Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting WORLD WAR THREE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting WORLD WAR THREE

Previously on Doctor Who…
In the first two-part story of the New Who era, Russell T Davies introduced us to a baffling pseudo-invasion by some crass, crude aliens who had a penchant for hiding in the skin-suits of humans, without at any point explaining where the innards of the humans went (possibly eaten?), or how the human body-suits miraculously acquired the zippers that allowed the Slitheen to take forever to get in and out of them. Aliens of London was a tight, taut, fast-paced and utterly bonkers set-up for a cliff-hanger in which the Doctor, and all the world’s highest rated alien experts, were busy dying in Downing Street, while separately, two other Slitheen menaced Jackie Tyler, Rose Tyler and Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North.

The worst thing about the episode was the Slitheen themselves, with their signature forehead-unzipping move habitually taking longer than our interest could last.

In World War Three, they… really don’t get better, overall.

The resolution to the cliff-hanger is massively convenient – the Doctor shoving a ball of lightning at one of them making them all convulse hopelessly under its effect, dissipating three threats at once, without any prior understanding that the Slitheen are in any way connected.

A hunt through Downing Street for Rose and Harriet is at least fairly tense, as a result of the combination of Russell’s litany of squirm-inducing humiliation and Annette Badland’s sing-song delivery of lines about Rose being full of hormones and juicy enough to bend before she snaps. It’s actually the human embarrassment at the idea that a) people or aliens can smell us, and b) they can tell things about our state of mind and body as a result, that makes this uncomfortable watching, rather than the idea that the Slitheen are hunting humans and intend to actually kill them.

But what becomes obvious as World War Three goes on is that there are good solid reasons why so much time is taken up with the Slitheen in their human-suits, and with them getting in and out of those suits, because the Slitheen when they’re just being Slitheen are deeply unimpressive. Like ET the Extra Terrestrial with claws and sarcasm (which admittedly sounds pretty cool), they frequently lope about the place looking naff, and even the scenes of them moving at speed on a hunt feel like time-fillers to disguise the fact that most of the plot of the two-parter was front-loaded into Aliens of London, and there’s really not enough distance left to cover to justify a full second episode.

There’s a cutely Doctor Who scene where Team Rose work out all the things they know about the Slitheen in time to brew up a batch of Reasons To Not Kiss Mickey, which explodes one Slitheen (but, unlike the Doctor’s solution, that doesn’t cause all the other Slitheen to explode, naturally). And another where the Doctor gets some important information out of the aliens – they’re not invaders, they’re outer space scorched-earth capitalists in the most literal sense, aiming to start World War Three and sell off the planet for low-grade starship fuel, piece by piece.

This is a plan that ignores the fact that *whisper it quietly* most alien races who would BUY that kind of fuel off them are probably Much Harder Than They Are, with much bigger guns, but let’s not bother about a sequel where the Slitheen take half the galaxy through the Interstellar Small Claims Court.

The fun of his first big baddies turning out to be capitalist chancers who put profit before the planet on which they’re standing is a gloriously RTD touch, right enough, but it doesn’t compensate for the lack of actual plot to fill up this episode. What we get instead are a lot of scenes of the Slitheen taking off their suits – and occasionally putting them on again in a comical hurry - a bit of squirm-inducing stuff about aliens that love to be naked, and a convoluted plot twist about the UN releasing nuclear codes… to Britain! While the absurdity of that idea makes it clearly a pre-Brexit story, there’s at least a nod to the unlikelihood of it happening in any case, after Britain’s behaviour in the Iraq War – and a neat satirical throat-punch in the lie the Slitheen tell about alien weapons of mass destruction being deployable within 45 seconds.

If there’s an element of filler that’s actually worthwhile in World War Three, it’s the big debate between Jackie Tyler and the Doctor over whether he can promise her that her daughter will be safe with him. Of course she won’t, and everybody knows that – but then, not to get overly grim in terms of social realism, she’s a young woman, she won’t be safe walking the streets of Britain either, and at least with the Doctor, there are supernovae to watch.

There’s also some healing in World War Three. Jackie makes a kind of peace with him, to the extent of planning to feed him and listen to him explain about the lifestyle he shares with her daughter in the big blue box, and Mickey, having been the Doctor’s eyes, ears, and missile-firers on the outside while the Time Lord was trapped inside the metal box of the Cabinet Room in Downing Street, earns an invitation to come along and share the universe with Rose.

While Mickey turns him down and the two seem to acknowledge one another’s strengths, when it comes to Jackie, the Doctor is snippy and dismissive. He’s not coming for dinner, because he doesn’t do domestic, forcing Rose to choose between staying home and going off to see the universe.

Watched on transmission, that felt unkind and questionable, because it would have been such a simple thing for the Doctor to do for his friend, and it wouldn’t have cost him anything.

Weirdly enough, watched 18 years on, after the weeping Tenth Doctor’s discovery that the Master was alive, and the revelation to us of the War Doctor and everything he did, or thinks he did, the Ninth Doctor’s attitude makes more sense. If you’ve lost everything, including close family relationships, being forced to “be domestic” is probably a torture, and so his vehement avoidance of that situation makes more sense in 2023 than it necessarily did in 2005, when we were trying to piece together the impact of his experiences from snippets and breadcrumbs dropped along the way.

So, is World War Three a fun rewatch?

Notsomuch. It’s written by RTD, so delivering enough to keep you watching once you start is more or less a given, but of the episodes of Series 1 so far, this is probably the biggest dud so far (*Squints ahead to The Long Game…*). It feels underbalanced after the plot-heavy Aliens of London, and – as mad a conclusion as this is – it just has far too much underwhelming Slitheen action in it to be an entirely happy experience, rewatched 18 years on.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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