Now this is more like it. After the confused and overpopulated Fires of Pompeii, the Doctor Who production crew hone their focus and produce a tightly plotted, well paced story about slavery and ecological atrocities. We have a very good, anchoring performance by guest star Tim McIinnerny, and some genuine scares from one of the best designed aliens of the revived series. And for all this, Donna still manages to blow everyone away.
The rest of this review is behind the link below. For those who don’t want spoilers, go no further.
To give Donna a treat, the Doctor sets the TARDIS coordinates at random, and they land on her first alien planet. After initial trepidation, Donna adapts well to her surroundings (I love how, while the Doctor waxes poetic about the frozen landscape and the alien sky, Donna nips back into the TARDIS to put on a warm coat). Things get serious fast, though, when they discover what turns out to be an Ood, who has been shot, and is lying in the snow, dying. Again, Donna overcomes her initial trepidation with flying colours, but the Doctor has to react fast when the Ood’s eyes turn red, and it gives one last dying attack.
The Doctor’s met the Ood before, back in The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. He’s wondered about their servility, but didn’t have an opportunity to investigate because things got rather hectic at the time, what with the Devil taking over these mildly telepathic creatures. There’s no sign of horns or a pointy tail here, so what’s causing these Ood to rebel? The Doctor is frankly grateful to finally have a chance to look into this.
They stumble onto an Ood processing centre, run by humans from the 42nd century. This slaving corporation distributing Ood servants across three galaxies is performing how you’d expect a faceless megacorporation to behave. There’s the PR flack Solana Mercurio (Ayesha Dharker) who refuses to question the obvious problems here, and security grunt Commander Kess (Roger Griffiths) who loves his guns way too much, and relishes the opportunity to bring out the big equipment to chase down a security alert (the Doctor, of course). Writer Keith Temple vividly captures the banality of evil here, with characters and dialogue that are well drawn and well paced. However, it’s Tim McIinnerny, who plays company owner Mr. Halpern, who takes this material and makes it shine. He is perfectly cast and plays the role superbly. Lesser actors would have toned up the megalomania and lost the corporate atmosphere that makes this story work so well. McIinnerny instead feels so evil because he seems so bored.
The mystery of the Ood is also well paced and kept me guessing, and the revelation of the true horror of their subjugation is the episode’s strongest moment. Indeed, in the hands of Catherine Tate, it becomes the strongest moment of the scene so far. Murray Gold helps out with some wonderful music as the Doctor finds the natural-born Ood and hears their telepathic singing. There’s great tension as Donna asks to listen in, and let’s the Doctor open her mind. It is terribly wrenching to see Donna overwhelmed by the sadness of it all and begging to have the gift taken away. This is not a moment either Rose or Martha could have carried. Donna takes it and hits it out of the park.
The Ood continue to be one of the best new “monsters” introduced by the production crew during the revived series. They’re a marvellous design, totally alien, and just one red-eye blink away from going from sort-of cute to downright scary (Graeme Harper’s direction helps no end, here. He manages to build up the tension wonderfully). The alien visuals were well done and the location filming well picked, although the production crew clearly had difficulty making the summer filming look cold. The snow really looked more like ash, something that becomes even easier to spot after seeing ash fall in Fires of Pompeii, but this is a minor issue. However, the quality of this episode is such that, unfortunately, the flaws really do stand out, and I can’t proceed without getting some gripes about this episode out of the way.
Let’s start with the nitpick: I was a little disappointed that the Doctor was rendered basically an observer in this tale. The Ood had everything in hand, and all the Doctor ended up doing was pull a lever to stop a set of mines, and explain to the audience what was going on. But, as I said, this is a nitpick. I cannot see how the author could have done anything different, as I think it makes the story very strong to have the Ood pull themselves out of their servitude.
And it did stretch suspension of disbelief just a little, when the corporation knows that the “red eye” is a problem, that they continue to take sales tours at the same time as investigating that problem. It did add a nice bit of tension throughout the story, as I was constantly wondering which Ood in the party would blink once and go all red eye, but this doesn’t strike me as the actions of a remotely competent company really interested in protecting its bottom line.
I do have to say that I loved the running gag about Mr Halpern’s requests for shots of his hair tonic drink. Again, I was forced to suspend disbelief that a man who knows as much as he does about the Ood would allow Sigma to be in the same room as him, much less turn his back, but the payoff was worth it. Every request for a drink, I expected him to be confronted by the red eye, but Sigma’s plan was far more subtle. I did not see it coming, and it’s a fine resolution to Mr. Halpern’s tale.
Hardest to stomach, though, was the intrusion of some tone-deaf visuals and dialogue at the end of the story. The rise of the Ood is just one step over the top (my only suggestion would be to fix the fact that the soldiers are just sitting around. Why? Did they run out of ammo or what? I would have suggested doing something more by having the soldiers run for the hills), and not really worth commenting about, except that the problems got worse. The revelation that the song resonated across three galaxies and the Ood are going home also struck me as rather trite. It might have been better to leave this bit unfinished, and it would have given reason for the Friends of the Ood person to stay alive, and possibly work with the PR lady in trying to convince the rest of the Human Empire to give up their slaves. Allusions to the Underground Railroad would not go amiss, here.
Finally there was the exceedingly LAME exchange about the Doctor’s song and it ending somehow. I blame this on the script editor (whom I’m assuming is Russell T. Davies himself), shoehorning the season threat into the tale, and I really, really wish that he hadn’t done that. The story was functioning well on its own. It didn’t need a piece of faux-mysterious dialogue distracting from the moment.
It’s too late to say so now, but the show-runners should have been told earlier to not be so heavy-handed in shoving in elements of the season-plot into the individual stories. They should have realized their mistake with Torchwood, and what they’re trying to reference here doesn’t even have a mysterious name to glom onto. Instead, we’re left with intrusions that jar one out of the episode. The clumsy dialogue and other intrusionary elements sadly left me with a bit of a sour aftertaste to what was otherwise a savoury experience, but I’m still mostly pleased with Planet of the Ood.
Next week looks to be a bit of check-your-brain-at-the-door fun with UNIT and Sontarans. I’m looking forward to it, though my attention is far more on the middle of the season, with The Doctor’s Daughter and Stephen Moffat’s two part contribution.