Boom Town ***

Margaret Slitheen returns in a comical runaround that sows the seeds for Torchwood

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
Boom Town ***

Story 165 

Series 1 – Episode 11

 “I’ve seen you fight your enemies. Now dine with them” – Margaret Slitheen

Storyline
Six months after the alien attack on London, Margaret Slitheen is installed as Mayor of Cardiff, planning to build a nuclear power plant in the city centre and killing anyone who opposes her. The plant is designed to go into meltdown, open the space-time rift in the city, allowing her to surf her way to freedom beyond the stars on an extrapolator. She hasn’t banked on the Doctor, who has parked the Tardis in Cardiff Bay to refuel over the rift. Helped by Rose, Jack and Mickey, he hunts Margaret down but can he follow through his plan to return her to Raxacoricofallapatorius, where she will face the death penalty?

First UK transmission
Saturday 4 June 2005

Production
Location: January 2005 at Bistro 10, Mermaid Quay, Cardiff Bay. February 2005 at Mermaid Quay; Glamorgan House, Cardiff; Cardiff railway station.
Studio: February 2005 at Unit Q2, Newport.

Cast
Doctor Who – Christopher Eccleston
Rose Tyler – Billie Piper
Captain Jack Harkness – John Barrowman
Mickey Smith – Noel Clarke
Margaret Blaine – Annette Badland
Mr Cleaver – William Thomas
Idris Hopper – Aled Pedrick
Cathy Salt – Mali Harries
Slitheen – Alan Ruscoe

Crew
Writer – Russell T Davies
Director – Joe Ahearne
Designer – Edward Thomas
Incidental music – Murray Gold
Producer – Phil Collinson
Executive producers – Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner, Mal Young

RT review by Patrick Mulkern

“Margaret Slitheen is the performance of the series. She just pinions the Doctor in the same way the Daleks do. It’s spellbinding to watch.” Christopher Eccleston’s generous assertion about guest star Annette Badland (RT 2005) is hard to dispute.

She’s the linchpin of this peculiar short-story, a low-cal filler sandwiched between the dramatic juggernauts of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who debut and Russell T Davies’s dazzling finale. Boom Town arose, Davies told RT, simply because “Annette was in episodes four and five and was so brilliant but actually had very few lines”.

Margaret Blaine/Slitheen is 21st-century Who’s first returning baddy, and sharp dialogue and Badland’s nuanced performance compensate for the inherent silliness of the flatulent, skin-sloughing bogey-monster. Davies gives her much to play with, from lording it up as Mayor of Cardiff, ruthlessly slaying opponents, to the extraordinary scene in the town-hall lavatory where Margaret plans to bump off a prying journalist.

As she locks the cubicle door and starts to transmogrify, she lets out some gurgling wind. “Sounds like we got here just in time,” says journalist Cathy. The weird blend of tension and coarseness abruptly ceases as soon as Margaret realises, “You’re with child?” She cannot bring herself to kill a pregnant female, and then she reveals her dejection and isolation now that her own Slitheen family are dead – unexpectedly eliciting audience sympathy.

Boom Town is the first episode to make a virtue of being set in Cardiff (after many in this series where the city has struggled to double for London). On the surface it sells itself as a comical runaround with the Tardis team charging through Cardiff town hall, creating havoc, in pursuit of Margaret who clambers out of a window. The sight of a lardy lady mayor running and teleporting is in itself funny, but to our amusement, and her mounting vexation, the Time Lord uses his sonic screwdriver to keep bringing her back, turning her round and drawing her closer.

Having set up the flirty Doctor/Rose/Jack threesome, Davies allows them their day in the sun, larking about, being cocky – and infuriating constant outsider Mickey: “My God, have you seen yourselves? You all think you’re so clever.” It’s the jolly before the downfall, because the trio will be torn apart in episodes 12 and 13. Davies also shows the Doctor and co being forced to deal with the consequences of their actions (after Aliens of London/World War Three) and facing the dilemma of whether they can really deliver Margaret to an excruciating execution.

The focal scene is the bistrot tête-à-tête between the Doctor and Margaret. “Dinner and bondage – works for me!” she coos (another typically saucy Davies line getting in under the radar) when the Time Lord concedes to her request for a last supper. He is biding his time, reluctant to return her home, while she uses her feminine and Slitheen wiles to attempt to kill him across the table – all brilliantly timed by Eccleston and Badland.

Doctor Who will frequently be accused of deus ex machina resolutions, and here’s one of the earliest and most blatant – an infernal machine (the Tardis console) opens and a semi-divine force (energy from the heart of the Tardis) regresses Margaret to a harmless egg.

At the time, Boom Town felt, as Davies put it, like “a little, inconsequential throwaway episode”, but several aspects – the Cardiff setting, the Rift (first established in The Unquiet Dead) and Captain Jack himself – would reassemble later. “The whole of Torchwood is based on a lot of it.”

Torchwood will become a recurring theme in the second season, and then a BBC series in its own (troubled) right. But for now, in Boom Town, the Doctor and we are suddenly forced to concentrate on this season’s arc – so subtle it’s almost an afterthought – Bad Wolf. “Everywhere we go. Two words following us,” notices the Time Lord in a genuinely spine-tingling realisation, yet to be explained…