Planet of the Dead.

TV Now that the Doctor Who Forum becomes a members only club after a ‘major event’ like the broadcasting of a new episode, I decided to search Twitter to find out what other people thought of Planet of the Dead. Unsurprisingly, even though a percentage of twittererers are the 'not we' or 'casuals', the comments are much the same a mix of ‘it was the shits’ and ‘it was shit’ along with people wanting to communicate the fact they recorded it/forgot it was on and that Russell T Davies is rubbish/God that David Tennant should/shouldn’t be going and that Michelle Ryan is well fit/too posh (I’m paraphrasing). In fact the only different I can see between Twitter and the discussion board formerly known as Outpost Gallifrey is that people tend to use their own faces as their avatars rather than a shot of Beacon Alpha Four and no one’s asked in which year it was set and the UNIT Dating implications.

My initial tweet was “Doctor Who, short review: ****.” Here is the longer version.

Given his propensity to turn the Christmas episodes into seasonal extravaganzas, you could almost forgive Russell for repeating the formula here, perhaps with Earth invaded by a killer bunny flying a battle egg like some evil mammalian Mork from Orc or inviting controversy by borrowing the plot of Garry Kilworth’s short story Let’s Go To Golgotha! (in which some time tourists insight Pilate to save Barabbas instead of the other guy). You have to imagine that the man who resurrected the Macra must have considered for at least a few seconds the return of Bassetts copyright bater The Kandyman with a mission to rot children’s teeth (if the saccharin conclusions to some recent episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures haven’t done the job already).

Perhaps realising that Easter is difficult holiday to cater for (especially now that Woollies is closed), the egg was chocolate, the Jesus reference was veiled and what we got was something more akin to a standard season opener extended out to an hour with the introduction of a cool new companion (sans family for a change), some foreshadowing and a vertical action sequence. I can see why some might be disappointed by this stand alone antidote to the continuity heavy previous episodes, with only four episodes to play with this year and only three left now until the new Doctor comes calling, but for production reasons it’s difficult to see how a proper story arc could be built with at least seventh months between the first and second. Plus, most of Russell's stories have been powered by a bunch of random elements crashing into each other -- why stop now?

Their strategy seemed to be to create what looked like a screen adaptation of one of the BBC Books with some real money thrown at it to try and create what might be going on in the reader's head. That’s not a criticism, since in recent times some of those have been very good indeed, invisibly extrapolating the television series into prose. Most of their stories, like this special, and in spite of their own medium, do tend to keep their timescale short and their locales spare, often beginning with a chase who’s relevance only becomes apparent later before settling down into introducing some humans in need, some alien bystanders and a massive threat that needs to the avoided by the two hundred and fortieth page.

As we discovered in The Writer’s Tale, most of the Doctor Who scripts are ‘collaborations’, in some cases page one rewrites, so it’s difficult to know, despite them sharing the credit, how much of this was tapped out by Davies or Roberts. Either way, having chosen a relative simple premise of 'bis in peril', the execution was the expected clever mix of screwball comedy and running about usually at the same time. If, as Chris Bidmead suspects in that amazingly mean-spirited interview from this month’s party newsletter all of these scripts are first drafts, they’re still fairly well structured for all that, even if it was a bit exposition heavy in the middle on that ship. But weren’t they always, even in the old days, even in a Bidmead script, which had to work without the pretty pictures. I'd take The Mill over Quantel any day.

Sensing that simply having the story stuck on the planet with the bus would be a repeat of Midnight’s claustrophobia, the writers brilliantly also included what was happening on the other side of that wormhole, offering a kind of faded photocopy of the 70s Pertwees if The Brig was a disloyal loony and the Doctor played by Norman Wisdom with a Welsh accent. The debate’s already raging on Twitter (well I’ve seen one or two tweets, Neil) about just what Lee Evans thought he was doing, but it’s ages since we’ve had a genuinely offbeat, offcentre, slapstick benign character in the series and well, if you’re going to have flying vehicles, wormholes and time travel, you have to have a Doc Brown.

Dead3 Malcolm was an example of the old fashioned straightforward characterisation that ran through the script. The writers just didn't feel the need to flesh out the inhabitants on the bus, again in contrast to Voyage of the Damned where they arguably had too much. Just a bunch of humans in need of saving, the Doctor presumably warming to them because unlike in Midnight his fellow passengers thought him charming, trusted in him and did what they were told -- and that moment in which they talked about what they had to go home to was lovely, like that scene in Father’s Day talking about what the timelord can never had which makes it even more important.

This is a story in which no one is specifically evil (or misguided or whatever Russell’s opinion on the subject is this week) just caught up in one of the spectacular natural processes of the universe with the Doctor as their only way out. I always thought I’d probably like Voyage of the Damned a bit more if the disaster had only been caused by the meteors and not another alien nutter in a mobility chair and on this occasion it led to some good old fashioned five rounds rapid with the beautifully rendered giant space mutant plankton finding the sharp end of a UNIT canon and the back end of a flying London bus. Only in Doctor Who.

That sequence demonstrated that James Strong’s become rather more comfortable with directing big action since his slightly off-kilter Dalek New York stories and he was ahem strong in other areas too. At time of writing I’ve not seen Confidential or heard the podcast, but I’m willing to bet someone mentions Star Wars or Lawrence of Arabia and all of that sand (not to mention the certificate defying skeleton). Time was that desert worlds in Doctor Who amounted to some hopefully forced perspective employing some polystyrene hills and a painted studio wall. Not any more.

Dead4 No matter what some might have thought beforehand about the wisdom of going somewhere else to shoot sand when there’s enough beaches around the Welsh coast, the Dubai jolly really paid off with some amazing pictures of the leads silhouetted against the landscape, the sheer heat of the planet expressed rather more forcefully than the crew of Star Trek managed in their Final Mission (the one in which Wesley left). The series has always had a certain filmic quality, but in HD now it genuinely does, and offers plenty of material for the Currys showreel.

But of course, all this is merely a rambling preamble to the real reason the episode worked. Michelle Ryan as Christina. For years she’s been near the top of the list of actresses I’d like to see as a companion and Lady De Souza’s exactly the kind of character I’d hope for, similar in temperament to Jeckyll’s assistant Katherine than Zoe Slater. Ryan's performance channelling Margaret Lockwood in The Wicked Lady (ask your granddad), Christina was a human aristocratic enough to look as incongruous on a London Bus as The Doctor, her teaser antics underscoring that she’s a larger than life figure, genuinely different to the shop girls, trainee doctors and temps.

Tricked out in Bionic black, Christina’s really was one of the best companion introductions ever and the script cleverly did everything you’d expect a script introducing a companion to do before that final rejection which showed that the Doctor really does want to travel alone, that he’s had enough of the tragedy of loss, of turning his friends into soldiers, Davros’s words having hit home. Imagine as ever the impact that rejection scene might have had at the beginning of a series with the pre-publicity suggesting that this new companion would be with the Doctor for the whole thirteen.

Which is why there’s no fifth star. Because in a perfect world, we’d have another twelve episodes of Tenth and Lady Christina flying around time, the Doctor trying to tame all of her thievery, passing back and forth their witty banter like the new Tom and Lalla. But I am willing to add a quarter for the random ROBOT and Quatermass references. No chance the third special is about The Doctor teaming up with Bernard at the British Experimental Rocket Group with Jason Flemyng as his nibs? And another quarter for the message of foreboding from the soothsayer of the episode. I almost expected a cutaway to a tall man dressed head to foot in cream material.

@twitter Not classic, not that original, but lovable, funny, grin inducing & just enough 2 tied me over until xmas which seems lk a win 2 me. What more cud U want from a 200th story?

Next: I’ll be reviewing Torchwood for five nights in a row. Oh yes. Just try and stop me. Doctor Christina San Helious.

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