The second of this year’s Doctor Who specials debuted this past weekend on the BBC. No word, yet, on when it will appear in Canada, but look for it on Space. Including the 2008 Christmas special, it now looks like we’ll have five specials in total until Matt Smith takes over as the eleventh Doctor in the spring of 2010. The third special, entitled The Waters of Mars, will likely debut in November, with David Tennant’s finale airing in two parts over Christmas and New Year’s.
It seems that this set of specials will set up the events which lead into Tennant’s regeneration, but while there were a couple of hints at the doom to come, Planet of the Dead was a chance for writers Russell T. Davies and Gareth Roberts to kick back a little and tell a standard Doctor Who story — the sort that you’d see in the middle of what would have been the fifth season of the Doctor Who revival.
To this end, writers Russell T. Davies and Gareth Roberts pull together a production that I would call competent. I detected few flaws in the writing, the director and the actors did the job that we asked of them. There were a few laughs, some thrills, but Planet of the Dead did not rock the boat. Frankly, though The Next Doctor was a significantly more flawed production, I enjoyed it more, because it aspired to achieve more.
Spoilers after the break.
At the International Gallery, security guards march up to a priceless golden artefact and enact security procedures not seen since the Maginot Line. Despite having four men on duty with machine guns and a suspiciously teleporty-looking device that shoots a grid of lasers around said artefact, the idiots at the museum have decided to stash the device right beneath a dome with a conveniently located hatchway, and neglected to calibrate their laser grid against assaults from the air. So a cat-suited burglar has no difficulty in hooking herself onto a rappelling rope, descending through mid-air and swapping out said artefact for her calling card. Said security guards with said big guns don’t think to (a) turn around while said crime is taking place or (b) shoot indiscriminately into the ceiling upon their discovery of said crime.
And lest you think that this scene is important, it’s not. The thousand-year-old golden artefact is not mystical, it’s not alien tech, and is not haunted. At most, it will help the Doctor as a bit of shimming to ensure that some mismatched parts fit correctly with the help of a hammer. The important thing is the burglar herself, who after running away, reveals herself to be the delectable Lady Christina (played by Michelle Ryan). Her escape, however, starts to go awry when the Metropolitan police show themselves to be halfway competent. Her getaway vehicle busted, she hops aboard the nearest London double decker bus and takes a seat. Unfortunately for her (and the other passengers), the fates (and the writers) conspire to have the Doctor board the same bus. And, of course, their troubles really begin.
With the driver of the bus willfully ignoring the pursuing police vehicles (you would think that a pair of diamond earrings wouldn’t be enough to convince an underpaid and overworked London Transport worker to break the law in such a fashion), the bus passes into a road tunnel, while a device in the Doctor’s pocket speaks up and starts beeping. Before Christina can say “why do the crazies always sit next to me?”, the bus is zapped through a wormhole onto a desert planet.
What follows is an episode that echoes slightly back to Midnight (the Doctor even comments on the amount of trouble he gets into on board buses) but which has more to do with the movie Pitch Black, as the Doctor and the passengers work together to try to figure out how they came to be here, and why a planet that is later revealed to have been lush and well-populated little over a year ago has transformed into nothing but sand. The Doctor does retain a phone connection with UNIT on the other side, however, and the soldiers there are reporting that the wormhole is, in fact, growing. A clairvoyant on the bus hears voices and predicts doom, and there is something in an approaching sandstorm that doesn’t seem to be just sand.
As I said, Planet of the Dead can best be described as competent. The actors and director James Strong step up to the plate and deliver the standard we’ve grown accustomed to these past five years. The visuals of a battered London bus in the desert (accomplished through location filming near Dubai) are beautiful, and the characters come off well, even if they are a bit stock. Michelle Ryan anchors this production, however, as an aristocratic thief far too in love with danger and excitement for the Doctor to reasonably allow her to stay on board the TARDIS. There is strong chemistry between her and David Tennant; they do make a good team.
On the other side of the wormhole, UNIT makes a welcome reappearance as a decent military force that has finally been given a budget its predecessor in the 1970s could only dream of. Their chief scientific advisor Malcolm (Lee Evans) is a hoot (I liked the Quatermass reference) and I thought Noma Dumezweni acquitted herself well as Captain Magambo.
However, while it may be too late to do anything with this, it is a shame that no one character has stepped forward these past few episodes to act as UNIT’s main spokesman on the show. No, nobody is going to be replacing the Brigadier in our hearts, but if we had one character to show up as UNIT’s representative whenever the Doctor appeared, it would give the audience someone to latch onto. We could learn more about his or her character, and that could add depth to the ongoing clash between the Doctor’s aversion to military action, and the fact that such action is sometimes needed and that UNIT is actually quite good at it. Dumezweni’s Captain Magambo does a good job here acting as the Doctor’s foil. Rupert Holliday Evans did as good of a job as Colonel Mace in The Sontaran Strategem. The producers need to pick one.
As good as the acting and directing are, however, while Russell T. Davies and Gareth Roberts deliver a script that provides some laughs and some thrills, there is a definite sense of the story being on autopilot. A number of elements are recycled, including UNIT’s hero worship of the Doctor (see The Sontaran Strategem) and the plotline of a small group of individuals isolated from the world facing a massive incoming threat. Nothing really makes Planet of the Dead stand out from what has gone before.
It is a shame that Michelle Ryan’s Christina wasn’t allowed on board the TARDIS at the end of this episode, as much could have been done with her that wasn’t. The character’s desperate love of adrenaline-pumping excitement is in serious need of being taken down a peg, but the Doctor doesn’t do much to get her to change her ways. He even goes so far as to help her escape from the police, allowing her to ride off on a flying double-decker bus. His refusal to allow her on board the TARDIS is supposedly due to the fact that he can no longer stand “losing” companions to the life he leads, but Christina is on a crash-course for self-destruction already. In reality, the Doctor lost an opportunity to change Christina’s life so that her skills were channelled into something more positive. (As an aside, I wonder if the Doctor’s refusal to take on companions is one of the things that will come back to haunt him in the next few episodes)
But David Tennant kept me watching with the sheer force of his personality. As the only chance between now and November to see the Doctor back in action, he gives us what we want, delivering quick quips and saving the day as only he can. The clairvoyant’s doom-laden prediction about his coming regeneration comes off better than it did in Planet of the Ood (which used the same hokey phrase “your song is ending”), and gives us plenty to wonder about until the final three episodes debut. Is it my imagination, or was music from Midnight recycled for that scene? And doesn’t the statement that “he will knock four times” suggest that their incorporating the mysterious entity in that episode to the events surrounding his regeneration? Well, I’m eager to find out.
Planet of the Dead does not disgrace itself. There are no false notes in the acting and the directing, and nothing seriously wrong about the writing, either. The only problem is, the story doesn’t really aspire to be special. And as the only Doctor Who we’ll be seeing between now and November, that’s a bit disappointing.