Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: Aliens of London

By Eddie Robson on 29 April 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

So, time for the backlash? No, because backlashes are only initiated by the childish and bored. It just happens that ‘Aliens of London’ is the weakest New Who episode thus far.

It’s hard to tell exactly where the problem lies, but I suspect it’s not in the scripting. In a way it conforms more closely to what you’d expect from Russell T Davies’ ‘Doctor Who’ than his previous episodes, bringing in a domestic perspective (which the Doctor amusingly demands be kept outside the TARDIS in a scene which seems like Davies’ self-conscious acknowledgement of how ‘Who’ differs from the work he’s known for). The parties which greet the arrival of alien life recall ‘The Second Coming’, which until now was the one of Davies’ previous works which his new ‘Doctor Who’ felt least like. I’d like to see more of the small perspective/big ideas approach of ‘Second Coming’ used in the show, so that’s pleasing to see.

The lead-in to the unmasking of the aliens is a clever little plot, a well-constructed use of the extra time afforded this two-part story and, as with all the episodes so far, it makes a clear and important statement on what ‘Doctor Who’ is going to be like from now on. From now on, it seems, everybody in the present-day ‘Doctor Who’ world will be aware of the existence of aliens (unless the story spins back and the whole thing is publicly masked as the hoax which it partially is… we’ll see).

As far as the Doctor is concerned, this is arguably his best material thus far: trying to concentrate on the news whilst Jackie Tyler and her friends chatter around him; taking command of the soldiers guarding the ‘alien’; and telling an envious Mickey that the TARDIS is wired up to receive all the sports channels. Incidentally, those who slated Noel Clarke for his performance in ‘Rose’ should really take that back, as not only was he fine in that episode, he gets to show a much wider range here, as well as the series’ funniest line (in response to Rose’s question about whether he has been seeing anybody else whilst she was away: ‘No… although that’s mainly because everyone thinks I murdered you’). Similarly, Billie Piper continues to impress.

The problems seem to be in the handling of the material, which is somewhat flat and obvious. It’s not that director Keith Boak lacks flair: there are imaginative shots here and there. The problem (and I must credit m’colleague Jim Smith with this, as it was he who put his finger on it) is in the shifts of tone. It doesn’t go from jocular to creepy effectively enough. There’s very little subtlety at work here, which is a trap much children’s entertainment falls into: it’s assumed that kids can’t handle it. Given that ‘Doctor Who’ is supposed to appeal to an all-ages audience, a successful episode must strike a balance.

A couple of examples of what I mean: the revelation that the piglike alien is actually just a pig should be really funny, but somehow it falls flat. For a moment it seems like bizarrely unimaginative design work, and when the Doctor reveals the truth of the situation, the scientist’s embarrassment is underplayed. There’s also the casting and performances of the real aliens when they’re disguised as humans: I don’t mind the farting (I can imagine that every child who breaks wind in school this week will be accused of being an alien), but their self-satisfied giggling and bumbling manner isn’t as sinister as it seems intended to be. Rather, it undermines the tone of the Downing Street sequences and the credibility of the characters who the aliens have duped.

‘Aliens of London’ is by no means a bad episode, and like previous Eccleston episodes it effortlessly rises to a standard above most ‘classic’ Who episodes. But whilst it initially promised to be a highlight of the season, I now feel it’s more likely to be one of the weaker episodes. In fact, if it turns out to be the weakest then we’re in for a great season.

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By Eddie Robson

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