Aliens of London is a prime example of a Doctor Who story that simply could not, and would not, have been done before the revival
Starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper
There are many words which could be used to describe Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who. Political, of course. Davies’ political commentary is hardly on the subtle side. Epic, for sure. Each series finale of his tenure felt more and more like a blockbuster. But both of those things are synonymous with the revived Doctor Who in general. Epic, in particular, has proved a stumbling block, with each series finale having to live up to the pressure of the previous year. Political as an adjective is also commonly used in reference to Chibnall’s episodes in particular – something the NMD crowd use as a stick to beat the show with, as if Doctor Who as an entity has ever been anything other than brazenly and explicitly liberal.
What makes Davies’ tenure unique is his focus on the personal. Bringing a weight and a context to the otherwise unapproachable, overwhelming fever dream that can be travelling on board the TARDIS. It is hard to imagine “Aliens of London / World War Three” working with any other Doctor/companion duo purely because of how enmeshed the plot is with Rose’s domestic life. While some companions did visit home during the time on board the TARDIS, this marks the first time that the companions home life has such a significant weighting within the plot.
“Aliens of London” see the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) return Rose (Billie Piper) home after her first two adventures. Unfortunately, however, the TARDIS has misjudged the landing, delivering her a whole year after she left, instead of the twelve hours the Doctor promised. Her mother, Jackie (Camille Coduri) is furious with Rose, after spending a whole year worrying about her, and boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clarke), whom everybody assumed had killed her – and was the only one to know the truth of her departure with the Doctor, is none too impressed either.
Fortunately, a distraction soon arrives in the form of an alien spaceship colliding with Big Ben. Soon, Earth is on high alert. As it transpires, however, the spaceship was itself a distraction from a more devious alien plan that is unfolding in the heart of Downing Street, and backbencher Harriet Jones (Penelope Wilton) accidentally stumbles upon it.
With the plot almost seamlessly flowing from revelation to revelation, the drama surrounding Rose’s absence is an integral part of proceedings. Without the first contact with aliens, there would be less impetus for Jackie to be suspicious of the Doctor and phone the emergency hotline, thus enabling the Doctor and Rose to be brought into the Slitheen storyline with Harriet Jones. Regardless, one still has to wonder why Davies elected to have Rose skip a whole year of her life on earth. Many elements of the plot would still work without this wrinkle, so it is interesting to conceive of why he would elect to include this.
Principally, it makes the tremendous sacrifice of travelling with the Doctor crystal clear. It’s no longer made to feel like pure frivolity. Suddenly, Rose has to face up to the fact that life with the Doctor means giving up her life on Earth. It means being away from her mother and potentially never returning. It’s placed in here to show just how to strong Rose’s thirst for adventure is. The classic series never made it this apparent to the audience just what the companions are leaving behind when they choose the Doctor, because their lives away from them were ill-defined and hardly explored. Mostly, they stood around and asked the Doctor stock questions so that the audience knew what was happening. Exactly which one was there at that particular point hardly mattered. Yet, this story could only work for Rose. It is a story entirely specific to her domestic situation and life, and perfectly placed within this series to help the viewers see the reality behind travelling with the Doctor, as well as continue to develop the emotional bond the audience has with Rose.
Being the first two-part story of the series, there is certainly a lot more room for the character-driven elements of the plot to shine but that doesn’t mean that this episode lacks tension. In fact, watching the first alien contact occurring from a remove as the Doctor and Rose do only serves to increase the suspense and make the events feel more real. This story is not taking place in a distant place or time, but rather an entirely contemporary setting and the resultant stakes feel much higher. The tremendous contrast between the domestic and the cosmic makes the large events feel much larger because of the grounding it receives elsewhere. Keeping the reveal of what the Slitheen actually look like right until the end of the episode is also wonderfully tense, with the sinister performances, music and forehead unzipping only enhancing the malice of the species.
This is, of course, nicely balanced with the more amusing elements, such as the Doctor holding a small baby while Rose’s flat bustles with visiting friends and relatives welcoming her back, nobody’s eyes on the TV of the potential extraterrestrial visitation. The continual farting is certainly what the Slitheen have become notorious for since, especially within their subsequent appearances in The Sarqh Jane Adventures, but here it actually feels more uncomfortable and unsettling than it is riotously amusing. It also nicely undercuts the macabre revelation of the Slitheen literally skinning people and wearing them as suits.
Ultimately, amidst all of the character development and nicely propelled plot, “Aliens of London” culminates in a palm-sweating cliffhanger in which the Doctor, Rose and Jackie are all in danger separately. Even though this is swiftly undercut by a “Next Time” trailer which reveals all is going to wind up okay, it’s still a terrific way to enter a gap between episodes.