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April 22, 2008

Song From Ten

Doctor Who: Planet of the Ood

This is all very weird.

Ood1As a rule, my reviews tend to mercilessly pick apart what I consider to be below-par representations of my beloved franchise while the rest of fandom squees "6 out of 5!" at the top of their lungs. When I do occassionally fall head over heels in love an episode I've been known to squee and shout a little myself, and for a short time at least, I actually join hands with the ming mong majority. Not this time. Today, I find myself adoring Planet of the Ood in the face of mass indifference, petty criticism and mind-numbing pedantry. At the time of writing, this episode has a positive score of 72% in the Behind the Sofa poll. That's practically a drubbing around here. You fools.

So, for one week only, I'm going to bat for the other side. And I haven't done that since Love & Monsters. At least I could understand why fans had a problem with that offbeat, left-field experiment. Planet of the Ood, on the other hand, is probably as purest episode of Doctor Who that we're ever likely to get. The Doctor successfully takes down a tyrannical conglomerate in an isolated base that's under siege from a returning monster - in just under an hour. If that isn't classic Who (with an added splattering of New Adventurism) then I don't know what is. We should be celebrating episodes like this instead of dismissing them out of hand. I just wish it could be like this every week.

Here's to another 2 years of stories set on contemporary f**king earth, you muppets

Ood2 One criticism that I've seen crop up time and again on the forums is that the Oodsphere doesn't look like a convincing alien planet or, if you really want to be damning, the snow looked a bit fake. Have you ever seen Stargate? Or Battlestar Galactica? Or Dragonfire, for pity's sake!!? If the realism of your snow is a true measure of quality then The Seeds of Doom is in all sorts of trouble. Come on, just look at that beautiful vista. If that doesn't scream alien planet then nothing bloody will. You ungrateful, Zog-hating morons. And at least they made a consistent effort to show us this alien planet. This isn't a quick, tantalising two-shot in the great outdoors before everyone decamps to the Upper Boat studios. Not only that, they probably did this in height of summer (I'm not anal enough to know the filming dates off by heart) and all that some people can say is, "they should have called it the polystyrene-sphere". Well, here's to another 2 years of stories set on contemporary f**king earth, you muppets.

The giant brain did look shit, though. You've got to give the ming mongs that. Anything that stirs up repressed memories of Time and the Rani is never a good thing.

So you can have the brain. But that alien planet looked exquisite and anyone who doesn't at least admire the effort that went into it should stick to watching Holby City. Which isn't even a real hospital by the way.

Laurie Anderson's 'O Superman' meets The Cocteau Twins

Ood6 The action scenes set around this snow encrusted complex were genuinely thrilling and bold, evoking fond memories of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, classic James Bond high jinx and, of course, Blake's 7; I half expected the guards to be decked out in groovy Federation masks. And in the middle of this insane and superbly directed revolution there's that truly haunting music. I'm not talking about that aria that the Doctor gives to Donna (it sounded quite sweet to me and it wouldn't have turned me into a gibbering wreck), I'm referring to the surreal and utterly intoxicating 'ooooo-oooooo' noise that permeates the last ten minutes; Laurie Anderson's 'O Superman' meets The Cocteau Twins is the best description that I can can come up with. It gave me the willies.

But the argument that really perplexes the hell out of me - sorry, Stu - is the contention that the episode is too polemical and preachy. If the episode was telling us that smallpox is nasty for 40 minutes, I could just about see the point - because smallpox doesn't exist anymore and banging on about it would be pointless. But, as the Doctor himself says, slavery does exists on our planet and if the Doctor Who team want to use the Ood to draw paralells with this controversial topic - instead of what's in that week's TV Quick - then I'm all for it. In fact, the analogy drawn to the slave trade that thrives right here, right now was far too subtle for my liking.

Of course they keep showing us that slavery is bad. For starters, it is bad. And secondly, the plot is about the Doctor stopping this slavery from continuing. How can you do that without showing the slavery? It's like critcising The Happiness Patrol for banging on about fascism or The War Games for having the temerity to suggest that war is stupid for ten solid weeks. And it's not as if we got 40 minutes of people sitting in rooms talking about how terrible awful slavery is - this is an action-packed romp with serious intent. There's a pitched battle, gripping scenes of people getting killed by iconic "monsters" and a giant claw running amok! What more do you want?

You ungrateful, Zog-hating morons

Ood4 Ah, the giant claw. The biggest criticism I've seen trotted out regarding this inspired scene is that it's an utterly pointless chase and the guard just should arrest the Doctor the old fashioned way. With a gun. Like this would make for better television than a wild and exhilarating race against a giant f**king claw! Maybe it was too fake for you. You know, compared to that real giant claw that you saw in Norway that one time when it was snowing real snow. The claw scene also illustrates a character point - the guy who decides to grab-a-Doc highlights how this particular fruitloop thrives on torture and humiliation, which is probably why he's managed to work his way up the ladder until he's in charge of the whip on an Ood farm. Plus, it gives you a reason to cheer loudly when the bastard gets gassed. This is almost as satisfying as the moment when the PR spin doctor doesn't redeem herself and dies a pointless death because she's more concerned about her next annual appraisal than the rights of an entire species. Brilliant stuff.

Another criticism that I've seen heaped upon this episode is that Halpern isn't much cop in the villain stakes. His low-key villainy is exactly why I enjoyed him so much. He's middle management. He isn't trying to take over the world, he just wants to keep his shipments running on time. He obviously hates his job and, crucially, it wasn't his idea to enslave an entire race - he's perpetuating a crime that has become normalised over the centuries, which is far more interesting and chilling. Halpern's attempts at crisis management are far more entertaining than ranting and raving like a nutter with a "master plan" and his world-weary annoyance as chaos erupts around him is portrayed brilliantly (and occassionally hilariously) by Tim McInnerny. He's comfortably my favourite guest star in nu-Who so far.

But what's really interesting is that Halpern ends up a slave himself. And the Doctor allows this to happen. He almost revels in it.

How dark is that?

Ood5 But yeah, you can have the Ood transformation if you want. That made no sense at all, even if it meant that Mary Whitehouse must have been spinning in her grave, and you've got to give the episode points for that. And I'm right behind you when it comes to condemning the pat, messianic ending, too. I didn't buy the fact that the whole of humanity, spread out across dozens of worlds, simply agreed overnight that Ood slavery might have been a bad idea after all. It would have been far more interesting if the Doctor had inadvertently kick-started a civil war that ended in bloodshed and retribution. Given the tone of this episode I wouldn't have put it past them. Instead I had to console myself with the insinuation that David Tennant might be leaving soon.

I just wish that Tate was staying. Once again she managed to completely overturn my initial expectations, and while she does teeter dangerously into comedy caricature at times, she always manages to pull something magnificent out of the fire. Donna's righteous anger and heartbroken despair show a range that Janet Fielding could only dream of. She's a terrific audience identification figure and I think I love her.

In summary, Planet of the Ood is a grim, brooding, occassionally surreal, but nearly always exciting slice of pure Doctor Who.

It has to be a 6/5!


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