Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting BOOM TOWN - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting BOOM TOWN

The seeds of the Sixtieth? Tony returns to Boom Town.
It’s fair to say that Boom Town has a reputation as a poor episode of Doctor Who. A weak spot in the otherwise mostly jet-propelled first series of 21st century Doctor Who.

I’m here to tell you that Boom Town is unfairly judged, and has the core of a stone cold masterpiece.

Written by showrunner Russell T Davies as a replacement for a script by Joe Abbott which had reverberations of the Seventh Doctor’s manipulation of Ace, it’s an episode which sings with much of what the 21st century version of Doctor Who was going to be about.

By establishing that Rose Tyler had a family and a boyfriend she didn’t intend to just abandon when she ran off into space and time, the idea that for once the Doctor would have consequences to his actions beyond those of cosmic accounting and the greater good came to be integral in the show.

Perhaps ironically as it turned out, those consequences would come home to roost in Aliens of London and World War Three, the episodes that introduced the Slitheen family of alien criminals to the show. In those episodes, a quick temporal miscalculation by the overconfident Doctor results in Jackie Tyler going out of her mind with worry for a year as her daughter goes missing, and a harassment campaign being aimed at the innocent Mickey Smith, whose only crime is not being “special” enough to run away to the stars.

At the end of World War Three, Mickey Smith, under instructions from the Doctor, launched a missile at 10, Downing Street, destroying the Slitheen entirely – or so we thought.

Boom Town brings us up to date. Six months after the events of World War Three, it turns out that one of the Family Slitheen survived, teleporting out with just moments to spare before the missile hit. “Margaret Blaine” – otherwise known as Blon Fel-Fotch Pasameer-Day Slitheen, played by Annette badland – has been busy in the six months following the death of her brothers, becoming Lord Mayor of Cardiff, and driving through a plan to demolish Cardiff Castle and replace it with a nuclear power station right in the heart of the city.

When the Doctor, Rose and Jack turn up in Cardiff, it sets up an episode that acts as a bridge between the past of “New” Doctor Who and its future. With Gwyneth having sealed the Cardiff Rift in The Unquiet Dead, Davies establishes in a fairly busy handful of heartbeats the idea that the Rift has left a scar running through Cardiff, through which energies – and potentially things – can bleed, including potential Tardis-fuel.

It’s almost weird on a re-watch to remember that this story takes place in a world where Torchwood both does and doesn’t exist – where we haven’t seen it get instituted yet, as we will in the next series, and where, nevertheless, it’s existed for a hundred years and is out there, in the background without us knowing.

But joining the party in Cardiff Bay is Mickey Smith, ostensibly bringing Rose’s passport to her in case she happens to need it. That turns out to be nothing but a ruse – the girl wants to see her boy, and when he suggests getting a hotel for the night, she readily agrees. Translation – after the events of The Doctor Dances, Rose wants some highly euphemistic “alone time” with her boyfriend.

When the Doctor catches sight of a local newspaper report of the new mayor and her nuclear plans though, it puts the dampeners on what could otherwise have been a perfectly fun day in Cardiff. And, working to a plan devised by the significantly more strategic Jack, Blon is easily captured by Team Tardis.

That’s when the consequences really kick in. Blon’s plan was to implode the planet by exploding a nuclear power station on top of a space-time rift, and use a kind of intergalactic surfboard to ride her way back to “civilization.” But when the Doctor tells her he’s taking her home to Raxicoricofallapatorius, she drops her bombshell. Her whole family has been sentenced to death in absentio. If he takes her back, she’ll be turned into bubbling, screaming, agonised soup before she’s allowed the dignity of death.

And suddenly, we have ourselves a ball game. Because suddenly, the Doctor’s plans are to essentially cold-bloodedly sentence a criminal to death. At no point do we necessarily forgive her for her crimes – though she makes the point that she acted the way she did because she was raised that way, groomed that way, and indoctrinated that way. Does that give the Doctor the right to calmly sentence her to death?

It’s a dark philosophical conceit that in some ways is played out again in the eras of later Doctors. Without Boom Town, there is arguably no extended Davros conversation in The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar. We’re used to a frenetic Doctor, acting to save the bullied from the bullies of the universe, and if the bullies have to suffer as a result, that’s collateral damage because they knew what they were getting into. But does he have the right to dine with her, talk with her, and then calmly take her to a horrifying, slow death? Does that cross the line of what the Doctor CAN do if he wants to still call himself the Doctor?

A couple of incarnations on, he will rationalise that he’ll forfeit the right to the name just by killing a harmless creature that’s the last of its species and not finding a better way. But right there in Boom Town, he’s seriously proposing to return Blon to a fate staggeringly like death, because he can, and because otherwise she’ll continue to be a danger.

If you want modern-day parallels, they’re not hard to find. A groomed young woman just lost her appeal to return to the UK for actions she committed while she was essentially brainwashed by a criminal gang. Add a death penalty into the equation and that’s what we’re dealing with. The consequences of Blon’s inconvenient survival are the stain that will be left on the Doctor’s soul if he goes ahead with his plan.

Meanwhile, there are other consequences to deal with too. Mickey and Rose, supposedly en route to rekindle their intimacy, are ripped apart by a careless lie he tells, of having started seeing someone else. Once that’s out there, the truth comes soon behind it, unbidden as vomit. Mickey’s life in on hold, so he CAN’T even date anyone else in case, one day, Rose drops back out of the sky and bids him come hither. That’s what happens when one partner thinks the partnership is good, and the other runs away without a backward glance – twice.

It’s a kind of living grief, and by the end of Boom Town, Mickey’s had it proved to him one more time that he’ll never measure up to what he thinks is the allure of the Doctor (and which it might be, given Rose’s heavy flirting with “Big Ears” in The Doctor Dances), but which is more made up of the allure of time and space. That “living grief” would go on to raise its head in later RTD1 series, including most notably in School Reunion, when the state in which Sarah Jane Smith has lived her life is revealed to the Doctor. Always waiting, always wondering if one day he would return to whisk her away again. Always wondering why he never did.

And it’s arguable that without Boom Town, the idea of the Sixtieth anniversary specials, where the Doctor’s impact on the life of Donna Noble is re-visited, would never have been possible.

Both Mickey and Blon serve the same purpose in this episode, bringing consequences to the Doctor and to Rose respectively, and at least temporarily puncturing the self-inflating bubble of their self-regard. Everything that happens on the time machine, or in time and space, STAYS on the time machine or in time and space, but both Blon and Mickey remind the time travellers that their carefree happiness is frequently bought at the cost of the misery of others, whether they’re interplanetary space criminals or just the unchosen who are never set free.

And sure, the end of Boom Town is a fair stretch, proves Blon is not to be trusted after all, more or less destroying the complexity of the arguments that are put throughout the episode about taking a higher moral path in terms of punishing transgressors, and there’s a fair deux ex machina in the “heart of the Tardis” resolution which ultimately takes the life-or-death decision out of the Doctor’s hands (and sets up the resolution to the Bad Wolf arc that’s been dotted throughout the series – including here in the name of the power station). In other words, all the things people say about it to make it seem less dramatically important than it is are technically true.

But there are very few levels on which any of that fundamentally matters. The performances throughout the piece are pin-point sharp, particularly from Annette Badland as Blon, and Noel Clarke as Mickey. But whereas Bruno Langley’s Adam fumbled his first experience of space and time, already in Boom Town, John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness feels like a real, potentially permanent member of the Tardis team.

Boom Town as it hit screens in 2005 might well have seemed like a lighter episode between the dark two-parters that brought the shivers of the empty child and the resurgence of the Daleks en masse to 21st century Who. But watch it again in 2023 and you’ll feel its moral weight, its consequences, and its stellar performances in a whole new light.

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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