Since coming back to these episodes, a few things have become apparent. Firstly, they’re actually a lot better than I remember. Secondly, Russell T. Davies writes “smaller” character moments better than anyone else in Doctor Who’s entire run. Thirdly, these “end of the world” type stories are almost always terrible.
What these two stories tackle rather brilliantly is the effect the Doctor has on the people around him. Rose going off on adventures through space and time sounds like a jolly fun lark, but a slight miscalculation can cause grief and harassment for the people she loves. This is something that Doctor Who never tackled before, or simply didn’t care to. I really felt for Mickey in particular, having to deal with accusations and police investigation, and still be asked to forgive, forget, and save the world. He may come across as comic relief a lot of the time, but the writing and performance here is stellar.
Sadly, these two episodes are more likely to be remembered as “the ones with the farting aliens”, which has also been the lasting impression it has left with me for the last nine years. The Slitheen giggling at their own flatulence sets a silly tone, but more than that, it says that these so-called aliens are not very alien at all. For all the cutting edge prosthetics and CGI, they’re basically just a greedy amoral family who find the whole thing jolly amusing. A nice ruse (and the misdirection with the “pig” is nicely handled) but, by the end, it paints the universe as being a thoroughly ordinary place filled with people who are just exaggerated versions of us.
Where these types of stories usually fall down is in providing a satisfying resolution and portraying the scale of events. News reports fill in the “big picture”, but one has to wonder about the specifics. How did the Slitheen provide this “proof” of the alien mothership in orbit? Did the UN not verify it? Is it really possible to launch an RAF missile using a web browser and a single password? Just how incompetent is the British government anyway? The Doctor’s comment that humanity sees what it wants and ignores the facts in front of its face is amusing, but it stretches credibility an awful lot. And would he really not know when Earth made its first contact with extraterrestrials? Would that not be quite a famous date for such a big fan of Earth history? Moreover, wouldn’t this technically have already happened decades earlier with the many alien attacks that UNIT has had to deal with (the Zygons’ Loch Ness Monster springs to mind).
It’s the details that nag away at me and makes me wish these stories would stick to the smaller scale stuff. For all the criticism of the Tardis spending too much time in modern day London, I have to admit, these scenes are the strongest dramatically, but there’s only so much you can do here before it becomes boring. That said, any scene with the Doctor having to deal with Rose’s family or modern day life is very funny indeed. I’d forgotten how much humour was in these episodes, and Christopher Eccleston’s delivery is… fantastic. I can’t fault him, really; and his solemn moments round off the character, my favourite being when he simply says “sorry” to the dead secretary whose name he didn’t know.
Part 1 ends with a classic cliffhanger just as the Slitheen reveal themselves, harkening back to the old days. It’s an effective moment that seems impossible to resolve, and I don’t begrudge the magical solution in itself (“ha-ha, I’m immune to your attacks! And also, I can zap you all because you’re all connected for some reason!”). No, the worst thing about this is how totally undermined the cliffhanger is by the immediate preview of the next episode showing that everybody is fine. A post-credits scene is excusable, but these are absolutely, unmissably, immediate. Perhaps this was a management directive rather than a directorial or editing decision, but it’s still awful.
A mixed bag, then. Most will only remember this as the one with the farting aliens and I would have too, but I’m glad to have given it a second chance and found the character drama, and those unique moments that focus on the life of the adventurer, kind of make up for it. But let’s steer the Tardis clear of Earth for a while, yeah? Give it ten seconds, at least.