...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Day 3025: DOCTOR WHO: Planet of the Dead HD


OK, so my DEEPLY SAD Daddies actually sneaked out of a WEDDING (well, "renewal of vowels" actually) to go and watch Doctor Who. To be fair, they waited until after they toasted the happy couple before LEGGING IT…

But we didn't get to see this episode in SHINY new HIGH DEFINITION until Monday. So Daddy's review is today.

"The Dead Planet" sees Doctor Woo marooned in an alien landscape facing the perils of an implacable army of metal-skinned monsters, whose next stop will be Earth. Hang on, that was the SECOND story… how original can the two-hundredth have been?

If you put your brain in neutral then this is a rollicking ride, beautifully shot with charismatic stars, some standout special effects and an awful lot of sand… but does Doctor Who in 2009 really have no higher aspirations than to put your brain in neutral?

This starts off as "The Pink Panther" and then falls through a wormhole into "Escape from Desert Island". With the budget and effects technology available to them, there is the opportunity to do a truly outstanding version of either, but trying to do both leaves you with the wobbly feeling of a cut-and-shut: it might just fall apart at any moment.

Where to begin – why is this story even called "Planet of the Dead" at all? Beyond the Doctor Who stylings of the title – and let's admit that "City of Death" shows precedent for ridiculously hyperbolic titles disconnected from the story – the story does not dwell on the "dead" of the alien planet. In fact, they only get a look in so that slightly-psychic Carmen can do the running commentary on behalf of the kids-behind-the-sofa audience.

And you have to think that she's only slightly-psychic to make things seem dangerous. (And in order to do that spooky foreshadowing at the end.)

Because without her "great disturbance in the force" moment, there is no threat at all for the first thirty-five minutes. They come through the wormhole; the Doctor tells them how to get home. We need "Ground Force", rather than UNIT.

An actual Planet of the Dead, falling into a world where your dead friends and family talk to you… that would be an interesting Doctor Who story. Even if it turned out to be psychic vampires or the Gelth again or Blake's Seven's sentient sand. The Doctor doesn't believe in life after death, except in his own regenerative way, so it would be interesting to confront him with that, challenge him with that. And, of course, you get the chance to have his own dead selves, or at least Chris or Paul, turn up to haunt him, and accuse him over the Time War and Rose… Having the sand rise up and form into dead people would have been as memorable image as you could want from a Doctor Who story, and certainly within the abilities of The Mill to achieve. And doing horror in blazing sunshine would have been a good twist in and of itself.

But more than that, it would have been an exercise in exploring the characters of the people trapped on the bus. Instead we get a thirty-second whip round – memorise these names, there may be a test later – and a character detail each, as though this makes them "real" people. As though any sense of "real people" hasn't been chucked away once, out of eight aboard the bus, one is a psychic, one is a Time Lord and one is the Notorious Phantom™. The Doctor as good as says: "give me one thing about you that will let the audience at home remember which one you are rather than forget you straight away." But this emphasis on the ordinary just makes Lady Christina's character appear all the more ludicrous.

Lady Christina is pitched to us as a temporary companion, when she ought to be in the league of those morally questionable allies of the Doctor Who "caper" story – like Garon in "The Ribos Operation" or Glitz in "Dragonfire" (though not in "The Mysterious Planet"). She ought to have her own agenda, rather than merely her bag of tricks that just happens to contain the item you need every time the plot comes up against another Tomb-Raider-esque puzzle. Bus buried in sand? Here's my spade! Crystal at bottom of shaft? Here's my flying harness! Two totally incompatible technologies? Here's my golden chalice, that'll sort it!

As for: "There's a reason the aristocracy survives…" That'll be because you are thieves, then, will it?

It seems it isn't good enough that Michelle Ryan is an athletic art thief in a catsuit; she's got to be a nob as well, even though it serves no purpose in the story. It's a bizarre adulation of class that really has no place in Doctor Who. The Doctor himself seems to have taken to dropping in his Lordliness here and there, in a way that would have earlier incarnations nauseated. He rejected the company of "Lords" and went out to experience some real people, not to muckity-muck it over them.

And it unbalances the story, having unbelievable stuff happen to unbelievable people; it reduces the so-called ordinary people to trite ciphers.

Let's look at the fate of the Tritovores. Firstly, they're men in overalls with flies' heads. Right. We got away with the cat-people because, by the year six-billion, humans might just have engineered humanoid cats. We got away with the rhino-headed Judoon largely through the gusto of the performance. But this is getting silly. It is telling that when, in Russell's first series of Doctor Who, an alien that looked like a pig appeared… it was a joke perpetrated by the real aliens*.

It's a very nice fly's head, the prosthetics people have done them proud as usual. But sat on top of those overalls it looks rubbish.

And they're only introduced to get eaten. Worse, they are introduced because someone has got to get eaten and the Doctor has promised that he'll get everyone on the bus home. Very much "Voyage of the Damned" without the fatalities, then. In Confidential, Russell suggests that if they had survived it would make the story "too complicated", UNIT would have to find them a home or something. So "they had to die". This is verging on the Eric Saward level of script writing: kill off anyone as soon as they've fulfilled their plot function. It's a grizzly form of writing, and undignified from a series that has been trying to tell us that all forms of life are of equal importance.

Again like a computer game, the Tritovores are only their so that their ship can provide the McGuffin to unlock the escape route. Never mind that the Doctor can telephone UNIT headquarters but never asks them to, oh I don't know, slowly back one of their mobile command centre lorries into the wormhole so that everyone at the other end can just safely walk home through the metal structure. Or for that matter, just toss through a couple of (metal) barrels of diesel and a new air filter.

It's fair enough that the Doctor wants to have a gad about looking for what caused the wormhole, but the only reason that Angela, Nathan, Barclay, Lou and Carmen remain in danger is because the Doctor cannot be bothered to have UNIT rescue them before he wanders off.

The main threat, he discovers, comes from a swarm of inter-galactic locusts creating a wormhole from a planet they've devastated to their next feeding ground… yes, it's "The Horns of Nimon" without the glam-rock minotaurs.

The stingrays are, again, a lovely piece of computer design but never really live up to their potential. They are supposed to have eaten every single thing on the surface of planet San Helios, but we never see them devouring. They should be chewing up the Tritovores' ship, not just biting the unlucky bug-boys. The threat here should be that they are going to eat the bus… but we never truly feel that. The implicit threat to Earth never becomes visceral. It's a classic case of show don't tell.

Furthermore, here they are starving hungry and desperate to escape to new feeding grounds via their wormhole… and yet offered an all-you-can eat UNIT smorgasbord decline to snack on a single soldier. The "peril" at the conclusion is no more than enough to give UNIT a rousing victory, not enough to be really threatening. Why do just three stingrays get through? There's a long time between them emerging and Malcolm succeeding in closing the wormhole. It would have made more sense, and more drama, for more and more stingrays to be coming through, making the closing of the wormhole an imperative, not just punctuation.

Ultimately, you're left with the impression that the writers started with a blank page on which they wrote "flying bus" and then tried to work the story backwards so that that was where they ended up. The flying bus itself, while occasionally a bit cartoon-y, can also be rather brilliant, in particular the moment it bursts back out of the wormhole.

(Though I have to ask, given that it entered the wormhole at an altitude of several tens of meters, how come it emerges at near ground level? As though someone's forgotten that the hole is supposed to have grown to four miles in diameter?)

But that's "Planet of the Dead" all over. It looks spectacular, and it's certainly worth the upgrade to HD, to show off every gloriously-filmed grain of sand. But, like the Doctor's Easter Egg, it's shiny exterior conceals a thin sweet layer and a hollow inside. If "Voyage of the Damned" was rather linear, it still had a few bits to chew on; this is rather linear and doesn't.

No wonder those sand-sharks are hungry.

(*Yes, we watched "Aliens of London" this weekend too; for what is considered one of the weaker entries in the 2005 season, it's astonishing how fizzing over with ideas it was, and how thin "Planet of the Dead" looked in comparison.)

Next time… Now, that looks more like it. Outer space, watery graves and horrible death. Icy Lindsay Duncan gives us her Lady Thatcher in space. Let's hope it's a Halloween screening for Ghosts of **cough cough** Waters of Mars.



Nick Campbell said...

Hello! That was a rather damning review, I must say. I tend to think most Dr Who stories are assembled backwards from “big idea”, it’s just that the better ones paper a bit better over the obvious contrivances. Perhaps this (and Voyage of the Damned, which I enjoyed slightly less, probably just because of its multitude of endings) made itself a victim of this. You wonder if it could have benefited from another half hour – then you worry about what they would have introduced to fill it. I’m glad that you mention the under-used passengers, which surprised me quite a bit, though I quite liked the fly people – they also serve the function of being the apparent threat before the real one comes on the scene. You can’t quite get away from the fact that there’s not enough threat and much too much “Let me just say, Doctor, you’re wonderful, amazing, incredible…”

Costigan Quist said...

My brain was quite happy in neutral, thank you.

Putting on my critical hat for a moment, like Knife and Spoon I'm getting somewhat tired of the Doctor being saluted, praised and applauded whenever he sets foot on Earth. Apart from minor watershed issues, I'd not have been at all surprised if the UNIT commander had insisted on fellating him just to show her appreciation.

And even young Gabriel Quist was asking why UNIT didn't just send a nice big tank through the wormhole to rescue everyone. When primary school kids are spotting the glaring holes in your plot, perhaps it's time to take notice.

As Millenium mentioned, the general plot followed the Christmas special in the solutions happening to be found lying around, from the bionic woman's tools to the clamps and gold chalice. What would the Doctor have done if everything he needed hadn't been conveniently left within a few minutes walk of the bus.

I enjoy the stories but the biggest issue I have is that I don't care about the characters. They're either not around long enough, or too one-dimensional.

There's some great sci-fi in the last few years: Buffy, Firefly, Hex, Being Human. As well as being innovative in the storytelling; they all make you care about the characters.

Who do I really care about in Doctor Who?

Costigan Quist said...

Oh, and while I'm nit-picking - if the wormhole was circular then it would have stretched half-way across London by the time the bus came back through, so all sorts of vehicles would have been passing through.

So did it stay about 20 feet wide but just grow several miles high?

Joe Otten said...

Oh I remember Horns of Nimon. Cool.

Over Voyaged of the Damned, at least this time the bus passengers weren't sacrificing themselves every 5 minutes for their new cult leader. Perhaps the presence of the two nobs confused them as to which one it would be.

But I agree. Empty story.

beta said...

I was so annoyed at all the plotholes and Doctor Whorship going on that I rewrote the story.

I'm kind of tired of Doctor Who becoming all about angst, romance, and being told how great the Doctor is, while all the while the solutions are just too easy.

I want adventure, tension, and fun.

Planet of the Dead had everything going for it. Cool aliens, a new alien planet, great effects, the Doctor and UNIT. It should have been a great adventure. All it needed was a bit of editing before filming, some better explanations for things, and a bit less fawning on the Doctor.

If you'd like to see what it could have been like (it's the same story, just reedited to fix the dumb bits) go to

Planet of the Dead REVISED