...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Day 2666: DOCTOR WHO: Planet of the Ood


Something SINISTER is moving in the darkness… better switch to INFRARED!

Oo Dear… Ood 'ere
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So much for "Glow-in-the-Dark"; here's Daddy's review:
Visually striking, from just gorgeous in the opening vistas and over-flying rocket through to some really boundary-pushing grotesquery at the end, and with what has got to be one of Doctor Who's biggest on-screen massacres, but this was really just too simple a story to match up to the multi-layered series we've become used to.

For the second week running that there's an explicit reference to the adventures of William Hartnell as the Doctor (last week to "The Romans", sort of admitting to causing the great fire; this week to "The Sensorites", name-checking the planet Sense-Sphere).

And, there is a very Hartnell-era feel to the tone: the Doctor arrives and observes but barely causes any of the events we see played out here; the Ood Brain and Harry Potter's dad – Dr "Friends of the Ood" Ryder – between them bring about the revolution.

(Interestingly we actually get to see the moment where the Ood revolution begins: it's when Dr Ryder is allowed into Warehouse 15 and we see him at the controls. He clearly hasn't been in before – he says as much – and manipulates his evil boss™ Mr Halpen into getting him where he wants to go. Before then, the Ood have only gone "red-eye" one at a time; after that they all go berserk.)

This is in spite of some unsubtle Pertwee-esque ultra-heavy moralising (slavery is bad, boys and girls). Or for a telling Hartnell comparison, Alex suggests the simple good/bad paradigm of "Galaxy Four". And the conclusion, with the Ood joined in Song and delivered from slavery by the power of prayer, clearly wants to reprise both "Gridlock" and "Last of the Time Lords". Writer Keith Temple is no Russell Davies, though, and no Malcolm Hulke either, as the story presents all the humans as unambiguously bad (even Dr Ryder, as the need to keep his double-identity a secret means that he isn't the exception – arguably he must be complicit in the Ood lobotomies anyway, or he'd have long since blown his cover). And it's been pointed out that for a story purportedly about the evils of the slave trade, there's some slightly odd racial politics going on: Ood Operations (one of the episode's few subtleties; a cunning pun in the "recreation generator" mode) is staffed by (rich, white) people happy to exploit another sentient species, (middle-class, brown) people willing to lie about the company's treatment of their "livestock" and turn a blind eye to what is really going on, and (blue-collar, black) heavies with guns who clearly relish the thought of pulping someone with a big claw.

(That Claw sequence works very well as a set piece, it should be said; but a legitimate question might be what is that set piece doing in the middle of this story though? Because you could cut the scene entirely and it wouldn't change the plot one iota.)

And of course all of the humans die. Only Donna and a few of the guards still wandering about shell-shocked at the end survive. At Christmas, Russell gave us the much more difficult message that some of the bastards survive and some of the good people perish. Nothing so challenging on show here: the message is if you're bad you deserve death and by Ood you get it.

It's ironic that an episode that is so morally certain of its case should conclude with Donna saying she can't tell good from bad any more and the Doctor saying that moral certainties lead to bad decisions. (Hearing the conclusion to that line makes it so much better than in the trailer, though, where it just finished at "probably better that way".)

Because of the episode's humans bad/Ood good certainty, it doesn't seem to notice that the Doctor takes an awful chance on the Ood Brain being benign, and on relatively little evidence: from what we've seen, its influence has been nothing but aggressive and vengeful up to now. Do the Ood even want to be part of its gestalt again? Who knows, perhaps they were dangerous and threatening before the humans (Starship Troopers like) found the big brain and penned it. And we swiftly gloss over the repercussions for the Earth Empire if their labour force is suddenly withdrawn. Intergalactic civil war is probably the least of their problems; let's hope the Ood-Sphere doesn't get nuked in the cross-fire.

(Although actually, if the economic implications of the teaser are correct, the Ood aren't the only slaves in the Earth Empire: if they were, you could hardly expect prices to be falling due to competition.)

Do humans really have an Empire spanning three galaxies again in the 42nd Century? Remember, "The Daleks' Master Plan" sees Mavic Chen being reminded that Earth in 4000 AD doesn't even control its own galaxy, and it is usually assumed that this is the time of the Federation (as seen in "The Curse of Peladon" and its sequels). But then, a huge Dalek War might be just the thing to see Empires forged, and Craig Hinton's "Crystal Bucephalus" lays out a future history that sees the Chen Dynasty seize control of the Federation and re-founding it as an imperium. Or maybe that continuity's been wiped by the Time War.

I think that they also missed a trick by not revealing that Ood Sigma was unlobotomised, his translator ball merely being a disguise for his external hind-brain. I should have liked to see Tim McInnerny's Mr Halpen having conversations with Sigma only later on to be revealed that only he was hearing Sigma reply: a tip off to both Sigma's natural Ood status, and Halpen's eventual grisly fate. As it was, with Sigma ending up as leader of the Ood, seemingly more significant than the "natural" Ood who the Doctor met in conversion, the episode gave the appearance that the hind-brain wasn't really that much of a loss, surely not what the script intended.

Those hind-brains – and can I just say Ick! – caused much debate on the Outpost Gallifrey forums as to whether or not they were evolutionarily feasible. How could a life form survive with a vital organ like that outside of the protection of its body, people asked, until someone not unreasonably pointed out: testicles.

Personally, I'd say that there could be an evolutionary advantage if the external brain is part of the Ood telepathy. If much of the Ood-Sphere is ice-covered then it might be necessary to range widely to find food and shelter, in which case the ability to communicate over long distances might become a distinct advantage, even over the hazard of exposing a vital lump of brain.

As usual, there's a lot of incidental music, sometimes beautiful, sometimes a little overpowering. I did enjoy the little references to the musical themes from the Ood's first appearance in "The Satan Pit" two years ago. One question, though: I wasn't quite able to tell at times whether the music was supposed to represent the Song that the Doctor hears. It seems obvious that the choral work is supposed to be the Ood in Song, except for the scene where Donna first asks to hear and then have it taken away, because in that scene we the audience can here some music before Donna, and then much more powerfully when she can hear and then not when she can't.

In fact, that Ood singing, in particular the moment of them pulling their fellows out of "red-eye", illustrates the other source this reminds me of: Jim Henson's muppet fairy-tale "The Dark Crystal" with the peaceful, singing Mystics (or Ur-ru in the book, I think) contrasted with the violent bestial Skeksis and both linked through the eponymous Crystal: psychologically this is the same disjunction of the red-eye Ood and the "natural borns" with the big Ood brain in the Dark Crystal role.

But, interesting as it is to pick up on the backstory of the Ood, though, it's also a shame that this story in some ways undermines the power of the Beast from "The Satan Pit". He is diminished if rather than seizing control of loyal and benign creatures, he is just releasing their inner pissed-off-ness; having the Ood eyes turn red again suggests that it wasn't anything special to do with the Beast and that any powerful (or even not very powerful) mental force would cause it. Anther example would be the translator balls being used to kill: "Planet of the Ood" makes it that they can do this anyway, rather than they are channelling the power of the Beast. Interestingly they also establish that the ball is not lethal on contact, when Donna picks up the dying Ood's translator at the start. The implication is that the Ood can channel a telepathic "sting" through the translator – which again leads you to wonder if they can do that through the natural hind brain and if so then they're not quite so pacifist by nature as Donna and the script assumes.

No planets mentioned as going missing this week, though there was another reference to the bees disappearing (although this is a real-life phenomenon so it may mean nothing in the series). Just as last year's third episode finished with the Face of Boe prophesying "You Are Not Alone", this year we have the perhaps threatening "I think your song will soon end". Have we been double-bluffed by Messers Tennant and Davies?

We have to at least consider that a regeneration may be on the cards after all. The alternative that I thought of is that this might be a reference to "Song for Ten", from "The Christmas Invasion" and the first soundtrack album where Murray Gold reworked it as a lament for the Doctor's separation from Rose. So the ending of the Doctor's song might be an end of separation rather than life.

Next time… Did you spot the "Atmos" logo in the windscreen of the taxi that came to collect doomed Stacey in "Partners in Crime"? Can you recognise a potato at fifty paces? If so, consider yourself for a posting with UNIT. Martha Jones is back, to uncover "The Sontaran Stratagem".


Laurence Boyce said...

Brilliant summary as ever! If I might mention just one sartorial point of interest. The rich guys are all wearing rounded collars (as opposed to pointed ones) which have obviously come back into fashion since they were last worn, about a hundred years ago.

Ryan said...

I spotted the Atmos logo (although thought it was Amos) :D

Knife and Spoon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Knife and Spoon said...

This was a weird one. A remarkably old-fashioned and familiar plot, I thought - and watching it on iPlayer doesn't do much for the CGI - and I was quite amused to see how warmly it was embraced by the online community. As often happens in Torchwood, I thought the actors certainly earned their pennies, redeeming some rather unreconstructed fare. And I quite like the way that Doctor Who brings hand-held brains and revolution narratives to the Saturday teatime audience. It was only after this story that, looking again at the Sensorites, I realised how Oodish they look, and got a pang of fan-regret that the episode hadn't ended with Sense-Sphere peace envoys striding through the snowy sunshine shouting "Brothers! Brothers!"

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Not sure I agree with your point about the devil - surely the point of the devil is that he corrupts people from within, not that he gives people extra evil powers?

Millennium Dome said...

I like your retcon, Mr James, but it’s not going to fly.

The Beast presented in “The Satan Pit” is an elemental force of fire and fury, not a Faustian force of corruption, and he certainly DOES grant people MAGICAL powers as Toby’s survival in hard vacuum and telekinetic murder of Scooti prove.