Doctor Who finally returns to the present day, although the Ninth’s Doctor’s rustiness causes quite a few problems. Handily everybody’s distracted by the fact that they just made First Contact, as a flying saucer’s crashed into the Thames, so it’s really not all so bad for Rose and her new time-travelling ways.
With a spaceship landing in the Thames, this episode brings the Doctor and Rose back to a situation they’re first invited to witness as civilians, and then forced to engage with as, I guess, consultants. The main problem is that the case they’re consulting in is nonsensical and bordering on insulting to the audience. Essentially, an alien race called the Slitheen have faked an alien landing so they can kill the Prime Minister and install themselves within Parliament. They stuff themselves into the skin of people they’ve killed, and fart a lot, and it’s all really embarrassing to watch.
An outright alien invasion is taking place and it’s treated for really cheap laughs. It’s also easy to point out that visually all the villains here are fat people. For the diversity he includes in his stories elsewhere, Russell T Davies does seem to show a fair amount of fatphobia in his episodes, and it’s disappointing, especially when the Slitheen’s human forms are essentially just used for fart jokes.
Look, overall it’s just a really embarrassing episode from a sci-fi perspective, there’s no denying that. But from the human perspective there are some really compelling ideas going on, executed in a fairly coherent fashion. First Contact was always imagined to be some kind of diplomatic exercise in which the best and brightest of Earth organise in order to forge a new alliance with the more advanced species which has come to land on our planet. But here it’s a joke. The Slitheen have absolutely no interest in debating with humanity on an even level – they’re laughing their way through the episode, convinced of their inherent superiority to the stupid planet they’re in the middle of conquering.
Throughout, the scenes set at Downing Street reinforce that there are rules in place here that are meant to be followed – there’s even a big red suitcase – but each time the Slitheen undermine it. Sometimes, well, it’s with fart jokes, and really weak ones, but the important part is that we’re seeing that pettiness is a universal trait. It’s fairly notable that the first species to publicly make themselves known on Earth are bullies, which in fairness is a more likely scenario than First Contact being with some noble, classy characters like Vulcans or whatever.
Even the pig, which is a silly addition to the story, makes sense when you view it as a deliberately low-brow joke from the Slitheen, making fun of humans – and succeeding, in somuch as the pig distracts everybody and gives the Slitheen all the more time to complete their plans. The UK had plans drawn up for alien arrival, but they just weren’t allowing for the idea that the aliens would troll them.
Earth’s reaction to the aliens is also pretty much in step with what would probably actually happen: namely, that everybody in the UK would get drunk to celebrate, not that interested or even connected in what’s going on because they can only connect with the news as gossip. Jackie can’t be bothered to pay attention to the news stories covering the events, changing the channel and bringing up her lovelife when the whole “aliens are real” thing gets a bit boring for her. It’d almost be more involving if the Doctor was dropped out of the majority of this episode, so we could see how the humans react without his guiding hand.
When he does get off the sofa and head to Downing Street, however, it means Christopher Eccleston has to walk into a whole load of tosh. Which, you’ll note, is a highly clever piece of wordplay. The Doctor accidentally walking straight into an armed military is pretty funny, but he then signals them to follow him and they do it without question – there’s a scene missing there, context is being skipped. It’s probably being skipped to make space for an overextended sequence where we watch how television reacts to what’s going on. Blue Peter gets a few seconds of action, real-life news reporters are brought in, the whole thing is silly and weak parody… but probably true to what would actually happen.
I’ve no idea what’s going on with Mickey, though. At one point he steps onto a balcony, sees a shoe, picks it up and sniffs it. C’mon now, Mickey, you’re better than that. His arc in this episode has the glimmer of a good idea in it, but starts by making fun of him and then completely looks past what should be a hugely worrying aspect of this whole story – that he was the main suspect in Rose’s abduction for a YEAR.
The really important part of the episode is right at the start, you see, with the reveal that the Doctor has accidentally taken Rose out of her friends and family’s world for a calendar year. That has actual ramifications, and pays off on the ties that RTD built into his previous episode between Rose and her home. It’s an effective way to play the idea of time-travel, and adds an element of danger which isn’t present in the episode anywhere else. Forget the aliens and everything else – simply travelling through time is a dangerous act, especially if done recklessly.
It’s a silly episode, then, but at least it can back the stupid sections up with some compelling human drama that leaves a mark.
Doctor Who Series 1 Episode 4: Aliens of London
Written by Russell T. Davies
Directed by Keith Boak