In “Doctor Who”, a couple of early trips in the TARDIS are usually followed by a quick pop back home, so the companion can regain their bearings and establish a home base. And in Rose’s case, “Aliens Of London” tackles the unexpected consequences of her decision to run off with the Doctor, when he accidentally brings her back a year later than intended. It’s easy to take for granted now, since it’s such a big part of the revival, but the companion’s home life was never given a large amount of focus in the classic series. When Russell T. Davies revamped the series, he also made a wise decision to flesh out each companion’s backstory and give them a supporting cast back home, which led to some great stories down the line, like Donna’s self-esteem issues or Amy’s relationship problems with Rory.
“Aliens Of London / World War Three” is also the first two-part episode of the revival (a throw-back to classic Who where multi-part serials were definitely the norm, and they were known for their cliffhangers) and the results are very mixed. In a lot of RTD era two-parters, I notice the series doesn’t split the conflict neatly or equally across two episodes, but saves most of it up for the second half and relegates the first half to being almost entirely set-up, which means the first episode usually drags in places (“Rise Of The Cybermen“, “Daleks In Manhattan“, “The Sontaran Stratagem“). As such, “World War Three” is a much more exciting and entertaining episode than “Aliens Of London”. There’s also the fact that “World War Three” puts way less focus on farting aliens jokes.
I’m not gonna mince words here: the Slitheen are some pretty awful villains, and they make you wonder what was going through Russell’s head while he was penning this script. Making an episode about farting aliens already sounds like a bad, potentially cringeworthy idea to begin with, but why would you want to make it a two-parter? “Doctor Who” is a family show, and “Aliens Of London / World War Three” is clearly aiming towards the younger members of the audience, but I don’t think the kids enjoyed it that much more than the adults. Every time “Aliens Of London” builds up a good amount of excitement or intrigue, or gets the audience hooked on Rose’s family drama, we cut back to the Slitheen for more unfunny fart jokes that just drag on, drain the tension and make you die a little inside.
The last three episodes did a great job of showing what makes “Doctor Who” special and getting audience members hooked, but this two-parter has a strong chance of turning them right off and giving them second thoughts. The cliffhanger that bridges the two episodes is also fairly weak. It involves three groups of people just standing around, gawping at monsters slowly transforming and coming to kill them instead of trying to run for their lives, and at the start of the next episode, the head Slitheen just stands there and watches the Doctor move to electrocute his brother. Has everyone in this cliffhanger forgotten how to use their legs? It’s a shame, because there are a lot of great things about this two-parter – particularly the ensemble cast and the villains’ scheme – the overused farting aliens gag simply threatens to drag it all down.
Easily the best thing about this two-parter is its portrayal of the Doctor. It’s funny, I always knew I liked the Ninth Doctor, but I’ve been enjoying Christopher Eccletson in the role a lot more than I remembered while I’ve been revisiting this season. He only had thirteen episodes under his belt as the Doctor, but all thirteen scripts gave him plenty of interesting material to work with. In “Aliens Of London”, the Ninth Doctor is ecstatic about the possibility of humanity making first contact with an alien race, and he’s even more excited that he’s going to be there for that first, really big step forward. Still, his intuition tells him that something is not quite right here. Leaving Rose with her family, he flies solo for a bit so he can do some investigating, which gives us an opportunity to see his expert sleuthing skills.
In fact, the Doctor’s quick wits and his intelligence as a seasoned, alien time traveler are displayed quite prominently throughout this two-parter: both of which manage to keep him alive when he’s clearly out of his depth. He can read an entire book back to front in a matter of minutes; he uses his knowledge of British architecture to give himself and his friends a temporary stronghold in 10 Downing Street; banking on basic human nature, he can bluff his adversaries and buy for some time at a moment’s notice; and when Jackie and Mickey are put in grave danger, he uses everything he’s learned about the Slitheen to try to identify them from the hundreds of alien races he’s encountered in his memories, like narrowing down search results in an internet database. It’s why I like the Doctor as a character. There are plenty of heroes who rely on guns or brute force to solve their problems, but the Doctor prefers to use his head. Despite being a bit of wary of soldiers, it’s worth noting that the Ninth Doctor can commandeer a whole group of them at ease with just the right words and authority, once again hinting at another aspect of his past that he hasn’t been forward about yet.
The Doctor’s compassionate side is emphasized twice, when some human soldiers needlessly gun down a silly-looking pig creature out of fear, and again when he takes a moment to mourn an overlooked and underappreciated redshirt employee who was killed by the Slitheen. After the way he kept overlooking Mickey in “Rose“, it’s good to get another reminder of how much the preciousness and sanctity of each person’s life means to the Doctor. Despite denigrating ‘domestic life’ several times, the Doctor is forced to deal with it in this story. He’s very obviously jealous of Mickey for being Rose’s (ex?)-boyfriend and spends much of the episode engaging in petty, macho bickering with him, and he’s got Jackie breathing down his neck for bringing Rose into his dangerous lifestyle.
“The End Of The World” clarified the Doctor’s stance on time travel, and “World War Three” elaborates on why he sometimes gets involved with human/alien affairs, beyond obviously caring for humanity. As the last time lord in existence, the Doctor feels it’s his responsibility to get involved with problems mankind can’t handle on their own and protect the safety and integrity of the Earth’s timeline from outside interference, especially since, as we learn in the next episode, it’s partly the Doctor’s fault there aren’t any more time lords. Perhaps the greatest misconception I’ve seen about the Doctor’s character is that he’s a pacifist. The Doctor is someone who would like to be a pacifist, he always tries to be understanding and prefers non-violent solutions to people’s problems, but if there’s no other option at hand with time running out, he will use violence or deadly force to remove a threat. The Slitheen sold him short, and he completely destroyed their way of life in the span of a day. The ramifications of that decision will be explored in-depth in “Boom Town” later this season.
Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) continues to be a brave and capable heroine in this story as she grows into her own, particularly when she’s paired up with Harriet Jones as an older woman / younger woman duo trying to fend off the Slitheen. Rose has a lot of good instincts, and the same can be said about Harriet, so they play off of each other very well. When the Doctor brings her back home a year later than he was supposed to, Rose is faced with the unenviable task of trying to explain everything to her mother, and trying to gain Jackie’s approval, so she can keep the Doctor in life. She’s still trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life and her future, now that she has a lot more options available to her. While Rose has been an inoffensive character for the last three episodes, “Aliens Of London” marks the point where she starts to become a more divisive character. In fact, Rose is one of the two most divisive NuWho companions in the show’s fandom (with the other one being Clara), for understandable reasons. You tend to either love her or think she’s a pain.
Russell T. Davies purposely made Rose a very flawed character, and gave her a somewhat contradictory personality. When it comes to her calling, saving the world, Rose can be very selfless: she’s willing to keep an open mind and show kindness and compassion to things she doesn’t understand. She’s also willing to lay down her life in an instant for her friends and the things she believes in. But when it comes to her personal life, she can be very selfish and insensitive. After being home for a day, it’s clear Rose has forgotten Mickey entirely, and even though she’s clearly fallen out of love with him, she doesn’t break things off with him when she has a chance but instead continues to string him along for the rest of the season. Not to mention, she breaks Jackie’s heart at the end of “World War Three”. The two extremes of Rose’s character will be present throughout her tenure and eventually come to a head in the climax of “Doomsday“, her departure story – wherein one scene she’s willing to ditch all of her friends and family in an alternate universe forever to try to stay with the Doctor, and in the next scene, she nearly gets herself killed trying to ensure all the Daleks and Cybermen are vanquished.
We also get our first look at the more unhealthy side of the Doctor and Rose’s relationship. The Doctor is aggressively harsh to her (ex?)-boyfriend throughout this two-parter out of mutual jealousy, and at the end, he rather dickishly gives her an ultimatum between spending time with her mom that she accidentally abandoned for a year, or running off with him to have some more adventures. If Nine didn’t offer Mickey a spot in the TARDIS at the end, I would almost think he wanted to drive a wedge between Rose and everyone else in her life so he could selfishly have her all to himself. Keep that in mind for when the Doctor and Rose start to grow increasingly codependent in Series 2.
“World War Three” has the first appearance of another recurring theme throughout NuWho: how fragile the Doctor’s companions are compared to him and the price that can come with traveling through time with him. The Doctor lives a very dangerous life day by day that his friends choose to partake in, and when they stick around long enough, eventually they tend to get burned. Once Jackie learns about that, she asks the Doctor if something horrible might happen to Rose someday that would prevent her from returning home, and the Doctor, in all good conscience, cannot deny the possibility. In Rose’s eyes, it’s a risk she’s willing to take to keep her world safe, and to enjoy a more fulfilling life than the one she dragged herself through every day at the start of the series. However, the Doctor could never be able to live with himself if something like that were to happen on his watch. The Grim Reaper potentially coming for Rose is an uncomfortable possibility that Russell T. Davies will continually tease out for drama over the next two seasons, until Rose makes her departure from the show in “Doomsday”.
Noel Clarke returns as Mickey Smith in this story, and while Mickey continues to fill the role of the bumbling, comedy relief boyfriend, his character is fleshed out substantially from his debut, alternating between being a prickly and bitter man, and a rather sympathetic, forgotten third wheel. When Rose ran off and disappeared for a year without a trace, everyone suspected her boyfriend had something to do with it and accused Mickey of murdering her, which destroyed his reputation. Mickey is furious when they finally return, and clearly jealous of the Doctor, no doubt thinking the alien wandered into his life just to steal his girlfriend. As we previously established in “Rose”, Mickey is quite the poser; he likes to put on a front of being hard and tough, but his first instinct is to run away from trouble. While he crumbled under pressure in “Rose”, “Aliens Of London” is the first story to really challenge him and force him to overcome his cowardly streak.
The Doctor, Rose, Jackie, Mickey and Harriet are the only people alive who know about the Slitheen, so it’s up to them to stop them, and Mickey gradually finds he can be brave when he needs to be, for his friends and his home. Mickey also proves to be more intelligent than we first thought, to the point where even the Doctor has to admit he underestimated him. He apparently has efficient hacking skills and has become quite the conspiracy theorist since he first met the Doctor, in addition to being street-smart. Thanks to some less than ideal circumstances, Mickey and Jackie spend much of this episode holed up together, and team up as an unlikely comedy duo. By the end of this story, Mickey has stepped up and grown some more as a person, but he’s still not ready to go traveling with the Doctor when the time lord offers him the opportunity. Instead, he resigns himself to be the man back home for the time being, waiting for Rose while she has fantastic adventures without him.
When Rose disappeared, Jackie Tyler was emotionally wrecked, and she spent the next year fearing the worst. When the Doctor and Rose turn up again and are fairly glib about the whole matter, Jackie cycles between relief and fury. Considering what she has to go on, and what someone would think when their twenty year old daughter runs off with a man who looks like he’s in his forties, it’s pretty awesome to see her lay into the Doctor. Worried about the Doctor’s influence on Rose, Jackie reports him to UNIT when she learns he’s an alien, which nearly gets her killed by the Slitheen (no one likes a snitch, you know, not even RTD). As the four of them are forced to cooperate to stop the Slitheen, Jackie gets a pretty good insight into the Doctor’s lifestyle and why he does what he does. It’s interesting direction for Russell to steer the show in, and a good opportunity to dissect and scrutinize the Doctor’s character (something he would do again in “Boom Town”).
It also produces a small dilemma for the series. If Rose is going to stick around as the Doctor’s new sidekick, the show obviously can’t have her overprotective mother breathing down her neck every week, so Jackie has to be brought up to speed on who the Doctor is and brought around to him fairly quickly, without the warming-up process feeling forced. The Doctor can’t promise her that Rose will be safe, because what he does is always dangerous, and it’s what Rose has chosen to be a part of. By the end of this two-parter, Jackie seems to have accepted that Rose is an adult now and that the Doctor isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so she’d like to learn more about him. But to her dismay, extending an olive branch to the Doctor is still not enough to keep him and Rose from leaving again much sooner than she, or anyone else, would like. Since Jackie has no reason to think they won’t be gone again for a whole other year or more, you feel pretty awful for her in this story’s closing minutes.
I’ve already talked about how the cringeworthy, overdone farting aliens gag makes the Slitheen incredibly dodgy villains, but there’s also the fact that their dialogue feels very jarring compared to everyone else’s. The main cast talks like they’ve stepped out of a drama series, while the Slitheen quip away like they’re Saturday morning cartoon villains. Still, I will admit that they do have some interesting aspects. Underneath their obnoxiously clownish exterior, the Slitheen are sadistic, smug, smarmy, arrogant and sociopathic. They’re also remarkably clever by the standards of most Doctor Who villains and very effective manipulators. They’re a crime family from space, who see humans as insignificant ants that they occasionally hunt them for sport. Instead of trying to invade the Earth, they want to make a profit off of it.
They put on a good show of an alien invasion to make humans aware that otherworldly life exists, they kill off important public figures so they can replace them, and they try to convince the United Nations to wage a nuclear war against a growing alien threat. With a minimal amount of effort, they’ll steer humanity into destroying themselves and salting the Earth for them. For a group of farting, baby-faced aliens, it’s a surprisingly genius ploy, and it would have worked if the Doctor wasn’t there to stop them. Another interesting angle they have is the fact that they’re a crime family. They don’t give a fuck about anyone other than themselves and they consider every other race out there to be beneath them, but there is a genuine, cordial bond between the four of them as a unit. Like the villains in “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, these monsters are allowed to have some feelings of loyalty and attachment towards each other that gives them complexity. These are all traits of the Slitheen that Russell T. Davies would thankfully choose to focus on more in “Boom Town” instead of the farting aliens gag.
“Aliens Of London” sees the debut of Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North, who, even by RTD era standards, is a colossal ham. Despite only appearing in three stories, Harriet had a very significant impact on the RTD era, rising and falling in both the public’s eye and the Doctor’s personal estimation. While a part of me wishes her debut was a stronger two-parter, Penelope Wilton is a delight here, and it’s great to see Harriet in her prime, working with the Doctor and Rose to stop an alien threat. We’re initially introduced to her as a low-level, hardworking politician who’s determined to get her job done, even in the middle of an alien crisis. Harriet finds herself in the middle of extraordinary, horrible circumstances when she accidentally uncovers the Slitheen’s evil scheme, and confides in the Doctor and Rose about what she saw.
Some of the best scenes in “World War Three” are the Doctor, Rose and Harriet bunkered down in their improvised stronghold, bouncing ideas off each other and combining their collective intellect. Something I really appreciate about Series 1 is just how well-balanced the character focus is between the Doctor, Rose and the various supporting characters they encounter every week. Notably, while the Doctor is hesitant to take any final, lethal action against the Slitheen, for fear of harming Rose as much as his own moral right to do so, Harriet is a lot more bold and decisive about what needs to be done. Her most significant personality trait is that she is a proud patriot and nationalist who will do whatever she has to to protect her country when it’s under fire. It’s portrayed as a good thing here, but Russell will explore the darker side of her patriotism in her second appearance, which makes the Doctor’s prediction in the end, about Harriet ushering in a new golden age for the UK, feel a lot more ominous in retrospect.
Like in “The End Of The World”, the costume department is given the opportunity to design some real, proper off-putting alien creatures for the series. The pig slave is an early, silly example that looks designed to appeal to the younger audience members, but the prosthetics really shine with the Slitheen monsters. The Slitheen are giant, green, lumbering beasts with baby-faces who can easily fill up a tight-enclosed space, but are much faster on their feet than you would expect. After keeping the designs hidden for most of “Aliens Of London”, “World War Three” shows them off at every opportunity, and considering how much work must have been put into designing the look of these beasties, it’s understandable that the show feels proud of them.
“Aliens Of London” was shot in the same production block as “Rose”, so Keith Hoak once again helms this story, and he’s noticeably improved a lot from the first episode. There are a number of frentic, engagingly shot sequences in “World War Three” that help liven up the two-parter after some of the doldrums of “Aliens Of London”, like the Doctor, Rose and Harriet trying to escape the Slitheen by running up staircases and dashing through corridors, or the missile Mickey sent honing in on 10 Downing Street. I also enjoy the way the tense stand-off between the Doctor and Margaret is shot, as he orders her to spill about her evil plan from a place of perceived, deceptive weakness. The CGI in this two-parter is pretty bad. The Slitheen ship crashing into Thames is passable, I suppose, but the drawn-out scenes of the Slitheen unmasking looked awful in 2005, and they still look awful now. Like I said before, some of the CGI in Series 1 and 2 really looks unfinished. Murray Gold’s score, filled with queazy, ambient synthesizers and ploinky, comedic strings, continues to improve with each story. He assigns a rousing, percussion-heavy leitmotif to the two-parter called “The Slitheen“, which actually sounds a lot like the UNIT theme he would start using in “The Christmas Invasion”.
“Aliens Of London / World War Three” is easily the weakest story from Series 1, while still having enough redeeming qualities to earn itself a passing grade from me. It’s kind of a shame really. If the Slitheen weren’t such embarrassing villains, this would be a much better two-parter, and it would be more well-regarded by the fandom. As it stands, for anyone who’s temporarily worried about the quality of this strange sci-fi show, Series 1 will only fly up from here, and it even manages to improve the Slitheen later on.
* “It’s not twelve hours, it’s twelve months. You’ve been gone a whole year. Sorry”.
* “How old are you then? Forty? Forty five?! What, did you find her on the Internet? Did you go online and pretend you’re a doctor?!” “I am a Doctor!” “Prove it. Stitch this, mate!”
* “One phone call. Just to know that you were alive” “I’m sorry. I really am” “Do you know, what terrifies me is that you still can’t say. What happened to you, Rose? What can be so bad that you can’t tell me, sweetheart? Where were you?”
* “I can’t tell her, I can’t even begin. She’s never going to forgive me. And I missed a year. Was it good?” “Eh, middling” “You’re so useless”.
* At this point in the series, Rose understandably thinks she’s the only person out there who knows about aliens. She doesn’t know there’s been two dozen other people in the TARDIS before her (and she ain’t gonna be happy when she finds out).
* As much as I’m not a fan of the spin-off show, it is neat to see all the pieces that make up “Torchwood” be quietly established in the first two series. “The Unquiet Dead” gave us Eve Myles and the Cardiff Rift, Toshiko makes an early appearance in “Aliens Of London” (the only member of Jack’s team to actually meet the Doctor until “The Stolen Earth”), “The Empty Child” gives us Captain Jack Harkness, “The Parting Of Ways” makes Jack immortal, “Tooth and Claw” shows the creation of the Torchwood institute, and “Doomsday” knocks it down a few pegs. After two series of build-up, you’ve got a spin-off show ready to lift off the ground.
* You’ve got to smile at that scene of Nine flying the TARDIS on his own. He looks like a man driving his favorite antique car, and patting himself of the back for knowing it so well he can get her to ride like a dream.
* “By all the saints, get some perspective, woman! I’m busy!”
* The scene where the poor pigman dies, gunned down by soldiers, implies that humanity’s first instinct is to almost always lash out at the unknown: which rather nicely foreshadows the Slitheen’s master-plan to weaponize human fear on a mass scale.
* “What did you do that for?! It was scared! It was scared!”
* “I’m shaking my booty” Please, don’t.
* “Someone owes Mickey an apology!” “I’m sorry” “Not you”.
* “Like it said on the news, they’re gathering experts in alien knowledge. And who’s the biggest expert of the lot?” “Patrick Moore?” “Apart from him!”
* The Slitheen look almost orgasmic as they unzip their foreheads. That’s an… interesting detail.
* “Gentlemen, I think you’ll find the Prime Minister is actually an alien in disguise!… That’s never going to work, is it?” “No” “Fair enough”.
* “I’m getting poisoned by the gas exchange. I need to be naked!” “Well, rejoice in it, brother. Your body is magnificent”.
* “Who the hell are you?” “Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North” “Nice to meet you” “Likewise”.
* “Well, it was worth a try. Harriet, have a drink. I think you’re gonna need it” “You pass it to the left first” “Sorry”.
* “I thought I was going to die!” “Come on, Jacks. If anyone’s gonna cry, it’s gonna be me”.
* Rose suggests that they try to blow all the aliens up and Harriet blankly states that she’s a very violent-minded woman. Glass houses, Harriet, glass houses.
* “Well, the British Isles can’t gain access to atomic weapons without a Special Resolution from the UN” “Like that’s ever stopped them” “Exactly, given our past record. And I voted against that, thank you very much”.
* “It wasn’t just alien, but like proper alien! All wet, and stinking, and disgusting! And more to the point, it wanted to kill us!” “I could have died!”
* “See, the government has known about aliens for years, they just kept us in the dark” “Mickey, you were born in the dark!” “Oi, leave him alone” “Thank you”.
* “Well, I’ve got a question, if you don’t mind. Since that man walked into our lives, I have been attacked in the streets. I have had creatures from the pits of hell in my own living room, and my daughter disappear off the face of the Earth. ‘Cos I’ve seen this life of yours, Doctor. And maybe you get off on it, and maybe you think it’s all clever and smart, but you tell me. Just answer me this. Is my daughter safe? Is she safe? Will she always be safe? Can you promise me that? Well, what’s the answer?”
* The Slitheen’s endgame is apparently a bit of social commentary from Russell T. Davies about the Iraq war that was happening at the time. I didn’t get into “Doctor Who” until 2010, so that detail flew over my head for a long while. In retrospect, it feels kind of strange to touch on such a serious matter as a contemporary, ongoing war in an episode about giggling, farting aliens.
* “I’ll give you a choice. Leave this planet or I’ll stop you” “What, you? Trapped in your box?” “Yes. Me”.
* “Victory should be naked!” The Slitheen are confirmed nudists. Murderous space nudists. They probably have their own club.
* “Ring, damn you!”