“Planet of the Dead” – Review: Redux

Carmen “It is returning. it is returning through the dark. And then, Doctor. Oh but then, he will knock four times.”

Planet of the Dead

Back in 2008, we had all become familiar with Doctor Who’s new format, with a 13-episode series running in the spring along with a smattering of extra bits and bobs like Children in Need specials and musical concerts throughout the year, with the jewel of these bits/bobs being an hour-long Christmas extravaganza of varying quality. So, “The Planet of the Dead” Easter Special came with something akin to a sense of trepidation. This was all the Doctor Who we get between Christmas 2008 and mid-November 2009 when the third special of the gap year would arrive. It had better be bloody to make up for it, I thought. It wasn’t. I confess that I had been happy enough to dismiss any outcry over the gap year in a “you’ve-never-had-it-so-good / count-yourselves-lucky” kind of way, safe in the knowledge that a new and highly respected broom would be sweeping through the Upper Boat Studios in South Wales to regenerate our beloved series once more. In the interim and as an added bonus, we’d have five (count ‘em) brand new episodes to bring the RTD-era to an end. However, having watched “Planet of the Dead” on Easter Saturday night I must confess to a feeling a slight sense of injustice at that being all the new Who we’re getting this spring.  “Was that it?” I asked quite ungraciously.

The opening scene featured a sweeping overhead panorama of modern London town that looked like it was lifted straight from those Hotel Babylon interludes but which managed to show off the new high definition picture to good effect. Cutting to a museum we see daring if somewhat silly robbery in progress that seemed to be more of a cross between “Mission: Impossible” and “Hustle” than the most popular sci-fi show on TV but still, we were soon embroiled in a chase between authorities and the escaping burglar who had been joined by the Doctor on the number 200 bus. The number was a nice little nod to the fact that this, arguably, was the 200th televised Doctor Who story. Michelle Ryan was playing the aforementioned burglar, the Lady Christina de Souza: Lara Croft in all but name and guns, who filled the companion role for the story and I found her to be a great foil for the Time Lord. Given a different set of circumstances she would have worked as a full-time companion too with the opportunity for interesting character development by tempering her more aristocratic tendencies.

Very shortly after the chase between the police and the bus, and ignoring the fact that there was no discernable reason why (a) the bus driver didn’t simply stop when all the sirens were going on behind him, or (b) why the police kept a healthy 50 yards between them and the double decker, the bus and all the passengers travelled through the wormhole that the Doctor had been trying to detect and they found themselves on the alien, desert planet of San Helios. Stranded without the TARDIS, the Doctor and Christina had to keep morale up amongst the passengers and organise them into planning their return. One of the innumerable positives that Russell T Davies brings to the show is his ability to create and bring wonderful characters to life from only a few lines of dialogue (I still fondly remember Ruffalo, the blue-skinned plumber from “The End of The World“) and he does it here again with the passengers. Of course, we do get the clairvoyant Carmen as well, whose ability to foretell events was bound to lead to some kind of warning for the Doctor as we build up to David Tennant’s swansong.

Some truly memorable vistas were on offer thanks to crew’s (not-so) jolly off to Dubai, where the damaged bus and the alien landscape were impressively realised despite some tough filming conditions and logistical problems (as ever, thoroughly documented on DW Confidential later on Easter Saturday evening). I’m delighted that the programme is now in HD and that the special effects stand up to the additional scrutiny of four times the number of pixels: take a look at the crashed spaceship to illustrate, so, kudos to the hard workers at The Mill.  The two new aliens introduced couldn’t have been more different. Firstly, the swarm seemed to be an entirely CGI creation which worked really well en masse as thousands of creatures, well, swarmed across the landscape and when we met up with a solitary one inside the spaceship it again worked well visually but I couldn’t help but wonder how exactly these creatures could turn a planet completely into desert inside a year as the script would have us believe.  Secondly, were the Tritovores. These guys were introduced as mysterious prosthetic hands tapping a picture of the Doctor on a monitor that I guess was supposed to be a bit creepy (although haven’t we seen that kind of thing a hundred times before?).  However, we soon got to meet them for the fly-like humanoids in Dharma Initiative jumpsuits that they really were, and in fact they turned out to be quite sweet… before being eaten.

Back on the Earth-side of the wormhole were the UNIT forces and a somewhat ineffectual police force. The Doctor and Malcolm Taylor (as played by the love him or hate him, Lee Evans) struck up a relationship via phone, which formed much of the light relief for the story. Malcolm appeared to be working in the same role for UNIT as the third Doctor had done many years before and, as soon as he had proved his intellectual credentials to Ten, you could see a bond form between them.  The other main UNIT operative was Captain Magambo, last seen in the not-quite-real events of “Turn Left“. Here she seemed to control things quite well until her Harriet Jones moment when she drew a gun on poor old Malcolm and told him to close the wormhole before the bus made it back through. I think that the UNIT forces of the revitalised Doctor Who series have now had enough outings to begin to develop a nice little story within a story for themselves but it’s never really developed enough on screen and the changing personnel from episode to episode means that they lack a bit of consistency.

When the final minutes begin to play out as the bus begins its flight, there were a couple of niggles which left things a little disjointed for me.  There seemed to be far too much time between the bus coming back through the wormhole and the attempt to close it behind them considering it had already been established that Malcolm was ready to hit the switch. Then, when the swarm started to come through only three of them made it and they had time to fly around acrobatically, screech a bit and get shot at before the door was finally shut: given there were “millions of them” all seen flying in close formation and deliberately heading for the “miles wide” wormhole, I couldn’t work out why so few made it. Anyway, nitpicking aside it was visually impressive (even the Harry Potter-esque flying bus) and dramtically satisfying. Which, kind of sums up the whole thing.

Finally, we got Carmen’s inevitable warning for the Doctor.  “Your song is ending” echoed the warning of the Ood, “He is returning” and “He will kock four times” could have meant anything at the time but the knowledge of what is to come gave me a tingle of excitement for what is to come. Chrsitina’s flying off in to the night sky was an open end to an interesting character very much like Jenny’s departure in “The Doctor’s Daughter” and I can’t imagine that there would be many who would begrudge either a return appearance.  And so, the wait is on again for the, now confirmed next episode, “The Waters of Mars”, which is still a rubbish title. One chap online back in 2009 predicted that “Planet of the Dead”, “Waters of Mars” could have been the first two instalments of an earth, water, air and fire quadrilogy, which would be kind of nice for the beginning of the end of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. Wasn’t to be though but happily the wait for the next episode this time around is only 24 hours.

Highlight: The high-definition

Lowlight: The Tritovores

Talking Point: Who’s returning and going to knock four times?

Demon’s Run Rating: 12 out of 20

Original BBC1 Broadcast: 11th April 2009

Marathon Status: Keeping going

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