Wednesday, 13 August 2014


Doctor Who
Planet Of The Dead
2009 Easter Special

2009 saw Doctor Who at a crossroads.  A new showrunner was on the way, but Series Five wouldn't air until 2010.  What to do with the intervening year?  The outgoing team could justifiably have spent it checking their watches, playing cards or crying uncontrollably.  Instead they made a series of Specials leading up to David Tennant's regeneration.  We were lucky to get them.

Even so, gratitude only takes you so far.  It still matters that the episodes are, you know, good, since they've effectively got to carry the show for a year.  Planet Of The Dead was the only Doctor Who episode for miles around, and it feels half-hearted.  It's quite sad in a way; it was probably meant to show off Doctor Who's unique appeal, but ended up showing just how badly a change was needed.  And bugger me, it's boring.

Please tell me that is not a Psychic Oyster Card.
Admittedly, it has an exciting (if distinctly Mission: Impossible-rippy-offy) start.  We open with a cat burglar, Lady Christina de Souza, robbing an art gallery.  The alarm sounds so she runs for it, ditching her lover in the process.  (How charming.)  Seeing no alternative, she gets on a bus – as does the Doctor, who is tracking a mysterious something in the bus's path.  The police see Christina, they give chase (very slowly!), and the bus promptly disappears through a wormhole to an alien planet.  This is San Helios, a world of desert.  The only way back is via the bus, which is stuck and running out of petrol.  To make matters worse, an ominous cloud is approaching, and a psychic passenger knows this will mean doom for everybody.  (Well, it's ominous, innit?)

I know I should jump for joy because it's set on an alien planet (and filmed abroad, no less!), but the moment they arrive everyone starts tediously clambering to get back home again.  All of them.  Even the Doctor!  "That planet is nothing compared to all those things waiting for you."  He's talking about eating dinner and watching telly.  The Doctor is saying that.  You could well understand this viewpoint of one or two out of a group – it would be boring to have them all think like that just from a keep-the-script-interesting POV, but fair enough, some people are boring.  But all of them?  Including the guy with a TARDIS – who famously refuses to settle down, eat dinner and watch telly?  Why wouldn't you be excited to visit an alien world?  Why wouldn't the Doctor want you to be excited?  What the hell's so bad about visiting alien worlds, anyway?  (I'm looking at you, every-companion's-mother.  And by extension, Russell T Davies.)

Of course it doesn't help that San Helios is not an interesting place to visit.  There's a reason for it being covered in sand – more on that in a sec – and it looks great, especially the incongruity of a red London bus in the desert.  But sand is, well, a bit boring, isn't it?  And not to denigrate the money they spent going to Dubai, but they might as well have gone by green-screen for all the interaction there is with the landscape.  Our intrepid heroes spend most of the episode either in a spaceship or sat in the sodding bus.

In their defence, there is a time limit for getting out of here: that cloud is made of metallic stingrays, which eat everything in their path and travel so fast they create wormholes.  (And they're headed for Earth, naturally.)  The sand is what's left of San Helios, and everyone on it – which is probably meant to be a big revelation, since it comes at the halfway point, but the (hackneyed much?) title already gave it away.  As does a moment where The Psychic Passenger says they are "surrounded by the dead", and we cut to the Doctor tasting the sand.  There's nothing intrinsically wrong with plot-points being obvious, but there is if you act like they're mind-blowing.

Space.  The final frontier.
LOL, kidding!  Let's just stay on the bus.
A bus.  The final frontier.
LOL, kidding!  Don't even bother leaving the house.
The stingrays are not among the show's better monsters.  They depend on science, or rather, "science".  The Doctor says they're travelling hundreds of miles per hour, but every time we see them they are, to put it mildly, not.  (It takes them the whole episode to get from the horizon to the bus!)  As for how it all works, it's obviously 24-carat bollocks, so, eh.  But anyway, it's boring that they're just doing what their species does.  And it's confusing that they've created a wormhole already, which the bus came through, but none of them have gone through it yet.  Perhaps they like to make a big entrance?

Seeking to avoid the giant cloud of impending death, the Doctor and Christina stroll about leisurely (WTF are you doing? Run!) and they encounter some more aliens, the Tritovores.  (Because if all else fails, you can always make a joke out of how trite something is.)  These are another in a long line of Russell T Davies aliens which look very convincingly like an Earth animal – in this case, flies – but are nonetheless disappointing because they look like an Earth animal.  It's a small world after all!  Anyway, the Tritovores have some random anti-gravity clamps that can help lift the bus to safety.  They even fit over each of the bus's wheels, plus there's four of them.  Isn't that handy?  (I'm surprised Russell and Gareth Roberts didn't head us off at the pass and call it "Contrivium".)  Pretty soon the fly-people are dead, and the bus is off to Earth again.  Plot?  Oh, you can barely move for the stuff.  Oh, hang on – that's sand.

With the fly-people effectively mute and none of the passengers wanting to look at the nasty old universe, most of the dialogue is between the Doctor and Christina.  Fair enough: this is a "Special", and that means a new one-off companion.  What's she like?  Well, she's a jewel thief, plus a member of the Aristocracy; she doesn't need the money and does it for fun.  All in all, she's less relatable than the Doctor.  She's also clever and confident, with not an ounce of humility, and she's positively one-note.  But the Doctor likes her.  We know this because the script keeps drawing thick, brightly coloured arrows between the two characters, whether you like it or not.  "We were made for each other!"  "You were right, we're quite a team!"  "We could have been so good together!"  "Christina – we were!"  At one point, the Doctor even forgives Christina's life of crime because he stole the TARDIS, and that's... sort of the same as leading a life of crime?  Er.  No, it isn't.  If that really needs spelling out, then I don't know what show you've been watching.  WTF?

Ah, CGI.  Always making Doctor Who a bit better.
Especially on mute.
With all the clumsy hints (and a kiss, which may be required by law), it seems the writers felt they had to work harder to make this connection, possibly because she's so obviously cartoony and unlikeable.  Which begs the question, "Why make such a cartoony and unlikeable character in the first place?"  It does look as if he has noticed she's a total bitch at the end, when he says "No" to taking her on board the TARDIS.  Alas, that's just his usual "I've lost people before therefore I don't want to endanger your life" routine, and presumably it has nothing to do with her being a horrible person.  He lets her out of her handcuffs at this point; having learned nothing, that'll be her rushing off to commit more crimes, then.  Wizard.  The Doctor's behaviour towards Christina, as with his strange determination not to explore anything this week, makes me wonder who the hell this guy is.  Talk about an off day.

David Tennant is fine – pretty much on autopilot, but the script calls for nothing more.  It's not his fault he has to go against his character.  (Although he could have said "Oi, that goes against my character."  What are they gonna do?  Fire him?)  Michelle Ryan does what she can with Christina, which means making her more irritatingly cocksure.  Their conversations, which make up the bulk of the episode, are invariably dead weight.  The guys on the bus are an interchangeable lot; I yearned for the days when a marginally more interesting bus-load of people wanted to kill the Doctor.  (At least they had different opinions.)  Still, one of them gets to drop the He Will Knock Four Times prophecy, which is transparently the only reason a psychic person is involved.  Let's see, what else?  Despite the bad joke, I quite liked the Tritovores.  Shame they're dead.

Back on Earth, UNIT's Captain Magambo (a nice presence in Turn Left) converses with a scientist named Malcolm, also the Doctor's biggest fan.  Cue obvious Doctor Who fan allusions, and the frantic flailing of Lee Evans – and yet, I quite like Malcolm, too.  I like that he measures things in "Malcolms" and "Bernards".  He's not too much of a piss-take (it's no worse than the Tritovores or what's going on with the Doctor this week), and he briefly gets to show the Doctor up without becoming too much of a Mary Sue.  His subplot lacks a sense of urgency, but that may be down to the direction.  He's ordered to close the wormhole, trapping the Doctor on San Helios, and he won't do it until the Doctor gets back.  All very laudable, except when a London bus very noticeably appears via the wormhole, solving the problem, neither Malcolm nor Magambo seems to notice.  The Doctor has to phone and tell him.

Planet Of The Dead makes me wonder if the term "Special" should really be applied to every out-of-series episode that happens to run longer than 45 minutes.  Aside from the fact that this incredibly dull, rather stupid story somehow made it to the screen rather than any number of others, there is nothing special about it.

1 comment:

  1. Does the oyster card sensor have a mind in order to be psychically duped then?