Doctor Who: The Planet of the Dead
The light-hearted, all-original, breath-of-fresh-air episodes of Doctor Who live or die by the strength of their core concepts. The End of the World provided an unforgettable backdrop for a vibrant and intriguing run-around, while the rough edges of The Lazarus Experiment were made bearable by its wholesale buy-in to the cult of the mad scientist. Planet of the Dead is in a strong position, with a brilliant core concept drawn from the knowledged inspiration of writer Gareth Roberts’ New Adventures novel The Highest Science, and the more covert swiping from Bus Stop, a comic strip in last year’s Doctor Who Magazine. The outgoing Upper Boat team now have no shortage of experience in taking the Doctor abroad, and the limited shooting time overseas still manages to provide some superb images to back up this hook. At this point, however, things start to go wrong. The production team’s trip to Dubai appears to have taxed their resources to the point where they cannot even afford to pay the mandatory fifty pound fine that Transport for London levy on those who repeat the plot of Midnight less than a year after its transmission. This results in the Doctor being repeatedly thrown off the bus, in a vain attempt to find an original story in the dunes beyond. Instead, he comes across a range of disparate elements, none of which manage to leave a lasting impression.
Planet of the Dead allows the show to continue collecting its specials-only range of impossible companions. After a broken-hearted widower, the Doctor is joined here by what at first glance seems to be classic companion material, in the form of an independent and adventurous young woman. As the story goes on, however, it becomes clear that the message here is one of being careful what you wish for. Although Lady Christina de Souza claims to live for adrenaline, she actually removes it from the audience by reducing potentially thrilling situations to cold and uninteresting applications of logic and method. The Doctor’s proposed life-or-death adventure to retrieve the anti-gravity clamps is replaced with a simple reprise of the party piece which Christina displayed in the opening of the episode, while her primary-school teacher manner strangles at birth the potentially interesting group dynamic aboard the Number 200. The obligatory kiss is better incorporated into the story than Voyage of the Damned’s take on the concept, although at the present rate, Christmas Day this year will probably see Tennant snogging Bernard Cribbins. The portrayal of the character is the one element of the story where most things go right, clearly allowing Michelle Ryan to enjoy herself, while preventing the audience doing the same. It’s not difficult to regard the Doctor’s half-hearted protestations that he’s done with companions as a polite deception- Christina just isn’t much fun. Even if you buy into the idea that the character is deliberately unlikeable, however, there are some moments that cause a loss of faith in the production’s ability to transfer its intentions to the screen. De Souza isn’t meant to be taken seriously, but occasional of the bits of storytelling shorthand pass over the threshold into absurdity without managing to give a laugh that would justify the move. A case in point is Christina’s initial attempt to board the bus, which sees her thwarted by a lack of cash. Her bafflement at the rudiments of public transport comes across as rather forced- she’s supposed to be an aristocrat, not royalty.
James Strong’s direction is its usual mixed blessing. Since his début on The Impossible Planet, he’s established a niche for giving a blockbuster feel to some of the show’s weaker scripts, often in the most trying of circumstances. Here, he manages to add moments of gloss to the story, which comes from more than the move to high-definition. With the exception of the Hanna-Barbara style police inspector, who is left a little too close to the camera, the forces of law and order are well shot, and UNIT hasn’t looked this convincing since 1968. Unfortunately, this sheen on the story’s realisation is punctuated by touches of clumsiness that the director should have exorcised from the shooting script. When Christina shouted “So long, lover!” down an alleyway at her captured accomplice, I genuinely expected to be able to make out the word ‘Backstory’ grafittied onto the brickwork, Zur-En-Arch style. These little niggles keep on coming throughout. The first time we see the sinister shadow of a claw above a surveillance monitor screen, it’s a nice b-movie homage. The sequence is repeated so many times, however, that it starts to look as if the moment is meant to be taken seriously. The problems aren’t endemic and if you pick any moment of the story at random, then you’ll probably end up with a convincing-looking piece of drama, with the slightly dull Tritovore ship interior still managing to be an improvement on the unconvincing dressing of Torchwood’s Hub for The Next Doctor.
Unfortunately, the story suffers from the two weaknesses that have dogged Gareth Roberts’ Who work to date, with his abysmal characterisation for the supporting cast doing a particularly fine job of stymieing proceedings. It’s odd that an author who has done such a good job of nailing this task in the Sarah Jane Adventures should consistently fall short when he turns his hand to the parent show, but Planet of the Dead again features only the sort of cardboard figures who made up the numbers in The Unicorn and the Wasp. Apart from participating in Christina’s application of People Skills for Dummies, the bus passengers are given little to do, with their only role in the story consisting of being rescued by the Doctor, while D.I MacMillan makes Inspector Clouseau look like he belongs in the Red Riding trilogy. Of course, to add mystery we have a one-dimensional soothsayer. What a fortunate coincidence that she should find herself in a situation where a convenient source of foreboding menace is required! The final blow comes in the form of Lee Evans’ Malcolm, described by the writer as an affectionate caricature of a Doctor Who fan. If Roberts genuinely believes this, then I’d hate to see what his idea of a savage parody looks like. That said, the costume designer is just as much at fault here. You could give Brad Pitt Malcolm’s fingerless gloves and bug-eyed spectacles, and the effect would be broadly similar. Away from the new characters things improve slightly, with the most convincing of the new series’ UNIT officers given a welcome extension to her tour of duty. Speaking of returns, David Tennant gives an unfortunately dull performance here, only briefly springing to life when deploying his answer to Monty Python’s Machine That Goes Ping. The actor manages to give some weight to his character’s more reflective mode, but is hampered by the lack of a coherent narrative for the Doctor. One minute the Time Lord is talking of how he misses Donna, the next he’s hesitantly deploying his species’ backstory. It’s as if the writer was given a note to make him sombre, but couldn’t devise a convincing pretext.
The other irksome aspect of Roberts’ scripting is also present, in the bleeding through of his own opinions into his character’s voices. While it would be not only unrealistic but morally wrong to ask any writer to hold their tongue on what they hold dear, there’s a noticeable contrast in the way Robert’s outspoken right-wing views enter his scripts, compared to the more subtle and heartfelt ways in which his colleagues allow themselves to be represented in their work. When Paul Cornell had the Doctor seeking sanctuary from the Reapers in Father’s Day, the imagery of refuge in a church was an almost unconscious result of his Christian beliefs. Likewise, when the atheist Steven Moffat resurrected River Song as a computer programme, he was untroubled by the issue of her earlier death. The concept of a soul is simply not part of this worldview, and so was not present in the story. These elements and beliefs are woven deep into the fabric of the plot, being an integral part of the writer’s work. With Roberts’ stories, however, his views come across in the little verbal barbs that can’t help but irritate. The prime example here is the Doctor’s rather out of character “solution” to the lives of Barclay and Nathan. Get those lads in the army- that’ll make men of them! It’s a rather jarring comment for the Doctor to make at any point, let alone after the military had been on the point of sentencing to death him and his charges. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, overshadowing the admittedly indecisive conclusion to the Christina story arc.
Although this is probably the last we’ll see of the Doctor for at least six months, it’s hard to not simply feel relief that we’ve now got episode 4-15 out of the way. But doesn’t The Waters of Mars look brilliant?