Thursday, 17 July 2014

Brain-Freeze

Doctor Who
Planet Of The Ood
Series Four, Episode Three


Ah, the Ood.  One of the more puzzling (and interesting) Doctor Who aliens, they're creepy to look at, but also totally servile; they would "pine away and die" without orders to follow.  So they're the flesh equivalent of Every Robot Ever, except that nobody made them this way.  And that's an uncomfortable prospect.  So many of us believe that slavery is wrong, which it obviously is, but if a being honestly wanted to live like that, is it wrong to let them?  Is freedom automatically what everyone, and everything in the universe wants?  But then, perhaps this is exactly what evil people want you to think.

There's a lot of interesting debate to be had about the Ood, but unfortunately all of it concerns their first appearance.  Cut to their follow-up episode and it turns out slavery is wrong and the Ood are miserable.  All of which you would have routinely assumed in the first place.  Yes, there's a chance all that "pine away and die" stuff was propaganda, but at least it gave conventional morality a run for its money.  As for the alternative, an episode about slavery being – come closer, let me whisper it – wrong is like an episode about night being dark, or water being wet.  It's sadly not the first time Doctor Who has come up with a one-sentence moral argument, painted it on the back of a frying pan and attempted to smash you in the face with it.  It's one big "duh"!

I think what they might be saying is, this is a bad thing.
With such an unbelievably obvious point to make, there's very little story to tell.  The Doctor and Donna visit the Ood Sphere and infiltrate a sales conference (full of Russell T Davies's beloved Evil Capitalists).  They notice the Ood, who are getting "red eye" and going crazy.  And they've got form: last time The Creature Calling Himself The Devil possessed them and turned them into his foot soldiers.  This time something else is lashing out, seemingly in the Ood's interests.  Revolution can't be far off, and despite moral hand-wringing from both of them, neither the Doctor nor Donna make much of a difference to the ensuing events.  The Ood have their plans; they've even got people on the inside.  Our heroes are only there so they can point out how ghastly it all is.  For some reason, they imagine it needs spelling out.  CLANG! goes the frying pan, and CRACK! goes a security guard's whip, because apparently they whip the Ood on top of everything else and oh god could it be any less subtle.

But they're absolutely relentless about it.  Not only is the Doctor making his righteous-indignation face at all times, with Donna snarling at the unfairness of it all, but there's a telepathic "song of captivity" coming from each Ood.  We hear it – of course we do – and it's a chance for Murray Gold to rub the point in until it begins to bruise.  If there's a less subtle way make a point than one of Murray's "ooh-ee-oohs", I don't want to hear about it.  There's a song of freedom at the end, equally clumsy, just in case we needed reminding that freedom is conversely a good thing.

The episode rumbles on, pausing for us to hiss at Tim McInnerny as the villainous Mr Halpern, tut at the PR girl who won't help even though she knows what she's doing is wrong, and gasp at the psychotic security guard who suddenly relishes the chance to squash an intruder with a giant remote control claw.  (Such an extravagant piece of CGI really ought to serve a purpose, but it only makes the episode three minutes longer, and presumably weighs down the budget.)  Because this is not just about slavery being wrong, oh no: it's about how the people who do slavery are bad.  Surprise!  Or rather, CLANG!

Now let's get back to the Ood.  The thing controlling them is a giant brain.  That's how the Ood work: an enormous brain connects all the individual Ood, and each Ood had two more brains, one in their head and one in their hands.  (Insert writer-had-his-brain-in-his-hands joke here.)  Those translator balls replace the hand-brain, which is cruelly removed by humans.  Said humans are keeping the giant brain in captivity, its telepathy restrained, in order to keep the Ood passive.

"Ten years infiltrating this company all to rescue you,
and you eat me anyway.
Thanks a lot, you inexplicable giant pink jerk!"
Hmm.  Now, I say "that's how the Ood work", but really it just seems like a random string of nonsense punctuated with brains.  The idea of a hive mind has mileage, but why on Earth it would need to manifest in an actual brain, and how it could possibly do that, I don't know, especially since every Ood already has a whole other brain apparently to spare.  You might expect the Doctor to make sense of it for us, and he does at least shoot down the idea of a naturally servile Ood: "A species born to serve could never evolve in the first place".  Oh my, he went there.  I really wish he hadn't brought evolution into it, since Doctor Who generally has no idea how that works.  Planet Of The Ood might be the absolute nadir of Doctor Who Doesn't Do Evolution.

Okay, Doc: how could a species of bipeds evolve all linked to a giant exposed brain?  Which came first, and where did the brain come from – is there a giant heart and some giant lungs out there, too?  How can it, or any of the Ood for that matter, survive on an ice planet?  Answers are not forthcoming in the episode, but at least Donna makes a game attempt to explain their friendly nature.  "They're born with their brains in their hands.  That makes them peaceful.  They've got to be because a creature like that would have to trust anyone it meets."  Yeah, and we all know how well "trust" works in the animal kingdom.  It's like how hedgehogs famously wander around with their bellies in the air.  You know, so they can make friends?

The idea of a creature that enjoys serving others is far-fetched.  (Although not that much, since cleaning symbiosis exists among birds, fish and marine animals, and clearly nobody tells them to do it.)  However, a creature that wanders around an ice planet with its brain in its hands, depending upon a giant brain stuck under a glacier somewhere, is a Darwin Award even a dodo would laugh at.  None of it makes any sense whatsoever.  Only a complete absence of other animal life on the Ood Sphere could possibly keep these yutzes alive, and even then, what would they eat?  It's not as if they can pick anything up with both hands.

Planet Of The Ood wants so badly to be a serious piece of television, but it's so earnestly stupid that it's impossible to take seriously.  Take the fate of devious Mr Halpern, whose forebears started this company.  He doesn't care about the Ood, and will gladly execute the lot of them to stop contamination.  He's A Bad Man, but it turns out Ood Sigma (his faithful servant, mystifyingly kept by his side during all this) has been drugging him with "Ood graft", which gives him the ultimate ironic punishment of becoming an Ood.  Setting aside the "Huh?"ness of turning someone into an Ood, there might have been a smidgen of poetic justice in it if the transformation weren't a mixture of revolting practical effects and sheer unintentional hilarity.  He sneezes a brain into his hands!  It's less moving catharsis, more Red Dwarf.  And that's being rather unfair to Red Dwarf.

Is there anything to like?  Well, it's set on an alien planet, hooray for that.  The CGI landscapes look amazing.  The bit with the giant claw looks great, even if it's a complete waste of time.  And as the script asks David and Catherine to emote up to 11, they both turn in dutifully relentless performances, all broad strokes and tears.  Yikes, though, that script.  The average IQ is summed up when the Doctor must think of a way to stop the Ood murdering him and Donna.  He bravely bellows, "Doctor, Donna, friends!  Friends-friends-friends!"  I love it when a plan comes together.

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