WHO 50: 2009:
Planet of the Dead.

TV Sadly, Planet of the Dead’s always considered something of the runt of the small litter of adventures broadcast in the so-called gap year, lacking the psychological weight of The Waters of Mars or the event status of The End of Time but it’s the episode which I’ve probably watched the most.

Partly there’s a technological reason for that. When HD televisions were initially being sold in shops, Planet of the Dead was on the show reel produced by the BBC to simultaneously sell the technology and to publicise the fact that they making and broadcasting programmes in that format.

The Doctor’s desert adventures were the first to be shot in the new format and because of all the “sand” made for a good demonstration of what this new definition was capable of. The clip chosen was the scene when the Doctor’s first investigating, letting the grains of silica slip through his fingers.

It was then subsequently one of the first releases by the BBC in the new blu-ray format  and of course I bought it when I too had a player and watched it and have since watched it again and again with each subsequent blu-ray player purchased. Each time I’ll think I’m only going to watch the sand bit but end up seeing the whole thing.

My original review is here and pretty much explains all the reasons why. It’s such good fun and has in Lady Christina De Souza my favourite of the one off companions that isn’t Sally Sparrow. She’s an excellent reminder that the television show doesn’t have to always need to have “realistic” companions. Sometimes it can be a comic strip.

But it is interesting how much high definition changes Doctor Who. However cinematic nuWho was in its first four seasons, standard definition still often gave it a “video” quality so that it didn’t look that much different to the final McCoy years. More epic in scale, but still slightly flat.

Planet of the Dead doesn’t. Even though it was being shot in roughly the same style, there’s a greater immediacy, it’s more cinematic, especially when the sun flashes through the interior of the bus or rain splashes against the motorway. I remember noticing this even when it was originally broadcast in standard definition.

That’s become more pronounced in the Moffat era. Now, Doctor Who looks like a series of mini-feature films, in the way we all sort of wish the series always had been, when we look at Spearhead from Space or the jungle sequences in Planet of Evil and thinking mistily about how we wish the whole series had been shot that way.

Directorial choices abound, of course, but there’s not one episode since then, even when the script calls for intimacy, which doesn’t scream to be shown on a big screen, even The God Complex, with its corridors and small rooms. There’s a scale and detail that begs for our attention.

Is anything lost? Perhaps. This cinematic format requires the camera to move, for there to be editing and so few scenes last very long or there’s a restless shot selection. If you think about some of the show’s best moments, “Have I that right?” “Some day I shall come back”, the camera is fixed and transfixed by a performance.

Which isn’t to say there haven’t been similar moments, but there seem to be less of them, reflecting modern television in general probably, especially in this genre’s television. Cop and law shows tend to still be more restful oddly, presumably because they’re more about looking and thinking rather than running.

But perhaps that’s what I also appreciate about Planet of the Dead. Like all the episodes that year it was still in the transition period, between old and new visual paradigms. Scenes do go on for quite some time, the camera does stay in position for more than one shot and the cosiness is still in evidence (“Chops in gravy”).

Now we’re nearing another potential paradigm shift as the 50th anniversary episode has been shot in 3D. How will that change its look? Will it look that much different? In a couple of weeks we’ll know. But it’s good to know that the show remains a key innovator and experimenter.

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