Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead
Regardless whether the remark regarding the Doctor's dentition near the opening of this episode was an intentional nod to his regeneration scene, it's an interesting thing to consider. The Doctor being “determined to keep these teeth” (not to mention David Tennant’s entire body, even if it means making a copy of it) is an interesting way of looking at what's going on in these 2009 specials. It's sad to see Tennant go, but better to pull out the teeth before the decay sets in. Err... okay, never mind. We're done with the tooth metaphor.
Because, even though the teeth aren't the only old thing about the episode, and the “Davies Masterplan” isn't moved forward in any obvious way in this episode, it was altogether an enjoyable romp. I’m not going to shy away from that overused designation, because that’s exactly what this is. A romp. And even while it was silly and derivative and maybe even a bit too much like a normal, non-special episode, it was a good one, and, yes, there are some interesting structural things going on that have important implications for the overall arc of the show. And since that’s the sort of thing I get off on (see my gushing review of the oft-reviled Journey’s End), the episode was enjoyable for me.
Romp, Romp, Romp. Rompity Rompity Romp. Wheee! I’m Romping!
But before I get to all that bullshit, let’s talk particulars. The monster in this instance as a fairly good one. The liberal borrowing from The Langoliers was forgivable because the exact nature and modus operandi of the swarm was an interesting (although not very interesting) science fiction concept that was played well over the course of an hour, with new bits of information coming at all the right times and an appropriately thrilling firefight at the end of the episode. The Tritovore weren’t quite as interesting. I don’t know if they were meant to be a throwback to classic Doctor Who monsters or some kind of bizarre tongue-in-cheek kind of thing, but either way they slightly missed the mark, and they were largely irrelevant to the episode.
The guest cast was a similarly mixed bag. Although the people on the bus were never very interesting or important, they really didn’t need to be. They certainly weren’t the cast of Midnight, but they fulfilled the role of what the producers of Lost call “socks”: Filler characters whose lives and welfare are ostensibly important, but in whom we really don’t need to invest much. However, I thought the UNIT characters were very enjoyable. Erisa Magambo and Malcolm Taylor might not have been rounded characters, with complex personalities, but at least they had personalities, which is something that UNIT has thus far lacked in the revived series. Even Martha seems to have undergone some sort of personality-ectomy when joining up, so it was refreshing to see UNIT characters that were more than just “Drone #3” or “Brass #5”. Malcolm did get a little bit annoying, especially with the unfunny “I love you” bit, which quickly supplanted the Hand Doctor whispering it to Rose as the most obnoxious use of that particular line in television history. But aside from the overall silliness, there was some interesting seriousness, too. Magambo pulling a gun on Malcolm will have ramifications in their professional relationship that I would really enjoy watching play out on screen, so I hope we haven’t seen the last of these two.
I love you! I love you! I love you! I love you!
But, of course, the most important guest star would have to be Michelle Ryan. I can’t say I regretted the opportunity to watch her run around in Lara Croft gear, and I think that overall she had good chemistry with David, who was just being David most of the time. While David has continuously topped himself since beginning in the role, his performances in The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead have been mostly business as usual. Neil tweeted that he was “working his notice” and I tend to agree that it does seem that way. However, David’s business-as-usual works well with a fresh companion and Michelle Ryan plays nicely off of the standard Tennant fare. But I do have to point out that some of her dialogue was really just awful. “The aristocracy survives for a reason?” Seriouly? And what’s up with, “That’s how I like things: Extreme!” That one far outstrips the lameness of Martha’s “He’s like fire: stand too close and you get burned” from The Sontaran Strategem, and perhaps even approaches Grace Holloway’s “Oh great, I finally find the right guy and he’s from a different planet!” from the Doctor Who telemovie. However, in addition to the dud lines, there were pretty good ones, and even lame ones that were saved by the way she sold them (“We need to apply ourselves to the problem with discipline” reads like something Admiral Ackbar might say, but she has the authority to pull it off nicely). She wasn’t harboring any sort of dark secret, which was what I was expecting but was fairly glad to see was not the case. Her exit leaves the door open for a return, and honestly I’m not exactly hoping to see her again, but neither am I dreading the prospect. She did well here and she made a decent companion.
(Please forgive the lame visual gag and let me have my fun.) It’s her suitability as a companion that I think makes this episode work as well as it does. Structurally (yes, we've arrived at this part of the review now), the episode is very much like a typical companion introduction episode. There are specific shades of Smith and Jones here in a particularly strong way, and the process of them deciding to team up recalls the Doctor and Donna in both The Runaway Bride and Partners in Crime. What makes this episode different is the twist. I’m not sure whether I can rightly call it a twist when I knew it was going to have to play out this way owing to the fact that Michelle Ryan was signed on for only this episode, but was at the very least a structural twist, since based on the presentation of this episode everything up to that point resembles the first episode of a thirteen-episode series, even the air date. But, of course, it is not to be. And the reason is that Christina never passes through the TARDIS door. The Doctor turning down a companion like this is a major step in the arc of his character since Rose, proceeding from the consequences of Journey’s End and specifically (I believe) from his inability to save Donna. In fact, Donna hangs like a shadow over the Doctor in much the same way that Rose once did.
If you’ll indulge a tangent regarding that similarity between Rose and Donna: I always supported Rose’s return to the program because, even though I wasn’t crazy about the character, I always felt that Doomsday didn’t offer any real closure. Two characters that want to be with one another being separated by a barrier that we are told cannot be breached but already has several times, including by Mickey the idiot of all people, is not closure. Leaving her on the beach with the Hand Doctor and basically saying “you and I are done now, have a good life,” is. When I saw Donna’s “death” in Journey’s End, I was heartbroken, but I saw it as closure. After seeing the Doctor’s comment about Donna in this episode, and then his refusal to take Christina with him, I’ve changed my mind about that. I think that the situation between the Doctor and Donna is very similar to the situation between him and Rose post-Doomsday. The feeling is the same and once again the barrier (like any in Doctor Who) is only apparently insurmountable, and I think something more has to happen there. I don’t know whether it is, because yes, I know her granddad is returning to the program, but I don’t know whether she is (and, at the moment, I’m not interested in knowing, because I’m trying to go without unofficial spoilers if possible), but if Donna’s return figures in Tennant’s finale, I do support it. This might seem like a digression from my discussion about Planet of the Dead, but I really don’t think it is. I think Donna is almost as present in Planet of the Dead as Rose is in “The Runaway Bride.”
But that’s neither here nor there. What will happen will happen. I did think this was overall an enjoyable episode, partially because I’m willing to accept Russell’s decision not to go for anything particularly stunning despite its designation as a “special.” But only this once. He needs to step up his game for The Waters of Mars. His attempt to create buzz at the end of this episode with “He Will Knock Four Times” is pretty exciting, if a bit obvious (clearly, it’s an anagram for “Who Music Foretell Kink,” duh). I think they were trying to recapture the effect they achieved in Partners in Crime with the sudden return of Rose, but this revelation didn’t have nearly as much impact, which is odd because this really was a new revelation for me, while on the other hand everyone and his grandmother knew about Billie Piper’s return for series four. Anyhow, all of this will have to wait until “Later this Year,” i.e. an eternity from now, and all we have to look forward to in the mean time is a full week of Torture.
Er, I mean, -chwood. Yeah, Torchwood. Right.
Easter. It is the shit version of Christmas, isn't it? You don't get showered with gift after pointless, ill-thoughtout, gift. There's not some tinselled tit in a red coat and white beard salaciously beckoning you to come sit on his lap and listen whilst you rattle off page numbers and product codes from the Argos catalogue of the latest tat you simple could not stand to live a moment longer without having close at hand. And you don't normally get a super douper extra special episode of Doctor Who either.
Specialist adverts for laxative requisites.
But as Doctor Who has become firmly planted in the nation's psyche as the 21st century version of that other tele holiday staple, Only Fools and Horses, it was only a matter of time before the show spread its sphere of influence to encompass other religious holidays and spurious public worklessness days (in the days before quantitative easing made it's way out of specialist adverts for laxative requisites and into the general consciousness as a solution for a depression of ledge jumping 1930's proportions we'd have cheerfully called these Bank Holidays).
A special set on a bus. A godless bus.
How long before the Letts School Boy diary ceases to be a handy pocket sized year planner and instead becomes more like a never ending version of the Lofficier's Programme Guide. Each named religious festival and public holiday listed with its very own Doctor Who special. Fourth Wednesday after Quadragesima. The sacred week of Pentecost. The three sevenths of the Dawn of the Age of Aquarius. They'll all have them. Each will have their very own Doctor Who special. Not bad for a programme that's written by an atheist which consistently evokes religious themes and imagery at every turn. So perhaps it's fitting that we should now mark all religious holidays with not only rampant consumerism and over-eating on a truly heroic scale, but also a Doctor Who special. A special set on a bus. A godless bus.
Like being car crash with a celebrity.
And that's the problem. The Radio Times told me it was a special, and I knew it wasn't Christmas because I wasn't becoming increasingly irritated by the timely - some say convenient - publication of celebrity books and greatest hits compilations, so what was I to expect? It didn't feel like a special, nor did it feel like a regular episode. Forever trapped in the some weird TV hinterland - like a daytime tv programme you can only glimpse through a convoluted series of angled mirrors. As a series episode it would probably have worked well enough. Stuck out on its own there it remains something of a curious disappointment. Like being car crash with a celebrity - you imagine you might end up best of friends with them or be courted by several tabloids at once bidding for your story. And just when you've visualised that salute edition of OK Magazine to indefatigable spirit in the face of a shattered brake lights you merely exchange insurance details and part with a perfunctory good-bye.
As hollow and as bitter as a Lebanese chocolate ball.
And that's it. Not even the thought of the one time Bionic Woman's one time Bionic Posterior is enough to swing it. Not even Norman Wisdom's turn as a faux Welshman. You're just left with an Easter Egg with no special gift in the middle. As hollow and as bitter as a Lebanese chocolate ball. And as you feel an increasing sense of remoteness and disconnect from the show, fondness seems to grow in the hearts of the nation at large inversely proportional to your disinterest. Until it reaches such a critical mass even scenes like Lee Evans bit of underplayed business with the glasses supplant the bar scene from Only Fools as the nations favouritest tele moment ever. You know the bit... Where Del Boy's leaning on a bar trying to impress some women. Then the hatch is opened and he falls through the bar. He falls through the bar, Stew. He was upright. Then he wasn't. And he falls through the bar. Stew, he falls through the bar. And then John Lumic made a face.
With apologies to Stewart Lee and anyone else for whom the ability to experience joy at the little things in life hasn't yet been hammered clean out of them.
Doctor Who : Planet Of The Dead
Clang, clang, clang goes the trolley...ding, ding ding goes the bell. That'll be the cloister bell, I suspect. The one doomily bonging all over the trailer for the Novemberish special, The Waters Of Mars. The clanging noise is definitely the sound of this particular little folly nosediving into the sands of Dubai. Was it me, or did this just feel like one big dollop of deja-vu? The story, slight as it was, seemed rather overstuffed with references as if it required some significant shoring up to pass muster. Everything from bits of The Highest Science, Iris Wildthyme (time travelling buses and commuters being dumped on alien planets) to The Langoliers, Pitch Black (the nasty manta-rays), Flight Of The Phoenix (stranded in the desert), Lara Croft and 50s pulp SF, with added Giant Robot joke. There’s even a quite unnecessary shoe-horning in of an Easter eggs reference simply to acknowledge that, you know, it’s an Easter special.
Nothing seemed particularly original or fresh this time round and that's a shame because the production side of the programme stepped up to the plate, providing the much needed scope and glossiness for the show's first outing in HD. Director James Strong certainly seized on the opportunities this afforded to make Planet Of The Dead the sweetest, most calorific eye candy he could. Signature crane shots of the bus in the desert, lush travelogues as the Doctor and Christina go exploring, lens flaring silhouettes of Tennant, and dissolves between London and the alien planet. It looked good but shooting in HD is a double edged sword judging by this initial attempt. For all the gorgeous desert vistas you get to see how really dreadful the weather conditions were when they were shooting in Cardiff. No hiding that rainfall now. The CG effects also will need to improve because, for all the fairly good shots of the Swarm, we got a number of rather iffy, cartoon moments of flying bus. The ratio between how small the story actually was and how jazzy it all looked suggested silk purse and sow's ear to me in this instance. For goodness sake, if you are going to shoot your flagship programme in HD then let's have a big enough story to reap the rewards from it.
We never really get to know any of the passengers on the bus properly, which is unusual for a RTD script. Compare how successfully he writes for a similar character ensemble in Midnight and the difference is remarkable. None of them make much of an impression here and this does make you care less about them. The life-cycle of the metallic ray creatures is interesting and as a metaphor for the way blind greed can bring down civilisations it works quite well in these economically turbulent times. Tennant, as ever, simply slips back into the role and is pretty much on automatic pilot. There is that terrific scene where the Doctor asks each of the bus passengers about their 'chops and gravy' destinations, the witty translation banter with the Tritovores ('trite' is probably the best word to describe these fly headed, jump suit wearing, ray gun brandishing, self-sacrificing cliches) and the Billy No Mates confrontation between him and Christina as she unsuccessfully begs for the spare TARDIS key. I liked the way that the script offered us the Doctor and Christina as similar in their independence, where the Doctor reminisces on his own theft of the TARDIS and acknowledges her a kindred spirit, whom he sets free because he’s not really fit to judge her past actions. Michelle Ryan was good enough in the Lara Croft role for me to want her to pop into the TARDIS with Tennant so it made a bit of a change for him to turn a protege down. However, points deducted for the rather obvious need for Christina to repeat her Mission Impossible act to recover the crystal when she's already done the goblet stealing in the excellent pre-titles sequence. What is this, The Crystal bloody Maze? And just where is she going to take that flying bus? It's not a spacecraft and she might be waiting a while before another wormhole pops into existence to fulfill her dreams of voyaging amongst the stars. Air traffic control is going to spot her eventually.
I'm liking Captain Erisa Magambo as the new face of UNIT and once she gets herself and the troops sorted out (e.g. all shooting straight and not fawning over or saluting the Doctor every time he walks by) then it might be worth bringing her back. I would have cheered if she had shot Malcolm and the attempt at raising the tension in that scene simply didn't work because the editing failed to compress the time between Magambo raising her gun at Malcolm and the Doctor driving the bus through the wormhole. And why did only three of the Swarm make it through the wormhole. Did the rest all stop for a bit of a breather after their spinning faster and faster round the planet? Unfortunately, both Lee Evans and Adam James did not find themselves in my good books. As D.I. Macmillan, James seemed to be borrowing Tom Chadbon's dumb show as Duggan from City Of Death but without replicating any of the charm and, as Malcolm, Lee Evans predictably did his goofy, physical comedy nonsense and, rather disturbingly, seemed to attempt to shag the Doctor's leg like a forlorn puppy at the end of the story. All that "I love you" crap was neither endearing nor particularly funny.
The word 'romp' is being liberally bandied about to try and deflect us from Planet Of The Dead's shortcomings and I suppose it just about qualifies for that status. A slight story, visually impressive, but with its fair share of cliches, wafer thin characterisation, cannon fodder nice aliens, nasty but dull aliens and stretches of dubious acting. It really only moved into gear when Carmen glared at the Doctor and predicted his demise. Cue cloister bell. Day return to Mars, please.
Now that the Doctor Who Forum becomes a members only club after a ‘major event’ like the broadcasting of a new episode, I decided to search Twitter to find out what other people thought of Planet of the Dead. Unsurprisingly, even though a percentage of twittererers are the 'not we' or 'casuals', the comments are much the same a mix of ‘it was the shits’ and ‘it was shit’ along with people wanting to communicate the fact they recorded it/forgot it was on and that Russell T Davies is rubbish/God that David Tennant should/shouldn’t be going and that Michelle Ryan is well fit/too posh (I’m paraphrasing). In fact the only different I can see between Twitter and the discussion board formerly known as Outpost Gallifrey is that people tend to use their own faces as their avatars rather than a shot of Beacon Alpha Four and no one’s asked in which year it was set and the UNIT Dating implications.
My initial tweet was “Doctor Who, short review: ****.” Here is the longer version.
Given his propensity to turn the Christmas episodes into seasonal extravaganzas, you could almost forgive Russell for repeating the formula here, perhaps with Earth invaded by a killer bunny flying a battle egg like some evil mammalian Mork from Orc or inviting controversy by borrowing the plot of Garry Kilworth’s short story Let’s Go To Golgotha! (in which some time tourists insight Pilate to save Barabbas instead of the other guy). You have to imagine that the man who resurrected the Macra must have considered for at least a few seconds the return of Bassetts copyright bater The Kandyman with a mission to rot children’s teeth (if the saccharin conclusions to some recent episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures haven’t done the job already).
Perhaps realising that Easter is difficult holiday to cater for (especially now that Woollies is closed), the egg was chocolate, the Jesus reference was veiled and what we got was something more akin to a standard season opener extended out to an hour with the introduction of a cool new companion (sans family for a change), some foreshadowing and a vertical action sequence. I can see why some might be disappointed by this stand alone antidote to the continuity heavy previous episodes, with only four episodes to play with this year and only three left now until the new Doctor comes calling, but for production reasons it’s difficult to see how a proper story arc could be built with at least seventh months between the first and second. Plus, most of Russell's stories have been powered by a bunch of random elements crashing into each other -- why stop now?
Their strategy seemed to be to create what looked like a screen adaptation of one of the BBC Books with some real money thrown at it to try and create what might be going on in the reader's head. That’s not a criticism, since in recent times some of those have been very good indeed, invisibly extrapolating the television series into prose. Most of their stories, like this special, and in spite of their own medium, do tend to keep their timescale short and their locales spare, often beginning with a chase who’s relevance only becomes apparent later before settling down into introducing some humans in need, some alien bystanders and a massive threat that needs to the avoided by the two hundred and fortieth page.
As we discovered in The Writer’s Tale, most of the Doctor Who scripts are ‘collaborations’, in some cases page one rewrites, so it’s difficult to know, despite them sharing the credit, how much of this was tapped out by Davies or Roberts. Either way, having chosen a relative simple premise of 'bis in peril', the execution was the expected clever mix of screwball comedy and running about usually at the same time. If, as Chris Bidmead suspects in that amazingly mean-spirited interview from this month’s party newsletter all of these scripts are first drafts, they’re still fairly well structured for all that, even if it was a bit exposition heavy in the middle on that ship. But weren’t they always, even in the old days, even in a Bidmead script, which had to work without the pretty pictures. I'd take The Mill over Quantel any day.
Sensing that simply having the story stuck on the planet with the bus would be a repeat of Midnight’s claustrophobia, the writers brilliantly also included what was happening on the other side of that wormhole, offering a kind of faded photocopy of the 70s Pertwees if The Brig was a disloyal loony and the Doctor played by Norman Wisdom with a Welsh accent. The debate’s already raging on Twitter (well I’ve seen one or two tweets, Neil) about just what Lee Evans thought he was doing, but it’s ages since we’ve had a genuinely offbeat, offcentre, slapstick benign character in the series and well, if you’re going to have flying vehicles, wormholes and time travel, you have to have a Doc Brown.
Malcolm was an example of the old fashioned straightforward characterisation that ran through the script. The writers just didn't feel the need to flesh out the inhabitants on the bus, again in contrast to Voyage of the Damned where they arguably had too much. Just a bunch of humans in need of saving, the Doctor presumably warming to them because unlike in Midnight his fellow passengers thought him charming, trusted in him and did what they were told -- and that moment in which they talked about what they had to go home to was lovely, like that scene in Father’s Day talking about what the timelord can never had which makes it even more important.
This is a story in which no one is specifically evil (or misguided or whatever Russell’s opinion on the subject is this week) just caught up in one of the spectacular natural processes of the universe with the Doctor as their only way out. I always thought I’d probably like Voyage of the Damned a bit more if the disaster had only been caused by the meteors and not another alien nutter in a mobility chair and on this occasion it led to some good old fashioned five rounds rapid with the beautifully rendered giant space mutant plankton finding the sharp end of a UNIT canon and the back end of a flying London bus. Only in Doctor Who.
That sequence demonstrated that James Strong’s become rather more comfortable with directing big action since his slightly off-kilter Dalek New York stories and he was ahem strong in other areas too. At time of writing I’ve not seen Confidential or heard the podcast, but I’m willing to bet someone mentions Star Wars or Lawrence of Arabia and all of that sand (not to mention the certificate defying skeleton). Time was that desert worlds in Doctor Who amounted to some hopefully forced perspective employing some polystyrene hills and a painted studio wall. Not any more.
No matter what some might have thought beforehand about the wisdom of going somewhere else to shoot sand when there’s enough beaches around the Welsh coast, the Dubai jolly really paid off with some amazing pictures of the leads silhouetted against the landscape, the sheer heat of the planet expressed rather more forcefully than the crew of Star Trek managed in their Final Mission (the one in which Wesley left). The series has always had a certain filmic quality, but in HD now it genuinely does, and offers plenty of material for the Currys showreel.
But of course, all this is merely a rambling preamble to the real reason the episode worked. Michelle Ryan as Christina. For years she’s been near the top of the list of actresses I’d like to see as a companion and Lady De Souza’s exactly the kind of character I’d hope for, similar in temperament to Jeckyll’s assistant Katherine than Zoe Slater. Ryan's performance channelling Margaret Lockwood in The Wicked Lady (ask your granddad), Christina was a human aristocratic enough to look as incongruous on a London Bus as The Doctor, her teaser antics underscoring that she’s a larger than life figure, genuinely different to the shop girls, trainee doctors and temps.
Tricked out in Bionic black, Christina’s really was one of the best companion introductions ever and the script cleverly did everything you’d expect a script introducing a companion to do before that final rejection which showed that the Doctor really does want to travel alone, that he’s had enough of the tragedy of loss, of turning his friends into soldiers, Davros’s words having hit home. Imagine as ever the impact that rejection scene might have had at the beginning of a series with the pre-publicity suggesting that this new companion would be with the Doctor for the whole thirteen.
Which is why there’s no fifth star. Because in a perfect world, we’d have another twelve episodes of Tenth and Lady Christina flying around time, the Doctor trying to tame all of her thievery, passing back and forth their witty banter like the new Tom and Lalla. But I am willing to add a quarter for the random ROBOT and Quatermass references. No chance the third special is about The Doctor teaming up with Bernard at the British Experimental Rocket Group with Jason Flemyng as his nibs? And another quarter for the message of foreboding from the soothsayer of the episode. I almost expected a cutaway to a tall man dressed head to foot in cream material.
@twitter Not classic, not that original, but lovable, funny, grin inducing & just enough 2 tied me over until xmas which seems lk a win 2 me. What more cud U want from a 200th story?
Next: I’ll be reviewing Torchwood for five nights in a row. Oh yes. Just try and stop me. Doctor Christina San Helious.
Behind the Sofa is a collaborative blog dedicated to the long-running British SciFi show 'Doctor Who' and its spin-offs. Intended for mature readers only.