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Movie review

Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead

WRITER : Admin | DATE : 22-11-06 | CATEGORY : Movies
There’s nothing necessarily bad about Planet of the Dead. Okay, there’s nothing necessarily unforgiveably terrible about the episode. It certainly isn’t anywhere near the worst episode of the show since the revival. On the other hand, there isn’t anything essential or even spectacular about it. In any given season, it would probably be mid-year filler and pass without note or scrutiny. Unfortunately we only got five of these specials, so each on seems just a little bit more important than a regular episode – even more with the countdown ticking towards David Tennant’s departure. Despite some lovely scenery and a few hints of charm and whimsy, the episode seems too much like treading water.

This particular episode seems to have been written as the sort of anti-Midnight. Both stories feature the Doctor and a busload of scared humans stranded on a strange planet while some inconceivable evil makes its way towards them. In Midnight the characters turned in the smarty pants stranger with the weird hair and arrogant streak a mile wide. In Planet of the Dead, they team up to escape together. Which would be fine, if Midnight itself didn’t seem to be the anti-Voyage of the Damned, another tale of stranded passengers working together to escape certain death, organised by the Doctor. I don’t pretend any of these are original – indeed, the best of the specials, The Waters of Mars, is a standard base under seige story – just that Planet of the Dead doesn’t offer anything new or exciting.

David Tennant has pitched the episode as the last time the Doctor gets to have fun. And maybe there’s a hint of truth in that – The Waters of Mars and The End of Time are hardly a barrel of laughs for our favourite Timelord. On the other hand, it is possible to be both substantial and entertaining – something the show has demonstrated consistently in the past, even with the episode which aired directly before this, The Next Doctor. Instead, as the audience and character realise that time is ticking down on this incarnation of the character, all we get is some awkward foreshadowing about the survival of the Timelords (“the aristocracy survives for a reason… we’re ready for anything”) and an ambiguous prophecy from a stereotypical character (“it is returning”). There are some nice thematic echoes running through the episode (notably the recurring theme of death as a natural thing) with play through the mini-season, but is it wrong to expect more?

The show is irritatingly self-conscious. In a better episode observations like “the worse it gets, the more I love it” would seem like hubris – and the show has never been shy about punishing hubris. Instead we get observations about how any phone call at the three-quarters point of an episode is inevitably bad news (“Oh, you are clever… it is bad news”) and some slapstick comedy from Lee Evans. There’s a hint of charm in the Doctor’s summing up of the reason for the feasting swarm being so far away from the wormhole as “because they need to be”, which is true in a way – for the plot to function they have to be heading towards the wormhole -, before dismissing the idea (“no, that’s bonkers”) and adding some technobabble. He even excuses the notion of how a bus can fly with a self-aware handwave (“… in a super-clever outer space sort of way, just trust me”). These moments bring a smile to the face, but they are few and far between.

It’s fun to watch David Tennant. He clearly loves what he is doing, and here he has his zany madcap rushing-around thing down to a ‘t’. The Doctor isn’t the oncoming storm or a force of nature, he’s a nutty professor who will save just about everyone (bar the poor bus driver who dies to illustrate why they need the bus). The problem is that Tennant has no chemistry with Michelle Ryan, who is saddled with one of the most irritating characters since the return of the show. That the show seems to think Lady Christina’s dead cool (dressed in black, always prepared, harness-wearing), going so far as to equate her stealing of priceless artifacts with the Doctor’s stealing of the TARDIS, makes it more painful. The Doctor stole his TARDIS to raise his granddaughter on Earth. Somehow I doubt her intentions are half as noble. The audience ends up wishing that the Doctor got more time with Lee Evans’ Malcolm, whose foibbles (naming units of measurement after himself and – more forgiveably – Quatermass) are at least charming.

The filming in the United Arab Emirates looks stunning – it’s nice see a desert world so brilliantly rendered. It really does justice to High Definition (this was the first episode filmed in that format). On the other hand, I’m more than a little curious about the show filming there. I can understand the allure – low production costs – but I would have imagined that the cast and crew would have been more conscious of the human rights concerns in the country, particularly given the revival’s strong defense of LGBT rights. It feels more than a little bit like selling out to shoot an episode in a country with such low regard for human rights, but that’s probably beside the point. The episode is well-produced. The fly-aliens look great, as does the giant swarm (though clearly ‘borrowed’ from Pitch Black).

The idea of a planet reduced to dust is an interesting one, and one not without symbolism (the Doctor is literally surrounded by death this year), but it’s significantly undermined by the way it is played. Lady Christina’s reaction (“Yes, but in my hair!”) seems awkward and almost hilarious rather than gut-wrenching or tragic. I mean, who talks like that? It’s nice to see that the Doctor has no hate towards the Swarm, accepting that death has its place in the universe. It’s a natural part of living, as the specials have suggested time and time again. These ideas are nice, but they never really go anywhere, seeming more like afterthoughts than anything else. Which is a shame.

In the end, Planet of the Dead is far from essential viewing. It seems unfair to complain about an episode for what it isn’t, but it’s hard not to feel that it couldn’t have been more substantial, particularly with the departure looming. Part of this criticism comes from seeing how overloaded The End of Time turned out to be, but I also felt it on initial airing. Even if the show was not meant to be important in the grand scheme of things, it could surely have been better executed. There are any number of standard ‘monster of the week’ episodes that had more zest and life than this special. In any given season, this hour of the show might escape without comment. Unfortunately, with time as vital as it is, it just feels like a waste.