Friday, 11 October 2013

Planet of the Dead

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Planet of the Dead, except that in the spring of 2009 it was the only new episode of Doctor Who available, bridging the long gap between Christmas and November. It can't quite support the weight of our expectations.

After the familiar scheduling of The Next Doctor, this is the first of the extra Specials and it has much the hardest job: offered in lieu of an entire series. If this was part of a small season of two or even three episodes I think it would be really very good. As a traditional series opener, it would be spectacular. But, devoid of reinforcements, it feels like a lone sentry asked to guard home territory while the entire army is fighting somewhere else. Perhaps it's no surprise that thoughts turn to Beau Geste - in more ways than one Planet of the Dead is a lone outpost in the desert.

Maybe if there was some actual fight in this episode it would feel stronger. Without a proper antagonist, there's very little conflict and nobody for the Doctor to confront. Instead we get the brief face-off between Captain Magambo and Malcolm, a few seconds of quickly-dispelled tension when the Tritovores turn up and the occasional barbed comment from Lady Christina de Souza. The Swarm, although powerful and rather nicely realised, are not a credible threat. Without a voice or an argument to make, their menace is reduced to that of some heavy weather; we know Earth will be saved and that everyone will survive their approach.

So what's special about this Special? If nothing else, the desert vistas are enough, all by themselves, to justify the label. The location shooting is wonderful, and well worth all the extraordinary effort that was required to bring it to the screen. And the guest cast is lovely - once again modern Doctor Who celebrates ordinary real people, determined to show us that they have worth, abilities and personality that might be undervalued by society and even by themselves. Daniel Kaluuya is especially good as Barclay, but everyone on the bus gives us a reason to like them and to want them to get home.

Yes, even Lady Christina. Some of the original reviewers didn't like her (one was filled with 'revulsion' by her, another described her as a 'shameless Lara Croft rip-off''), but I think she's rather good fun. The boys were rather sad to see her go and suggested she would have made a good proper companion. I'd agree. She feels like a bit of a throwback, and there's something inherently ridiculous about being an upper-class adventuress who dabbles in high-class burglary for thrills, but her class and privilege remind us of the Doctor's aristocratic origins whilst simultaneously making him feel more grounded. After Rose and Donna (there was always something a little classier about Martha), Lady Christina's poshness feels fresh and the dynamic between her and the Doctor is a new one for the revitalised series: competitive, charged and exciting. Certainly, over the course of a full series, she would have had the chance to develop, change and win over those critics.

Chris, completely transfixed as usual, gave this a nine ("one off for the Fly Men") but liked Malcolm and his silliness, particularly the bit with the fire extinguisher. William, perhaps rather spoiled by Series Four, could only go as high as six. He liked Christina, but thought there was too much techno-babble ("computer gibberish"), hinting darkly that if they hadn't had to say it all, maybe they could have got on and closed the rift more quickly. So young and yet so cynical.

Much more exciting than all of this was the eventual revelation, after days of rumours, that the lost Troughton stories The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear had been recovered. William and I (Chris's not keen on black and white TV) watched part one of Enemy and were enthralled.

It just goes to show that you don't have to go to Dubai, or even Australia, to make brilliant Doctor Who, although it may be necessary to go to Nigeria in order to watch it.


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