The Doctor has taken Rose to visit a large space station orbiting Earth in the year 200,000. Adam is technically present too. He’s a little overwhelmed. (I suspect nobody has bothered to explain anything about anything to him.) Rose teases him by expertly regurgitating everything the Doctor just told her, then they find a window to look down at Earth. It’s covered by a lot of squarish architecture that can definitely be seen from the Moon. Even the Borg would have to rate this as a “fair start”. The Doctor announces admiringly that the galaxy is at the height of the fourth human empire. Adam finally faints, which takes him out of the running for Rose’s affections.
The Doctor assures Adam that this is the era of humanity’s finest culture, at which point they slam into a street vendor in a Purina bandana selling “kronk” burgers. Apparently this is so very not-fine culture that the Doctor checks his watch to be sure he got the target era right. I guess some empires are just so awesome that even the lowest, scavengy-est street vendors deal in veal and caviar. Just think of it, a world where even the dumbest sitcoms don’t need laugh tracks to tell you when they’re trying to be funny. Adam wonders where all the aliens are, if this is an interstellar empire. The Doctor agrees that this bears investigating, which requires cuisine, which requires money. He hacks an ATM, then leaves Rose and Adam to fend for themselves despite Adam’s protests. My time as a companion would probably be like Adam’s thus far, except with less fainting and more “will there be time for a visit to the library please.”
The Doctor questions a couple of young women, Cathica and Suki, on his whereabouts, accepting their assumption that he’s a secret shopper sent by upper management to drill them on their PR skills. This is floor 139 of Satellite Five, and the two are hoping to advance to floor 500. They show no clear idea of what exactly is so great about that floor; presumably they can exit the dungeon with their loot and record a high score.
Cathica delivers a few news highlights, with yet another “Bad Wolf” thrown in randomly. There’s no sinister organization we know of that’s attached to the phrase, as there was with “the Silence”, so it’s just some bit of trivia at this point. Anyway, the pregnancy of the Face of Boe is either the most or least disturbing of the news of the day, with water riots and vicious sunspots disrupting things elsewhere. Cathica declares that Satellite Five is the news, which is arguably more disturbing than any of the news she mentioned. S5 broadcasts six hundred channels of news, and these two are among the journalists it employs.
A white-haired man in a monitoring room senses something off about the Doctor’s conversation and orders a deep security check. He says it’s something fictional, which, combined with the woman’s insistence that nothing happens without S5 knowing about it, says bad things about the ego of the people running six hundred channels of news media.
Rose has managed to find a beef-flavored slush puppy. Adam is still trying to cope with the sudden loss of everything he considered part of his reality, all vanished without a trace into his past. Rose offers him her supercellphone, frustrated that he wants instructions for it. You know, some people can just plunge into a strange situation, but others need a little handholding as they ramp up to “I’ve got a grip on this.” One approach is not intrinsically superior, it depends on the situation. And, keeping in mind his previous employer, maybe Adam has developed extra caution about breaking other people’s things he doesn’t fully understand. Anyway, his pet dog comes in and gets slightly whiny at the sound of his master’s voice on the machine, just to liven up the scene a bit. Adam leaves a message and the Doctor calls them over as “Mutt and Jeff” which I’m aware is a pop culture reference. (Turns out it’s a comic strip.) Adam makes a big show of keeping the supercell.
Grown-up Draco Malfoy continues to watch, insisting that he can “taste” that someone isn’t supposed to be there and calling for a second security check. I keep stopping short of saying he’s ordering people to do things; he’s very all-business, but personable in his demeanor and voice. Considering what it turns out he has hanging over him, that might be how he stays sane.
Cathica has collected an assortment of people in a sterile white room for a full inspection for the Doctor & co.’s benefit. Suki looks scared about the whole thing. Presumably she’s worked hard to get this high and doesn’t want to be sent back to Floor 57 where they’ve never been able to scrub the ketchupy odor from the air filters. Anyway, Cathica says that it’s company policy to be honest and unbiased in their news-gathering efforts, to which Suki adds that it’s the law. It’s subtle but apparent that internal policy is more important than legality, at least in Cathica’s mind. This gets better and better.
Everyone around the table interfaces with it. Cathica climbs into a chair in the middle and clicks her fingers, whereupon her forehead pops open to reveal a metallic cavity. She orders a “spike” and blue energy flows into her cavity, the Doctor saying that she’s basically downloading all the news of the day. Her brain interacts with the other employees’ to process and broadcast the news on all 600 channels, but it won’t retain any of it after the link is cut.
The security computer, having determined that someone in the room shouldn’t be there, and having presumably listened to the foregoing question-and-answer exposition, now takes several long, dramatic seconds to consider the Doctor & co. One wonders why it hasn’t just run a database of authorized secret shoppers by now. The Doctor announces something is wrong about this technology (which gets him and Rose grinning), and the background music changes from quiet long notes to excited crackles. Now the security camera focuses in on Suki, much to Draco’s satisfaction. Sure enough, Suki jerks away from the interface in pain, breaking the link. The sound effects indicate she was fired upon by a psychic photon torpedo. Something snarls unintelligibly at Draco, who makes profuse apologies to the top of a wall and promises to detain Suki ASAP.
A screen on the wall of the sterile room announces an incoming promotion. It’s for . . . waaait for it, let’s let Cathica embarrass herself a little more . . . Suki! She drew the “go straight to Floor 500” card! It takes a moment for this to sink in, as Suki protests that she didn’t really expect them to choose her application. She’s really tickled pink about it. Cathica just fumes about being passed over yet again.
Suki hugs her “lucky charm”, the Doctor, who agreeably says that he’ll hug anyone. Adam was really freaked out by the forehead thing, and wants to find a quiet spot so he can decompress. He heads for an observation deck, with Rose giving him a TARDIS key and puffing and pouting the whole time. He comments as he leaves that it’ll take “a better man than me” to divert Rose’s attentions from the Doctor. Suki now exits the scene via elevator, with Cathica glad to see her go, explaining that nobody ever returns from Floor 500.
Suki is about two steps below spazzing out as the elevator rises. She steps out on a wintry wasteland of a room, complete with falling snow and one of those circular table interfaces. It’s got skeletons in the seats. She finds another room, which leads to the security room, where Draco waves at her.
Suki, still freaked out, approaches Draco, who introduces himself as The Editor. He replays the biography she submitted with her job application, calling her a liar meanwhile, then calls her by her true name and appends a resume of her as a terrorist. At the mention of her true name, Suki finally starts to drop her facade. She pulls out a gun, demands to see his superior, and insists she has proof that S5 is distorting the news. See, this is the kind of customer feedback that keeps the news media honest. He introduces Suki to her boss, who’s been her boss “since the day you were born.” Her boss descends upon Suki, who demonstrates that Energy Bullets Won’t Stop It before spending her last few seconds screaming into the camera.
Cathica complains about the Doctor’s continued questions, saying she’s only allotted 20 minutes for “maintenance” (because cogs in a machine don’t get “free time”). She decides the Doctor isn’t actually an S5 employee, at which the Doctor snarks, “At last, she’s clever!” Cathica now protests complete ignorance, but the Doctor gets her to drop little details, details that mean nothing to her but build a picture of an empire beginning to crack. The Doctor insists that everything’s wrong, that the current technology should be obsolete by now. Turns out, it’s as old as S5, which is good enough to indicate proximate cause in an hour drama.
Adam has taken my advice and accessed a library. Now he tries to transcribe advancements in the microprocessor onto his parents’ answering machine, but the system detects something’s fishy and displays “Floor 16” — the place where Cathica just said she got her forehead doohickeyed. Ruh-roh! He heads down of his own volition and winds up paying for a not–brain surgery with the hacked money the Doctor gave him. The not-surgeon cajoles him into taking the full info-spike doohickey.
The Doctor is messing around in what Cathica calls the mainframe, over Cathica’s objections. His trains of thought are baffling to her, in large part because she accepts everything she’s told without question, as she cannot conceive of anything being rotten in the state of S5. For example, Rose questions why the mainframe area is so hot, and Cathica dismisses it as just something to do with a turbine, she never inquired as to details.
Cathica doesn’t come across as being brainwashed or indoctrinated, just a normal person who has chosen her life’s ambition and is going with the general flow of society on her way there. This makes the episode more effective. It’s easy to write a sci-fi story about a totalitarian regime that controls its populace through obedience devices or staring at a hypnotic screen or constant PSAs about Our Glorious God-Emperor. That’s a story about brainwashing, about those helpless people over there in that society that doesn’t resemble ours. This is more about normal people of free will, living with a corrupted source of news that proclaims transparency and a lack of bias even as it distorts galactic events as it sees fit. It’s about the Cathicas who accept the values of society, and the information that the press gives them, as implicitly true. It’s about the Sukis who fight for a press that will genuinely report honestly and with humility, because that is something that matters. It’s about deciding for yourself what matters, rather than accepting water riots as no big deal because the media treats it as just another news story. And it’s about questioning what you are told and thinking for yourself. All of that is something that has more to say to the viewer about the viewer’s own life than “don’t let the evil genocidal tyrant stick a dolled-up hair dryer on your head.”
Anyway, The Editor is still tracking the Doctor and Rose, and nibbles the scenery a bit about how the computer could possibly have no record of either of them. (Suki is now a zombie helping to run security checks.) He schedules them for a trip to Floor 500, sending the Doctor’s hacked interface the appropriate elevator code. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Rose have worked out that the vents and pipes on the station are working very hard to draw heat out of the top of the satellite, so they both want to go up and see what the source is. Cathica repeats that she wants no part of this, and the Doctor cheerfully writes her and Adam off.
Adam has begun to cautiously explore the use of his info-spike, and as I write this sentence I realize why he’s named Adam, as he’s gone against his better judgement for the sake of gaining knowledge that he hopes will make him like unto a god. Anyway, he heaves and vomits (honestly, my stomach is turning a bit), only to find that Not-Surgeon Lady also gave him nanotermites that freeze any regurgitated food. A special package deal for such an excellent client as yourself, and would sir also like a 24k gold foie gras slushie for just five million more?
The Doctor steps out on Floor 500 and suggests Rose retreat while he looks around worriedly. She comes along, of course, and The Editor captures them so he can learn who they are. He introduces them to his boss, who appears to be just a slimy, ribbed blob of flesh with a head that has spiky teeth in it. Not very inspired, but it’s not a spider so I won’t argue. The Editor explains that the Jagrafess has controlled humanity’s ambitions and actions via control of their news, which answers the viewer’s question of “Why should we care what the news media does?” Because people distorting the news generally do it for reasons you may not agree with, selfish or ideological or otherwise, and by doing so they keep people from behaving in accordance with the truth of any given matter and eventually stunt the growth of society. This episode takes a positive view of humanity, incidentally, implying that people will advance properly when given the truth and encouraged to think for themselves, rather than needing the “right” person at the head to steer them this way or that. Which shouldn’t be surprising, given that the Doctor isn’t too fond of authority figures in general.
The Editor talks more about the Jagrafess’s manipulation of media, just in case viewers don’t get the point. He says that being able to see inside people’s brains allows him to squelch any dissent before it begins . . . at which point Cathica strides out of the elevator, having begun to doubt while The Editor was distracted with the Doctor. She overhears the exposition about the Jagrafess letting people have a herd mentality while it stays cool at the top of S5. Meanwhile Adam has found a chair and is transmitting data to his parents’ answering machine so hard that the blue stream somehow travels along the signal and envelops the machine. The Doctor, with himself and Rose under torture, admits who he and Rose are, but The Editor is now drawing information from Adam’s brain. You knew Adam’s info-spike would be a plot point sooner or later, right? Anyway, The Editor can levitate the TARDIS key from out of Adam’s pocket remotely. It’s more original than having thugs capture and search him, at least.
Cathica uses the abandoned chair to drop the safeties, cut Adam’s stream, and cancel the heat sink mechanism. The Doctor is pleased, being surprised at this awakening in her. The Editor tries to cut her stream, but she blows out the controls at his end. The Doctor and Rose escape before the alien explodes. The Editor tries to escape too, but there’s enough of Suki left that she grabs him and keeps him there.
The Doctor leaves Cathica in charge while he deals with Adam. He takes Adam, who is blubbering excuses throughout much as van Statten did in front of the Dalek, and plops him back in his home. The Doctor then destroys the answering machine, scolds Adam, plays with Adam’s spike to drive home his utter lack of sympathy for Adam’s plight, and leaves. Rose tries to play peacemaker but can’t resist triggering the spike herself, and when Adam asks her to let him come along, glares at him and leaves. Adam’s mother comes home, very surprised and tickled that he’s there. She happens to click her fingers, which Adam never changed from being the spike trigger, and makes a very “eccch” face as we go to the end credits. He’ll have fun explaining that one!
Adam can be seen as a warning against abusing special knowledge for one’s own ends, but we had that last episode. He’s more important as an example of why the Doctor doesn’t let just anyone come along.
Objectively this is probably another 3, but I believe I would think nothing of skipping over it in a binge-watch. And since these are subjective scores . . .
Rating: 2 beef-flavored slush puppy drinks
Favorite dialogue: The Doctor: The thing is, Adam, time travel is like visiting Paris. You can’t just read the guidebook. You’ve got to throw yourself in. Eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double, and wind up kissing complete strangers. Or is that just me?