Doctor Who: “Planet Of The Dead”
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Doctor Who: “Planet Of The Dead”

Plus some final thoughts on the Russell T. Davies era

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Doctor Who

"Planet Of The Dead"

Season 4, Episode 15

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“Planet Of The Dead” (season 4, episode 15; originally aired 4/11/2009)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“It’s Christina de Souza. To be precise, Lady Christina de Souza.” “Oh, that’s handy, because I’m a Lord.” “Seriously? The lord of where?” “It’s quite a big estate.”

“Planet Of The Dead” is an oddly appropriate episode to be the end of the line for our Doctor Who retrospective, and not just because it prominently features the phrase “end of the line.” Even more so than last week’s “The Next Doctor,” this story is just a bit of fun, especially when compared to the subsequent specials that closed out David Tennant’s tenure as the Doctor and Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardners’ time as executive producers. This story lacks the tragedy of “The Waters Of Mars” or the importance of “The End Of Time,” but that’s rather the point: This is the last time we get to see the Doctor on a good day. This is the 10th Doctor’s last happy ending. Admittedly, the conclusion does see him refuse Christina de Souza’s request to travel with him, and Carmen does prophesize that “he will knock four times” and “something is returning,” both of which foreshadow this incarnation’s death. But those moments play as brief, arc-mandated respites from the main thrust of the episode, which is really just to have a bit of fun. This is the episode where the Doctor helps a semi-reformed thief escape in a flying double-decker bus, much to the cheers of everyone other than one police officer.

In short, “Planet Of The Dead” is a romp, a kind of Doctor Who story that is particularly well-suited to the specials. Because of the increased serialization—particularly the increased character-centric serialization—in the revived Doctor Who, it’s not always easy for the show to deescalate the tension midseason and cut loose with a less serious adventure. Such stories can work right at the beginning of the season—think the body-swapping silliness of “New Earth” or the witch-fighting antics of “The Shakespeare Code”—but even those stories tackle weightier subject matter, ranging from the tragedy of the viral clones to the introduction of a new companion. Situated outside the main seasons and specifically designed to be written in somewhat broader, more accessible tones, the specials represent the ideal vehicle for some high-spirited adventure. In practice, however, the previous specials—all of which were of the Christmas variety—had to serve as epilogues to their preceding seasons, with “The Christmas Invasion” working to introduce the newly regenerated Doctor and “The Runaway Bride,” “Voyage Of The Damned,” and “The Next Doctor” all giving the Doctor an opportunity to work through his grief for his latest lost companion.

Notably, “Planet Of The Dead” is the first special that both introduces new characters before the Doctor arrives and lets the Time Lord to show up mid-adventure. The Doctor is allowed to be in his element here in a way that he so rarely is elsewhere. The Doctor smiles more here than he has in a long time, and, when he’s not smiling, he’s still allowed to take easy command of the situation (once Christina cedes her self-appointed leadership position, that is). Again, yes, the final scene does show the Doctor turning down Christina on the grounds that he couldn’t bear to lose another companion, much as he told Mr. Copper that it’s better that he travels alone in “Voyage Of The Damned.” But that earlier special was striving for a larger sense of pathos in its final scene, as the Doctor admits there’s nothing for him but the open sky and that he will never forget Astrid and her sacrifice. This special could aim for a similar mood in its denouement if it so wished, but this is the rare occasion that the Doctor can enjoy an unambiguous victory, as the Doctor gets UNIT jobs for the two lads on the bus, receives Malcolm’s declarations of love, and tells the escaping Christina that they already were good together. It’s all a question of emphasis, really, and “Planet Of The Dead” is determined to remain jovial, sidestepping the miserablist strain that increasingly cropped up toward the end of the 10th Doctor’s era.

What’s interesting about that is how this story has all the pieces in place to tell a much darker story, something the Doctor glibly acknowledges with his sly reference to his last bus ride in “Midnight.” The story does have the rather ominous title “Planet Of The Dead,” after all, and the big twist is that San Helios isn’t a desert world at all. As the Doctor and Christina learn from their interaction with the Tritovores, this once thriving civilization was reduced by the Swarm to nothing but sand in less than a year. Under different circumstances, the story could well be overwhelmed by a tragedy of such incomprehensible magnitude. The presence of a regular companion would at least have forced Gareth Roberts—who handled the bulk of the writing duties while credited co-writer Russell T. Davies was busy with Torchwood: Children Of Earth—to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. But since we’re dealing with a one-off companion, it’s far easier for “Planet Of The Dead” to have Christina ignore the death toll and focus on the fact that she’s got dead people in her hair. That moment doesn’t exactly go for outright comedy, as Christina is understandably freaked out by the realization, but it strategically undercuts the larger horror of the premise and gives the audience permission to remain focused on the more immediate adventure.

Honestly, it’s remarkable how easy it is to take this special for granted, to dismiss it as just another story. The new Doctor Who has gotten so adept at transporting its audience to alien worlds and bizarre situations that one could forget that the show traveled to the deserts of Dubai to depict San Helios, an ambitious decision that forced the production team to grapple with sandstorms and do some hurried rewrites when the double-decker bus was damaged in transit. The desert setting is so visually impressive and so far outside what would expect from such a quintessentially British show that it’s easy to dismiss it as fake, which is precisely what the wife of one contemporary reviewer did, and I doubt she was alone in that reaction. “Planet Of The Dead” just can’t quite land its best punches, and all these big attempts at spectacle can’t entirely mask the hollowness at the story’s core. Doctor Who stories in the Russell T. Davies era tend to draw their vitality from the companions, as it is they who force the Doctor to focus and to remain cognizant of the human dimension to his adventures.

The similarly companion-less “The Next Doctor” still accomplished this effect through its exploration of Jackson Lake’s tragic situation, but Christina is unable to provide similar emotional ballast to the story. Even more so than the alien Astrid Peth or the Victorian Jackson Lake, Christina feels like a major departure from what we’ve seen before. Whereas Astrid and, to a slightly lesser extent, Jackson were carefully designed to be relatable to the viewers, Christina is more intended to impress them. That’s a much harder kind of character to get right, and Michelle Ryan does a decent if unspectacular job of playing the part. Her willingness to take command of a situation, whether it’s appointing herself leader or throwing herself down the shaft to retrieve the crystal, is an interesting departure from the typical companion, and one of the story’s most compelling moments comes when the Doctor compares her “liberation” of Aethelstan’s cup to his theft of the TARDIS. What neither Davies and Roberts’ script nor Ryan’s performance is quite able to manage, however, is to find the character depth that would really elevate such moments. “Saucily adventurous aristocratic thief of rare artifacts and trinkets” is a hell of a character description, but Christina never really becomes more than the sum of those words.

“Planet Of The Dead” is, at its best, just a bit of harmless fun, and there are times when this approach can leave the story feeling weightless. Take the scene on the bus in which the Doctor attempts to buoy the spirits of his fellow passengers, asking them where they had been headed and telling them to keep hold of all that’s waiting for them back on Earth. It’s hardly the first time in the new series that the Doctor has appealed to the mundane little joys of the human experience to keep people’s hope alive. But that’s the point: We’re a long way from “Father’s Day,” in which the Doctor told Sarah and Stuart that he had never had a life like the one they described and that, yes, he would try to save them. That scene was elevated by its sense of discovery, as the Doctor genuinely reflected on the tiny, beautiful human lives he was trying to save; he gained strength from the conversation just as much as Sarah and Stuart did.

The Doctor of “Planet Of The Dead,” on the other hand, doesn’t need to give himself such reassurances. He’s long since internalized the lessons of stories like “Father’s Day” and turned such sentiments into a breezy pep talk. The Doctor still absolutely believes everything he has to say, but he doesn’t viscerally feel it in the same way he might have a couple seasons ago. I can’t exactly blame either the Doctor or his writers for that progression—honestly, it would probably be worse if the Doctor had a rhapsodic reaction to each new human interaction—but it’s a subtle illustration that the show was running out of new challenges for this Doctor to face. “Planet Of The Dead” plays like just another day at the office for Tennant’s Doctor, a fact that is as good an indication as any that it was the right time to begin his era’s endgame.

Stray observations:

  • Comedian Lee Evans is on hand as Malcolm Taylor, UNIT’s latest scientific adviser. His character occasionally veers into slapstick territory—his bumbling antics in the climax are, uh, not great—but I’ll admit I mostly enjoy what he brings to the story, if only because some of the story’s funniest moments come when the Doctor is utterly exasperated by Malcolm’s adoration for him. I also rather like the Quatermass reference, even if it isn’t nearly as good as the similar in-joke in “Remembrance Of The Daleks.”
  • I always feel a bit bad for the Tritovores, who show up primarily to offer some much-needed exposition and then promptly get eaten as soon as it’s convenient. The show is usually a bit better at disguising when it loses interest in its characters.
  • A notable—or, at least, potentially notable—member of the guest cast is Daniel Kaluuya as Barclay. Just 19 years old when he filmed the episode, Kaluuya was already an actor and writer on the sexy teen drama Skins, and he’s since made a nice career for himself in British television. I mention him now because he, at just 24, was one of a few actors heavily rumored for the part of the 12th Doctor. On principle, I’m still not quite ready for the Doctor to be played by someone younger than me, but I could see why he could be a good choice down the line. His role here is rather minor, but he does bring to the part of Barclay a nice bit of charisma that makes the otherwise somewhat bland passengers a little more interesting.
  • We’re nearly at the end of the Russell T. Davies era; I’ll be folding in some thoughts on “The Waters Of Mars” and the “End Of Time” two-parter into the next section, in which I attempt to take a larger look at Davies’ time on the show. But before that, just a couple of stray thoughts on those two stories.
  • If you haven’t done so recently—or, honestly, even if you have—go watch “The Waters Of Mars.” I had forgotten just how fantastic and how heartbreaking it is. The sequence in which the Doctor is forced to listen as the situation spins out of control is absolutely devastating and the best bit of sustained chaos we’ve yet seen in the new series. Just a phenomenal hour of television.
  • “The End Of Time” is less successful, admittedly, but I’ve come around in a big way on all the stuff that really matters about it. As regeneration stories go, it’s sort of the love child of the 3rd Doctor’s “Planet Of The Spiders,” in that it stuffs in some irrelevant plot threads and is massively, unapologetically self-indulgent, and the 4th Doctor’s “Logopolis,” in that it uses a funereal tone and a cosmic threat to see out the Doctor. The Doctor’s reward is as much for Davies, Tennant, and their friends as it is for the audience watching at home, but I wouldn’t say that’s such a bad thing; having spent the last few months working through these seasons, I appreciate the chance to say a proper goodbye to all the characters involved. (I also always tear up when the Doctor reveals it was Geoffrey Noble who lent him the money, as it’s a poignant tribute to the late Howard Attfield.) The one scene that really sticks with me is Jessica Hynes’ appearance as Joan Redfern’s granddaughter, as her two characters get to ask the 10th Doctor the two most important questions of his era. In “The Family Of Blood,” Joan asks, “If the Doctor had never visited us, if he’d never chosen this place on a whim, would anybody here have died?” In “The End Of Time,” Verity Newman tells the Doctor that Joan was very happy in the end, and then she asks, “Were you?” Find an answer to those two questions, and that’s the 10th Doctor pretty much solved.
  • Incidentally, there are three other full-length adventures featuring Tennant’s Doctor. “The Infinite Quest” and “Dreamland” are animated adventures, and both are fairly minor. The first, released online in three-minute installments, naturally feels very episodic, even disjointed, but it’s kind of charming inasmuch as it takes the opportunity that animation provides to explore the wilder, more alien corners of the Doctor Who universe. “Dreamland,” on the other hand, suffers from some rather bland CGI animation, and it’s mostly just a solid, uninspired Doctor Who episode that can’t benefit from David Tennant’s facial expressions. The third undiscussed 10th Doctor story is “The Wedding Of Sarah Jane Smith,” a story in the third season of the spin-off show The Sarah Jane Adventures. The Doctor is really only in the second of the two parts, but Tennant is on fine form; in fact, since he filmed it after “The End Of Time,” it was his last appearance in the role before he reprised the part for “The Day Of The Doctor.” It’s a fun story, if quite consciously a bit more geared towards younger viewers, and I’m never going to say no to the Doctor getting to hang out with K9 one more time.

Doctor Who: An Alternative Ranking System

I was rather satisfied with the rankings system I developed for last week’s review of season four. In case anyone is curious, here are my complete rankings for all four seasons, with a couple revised and added categories thrown in. I stand by the grades I’ve given out, but I think these descriptions give a better sense of where each story falls in my view. And, for the record, these categories aren’t ordered from best to worst. An episode that’s solid enough if generally unremarkable isn’t necessarily better than one that’s got some fascinating ideas but is seriously flawed; if anything, I probably tend to prefer the latter type of episode. There’s also a decent amount of variance in terms of the quality of the stories within each category, at least outside of the top two. Think of this as a complement to the letter grades, I’d say.

Stone-Cold Classic: “Dalek,” “Father’s Day,” “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances,” “The Girl In The Fireplace,” “The Impossible Planet”/“The Satan Pit,” “Human Nature”/“The Family Of Blood,” “Blink,” “Utopia,” “The Fires Of Pompeii,” “Midnight,” “The Waters Of Mars”

Not Perfect But Still Pretty Fantastic: “Rose,” “The End Of The World,” “The Unquiet Dead,” “Bad Wolf”/“The Parting Of The Ways,” “Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday,” “42,” “Planet Of The Ood,” “Silence In The Library”/“The Forest Of The Dead,” “The End Of Time: Part Two”

Solid Enough If Generally Unremarkable: “The Christmas Invasion,” “Rise Of The Cybermen”/“The Age Of Steel,” “Smith And Jones,” “The Shakespeare Code,” “Partners In Crime,” “The Sontaran Stratagem”/“The Poison Sky,” “The Unicorn And The Wasp,” “Planet Of The Dead”

The Best You Can Say Is It’s A Bit Dull: “The Long Game,” “The Idiot’s Lantern,” “Fear Her,” “The Lazarus Experiment”

Some Fascinating Ideas But Seriously Flawed: “Boom Town,” “New Earth,” “School Reunion,” “The Runaway Bride,” “Gridlock,” “The Doctor’s Daughter,” “The Next Doctor”

Totally Get Why People Love It But Doesn’t Quite Work For Me: “Tooth And Claw,” “Turn Left”

What Was That I Don’t Even…: “Aliens Of London”/“World War Three,” “Love And Monsters,” “Daleks In Manhattan”/“Evolution Of The Daleks,” “The Sound Of Drums”/“The Last Of The Time Lords,” “Voyage Of The Damned,” “The Stolen Earth”/“Journey’s End,” “The End Of Time: Part One”


Final Thoughts On Russell T. Davies And Doctor Who

The final three episodes of the Russell T. Davies era—“The Waters Of Mars” and the two parts of “The End Of Time”—offer perfect distillations of all that the show was capable of during this period. In order, you’ve got the good, the bad, and the furiously, gloriously bonkers. (I guess we’re still missing one kind of Doctor Who story, namely the one that’s generally pleasant if a bit dull, but “Planet Of The Dead” fills that gap rather nicely.) Together, “The Waters Of Mars” and “The End Of Time” fit in just about every element that helped make the Davies era special: the emphasis on character (and diversity of character), the occasional interest in deconstructing the Doctor and questioning his status as a positive force, the enduring fondness for the show’s recurring characters, the use of prophecies and barely resolved mysteries to drive the storytelling, the inclusion of over-the-top action sequences that really shouldn’t be possible on a BBC budget, the strategic deployment of aliens with silly names, and a general willingness to tell stories and try things that just would never, ever be possible on any other TV show.

Take “The End Of Time: Part One.” This is, put frankly, not a very good hour of television. It’s got one truly standout, essential scene, in which the Doctor tells Wilf about his impending death and breaks down in tears when discussing his mistakes on Mars. But everything else? The episode has a ridiculous amount of ground to cover, as it has to get from the Master being dead to him turning every human on Earth into himself, all while sowing the seeds of the Time Lords’ return in “The End Of Time: Part Two.” I’ve previously suggested this first episode is full of padding, but I’ll admit it probably wouldn’t be possible to get from a dead Harold Saxon to the Master race in just 10 minutes. Still, that doesn’t make it any less bizarre that the Master is resurrected in an arcane ritual by some Harold Saxon-worshiping cult, that he kills his wife Lucy after she offers an overlong monologue about how she had prepared for this moment, and that he spends much of the episode as a feral, ravenous, energy-phasing skeleton capable of leaping great distances in a single bound. I mean, that’s just insane, and not really in a good way.

The other stuff in “The End Of Time: Part One”—the opening field trip to the Ood Sphere, the comedy relief with Wilf’s pensioner friends, whatever it is Joshua Naismith thinks he’s up to—aren’t bad, exactly, but they feel inessential, as though there really ought to be more important things Doctor Who could be doing in David Tennant, Russell T. Davies, and Julie Gardner’s penultimate adventure. But that’s a tricky word right there: “important.” So much of the Davies era has been about arguing for the overriding importance of the human experience—and here, I mean “human” in a sense broad enough to encompass those lovable Ood—because all the greatness and the wonder of the Doctor is meaningless without people like us to share it with. There’s plenty about “The End Of Time” that doesn’t work for me, but the enduring genius of Davies’ final Doctor Who script is that, in the end, the epic battle of the Time Lords, one fought with all of reality at stake, is a mere sideshow. The Doctor leaves the Master and Rassilon to die in their Gallifreyan Ragnarök, because his fate is to die saving the life of one old, unimportant man who begged him not to.

This clash between the grandiose and the intimate isn’t always elegant: Honestly, how could it be otherwise? Davies’ entire tenure was defined by his attempt to negotiate this tension between epic adventure and human drama; that he was only occasionally successful speaks as much to the enormousness of the task as it does to his particular shortcomings as a Doctor Who showrunner. One area in which Davies erred was in his tendency to play favorites; he tied the show’s internal logic into knots in his bid to give Rose a happy ending, but his scripts melted continents and subjected Earth’s entire populations to deadly invasions as mere asides to the main action. The Davies era is so careful in exploring the emotional lives of its featured humans, but it only occasionally explores what it would really mean to live in a post-contact Earth. The bus passengers’ quick acceptance that they are on an alien world in “Planet Of The Dead” is a nice example of such world-building, but there are never quite enough of these moments to form a coherent whole, and Earth always quietly resets to normal whenever it’s necessary.

The “Sorry, I’m so sorry” catchphrase also speaks to the issue of juggling the show’s different narrative scales.  This repeated line has some good uses, including one such instance in last week’s “The Next Doctor,” but too often it plays as a cursory acknowledgment of the latest plot-mandated death; by the time even Jackie Tyler is saying it to a woman who is about to be disintegrated in “Journey’s End,” the line feels like only so much empty rhetoric. Doctor Who stories have always run on the deaths of their side players, but Davies twisted the proverbial knife by getting audiences to invest in guest stars before offing them; as I mentioned in the “Smith And Jones” review, he really never did meet a supporting character he couldn’t kill. The fact that the Doctor and his companions get to walk away in the wake of this death and destruction can feel awfully arbitrary, and the tragedies that eventually befall the Doctor’s friends only partially counteracts this. After all, as epilogue in “The End Of Time” makes clear, the Doctor sees to it that his friends get their happy endings.

This era of Doctor Who attempted to confront the Doctor with his hubris and his hypocrisy, to get him to recognize his own culpability in the disasters that he attempts to fix. Here, Davies also ran into a conflict between his populist instincts as Doctor Who’s executive producer, as he worked to make the show a bright, epic, family-friendly hit—a task in which he undeniably succeeded—and his creative instincts as the show’s head writer, as his scripts were rarely better than when he gave into his darkest, nastiest impulses. The triumph of the human spirit is a lovely, worthy theme, but the best stories often come when people—the Doctor included—are at their worst. Part of the problem was something that I touched on in “The Sound Of Drums”/“The Last Of The Time Lords,” namely the show’s tendency to hold the Doctor at a distance. “Midnight” and “The Waters Of Mars” are so great in part because they give the Doctor nowhere to hide, but he is allowed to remain a silent cipher throughout much of his confrontations with the Master and with Davros. In the latter case, the Doctor never really refutes the Dalek creator’s assertion that he turns his companions into weapons, as though the show is unwilling to truly examine the nature of the Doctor’s pacifism or the question of how one actually should fight back against such an apocalyptic threat. Davies was great at setting up big ideas, but he struggled to resolve them. This worked just about okay for the mythology stuff—there’s an argument that the show’s biggest mysteries don’t really need solutions, and the mysterious woman in “The End Of Time” is a good case in point—but less well for the moral dilemmas, as the Doctor repeatedly found himself in situations with no valid solutions. Put it like this: There’s a reason the term “Davies ex machina” caught on in fan circles.

Yet, for all the missteps, for all the clumsiness and the weirdness, I look back on the Davies era with fondness, and my appreciation for these seasons has only increased since embarking upon this retrospective. When Davies’ incarnation of Doctor Who was good, it was as great as anything the show had ever done, and often unlike anything you could find on any other television show; even the show’s failures at least had the good grace to be unique and inimitable in their failure. And it’s always worth keeping in mind just how unthinkable it was in 2002 or 2003 that Doctor Who would come back at all, let alone as the BBC’s flagship show under the stewardship of one of British television’s most acclaimed writers; seriously, the BBC brass were as shocked as anybody when Davies first revealed he wanted to revive the show.

Davies’ five finales offer another way of encapsulating his era’s wildly divergent threads. When I think of those finales, I don’t primarily remember the plots or the mythology or the big themes. I think of Mickey and Jackie sacrificing so much to help Rose get back to the Doctor in “The Parting Of The Ways,” I think of the Doctor and Rose finding themselves on opposite sides of reality in “Doomsday,” I think of Martha finally deciding she has to leave in “The Last Of The Time Lords,” I think of Rose finally getting her Doctor in “Journey’s End,” and I think of the Doctor unburdening his soul to Wilf in the café, sacrificing himself for his old friend, and getting his reward in “The End Of Time.” Sometimes these grand emotional crescendos are supported by well-constructed plots (“Doomsday”), sometimes they’re powerful enough to make the audience forget the goofiness that led up to them (“The Parting Of The Ways,” “The End Of Time”), and sometimes they are overwhelmed and rendered inert by the insanity surrounding them (“The Last Of The Time Lords,” “Journey’s End”).

I’ll admit that, when I first watched these stories, the show’s overriding impulse to prioritize these emotional moments over sound, logical plotting often pissed me off. But now I can appreciate the wisdom of this approach; nearly a decade on from when Christopher Eccleston first stepped out of the TARDIS, I can empathize with both the era’s boosters and its detractors. His version of the show wasn’t perfect, but I’m honestly not sure I’d ever want to see a perfect Doctor Who. Davies took the largest, grandest storytelling canvas in television history—seriously, folks, we’re talking about all of time and space here—and gave it clarity by searching for emotional truth, particularly for those whose lives are touched by the Doctor. Above all, his stories are most interested in those little moments that just feel right, logic be damned, because those are the moments that most directly tap into the magic at Doctor Who’s core. That approach produced triumphs and disasters in equal measure, sometimes contained in the same story. The Doctor Who of Russell T. Davies, of Julie Gardner, of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, of Billie Piper and Freema Agyeman and Catherine Tate, of John Barrowman and of Elisabeth Sladen once more, was a mess. But what a fantastic mess it was.


Next time: This review fills in the last gap in our coverage of Doctor Who’s first seven seasons. We’ll be back in a few months as Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor takes control of the TARDIS. Thanks to all those who have read along these last six months; Doctor Who is a particularly tricky show to review, and I think—I hope—I’ve gotten better at it after reexamining these earlier stories. Chatting with you all about the show every week has been a blast. 

Filed Under: TV, Doctor Who

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