21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Planet Of The Ood

I guess it was only a matter of time before the Ood came back for another tussle with the Doctor. They had proven to be a big success in David Tennant's first season, thanks to their strikingly unusual appearance and the mystery of whether they were goodies or baddies. In the end, they got a rather sad exit in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, after they were killed in explosions, having been possessed by the Beast. Even the Doctor couldn't save them this time, the scoundrel.

So he figures that he owes them one after arriving on the Planet Of The Ood. The concept of Ood slavery was briefly mentioned in the previous two-parter, but it's dwelt upon more heavily in Planet Of The Ood – which incidentally, is a big return to form after the lack of direction of The Fires Of Pompeii.

It's one of those stories which interestingly doesn't rate too highly in fan circles. While it's not languishing in the company of Fear Her or The Doctor's Daughter, it's still not in the upper echelons of NuWho.

Which I find baffling. After all, it's got everything that you could possibly want in a Doctor Who story. It's exciting and jarringly scary for kids. It's got interesting things to say about slavery and raises some intelligent points (again) about the pitfalls of 21st century culture.

To cap it all off, it's lovely to look at. We're in the capable hands of Graeme Harper, who is at the top of his game here with an assignment that's nearly on a par with his work for The Caves Of Androzani. Planet Of The Ood scores highly on just about every count – whether you like the aesthetic, moral or scary side of Doctor Who, there's something to satisfy all tastes.

The difference between this story and The Fires Of Pompeii is that of clarity. Every event, every character and every plot twist has a definite motivation and clear sense of purpose. Another notable point to make about the contrast between Ood and Pompeii is that while there's clear links to modern day life, in the case of Planet Of The Ood, it's more in context. Whereas in The Fires Of Pompeii, all that talk of staggering out of Roman bars and short togas stuck out like a sore thumb. In Planet Of The Ood, there's a thinly veiled parody of today's upwardly mobile prawns. Back in the 1980s, we would have called them yuppies, but they are still around, strutting around with a ridiculously over-confident swagger and a very expensive power suit and all the latest accompanying bling from the state-of-the-art mobile through to the finest jewellery that money can buy.

There are lots of these types in Planet Of The Ood, most notably the guests at the Ood PR launch. They all look like Apprentice contestants who have just made it through another task and are getting drunk on swanky wines and champagne to celebrate. It's an interesting tack to take when portraying a future society. It seems that in the future, alas, we won't be strutting around in dayglo tracksuits, high collars or over-stylised tunics. Instead, Planet Of The Ood assumes that in the future, there won't be a radical change in the way we dress or the way in which we go about our daily lives. There are very subtle distinctions such as slightly smaller collars and ties or advancements in technology such as the futuristic control board.

But otherwise, there are plenty of familiar elements from today: The schmoozing PR events, including the press pack, buzzwords and free booze. The industrial style warehouse, all grime and apparently little maintenance. And apparently The Simpsons will still be soldiering on in the future, when a lone Ood has the ability to say “D'oh!” It's a pleasingly unusual trick to portray a future society that doesn't rely on traditional gleaming white corridor stereotypes.

The link with 21st century life also raises the point about slavery. Interestingly, Planet Of The Ood doesn't fall back on countless moral sermons about how bad slavery is. Instead, the theme of slavery is shown rather than talked about in great detail. The over-zealous Kess and his minions keep a trudging pack of Ood workers in line with the good old-fashioned whip. The likes of the amoral Mr Halpen or even Mr Bartle treat the Ood with nothing but barely hidden contempt.

And worst of all, hordes of Ood are trapped in cages, singing the song of captivity, reducing Donna to tears. Earlier Donna reacts with outrage to the Doctor's assertion that 21st century Britain has its fair share of slavery too: “Is that why you travel round with a human at your side?” she huffs. “It's not so you can show them the wonders of the universe, it's so you can take cheap shots.” But maybe the truth of what's going on with the Ood hits a little bit too close to home than she realises. “I spent all that time looking for you Doctor, because I thought it would be so wonderful out there,” she says. “I want to go home”. The Doctor has shown her the true effects of slavery and I'm guessing that prior to this, Donna hadn't really thought that these sorts of conditions exist right back in her own time and place. Sometimes the Doctor's mystery tour of the universe brings a few home truths to roost, even if the companion finds them too overwhelming to absorb.

Catherine Tate goes from strength to strength with her endearing characterisation of Donna, a fallible loudmouth with a heart of gold underneath the bluster. The Doctor and Donna relationship is easily the most comfortable of the Tennant years, and it always seems to bring out the best in the main man. David Tennant turns in another winning performance of infectious enthusiasm (“'Molto Bene! Belissimo!' says Donna!”) and moral outrage – so it's a shame that the Ood are already warning about how the song will soon be ending.

One of the aspects that I like about Planet Of The Ood is the way in which there's a bit more detail to the guest characters, and in particular, how some of them don't equate with expectations. Take the main baddie Mr Halpen. He's an evil fiend for sure, willing to resort to mass genocide by the end of the story – but at the same time, he's more of an amoral baddie rather than a moustache-twirling pantomime villain. In fact, he's a neurotic wreck of a man, constantly worried about his appearance and balking at the fact that he's losing more hair by the day. Halpen's insecurity comes through in his twitchy, nervy body language (although this could be a side effect of the secret tonic) and also in his dialogue which is often plagued with self-doubt and worry. He's frequently asking questions rather than giving orders and even when he's threatening to shoot the Doctor and Donna, he's still questioning himself: “Now then, can't say I've ever shot anyone before... can't say I'm exactly going to like it, but – uh – it's not exactly a normal day, is it?”.

Halpen's amorality, it could be argued, stems from an overbearing family. He's been handed the family business, following his father and grandfather (his father showed him around Warehouse 15 at the age of six) and basically wants shot of the thing. “Cargo, I can always go into cargo,” he ponders at one point, musing that it's much more manageable without livestock. However, he's still a ruthless bad guy, after he chooses to push his turncoat sidekick Dr Ryder into the Ood Brain – shortly after this, he gets his just desserts after he finds that he's been poisoned by Ood Sigma, who's turning him into an Ood.

It's a great scene this – it's interesting in that it's not a death as such, but it's still memorably gory, especially when Halpen peels back his mutating head to reveal the Ood underneath. His last muffled sob as he coughs up his hind brain is also weirdly disconcerting. A fitting end to what's probably one of the best human villains in NuWho. Tim McInnerny's outstanding performance is also one of the best in the new reboot too, alternating between nervy tension, convincing villainy (which is pleasingly underplayed) and occasional subtle humour – the “We're gonna blow it up” line is a good example.

It's not just Halpen that confounds expectations. PR girl Solana Mercurio (which sounds like the name of a futuristic ice lolly) is another example. After the Ood have started to run amok, you think that she might change sides and join the Doctor to bring the system down. But in fact she gives their hiding place away to a horde of angry guards who are on their trail. At the end of the day, Solana's no better than the likes of Halpen or Bartle in that she's only looking out for number one: inevitably resulting in her demise by Ood washing up dirigible.

Dr Ryder also turns out to be a lot more than the apparent second banana to Halpen. By the end of the show, it's revealed that he's a secret agent from Friends Of The Ood, and has helped to kick start the revolution without anyone noticing. Looking back at the episode, all the clues are there which may not be picked up on first viewing. There are the blink 'n' miss it meaningful looks between Ryder and Ood Sigma, and subtle body language that conveys his disgust at having to follow Halpen's orders. Two more great performances here from Ayesha Dharker and Adrian Rawlins respectively. In fact, there's not one bad performance in Planet Of The Ood. Even Roger Griffiths' manic Kess works in context.

Mind you, the giant Grab A Doctor scene is pushing it a bit – there's no real reason for Kess to start hunting for the Doctor like he's trying to pick up a teddy bear for his girlfriend at a prize grab machine on the local pier. Well, apart from the fact that Kess is another bloodthirsty sadist who's standing in a long queue when it comes to Doctor Who. It's all in the evil laughter, as he guffaws with delight at the Doctor's squirming on the floor below.

Kess is yet another one to bite the dust in a 'Told You So' style fashion – this time he's gassed to death after getting trapped in the cage that was meant for his hapless Ood victims. In fact, Planet Of The Ood is refreshingly bleak in that it kills off all the human guest cast. The Ood are standing and singing by the story's end, but all of the humans have either been killed or horribly transmogrified. No wonder the original vanilla DVD release got bumped up to a 12 rather than a PG, bearing in mind that Halpen's transformation had to be hacked about to avoid more wrath from Daily Mail readers.

Production wise, this is one of the real treats of Tennant's third season. Graeme Harper is clearly a man who loves his job, and this comes through in his powerhouse direction, which takes all the awards. Just look at the eponymous planet – it's magical, but at the same time, it's again bypassing expectations. At the time of the Ood's first appearance, I would have thought that they would have come from some swampy, jungle-style locale, but instead they come from a crisp, white, snowy planet. It's expertly realised and fully convinces – even though they shot this episode in the hot August of 2007 (and kudos to the actors for looking cold even when they were probably roasting). The interiors of the offices are well done too with those Warhol-style prints on the walls and the minimalist layouts – again, nicely giving the impression of a futuristic society that doesn't rely on stereotypical bling.

Harper's also got a good grasp of balancing the action and the subtle horrific atmosphere. The action sequences are very well filmed as usual, jammed to the walls with fast cuts and low camera angles. Contrasting that is a sense of eerie detachment, whether it's the unearthly blood-red interior of the warehouse or the creepy snowy wastes. Harper achieves the perfect combination of full-blooded action and tense atmospherics, and overall, Planet Of The Ood is one of his greatest accomplishments to date.

I can't believe I'm saying this too, but get this – Murray Gold's choral score actually works this time around. OK, so the end Ood song is the usual old schmaltz, but the lone soprano warbling helps to crank up that off-kilter atmosphere of the Ood planet, and at the end, when it starts to overpower Halpen as he's standing near the Ood brain. The Ood song of captivity is similarly haunting, and it helps to sell their plight very well. Blimey, what's happened to me? Have I undergone some sort of Ood-style transformation myself in which I become one of Gold Almighty's faithful acolytes? Well no, not just yet – but I will acknowledge that this is probably one of his best scores for the show, and in fact there's quite a few Gold-en musical treasures hovering around this season, waiting to be savoured.

Planet Of The Ood is one of my favourites of the revived Doctor Who. Everything comes together: Keith Temple's well-written script (shame he wasn't invited back to contribute another one). The uniformly strong performances. The many thrills and spills. And of course, the superb direction from Graeme Harper which is by turns impressively flashy and carefully thought through. A triumph from beginning to end, this is one of the standouts of what's one of the best seasons of 21st century Doctor Who.

* Explore more alien worlds and meet more alien races in my Doctor Who eBook guides to the 1970s and 1980s eras of the show:


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