Did we like it?
This series’ first visit to an alien planet saw the Doctor abolish the inhuman practice of enslaving the Ood, and was a thrilling and thought-provoking episode. But because of the intriguing moral precipice along which the Doctor edged, it would perhaps have been more prudent to devote more of the scant 45 minutes to exploring the circumstances and ‘developed’ society that advocated such barbarity.
What was good about it?
• The plot centred on the “Great and Bountiful Human Empire” – the grandiose title alone is enough to imply that it has sunken into a cesspit of sloth, indulgence and depravity – disabling and mutilating the peaceful Ood to act as squid-faced butlers.
• There were clear allusions to concentration camps, such as when the Odd were frogmarched across a yard and any of them faltering was brutally whipped. Or the harrowing scenes when the Ood were packed into crates for transport to elsewhere in the galaxy resembled Jewish internees being crushed on to trains bound for the horrors of Auschwitz or Treblinka. And, finally when Donna wondered out loud why the Ood didn’t simply flee when she opened the door to their crate was similar to the footage of captive Jews trudging through a muddy field to line up to be shot and collapsing into a ready-made trench.
• While Donna’s contempt for “a great big empire built on slavery” had obvious echoes closer to home.
• The most heart-rending moment came when the Doctor coaxed a cage of pre-processed Ood into revealing what they were holding in their hands. It was part of their brains, the part that controls emotion that is summarily castrated when they are ‘processed’ leaving them the docile domestics that have been shipped out all over the cosmos.
• It was these powerful scenes that were so well-written, acted and directed that made you wish that there could have been a little less pointless chasing around – the guard with the comic villain’s evil cackle chasing the Doctor round the cargo bay with a mechanical claw for instance – and a more profound exploration of the mentality of the human empire that endorses such base behaviour.
• A hint of the mentality bled through in the form of the odious ogre in charge of the Ood slavery, Mr Halpen (Tim McInnerny) but too little was seen of the perceptions beyond the crazed avarice of the corporate businessman.
• The only envoys of the rest of the empire came in the form of two-dimensional sales reps who acted en mass like racists in an Indian restaurant to the passive Ood so that their massacre could be justified, and the head of marketing Solana (Ayesha Dharkar). Once the Doctor had awoken her to the atrocities of the operation it would have been rewarding to see her at least doubt the morality of her job and strive for redemption; instead she was quickly despatched in the uprising and you felt not one jot of sympathy for her.
• Catherine Tate built on her impressive performance from last week, here flipping from impulsive reactionary when first confronted by the physically revolting Ood, but as the mortally wounded humanoid lay dying she touchingly comforted its last few breaths; even ignoring the Doctor’s warnings that it could still be dangerous.
• The dialogue between the Doctor and Donna is also slipping into a groove, she does not cow to his omniscience and he does not spare her the grisly realities of his world. Her awe as the “Ferrari” spaceship flew over their heads was rapidly replaced by disgust when she discovered what was on it. She will also slap him down such as his remark that her clothes had the same unethical stench about them as the transport and enslavement as the Ood.
• Tim McInnerny’s sneering Mr Halpen made a worthy if somewhat transient adversary for the Doctor. Always mindful of his corporate responsibilities, he was given depth by his own enslavement to the “family business” which served as a pair of blinkers to the dissolute nature of his trade, and had come to regard his personal Ood in the same way as Clive of India might have regarded his favoured boot polisher. His poetic downfall of being transformed into an Ood was as satisfying as it was gruesome, rivalling Richard Wilson’s face being metamorphosed into a gasmask in The Empty Child.
• The rebellion of the Ood in which they oscillated between the personas of icy assassins and fearless lunatics was an exciting set piece even if in the aftermath there did seem to be a suspicious absence of corpses.
What was bad about it?
• Why is the Ood translator manufactured so that it can be altered into a deadly weapon? It’s the equivalent of a pet store today selling rabid dogs.
• Mr Halpen was suffering from baldness – an attritional bane that has plagued men since they waded from the primordial swamp, through coercing them into ever more ludicrous hairstyles from Julius Caesar to Bobby Charlton. All of which considered, you’d expect there to be a cure for the condition by the year 4126 – especially when you consider that judging by the encroaching hairlines among many football managers, actors and pop stars, there’s a ‘cure’ today. And while Halpen’s ‘cure’ was in fact an Ood brew to transform him into one of their kind, there must have existed a quicker, more permanent elixir for this most atavistic of malaises.
• Another anomaly of the year 4126 was that Solana remarked that an Ood killing the director at the very start of the episode was “caught on tape”. If they’re still using tape in the 42nd century then perhaps we shouldn’t chuck out all our cassettes just yet.
• This was the third episode which had as its centrepiece a chase.
• The emancipation of the Ood was a poignant elegy to freedom, but the downside is that a wishy-washy, noodling torrent of meaningless Clannad music will be forever emanating through the universe.