Does it deserve the criticism? A look back at Doctor Who's Aliens of London/World War Three
Since its revival in 2005, Doctor Who has gone from strength to strength. The show has introduced some of the most popular incarnations of the Doctor, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary and made history in more ways than one. Despite this overall adoration, some episodes get a particularly bad rap from fans and critics alike. Why?
Although open to reasonable critique as a piece of drama, no single episode of Doctor Who deserves hostile derision or outright contempt. Nor does anyone involved in the production deserve to be ridiculed for that involvement or unfairly scapegoated for “killing the show”. Everyone involved, it’s safe to presume, participated in a labour of love to the best of their ability, and should be applauded for producing a consistently exciting drama series, often on a limited budget and under significant pressure.
In the spirit of positive appraisal, across the next five weeks we’ll be examining the worst-rated episode for each Doctor from modern Doctor Who – Nine through Thirteen – taking a microscope to what works and what doesn’t hold up, and ultimately decide whether the episode deserves its low ranking (short answer: none of them do!).
Episodes have been selected based on their IMDb ranking at the time of writing. This week, we kick off with the first two-part story of the Ninth Doctor’s era, Aliens of London and World War Three. The episodes are tied as the lowest-rated of the first series, rated at 7 apiece.
Doctor Who in the new millennium has excelled at telling the stories of human characters, and although viewers are first introduced to Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith in episode one, Aliens of London/World War Three is where viewers get to know these and other characters at depth. The result is a story that, for all its badly received elements, is essential viewing for its exploration of character and morality.
Most of the first act of Aliens of London is spent on a council estate, and sees Rose returning home from her initial travels with the Doctor to her distraught mother, who feared Rose dead after her disappearance a year previously. This focus on family was clearly an intentional decision from writer Russell T Davies, not only in keeping things grounded to balance out the aliens soon to appear, but also to further meaningful thematic tensions: without these episodes, viewers might not care as much for Rose’s family or indeed comprehend the risks involved with journeying with the Doctor.
With Rose and the Doctor back in a contemporary setting, Davies gets the chance to juggle both the exciting set pieces (spaceships, alien reveals, corridor chases) and quieter, more contemplative moments (between Rose and Jackie or Jackie and Mickey). This story also has the two-part format working in its favour, giving space to flesh out all the above aspects, and setting an example for future two-parters – plus, we get the first cliffhanger of the new series!
Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor mixes enthusiasm for adventure and new experiences with an inner darkness; his tangible joy during scenes in the TARDIS (possibly the first ever such scenes, given this was the first block of filming – and viewers didn’t glimpse its interior until the start of The End of the World, filmed afterwards) proves infectious.
Mickey Smith has one of the largest character developments of all the companions. From the bumbling and embarrassing boyfriend on display in Rose to the battle-hardened soldier and caring husband glimpsed in The End of Time, his journey is significant. In this episode we see that development occurring: he repels the Slitheen; is critical in the Doctor’s plan to send a missile onto Downing Street; and is already making more mature making decisions for himself and in the eyes of the Doctor by choosing not to join Rose in the TARDIS.
The Slitheen may be maligned but are, I think, intentionally goofy and indelicate, as a well-polished invasion would not be characteristic of an inept crime family such as theirs. Admittedly, the flatulence may be less than tasteful and far from what you would expect of the show in 2020; but this was another time and still early days when the show was finding its feet. Plus, unzipping one’s forehead to reveal the alien concealed within – and the sound effect that accompanies this transition – is rightly terrifying, and there is some admirable prosthetic monster design for 2005. On the other hand, criticism of the dated CGI effects is understandable and justified.
Murray Gold’s score is a boon, and World War Three actually goes beyond a simple runabout with monsters by introducing a moral quandary for the Doctor (“I could save the world but lose you.”). Despite this dilemma being solved perhaps a little too quickly, it opens up a discussion around the genuine threat present for Rose while travelling with the Doctor, and even foreshadows the repercussions of the series finale.
These episodes are also essential watching for how they set up the tropes of the era: the alien threat in contemporary London; the Doctor’s reluctance to bring the TARDIS into the midst of a fray; extensive news coverage portraying the scale of a disaster (cue Lachele Carl!); the Doctor’s tendency to disappear suddenly mid-conversation and leave everyone else confounded as to where he went. Delightful stuff.
For all the criticism of flatulent aliens and low-budget CG effects, the human story at the core of Aliens of London and World War Three grounds the drama and makes the episodes work. In that regard at least, the series overall would be much poorer for their absence.