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Monday, 13 April 2009

Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead, BBC1


Did we like it?
An underwhelming prologue melted away in the heat of the Dubai desert as the Doctor, aided by the sparkling Christina, led a bunch of bus passengers to safety from a swarm of mindless planet-killing beasts in one of the typical big, thrilling, dumb adventures typical to the series ‘specials’.

What was good about it?
• Michelle Ryan was very good as Lady Christina. She seemed to have been assembled from the memories of the Doctor’s daughter, Riversong and the Unicorn from the last series, but by the time she and the Doctor were wandering through the desert she had established her own distinctive character.
• Admittedly, because of the relentless narrative, there were occasions when she was given lines and ideas simply so the viewers wouldn’t forget she was in the scene, but her wire-aided plummet into the bowels of the Tritivore ship during which she exhibited both a charming naivety – not recognising the lethal security barrier – and the quick wittedness to disable one of the swarm was her zenith.
• This episode wasn’t brimming with emotional pathos, it was one of the frenetic breed that snarls, save for the calm before the swarm, whenever any of the characters pause to express emotion, and made for exciting television.
• David Tennant was, as ever, brilliant as the Doctor, managing to convey the eerie, indefinable tang of the desert sand. He also segued well with Lee Evans’ amusing turn as UNIT boffin Dr Malcolm Taylor, this spattered the script with some apposite humour to both relieve and complement the tension.
• Also sweeping matters along was Russell T Davies’ trademark use of the Doctor experiencing ‘Eureka’ moments – “Oh, yes!” – so the pace doesn’t get bogged down in stodgy exposition of the scientific minutiae of quantum physics – a technique also employed in the impenetrable dialogue between Malcolm and the Doctor, which the viewer watches with the same immature perspective of a baby watching two adults chat, uncomprehending of the detail but happy just to see the smiles of understanding between them.
• And the interplay between the Doctor and Christina and Malcolm was essential because of the mindless threat of the swarm. You cannot stage witty banter with an amorphous mass of metal locusts, and Russell T Davies cast them as the impending threat on the horizon – rather like the countdown to the Doctor’s demise.
• And it was the portents of this doom that added a chilling footnote to the episode. After the few swarm that burst through the wormhole were despatched by UNIT, the seer Carmen warned the Doctor that “he is coming through the darkness”, lighting the fuse on speculation about who “he” is – the Master, Omega, the Devil?
• And it’s because of the Doctor’s demise that one aspect of his character is becoming more prominent – his flippancy in the face of mortal danger. Perhaps because of his Timelord regenerations and his admitted love of imperilment, the Doctor has that trait common to a teenager, a sense of their own immortality. It was this arrogance that consigned Jon Pertwee to become Tom Baker, and Tennant’s Doctor is growing more and more supercilious with each passing episode, awarding the icon depth.

What was bad about it?
• The opening scene in which Lady Christina was forcibly inserted into the script as she descended from the ceiling suspended by wires, a la Mission Impossible, before swiping a priceless Anglo-Saxon artefact from under the noses of the same idiotic, incompetent security forces who were once adversaries of the A-Team. Of course, the acrobatics were a prelude to Christina’s plunder of the Tritivores’ engine parts and so justified.
• The Doctor’s now trite oaths to save the people in his care. On this occasion it was so cloying and sincere that it resembled the classic Father Ted episode where Ted pledges to save the bewildered priests from defrocking after they become lost in a lingerie section of a department store.
• Dubai – why? Aside from a few lovely shots of the desert, Dubai played about as bigger role as dignity in the career of Piers Morgan. The problem lay in that it was just a desert, a big barren expanse of land that looks pretty much like any other big expanse of land. Surely they could have filmed on some coastal dunes and filled the rest in with computers, especially when you consider the problems the crew had in getting the bus out there. It appeared the only reason for filming in such an exotic location was to trumpet the cultural significance of the series, and that it could afford to bunk off to foreign climes like a rich kid at school skipping the last two weeks of term for a holiday in Mauritius.

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