Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
I’m going to end up getting filtered by google for this, aren’t I?
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.
Sarah Michelle Gellar was best known as a soap opera actress when she signed on to Doctor Who. Then they found out she could do high-kicks, and a lot of writing excuses for her to do them ensued.
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.)