Doctor Who complete reviews: Boom Town
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Cardiff provides the setting for the weakest link in the 2005 season of Doctor Who...
My hazy memory seems to recall that Russell T Davies had announced a fearsome Big Bad returning for the penultimate story of the first NuWho season. Who could it be? Could the Cybermen be raising hell in modern-day Cardiff? Or how about the Ice Warriors, looking for the nearest ice cream van? If you were to judge by the title alone, it's feasible that Eldrad could have clawed his way out of the chasm on Kastria to travel to modern-day Earth and destroy the population's eardrums with just one mighty bellow.
But no. In fact – hold your breath folks – what we got was...!
This was the equivalent of leaving Bullseye with the novelty set of darts rather than the great big speedboat wrapped up in an inaccessible ribbon. Fair to say that the Slitheen had not received the best press in their debut-two parter – farting gags and rejoicing in nudity don't exactly make the perfect brew for a good monster. So to have a lone Slitheen return to the fold wasn't exactly an enticing prospect.
Neither, on the whole, is Boom Town: generally regarded as the weak link in what's otherwise a generally strong season – even the aforementioned Slitheen two-parter has, at times, a big feature film feel to it, even if it gets fudged in the process (Davies would get a second crack at this style of story with the far superior Christmas Invasion). Boom Town, however, is an oddity. It's curiously low-key with the main threat taking a back seat to long, pondering discussions about guilt and second chances. If you want a good comparison, then look at squeaky Joss Whedon creation, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which had been a huge hit in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Davies has often talked of his admiration for the tales of the perma-sulky vampire slayer. In fact, there's quite a few similarities between Buffy and NuWho – the different titles for single stories; the pop culture references; occasional smugness; and the odd deus ex machina denouement. One thing that Buffy used to do was fill up the 22 episodes with the odd tale that just mooched around making long, patronising speeches about consequences and choices, while putting drama and action on the back burner. Boom Town is very much a similar breed with more of a relaxed, down-time feel to it. For once, the TARDIS crew are chilling out in Cardiff, while The Doctor recharges his ship with some radiation from the Rift, which Gwyneth caused all those years ago. They even get to see the sights of Cardiff, and relax in a nearby restaurant – well, until The Doctor sees a picture of a worried Margaret Blaine in the local paper (“And I was having such a nice day,” he sighs).
"What's with all the smugness in this story? I haven't even mentioned the cheesy “Into time! And space!” high-fiving, like a band of wallies"
And like those Buffy fillers (sounds like a brand of elevenses snack, that), Boom Town devotes a good portion of its story to apparently endless talky scenes between The Doctor and Margaret, and Rose and Mickey. If you're a fan of high-octane drama, you've probably left the building already. And let's be honest, the dramatic aspects of Boom Town are practically non-existent. And what there is is a load of old rubbish about Margaret using a handy extrapolator device to cause the destruction of Earth, just so that she can ride the gadget to escape back to her people in the chaos. Not especially interesting or original, and to be honest, you can tell a mile off that Margaret's been marking time in a restaurant just so that she could wait for the fireworks to erupt.
That's about it – although there is the rather cool bit in which The Doctor realises that Margaret's Blaidd Drwg project means Bad Wolf in Welsh. It's a nicely haunting little bit of drama, as The Doctor and Rose realise that they're being haunted by this phrase wherever and whenever they go. Unfortunately, this scene only lasts for about 30 seconds, and before you know it, we're back to smug hand-clapping about how to pronounce Raxacoricofallapatorius.
In fact, what's with all the smugness in this story? I haven't even mentioned the cheesy “Into time! And space!” high-fiving, like a band of wallies. The humour of the story just seems that bit too forced, and poor old Mickey's back to faffing about and getting his foot stuck in buckets while trying to capture an escaping Margaret.
"Noel Clarke deserves a medal for trying to make Mickey into some sort of remotely believable character, but he's fighting a losing battle"
Mickey, in fact, is probably the worst casualty of the story. Noel Clarke deserves a medal for trying to make Mickey into some sort of remotely believable character, but he's fighting a losing battle. Basically, Mickey's an overgrown spoilt kid, and not a bright one either, come to that. So what does he do? He decides to take Rose out for a meal, and suggests that they spend the night in a hotel. And while they're out having fun, for no good reason, he blurts out that he's been seeing Trisha Delaney, a startling revelation that's about as dramatic as Fatboy making Dot Cotton a cup of tea in EastEnders. Not to mention being deeply stupid – Mickey has obviously been reading too many dog-eared lads mags and furiously scribbling notes on how to win Rose back. Except he hadn't reckoned on the “Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen” advice spectacularly backfiring in his face. Although, mind you, Rose doesn't really react that badly to this blistering bit of news. There's less waterworks, and more of a resigned shrug.
So this pitiful subplot drags down an already sluggish episode in that it's both baffling and boring. We keep cutting back to Mickey whining about how Rose left him, and even though Clarke's acting his trainers off, I couldn't give two hoots about the character's petulant sobs. More to the point, when all hell breaks loose, and there's fiery destruction erupting around him, all Mickey can do is bleat: “It's always The Doctor! It's never me!” Yeah, that's right, the entire world revolves around Mickey and his collection of smelly trainers. What next, a special 'Feel Sorry For Mickey' day? A hastily assembled charity record to spread awareness of Mickey's misery? Or an ominous TV address in which Mickey intones a solemn address about how Trisha Delaney can't hold a candle to Rose? Rubbish, all told – luckily, next season would see Mickey come into his own as the goofy but brave mini-hero, but Boom Town is a pretty poor showing.
This elongated wailing does at least indicate a key story aspect of the finale, as Rose decides that only a future with The Doctor will do. Ditto the lengthy café chinwag between The Doctor and Margaret as the Slitheen takes him to task for being a hypocritical killer, leaving nothing but blood and destruction in his wake. Wow, that's a great subject of conversation while eating steak and chips.
Again, this sets things up for the dramatic shenanigans of the season finale, since The Doctor's ill-advised faffing about indirectly causes the deaths of all of the Space Station members. All that belief that characters have in The Doctor and his buddies (like Lynda With A Y or The Floor Manager) and it's blown back in their faces. But this is nothing new – most of the time, characters have been killed in The Doctor's adventures – granted, not his fault, but it's interesting in that it's taken so long to get round to a story that tackles this subject head on. “From what I've seen, your happy-go-lucky little life leaves devastation in its wake,” hisses Margaret, after The Doctor's chided her for her murderous actions, before adding that he always moves on because he doesn't dare look back.
This is quite a common theme of the revamped Who, especially in the Tenth Doctor's later stories like Journey's End (Davros says exactly the same thing to the captive Doctor) and his last arc of stories in which the consequences of his actions are brought home to roost. I'll look at these in more detail in the future, but Boom Town does manage to tackle this thorny subject of guilt quite well. The two-hander scenes in the café are particularly good for both Eccleston (the usual Forsyth-esque gurn notwithstanding) and Annette Badland, who steals the show as Margaret.
"Annette Badland holds her own very well, making the character of Margaret vicious and sympathetic by turns"
Actually, you can see why Badland was invited back, because she does a damn good job as Blaine. In the previous story, she'd been shunted into the background by the double helping of ham from David Verrey and Rupert Vannistart, but here, Badland holds her own very well, making the character of Margaret vicious and sympathetic by turns. The surprisingly long chat between Slitheen Margaret and Cathy Salt is actually quite touching, which is all the more remarkable when you consider just how absurd the concept of a Slitheen talking about babies while sitting on the loo is. That's a good testament to Badland's excellent performance (Mali Harries as Salt isn't too bad either), which conveys just that right amount of pathos and regret. She even gets some form of redemption at the end, as she looks into the heart of the TARDIS, before regressing back to an Easter Egg with dreadlocks (Again, we're pre-empting the season finale, which also looks at the power of the heart of the TARDIS which enters Rose). Overall, Badland gives a superb performance, and heck, she can even say the awful line, “Stand back boys! Surf's up!” with just a little dignity intact.
Even if the drama's shoved into the boot cupboard on this occasion, Boom Town is still reasonably entertaining. Joe Ahearne's direction is competent enough, with some good location filming that nicely shows off the sights of Cardiff. The effects of the erupting Rift are good, and maybe because there's only one, the costume and mask for the Margaret Slitheen are better – especially the close-up shots when her eyes blink sadly. And some of Murray Gold's compositions, such as the haunting horn-driven lament used for Margaret's talk with Cathy, work very well – it just proves that less is more, since subtle incidental music makes more impact than loud bombast.
It may be the weak point of the season, but Boom Town isn't too bad. It has some interesting things to say about The Doctor's manic lifestyle, and it just about saves the Slitheen's reputation, thanks to the great performance from Annette Badland. The rest of it, I can take or leave, especially Mickey earning his reputation as The Idiot, the rather weak attempts at humour, and the equally insipid plan of Margaret's, which is as nonsensical as it is fruitless. Not so much as a boom then, more of a slightly muted Pffft.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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