THIS EPISODE TAKES
COMIC STRIP "THE TIME
RUSSELL T. DAVIES &
'THE COMPLETE SPECIALS'
BLU-RAY DVD BOX SET
IN JANUARY 2010.
When a London bus
takes a detour to
an alien world, the
Doctor must join
forces with the
Christina. But the
secrets, hidden in
the sand. And time
is running out as the
deadly Swarm gets
11TH APRIL 2009
(60-MINUTE EASTER SPECIAL)
Having watched the trailers for Planet of the Dead and kept up to speed with all the latest news concerning the episode, I had got it into my head that Doctor Who’s Easter Special was going to be a very grim and gruesome affair; a strange amalgamation of the movies Flight of the Phoenix and Pitch Black, perhaps even with a few elements of co-writer Gareth Roberts’ novel The Highest Science thrown in for good measure. However, whilst such influences are clearly evident in this sixty-minute romp, in terms of tone Planet
of the Dead is actually one of the most joyful and downright fun episodes that the series
has produced in a very long time.
For me, having re-watched the altogether more sombre Next
Doctor shortly before trans-mission, this episode’s refreshing
pace and panache was all the more apparent. Whilst a story
like The Next Doctor certainly has its place, with spring in the
air and sunnier days (hopefully) on the horizon, Planet of the
Dead is perfectly attuned to its broadcast date.
The episode’s opening set piece - beginning with an über-
stylish Oceans Eleven-style heist and concluding with the
Doctor offering the glamorous lady thief a bit of his Easter
egg – has to be one of Doctor Who’s most outstanding pre-
title sequences to date. Fast, fun, and even a bit sexy, it pro-mised exactly what the episode would subsequently deliver.
“We were made for each other”
Michelle Ryan’s Christina de Souza impressed me throughout. A rather haughty adrenaline junkie of questionable scruples, Christina is the perfect foil to David Tennant’s zany Doctor - the chemistry between Tennant and Ryan is absolutely electric. Whether Lady Christina is answering the Time Lord back in French or throwing herself down a shaft to retrieve a crystal (one of my favourite sequences in the episode, incidentally), Christina has the Doctor on his toes and he appears to love it almost as much as the audience do (and it’s another snog for the tenth Doctor’s snogbook too – he is really putting his first nine incarnations to shame now!)
“People have travelled with me and I’ve lost them. Lost them all. Never again.”
Nevertheless, hidden beneath this episode’s enlivening
façade is a slight, subtle hint of the Doctor’s inner turmoil;
his grief at the loss of Donna (and Astrid… and Martha…
and Rose…) still clearly influencing his actions. At one point
in the episode, Christina calls the Doctor “spaceman” just as Donna used to, clearly putting the Doctor in mind of Donna and her rueful fate, and no doubt influencing his decision not to take Christina with him in the TARDIS at the end of the story.
“Well it didn’t do Mr Watt any harm…”
However, as impressive as Christina was, I think it is fair to say that Lee Evans’ Dr Malcolm Taylor ultimately stole the show. Despite his comparatively brief screen time, the wacky but loveable UNIT scientist stands out as being one of the most overtly comic characters that the new series has given us – his ‘Malcolms’ and ‘Bernards’ especially had me in hysterics.
“I can’t believe I’m speaking to you! I’ve read all your files.”
And on the whole, this episode was an inspiring outing for his UNIT colleagues too. Noma
Dumezweni, reprising the role of Captain Erisa Magambo from last year’s Turn Left, once again gives a wonderful performance. I particularly enjoyed the scene where she had to threaten Taylor’s life – it was clear that she did not want to have to pull a gun on the amiable scientist, but she did what she thought was right nonetheless. I also liked her – as well as Taylor’s, for that matter – deference for the Doctor. The extent to which contemporary UNIT revere him really helps to perpetuate his legendary status, and better still the odd bit of ‘fanwank’ comes as a nice little reward for devotees - giant robot indeed! As the Doctor might say, “the worse it gets, the more I love it.”
Turning to the episode’s plot, though it is multifarious it is certainly fluent. All of the writers’ disparate elements – the ‘stingrays’, the Tritovores, UNIT, Christina, et al - fuse together seamlessly to form a story that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat throughout. What
I think really stands out about Planet of the Dead though are the lingering images that it leaves in the minds of the viewer. I am sure that in many years time, even the most casual
of viewers will fondly remember “the one with the big red bus on that desert planet” or “the one with the bus flying over London.”
“They feed off what others leave behind… from their behinds.”
I also found it remarkable how well the two writers’ styles complimented each other. The whole episode has a real sense of wit and perspicacity about it which has undoubtedly
come from Roberts’ pen, but showrunner Russell T Davies’ influence is also felt in earnest
in some of the episode’s more sincere moments. An early scene on the bus stands out
in particular, where the Doctor gathers his fellow passengers round to enquire about their
lives and ask where the bus was taking them. Beautiful stuff.
The episode’s climax is utterly relentless, not to mention spectacular. The Mill have really done a tremendous job with the special effects in this one; alien planet aside (which is note-worthy in itself), you really have to take your hat off to them for the shots of the Doctor driving a red double-decker bus over London - the Doctor’s old friend Iris Wildthyme would have been proud!
“Your song is ending, sir... He will knock four times.”
Furthermore, Carmen’s final, prophetic warning to the Doctor comes as a real jolt, especially considering the tone of the rest of the story. I do not think most viewers will have to scratch their heads too hard to work out who might “knock four times”, but of course the real fun of it is not in the ‘surprise’, it’s in the anticipation. Bring on the drums…
And so in all, if you can forgive the very dubious morals imprinted on impressionable young viewers (Christina is certainly no Robin Hood!) Doctor Who’s (debatably) two-hundredth televised story and its (undisputedly!) first adventure to be shot in high definition is a real treasure. The well-documented problems that beleaguered its production may not have
been ‘fun’ for the production team (though in fairness, I think that the weathered bus proved to be far more apposite than a pristine one would have been, and I’m sure that the Doctor Who Confidential team were grateful for the extra fodder!), but it can’t be argued that the resultant hour of television is anything else but.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2009
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Planet of the Dead opens with a highly effective sequence that sets the tone for this action-packed special. Lady Christina’s robbery in the International Museum is taut and well-choreographed; it’s a cliché, right down to the visible laser beams (you can’t see them,
that’s kind of the point), but a classic one that still works after seeing it a dozen times in as many movies. Pretty much immediately we’re on the bus, again an effective cliché, a British symbol that marks out how proudly British this show is. While the Doctor comes initially as the loony on the bus you pray won’t sit next to you, Lady Christina comes across as cool,
confident and in charge from the outset. I loved the frustrated DI McMillan, played by Adam James with some fine uptightness, and the whole chase sequence was highly enjoyable.
Before long we’re into the story proper, the bus being whisked to San Helios in a flurry of effects. The decision to film in Dubai was a brilliant one; visiting a strange country can feel like landing on another world, and the use of the Arabian desert is far more effective than a local quarry or a CGI vista would have been. Some subtle effects work with the three suns completes the picture of this alien world.
All the characters on the bus are well-acted, but top marks have to go to Ellen Thomas as Carmen, who portrays her character with real dread and mystery. The inclusion of a low-
level psychic (at first I almost thought he’d said “O-Level Psychic”) is a plot contrivance, but
it works, highlighting areas of the plot that would otherwise easily be passed by and adding to the sense of threat on this new world. There are some other similarly contrived but equally effective moments - the idea of the bus acting as a Faraday cage is a great way of justifying its inclusion, although all it’s really there for is to create a memorable image. The shot of the poor driver walking through the wormhole, only to be immolated, is wonderfully gruesome and perfectly serves to set up the marooned situation. However, I did wonder why, once the Doctor had UNIT on the phone, he didn’t just ask them to send through a tank or armoured car? An all-terrain vehicle of some kind, anyway, that would be better shielded against the effects of the wormhole and easier to manoeuvre on the sand. Even the TARDIS, sat in UNIT’s possession, could have been sent through – although I suppose sending a complex space-time event through a wormhole might be rather dangerous. Of course, obvious though these ideas are, then there would have been no story.
Much mention must be made of Michelle Ryan as Lady Christina. Overall, I was taken by the character; she hovered between irritating and impressive, especially as she took charge of the situation in the early moments of the crisis, but in general worked as a fairly well-written adventure-loving figure. Ryan’s performance was fine, but nothing special. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, but it seemed a tad one-note. Still, she does the generic-BBC-posh-bird well, and she certainly has the glamour the role requires. The only truly poor moment for her was that god awful line where she claims that the aristocracy are “ready for anything.” Overall, she and the Doctor work very well together, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she turns up again some day, in the most unexpected of locations.
David Tennant was, as usual, on fine form here. His best moment has to be on the bus, reassuring the lost humans that he will get them home. His asking about their destinations was a cleverly written way of establishing trust, and reinforces this Doctor’s character as someone who fights for the little people. Tenant seems so comfortable in the role now it’s easy to imagine him going on forever, which will make his farewell all the more affecting,
It’s great to see UNIT again, and the use of the wormhole to bridge the alien world and the Earth is, once again, contrived but effective, allowing both a way home for the characters
that is just out-of-reach, and a method of bringing the threat closer to home for the viewer. Noma Dumezweni is excellent as Captain Magambo, imbuing the role with a quiet authority that is far more effective than any amount of shouty soldier types. I can only hope this is not her final appearance in the role.
Equally effective, to my pleasurable surprise, was Lee Evans as Dr Malcolm Taylor. Oh,
how we groaned to hear gurning comic Evans was to be a guest star in this episode. In
the event, he’s excellent, being both an effective character in a practical sense, a funny source of comedy, and an affectionate look at those fans who idolise this show and it’s
main character. Making him scientific advisor – the Doctor’s job back in the day – was
also a nice touch. Altogether, I loved the little references – number 200, Tom Baker’s
debut serial Robot, Quatermass – which never went over the edge to intrusiveness.
Monster-wise this episode is also a winner. The Tritovores are basic – just men with fly-hats on – but they work well, especially their twitching mandibles and clicky insect speech. I also like the name – Tritovore being a contraction of detritovore, a creature that feeds off dead
or waste matter. Technically, if they only eat faeces, they’d be coprovores, but that might be hammering home the point a bit. Still, it makes sense to have the creatures come to San Helios to buy the poo of a hundred million people - a wonderfully icky idea! I also like the
fact that they are not the villains here, although they do end up being rather unfortunate
cannon fodder. The Swarm, on the other hand, are truly excellent. A genuinely frightening threat brilliantly realised. Originally I assumed they were small creatures, but they turn out
to be huge! The idea of their having metallic bones is fairly plausible – our bones are partially metallic, after all – but the idea that they can generate wormhole by flying round
a planet really, really quickly is drivel. Still, these creatures could constitute a threat to the
entire universe – I somehow doubt the Doctor’s going to spend the rest of his life moving their wormholes for them.
The final sequences are excellent, wonderfully fun and tense. You can really believe that Magambo will sacrifice the lives of the people on the bus for the sake of the Earth – it’s perfectly logical, exactly the sort of tough decision such a character would have to make.
You really have to wonder how well they’d cope at Christmas if the Doctor wasn’t around though. I also wonder if a new UNIT is being set up, what with Magambo making another appearance, Malcolm being introduced, and the suggestion that Barclay and Nathan may have a job waiting for them. All we need now is the Brigadier to show his face. The flying
bus is utterly silly but works brilliantly, an image that will be remembered for years I’m sure. And this time, the Doctor/companion kiss feels entirely appropriate.
The triumphant return is tempered somewhat
by Carmen’s warning of things to come. What
is returning? Who will knock? Why are psychics so bloody cryptic? The four knocks make me think of the Master’s drumming, and there have been rumours of his return… then again, virtually every character to ever have appeared in the show has been rumoured to return this Christmas.
We get a great ending, with Christina escaping to adventure another day, but you do have
to wonder about the morality being shown here – it’s okay to steal priceless artefacts if it’s for fun, not profit? What a wonderful example for the kids! Really though, the ending is exactly what this whole episode was – damned good fun. Rather than the overblown extravaganzas we’ve come to expect for the Christmas specials, this Easter we’ve had what amounted to a good, solid slice of Doctor Who, which is just what I wanted.
Copyright © Daniel Tessier 2009
Daniel Tessier has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
When is now? These events take place at Easter, and in a world that resembles that of April 2009, when this episode was transmitted. However, this episode is unlikely to be set on the date of its transmission as, were it not for the Doctor’s intervention here, the world would have been imperilled and this would have significantly effected the Doctor-less world that we saw in Turn Left. Furthermore, as Carmen’s warning that the Doctor’s “song is ending” appears to be chronologically prophetic, it makes sense that these events takes place prior to The End of Time.
This episode must therefore take place during Easter 2010, around a year ahead of its transmission, and The End of Time almost eight months later.
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