Monday, May 11, 2009

An Alien in London, Overweight as an American

A few days ago, I decided I'd watch the revived Doctor Who over again on dvd, one episode a day, or thereabouts. I've been watching a few of my classic series dvds like this while I ate dinner for the past couple of weeks, and it's a damn good improvement over most of what else is on tv at 5.00 in the afternoon. I think it actually has been well over a year at least since I watched any of the Christopher Eccleston year, so it makes for a good visit to an old friend.

Saturday afternoon, I watched "Aliens of London," the fourth episode of Eccleston's season, and the first part of one of its least-liked stories. The premise of the main plot, as we're introduced to it, is that a group of aliens called the Slitheen have disguised themselves as humans in the British government and security services, and faked an alien invasion. The Slitheen disguise was that they killed people and turned the humans' skins into pressurized suits that they squeezed their large bodies inside, and removed by opening zippers concealed on the forehead and wriggling out.

The main problem people had when the episode first aired in 2005 was that the aliens were more laughable than menacing. They always had to release excess pressure within their suits, and did so by farting, which often led to a barrage of immature jokes that the aliens made themselves. And that immaturity was present in their personalities, vanishing only when they were out of their skin-suits actively snapping necks, which was not often enough to make them genuinely frightening as Doctor Who can make an enemy. Overall, they were quite underwhelming, completely incapable of generating any gravitas, usually coming off as childish alien jerks.

It was only after several years of watching the new show regularly that I realized that this was the idea. Chief producer Russell T Davies has worked out quite a few ideas through the stories of Doctor Who while he was in charge, and the Slitheen was the first iteration of what was actually a quite intellectually interesting villainous motivation: money. The Slitheen were actually an extended family of cash-strapped alien criminals. Their plan was to blow up a planet with a bombardment of nuclear weapons and sell the radioactive pieces on the black market as fuel. But they didn't have the money to buy a planet's worth of nuclear weapons and blow up a lifeless Earth-sized rock. So, after a little research, they discovered Earth, a planet with many antagonistic governments with enormous nuclear arsenals. All they could afford were a couple of transport ships, pressurized skin-suits, and some surgical equipment for a quickie operation on their fake alien, a pig. And with this cheap equipment, they enacted a plan to fake an alien invasion, gain the launch codes for one of the country's arsenals, and attack the other nuclear powers under the pretext of defending from an invading vessel in orbit. The retaliatory strikes would destroy the planet.

The Slitheen were a band of rather ingenious petty criminals, the Fat Tony of Doctor Who. Russell was interested in exploring how petty crime and greed on a galactic scale can cause civilization-ending destruction. It's an interesting idea that such a cataclysm could be inspired by petty greed, but ultimately it makes for a let-down in the drama. As we watch a story unfold, we see a world-destroying catastrophe being precipitated, and we expect a similar sense of majesty in the motivations of the villains. This is why I was so dissatisfied when I first saw the Slitheen acting like immature school bullies. These people are planning to destroy an entire inhabited planet! Could we at least make them aware of the scale of their actions?

It may be fascinating to consider the extreme selfishness that a character could have destroyed a civilization for some quick cash. I think Russell might have been trying to work through a banality of evil concept in a Doctor Who story, which is intellectually interesting, and morally terrifying. The problem is that while the concept is morally frightening, it's a dramatic letdown. Immense plans are being carried out by pathetic, petty morons. I respect Russell's ambition in trying to make this dynamic work, but the mismatch is just too great for anything but an intellectual consideration. As drama, it just doesn't work.

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