Take one measure of smart storytelling and stir in one measure of righteous anger at the state of the world. Stand well back and… Boom!

Steven Moffat is a clever man. That goes without saying. The Boom writer is a trickster and a schemer, who’ll meticulously assemble the pieces of his plot before revealing it’s a gun to shoot you in the feels with. He uses every cliche in the book to beat an emotional reaction out of his audience. However, he does it with such skill it’s difficult to complain. Instead, Doctor Who fans thank him kindly for the emotional damage even as they admire the craftmanship of his choice of weapon.

But here’s the thing people so often overlook. Steven Moffat is an angry man. He’s finally come back to Doctor Who after seven years away. Perhaps partly because some things he can only explore through the unique SF prism of Doctor Who. Oh yes, Moffat has seven years of things he’d like to get off his chest.

Over a week since Boom’s debut, and multiple re-watches later, it’s time to cast our Second Sight over Boom…

 

The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) spends most of Boom stranded on a landmine ,BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon Doctor Who
The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) spends most of Boom stranded on a landmine ,BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon

Boom’s big story idea of the Doctor saving a planet while standing on a landmine serves to remind us of his instinctive selflessness

Many fans remember Moffat’s previous stories, in typical Doctor Who shorthand, by their gimmicks. The One with the Statues that Move When You Blink. The One with the Flesh Eating Shadows. And who could forget the One with the Monsters You Can’t Remember. Boom, by that measure, is The One with the Doctor on a Landmine. But it’s far from a collection of elaborate plot mechanics built around a gimmick.

Instead, it uses the Doctor’s predicament as an opening to explore the Doctor’s almost infinite selflessness. As the episode opens, he hears a scream and runs straight into danger. He knows nothing about what’s going on on this planet, nothing about the risks he faces. All he does know is that someone needs help. Or at least did need help. He discovers the man he wanted to save already dead. Worse, he discovers the sentient, reusable, landmine that killed him by stepping on it himself.

The Doctor spends the best part of the next 45 minutes on that landmine, a significant portion of that standing on one leg. The entire time the story piles on more and more complications and danger. But not once does he express fear for himself. He’s terrified, to be sure. In fact, the Doctor’s perhaps as scared and anxious as we’ve ever seen him, raw emotion etched into his face.

Yet he directs all his concern outwards. He directs Ruby to look for others in the minefield in need of help because “I’m not even screaming yet.”

He tries to forbid her from coming close enough to help him so she’s not caught in the blast. As the full gravity, sorry mavity, of the situation becomes clear, his main concern is trying to save the lives of the army around him. The same army that have unwittingly turned him into a planet-killing time bomb.

 

Splice (CAOILINN SPRINGALL), Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON) & The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) try to figure out how to defuse a futuristic landmine in Boom BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon Doctor Who
Splice (CAOILINN SPRINGALL), Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON) & The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) try to figure out how to defuse a futuristic landmine in Boom BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon

A thematic follow up to Inversion of the Zygons, Boom turns its gaze onto one of the other causes of pointless wars: capitalism

Doctor Who’s a series often defined by its cliffhangers. Even so, the Doctor’s personal danger has rarely been such a focus on the plot. Yet, the Time Lord himself just wants to save everyone else from their own mistakes.

The nature of those mistakes makes up the other main thematic strand of Boom. If Inversion of the Zygons attacked war as a stalling tactic to avoid the bruised egos of necessary compromises, Boom identifies the two other main causes as capitalism and ignorance. But it’s no less angry about them. The 51st century weapon forges of Villengard were first mentioned back in 2005, as we learn the Doctor blew them up and replaced them with a banana farm. Now, in a story set before that potassium enriching event, we finally get to see Villengard’s wares in action.

“War is business and business is booming,” says the Doctor as he explains how Villengard’s AIs guide their clients’ war efforts. By supplying all sides, they manipulate events so that nobody ever quite wins or loses, so nobody ever needs to stop buying weapons. But the battlefield of Kastarion III represents an escalation of the Villengard Algorithm. If they can fool two sides into eternal war, how about fighting an eternal war against no one at all?

 

Anglican Marine Mundy (VARADA SETHU),BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon Doctor Who
Anglican Marine Mundy (VARADA SETHU),BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon

Steven Moffat captures the targets of his fury with laser sight precision

It’s at this point in Boom that Moffat slots the final pieces of his own weapon into place as it takes aim at its targets. The arms trade. The commercialisation of health services. War for war’s sake. Blind faith. Thoughts and prayers. Above all else: thoughts and bloody prayers.

It’s a testament to his skill as a writer that the above doesn’t fall apart into an old curly haired Scottish man yelling at a cloud on BBC One at 7 O’Clock on a Saturday evening. But it all seems to flow so effortlessly from the characters and situation, and that scenario so horribly plausible that Boom’s far from the grumpy rant it might have been.

By far the biggest target in the episode’s laser sights is capitalism. It’s the root of almost all other evils in the episode. Wars are declared on empty planets simply to drive weapons sales. Soldiers are blown up by the own mines to sell more mines. Ambulances are figures of terror, stalking the battlefield to ruthlessly euthanise anyone who might cost too much money to be worth keeping alive.

In many ways Boom is the vexed ‘Did I stutter?’ follow up to The Zygon Inversion. Peter Capaldi’s career defining anti-war speech targeted a kind of international social anxiety as a cause of wars. How much easier to kill and die to put off actually having to have a necessary conversation. But this time it’s the money men on the sidelines who take their share of the blame. The ones with stoke the fires of wars they and their children won’t fight in, so that they can warm their feet on the flames.

 

Mundy (VARADA SETHU) & Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON) in Boom, a story which impressively keeps upping the danger and stakes across its 45 minutes,BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon Doctor Who
Mundy (VARADA SETHU) & Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON) in Boom, a story which keeps upping the danger and stakes across its 45 minutes,BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon

Thoughts and Prayers

“Thoughts and Prayers.” It’s a phrase used to great effect in Boom, alongside “Sharp Scratch” (Moffat’s effort to make going to the doctor the latest thing kids to terrify kids alongside breathing and blinking.). It’s so viscerally awful a response to tragedies it’s guaranteed to get the audience on board. From school shootings to genocides in distant lands those least likely to actually help are always the first to offer their thoughts and prayers. Moreover, it’s a bridge between the two main subjects of Moffat’s ire. It’s both a blandly corporate greeting card pretence of emotion, and symptomatic of a strand of religious belief that’s so often an excuse to do nothing.

Ironically, this is the first episode that feels like it’s aware Doctor Who is on Disney+ now. Because talking babies, snot monsters, and trickster gods living in pianos are the sort of thing the show would always have done, budget allowing, back to the 1970s at least. But there’s a definite sense here of the British show pulling up a chair for its new audience to say, “Okay, America, we need to talk.” It should at least quieten some of the talk of a ‘Disneyfication’ of the show.

 

Anglican Marines John (JOE ANDERSON) and Carson (MAJID MEHDIZADEH-VALOUJERDY) in Boom,BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon Doctor Who
Anglican Marines John (JOE ANDERSON) and Carson (MAJID MEHDIZADEH-VALOUJERDY), whose faith in a for-profit healthcare system proves misplaced inĀ  in Boom,BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon

Although it uses “faith” as its focus, Boom’s real concern is blind trust in authority of any kind

It’s certainly made Boom a controversial episode in some quarters. But while the Doctor’s status as a firm atheist is one of his long established traits, even longer established is his intolerance of people who refuse to think. In Moffat’s multi-track assault on war, unthinking battle might be the greatest sin of all. Bonnie might have done terrible things in her Zygon rebellion, but at least she had a point of view. At least there were real wrongs she wanted to right. Even then one of the key reasons for the Twelfth Doctor’s disdain is that she hasn’t thought ahead to what she wants beyond that.

But Mundy and the Anglican Marines represent a different kind of soldier. The type who follows orders because they have a vague faith in the authority of their superiors. She and her fellow troopers invade an empty planet to declare war on nothing but mud and fog because they have faith there’s a good reason. And if the Kastarions had existed, they’d have been killing them without knowing why, simply trusting that someone somewhere above them has a good reason for ordering it.

 

The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) recognizes the importance of a different aspect of faith for people like Splice (CAOILINN SPRINGALL),BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon
The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) recognizes the importance of a different aspect of faith for people like Splice (CAOILINN SPRINGALL),BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon

Doctor Who continues to champion the form of faith it always has… faith in the power of friendship, family, and kindness

“Surrender.” The Doctor’s solution to the conflict echoes the furious simplicity of his Zygons speech, where he wanted both sides to simply pack up and go home. It’s a word of power though. One made almost impossible by the same faith. Because sometimes carrying on believing in a cause despite the evidence is easier than admitting you’ve been duped.

Ultimately, it’s that attitude which is under attack in Boom. Overlapping it with the Clerics previously established in Moffat’s earlier stories is too good a beat to resist. But sometimes it springs from religion, or politics, nationalism or something else entirely. It’s the ability to switch off the questioning part of your brain, to simply trust that there’s some ‘greater good’ to your actions that someone, somewhere, understands. Wherever it comes from, it’s just as dangerous in the Doctor’s eyes.

In the final analysis, of course, faith is both the problem and the solution. The Doctor may disdain faith in authority, divine or otherwise, but Doctor Who frequently places a different kind of faith in the bonds of friendship and family. So it’s the power of love that finally saves the day. It’s a very on-brand solution from Moffat. However more often than not, he makes such endings feel earned and more complex that they might be in the hands of a lesser writer. So the soldier who naively trusts that the Ambulances’ behaviour is a bug, not a feature, becomes the holy data-ghost who tears it all down so his daughter doesn’t become another casualty.

Boom is not so much an attack on belief, then, but a cautionary tale about who to place your belief in. Not in corporations, governments, or religious leaders. But in family and heart.

And for many fans, they believe in Steven Moffat.

Lindy (CALLIE COOKE) and the Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) in Dot and Bubble ,BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon Doctor Who
Lindy (CALLIE COOKE) and the Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) in Dot and Bubble ,BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon

Doctor Who continues at midnight Friday night BST with Dot and Bubble on iPlayer in the UK, and on Disney+ everywhere else except Ireland

1 COMMENT

  1. Hi, great review hitting all the major points of the plot. However, can we start a conversation about the extreme tonal shifts this episode takes? The Doctor is playing an invisible drum solo and doing his usual schtick while a newly orphaned little girl stands there holding her father’s corpse. Then later he is all about sunrises and fun before dropping to a knee and being all serious. It just felt so strange. I can’t be the only one who thinks so.

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