Aired 16 April 2005
‘Aliens of London’ represents the opening installment of the first two-parter of the modern Doctor Who series. Following the brilliant sequence of a beautifully-rendered spaceship crashing into Big Ben and splashing down in the Thames River in broad daylight, the bar is set high from the start for a modern-day alien invasion tale.
Before delving into the alien events, though, Rose’s domestic life again takes centre stage, reaffirming that viewers are experiencing the madness of the Doctor’s world through Rose’s eyes. With the Doctor miscalculating the TARDIS’s arrival, though, and Rose being missing for a year from Earth’s linear perspective, she has the unexpected task of having to mend relationships with her mother and boyfriend, forced once again to consider the danger and absurdity of the situation she has put herself in by deciding to join the Doctor. Just as she’s pondering how she will ever be able to fully communicate with and explain what she has seen to mother, she witnesses the spaceship’s crash, not only giving her a frame of reference but forcing all of London and the world to suddenly accept that maybe aliens just are real. With an inspecting policeman asking Rose if her ‘companion’ status implies a sexual relationship and her mother physically slapping her, Russell T Davies has shown once more that he is unafraid to ground fantastic events in firm reality.
While it would be unexpected for any tale to fully live up to the strong crash-landing sequence, ‘Aliens of London’ does begin to falter a bit once the true aliens are revealed. Before that point, it does a very good job in setting up an intriguing mystery that slowly comes into focus as events progress. The reveal of the porcine creature is suitably benign and subverts expectations as the media of the world is watching, but the slow reveal of the more sinister Slitheen race falls a little flat, though there is still time for redemption in the second half. The reason is that the Slitheen represent the inherent issue with ‘Aliens of London’ in that the episode cannot decide whether to be serious or funny. The motivations and implications of the Slitheen invasion are quite dark and the revelation that they arrived before the decoy crash is quite clever, but the body humour and flatulence along with the gleeful overacted reactions skew to a much younger audience and will undoubtedly just be awkward and uncomfortable for more mature viewers even if the flatulence is given a technological fault as a reason.
The inclusion of UNIT and the sequence of code words in place to alert the UK about the presence of the Doctor are nice touches, adding a sense of cohesion to the classic series and showing just how important the Doctor has been in previous lives. For all of the faults of the aliens themselves, the editing is superb and the episode handles their true reveal perfectly as three different Slitheen unmask simultaneously, one in front of each of the main characters who each is in peril. For the new series’s first attempt at a cliffhanger, this must be deemed a success. The immediate inclusion of the trailer for the next episode does diminish some of the immediate sense of tension and anticipation, but this is no fault of the true episode itself.
‘Aliens of London’ is certainly a good episode that subverts expectations, and grounding the more fantastic events in reality certainly helps as Rose’s disappearance is handled well and the Prime Minister and important government figures soon become involved with the alien attack and incursion, but the lack of one true tone certainly causes and uneven experience. Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston continue to do fantastic work independently and together, and Noel Clarke offers a much more convincing performance than in the premiere as Mickey, but these events haven’t yet skewed into the darker territory where it is already clear that Eccleston excels.