gardner was a tremendously hands-on Head of Drama on Doctor Who, serving as an executive producer and working closely with Davies. The two of them had tremendously shared taste in many things, Buffy included, and the result was that they largely adopted the US showrunner model where a head writer is also in the thick of day-to-day production and served as a primary auteur on the television series.
Davies had originally figured that there would be about six episodes, all written by him, but he was nudged towards an ambitious thirteen-episode order, which would require him to act as head writer over a stable of other writers. He wrote a thirteen episode outline, taking seven of the episodes for himself and allocating the rest to Mark Gatiss, Robert Shearman, Steven Moffat, and his mentor Paul Abbott. Most of these writers he gave a clear brief to, but Paul Abbott was apparently given a longer leash, and came back with a proposed story about how the Doctor had manipulated Rose’s history to make her the perfect companion for him.
This is the sort of thing one’s mind stumbles over, so let’s pause for a moment and look at this. It’s a story repeated often enough that one assumes at least some truth to it, although we should remember the sizable number of largely implausible bits of lore about the classic series and figure that we should take at least some of this with a grain of salt. Certainly it was determined that Abbott was not going to be working on the series fairly early on, and before any drafts of his script existed. Whether this is because of Davies having all of the very obvious objections to Abbott’s idea or because Abbott did not have time is one of those things that probably doesn’t have an entirely straightforward answer. Then again, Davies joked in an interview that Abbott wanted to wreck everything he’d set up, but that it would have been brilliant. Almost regardless of what one thinks about Abbott’s idea, it’s pretty certain Davies was half right.
Davies was also rapidly realizing that his life would be made a lot easier if he made a cheap episode somewhere in there. Because Doctor Who was so madly ambitious as a program its schedules were an absolute nightmare. Episodes were behind, hours were brutal, and the set was tense. Sufficiently so that Christopher Eccleston decided against doing a second year of the program, and has maintained a polite silence about his time on it (despite, by all accounts, being very proud of his work and liking making it). And so Davies decided to take the cheap episode on himself as an eighth script instead of sticking another writer with a crappy brief.
And so Davies, faced with the situation, made the obvious decision to do an episode set in contemporary Cardiff, it being right outside. So he brought back Annette Badland, who was impressing as Margaret in Aliens of London/World War Three, allowing them to use a monster who could appear human for most of the episode and could mostly just recycle an existing monster costume, and did an episode that consisted almost entirely of people talking on the standing TARDIS set or walking around Cardiff and, well, talking more.
It should be made explicit, part of why this episode exists is simply the good politics of doing an episode set in Cardiff if you’re going to have your program made by BBC Cymru Wales. Doctor Who was being made there, and indeed being made at all in part to bring attention and prestige to Welsh television production, and setting an episode there was just the right thing to do. And this characterizes Boom Town in a fundamental way. It is the story this season where you can see the strings. The construction of the new series is an omnipresent part of it – something we’ll talk about in just over a week when we look at Doctor Who Confidential, and highlighted on Friday when we looked at what Doctor Who Magazine was like in the Eccleston era.
Unsurprisingly, then, it’s the episode where the Bad Wolf element gets confirmed. It was always an open question how much attention Bad Wolf would get, and Davies has claimed that he thought nobody would notice. This is, it seems almost certainly, nonsense. The idea was developed slowly and idly, and was dropped in as a requirement for writers very late, hence the ludicrously arcane appearance of it in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, complete with, according to Moffat, a bad German translation that would be more accurately Rubbish Wolf. Indeed, in other accounts Davies decided to play it up in other scripts when Aliens of London was in production and Internet rumors began obsessing over the Bad Wolf graffiti on the TARDIS. In other words, Bad Wolf was always meant to be noticed by fans and was a part of the program explicitly and overtly made to cater to them.
So it’s fitting that it appears in an episode that is, in its own way, particularly fannish and wonky. Boom Town is conspicuous as an episode of television – one that savvy television recap sites like Television Without Pity or The AV Club are going to immediately and without needing to be told going to recognize as the season’s money-saver. But note that this is a very different sort of fandom to stereotypical “anorak-style” Doctor Who fandom. Boom Town isn’t aimed at people with encyclopedic knowledge of Pertwee-era production codes. It’s aimed at television geeks like, actually, Julie Gardner, whose knowledge of Doctor Who was minimal but whose consumption of television, like Davies, was absolutely voracious. (Steven Moffat wonderfully teases Davies at the end of most of his DVD commentaries, ending them with a comment to the effect of “to anyone who’s watching a DVD commentary to the end, goodnight Russell.”) If you really want a sense of it, and this is obviously where this entire line of thought about the material production of Doctor Who will eventually culminate, go read The Writer’s Tale, where Davies is the most obsessive TV nerd imaginable. This is the sort of person Doctor Who figures it can convert as a new sort of fan, and Boom Town is an episode that is meant to work for them.
Accordingly, it veers massively into the tell-don’t-show model that constitutes how you do Big Drama in 2005. So what we get is a big debate about the ethical premises of Doctor Who that’s thinly disguised as an actual plot. (It’s not actually at all – it’s outright just filler waiting to do the climax scene, which could have happened as soon as they brought Margaret onto the TARDIS save for the contrivance that the TARDIS needs more time to refuel.) It’s not what you’d call subtle by any measure, but it’s reasonably dramatic, and it takes a viewer adept at both cynicism and the cliches of modern television to avoid being taken in a bit by it. Elsewhere Davies will use the trick to make terribly dramatic statements about the nature of Doctor Who, but the one thing Doctor Who has meticulously avoided crashing itself into so far is Doctor Who, and so here we get an oddity of the Davies era: a story that’s got the big moral pseudo-debate that he uses to amp up the volume on all his season finales but that actually uses that debate as the content of the story instead of as a technique within a story that’s actually about something else.
But in doing so we see how fluffy the supposed moral debate about the Doctor actually is. There’s no decent substance to Margaret’s critiques, and in many ways the most satisfying moment of the episode is when, freed of the need to us this sort of furious metafictional questioning to churn out ballast for the dramatic stakes, the Doctor can actually deliver the line he can’t when given the same critique three seasons later in Journey’s End, “shut up, you’re a murderous psychopath.” It’s that – the Doctor’s marvelous “you justify atrocities to yourself because every once in a while you let one of them go” speech – that is the moment of cleverness in this episode, not any of the “you’re murdering me, that makes you as bad as I am” crap. And notably, when Margaret comes back to get the last word it’s to say that only a killer would know that, a line that resonates back to the Time War, i.e. to the actual narrative scar within Doctor Who, its own cancellation.
Elsewhere, Rose and Mickey switch shows slightly to do Rownd Cwm Powell, and have a conversation that helps advance their character bits, it having been two episodes since we last checked in with Rose’s soap opera. It’s worth remarking briefly on the deftness with which the series has managed to thread the soap opera, keeping it innocuous enough that you don’t realize it’s being set up for a massive finale, but present enough that it feels like an integral part of the show. After Aliens of London/World War Three kept EastPowellStreet in the mix on the program as it also did children’s telly and Whitehall farce, its next two appearances are in its retro 80s version and its Welsh version. It’s a perfectly serviceable episode of it, and a useful reminder of Rose in her most mundane setting, which, dramatically, we needed set up at this point in the series to pay off in the final episode. Again, the narrative strings are visible here.
The only person who gets poorly served by all of this is, unfortunately, Captain Jack, and it’s here, immediately after his absolutely triumphant debut, that some real problems start to sink into the character. In effect, the show is desperate to avoid him becoming Adric. He’s that very hard to write sort of companion for the Doctor, the one who can do the exposition instead of the Doctor. And he’s a campy alpha male. There’s a triumphant delight to his character, but as written it’s a one note joke. He works well in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances because he’s actually partially adversarial, and because he’s as capable of deforming the narrative as the Doctor, but in a very different and sexualized way. But now he’s part of the default mode of the program. And, well, he’s just kind of an ass. He’s often entertaining, but he does nothing to help the storytelling here, so much so that he basically gets left in the TARDIS in a manner usually befitting of K-9.
This isn’t motiveless – there’s the beginnings of the theme of arrogance that plays such a big part in the Tennant era here, in particular in the deliberately awkward exposition sequence to Mickey early in the episode. But it immediately starts to suggest that, fun as he is, Jack is a character who doesn’t quite fit within Doctor Who as a straightforward companion. Jack seems to feed that arrogance a bit too much. So what we have is a delightfully fun character too good not to use, but who doesn’t quite work within the show. This is, obviously, a thread we’ll follow up on extensively.
And then we have our strange little ending, where the TARDIS casually becomes a deus ex machina of frightening power. What’s interesting is specifically the uncanniness of it. In an episode where everything has been almost explicitly televisual we get an ending that’s willfully too easy. All the danger of the episode proves trivial, cleaned up in an idle “oh, but this is Doctor Who, and this pathetic villain doesn’t get to be this dangerous.” It’s arrogant in a way, but it’s also unnerving, suggesting a troubling and yet-to-be-explored depth to something that we’d been taking for granted as just a basic part of the series for too long. Since that first episode, the TARDIS hasn’t really been played up with a sense of wonder and magic (except a bit in Father’s Day). But now we’re reminded that it’s a sightly frightening object. And from that we go into a marvelous trailer that amounts to “next week, the show goes completely mental.” And suddenly, after an episode that amounted mostly to a strong sense that we understood exactly what this program was and how it worked, we get the lurching feeling that we haven’t even begun to explore its possibilities.