Monday, September 27, 2010

"Boom Town"

Doctor Who (2005) - Series One
Airdate: June 4, 2005
Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper
Written by Russell T Davies
Produced by Phil Collinson
Directed by Joe Ahearne

This is the first of six consecutive "Doctor Who" (2005) episodes to be written by Russell T Davies. It's a remarkable run, demonstrating an incredible breadth of styles, tones, and approaches, reveling in the flexibility of this series. By the time these six consecutive episode have run their course, the show will be in a very different place, but it will also be thoroughly entrenched as a modern television institution.

But this episode, along with "The Long Game", is often cited as one of the weak links of this first series. I understand why this is the case, but I don't agree. It's a low-key episode, a budget-saver without actually being a bottle episode1. So while the premise of the episode sets-up the threat of a giant nuclear explosion in the center of Cardiff, and the resolution provides plenty of noise and spectacle, the bulk of the episode is very talky.

I really like that about it. I can't imagine what kids must have thought, but I suppose there's enough in there to keep them satisfied if they can be patient through the middle. But for me, it's the middle that I really love. After discovering that one of the Slitheen from "World War Three" escaped and has become Lord Mayor of Cardiff, the Doctor (along with Rose, Jack, and Mickey) quickly captures her. But he can't take her back to Raxacoricofallapatorius until the TARDIS finishes refueling off the energy in the Cardiff Rift. That gives them several hours to spend together, waiting.

Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen, aka "Margaret Blaine", explains to the Doctor that she is to be executed, and pleads with him to show her some level of mercy. What follows is a wonderful conversation about the death penalty, the possibility for redemption, and the moral implications of clemency. It's rare that an American series will tackle a controversial social issue like the death penalty quite so directly. You usually get parables or metaphors or superficial pablum. But then, I gather the death penalty is a lot less popular in the UK than it is in the US.

The other major arm of the episode involves Mickey and Rose. She's left him twice now to travel with the Doctor, and she makes it clear that she'll be leaving again. But she also made it clear that she wanted to see him. So she's got some mixed feelings. I think she's genuinely torn between incompatible desires, and (perhaps a bit selfishly) is trying to have her cake and eat it too. But nobody ever said that Rose was perfect. Despite her shortcomings, or perhaps because of them, she's still a compelling character.

One last this I need to mention. This episode explicitly draws attention to the whole "Bad Wolf" thing for the first time. It's a chilling moment, but ultimately, it's just foreshadowing. People tend to call this a story-arc, as if "Doctor Who" was actually "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" instead of just being influenced by it. That's wrong. It's not a story-arc. It's a random bit of foreshadowing seeded throughout the series to build intrigue and suspense, and it works, but a story-arc is more than that.

1 It would very difficult for "Doctor Who" to do a real bottle episode. With such a small regular cast and only one standing set, it would be difficult to make a story work under such limitations. Difficult, but not impossible, and I'm disappointed that the new series still hasn't really tried it.


MosBen said...

I think the Bad Wolf stuff worked really well as the series aired, but in retrospect is kind of weak. I'm not sure if we should wait until 'The Parting Of The Ways' to talk about the particulars, but I think this show did a great job seeding a big surprise in season 3, but otherwise didn't do it very well.

Drew Vogel said...

Yeah, I addressed the "Bad Wolf" stuff in "The Parting of the Ways", since that's where it gets explained.

jimheartney said...

They have done bottle shows, but they were the Children in Need specials, so they are only a few minutes long. "Midnight" was about as close as they have come in the main episodes.

It's true that this episode is talky, but in a good way. I enjoyed seeing the Slitheen alternately trying to kill the doctor and sweet-talk him. And it's written smart, not stupid; the Doctor fully understands what she's up to, but even so that doesn't completely blunt the force of her arguments. (Contrast this with the scenes in "Rose" where Rose fails to notice that Mickey has turned to plastic. Unbelievable stupidity in your characters rarely works.)

"Bad Wolf" probably worked better contemporaneously than it does now because the final payoff was a bit lame. The season 3 big ending reveal was more commensurate with the foreshadowings, which were also less of a sore thumb than all the "Bad Wolf" sightings.

Drew Vogel said...

I rationalize "plastic Mickey" away by assuming he didn't really look like that. They just wanted the audience, including the kids, to understand what was going on, and they went a bit too far. It's sort of like how Zygons don't really zip up the back, so we willingly ignore the zippers when we see them.

Gavin said...

I'd defend Plastic Mickey in a different (though related) way. It's unrealistic (but not all that unrealistic if one envisages the scene from Rose's perspective - see further below), but it's unrealistic with a purpose.

a) Those scenes are fundamentally comic. If you grant that Doctor Who can do comedy, you can perhaps be persuaded to grant that when it does, one should approach it in those terms, and allow for exaggeration and caricature for effect. Specifically, the humor here is all about the fact that Rose completely fails to see what is so obvious to the audience. If it's not visually obvious, it's not funny that she doesn't see it - it's scary.

b) It's not just humor. It says important things about the character of Rose and about the world of the show.

On the first count, this underlines just how self-absorbed Rose is and how little she is really emotionally involved with Mickey. Both points get picked up later on in the series. Rose doesn't notice that Mickey isn't Mickey because she isn't paying any attention to him, and is essentially talking to herself.

On the second count, it's part of how the show presents this world (or, for longtime viewers, its new version of this world). Rose fails to notice what she should immediately after her encounter with the conspiracy freak - an encounter which leads her to conclude that there can't be anything strange happening because only crazy people like that could believe otherwise. One recurrent theme of the series is that there are powerful forces of rationalization and willed ignorance that pull people back to believing that there can't be anything outside ordinary life.