Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
The ninth Doctor (Hugh Laurie) and his companion Lizzie Thompson (Sarah Michelle Gellar) are prisoners of the Cathulans, gangster aliens attacking New York on Halloween, 1938. Also, Orson Welles is getting ready to put on a radio play. Also, the aliens’ heads kinda look like a penis made of smaller penises.
In exchange for his freedom and safety, the Doctor takes a swing at reparing the Cathulan ship, supposedly so that the Cathulan commander can lead the coming armada when they invade the Earth. Right away, though, the Doctor notices that something’s not kosher; the ship is old and run down, and the damage is more due to lack of maintenance than a crash. There is battle damage to the ship, but it isn’t affecting any of the ship’s systems. The Doctor brings up a file while he’s working, and it turns out to be a schematic for the Empire State building. The Cathulans, who assume that the Doctor doesn’t have a stake in the matter, admit that they plan to announce their invasion by destroying the Empire State Building by crashing their ship into it.
Yeah… That’s awkward. That’s somewhere around the level of that episode of Power Rangers Turbo where the monster of the week knocks over a skyscraper and the Megazord catches it and just sticks it back on its foundation. This is not a plot point they would be able to use in a year and a half (See also, the post-9/11 Power Rangers SPD episode in which a monster suddenly declares, “I HATE EMPTY BUILDINGS!” Or the myriad episodes set in the town’s “Abandoned warehouse district,” which sounds like poor urban planning until you realize that it is, in fact, pretty sound strategy if you live in a world that features weekly attacks by giant monsters who hate empty buildings).
I won’t lie. Parts of this episode are uncomfortable to watch. I never really connected with the need to digitally edit the towers out of movies after 9/11, and I thought it was stupid when an episode of Friends got pulled. But this one is… Kind of on-the-nose. And I can’t really gloss over it, because it’s a pretty key point in the plot. The specific thing that’s broken on the ship is its shields, and without them, that whole “fly it into a building” plan will destroy the ship too. The Doctor points out that they could crash the ship by remote control and have one of the other ships in their armada beam them up.
Ahem. The Doctor suggests this. Casually. I mean, we know the Doctor’s going to end up foiling this plot, but he’s just completely casually trying to help these aliens come up with a workaround so they can carry out their plan to destroy the Empire State Building. Even the aliens are visibly uncomfortable about this. I mean, actually they’re uncomfortable because they’re up to something, but it does come off like even they can’t believe the direction this is taking.
Once the Doctor and Lizzie have a private moment as he’s repairing the shield generator, they work things out: there is no invasion fleet. The Cathulans aren’t launching an invasion; they’re working a protection racket. That’s why they want to crash the ship rather than using its weapons. They want to make a big, dramatic entrance, claim to represent a big old battle fleet, and then suggest that, “Nice planet you got here; be a real shame if it got caught in the crossfire during our interplanetary war.”
It’s the mention of a fake invasion that finally gets our heroes to cotton on to where the plot has been headed this whole time. Lizzie remembers the story of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast, and tells the Doctor the accepted wisdom about the panic that ensued. The Doctor points out that Welles is planning to do Lorna Doone tonight, but he quickly formulates a plan, and it hinges on ensuring that the Mercury Theatre puts on the right show tonight.
When the Cathulans return, the Doctor starts musing out loud about how attractive the Earth is to the various galactic powers. He references the past few episodes, noting the Ogron expedition in Baltimore last century and last week’s business with the Jokari and the Red Baron. He muses that he’s even heard rumors that the people of Mars were planning an invasion. That makes the Cathulans nervous. There’s always been a bit of weirdness with Mars in the American series. The Ice Warriors don’t properly show up until season 8, but there’s references to a dangerous race on Mars all through the FOX era, going all the way back to episodes 3 and 4 back in the first season. They’re never actually shown or referred to as anything other than “Martians”, but there’s little hints here and there. References to them looking like turtles, or being sensitive to heat.
The Doctor “casually” mentions that the humans have been talking about signs of an approaching Martian fleet over the radio for days, and the leader decides to follow up on that, leaving them alone with his lieutenant. The time travelers decide that it’s time to make a break for it, which involves Lizzie roundhouse-kicking the remaining Cathulan. We get one of those classic “running down corridors” chase scenes as the Doctor and Lizzie escape into the subway tunnels. But, of course, they get separated, and Lizzie ends up getting recaptured.
And here’s where I’d personally have preferred they take the episode in a different direction. Because I reckon they gave the wrong parts of the story to the wrong characters. Once safely away from the Cathulans, the Doctor heads for the Columbia Building to convince Orson Welles to do War of the Worlds tonight, while Lizzie is stuck with the aliens, and her role for the rest of the episode is basically going to be to persuade them not to listen to Charlie McCarthy.
I’m serious. The big conflict in her end of the plot is that they turn on NBC rather than CBS and nearly spend the evening listening to The Chase and Sanborn Hour. (For clarity’s sake, no one ever actually says the names of the networks. They don’t even mention Charlie and Edgar by name.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The plot is the way it is because they clearly wanted to spend more time having the Doctor interact with Orson Welles. So he smooth-talks his way into the studio and tries to persuade Orson to give Howard’s script a try. Even the Doctor’s fawning doesn’t move him, though, so the Doctor more-or-less explains the plot (Leaving out that Lizzie’s captors are aliens). After some fumbling to recall who the right boogeyman is for 1938, he decides to accuse them of being Nazi sympathizers, and outright puts it to Orson to create a mass panic.
Apocryphally, unless you believe some of the more conspiracy-minded accountings of history, Orson gets starry-eyed at the prospect of making a national name for himself with an infamous stunt. Koch and Houseman are more reluctant. To seal the deal, the Doctor drops a reference that, for my money, is better than any of the Welles-related in-jokes. He tells Howard Koch that, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Howard, of course, says that’s a good line. Still glad they didn’t use this as an excuse to give him back the fedora from the pilot.
The Doctor helps Koch, Welles and Houseman punch up the script, playing up the realism. They reference the Hindenburg disaster as an inspiration. There’s no mention of Broadcasting the Barricades, The Fall of the City, or The March of Time, three of the major influences on War of the Worlds. The historical Welles worked on the latter two, but hey, referencing those bits of Welles arcana would cut into the time they’d allocated for jokes about frozen peas and selling wine before its time.
Back at the Cathulan ship, the lieutenant is out for blood after Lizzie roughed him up. But after discovering that she’d passed the Toynbee device over to the Doctor before she was recaptured, the commander orders that she be left intact to use as bait. Lizzie’s worked out enough of the Doctor’s plan to keep needling them about the possibility of a competing invasion. When the lieutenant threatens her, she goes as far as to claim to be a Martian agent herself. “You don’t look Martian,” the Cathulan says. “You didn’t look Cathulan until you took your mask off,” she counters, but qualifies her claims by saying that she and the Doctor are interplanetary mercenaries, and she backs it up by rattling off some of the customer list she’d heard from the Ogrons in nineteenth-century Baltimore.
The new script is ready just in time for broadcast, and we get little clips of it, intercut with establishing shots of the people of 1938 reacting. But back in the Cathulan ship, they’re listening to Edgar Bergen, and Lizzie starts to get desperate. Finally, she ruins it for them by asking the obvious question: How do they know his lips aren’t moving over the radio?
In frustration, the commander changes the station just in time to hear not the historically accurate Ray Collins, but rather the Doctor himself voice Mr. Wilmuth, the farmer who witnesses the Martian landing. The Martians, as we all know, emerge and chaos ensues. And the Cathulans are predictably terrified. However, the commander is bothered by the mention of the Martians using a “heat ray” — intercut is the Doctor back at the studio realizing his mistake as Orson, as Professor Pearson, gives his hypothesis on the nature of the Martian weapon.
The leader puts his disguise back on and heads outside to look for some kind of corroboration to the broadcast, leaving Lizzie alone with the lieutenant. Cut back to the radio studio, where the network execs are beating down the door to get the Mercury Theatre off the air. Over the Doctor’s protests, Welles is forced to insert an epilogue explaining the whole thing as a joke (This is another bit of Doctor Who preferring the myth to the reality; the network didn’t order Welles to do that, and in fact was against it, since he was essentially admitting to it being a hoax, rather than maintaining plausible cover that it had never occurred to them that anyone might take it as anything other than a play).
Unfortunately, the Cathulan lieutenant is listening for that bit, and realizes he’s been had. Orders or not, he’s not standing for that sort of thing, and decides to off Lizzie. More chasing and more roundhouse kicking ensues, but he’s a lot stronger than she is and he’s ready for her this time. Things look pretty dicey for a bit, but Lizzie finds a panel left open from the Doctor’s repairs and tricks the lieutenant into electrocuting himself.
Lizzie is not exactly a stranger to killing aliens at this point in the series; she gets a lot of the actual-striking-deathblows stuff in order to maintain the Doctor’s moral high ground. But this one is fairly gruesome. Only the vampires really compare. Lizzie is shaken by it, but she has to recover quickly. The commander returns, having witnessed the mass panic outside, to find his lieutenant burned to death. Lizzie manages to avoid execution by waving her Nokia at him menacingly and claiming it’s a heat ray. She escapes out into the chaos in the street just before the Cathulan ship decloaks and takes off.
We just skip straight to the Doctor and Lizzie reuniting as Welles frets about exactly what he’s done to his career. The Doctor assures him that it’ll all work out, and this is born out when he gets a call from, “a certain government agency,” which tracked the Cathulan ship, and is eager to be able to dismiss thousands of eyewitness accounts as mass hysteria stemming from the broadcast.
Our heroes say their goodbyes, and finally get Orson to say, “We will sell no wine before its time.” The Doctor, surprised, blurts out that he’s only just now suddenly realized that, “it was his sled! Of course! It’s so obvious now!” And in another line that’s better than any of the Orson Welles jokes, when Howard asks where they’re going, the Doctor tells him, “Where we’re going, you can’t follow. What we’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of.” Howard speculates that this will be remembered as the high point of his career, and the Doctor and Lizzie exchange a sly glance before Lizzie says, “Here’s looking’ at you, kid.”
Lizzie wonders where the Toynbee device will take them next, hoping to skip World War II, but interested in seeing the ’60s. But the Doctor has a better plan: he used the Cathulan shield generator to increase the Toynbee device’s charge, and he thinks it should be able to take them all the way home on their next hop. He switches on, and the pair are zapped forward in time…
They find themselves in a city that looks grungy and decayed, yet in some ways futuristic; the skies are smoky, the streets nearly abandoned. Buildings are all new, but unmaintained. “Where are we?” Lizzie asks. “Not where, Lizzie; when?” the Doctor corrects. But while she looks around for some sign of where they’ve ended up, the Doctor sees something that makes him look up in horror. “I think we may have overshot a little,” he says. “This isn’t good. This isn’t good at all.”
Slowly, Lizzie turns, and we reverse angle to see what the Doctor had seen:
A giant statue of the Doctor in front of a government building. Oh boy…
This episode… There is a lot that is good in this episode. The actual bones of the plot are really good. And the whole idea that the Doctor deliberately inspired the War of the Worlds broadcast as a tool to trick real aliens out of attacking is a fresh spin, way better than, “The invasion was real, the broadcast was a cover-up”. The alien plot is pretty neat too; not a real invasion, but the threat of an invasion as a means of shaking down credulous humans. And sure, the historical accuracy is… Basically par for Doctor Who; this has always been a show which has treated the story of the past as more important than the actual facts of the matter. If I were more like Phil Sandifer here, I’d probably say something about how the myth of the mass-panic is more real than what actually happened, because it’s the myth, more than the reality, that would hold influence over how the future unfolded; our culture is far more influenced by the apocryphal version of events than the real one.
But there’s some weaknesses too. All the bits with Orson Welles are trying way too hard. And as I said before, it would have worked a lot better to have Lizzie escape and desperately try to persuade Orson to pull off the War of the Worlds hoax, while the Doctor slowly talked up the various threats to Earth and primed the Cathulans to buy into the hysteria. It also feels like big parts of the plot kind of skip forward in a rush. What we really needed, I think, are some human gangsters to contrast with the aliens, something that would give us a point of reference for our broken expectations: we’d be primed to think “gangsters versus aliens”, but then come to realize that the aliens and the gangsters were fundamentally the same. This won’t be the last time the Doctor’s travels intersect with early-20th-century organized crime, but they never draw this kind of parallel.
Plus, the Cathulan costumes look like penises made of smaller penises. Just sayin’.
Oh dear. Broke the universe again. Deep Ice will return in two weeks after I reassemble reality…