Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting ALIENS OF LONDON - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting ALIENS OF LONDON

Tony unzips!
Episode 4 of the first series of 21st century Doctor Who comes full circle – in Rose, we were introduced not only to Rose Tyler but to her mother Jackie and her boyfriend, Mickey, both of whom represented Rose’s ties to an “ordinary” life on Earth, and neither of whom were all that taken with the haughty Ninth Doctor when he drops out of sky.

To be fair, he spurns the subtle sexual advances of the one, and forgets the other exists after pulling off his head and stealing his girlfriend, so it’s not as though the Doctor goes out of his way to ingratiate himself.

After a trip to the far future to watch the planet explode, and a trip to the 19th century to tackle gas ghosts with Charles Dickens, Aliens of London sees the Doctor and Rose return to the Powell Estate to reconnect with Jackie and Mickey.

Except this is the Doctor. The Time Lord who’s never been much good at short hops or precision Tardis-flying, so what he thinks has just been 12 hours since they left has actually been 12 months.

If 21st century Doctor Who was going to be all about a Doctor who has consequences and companions who have ties, it’s rarely been better exemplified than in this story. Jackie’s been devastated by a whole year of thinking her daughter has been kidnapped or murdered, and Mickie has been taken in for questioning over her disappearance, not once but five times – a consequence of Having A Missing White Girlfriend While Black.

Given all of this, the Ninth Doctor in Aliens of London is spectacularly unrepentant and tight-lipped.

And then of course, an alien spaceship crash-lands in the Thames, taking out Big Ben in a kind of Planet of the Apes ruined-landmark riff on the way. A body is recovered from the crashed ship, and meanwhile in Downing Street, to add to the unholy chaos that dealing with an alien crash creates, the Prime Minister is missing, presumed kidnapped by aliens.

The story gives us our second front-and-centre reference to Bad Wolf as a graffiti artist feels somehow compelled to scrawl the words on the Tardis, and we begin to sense an actual thematic arc developing, even if we’re a little gratified that we still have no idea, four episodes in, what on Earth it could mean. To be fair, while we eventually find out what it relates to, it’s still a bit of a creative mystery why those words are chosen, when presumably, Dalek Killa would be relatively meaningless to those not in the know, but a big flashing, rather more accurate neon sign to those who understand the significance of the words. But we digress…

Aliens of London is also the first real example of a bold new style of storytelling in Doctor Who – use of staged news footage, TV shows and the like to exemplify what happens when the human race is presented with anything spectacular or unusual. That was a storytelling tool that Russell T Davies had used to great effect in his drama, The Second Coming – where he first worked with Christopher Eccleston, who played Stephen Baxter, the second incarnation of Christ. As ya do.

Transferring the technique to Doctor Who, in hindsight, looks like inspired second nature – especially as it worked well enough in Aliens of London and World War Three to be used throughout RTD’s first tenure as Doctor Who showrunner (though notably less in the eras of his successors, Stephen Moffat and Chris Chibnall).

There are elements along the road of Aliens of London that feel crude and vulgar – the alien pilot being a pig in a spacesuit, the continual farting of the giggling people who gather in Downing Street, etc. But both of those elements are, to Russell’s credit, fully explained within the story. The pig in a spacesuit is actually a Frankensteinian horror created by particularly crass aliens, and the farting is a pressure exchange issue created by fairly large creatures being compressed inside the actual skins of human beings.

The Doctor witnesses the crassness of the aliens first hand when he takes a brief trip to the hospital (because suddenly he can precisely pilot the Tardis) and is indirectly involved in getting the terrified pig shot dead (while also, as is later revealed in Torchwood, meeting an undercover Toshiko Sato).

But when Jackie Tyler steps on board the Tardis for the first time, in the middle of a potential alien invasion and with her country in chaos, her response is an underlining of her character. Just as, when Rose disappeared, she turned on Mickey and turned the whole estate against him (and even when Rose returned, refused to accept that the consequences meted out to him were her fault, excusing them with the righteous worry of a mother), so when this second crisis comes so hard on the heels of the first, she dobs the Doctor in, bringing the forces of law and order to scoop up the alien in her midst.

Given the crisis over the missing Prime Minister and the crash-landing pig-aliens though, the pair are whisked to Downing Street, while Jackie is restrained by a policeman, and Mickie – unsurprisingly, given his experiences during the year of Rose’s absence – legs it.

At Downing Street, backbench MP Harriet Jones (the always-superb Penelope Wilton) has been trying all day to get some time with the (missing) Prime Minister or his current stand-in, to talk about cottage hospitals – a fact that involves her in secretly witnessing the Slitheen changing skins, having slain the UK’s senior military official, General Asquith (Rupert Vansittart).

And as the world’s premier experts in aliens convene in Downing street, the pacing of the episode comes into its own. We’ve known for some time that these are some particularly crass aliens we’re dealing with, but the question at the heart of the drama – “Aliens faking aliens – what’s that about?” builds nicely to a dramatic head in the last minutes of the first two-part story in New Who’s history.

And if David Verrey as Joseph Green, the UK’s de facto Prime Minister, gives the climax of the episode one of the longest and most dementedly fake evil laughs since Christopher Bowen as Mordred in Battlefield, he does at least help to sell the triple unmasking of Slitheen threatening almost all the people we like in the story. At home, Jackie’s friendly policeman, Strickland (played by Steve Spiers, later of Stella and The Tuckers), has unzipped his forehead and begins to loom, in his Slitheen body, over her as she cowers in her kitchen. And in Downing Street, two separate Slitheen, Margaret Blaine (Annette Badland), and Vansittart’s General Asquith threaten Rose and Harriet, and the roomful of alien experts respectively, the latter ending on a cliff-hanger of ghastly fatality.

There’s actually lots to love about Aliens of London, watched 18 years after its initial broadcast. Yes, the aliens are crass, and there’s altogether too much love shown to a simple and repetitive fart gag.

Yes, the pig innnn spaaaaaace (a reference to The Muppet Show) is initially an off-colour touch. But Christopher Eccleston justifies its existence by having his Doctor utterly condemn the joke that’s made of an unwitting animal. And it has the advantage of looking like – and being paced like – nothing else so far in the series, grabbing your attention and throwing enough oddness at you to draw you wholly into the mystery.

Those last five minutes as the whole thing coalesces into a cunning trap, rather than a stupid invasion plan, really pop, and as cliff-hangers go, Aliens of London’s is a doozy – which is just as well, because it more or less had to be, to justify the idea of two-part stories in the new incarnation of Doctor Who.

The main issue with Aliens of London (and subsequently, with World War Three) is… the Slitheen themselves. When they’re in their human body-suits, apart from the creepy giggling and the crassness, they’re quite effective as villains – both Badland’s Blaine and Verrey’s Green have some deeply chilling moments. But the whole signature “thing” of the Slitheen – the zipper in the forehead – is inconsistently delivered on-screen, and importantly, demands significant periods of everyone standing around going “Well, that’s odd” while the Slitheen then emerge at laborious length from their human-suits.

And when the Slitheen do finally emerge from their suits, they’re just a bit… naff. Big and baby-faced and green, with their snicker-snack arms and claws, they feel like an idea that’s been overworked just a touch too much.

Given the prosthethics and the CGI involved in rendering them on-screen, the fact that they were chosen to be at the heart of the first two-parter, and the fact that they were RTD’s first entirely new aliens to appear in the show (the Gelth from The Unquiet Dead were the creation of Mark Gatiss), it’s possible they were intended to become a much bigger deal in mainstream Doctor Who than they eventually became. After all, the idea of a space mafia family has legs – and they’ve subsequently been used in interesting ways in comic books, audio dramas, and in RTD’s spin-off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures.

It's just odd that in an episode that has lots to recommend it – the pace, the new storytelling technique, the Doctor’s consequences, the growing “domesticity” of the new set-up, and the cunning misdirection of the plot – the one thing that really is quite hard to love is its central alien git-lords. Well, them and Rose telling the Doctor he’s “so gay” when he complains about being hit, but we were really trying to get through this article without mentioning that.

Rewatch Aliens of London with an open heart and it will surprise you with quite how involving and fast it is. Just perhaps try to imagine that when they emerge from their human-suits, the Slitheen are in no way as naff as your eyes are telling you they are.

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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