Doctor Who has been on a really hot, consistent streak of episodes ever since “Dalek“, so it’s completely understandable if your first reaction is to groan when it becomes clear that Russell T. Davies is already bringing back the Slitheen, the villains from this season’s worst story. In fact, I find it unintentionally funny that when the Doctor sees Margaret Blaine’s face plastered in the paper, his first reaction is to sigh and lament that his good day is now ruined. Thankfully though, “Boom Town” is a much better Slitheen story than their debut two-parter, abandoning almost all of the cringeworthy fart jokes in favor of a good, quiet character study. Like “The Long Game“, “Boom Town” basically serves as a refreshing breather episode between the ambitious creepiness of “The Empty Child” and the oppressive bleakness of “The Parting Of The Ways“. The bulk of this episode is the Ninth Doctor and his friends goofing off and having fun solving a smaller case than usual, which feels earned after nearly a whole season of developing the relationship between these four characters.
Steven Moffat gave us some great dialogue in “The Doctor Dances”, and Russell T. Davies keeps it coming in “Boom Town” as the Doctor, Rose, Mickey and Jack’s personalities bounce off each other for forty-five minutes. In retrospect, this TARDIS team feels like a rare, special occasion. After “Boom Town”, we wouldn’t see these four characters share a scene again until “Journey’s End“, the Series 4 finale. But despite a lot of “Boom Town” being fun friendship fluff, it does touch on some deeper themes and head into some serious, thought-provoking territory in the second half, ruminating on the psychology of a killer and the morality of capital punishment. My only real nitpick about “Boom Town” is that the pacing feels a bit lopsided. The first half is really fast-paced, so we can spend as much time on the moral dilemma as possible, and the second half becomes really slow, to the point where they almost feel like two different episodes.
By this point in the season, the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) has mellowed out a lot and become more laidback from the experiences he’s had ever since “Dalek”, and I really enjoy spending time with him. Compared to how lonely and brooding he was when we met him in the opening episodes, Nine is surrounded by good friends these days and he really enjoys flying off into time and space for a good lark each week, instead of just going through the motions. He’s noticeably nicer to Mickey now, having gained respect for him; he freely flirts with Captain Jack and trades banter with him for fun; and he’s grown more understanding of Rose’s emotional needs when it comes to her support system back home, giving her all the space and privacy she needs to handle things with Mickey.
In “Boom Town”, Nine basically wants to keep his head down, have some fun in Cardiff, and have a nice day out for a change while he waits for the TARDIS to refuel, but he reluctantly gets drawn into another Slitheen adventure when Margaret Blaine resurfaces. Nine is his usual breezy self throughout this episode, even while he’s doing the dangerous task of capturing the rogue Slitheen, until the second half, when Russell scrutinizes his character. Margaret insists that by taking her home to be executed, the Doctor and friends are basically killing her themselves, which is a load of rubbish. The Doctor insists that it’s not problem and it really isn’t, except this entire season has stressed that personal accountability is something that’s very important to Nine, and people trying to pass the buck only pisses him off.
Whenever Cassandra, Henry Van Statten, Adam Mitchell or Captain Jack tried to offer up weak excuses for the consequences of their actions (consequences that could range from petty, run-of-the-mill murder to the potential destruction of the entire world), they were met with callous indifference at best and total righteous fury at worst from the Doctor. Despite being prepared for it, Margaret’s flimsy attempts to guilt-trip him and get under his skin – for something she did entirely to herself – works because of his own personal hang-ups and principles. Margaret offers up a weak, unconvincing argument about how she can change because she showed mercy to one person and the Doctor cuts right through it, pointing out that it probably doesn’t mean anything.
Margaret fires back that the Doctor’s hands aren’t all that clean either: he’s bumped off plenty of his enemies just like he did with her clan, and he has a funny little habit of running away from the consequences of his actions, leaving other people to clean up the mess. Nothing about this claim is a lie. The Doctor has done it several times in this season alone (with “The Long Game” being the most egregious example), and the consequences of this habit are about to catch up to him in the finale. Throughout the dinner scene, the Doctor and Margaret peel away at each other’s defenses and the lies they tell themselves, until they finally reach something raw and real and uncomfortable, and it makes for some really good television. For once, the Ninth Doctor seems to have met his match. From how he ultimately resolves the problem with Margaret in the coda, warily giving her a second chance to make some better life choices, Russell T. Davies shows one last bit of character growth for the Doctor in this episode, before the season finale. Compared to how he basically sentenced Cassandra to death in “The End Of The World“, Nine has grown a bit more merciful over time.
Something I really appreciate about Series 1 is that we keep popping back to London every few episodes, to check on Rose’s progress and get a fresh idea of how traveling with the Doctor has changed her perspective on life (which will come to a head in “The Parting Of Ways”). In “Boom Town’s” case, her latest return home forces her to finally deal with the uncomfortable elephant in the room that’s been lingering since “Aliens Of London”. Rose hopes to have a fun day out with Mickey in this episode, but bagging a Slitheen eats up a good portion of the day, and even when they have some time alone all they seem to talk about is the Doctor. Rose gushes about him and her adventures with him constantly, which is rather telling to anyone who’s not in denial. Mickey acknowledges that they’ve been drifting apart for ages and admits he’s thinking about seeing other people, which pisses Rose off and sends her into a heated judgmental rant, before Mickey blows up at her.
Like I said in her debut episode, Rose’s main character flaw is that she can be very self-involved. She rarely ever does it with malicious intent. Rose simply tends to think about how things affect Rose first and foremost (which is very apparent in episodes like “Tooth And Claw“), and it’s very satisfying to see her get called out for that trait, because she is a massive hypocrite in this scene. On top of her ship-tease moments with the Doctor, Rose has been flirting with guys she fancies like Adam and Jack and bringing them onboard the TARDIS for the last few episodes, while she still hasn’t broken up with Mickey yet. Rose is finally confronted with how unfair and unhealthy it is to string Mickey along for months as her safety net while her heart is somewhere else, a million light years away, so she finally does what she should have done in “Aliens Of London”: rip that band-aid off and break up with Mickey so they can both move on with their lives.
I really like Captain Jack Harkness. Now that he’s traveling with the Doctor and Rose, Jack slots in well as the flirtatious, easygoing engineer of the group, and his personality bounces off theirs easily. John Barrowman is a natural at delivering cheesy one-liners and rapidfire technobabble with a straight face, and he spends much of this episode working alongside the Doctor as his right-hand man. Notably, there are times when Jack seems to be chafing under the Doctor’s command – since they’re both still the alpha male brand of heroes – though he bares the Doctor no ill will for cramping his style and is simply happy to be there. While Jack is currently the Doctor’s sidekick, he’s a natural born leader, which hints at big things to come for him. In retrospect, I wish we could have had one more episode like “Boom Town”, where Jack is a regular, incumbent companion, before we lost his character to “Torchwood”.
After receiving some character development in “Aliens Of London”, Mickey Smith continues to grow on you as well. Mickey cringed away from the unknown in his first appearance, and then he embraced weird alien conspiracies theories. He’s still wary of alien business now, but he’s willing to pitch in and try to be a team player. Mickey is as lippy as ever (and all the better for it), but he clearly desires the others’ approval, which is both cute and sad, because no matter what he does, he can’t shake off his status as the team screw-up, which makes him feel inadequate. The Doctor has gained respect for him and Rose tries to make him feel welcome, but he just doesn’t fit in. The Doctor’s lifestyle is not for him. All Mickey had previously envisioned for himself was a happy, humdrum relationship with Rose on the Powell estate, but he seems to finally accept in this episode that that is not his future or Rose’s. The conundrum Mickey has, of trying to figure out what to do himself and where he really belongs, is one that will continue to plague him until “The Age Of Steel” in the middle of Series 2.
By the usual standards of Doctor Who villains, the Slitheen are surprisingly competent and intelligent manipulators (their evil plan in “World War Three” totally would have worked if the Doctor hadn’t intervened), and thankfully that’s the aspect of their characters that Russell T. Davies decides to emphasize in “Boom Town”. Margaret Blaine lays traps within traps for the Doctor (and this episode wrings a lot of dark humor out of her infrequent attempts to kill Nine), while also buying herself enough time for her true escape plan to pay-off. Annette Badland was already pretty impressively evil with the small part she had in “World War Three”, but she is phenomenal here: conveying a lot of Margaret’s malicious thoughts through her expressions alone, which are always shifting and always calculating as she toys with people beneath the gleefully phony, oily façade she puts on for the public. To say nothing of the chillingly unsettling, hateful glares she gives every member of the TARDIS team while she’s their prisoner.
Russell decides to give her character some depth and ask the question of what a villain can do with themselves after they’ve already been thoroughly beaten and lost everything. Throughout this episode, both Margaret and Russell raise the question of whether or not she can reform, or if she’s already too far gone for that. The audience is tipped off early on that she hates how she wasted away her life with nothing to show for it except total loneliness. She claims to be repentant, which the Doctor wisely refuses to believe. Since she was just buying for time until her back-up escape plan kicked off, it’s interesting to rewatch the dinner scene and wonder how much of her claims were genuine. The TARDIS peers inside her mind and determines that her heart’s desire is to turn back the clock and become a blank slate, implying that she really did want a chance to do it all over again if she could. Whether or not she actually deserved a chance to do so is a different matter (she did not), but the Doctor and the TARDIS grant her her request regardless.
Joe Ahearne returns to helm “Boom Town”, and his direction is solid and serviceable. It’s not as impressive as the dynamic direction in “Dalek”, “The Long Game” or “The Empty Child”, but since “Boom Town” aims to be a smaller, low budget story, Ahearne does a commendable job. Some of his choices in the second half of the episode elevate the story and make the episode’s atmosphere rather haunting, like the increasingly tight, uncomfortable close-ups in the dinner scene, as the Doctor and Margaret chip away at each other’s defenses; or the mesmerizing, fixed shots of the Doctor and Margaret, backlit by the encompassing light of the TARDIS, in the console room; or the long shot of Mickey watching Rose from a distance in the coda.
Murray Gold’s score is a lot of fun this week. In addition to a few new renditions of “Westminster Bridge”, Murray wholeheartedly digs into the dual different tones of Russell’s breather romp. He composes some breezy, spirited jazz music for the Doctor and his companions’ fun day out in Cardiff, which he cuts loose on when the Doctor and Margaret head out for their ‘date night’. He also composes some stirring, somber themes for Margret’s stoic solitude, performed on a lone languishing oboe, when she converses with Cathy alone or talks to the Doctor in the TARDIS. Both sides of Murray’s score are on display in the “Boom Town Suite” he compiled for the soundtrack album. The CGI quality has been mixed throughout Series 1, but this proves to be another good week for the special effects team, and it’s probably because very few scenes in “Boom Town’ require any digital assistance except for the climax where the Cardiff rift opens. I do find it interesting that the audio mix contains a lot of stock screaming and lightening effects during the climax.
Considering how cringy “Aliens Of London” could get, it’s surprising that the sequel to that two-parter would be one of the better episodes of Series 1, but “Boom Town” is a really entertaining character drama from RTD. The final five minutes of the episode feel rather portentous and foreboding, because “Boom Town” was the calm before the storm; the following finale will be the end of an era – the Ninth Doctor’s run – no matter how short-lived it was.
* “Who the hell are you?” “What do you mean, who the hell am I? Who the hell are you?” “Captain Jack Harkness. Whatever your selling, we’re not buying” “Get out of my way!”
* “Aw, sweet, look at these two. How come I never get any of that?” “Buy me a drink first” “You’re such hard work” “But worth it”.
* “Are you saying I’m not handsome?!”
* “Just recently, Mr. Cleaver, the government’s nuclear adviser-” “Slipped on an icy patch” “He was decapitated” “It was a very icy patch”.
* Here’s another RTD writing trope for you: annoyingly persistent workers who keep prodding the antagonists who are clearly shady until they get themselves killed. Cathy here does fare a lot better than poor Vivica in “The Sound Of Drums“.
* “Excuse me, who’s in charge?” “Sorry. Awaiting orders, sir” “Right, here’s the plan… Like he said. Nice plan”.
* “The Lord Mayor says thank you for popping by. She’d love to have a chat, but, er, she’s up to her eyes in paperwork. Perhaps if you could make an appointment for next week?” “She’s climbing out of the window, isn’t she?” “Yes, she is”.
* “This is persecution! Why can’t you leave me alone? What did I ever do to you?!” “You tried to kill me and destroy this entire planet” “Apart from that”.
* “We’re in Cardiff, London doesn’t care. The South Wales coast could fall into the sea and they wouldn’t notice. Oh. I sound like a Welshman. God help me, I’ve gone native”.
* “But why would she do that? A great big explosion, she’d only end up killing herself” “She’s got a name, you know” “She’s not even a she, she’s a thing”.
* ‘And it would have worked too, if wasn’t for you meddling time travelers!‘
* “They have the death penalty there” Way to kill the mood, Margaret.
* “Thank you” “You’re welcome” I love these two.
* “You let one of them go, but that’s nothing new. Every now and then, a little victim’s spared because she smiled, because he’s got freckles, because they begged. And that’s how you live with yourself. That’s how you slaughter millions. Because once in a while, on a whim, if the wind’s in the right direction, you happen to be kind”.
* “Only a killer would know that. Is that right? From what I’ve seen, your funny little happy go lucky life leaves devastation in its wake. Always moving on because you dare not look back. Playing with so many peoples’ lives, you might as well be a god. And you’re right, Doctor. You’re absolutely right. Sometimes you let one go. Let me go“.
* “Boom Town’s” conflict is ultimately solved by a TARDIS ex machina, which is rather impressive and it sets up the finale. For now, let’s just say the TARDIS isn’t just a vessel, she’s her own player in the game.
* I’m not gonna lie, the ‘next time’ trailer annoys me. The identity of the villain in “Bad Wolf” is a major plot twist, to the point where it isn’t revealed until the last five minutes. Meanwhile, the trailer just casually blabs that it’s the Daleks. Because someone, somewhere, gave zero fucks about spoilers.