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April 26, 2008

I'm A Slave 4 Who

Doctor Who: Planet of the Ood

Snow_dr_2 So what did we know at 6.20pm last Saturday? That the episode was called Planet of the Ood and it had something to do with explaining how no-one’s favourite noodle-noggined ballcock wranglers came to be such a subservient race. And 45, defiantly surprise-free minutes later… yup, that was still pretty much the size of it. Oh, except it turned out to be a musical. Sort of.

I have to admit, I didn’t see that one coming. It’s just a shame the Song of the Ood couldn’t have been more distinct from the rest of the score – though, who knows, maybe the Ood are just really, really big fans of Murray Gold, and started their careers doing Barbershop covers of Martha’s Theme and Song For Ten? Whatever the reason, someone has clearly taken their eye off The Gay Agenda – after appearances by Soft Cell, the Scissor Sisters and Kylie, I was slightly disappointed the Ood’s song didn’t turn out to be something from Rufus Wainwright’s Judy Garland tribute album. (Or maybe a cover of the Third Doctor’s I’m The Noodle Doodle Man would have been more appropriate?)

But this episode wasn’t just a bit of sing-song to warm us up for Graham Norton’s Search For A Nancy, oh no. Because, although it may have escaped your attention, if you dig deep enough down into the subtext of the story, you’ll find there’s a subtle allegory about slavery tucked away in there somewhere. I know! If it hadn’t been for 95% of the dialogue, it would have slipped right under my radar, too. Although, in retrospect, the Doctor writing “Make Ood Trade Fair” on his hand and doing a direct appeal to camera to the strains of the piano lament from Trouble should have been a bit of a giveaway.

Of course, the Ood weren’t born to be slaves – as the Doctor pointed out, no race that subservient would ever be able to evolve in the first place. Trouble is, it’s not really a good idea to draw attention to a race’s potential evolutionary handicaps – and then reveal they carry their brains around in their hands like teenage chavs welded to their mobile phones. I mean, where do they put it when they’re doing… well, anything? (“Just hold me brain for a minute, will you love, I need to reach the biscuit tin.”) Still, maybe now they’re free, and will no longer be forced to dress like the world’s biggest Beatles tribute band, they can invent some revolutionary form of brain-housing device – like, ooh, I don’t know, a breast pocket?

And speaking of brains, how psyched were we to find out what was in Warehouse 15? I mean, it was obviously some kind of Ood central brain thing – a bit like the Nestene Consciousness – but as they were keeping it so tightly under wraps until the big reveal, I did wonder exactly what this big, world-shattering secret was going to be: A returning enemy? A remnant of old Gallifrey? A 350-ft wide replica of Billie Piper’s gob?

As it turned out, it was just a massive, f***-off brain – a bit like the one in Time and the Rani but, you know, bigger. And a bit less convincing. And - oops! - now it’s got a pretend scientist stuck inside it! Now I’m no neurosurgeon, but that’s gotta smart, surely? Apparently not, as the brain didn’t appear to react at all (unless it secretly changed the Ood song to Can’t Get You Out of My Head without us knowing).

I’m no biochemist, either, but I do know it would take a hell of a special brew to transform a human being’s entire physiognomy into a complete alien species, without him noticing until the moment his face falls off and he chucks up a brain. (Don’t get my wrong, I’ve brought up some pretty nasty things after a night on the poison myself, but this was something else.)

Still, Death by Disappointing Maguffin was the least Tim McInnerny deserved after his scenery-chewing CBeebies turn as Mr Halpern, which saw him comfortably walk away with the Roger Lloyd Pack Beyond The Grave Award despite some pretty stiff competition from Roger Griffiths’ Commander Kess, who snickered and boggled his way through the claw chase a bit like Mutley watching one of Dick Dastardly’s schemes blow up in his face. Except, of course, The Wacky Races would never have shoe-horned in such a clumsily spurious chase sequence with absolutely no relevance to anything around it. Heck, even George “Pod Race” Lucas might have wondered whether this sequence wasn’t a bit “style over substance”. I mean, if they’re going to interrupt the story for no good reason, why not go the whole hog and have David Tennant say, “More action from the Ood-Sphere in a moment, but first, ladies and gentlemen… Miss Barbara Dickson.”

File_sharing_2 I guess big, noisy action sequences are what Graham Harper does best, though. I’m not entirely sure why old scarf-face is still so lionised. Sure, in old Who, he was clearly light years ahead of his time, but these days it feels like he’s running to catch up with the likes of James Strong and Euros Lyn. He’s a bit like the Ross Robinson of directing – all major chords and clatter, but lacking the lightness of touch required for scenes that ought to strive for some emotional resonance. It’s partly the sledgehammer-to-a-nut scripting, of course, but compare the heavy-handed sequence in which Tate turns on the water works (again) while listening to the song of the Ood with James Strong’s beautifully restrained work with Tennant dangling in the pit in the last Ood story. (Incidentally, isn’t that thing the Doctor does to allow Donna to hear the song technically file-sharing? Time Lord telepathy is killing music!)

But perhaps I’m being harsh. There was a lot about Planet of the Ood that I loved – the Planet of the Ood itself being one. Now I’ve never really taken a stance on the whole alien planets hoo-ha (I won’t dignify it by calling it a debate) other than wondering if RTD’s “they’re from Zog, so f*** ’em” attitude isn’t a bit of an odd message to be sending to the nation’s jim-jammed crumpet-munchers. But the part of me that’s forever 12-years-old (and, being a Ming Mong, that’s obviously the dominant part) does love an ice planet. Oh yes, call me shallow, but sprinkle some bits of white paper about the place and I’ll sit through anything – I’d even watch My Family, if there was a scene in which Robert Lindsay mugged his way through some comic exasperation in a snow drift (though I draw the line at Torchwood, obviously).

Anyway, there’s no denying the brilliant white vistas of the Ood-Sphere marked a welcome change of location from that corridor under the Millennium Stadium we’ve been watching for the last three years - though the show, as always, was careful to keep its feet on the ground: Where else would you find people on a distant planet in the far future talking about Persil balls and doing Homer Simpson impressions? (For more on this, see Professor Jon Pertwee’s paper, “If the Yeti won’t come to the loo in Tooting Bec, you have to take the loo in Tooting Bec to the Himalayas” (Cambridge University Press, 1974)).

Snow_ood So the snow was lovely and all, and there was something pleasingly old-skool about the early scenes, in which Tate and Tennant basically wandered about looking at stuff (shades of Harper’s Revelation of the Daleks, of course, in the scene in which the Doc and his companion discover a dying but feral creature in the snow – except, this not being an Eric Saward story, Donna didn’t pick up a massive stick and batter the Ood about the brains with it).

Sadly, though, Keith Temple’s script just seemed to run out of steam somewhere around the mid-way point, padding out the second half of the episode with endless shots of people running around a factory shouting and firing guns, intercut with the occasional Poignant Bit that might as well have had a caption saying “Cry now” plastered across the screen. Still, I guess if you’re going to carry your brain around in your hand, wearing your heart on your sleeve is no great shakes.

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