21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Planet Of The Dead

Flicking through my encyclopaedia-sized driving theory book, I'm forever cursing not having the opportunity to try for a driving licence earlier in my life. Put it down to lack of funds or too much work – the downsides of being an incompetent fool are all too obvious when it comes to getting around.

Take public transport, in which hapless masses are forced to pay eye-watering amounts for services so shoddy, a horse and cart could get you from A to B in quicker time. What's worse is that those who wield almighty power in the public transport domain seem possessed by the worst sort of misanthropic gloom, so much so, that it's easy to think that wholesale grumpiness is a vital prerequisite for the job. Travelling by bus, for example – a joyless experience at the best of times, but more often than not, the driver in charge will respond to your cheery greeting with a non-committal grunt and the facial expression of a compulsive onion eater. In keeping with this driver misery, it's a miracle if the bus that you want actually turns up on time, and when it does surface, it's packed to the gills with blue-rinsed grannies who are nattering about their chilblains. Getting a seat is like nabbing a winning Lottery ticket.

What better place for a Doctor Who story? Get on board with Planet Of The Dead, Doctor Who's very own homage to On The Buses, complete with a miserly bus driver who's obviously been studying for a degree in Blakey Customer Service.

Planet Of The Dead was the first in a set of what the Beeb called 'Specials', given that Doctor Who was inexplicably off the air for most of 2009. A strange situation, when you take into account a couple of issues. First off, the promise of four specials in 2009 is a con since technically all fans got was this story, The Waters Of Mars and the first part of The End Of Time. Secondly, the whole idea of keeping the fans wanting more doesn't ring true, and more to the point, their expectations were always going to be a lot higher – more on this in a mo. In the end, it's obvious that the lack of Doctor Who in 2009 was all down to behind the scenes changes, as Russell T Davies was preparing to make way for Steven Moffat and his new era.

Planet Of The Dead needed to live up to its much hyped 'Special' status. Which it didn't quite to be honest. Don't get me wrong, it's a hugely enjoyable adventure tale that's packed full of flashy visuals and – whoo hoo! - a trip abroad to Dubai for a spot of location filming. But special's a bit misconstrued, given that there's nothing particularly special about this story. At a pinch, it could have passed for a season opener in the style of Smith And Jones or Partners In Crime, in which the Doctor faces off against a run-of-the-mill threat which can be defeated with a nonchalant flick of the wrist.

In this case, the Doctor's got to get a rickety old bus back to Earth after it passes through a wormhole and gets stuck on the arid planet of San Helios, which sounds like the sort of last-minute deal resort for a group of mad-for-it chavs who are hell-bent on drinking their way through every single bar in the area. Naturally, he achieves his aim with the help of a man who's been watching too many Norman Wisdom films and a snotty rich kid who possesses as much charisma as a moth-eaten bus pass. It's an enjoyable ride, but it's not quite special enough to stick in the mind.

Easter's kind of like the poor relation of Christmas in the first place. No presents. No lavish feasts. The holidays aren't as long. But the Doctor's evidently had enough of habitually materialising in a Winter Wonderland, and instead decides to make do with a 99p Easter Egg that he snaffled from the local newsagent's. For this adventure only, he's accompanied by the hee-hawwing form of Lady Christina De Souza, a girl who wasn't so much born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but the entire diamond-encrusted cutlery set forcibly rammed down her gullet.

Christina's the latest in the queue of one-time companions for Johnny No Mates Doctor, although in this case, her lone appearance is a blessed relief. The snotty Ice Maiden companion has been tried before in the form of Mary Tamm's Romana, but this worked for a number of reasons. Tamm's engaging rapport with Tom Baker resulted in a fun dynamic between the Doctor and the companion. Plus, as the Key To Time season progressed, Romana would become a much more likeable character anyway.

Christina, on the other hand, is impossible to like. In the first place, she's a thief – a bit rich, given that she comes from a highly privileged background. We're being asked to actually like someone who thinks that it's OK to go around stealing things that aren't hers. There's a superior air about Christina, a rich kid who automatically assumes leadership because she thinks it's her automatic right to do so. Not only that, but she's a walking bank, forever prizing material goods and wealth. “I hate you!” she tuts at the Doctor as he mercifully hammers her stolen Athelstan Chalice to pulp in order for it to help kick start the rickety bus into gear. If she was chosen as a long-term companion, maybe the deal would have been similar to the Sixth Doctor in that she'd start out as someone you'd willingly put on a one-way rocket to the moon and by the end of her run, would have ended up as someone vaguely likeable.

Problem with that is, like Jenny in The Doctor's Daughter, Christina has no real character to speak of. She's a lax cut-out who can list about maybe three things on her talent CV: Smug superiority. Buffy-style burglary. Being annoying. But whereas Georgia Moffett did her level best to inject some sort of personality into the similarly vacuous Jenny, Michelle Ryan here isn’t quite in the same league.

As with Midnight, the Doctor's stuck with a handful of nail-chewing passengers who are desperate to get back home. However, whereas Midnight contained genuinely well-drawn and compelling characterisation, Planet Of The Dead is populated by the Poundland equivalents. Angela: the harassed mum who bursts into tears at the drop of a hat; Lou and Carmen, a lovable old couple who think nothing of chowing down on chops and gravy – mmmm, chops and gravy...; Nathan and Barclay, two teeny-boppers who look like they should be in a band put together by Louis Walsh; and the surly bus driver whose only function is to serve as useless victim. Nameless Mr Bus Driver naturally refuses to heed the Doctor's warnings of taking the fast but flamey route back home, ending up as a crispy fried skeleton on the other side of the wormhole. Cool death though – the special effects skeleton clattering to the rainy pavement on Earth is another surprisingly gruesome moment in the Davies era of skeletal, mummified and shrivelled corpses.

On the other side of the wormhole, there's the rather ethereal Captain Erisa Magambo (last seen in Turn Left), a woman who looks like she last hinted at a smile in 1974; inept police guy DI McMillan, a man who makes Duggan look like a svelte professional; and most infamously of all, Malcolm Taylor, UNIT's brand new scientific adviser. Personality-wise Malcolm's what happens when you take the DNA from Sergeant Osgood from The Daemons and The Whizzkid from The Greatest Show In The Galaxy and mix them together. He's a parody of the Doctor Who fan, even waxing lyrical about the days when the Doctor did battle against the giant robot. There are some amusing moments to be had here, especially when Malcolm declares that he's named a unit of measurement after his own name. By the end of the story, he's gone beyond hero worship and into teenage girl-style adoration.

Blimey Malcolm, get a room, kids are watching.

Acting-wise, the actors succeed in bringing the lean characterisation to life. Lee Evans as Malcolm's babbles of “I love you!” at the Doctor may resemble a cross-eyed Brossette, but overall, it's an engagingly fun performance. Noma Dumezweni does well as the stern Magambo, while Adam James is evidently enjoying himself as McMillan. Out of the Double Deckers, Victoria Alcock is good value as Angela, and there are early performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Holby City's David Ames.

At the centre of all this is of course, David Tennant, whose Doctor is a bit more chipper than in The Next Doctor. We've still got signs of his impending demise: He's desperate to keep his teeth intact in a neat nod to his first line at the end of The Parting Of The Ways. He's notably sombre when having a chinwag about poor old Donna to Christina. Plus of course, there's that doomy ending which I'll come to at the end of this review: if you can stay awake that is. If you do, I'll throw in a prize of a year-old Easter Egg as a reward.

Anyway, Tennant does well here, although this isn't a story that pushes the Doctor into brand new spheres. That's not too much of a problem though, considering that his next and last stories will push Tennant's acting talents to the limit and in spectacular style at that. In this story, it's pretty much business as usual for the Tenth Doctor: Make lots of wisecracks. Promise to get everyone home. Look forlorn at the departure of a past companion. Oh, and of course, snog the leading lady, which is par for the course – good thing that Malcolm didn't see the Doctor and Christina indulge in tonsil tickling: he would have burned his entire collection of Doctor Who novels to a heap of powder in a fit of pique.

Despite the meat and potatoes feel of the Davies-Roberts story, it's still well written and made. The overseas filming in Dubai works well, and adds a glossy sheen to the production. Try filming on an English beach in the middle of January: there's a ghost of a chance that it might not work... Planet Of The Dead was a bit of a troubled shoot, judging from the behind-the-scenes documentary, which tells of tales of woe about damaged buses, howling sandstorms and that pesky old sun doing its best to ruin the shoot. Nevertheless, these hiccups don't come across in the end product, and in the case of the damaged bus, it's a case of serendipity anyway, since you wouldn't expect the double decker to emerge all shiny and new on the other side of the wormhole.

James Strong delivers another good bit of direction, making the most of his overseas assignment to deliver some beautiful photography worthy of the big screen. The effects are generally very good, including the lethal stingrays, the grisly death of the bus driver and the flying bus, which does admittedly look a bit Potter-ish. The Tritovores do look a bit naff, but maybe they're meant to be in a story that owes a lot to Old School-style Doctor Who with its tale of arid alien planets, buzzy alien killers and the return of UNIT.

Maybe that's the best way to look at Planet Of The Dead: As a pleasingly traditional bit of Doctor Who. Put this in a regular season and it might be regarded more highly in fan circles. Unfortunately, because it's broadcast as a one-off special, it's not unusual or innovative enough to stand out from the crowd, so with that in mind, it's little wonder that it wasn't so well received. A well-made and well-told bar of Doctor Who, but there's that feeling that you missed out on the extra packet of sweets at the same time.

But holds up, wait a minute. Just when you thought that the Tenth Doctor had got away with but another rebuttal of a potential companion, along comes Prophecy Girl Carmen and her own doomy take on the Time Lord's future. “You be careful, because your song is ending sir,” she whispers to the Doctor in haunted tones. “It is returning, it is returning through the dark. And then Doctor – oh, but then – he will knock four times...”

Oooh, spooky! This evidently means that the Tenth Doctor's card is well and truly marked, especially since Murray's orchestra is farting in that ominous way in the background. What can Carmen mean exactly? Will the Doctor encounter Chloe Webber during a TARDIS power cut? Will he encounter the Postman Of Death? Or will he be sung to death by Tony Orlando and Dawn? One thing's for sure, things are not looking good for this particular incarnation, and from now on, it's all about to get a bit too much for Number Ten...

* Encounter more alien worlds like San Helios in my eBooks on the classic age of Doctor Who!


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