Friday, May 19, 2006

Ridiculous 2: The Sublime

Doctor Who’s Slitheen two-parter (“Aliens of London” & “World War III”) was, for me, the first season’s low point and it was the only story I never even bothered writing about here at the Morgue. Most of my dislike stemmed from the Slitheen themselves, who - as the series’ most touted “new” creations – weren’t exactly my idea of cool villains. They looked pretty silly, which was maybe the idea, but particularly annoying was how they alternated back and forth between stealthy CGI monsters and men in rubber suits. Pick one or the other - but don’t display that sort of inconsistency. That was the deal-breaker for me buying into the Slitheen, which is noteworthy for a story that featured farting bad guys.

In the weeks preceding the transmission of “Boom Town”, the sole tagline attached to the story was something like “The Doctor meets an old enemy he’d long since thought dead.” Fan speculation ran rampant. Who could it be? The Master? More Daleks? When “The Doctor Dances” ended and “Next Time On…” played, there must have been a collective groan heard across the UK. (Except for the kids in the audience – British pre-teens loved the Slitheen.)

“Only three episodes left and one of them is a Slitheen story!?!?! Argh!!!”

At least it starred the one Slitheen I liked - Margaret Blaine (Annette Badland). Badland is one of those quirky, reliable actresses you’ve seen here and there over the years if you’ve watched enough British film & TV. I recognized her instantly from Angels and Insects, but perhaps her most noteworthy role is also one of her earliest: Michael Palin’s one true “love”, Griselda Fishfinger, in Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky - she who threw the potato at Dennis Cooper. Badland also recently scored a small role in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

“Boom Town” has much working against it, couched as it is between two mammoth two-parters, designed as an intimate character piece and well, the Slitheen. Upon my initial viewing, I wasn’t annoyed by it as I was by the previous Slitheen storyline – quite the contrary. It got me to actually like the Slitheen concept, which was a triumph and due in no small part to Badland's perfect portrayal of an alien stranded on a planet it detests.

However it also seemed bogged down in the soapier aspects of the season, notably Rose and Mickey’s ongoing story and for the first time, we’re given some straight-up social debate - the death penalty, and who has the right to enforce it. Wasn’t sure I was comfortable with that, either. The resolution felt pat which was the polar opposite of the story I’d just seen. It mostly seemed a throwaway “let’s save some money and catch our breath before the big finish” episode.

Multiple viewings & hindsight have proven me wrong. “Boom Town” is arguably Russell T Davies’ tightest DW work. It’s the one script of his that directly plays on what he does best, which is write engaging characters, at odds with one another, finding a way to work it out. Davies could pen an entire episode with just the Doctor and Rose sitting in the TARDIS talking to each other, and it’d be one of the highlights of a given Doctor Who season (actually, I’d love to see him do this).

The death penalty debate is the tale’s crux, and what sells it is that the argument is leveled squarely against the Doctor. Anyone familiar with the classic Tom Baker story “Genesis of the Daleks” will recognize “Boom Town” is Davies’ answer to the Doctor’s moral “Do I have the right?” dilemma for which that story is so famous. He has changed since wearing the scarf. He now feels he has the right, and that’s not the most reassuring notion about our hero. In this episode, more than any other, we see exactly what the Doctor has become in light of the many tragedies he’s endured and Margaret’s accusations against him will have a deeper resonance sooner than you think.

What initially bothered me in the soapsuds arena, I’ve also come to appreciate. The two “dates” that occur in the story are well conceived, played and executed (no pun intended). Rose and Mickey share quiet, personal drama that tells much about both, provided one bothers to listen. It’s a great piece for Noel Clarke who’s finally given some meat to chew – stuff set up here with Mickey is still playing out in the current season.

“Boom Town” is the type of affair only a show runner could write. It comes from a mind that knows the bigger Doctor Who picture and wants to plant seeds for the future. It’s easily the most underrated episode of the first season, and the one I find myself loving more and more upon each subsequent viewing.

Note to Viewers: It appears Sci Fi is taking a week off from Doctor Who and are having some kind of all day movie marathon next Friday. Oddly, one of the films they're playing is Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, starring Captain Jack himself, John Barrowman. (My friend Lee tells me this film has one of the greatest bits of atrocious dialogue ever written.)

The Doctor and Rose will return on June 2nd in "Bad Wolf"!