‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “World War III”

(tons of spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode! and no comments from party poopers — this is a love fest only / previous: Episode 4: “Aliens of London”)

I’m rewatching the first series of the new Doctor Who with an eye toward looking where the show has gone since. (I previously wrote a bit about “World War III” when it was new, over here.)
You couldn’t possibly do a version of Doctor Who today that takes place, at least in part, on contemporary Earth in a contemporary Western city without acknowledging 9/11. Alien invasion stories of the 1950s or the 1970s may have featured the requisite “mobs of people in the street fleeing in fear,” but that was local — did, say, the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still offer any sense of how the world was reacting to its events? Not that I remember. Only in recent years do we have a new paradigm for disaster: it’s something that plays out on TV, not just the facts of what is happening but the spin on how we’re supposed to interpret what happens. There’s no way you could do an alien invasion story today and ignore the media reaction to it:

That image is from the previous episode, of course, and it’s clearly meant to echo the media coverage of 9/11. (“All flights in North American airspace have been grounded,” the American TV news network announces, too — 9/11 is the only other time that has happened.) This Doctor Who story isn’t just the product of writers and other creative people who live in the post-9/11 world — the fictional narrative is occurring in the post-9/11 world. The Doctor, in the previous episode, watches news of historical, global proportions unfold on TV: not coincidentally, but because Rose specifically suggests this as the standard way of understanding what is happening. (Rose would have been only 14 or 15 when 9/11 happened, and it may have registered with her only as something the grownups were marginally worried about, particularly since it happened so far away… although none of the people gathered in Jackie’s flat seemed all that concerned about an alien spaceship wrecking Big Ben, right in their backyard, either.)

There is satire at work here: all the stuff about “massive weapons of destruction” and UN resolutions is so blatant a reaction to the bullshit leading up to the American invasion of Iraq (“England has provided [the UN] with absolute proof that the massive weapons of destruction do exist,” insists the American TV news) that even someone sympathetic to the urgency and importance of ridiculing such a political atrocity is tempted to say, Oh, come on

Faking an alien threat in order to inspire fear? That’s barely a step beyond what some believe happened on 9/11, that the events of that day were a “false flag” operation to shift public opinion toward what they might otherwise have thought unnecessary. But wait: it gets better. These two episodes also play off the even bigger conspiracist notion that not only are nefarious elements at work in our apparently public discourse, but those nefarious elements are aliens… shapeshifting reptilian aliens, to be precise.

Satire? Or is Russell T. Davies merely telling us the truth no one else dares tell us (except for everyone else, that is)?

I bet this is the first time Mickey’s eyes have been opened to the concept that the press is propaganda:

Whether you believe that — that the mainstream press is controlled by the powerful who wish to keep us ignorant — or not, or believe it to a certain degree or not, lots of people do believe it, and that idea drives certain understandings of the world, such as the conspiracy-theorist one that informs this episode and its prequel. Powerful entities arrange events to their benefit, and the public never gets the full story on the large-scale public events that affect us all. It’s a science-fictional take on the real world that you’re either 1) a fool to believe in, or 2) a fool not to believe in. You pretty much can’t win.

But that’s the appeal of the Doctor. When you’re with him, you get the real story. And if you don’t want to believe it, he’ll whisk you away to a planet where you can sunbathe in extonic radiation and forget about everything else…

Random thoughts on “World War III”:

• Speaking of satire: There’s a suggestion here of “If Britain weren’t so fat the Slitheen would have had a harder time with their plot” that will be echoed later in the David Tennant episode “Partners in Crime.” Obesity is a national security issue! Who knew?

• Mickey’s pretty good in a crisis, thinking straight enough to take a picture of the Slitheen after rescuing Jackie:

I like to think he’s gonna post it on his Web site devoted to exposing government conspiracies to cover up alien activity on Earth. He’s taking over from where poor Clive left off, I imagine. He certainly seems to have been doing some reading online: “This is what he does, Jacks,” he tells Jackie. “That Doctor bloke. Everywhere he goes: death and destruction.” And when Jackie wonders if the Doctor has “a great big green thing inside him,” Mickey says he wouldn’t be surprised. Which means, I suppose, that Sarah Jane Smith doesn’t have a blog, and hasn’t been posting about the Doctor…

• Lest we forget, the Doctor really is having fun with this all, even if the fate of the planet is at stake:

It’s not his planet, after all. That bridge is long since crossed. And he does seem more concerned with the idea of losing Rose than losing five billion strangers. (Why five billion, by the way, and not six billion? Is this an alternative universe in which the population of Earth is slightly smaller?) Obviously many worlds were lost in the Time War, so perhaps the prospect of losing only a single one — even if it’s his favorite place to drop by — seems less tragic to him than it once did.

• “One more move and my sonic device will triplicate the flammability of this alcohol,” the Doctor tells the Slitheen. But they don’t really buy it. Which is very interesting. Not only are the companions not so easily fed his bullshit anymore, but neither are the alien enemies.

• “You’re a very violent young woman,” Harriet says to Rose, who wants to launch a nuclear bomb at them. And what, destroy London? I’m still wondering about Rose at this point: has she entirely thought through what she’s suggesting? Of course, Rose, who would have been born in 1986 or so, would have missed out on things like Threads and The Day After, so maybe she really doesn’t realize what she’s saying…

• Born in 1986? Holy crap, I am just about old enough to be Rose’s mother. Camille Coduri, who plays Jackie, is only three years older than me — and yet I feel like I have much more in common with Rose than I do with Jackie…

• The Doctor drinking alcohol!

But not liking it very much!

Later, of course, Rose does confirm for Jackie that the Doctor drinks, so perhaps whatever was in that decanter merely wasn’t to his liking. Has Rose gone pubcrawling with him in an alien city? Oo, that sounds like a juicy idea for a piece of fan fiction…

• Mickey peers suspiciously into the kitchen garbage pail in his flat:

and then does the same with the fridge:

as if there might be aliens lurking there. I wonder if Noel Clarke improvised all that. I’ve come to be very impressed with Clarke, not just on Doctor Who but in his own work as a filmmaker. I suspect we’re gonna end up seeing him with his own show — as creator and writer, if not also star — on British TV eventually, or making an even bigger splash as an indie filmmaker. Whatever he does, though, I hope he does not get seduced by Hollywood into making more of its same old tripe.

• Ah, the bulletin board in Mickey’s bedroom: he’s become obsessed with UFOs and alien visitations and, of course, the Doctor — sketches of the TARDIS abound here:

Plus, the cans of Red Bull and what I’m guessing is some sort of ale or beer attest to long hours at the computer, scouring the Net for news…

• Kitchen chemistry destroys Slitheen!

MacGyver would be so at home on the TARDIS… except he and the Doctor would be constantly butting heads over who is in charge.

• Cops guarding the TARDIS:

Nice touch, which will be reflected in many later episodes, in which Earthbound law enforcement appear to know what the TARDIS looks like.

• “You kiss this man?” the Doctor asks Rose as he’s listening to the list of foods pickled in vinegar Jackie is finding in his kitchen to throw at the Slitheen. So he does think about such things as kissing after all…

• I want to see this on my phone:

Why do I never see this on my phone?

• We never do quite find out what happened to the Prime Minister. We see his dead body, of course, in “Aliens of London,” but are we meant to assume that it was “Margaret” the Slitheen (who is “from MI5”) who killed him? Is there no followup investigation? Is it assumed that the rightful PM was killed in the missile strike on Downing Street… and if so, wouldn’t Harriet Jones’s lack of a reasonable answer to questions about that be a barrier to her later becoming PM herself? (Or does she lie about that? It seems unlikely that she tells the truth, given the “it’s all a hoax” cover story/mass delusion that appears to abound.) A future Sarah Jane Smith-esque investigative journalist — or maybe an Oliver Stone-esque filmmaker — will surely be looking into this…

• Speaking of abuses of government power… Mickey launches a missile at Downing Street from the computer in his bedroom. Why didn’t someone later figure that out — I can’t imagine Mickey is all that sophisticated about masking his IP address or anything — and throw him in UNIT’s Guanatamo Bay?

• That virus the Doctor gives Mickey, the one that will “destroy every mention of me” online… does Mickey ever use it? I bet he doesn’t…

• I wondered last week how the Doctor could be unaware of when humanity’s first actual acknowledgement of first contact with aliens occurs, and how he could not know about the gist of events happening here. And in this episode, he does indicate that he is aware of Harriet Jones as a historical personage (“the architect of Britain’s Golden Age”). I guessing he’s just swiss-cheesing on the details. He’s had a rough time of late, what with the War and all, so I suppose that’s understandable…

• Great quotes:

“Voicemail dooms us all.” –Harriet Jones

“Victory should be naked!” –Slitheen fake PM

“You’re happy to believe in something that’s invisible, but if it’s starin’ you in the face? Nope, can’t see it.” –the Doctor

(next: Episode 6: “Dalek”)

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Sat, May 23, 2009 8:22pm

Spoilers here, obviously.

Makes me wonder about what the Doctor does to Harriet Jones at the end of the Christmas invasion. I’ve actually spent a lot of time speculating on the way the Doctor’s memory works, especially considering the conversation he has with Rose in the season finale. (“That’s what I see! All the time! Doesn’t it drive you man?”) I sometimes get the impression that the Doctor’s memory of Earth re-writes itself every time he enters its time-line, but it only re-writes up to the point he landed. So, at some point in his future, he remembered Harriet Jones as the greatest PM ever, and he retained that memory when he landed. However, when he landed in this episode, he started to influence the time-line, which is why he doesn’t remember exactly when first contact occurs. I have a feeling that the next time he jumps forward in time, past the point where he no-confidences Harriet, his memory will adjust to reflect the new information. This is pure speculation on my part, and has very little basis in fact. I’m not even sure I’m explaining it that well, but basically I think that the Doctor’s memory is tied up with time itself, as opposed to acquired knowledge and experience. I think he always remembers everything right up to his current position in time, but his memory of the future is based on the last time he visited that future.

Sun, May 24, 2009 3:19am

Regarding the five/six billion thing – in “Voyage of the Damned” Ten talks about saving “all six billion people on the planet below”. So I guess this episode’s number is a blooper.

Sun, May 24, 2009 9:10am

I was amazed that this went out during a general election. There was a load of political satire in it. Hot on the heels of the “dodgy dossier” where the Powers that Be had claimed that the Iraqi regime could launch wapons of mass destruction against Cyprus in 45 minutes, here we had the acting PM talking about “Massive Weapons of Destruction” which could be launched within 45 seconds. There’d also been a lot of comment about the rather odd range of people who seemed to be giving Tony Blair advice, so Andrew Marr(a genuine political reporter) commenting sarcastically on the odd range of people summoned to No. 10 was also spot on. Plus of course, the very Blair-like body which fell out of the cupboard.

But then the following year we had the school which was being hugely praised for improving results to the extent that it didn’t really matter that the teachers were eating the pupils…