Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead

“I don’t believe it. Guns don’t work.”

Well, that was great. I really enjoyed that; a good swashbuckling romp. I’m glad we get a story like this right now, as the ending suggests we won’t be seeing another such light-hearted romp for quite some time.

I love the beginning; we have a cat burglar. As there are no cats available she proceeds to steal a Priceless Shiny Artefact from a museum in the coolest possible way, and then turns out to be played by Michelle Ryan. I love this sequence; it’s brilliantly shot. The many short glimpses of various police officers before Christina gets on the bus really make us feel that there’s no escape.

But there is, of course; the bus is off to another planet. Gareth Roberts has co-written this with RTD, and this whole scenario reminds me of the Eight Twelves from his excellent (though slightly metalhead-ist) Virgin New Adventures novel, The Highest Science. The whole visual aesthetic of a London bus in the (genuine) desert is most effective, too. I don’t think I buy the oft-stated view that they could have filmed this closer to home than Dubai and still had a desert which looked as good (this is the first story to have been shot in HD, I believe), but I’m enough of a wishy-washy liberal to wish it had been filmed somewhere with a better human rights record than the UAE.

There’s a bit of misdirection early on as we’re made to expect everyone to turn on the Doctor as per Midnight (Humans on buses, always blaming me!”), but that’s not how things turn out. Instead, Christina takes charge and shows herself to have a natural air of authority but also to be a pretty good leader. This scene is also good practical scripting, as Christina rather efficiently gets everyone to introduce themselves. That’s one of RTD’s many admirable qualities; making the exposition double as character development.

The most interesting of the others is Carmen, a psychic, and a genuine one, as the Doctor’s reaction makes clear. Already she can hear “voices of the dead”, and her premonitions are strategically placed throughout the story to build up the tension.

Back on Earth, UNIT have been called in, led by Captain Magambo from Turn Left. The best thing about them is the Sergeant Osgood-like Malcolm, who may be nothing but an absent minded professor stereotype but is brilliantly played by Lee Evans. Any you have to love anybody who name checks Bernard Quatermass.

We’re shown some friendly insect creatures, Tritovores (they remind me a bit of the Rills from Galaxy Four all that time ago), who are rather obviously there just to serve the plot, although this fact is subtly but deliberately played for laughs in a slightly fourth-wall breaking way. Before we discover they’re friendly, though, Christina gets a great and Tom-ish line “Ah, I’ll remember that as I’m being slowly tortured. At least I’m bleeding on the floor of a really well-designed spaceship.” Nice one! The Tritovores believe the Doctor (just there to serve the plot, so of course they do) and allow the Doctor to do one of the things he loves best; exposition. It seems that cloud approaching from the background consists of billions of large manta rays with metal exoskeletons, which despoil planet after planet through wormhole after wormhole. It’s a terrifying threat, an unstoppable plague of locusts, and it’s heading first for our heroes and then for Earth.

The scene where Christina retrieves the crystal is fascinating and nuanced. There’s a quasi-political class subtext here (“The aristocracy survives for a reason.”) which is more notable now, in Cameron’s Britain, than it was at the time. But I find myself not really minding it, although perhaps I should. Do I have something of the English forelock-tugging gene / disease in spite of myself, or is it just that Christina is so cool? Because she is, and she goes some way to redeeming herself for her criminal lifestyle here with here bravery and potential self-sacrifice. Besides, she and the Doctor are both thieves, with a parallel being explicitly being drawn between her threat of King Athelstan’s cup and the Doctor’s theft of the TARDIS.

As soon as the McGuffin has been retrieved, the Tritovores become superfluous to the plot, and as their sole function in life is to serve the plot, they are promptly killed. Hilariously, the dialogue even pretty much states this out loud at this point. I so love little fourth-wall breaking jokes of this kind.

Christina gives up her treasure (another little moment of redemption?) and we have a flying bus. This is really very cool indeed, as is every moment of the final few minutes, from the Doctor’s meeting with Malcolm to the mutual respect between the Doctor and Magambo, who was trying to kill him moments earlier by closing the wormhole but, crucially, was doing it for the right reasons. This is a slightly cuddlier UNIT than we’ve known in the recent past, although the Doctor’s unease with the modern organisation remains.

I seem to be making a habit, these days, of saying I’m no longer bothered by something which annoyed me on original transmission. This time it’s the Doctor allowing Christina to get away; on second viewing I feel on balance that she’s been genuinely magnificent and redeemed herself enough to earn it. The kiss is cool too. But once again the Doctor is adamant that he travels alone. This can’t bode well.

Oh yes, and there’s Carmen’s prediction. I’ve had enough of things returning through the darkness- how many times is it now? But we’re told again that the Doctor’s song is ending. And that “He will knock four times.” Brr.

Magnificent. 5/5.

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