The Science of Doctor Who: s01e04-5, “Aliens of London / World War Three”

Okay, huge gap between the last SoDW and this one. This is mainly because I really didn’t like this episode at all. The villains’ main characteristics were that they farted and giggled constantly, and the plotline itself seemed silly and self-indulgent on the part of the writer. (Oh, had I only known.) But in no particular order, let’s look at some of the scientific and technical details of the two-parter.

UNIT’s website can order UK military submarines to launch missiles; and the password is “buffalo” – a seven-character word, one found in English computer spellcheck dictionaries. From an Internet security standpoint, this password is pretty much like leaving the keys to your house in your mailbox, hidden among ten or twelve other keys: it’s not going to slow anyone down for long. Even “buff@l0” would be better, and “Buff@l0h3rds” better still; the latter is like hiding the key in your mailbox among several thousand other keys. Most burglars would quickly give up and move on. (Hope you remember which key’s yours!) No wonder that the UNIT brass in the episode were so quickly neutralized, if their security is this sloppy.

The idea of a U.N. website being able to tell a UK submarine to launch a missile on seconds’ notice is not any better. Imagine someone, upon gaining entry into your house with that mailbox key, being able to give your local police unquestioned orders to start arresting local citizens – without warrant – from your phone line. If you’re the mayor, you might maybe be able to get away with that briefly; but the U.N. certainly isn’t the mayor of the U.K. It has to go begging hat-in-hand to the British government just to get a few thousand troops at a time. Of course, in the 1970s, the world had trusted UNIT with the launch codes for its nuclear weapons as an insurance policy, so perhaps the world’s militaries are still doing the same in 2005…

The Slitheen plan is, as happens so often in alien invasions, crap. Earth’s nukes in 2005 could certainly make the planet uninhabitable, but wouldn’t really convert the entire surface to a ‘radioactive cinder’. The contaminated soil, rock, and water would make lousy spaceship fuel: we already understand well what materials make good fuel for reaction engines, and can make keen guesses at the needs of faster-than-light engines. Converting the planet to antimatter would make more sense if one’s looking to power space battleships and cruise liners, but our nukes certainly wouldn’t do that.

As it is, our nuclear reactors produce radioactive waste that isn’t really of much use. Some of it goes into superdense armor and projectiles for our war machines (and that has its own problems), but there’s no fueling problem this waste would solve that other material doesn’t solve better. And how annoying for the Slitheen is it going to be to mine, process, and ship the radioactive soil from Earth? They sure won’t be using us as slave labor: we’re all dead.

The big problem with alien invasions is that almost anything the aliens could possibly want from us is just as easy, if not easier, to get elsewhere. It would be like flying to Paris and taking on a couple of squads of their police for the privilege of mugging a little old lady for a bag of hot dog buns. Someone (maybe the “Predators” of movie fame) might find that entertaining, I suppose, but it’s just not necessary.

The Slitheen insist they’d become ridiculously rich from the sales – why not invest a little, and buy the lion’s share of the Earth’s nukes, then use them on some easy-to-harvest asteroids? I bet the Russians would gladly rid themselves of some of their useless warheads, especially in trade for high technology they could market to the rest of us or convert into more practical weapons for Earth conquest.

Moving on: late in the two-parter, the Doctor gives Mickey a CD-ROM that will erase all mention of him from the Internet. That’s fine, except a virus that will work equally well on all the different operating systems currently composing the Internet would be a nice trick, and sure wouldn’t do much to offline digital and hardcopy storage. Future episodes suggest that it didn’t work anyway, so the Doctor may have overreached himself. It would almost have been more convincing if he had zapped Mickey’s cable modem with his sonic screwdriver and declared, “I’m no longer recorded in Earth’s computer network.” (Well, no… not really.)

Lastly, something I’ve discussed elsewhere but care to repeat here. The fictional United Nations Intelligence Taskforce was introduced to Doctor Who in the 1970s, back when SF writers still seemed to think it would be more productive for the human race to work together on world-threatening issues. Writer Russell Davies killed its senior staff in this episode, potentially implying the end of the organization (to be replaced by Torchwood, perhaps). However, it later reappeared as the “Unified” Intelligence Taskforce, with Davies claiming the the real U.N. had written him and asked for the change.

Now, the U.N. has been portrayed in fiction since its beginnings, often very unflatteringly. (In Rapture storytelling, it often becomes a tyrannical world dictatorship, for example.) The idea that after thirty-five years, someone at the U.N. suddenly objected to the organization’s positive portrayal on a slightly cheesy SF series astounds me. I find it far, far more plausible that RTD just didn’t like the idea of UNIT – wanting to switch to a more British organization – and for his own reasons chose this story to support the change. But I suppose we will never know for sure, and it’s canon now… until the next retcon.

EDIT: Actually, I just had a thought about the change: perhaps there is some weird copyright on potential merchandising of UNIT emblems, toys, and such by the BBC. This still sounds shaky… the Japanese are still labeling Macross toys ‘U.N. Spacy’ (space army), and I’d not think I’d have to ask Germany’s permission to market a “German Army Toy Soldier”, but international copyright is a strange thing. I could imagine it would be just easier to market the Unified toys without having to give the U.N. a cut, or a preview, or whatever. I’d probably believe this story if they tried it on me.

Next time: a superior episode in every way. EX-TER-MIN-ATE!

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