Ten Things About Who: Aliens of London

Ten points of discussion inspired by the 2005 Doctor Who episode, Aliens of London.

It’s been a few weeks since we departed the Cardiff rift. Apologies – pressures of work, and all that. But we continue a revisit of 2005’s Doctor Who series with the TARDIS’ return to the Powell Estate.

A quick reminder that my collection of Ten Things About Who posts for the 2012/13 series is now available for Kindle devices and Kindle e-reader apps for the bargain price of £1.99 – that’s 14p per episode discussion Thanks to everyone who’s bought it so far – if you have, please do leave a review or, at the very least, a star rating. And if you haven’t bought it yet, you can do so at mtthw.mn/whoebook.

1. A quick recap…

OK, so I said that The End of the World starts with what is, for Doctor Who, a rarely-used device: a “previously…”-style recap, that has “rarely been needed since”.

And then, two episodes later, that device gets used again. Still, I’m right – it tends not to be used much after this. To be honest, its usefulness in a series where the setting can change so drastically from episode to episode is debatable. But notice, even here, that it’s a recap of events solely from Rose. There’s no glimpse of Platform One or Victorian Cardiff at all.

Conceptually, it fits – this episode is a thematic sequel to the first episode, and deals directly witht he consequences of Rose’s impetuous run into the TARDIS at the end of that episode. For me, the recap here feels alien, if you’ll pardon the expression.

While what we now call “classic” Doctor Who used the old B-movie serial of replaying the previous week’s hangover to remind viewers of where they’ve got to, this “remember this from three weeks ago?” style of reminder has never sat well with Doctor Who. And it really isn’t used much after this. I promise.

2. You’ve been gone a whole year

The poster that the Doctor spots that causes him to run up to the Tylers’ flat says that Rose went missing in March 2005. That means that, from Aliens of London onwards, all of Rose’s “present day” episodes take place a year ahead of their date of broadcast. This ‘one year out’ disparity continue long after Roses leaves in Doomsday. References in Smith and Jones indicate that Martha’s idea of the present day is still a year out of sync with our own. And with events of successive Christmas episodes referenced as far in as Turn Left, there’s not really any point at which we, as a TV audience, catch up with the Doctor.

That is, until The Eleventh Hour, which makes a clean(ish) break and so could, theoretically, put the Doctor’s idea of contemporary Earth back in tune with ours. But that episode brings its own problems…

3. The G Word

“You’re so gay!”
— Rose

In a series which made such a determined effort to treat people with a same-sex attraction as part of the warp and weft of everyday life, whatever planet you happen to be on, Rose’s use of “gay” as a derogatory term seems curiously out of place – all the more so because in the years since, more and more people have begun to realise that it’s not on to use the word in that way.

In the same year as Rose aired, DJ Chris Moyles, who was then presenting Radio 1’s Breakfast Show, described a ringtone he didn’t like as “gay”. After complaints were made, the BBC Governors supported the broadcaster:

The governors’ programme complaints committee – which operates independently of the BBC – acknowledged Chris Moyles’ description of a ringtone he did not like as “gay” could cause offence.

But the use of the word “gay” to mean “lame” or “rubbish” was widespread among young people, it said.

“In broadcasting to an audience of predominantly young people, it was to be expected that Chris Moyles would use expressions and words which the listeners used themselves,” the committee’s report said.

“The committee believed that Chris Moyles, when using the word, had meant no offence to gay people.

“It did, however, feel that it would be advisable to think more carefully about using the word ‘gay’ in its derogatory sense in the future.”

What the governors didn’t acknowledge was that the use of ‘gay’ to mean ‘lame’ comes directly from the belief that gay people are inherently inferior. And whether those using the word in this way mean to or not, its continued use in this context perpetuates that myth.

From a Guardian report of the BBC governors’ response:

John Quinn, director of children’s protection group Beat Bullying, said: “While the BBC claims the word gay has evolved into meaning ‘lame’, this is only because people identify being called gay as undesirable, therefore giving power to that term.

“Using the word gay as a derogatory word, whether in the context of homosexuality or not, further propagates the idea that being gay is a bad thing.

“The BBC have just greenlighted the use of gay as a derogatory word. Therefore, the BBC have given credence to the idea that being gay is bad. This low-level homophobia is not acceptable and is outrageous considering how homophobic bullying destroys lives.”

Thankfully, this remains the first and only time the “g” word has been used in a derogatory way on this show. In the real world in the eight years since this episode aired, we’ve seen big strides in the seriousness with which schools treat homophobic bullying.

I still come across people who think that calling things “gay” in a derogatory manner is okay, though. They tend to be the same ones who try and claim that they can’t use “gay” to mean “happy” anymore – seemingly ignorant that (a) the use of gay to mean a homosexual person is older than they are, and (b) nobody has used gay to mean happy for decades, least of all the people who are complaining.

4. 900 years old

The Doctor’s quite age has always been a bit fluid. Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor claimed he was several thousand years old in The Mind of Evil, headed back down towards the mid–700s through Tom Baker’s era, before nudging back up again – in Sylvester McCoy’s first story, Time and the Rani, he was 953 years old.

In both Aliens of London and The Empty Child, the Doctor refers to having travelled for 900 years – so saying he’s exactly nine centuries old could be a bit of over-enthusiastic rounding down. However, that does become the base point for future mentions, as by the time of Voyage of the Damned he’s telling everybody he’s 903.

By A Town Called Mercy, he’s 1200 – but after the timey-wimey aspects of the Impossible Astronaut saga, even the Doctor could have begun to lose count again…

5. Hello, Tosh

Back in 2005, Naoko Mori was better known on TV for her occasional guest role in Absolutely Fabulous as Saffron’s friend Sarah, whom Edina nicknamed ‘Titicaca’ for reasons best known to herself.

We now know that Doctor Sato’s brief scenes here are the first glimpse of Toshiko Sato, the doctor who would later relocate to Cardiff and join Torchwood under the auspices of Captain Jack Harkness.

I’ve met Naoko once, while she was playing Christmas Eve in the West End production of Avenue Q, at The Stage’s annual New Year party. I ended up in a conversation with her and Elisabeth Sladen, who was seeking make-up tips for her CBBC series’s imminent upgrade to filming in HD. I had nothing of merit to offer that conversation, but was more than happy to soak up the geekdom…

6. It’s not easy being green

If there’s any episode of the first series where the production team’s reach extends their grasp, it’s this two-parter, which formed part of the series’ first recording block. On paper, the Slitheen should work really well. The idea that they are large creatures who hollow out humans in order to hide inside is a particularly horrific one, if you think about it. Other aliens’ attempt to infiltrate humanity have tended to be a little less fatal – from Zygons to Sontaran clones, they’ve often required the original human to be kept alive in order to maintain the deception.

Similarly, as the disguises are slowly shed and the Slitheen heads start to emerge, there’s some incredibly effective design work. There’s a fluidity of movement to the Slitheen heads as the flesh is pulled away that is chilling.

Unfortunately, that’s destoryed somewhat by the slightly lumbering quality of the full-body prosthetics that, by necessity, take up the majority of the screen time. These Slitheen are apparently hunters, but have none of the speed and grace that implies (more of that next episode). Also, the lighting and forhead-zipper effect of the unveiling doesn’t quite work: if the zip locations were underneath the hairline instead of across a previously-smooth forehead, and the practical blue lighting was more in time with the ‘reveal’, the Slitheen would be far more effective.

7. I think it’s gonna be a long, long time

In its previous history, Doctor Who has never really looked at the effect a companion’s decision to travel with the Doctor has been on those left behind. What would have happened at Coal Hill School when two of its teachers disappeared overnight? Would the police have tied it in with one of the pupils also going missing at the same time?

Here, we finally see one possible consequence. Rose going missing for a whole year precipitated a manhunt, with fingers pointed at her boyfriend – accusations stoked by Rose’s mother, Jackie.

And it’s Camille Coduri and Noel Clarke who sell the events of the past year, often in delivery of otherwise throwaway lines. Jackie’s anger and frustration culminating in slapping the Doctor – and the cross-cut into the quieter, tearful reunion between her and her daughter – is masterful. And while the rest of the Powell estate is throwing ‘meet the alien’ parties and watching the news unfold on the telly, Mickey is left in his flat, alone, unable to make new connections in a world that believes it’s only lack of evidence that has stopped him being charged with murder.

It’s these human moments that work so well, in a story where the production team were clearly still struggling to find the right balance of special effects.

8. MP for Flydale North

We tend to have a fairly low opinion of our Westminster MPs. In general it seems to be that the closer they are to the front benches, the more detached they become from what they promise they are going to be when they first seek office.

Harriet Jones is a very idealistic representation. She is the MP we wish represented our own constituency. There’s not really any clue as to which party she’s supposed to be a member of – her policy, of not excluding cottage hospitals from NHS centres of excellence, is buzzwordy enough to have come from either of our two main parties. But that’s not really important – it’s clear that she’s driven by wanting to do the best for her constituency, even as she realises that bigger events are underway.

It’s no surprised that Penelope Wilton was able to turn in the first of several guest appearances in Doctor Who that stole the audience’s heart. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard her put in a bad performance. Most recently, she has been narrating Radio 4’s adaptation of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazalets sequence of novels. As I’ve begun to read the original, I found Howard’s mundane, often dense prose style infuriating – until I imagined that same prose being read by Wilton. That unlocked something within Howard’s style of writing that enables you to realise when a line of otherwise uninteresting descriptive text is actually rather sardonic.

9. Code 9

In recent weeks, we’ve heard rather more than we would probably wish to know about the possibility that security forces may be able to covertly monitor communications without using warrants or any other judicial oversight.

Prism, the US system which Ed Snowden talked about in his whistle-blowing interview to the Guardian, supposedly only monitors ‘metadata’ – i.e., contact details and locations, call types, durations, rather than necessarily the content of calls themselves. But the idea of known codewords triggering automated listening systems is nothing new, either in fiction or in coverage of the real world. ECHELON is the most ‘famous’ of such systems. Designed in the 1950s, when communications tended to be conducted over analogue systems, just how well such listening systems have been able to keep up with the growth of digital, encryptable systems is open to debate.

It does seem odd, though, that such a system would be triggered by words like “Doctor”. Much less that a governmental aide who didn’t have clearance to go into a meeting about alien incursions would have been given the results of such a sensitive data capture.

10. Bad Wolf

So the graffiti on the side of the TARDIS was the point at which the repeated mentions of “Bad Wolf” really started to grab viewers’ attention. Back in 2005, I created a couple of blog posts which started to catalogue the mentions, and possible mentions, of the phrase within the Doctor Who universe. BBC Books’ novels set within this season had their own mentions, a number of tie-in websites purporting to belong to organisations such as UNIT and Geocomtex (Henry Van Statten’s company in Dalek) had their own mentions.

And online, the American newsreader who made her first appearance here and would continue to pop up throughout the following years, was given a name: ‘Mal Loup’ – a very distorted translation of the meme. It wouldn’t be until Turn Left that we’d discover that the character was really called Trinity Wells.

Those blog posts I wrote started to gain traffic. Lots of traffic. Unfortunately, the host I was on at the time had a relatively limited bandwidth allowance. Writing about Bad Wolf ended up costing me a pretty penny…

Next week: everybody escapes

Worst. Cliffhanger. Ever. (But only because – for the first and last time – the trailer for part two follows on immediately…)

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.

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