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April 19, 2008

Desolate Hole

Doctor Who: Planet of the Ood

Ood Well, they can’t all be classics.  The signs weren’t good for Planet of the Ood, title included.  The previews didn’t help – The Guardian Guide were so disinterested they accidentally illustrated their piece with a shot from Pushing Daisies, the TV Cream mail out quoted one former DWM editor as saying it was "the worst since the series returned" before giving away the ending (though weren’t forthcoming with his identity) and Radio Times loved it (which is never a good sign).  Personally I couldn’t stand the prospect of spending another forty-five minutes in the company of the Ood; like the Doctor I almost totally ignored them during their first appearance and a certain loathing has crept in during the interim, as their heads – which look from the back like over designed comedy dildos – have appeared in profile on the cover of what seemed like every other issue of Doctor Who Adventures

Plus it was one of those pre-destined episodes, an occasion when a plot point or idea planted in a previous story was bound to be returned to and expanded upon and as soon as the oppressed Ood shuffled on doing menial tasks, I can’t imagine any fan, considering the propensity for these marching aliens to return wouldn’t have looked at their sad little vomiting spag bol faces and realised that at some point they’d have to sit through a polemic about slavery.  Sure enough, Planet of the Ood was two thousand, seven hundred seconds (approx.) of being told that slavery is a very bad thing, punctuated by chasing, running, Homer Simpson impressions, tears and shouting making the mistake which the very worst science fiction makes when it thinks it's doing allegory, of rubbing the consumer’s face in the issue to the point of becoming literal.

This might have been the least subtle allegory since Star Trek’s Let That Be Your Last Battlefield 

If the episode had scheduled properly (ie, later) and I’d had the inclination, I would have made a list of all the scenes I might have expected.  Donna questioning an Ood as to why he’s subservient?  Tick.  Ood being marched around like the concentration camp detainees?  Tick.  Ood huddled in a cage and darkness and yearning to breathe free?  Tick.  I didn’t have Ood going stark raving bonkers and gaining the ability to repel bullets but you can’t have everything.  This might have been the least subtle allegory since Star Trek’s Let That Be Your Last Battlefield where Frank Gorshin (60s Batman’s The Riddler) had one half of his face covered in black paint, the other half white and we were told as battled someone who looked almost but not exactly like him that racism’s bad.  The Wikipedia says that the original concept for that episode had Uhura and McCoy trapped on a planet where white people were slaves and black people were the masters but even they spent three years rewriting the thing so it wouldn’t be quite so on the muzzle. 

Planet of the Ood was a Naomi ‘No Logo’ Klien campaign film as science fiction; when the Doctor asked who made the clothes on Donna’s back, her reply, about rubbing her nose in it, was probably the best line in the whole episode because it was exactly how I felt at that stage in my cheap Asda t-shirt drinking (fair trade) coffee from a Starbucks mug.  I could just be experiencing back burn from having also watched Spielberg’s Amistad for the first time this week.  But at least Amistad had Sir Anthony Hopkins doing a good Spencer Tracy impression and Anna Paquin’s amusingly dodgy Spanish accent to enjoy.  Like Amistad, the episode tried to engage our sympathy by presenting the culture of the captured and horrors being inflicted upon them by their masters; but whereas that was an all too graphic demonstration of man’s inhumanity to man, this episode made the mistake of trying to have us feel sorry for an alien even less loveable than a Dalek, an even trickier task when their main claim to fame is carrying their heart-shaped brain around in their gloved hand.  Ugh.

at least Amistad had Sir Anthony Hopkins doing a good Spencer Tracy impression 

To compensate, writer Keith Temple made the corporation harvesting the Ood as dastardly as possible.  In Confidential, Russell described Klineman Halpen (anagram Mean Napkin Hell) as a kind of mid-range villain, not attempting to take over the universe but simply trying to make a fast buck on the back of other people’s misery.  How dull.  How undemanding.  How as Russ says, realistic.  I can understand why every villain can’t be a Zaroff or Scaroth, but they have to be bean pushers in suits (leaving aside the fact that fashions having changed much in two millennia)?  Yes, there’s the argument that the more normal the evil looks and sounds, the creepier it is, but despite Tim McInnerny large performance, I can’t think of a single interesting thing the character said, up to an including his transformation into an Ood.  I also felt rather sorry for Solana Mercurio whose gone from playing the Queen of Naboo in Attack of the Clones to herding auditionees for the Gamestation version The Apprentice around the new set for BBC News 24.

Despite Graham Harper’s efforts, the action sequences didn’t seem to work; the best sequences in the series still manage to provide some new bit of plot or reveal something the Doctor didn’t already know.  Here they were the kind of padding you might expect from the classic series, substituting the Doctor heading to certain doom strapped to a cart going down a hill with him being chased by a giant CG claw.  The realisation of the Ood planet didn’t gel either, with an obvious quarry giving way to matt paintings which lacked the kind of realism we’ve come to expect from the new series and that shot of the Doctor and Donna looking towards the complex seemed unfinished.  But the computer graphics overall weren’t great with the white-coated friend of the Ood's expiration in the giant brain harking back to the dissolve of the anti-plastic from the first series.  It seems harsh to criticise this work considering the number of man hours which must be engaged, but just now and then these shots look inconsistently cartoony and you can’t help wondering if Mike Tucker and friends couldn’t have produced something more convincing using miniatures.

I also felt rather sorry for Solana Mercurio whose gone from playing the Queen of Naboo in Attack of the Clones to herding auditionees for the Gamestation version The Apprentice around the new set for BBC News 24.

All of which said, if the episode was at all watchable it was because the central duo, like the greatest Doctor/companion packages, are intensely entertaining even as the rest of the story is crashing about around them.  If now and then David seemed to resort to some of his ticks in an attempt to compensate for the deficiencies in the script, Catherine once again impressed with her range, entirely understated in the places where she needs to be and presenting the kind of quiet understanding of tragedy that we’ve seen few actors undertake in the series thus far.  The finest scenes of the episode were at the opening and her first experiences of an alien world, rationally returning to the TARDIS to get a coat, clever woman.  The influence here must have been Arthur Dent just as he prepared experience the ancient planet of Magrathea:  "don't you understand, this is the first time I've actually stood on the surface of another planet ... a whole alien world...!  Pity it's such a dump though."  Or in this case, cold.  She even got to say “That’s what I call a space ship…” as Thunderbird 3 flew overhead. 

It's these scenes which make me wonder if I'm just judging it all a bit too harshly and after seeing it again, I'll simply judge it on its own merits.  It's clearly not a  New Earth after all.  But every useful moment seemed underscored by a misstep.  Some meagre sympathy for the Ood was generated during that scene were Donna heard their song of captivity and gently weeped -- only to be  spoilt by the aforementioned brain reveal (seriously, where do they put it when they sleep?).  Also, in places it was difficult to be tell the Ood’s song from some of the incidental music.  A more stylish option might have been to have dropped everything but wooden percussive instruments from the score once the Doctor and Donna had entered the complex, making the song even more beautiful and chilling.  Instead, composer Murray Gold was in a plonky mood, and much of the action was underscored by track which seemed to be intruding from a LucasArts point and click PC adventure from the mid-nineties.

much of the action was underscored by track which seemed be intruding from a LucasArts point and click PC adventure from the mid-nineties 

Finally, and meanwhile back at this month’s arc plot.  The lack of bees on planet Earth was repeated very loudly just in case we missed it through Donna’s gasping in the opening episode and the Ood gained a hitherto unseen power of sinister clairvoyance in suggesting that the Doctor’s song would end soon.  What, someone’s going to throw a timebomb into the pocket dimension Chancellor Flavia’s singing in from?  The good people at the Doctor Who Forum have already got the Doctor killed off or regenerated and David replaced on the strength of this one line.  Given the sneaky set reports from the Christmas special and the fact that Dave, Russ and the BBC have already stated he’ll be around for the specials (however many there are), that might be a bit premature – and haven’t we already had a talk about real world programme making politics influencing the extent of internal storylines?  No mention of the Shadow Proclamation this time though, but having the Doctor all but say the word Sensorite was good enough for me.

Next Week:  “The last time you Sontaran’s attempted something this dastardly was when an operative was nicking scientists back in time from 1973.  You remember that don’t you Brigadier?”  Possibly.

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