Thursday, October 30, 2014

On Its Own, “Boom Town” Is Subtle Doctor Who!

The Good: Good mood, Decent acting, Moments of character
The Bad: Light on plot
The Basics: “Boom Town” sees the return of the Slitheen for a somewhat comical episode of Doctor Who that nets an important device leading into the first season finale.

Sometimes, there are better episodes of television in the context of the season or series they are a part of, as opposed to on their own. In Doctor Who, there are several episodes that have essential aspects in the larger context of the seasonlong arc that are somewhat unremarkable episodes. “Boom Town” is one of those episodes. Just like “Rules Of Acquisition” (reviewed here!) in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had the appearance of being an unassuming Ferengi episode of little consequence, but was the first mention of The Dominion and essential for that, “Boom Town” is actually essential to both Doctor Who and Torchwood. In addition to referencing the Cardiff rift that was first mentioned in “The Unquiet Dead” (reviewed here!), “Boom Town” reveals the Heart Of The TARDIS and the tribophysical waveform macro-kinetic extrapolator (the pan-dimensional surfboard), both of which are incredibly important in the season one finale and beyond. These little details actually make “Boom Town” an essential Doctor Who episode, masquerading as a bottle episode.

What “Boom Town” does exceptionally well is make an apparently mundane episode with a very limited plot into an episode packed with character elements that truly develop the four main characters who are presented in the episode. The Doctor is illustrated to be an intensely ethical and incredibly morally-complex character in “Boom Town.” Captain Jack Harkness’s character is developed further as he is revealed to be a natural leader. In fact, his reasoning and tactical skills are so ingrained that he has to be stopped in order to defer to The Doctor (and why he actually defers to The Doctor is something of a mystery). Rose, whose love for The Doctor seems to be obvious at this point and who has gotten some reciprocation on that affection, tries her best to reconnect with Mickey and discovers that avenue truly is closed to her. Mickey, for his part, becomes a more viable character in “Boom Town” by revealing that he is not just waiting around for Rose and he is actually hurt by the way she has abandoned him to fly off into time and space with The Doctor.

Six months after the Slitheen attempted to invade Earth, one of the inspectors from London arrives in Cardiff to try to warn the new Lord Mayor of Cardiff about problems with the planned nuclear power plant in Cardiff. Mr. Cleaver lets Lord Mayor Margaret know about the issues with the Blaidd Drwg nuclear power plant project and she reveals herself to be a Slitheen when she kills him. Shortly thereafter, The Doctor, Rose, and Captain Jack Harkness arrive in Cardiff where they intend to recharge the TARDIS using energy from the rift that runs below the city. While Mickey reconnects with the group (and is jealous of Jack), The Doctor sees a picture of Margaret in the local paper and the team goes to capture her. After foiling Margaret’s escape attempt, Harkness and The Doctor realize that the Slitheen is in possession of a pan-dimensional surfboard, which will allow her to escape Earth after the Blaidd Drwg nuclear plant explodes and frees the energy from the Cardiff rift.

Margaret reveals that the Slitheen have been tried in abstention on Raxacoricofallapatorius and that she faces the death sentence should The Doctor actually extradite her there. While Rose and Mickey begin to reconnect (until Mickey reveals he is dating another young woman from the shop Rose used to work at), The Doctor grants Blond’s (Margaret’s Slitheen identity) last wish, for a meal out. After she tries multiple times to kill The Doctor, she tries to explain to him how horrible the death penalty is on Raxacoricofallapatorius. When Blond erupts the rift to attempt to escape, The Doctor must decide whether to stop her and condemn her to death or give her the chance to choose to reform and accept the consequences of her previous actions.

“Boom Town” is a follow up to the two-part “Aliens Of London” (reviewed here!) and “World War Three” (reviewed here!), but it stands on its own fairly well even for those who might not have seen those two episodes. The return of the Slitheen Margaret seems to largely be to present the emotional and ethical dilemma that The Doctor faces in “Boom Town” as opposed to anything innately cool about the Slitheen or Margaret. Even so, the use of Margaret makes for better continuity and provides a minor emotional tether to earlier episodes.

The ethical dilemma in “Boom Town” is a fairly common one in science fiction. The Star Trek franchise has done many episodes where the question of extraditing a prisoner, knowing they will be killed, brainwashed or otherwise altered motivates the protagonists to rethink doing the legally-mandated thing. “Boom Town” asks similar questions well by taking an unlikable antagonist whose quest to destroy the Earth for profit was barely foiled and slowly making her sympathetic. Even after Blond kills Mr. Cleaver, she spares the life of Cathy, a reporter who is digging into the story of the Blaidd Drwg nuclear plant’s “curse.” Even though both The Doctor and Blond minimize that act of compassion, it is still an act of compassion and cultural contamination that has developed from Blond wearing her Margaret Blain skinsuit for too long.

The acting in “Boom Town” is fine, with the best performances coming from guest stars Noel Clarke and Annette Badland. Clarke presents Mickey with an undertone of anger that makes Mickey seem both very real and suddenly potentially menacing. For moments, it seems like Mickey could become an antagonist and Clarke does a good job of making the usually milquetoast Mickey into an edgier character. Similarly, Badland takes a character who has largely been used as comic relief and makes her into an articulate, emotionally-realized alien. For all those who complain about how lame the Slitheen costumes were, there is a moment when the rubber-suit alien emotes well and the voiceover from Badland sells the moment.

“Boom Town” also finally makes explicit the quiet menace that has been building the entire season of “Bad Wolf.” Of course, that is a prime example of something within the episode that works far, far better in the context of the entire first season than on its own. In “Boom Town,” The Doctor shrugs and dismisses “Bad Wolf” after he notices it and Rose seems troubled by it; that thread is picked up in the finale, though and that helps make the season’s climax come from a more ordered place than seem like a random leap.

Ultimately, “Boom Town” is entertaining, but simple and it works far better as a thread in the larger tapestry of Doctor Who than on its own.

For other works with somewhat ridiculous invaders, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The World’s End
“False Profits” - Star Trek: Voyager
“Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” - The X-Files

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sole season with the Ninth Doctor here!


For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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