5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
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ALIENS OF LONDON/WORLD WAR THREE
"I can't believe I'm here to see this."
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Buy first and second seasons box set: UK: box set not available US
We're having a great deal of trouble figuring out how we feel about this, the first two-parter of the new Who series. It's not bad, but it's not terrific either. There are some good parts, there are some bad parts, there are some parts that are just meh. That's not unusual, of course. But the problem is that none of the parts seem particularly related to each other. And that's most of its trouble. Overall, it just doesn't mesh itself together into any kind of coherent whole.
Let's start with the character stuff. Now considering how reliably we bang on about how much we like character development in Doctor Who, you'd think we'd be all for the Doctor/Rose/Jackie/Mickey plotline, wouldn't you? And we are, but only up to a point.
We like the idea of exploring the impact of someone disappearing off the face of the Earth on their friends and family: in fact, we think it's long overdue. We've always been curious about what happens next when the TARDIS doors close for the last time and the ex-companion re-enters the life they left behind. We don't get all of that here, of course, but we do get a thorough exploration of the part where the companion has some 'splaining to do. And it's done with flair, too, bringing up some intriguing possibilities, like Mickey being suspected of murdering Rose. Billie Piper does an excellent job of conveying the guilt Rose feels at realising what she's put everybody through by going off with the Doctor: it's true that by her timeline she's only been away a few days, but even that's plenty to strike dread into the hearts of your nearest and dearest if you disappear, and this is the first time that's been brought home to her.
We also like the way that the people left behind haven't just been stuck in amber while Rose has been away. Mickey in particular has done a lot of growing up (and thank God for that after Rose, where the poor guy was unfeasibly wibbly). He's gone through a lot, and while he's understandably a bit pissed off with Rose, he could have been a lot more bitter than he actually is. We're also impressed by the way he's never given up on her, researching the Doctor and keeping an eye out for the TARDIS despite the rather cruel brush-off Rose gave him. And even Jackie has moved on with her life.
And it's also interesting seeing the Doctor's reactions when dragged into a domestic setting. He just doesn't fit, and that's absolutely how it should be. While this situation never actually came up with the previous Doctors, this Doctor's reaction, while it seems callous, is just what we'd have expected. Can you imagine the Fourth Doctor stopping in to watch Corrie with Sarah Jane? Or the First Doctor turning up for Susan's parent-teacher evening? Ugh. So wrong.
So shepherd's pie isn't the Doctor's way. And it's this Doctor's way even less. It's not just that he doesn't do domestic: there's another factor at work too. This Doctor doesn't want his companion to hang around with other people, this Doctor forces her to choose, because this Doctor is jealous.
Hang on. Don't start frothing at the mouth. Think about it for a second: this Doctor is dependent on his companion in a way no other Doctor has ever been. Remember the Fourth Doctor talking about how he's never chosen his own company? He was right, too: for the most part, the Doctor's companions have been acquired by accident, not design.
But not this Doctor. He actively invites Rose to join him; he's open about how important she is to him (which makes us squirm, but oh well); he (at least at first) refuses to let her boyfriend accompany them; when she seems tempted to stay at home he does his best to lure her back into the TARDIS. It's not the icy self-sufficiency we're used to, and no wonder: this Doctor is alone in the universe. We mean really alone in the universe. As the last survivor of his race, he's in a pretty isolated position. Now he's found someone he gets on with, he's discovered that like she says it's better with two, and he's damned if he's going to let her slip back into her domestic round without a fight. It's not the Doctor as we used to know him, but it makes perfect sense.
So all of that's OK with us. What we do object to, though, is the Jackie factor. Yes, we understand Jackie's a concerned mum, and that no parent's going to greet the idea of their precious offspring disappearing across the cosmos in the company of someone distinctly dangerous with cries of joy. But do they have to go on and on and on about it? Puh-leeze. The girl's nineteen, not twelve. She's not a child who needs Mummy to look after her. And in all of the concern there isn't a single note of interest in what Rose is risking danger for: the chance to travel through time and space. In Jackie's total lack of interest in what Rose might be able to experience, it seems to us we're going back more than forty years - remember Ian and Barbara's tedious insistence on going home when they had the universe at their feet? Yes, Jackie does come round to the Doctor a little by the end, but that's because it's what her daughter wants, not because she sees any intrinsic merit in it. And her attempts to persuade Rose to stay by promising her she'll give up all kinds of stuff including a potential boyfriend are unbearably pathetic. Rose is an adult with a relationship and a job (or at least she did have a job before her workplace went up in flames). Isn't it time she left home anyway?
Apart from that, though, we do grudgingly concede that Jackie is slightly more bearable here than she was in Rose. She Grows and Learns in her changing relationship with Mickey (even if she does keep moronically harping on about Rose's safety when if she doesn't take a risk she and everyone else are going to be cinders). And Mickey has, to our astonishment, the best character arc here. He's heroic, he's quick-thinking, he's reflective. He even tolerates the Doctor being appallingly rude to him: to be frank, with this issue there's no contest here as to who's the bigger man. And he shows guts and self-knowledge at the end in the touching and effective scene where he admits his own limitations to the Doctor. The horrible mess made of his character in Rose is thoroughly redeemed.
We do wish, though, that we didn't keep coming back here. Isn't Doctor Who about exploring the universe? So why do we keep ending up in a council flat?
Billie Piper as Rose is, again, perfect. What else is there to say? As for the Doctor, to be honest we're still not entirely convinced. The dark stuff, yes, he's terrific at. But the mad bursts of energy with a grin plastered across his face? We're just not buying it. What we do like, though, is the very nice theme of the Doctor as a man trapped. In here, one of the Slitheen refers to him being "trapped in a box", which of course he is in the Cabinet room, but the box theme comes out again in the lift (as it did in Rose), and of course also refers to the TARDIS. And the trap theme works very nicely at the metaphorical level too. That's great writing.
So what about the rest of it? All the alien, farting, pig pilot stuff? Well, some of it's great, and some of it's godawful. Like Russell T Davies's earlier writing in the series, the tone's seriously off: while we're all for light and shade, here as before they're mixed very uneasily together, and it doesn't quite work. As with the dreaded Auton Mickey, the humorous bits undermine the scary bits and make them seem curiously pointless.
Take the Slitheen, for instance. Please. (Hur hur.) Sometimes they're genuinely chilling, and that's great. Then there's a volley of farting, or (yet another) ludicrous Benny Hill-alike chase scene, and all the ice goes out of it. It's such a waste: while the rubber-suit Slitheen are a disaster (and to think we fondly thought the days of rubber monsters were behind us), the CGI Slitheen are fantastic, all threat and speed. Yet they're thrown away on gigglesome scenes of the heroes running extremely slowly through doorways, farce-stylee. As with Auton Mickey, it's as if they're worried these scenes will be too scary for the kiddies and so they undercut them with humour. So why bother with them at all?
Then there's all the forehead-unzipping: this is massively effective at first, but it's reused so often that we start to get the impression the Slitheen spend 90% of their time getting changed. Ooh, how evil. And the other 10% of the time, of course, they're giggling about their farts. We're not actively opposed to the fart jokes in principle - they don't exactly do a great deal for us, but the 10-year-olds in the audience probably like them - but we do object to them when they undercut that vital alien scariness. Which is most of the time.
As for the alien plot in general, it's a bit of a mess. We think having the Doctor watching things unfold on television is a horrific mistake: if there's any slumping in front of the box to be done, we'll do it ourselves, thank you. It's the last thing we want to see the Doctor doing (even if we did enjoy the alien helpline gag). The use of real presenters like Andrew Marr is a great and effective wheeze, but the tradeoff in passivity is too high a price. (It also seems just a bit too pathetic an effort on the Doctor's part.)
Just when we thought we were going to spend the rest of the episodes watching the Doctor watching TV, we finally get to the scene of the action. And hey, look, it's UNIT! We think the UNIT stuff's very well handled: enough to make sense to long-term fans, while not so much it would baffle the Who virgin. Although not using actual UNIT troops is a bit of a wasted opportunity.
On the other hand, there's a lot of nasty fudging around the troops: if they're so well-trained, why don't they shoot the Doctor when they're ordered to, instead of politely waiting for the Doctor to finish his sentence? Aren't they just a little too gullible swallowing the Doctor's bluff? And did you spot the cutting between the lift opening and then closing again? That's because they couldn't afford to show that the length of time it takes for a lift door to open and close is sufficient for even the most sharpshooting-challenged soldier to plug the Doctor between the eyes.
Then there's all the hideous stuff with the passwords. Buffalo overrides everything? Argh. If the Navy's systems are that easy to hack into and their password system is so cretinous, God help us all. (And we're sure that somebody in the Navy does actually know how to spell "override".)
And the pig. Oh, dear. It's meant to be a touching moment, but how could it possibly be anything other than smirksome? At Androzani we're such animal lovers we let the office cats sleep on our chairs while we work sitting on the floor, but even we couldn't work up any empathy for a man in a pig suit. And then there's the unforgivably cliched scene with the scientist babe in the high heels and glasses who hears thumping from the inside of a mortuary drawer and walks towards it as if in a hypnotic trance instead of legging it. Yes, they undercut the cliche afterwards with the pig, but that doesn't justify it in the first place. It's hard to get drawn into the story if the writing itself sends it up. (The "massive weapons of destruction" gags drag you out of the story in the same way.)
Set against all this, though, we like the idea that the aliens want to destroy the Earth to make a profit - it's a refreshing change from world domination for the sake of it. And we like the family aspect of the Slitheen too. The Slitheen actors, when they're not giggling and/or unzipping, all do a lovely turn in menace. The wonderful Penelope Wilton (star of one of the most underrated sitcoms, Ever Decreasing Circles) is dazzling as Harriet. (Although if you can't work out from the heavy-handed foreshadowing that it's her who's the next PM, someone must have swapped your brain for a blancmange.) And the alien spaceship landing in the Thames is gorgeous.
Overall, there are some problems with pacing: we like the extra room the double episode format gives for plot development, but it's not always used to advantage. Things often seem to meander along, lurching forward in irregular bursts before getting stuck in a rut again. The stuff with the soldiers hunting the Doctor just seems like padding, and so does all the corridor-running. There's too much repetition: the alien stuff we've already talked about, but smaller stuff too, like the Doctor facing a roomful of soldiers who all train their guns on him, followed later by the Doctor stepping out from the TARDIS to be confronted with lights and guns. And the direction is sadly undistinguished. Two episodes out of thirteen is a big investment, and we'd like to have seen that pay off a bit better.
Some good bits. Some bad bits. Don't ask us to get more specific.
MORAL: Politics. It's a load of hot air.
We were wondering why, when the Doctor and Rose leave her flat to go outside and have a chat, what looks like a standard location shot should look so terrible. Of course, all is explained a few seconds later when a whacking great spaceship zooms past in the "sky", but couldn't they have been a bit more careful? The lighting on Rose in particular is appalling.
IT NEVER GETS OLD
The Doctor's awfully gushy about the whole "I can't believe I'm here to see this" thing, isn't he? You'd think after more than 900 years of trawling around the galaxy gawping at historic events, he'd be a bit more blasť by now.
AN OPEN AND SHUT CASE
When Harriet sneaks into the briefing room, the protocol briefcase is open, but before she rushes off she closes it.
Do we detect some borrowing here from Men In Black? The way the Slitheens' eyes close, including the little noise, is exactly the same as the first alien you see in MIB. Jackie and Mickey getting covered with entrails after the Slitheen explodes is also a MIB joke.
"The emergency protocols! We need them!" They're the only copy?
And the Doctor says "Sorry", yet again.
LET THE ANOREXIA COMMENCE
Urgh! We hate Rose's line about wishing she had a compression field so she was a size smaller.
If the building's falling, why is the cupboard flipping back and forth?
I'M WALKING IN THE AIR
Just after the scene where the Doctor gets the kid to wipe off the Bad Wolf graffiti, there are two long shots of Mickey sitting down, intercut with two medium shots. In the medium shots, he's got his feet much closer together than in the long shots.
Buy this Dr Who DVD: UK US: DVD not available
Buy entire series DVD box set: UK
Buy first and second seasons box set: UK: box set not available US