Thursday, 7 January 2010

Doctor Who: Boom Town

“Dinner in bondage. Works for me.”

I’m not sure if I’m remembering correctly here, but a short while before this Marathon started- and what a scarily long time ago that was- there was a thread in the old forum about what we were expecting to happen. I can’t remember what I put, but I rather suspect I’d have been expecting most of all to slag off The Keys of Marinus and to mount an impassioned defence of Boom Town, the most underappreciated gem in all of Doctor Who. And once I’ve finished writing this I’ll have done them both. How time flies.

This blew me away in 2005 and it blew me away again earlier this evening. Which might seem a little odd given its reputation as a cheap and silly bit of lightweight fluff. Certainly I remember not being impressed with the trailer at the end of The Doctor Dances. Actually, I’m very curious about how other Marathoneers have rated it (I don’t read the threads until just after I post my own review)- I’m guessing rather higher than its general reputation if not necessarily that highly overall. It’ll be interesting to see if I’m right.

I may not have realised before I reached this stage of the Marathon that I was going to rate every single story so far 5/5, but it’s safe to say I’m not particularly surprised that this season is looking really quite likely to be my favourite. And Boom Town is absolutely vital to this best of all seasons, in fact the heart of it. Set just before the non-stop action of the season’s climax, this is where the season stops to examine its themes in ways which look both backwards and forwards.

The early scenes are very silly, of course. And yes, technically there are problems with the plot logic. How can Margaret Blaine become Mayor of Cardiff without ever having been photographed? How on Earth can a proposal to demolish Cardiff Castle and replace it with a nuclear power station stand any chance of being reality? How can so many absurd and suspicious deaths not cause someone in authority to raise an eyebrow, however much London may not care if all of South Wales falls into the sea?

But all these things are supposed not to make sense. It’s part of the joke. I can understand how a lot of people would object this type of comedy device being used, of course. (I don’t- I have a weakness for self-referential humour, and I accept this sort of thing as part of the wonderful diversity of styles in Doctor Who) But it’s funny; when Margaret replies to journalist Cathy Salt’s question about the fate of the European safety inspectors with “But they were French!” and regrets that the signs saying Danger: High Explosives were only written in Welsh, the dialogue is signalling that this part of the episode is following the narrative rules of sitcom rather than drama; it’s allowed to have dodgy plot logic as long as it knows that and makes a joke of it.

There’s one very important serious scene in this part of the episode, mind; Margaret decides not to kill Cathy, which will be referred to later on. But essentially the entire section with Margaret and the nuclear station is just a bit of light-hearted preamble, albeit well-crafted, and it’s the serious stuff later on that’s the real meat of the episode. This is paralleled with the regular characters, too; their lighter scenes are put at the beginning before things get serious later, so we get a bit of fun, a bit of banter, a bit of exposition about the rift being a good refuelling spot, and, bizarrely, a brief allusion to the events of An Unearthly Child. But there’s stuff bubbling under, of course; Mickey’s relationship to the three time travellers is fascinatingly ambiguous. On the one hand he’s now being welcomed socially into the group and even takes part in the plan to capture Margaret. But he’s still something of an outsider amongst his maybe-girlfriend and two alpha male types. Jack, meanwhile, gets to be the action hero before taking a back seat for the rest of the episode.

It’s not long before Margaret is captured and the episode proper can begin. After one last great comedy line (“Oh, I sound like a Welshman,” says Margaret, in a line which was of course scripted by a Welshman. “God help me, I’ve gone native.”), the TARDISeers decide to take Margaret back to Raxacoricopalafatorius(?). And with a single line- “They have the death penalty”- the episode suddenly turns on a sixpence. As Margaret explicitly states, the Doctor now has to face the consequences of his actions, and this of course foreshadows coming events in which the aftermath of The Long Game will play a central part. But it also looks back to the consequences of the Doctor causing Rose to be missing for a year (the consequences of which are still being played out in this episode)- in fact, the consequences of the Doctor’s wanderings are a central theme of the season, and this is the episode where we stop to explore it. Throughout the season RTD has been deconstructing the tropes of the programme, and this is the ultimate example of that.

Of course, it’s great for other reasons, too. The dialogue between Margaret and the Doctor before and during their “date” is great not just for the gripping discussion of ethics but for her obvious manipulation of him, for Margaret’s comedy assassination attempts, and for the Doctor’s triumphant reoccupation of the moral high ground as he points out that occasionally sparing the odd someone is how a murderer like Margaret can live with herself.

This is paralleled by the conversation between Mickey and Rose, where Rose finally has o confront the way she’s been treating him- she leaves him behind to go travelling but gets jealous when he starts seeing another woman. And yet she only has to call and he comes all the way to Cardiff for her. She’s forced to conclude that “He deserves better.”

The resolution may be a little overly neat, and perhaps over-reliant on the ever-increasing powers of the TARDIS, but it’s very satisfying as far as the themes and characters are concerned. And now that all that’s been dealt with we can finally get to the climax…

5/5. You guessed it.

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