Doctor Who #721: Boom Town

"You've been in that skin suit too long. You've forgotten. There used to be a real Margaret Blaine. You killed her and stripped her and used the skin. You're pleading for mercy out of a dead woman's lips."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jun.4 2005.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor has dinner with a Slitheen while the TARDIS refuels at the Rift.

REVIEW: You know, Boom Town is kind of a clever pun, but I think it might be better remembered if it had been called Dining with Monsters, as planned. Because that's the memorable sequence, the one even critics are willing to praise in an otherwise lesser episode. A title that focuses instead on a bonkers plot that has all the political savvy of a Scooby-Doo episode isn't doing it any favors. That said, I'm a big fan of Boom Town and one of its staunchest defenders. I think it gets a lot of flack for being a "smaller" episode sandwiched between two HUGE two-parters, and featuring one of the farting aliens we hated so much only six episodes ago. But Blon Slitheen/Margaret Blaine is surely the best of the lot, and the least caricatured, proving it in a number of set pieces that show off her powers of manipulation. And did you notice much farting? No, just a bit at the beginning, but once she's in the Doctor's hands, when we count on her being sinister, or clever, or sympathetic, the production leaves it alone.

Blon/Blaine is a fascinating Doctor Who villain because she attacks the Doctor and his friends through their ethics. First with lies - and most of what she says throughout the episode is either a lie or in service of a lie - painting herself as a reformed woman, then pulling the "death penalty" card when the Doctor plans to bring her back to Raxacoricofallapatorius. From that point, it becomes a tense moral thriller, Blon giving each of the four heroes a nasty, a probably deserved, guilt trip. As she says, it's the waiting that's different this time. After all, Mickey massacred the other Slitheen with a missile, and neither he nor Jackie seemed to have pangs of conscience after blowing up a monster with pickles. Similarly, while the Doctor frequently gives his enemies a chance, the fact that they usually don't take the offered hand usually makes it seem like they kill themselves. At the very least, the Doctor's kills are a matter of self-defense (or in the defense of others). Not here. Blon is easily captured and cannot be imprisoned. Her extradition will mean her execution. She's a fierce debater in her own defense, though she does also try to poison the Doctor three ways, as much in the TARDIS as at the dinner table. She tries everything, from "I was brought up that way" to "I'm capable of change", and Eccleston is wonderful at ignoring every one, i.e. letting us see her arguments have an effect, while not allowing them to change his mind. The best moment is, of course, when she turns the Doctor's words against him. When he says she let one go that day and he brushes it off as something killers do to make themselves feel better, she turns around and says only a killer would know that, exposes his lifestyle for the hit-and-run it so often is, and asks him to make HIMSELF feel better by letting one go, letting HER go. That's when she wins the debate.

But it's not all about that dinner sequence for me. I quite like the lighter moments in the first act, with the Doctor, Rose, Jack and even Mickey acting as a team, having fun, telling tall tales (including a reference to the tie-in novels, funnily enough, the one with Raxacoricofallapatorians in it) and bantering away. Sounds like Jack's been aboard for a while, which makes me happy for some reason. It also looks like Mickey knew they were on a break, because he started dating someone else, which spoils a proposed evening at a hotel. Mickey gets a bit whiny there, but these scenes do show off RTD's main technique when it comes to writing characters - he presents, but does not judge. Mickey is entirely too clingy and needy, while Rose is obnoxious and cruel, taking him for granted and calling him away from his life for her own purposes. Neither character is noble or gracious, and both get their just desserts in a way, at one another hands. Because this is Rose's story, we're trained not to see her flaws and to think Mickey is lame, but he has a point, doesn't he?

And finally, though I'm perfectly willing to concede the whole thing with Blaine as Cardiff's mayor six months after Downing Street exploded, and construction of a lethal nuclear plant in the heart of the city well under way despite lots of suspicious deaths connected to it is COMPLETE malarkey, I'm much more forgiving of the peculiar deus ex machina that gets Blon out of dying and the team out of their moral dilemma. No, the TARDIS console has never actually opened before (although I kind of count The Edge of Destruction, which also has strange effects), and its heart giving someone their wish would normally be a cheat, watching Boom Town after we know how the season ends changes our understanding of the scene. After all, this is needed to create the Bad Wolf (a meme brought up by the Doctor for the first time in this very episode) in The Parting of the Ways, and one might even say the console opened BECAUSE of the Bad Wolf's influence, as part of the puzzle Rose must put together.

THEORIES: Where DID the pan-dimensional surfboard come from? Blon has a glib answer about some airlock sale, but I'd rather believe it came from the Rift, and would normally have been picked up by Torchwood (indeed, isn't there a version of Jack right under Millennium Square during these events, keeping out of trouble?). A lot of Boom Town creates a background for the Torchwood show, so I don't know how much of TW Davies actually had planned already (the premiere is more than a year out), or if these elements were just happy accidents.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Too often maligned, Boom Town gets to discuss the ethics of the show in unusual circumstances. One worth re-evaluating.


Unknown said...

"You've been in that skin suit too long. You've forgotten. There used to be a real Margaret Blaine. You killed her and stripped her and used the skin. You're pleading for mercy out of a dead woman's lips."

That is one of nine's best lines!

Anonymous said...

"The best moment is, of course, when she turns the Doctor's words against him. ... That's when she wins the debate."

You think she won the debate? I opine she successfully guilt-tripped the Doctor, by finding the chink in his armor (his guilt at surviving the Time War), but that's not winning a debate. The difference between what the Doctor does and what Blon does is crystal clear from the outside: the Doctor tries to save lives, while Blon takes them with abandon. The days Blon spares a life are remarkable, whereas the days the Doctor cannot find a way to save lives are remarkable -- and it tends to be the Blons, not "civilians", who get killed.

(If yours were a political blog, I would liken this to a certain controversial US foreign policy. But it's not so I won't; you're welcome.)

In my little world, the Doctor's assessment of why Blon's act of mercy doesn't matter is the debate-winning move.

Siskoid said...

She only wins the debate in a point-scoring sense, it doesn't make her right by any stretch of the imagination.

Cradok said...

One of the Torchwood non-narritive books - possibly Torchwood Archives - had a note from Owen Harper at one point complaining about Jack keeping them all indoors and Torchwood locked down during this episode, and wondering what happened to fix the problem.


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