|But Mummy, I thought the television screens were in their|
stomachs. And that they didn’t kill people for fun.
It’s April 16th, 2005. That Tony Christie song is still at number one, with Will Smith, 50 Cent, Mariah Carey, and a variety of Elvis songs also charting. In news, Prince Charles marries Camilla Parker Bowles, Pope Benedict XVI was elected, and, most significantly, on the day World War III aired, YouTube’s first video, of co-founder Jawed Karim talking about elephants and how cool their long trunks are, was uploaded.
While on television, as mentioned, the first two-parter of the new series, Aliens of London/World War III. This is, if we’re being honest, probably the story most responsible for the wave of people who advocate skipping Eccleston’s tenure when getting into the series. Aliens of London/World War III is a profoundly awkward story, and the first point where the new series appears to falter. There’s a lot to say about the quality of the story, but I actually don’t really want to get into issues like quality on the new series for a while, so I’m mostly going to punt on that. Suffice it to say that any discussion of Aliens of London/World War III and its quality needs to first come up with at least some general theory of the opening two-parter, since in practice whatever this story’s flaws may be it was used as the template for the first two-parter of every subsequent Russell T Davies-era series, was recycled as the second two-parter for Series Five, and persisted in one-part form in Series Seven as The Power of Three. And that however dumb the farting aliens may be, they were deemed worthy of not just one but two comebacks. So we’ll deal with the basic question of why stories like this persist in Doctor Who on one of this story’s many descendants.
I also do want to briefly point out that this, more than anything else in the first series, is where you can really see that they’re still working on being good at making Doctor Who. There are mistakes here that are just down to still figuring out the format. Davies falls into an extremely lazy cliffhanger in the tradition of the classic series’ lamest: ones where a danger is spuriously invented and discarded after an episode’s worth of time. The mechanics of cliffhangers and two-parters are things that the new series keeps working on through to the present series, in which Moffat seemingly just gives up on them in despair. But before giving up on them he and Davies eventually developed the realization that you couldn’t just have a cliffhanger, you had to find a way to start the second half in a very different place than where the first half left off. And, on a very basic level, there’s the fact that the “next time” trailer comes before the credits, a wretched decision that got reversed for the very next two-parter. (As it stands it completely blunts the impact of the cliffhanger, which, given that it’s a soft cliffhanger to begin with, is deeply unfortunate.)
So there are mistakes that abound in this two-parter. But it’s easy to get more wrapped up in the week-to-week quality of the show than actually makes sense. The fact of the matter is that people do not suddenly abandon a television show after one bad episode. Fan fretting about quality tends to be based on the assumption of what a non-fan audience will do, which, for obvious reasons, fan audiences tend to be spectacularly bad at predicting. And while we might assume from the legacy of the wilderness years and Lawrence Miles that fans tend to assume audiences want Doctor Who to be more fannish, in practice they’re equally likely to assume that regular audiences will hate things that they merely don’t love. Which is to say that as much as Doctor Who fans bitch about the farting monsters, it’s not like any of us walked away and didn’t bother watching Dalek. And the general public? These episodes were the highest AI the series had reached so far. Which is to say that the supposed drop in quality of this two parter is, for the most part, an illusory fan construction. These episodes are perfectly serviceable television that continued the unfolding recreation of Doctor Who in the popular consciousness. Reviews beyond that seem vaguely superfluous.
So let’s turn to the internals of what’s happening here. One thing that is true about this story is that it marks the first place many of us noticed Bad Wolf. Certainly it’s the first place Bad Wolf presents itself in a screamingly obvious way, as opposed to in a fleeting bit of dialogue or as something that’s easily contextualizable elsewhere. The TARDIS says Bad Wolf on the side in big honking letters, and there’s nothing else going on around it to divert audience attention. Which is to say that this is the story where we start to see how the series is going to build towards its Season Finale. This is still a relatively new experience for Doctor Who. I mean, there had been season finales of sorts before, but as we noted previously, prior to 2005 nobody had ever quite successfully made the Doctor Who Season Finale work. And more than that, we may start to see it here, but we don’t know that we’re seeing it. Bad Wolf is a nagging mystery. Little of the key infrastructure of the finale is in place – we don’t even have Satellite Five or Daleks yet.
Nevertheless, Aliens of London/World War Three marks the point where Doctor Who starts moving towards long form storytelling in earnest. The previous three stories all developed Rose’s character, but they’re essentially stand-alones. Rose has an emotional arc in each one, but her arc is ultimately self-contained in each story and doesn’t have any major consequences that spill over into the next. At the moment she functions as something of a blank slate onto which a week’s lesson about the value of the alien and the strange can be projected. Which is fine – that’s a perfectly reasonable place for the character to be while we’re still in the “here’s what Doctor Who is” phase of the operation.
But Rose comes out of soap operas. And in Aliens of London/World War Three we open, in effect, with Rose asserting her narrative gravity over the series again. This is not immediately obvious looking at the story. After all, by all appearances it looks like “Doctor Who crashes into EastEnders,” or, perhaps more accurately at this point, some fictional show we may as well call EastPowellStreet. After all, the Doctor arrives on the Powell Estate and a very Doctor Who plot about alien invaders with preposterously baroque schemes plays out. And it would be easy enough to mistake this as exactly that, except for one tiny little detail, which is that Doctor Who has already crashed into EastPowellStreet, and, more to the point, it’s done it just three weeks prior.
Which means that Doctor Who can’t quite get the drop on EastPowellStreet throughout this story. Because in fact what’s happening is EastEnders has crashed into Doctor Who. And when this happens, as we’ve hammered home, it’s not a matter of iconography alone. It’s a matter of narrative logic and structure. What’s significant about EastPowellStreet crashing into Doctor Who isn’t just the Powell Estate and Jackie Tyler. It’s the fact that Jackie Tyler and Mickey have clearly had a year’s worth of plot lines go through, and, more to the point, that these plots continue out from Rose. It’s that, in other words, the Doctor is suddenly beholden to a bunch of ongoing story threads. Which is a big deal for him.
And the cheeky thing is, EastPowellStreet can subsume Doctor Who with no ill effects to Doctor Who simply because the soap opera structure already allows for characters’ plots to be left off for a while and then picked up again a few weeks later. So sure, Jackie and Mickey get left behind after this, but they’ll get another episode focused on them soon. (In fact, their appearances are spaced meticulously at three-week intervals over the season. Three weeks pass from Rose to this, Father’s Day is three weeks after World War Three, and Boomtown is three weeks after that.) That’s how soap plotting goes. This episode picks Jackie and Mickey up in one place (cleverly coming from some unseen episodes of EastPowellStreet) and leaves them off at a different emotional point that will have to be picked up and paid off in a future story. Jackie and Rose’s relationship is now strained, whereas Mickey and the Doctor are starting to warm to each other.
And watch also how indispensable EastPowellStreet becomes to the plot. The Doctor can’t beat the aliens without Jackie and Mickey, and the crucial scene of the whole thing is Mickey staring Jackie down and daring her to stop him. The solution comes out of EastPowellStreet, showing that Doctor Who isn’t just tethered to it, the relationship has become essential and symbiotic such that the two shows keep each other alive. Doctor Who teaches EastPowellStreet how to save the world.
But in doing this, Doctor Who has quietly hooked itself into long form storytelling. It’s a subtle influence of Rose on the series, but in bringing the Doctor back to the Powell Estate and all of its attendant narrative strands she has given Doctor Who a world it can never quite fall out of. The metaphor of a “rift” from The Unquiet Dead is telling – within the narrative space Rose has opened up a permanent door between the two narrative spaces.
On one level this amounts to a permanent tie to Earth. It’s often been observed that Series One has no stories that take place away from Earth. But that’s mainly a matter of budget and storytelling. What’s more significant is that the Doctor is tied to Earth. This is, of course, in part an invocation of the series’ past, and one that’s been going on since Rose. That story built its central imagery out of a memorable Pertwee-era story. This time we have the reappearance of UNIT, who knock about ineffectually in the background of the story, but whose presence tacitly connects the events of this story to the previous time the Doctor had a persistent string connecting him to contemporary Earth.
But more significant than the fact that this change is decorated with the accoutrements of the classic series is the way in which this string subtly and inevitably ties the Doctor into a season long plot, coinciding neatly with the more visual arrival of “Bad Wolf” (which, of course, literally turns out to be Rose ensnaring the Doctor into a metaplot). And so just by her presence Rose subtly shifts the way the series works, long before we’ve actually seen the elements of that plot. This is where Doctor Who turns into thing where what’s meaningful are the seasons, as opposed to the classic series where stories are, for better or for worse (I’d argue worse) treated as bespoke entries in an anthology of tales.
There’s also, in Aliens of London/World War III, a more than slightly impish engagement with the contemporary world in the form of casually killing off Tony Blair. This has at least a bit of a tradition within Doctor Who – both The Green Death and Terror of the Zygons replace the Prime Minister in throwaway jokes – but there’s a kind of wonderful lack of respect implicit in the move. Doctor Who is willing to casually overthrow the government. I mean, that’s one thing – and it’s never explicitly stated that Tony Blair is the Prime Minister who precedes Harriet Jones, although they pointedly do have the body they find look like him. You’d almost, just about, expect Doctor Who to kill Tony Blair, or, at least, to joke about doing so. (Actually, you’d expect him to be a Zygon.)
But in that regard the real bit of cheek is Harriet Jones herself – an intrepid backbencher who remains dedicated to her constituents even in the face of increasing absurdity, and who we are told will lead Britain into a new golden age. It’s unabashedly sentimental – the idea that what amounts to a virtuous everywoman in Parliament would be the greatest leader the country could possibly have – but in its unchecked sentiment (and Davies is never one to check his sentiment) there’s a real charm. Even if it is naive in any larger political sense, it’s a nice idea. And perhaps we should stop treating, in political discourse, “nice idea” as an insult.
On the DVD set the rough edges rankle. Davies will learn to better translate sci-fi ideas into character plot lines, avoiding things like the somewhat tedious deduction sequence as the Doctor figures out that vinegar will explode the Slitheen. He’ll learn to play major emotional beats better than “I could save the world but lose you.” He’ll learn what a two-parter plot structure actually looks like. And he’ll avoid creating anything quite as childish as fart monsters again.
(Even here the ghosts of the past rattle on; Robert Holmes loved a good fart joke.)
But while Series One was certainly made with one eye on the DVD set, it is also the least DVD-minded season of the new series. Its first concern – the one it reliably allows to override all other concerns – is the immediate present of 2005. Aliens of London/World War III isn’t playing for “all-time great classic of television.” It’s playing as part of an ongoing, meticulously unfolding process of birthing Doctor Who into the schedule of BBC One. It makes concrete moves towards that, both in subtly shifting the body of what Doctor Who is and in terms of laying down some of its ethical principles. The secret of alchemy is material social progress. On April 16th, you could just smell the mercury wafting up from the world.