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April 26, 2008

Revenge of the Calamari

Doctor Who: Planet of the Ood

Tentacles

Any good ecologist can tell you that there are a number of things in any environment that require each other to survive and prosper.  I'm not just talking about things that happen to work disturbingly well together (chocolate and peanut butter, sex and violence, weed and oxycodone); I'm mostly thinking of those things that, without the other, they're bloody useless.  In the jargon of science, their mutualism is obligatory.  Would anyone actually bother going out of their way for Hardy without Laurel?  Chips without fish?  Antony without Cleopatra?  Starsky without Hutch?  Aiding without abetting?  Harold without Kumar?  Sturm without Drang?

No, of course not.  Don't be silly.

With this in mind, it seems obvious to me that a good script and good actors really aren't very useful without each other.  There's not much point in casting Dame Judy Dench for your movie if you're letting George Lucas write it,  and even Shakespeare would fall flat if it had no choice but to be performed by Eve Myles.

Fortunately, Planet of the Ood is just dripping with competent acting and scripting, proving that the two go together like chicken and waffles.  A fair slice of the credit for the episode's success has to go to Catherine Tate, who once again proves to be more than up to the task as long as she gets some proper roughage from the scriptwriters, which she does more often than not in Planet of the Ood.  Despite all the concern from the masses that she'd be a bellowing idiot for the whole of Series 4, she's shown she has the acting chops to pull off an actual range of emotions, and can actually move from emotion to emotion within the same scene.  A fine example I enjoyed is the back-and-forth in the TARDIS at the beginning of the programme, beginning with Donna's palpable excitement and nervousness about the whole "new planet" thing, and then her abrupt reaction to the cold.  (In a nod to the fans, she goes all practical and returns with an anorak.)  Then excitement again with "Blimey, a real, proper rocket!  Now that's what I call a spaceship!"

Her first encounter with an Ood is also well written and performed.  After the Doctor's admonishment at her reaction to Nyarlathotep sprawled in the snow ("Donna, don't!  Not now.  It's a he, not an it.  Gimme a hand."), she sheepishly pitches in to help, even becoming nurturing ("There you are, sweetheart.")

She even manages to remain respectable when delivering bollocksy lines like "You idiot!  They're born with their brains in their hands.  Don't you see?  That makes them peaceful.  They've got to be, because a creature like that would have to trust anyone it meets."  You try saying that with a straight face. 

I think the one significant Donna misfire in the epsiode was the whole "Why'dja say miss?  Do I look single?" line, which hearkens back to the shallow comedy-Donna we were threatened with back in the first half of The Runaway Bride.  Unsurprisingly, these attempts at introducing some broad (read "stupid") comedy to the program rarely seem to work, much like the whole joke with the novelty translator balls, which also fell flat. "After a stressful day, a little something for the gentlemen."  I'm not sure if this would seem less creepy if I didn't know for a fact that this scenario is playing out among tentacle-fetishists at anime conventions across the world all the time.  It does make one shudder at the depraved acts enslaved Ood are likely to be forced to engage in. It just doesn't seem right outside of Torchwood

Ayesha Dharker and Tim McInnery acquitted themselves reasonably well as the main villains in the episode, again abetted by some nice twists in the writing.  Although we were all, no doubt, expecting the redemption of Dharker's weasely marketing git Solana after the Doctor suggests that she can help, the writers don't go the obvious direction.  Just when we think she's gonna come around and switch sides, she promptly sells the Doctor and Donna out to the guards.  Shortly thereafter, of course, she tells the guards to "shoot to kill" and is promptly electrocuted by the insidious glowing juice-box of the nearest Ood.

We also got the nice contrast between Solana's polished PR spiel ("As you can see, the Ood are happy to serve, and we keep them in facilities of the highest standard.") and the Most Dangerous Game Ood-hunt going on outside.  "If your Ood is happy..." (cut in footage of a frothing, screaming clearly distressed Ood here) "...then you'll be happy, too."

Much seems to have been made of the fact that McInnery's corporate villain had no other motivation beyond a thirst for wealth and power.  Pardon me...but isn't this enough?  Greedy corporate bigwigs have been doing all sorts of unspeakable things in the name of profit for...well, as long as there have been greedy corporate bigwigs.  At least this was better than "being evil for the sake of being evil" that is so common in your more one-dimensional villains.

McInnery's portrayal comfortably accepts this more realistic characterization, comparing the Ood to livestock and writing off the whole (admittedly homocidal) batch of them for the the insurance money.  Nonetheless, there are elements of McInnery's performance that add a little depth and moral ambiguity to the standard greedy CEO model, most notably his consideration for Ood Sigma's loyalty ("No!  You've not turned.  Faithful to the last.  Go.  Join your people.  While you still can."), as well as at least some sense of stopping the spread of the "red eye" as a "public duty".  I also appreciated his matter-of-factness when faced with the task of shooting the Doctor and Donna: "Can't say I've ever shot anyone before.  Can't say I'm gonna like it."  The only misstep I noted was Halpen's happiness once they return to Warehouse 15.  His boyishly excited "We're gonna blow it up!" seems a little incongruous with the rest of the character.

Halpern's Lovecraftian transformation was fairly convincing.  First, peeling his head like an orange, then coughing up an entire serving of calamari.  I'm sort of surprised that with all those changes going on, including the repositioning of his eyes, the only symptom was hair loss.

We got the rarest of rarities in the New Doctor Who...an actual alien (not-Earth planet!)  Sure, perhaps they went a little overboard in the "how to make snow look alien" department.  A little too far in the "Arches National Park" direction with the panoramic ice-bridges and all that rot.  Nonetheless, I appreciate the attempt, and once the Doctor and Donna got off of the giant matte painting, the snowy industrial setting was, as others have observed, very Blake's 7, which totally works for me.  Just about anything Blake's 7 works for me.

Of course, not everything in the episode came off without a hitch.  There were definitely a few missteps.  One primary example was the entire Oodsong thing, which left me a little nonplussed... 

"The circle must be broken." "Why?" "So that we can sing."

Sing???  That's it?  They're not interested in liberty or equality or reparations or revenge or an end to the dull drudgery of workaday tidal waves?!  They just want a shot on Pop Idol?

The song itself didn't do a whole bloody lot for me, I have to admit.  It was a bit much that Donna couldn't bear it any longer after thirty seconds of bad retro-Renaissance caterwauling.  I think it might have been more effective for me if they didn't bother to try to play it for us viewers.  Maybe we could have imagined something that would have actually been convincingly alien and compelling.  And while the guards and the Ood are going all sharks-and-jets on each others' arses, once we can all "hear the song of the Ood", the soldiers all stop shooting and just look around as the Ood get all peaceful and join hands in big circle.  They put their guns down.  Hug each other.  That sort of thing.  I found the triteness of it all thoroughly cringeworthy.

(The other singing-Ood image I'm having difficulty getting out of my head now is the musical number from Daleks in Manhattan, but with an Ood playing the role of Tallulah: "You lured me in with your bright red eyes, your tentacles, your bewitching lies!  One and one and one is three...my bad, bad angel, you put the devil in me!  Well, not exactly the devil...I mean, he fancied himself the devil, but he was really just a big beast in a pit, orbiting a black hole... ")

OodgrinderThe Ood biology was also sort of a weak point.  Despite the Doctor's insistence that Ood couldn't evolve to serve, the episode doen't give us much of an insight as to what exaclty Ood are evolved to do.  I can forgive Donna's assertion that the Ood "would have to trust anyone it meets" despite dragging half their brain around with an umbilical cord.  She's hardly a scientist, and the evidence seems to bear out that the Ood are disturbingly trusting indeed.  When the Doctor and Donna show up and tell the imprisoned Ood "Hey, we're on your side!" and open a can of tuna, the Ood're all "Well, hullo!  Have a butcher's at my unprotected brain."  With a self-preservation instinct this strong the Ood would have gone the way of the dodo as soon as they encountered a stiff breeze, much less a horde of hungry imperialists from Earth.

As much as I'd like to see herds of Ood running wild like wildebeasts, I'm not convinced that they were remotely plausible, and not just because they'd be dragging their brains around behind themselves on a string.  Why would an entire species evolve to share one huge, carnivorous, screaming brain with a sensitivity to hair-tonic cleverly tucked away beneath a glacier anyway?  You'd think at the least the chances of survival would be increased by, I don't know, maybe TWO huge, carnivorous, screaming brains.  There's just something about science fiction that makes me wish people would put more thought into the science.

I'm sure I could find other things to nitpick about in Planet of the Ood (The spurious chase with the grabby thing, some general hamfistedness, arbitrarily-sadistic-guy) but overall, a passable effort of Nu-Who.  That being said, I don't feel much interest in revisiting the Ood anytime soon, so I'm not looking forward to the 2009 bank-holiday special "Ood, Where's my car?"  Sontarans, on the other hand, could be worthwhile.

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