21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Aliens Of London/World War Three

The first, and maybe rather incidental grumble about the first two parter of the 21st century revival of Doctor Who (the equivalent of a four-part story) is that it's a bit of a mouthful.

It's easy enough to say, "Did you see The Deadly Assassin?" but try saying "Did you see Aliens Of London slash World War Three?" Nonsense, isn't it? If they ever re-release the post-2005 stories separately on DVD, there'll be problems. Say that this story gets re-released in 2025 with remastered running Slitheen and an all-new commentary with the remote control kid, the bloke who moans about Livingstone and the "Oy gawjus, come back and join duh party" girl – you'll need a magnifying glass to read the title down the spine.

For practical reasons, I'll refer to the story as Aliens Three – just don't get it confused with the Sigourney sequel. It's more of a compact way of summing up the story anyway, since the plot chiefly revolves around three blobby aliens masquerading as giggling politicians.

The Slitheen: a race who have, by all accounts, not enjoyed the most rapturous of welcomes. This is possibly because Aliens Three itself has had mixed reviews from the fans (basically a polite way of saying that a fair number don't like it).

Me, I quite enjoy it – I can see where it's coming from with its satirical take on world events, politics and media manipulation. The problem is, it's constantly tripping over its great big, clod-hopping feet with silly toilet humour, fart gags and occasional, heavy-handed dialogue. With that in mind, you could probably best compare it to Battlefield, since it's a well-meaning but frequently inept runaround.

It starts off well enough with the unusual but brave move to begin the story with the Doctor dropping Rose off a year after they left. This allows for both comedy (The Doctor's sheepish attempts at saying sorry) and drama (Camille Coduri's rather wonderfully acted reaction to Rose's shock entrance). It also allows for a brand new dynamic between the Doctor and Rose's family and friend. It's a more modern take on how us humble humans regard the Doctor. Normally, in the past, he's been seen as a trustworthy, reliable beacon of knowledge and good, but because both Jackie and Mickey treat the Doctor with sneering contempt in the first half of the story, he's seen as a bit shady. Jackie screams at him, accusing him of posing as a Doctor and sneaking Rose off for God alone knows what. It doesn't help that Doctor Number Nine, still in his "Stupid apes" mode, isn't exactly welcoming either Jackie or Mickey with open arms. He shudders at the thought of taking supper with Jackie and constantly dismisses Mickey as Ricky.

However, by the end of the story, there's a grudging feeling of mutual respect between both parties, albeit with a whiff of mistrust. This is because both Mickey and Jackie have proved their worth to the Doctor by effectively saving the day from the confines of Mickey's flat. The Doctor even offers Mickey a place aboard the TARDIS as a result. Even though neither Jackie or Mickey are delighted at Rose heading off into the blue box again, they react with resigned sadness rather than outraged fury. They've seen what the Doctor and his lifestyle mean to Rose, and there are those first suggestions that the frosty relationship is starting to thaw.

Out of all this, at least both characters come across better than the two caricatures that we saw in the opening adventure. Noel Clarke and Camille Coduri are far more comfortable with their roles this time around. There's still the odd stupid goof, like when Mickey shouts "Doctaaaaaahhhhhh!!!!" while running into a brick wall (and why, incidentally does he go around smelling his trainers?), but overall, this is a more believable pair. Coduri is especially good in the last scenes, portraying a lonely woman who uses a brash exterior as a flimsy masquerade.

The downside of this is that the soapier elements of the story overpower the main meat of the drama. Time and again, we cut back to some inconsequential chit chat on the Powell estate. Bluntly, I couldn't give a damn that Billy Croot asked out Jackie, since it's got nothing to do with the story. One or two brief interludes are fine, but too frequently, Aliens Three feels more like a slightly surreal episode of Hollyoaks. The last 10 minutes are also devoted to Rose's domestic life rather than wrapping up the tale with action-packed drama and so, the story lacks that all-important punch that it could have had.

As the Doctor himself asked in Rose "Can we keep the domestics outside, thank you?"

Still, the domestic aspects of Aliens Three highlight an example of the at-times accurate social commentary. When the alien spaceship slices through Big Ben like a knife cutting through a cake to cause widespread chaos, Rose pipes up that her and the Doctor should do what most normal people do (apparently) – watch the events on the telly.

Cue scrolling ticker-tape reports and melodramatic newsreaders, forecasting doom and gloom with each miniscule development. Even the arrival of certain MPs or army generals are placed under intense scrutiny in microscopic detail. Does that sound familiar? Well try watching the news these days, which is so far removed from the impassive but measured news bulletins of yore. The slightest hint of big news is amplified and over-dramatised on TV, turning real-life, sometimes horrific events into a gaudy soap opera. I guess the aim of news bulletins is to stir up fear and terror in every person tuning in. Even a few inches of snow are treated with intense histrionics, so much so, that you could be forgiven for thinking that Armageddon is about to break out every time you see a snowman.

Russell T Davies is right on the money when satirising this eccentric way of delivering the news. "As the crisis continues and the government shows remarkable lack of leadership, paranoia sweeps the country!" booms the doomy newsreader. This is followed next morning by the pasty-faced doom merchant solemnly intoning: "Yesterday saw the start of a brave new world. Today might see it end." As the Doctor says, all this reinforced terror means that humans get scared and lash out, which is why the Slitheen go to the trouble of crash-landing a spaceship into Big Ben. Cue mass panic and the prospect of a nuclear war.

Aliens Three also targets the political issues of the early 21st century, with its references to "Massive weapons of destruction", ID cards and the threat of all-out war. It's none too subtle, but it's still quite effectively done. The Britain of Aliens Three is a country gripped by paranoia, mistrust and worst of all, fear – just in the space of 24 hours. While the aliens are too far-fetched, and it's all wildly exaggerated, at times, the story does feel uncomfortably real. The news reports start to point the finger at anyone who may look like an alien, while counting down the UN's decision to release the codes for a nuclear strike against a fictional mothership, like a real-life soap opera.

The real nub of the story is that sweaty-palm fear. The fear that Big Ben's been destroyed by an unknown force. The fear that the Prime Minister's gone AWOL. More to the point, the fear that Downing Street is invaded so easily, due to a mixture of incompetence and petty point-scoring within. Aliens Three is daft beyond extreme at times, but there's still that chilling suspicion that the actions of the Slitheen could still be plausible.

Maybe that's why the silly elements are so grossly exaggerated – to remind the viewer that at the end of the day, this is still a bit of escapist nonsense rather than an ominous warning about terrifying world events. The Slitheen themselves are comedy aliens. They have baby faces. They fart. They even have a silly, unpronounceable name for their home planet – come on, say it with me: Raxacoricofallapatorius.

When they're bumbling around in their human forms, they spend most of their time giggling stupidly about farts or making daft innuendo chat about their bodies. "Rejoice in it!" sniffs Asquith coquettishly to Green in the lift. "Your body is... magnificent!" Quite why the Slitheen spend their time sounding like third-rate extras in some dodgy adult movie is anyone's guess, but then it does highlight the absurdity of this brand new race.

Same goes for the characterisation and acting of the three chief Slitheen goons: Margaret Blaine, General Asquith and Joseph Green. Margaret's the most effective of the three, thanks to a great performance from Annette Badland, which treads a fine line between sinister menace and camp. She gets the least to do out of the three, but she'll get a second shot at shaking her booty in Boom Town.

It's left to Rupert Vanisttart and David Verrey to battle it out for the Prize Ham award, although in the end, it's Verrey that wins by a country ham mile. In fact, Joseph Green is possibly the most absurd supporting character in the history of Who – an overblown mixture of Mr Chinn from The Claws Of Axos, the Marshal from The Mutants and Soldeed from The Horns Of Nimon. It's actually a hugely enjoyable performance from Verrey, but for all the wrong reasons. Each of his lines is spluttered with increasing mania, even a straightforward line like "By all the saints, get some perspective, woman!" There's no attempt at real life here, but as far as OTT performances go, Verrey's the undisputed king.

This overblown pomp and circumstance is nearly matched by some of the trite dialogue that crops up in the last part. We get heavy-handed speeches from the Doctor about how he faces a choice of either saving the world or losing Rose, not to mention his self-indulgent rant about how he has to make a big decision about the fate of the planet because no one else can. Then at the end, Harriet Jones suddenly turns into a one-woman Sun newspaper rubbish machine. She packs as many patriotic clichés as she can into 20 seconds proclaiming that "Mankind stands tall, proud and undefeated! God bless the human race!"

Yeah yeah yeah, go and read up on your Garry Bushell handbooks instead.

That said, Harriet's brilliant, one of the most successful recurring characters of RTD's era. She's like your trusty next door neighbour and favourite auntie rolled into one, sometimes offering stern disapproval when needed but also kind-hearted with much likeable warmth. It helps that she's played by Penelope Wilton, who judges the character perfectly, initially scuttling around like a frightened dormouse in favour of cottage hospitals, and then proving to be a trusty ally and showing her true colours of bravery and resourcefulness. It's a shame that Davies would later use Harriet as the scapegoat for the next Doctor's reckless arrogance in The Christmas Invasion, but Wilton's delightful performance is one of the highlights of the season.

In fact there's more good stuff on offer in Aliens Three than you might realise. The set-piece of the pig, for example, sounds daft, but ultimately it turns into something that's rather moving. The sight of the show-piece pig scuttling about is rather pitiful, but then it's brutally gunned down by a UNIT grunt. The Doctor's reaction to this is especially well played by Christopher Eccleston who cleverly repeats the same line but with different emphasis. "What did you do that for?" he hollers angrily at the soldier. "It was scared!" Then in a sad tone of voice, he says again, "It was scared..." It's a classic bit of Doctor behaviour, harking back to the UNIT days when he used to chastise the Brigadier for his "Shoot first and ask questions later" policy.

The other bit of typically Doctor behaviour is the "Narrows it down" scene. When trapped in a room and no way out, the Doctor doesn't give up, but instead uses his brain to find a way of defeating the Slitheen. Rather than take it on all by himself, he involves both Rose and Harriet in order to determine what they know about the Slitheen and their planet of origin. It's very Doctor-ish behaviour, and it's also a very well written scene too, again highlighting Davies' grasp of the Time Lord who relies upon his wits rather than punch-ups.

The Slitheen, for all their faults, also look quite good. The unusual baby-faced masks work well, and there's something quite eerie about the way in which they bathe the room in dark blue light when 'undressing' for want of a better word. The human Asquith's agonised screams when killed also emphasise the danger of this race, although oddly, we don't see any blood in the room – strange, given that the man's been gutted like a fish. It's also refreshing to have a race that doesn't want to take over the Earth, but to use it in trade as commerce. Greedy financial gain is another cliché, but at least it's a change from planetary domination.

The effects are also generally very good, especially the shot of the flying alien ship and the scene when it cuts through Big Ben. That's particularly realistic, and a good example of how the special effects have come on leaps and bounds in the new millennium.

Against that, there are some disappointingly clunky shots, such as the obviously computer generated Slitheen bounding their way down the corridors of Downing Street. Keith Boak's direction, while generally fresh and pacy, also suffers from a few howlers. There's that weird fast zoom-in into Jackie saying "Oh my God!" as Mickey activates the missile launch, but the three-hander cliffhanger at the end of Part One is even worse. The 'action' is slow and laboured. The Slitheen take an age to attack Jackie or Rose, Indra and Harriet, while Green's too busy going "Hoo hoo hoo!" as Slitheen Asquith reveals his true self. There's no sense of pace in these scenes which seem to go on for a lifetime, and so the all-important first cliffhanger of the new reboot lacks any sort of tension. Worse still, they show what happens in a teaser for the next week straight after!

Aliens Three is flawed. The silly and soapy elements battle it out to see which can sabotage a perfectly decent script the most. Having said that, there are some brilliant one liners, my favourite of which is probably the Doctor's throwaway comment about Mr Chicken ("He was a nice man" he says in true deadpan fashion), not to mention a sound grasp of the Doctor's character, and some excellent supporting characters like Harriet, Indra and Dr Sato (good performances too, incidentally from Navin Chowdhry and Naoko Mori).

Overall though, if you stick with the silliness and occasionally crass moral preaching, Aliens Three does pay you back with an enjoyable story that provides laughs, drama and at times, biting commentary on current affairs.

* Check out my William Hartnell & Patrick Troughton story reviews elsewhere on my blog. Meanwhile, my reviews to all Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker & Peter Davison tales are available as ebooks, which are packed with a plethora of extras!


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