Wednesday, April 15, 2009

TV REVIEW: DOCTOR WHO EASTER SPECIAL 'PLANET OF THE DEAD'

Easter brought us the penultimate David Tennant appearance as the most original TV science fiction hero, Doctor Who. It was also the penultimate episode of writer/showrunner Russel T. Davies reign, for which the production travelled to Dubai, going a bit further afield then usual. So - was it any good?




The title, Planet of the Dead, is a bit of a cheat. Sure, there's a planet, and there are billions of dead on it - but they really don't have anything to do in or with the story.



A Lara Croft-alike, Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan), steals the cup of Athelstan from a museum in London, boards a bus during her escape and gets the Doctor sitting next to her. Before you know it, the bus is chased by the police and drives through a wormhole to land on a desert planet. The occupants of the bus include the driver, a middle-aged black couple of which the woman is slightly psychic (and she's the one hearing the voices of the titular dead even though they never communicate anything of importance to her), a middle-aged white woman and two young men. The Doctor explains they travelled to another planet through the wormhole, plans are set in motion to get the bus back on its feet, and the driver dies when he tries to cross through the wormhole on foot.

Back in London, UNIT (the paramilitary organization dealing with alien invasions) is called to the scene. The Doctor calls them on his cellphone (it's a spacey-wacey thing, too complex to explain) and learns that the wormhole is expanding steadily.


A UNIT scientist, Malcolm (comedian Lee Evans with a very thick Welsh accent) is called in to help the Doctor with the scientific stuff.




Meanwhile the Doctor and Lady Christina flirt, are taken prisoner by fly-people, discover that the sand covering the planet is actually the remains of every creature and structure that was alive and/or present a few weeks ago, and discover the real threat on the planet:



a huge swarm of stingray-like predators that create wormholes, destroy everything on a planet, and have a metal exoskeleton which allows them to survive wormhole travel. And of course Earth is next on the menu...

Planet of the Dead is pretty slow to get started, but picks up the pace once the threat is revealed. This wasn't the most challenging episode of Who for David Tennant, who is an actor with an incredible range. I did marvel several times at his comic timing, though. Tennant will definitely be missed when he bows out in the Christmas special.

The special guest stars are less impressive, though. Michelle Ryan, who started off as a teenager in Eastenders (Zoe Slater, remember her?) and recently starred in the unsuccesful reboot of The Bionic Woman, just hasn't got the maturity to pull off a Lara Croft. She's like a little girl playing at being an aristocratic hyper-cool sexy art thief, rather than being the real thing. Which makes the whole pseudo-romance with the Doctor hard to swallow. The writing's also to blame: Lady Christina is shallow, selfish, a brat and bossy, and yet we're supposed to adore her. And we - or at least I - don't.

Lee Evans is a broad, physical comedian, and putting him in the role of a nervous boffin immediately ensures that the role cannot be taken seriously. To be fair, Evans tones it down a bit (he could have gone far more over the top), and his final declaration of love to the Doctor is amusing, but as a whole the character of Malcolm feels superfluous and too much of a superfluous comic relief (the Doctor handles all the comedy the show needs perfectly well, a pity Russell T. Davies never seemed to realize this).

The other bus passengers mainly serve as a Greek Chorus, to help with a few plot elements (getting the bus repaired) and to illustrate one of RTD's recurrent themes in the series, namely that ordinary, everyday 'people, needing other people, are the luckiest people in the universe', to paraphrase the Jule Styne song. None of them really stand out or add much to the conflicts. They're also not used as cannon fodder, which is nice but on the other hand also reduces the tension in the episode.

Which brings us to the story and script. Written by RTD and Gareth Roberts, it takes its sweet time to get going. In fact, the only 'excitement' in the first half of the episode is when we see the claws of the fly-men a couple of times, pointing at a screen on which they see the Doctor and the other castaways.

The 'romance' between the Doctor and Christina is the emotional throughline of the episode, and it's obviouw we're meant to think of her as a potential new companion. At the end, the Doctor then rejects her coldly as he's still in his 'I lose everyone I ever care for so I'm going it alone'-phase, which I hope will be over real soon as it's fairly pathetic. I'm also not very keen on this 'Doctor is the Universe's Greatest Lover'-riff which has been so prevalent since the reboot, with the Doctor either falling in love or causing others to fall in love with him at the drop of a hat. I much preferred the sexless Saviour of the Universe-doctor of old, where the only sex-appeal (or lack of it) was brought by the actor playing the part. But that's ancient history now. It's just that all this love stuff feels so repetitive and redundant after a while, because it basically keeps going over the same ground forever.

Anyway, the problem isn't so much the romance as the character of Christina, a little girl play-acting at being tough and sexy, and failing miserably - though not in the script, where she's accepted by everyone at facevalue. With the result that the whole plotline feels false.

Once the stingray-creatures arrive, and the bus starts flying through the wormhole, the excitement factor picks up. The stingrays are well done CGI and their life cycle is utterly improbable but different and interesting.

Unfortunately, the escape from the planet is saddled by unnecessary melodrama back on Earth. Malcolm is supposed to shut the wormhole as soon as the bus is through, to stop the stingrays following. But the UNIT captain in charge of the operation decides that the wormhole must be closed immediately (i.e. before the Doctor gets back). Malcolm refuses, she draws her gun on him - and he still refuses. Then the problem is solved by the Doctor piloting the bus through the wormhole, and everyone gets busy fighting the few stingrays that got through. And after the action, the UNIT captain goes up to the Doctor, salutes him and is so happy he made it through - and she's sincere. The fact she was ready to kill him indirectly isn't even referred to in any way, there's no confession on her part, or even a moment where we can register her relief that she didn't have to go through with it. No matter how you slice it, that's just weak writing.

There's also one HUGE plot hole in the episode: the wormhole can only be crossed in something made of metal, to protect organic beings from the stresses of the journey. The Doctor needs to get the bus moving, so the passengers can return to Earth. Okay.

BUT.

When they arrive back on Earth and the crisis is over, UNIT presents the Doctor with his TARDIS, which they've put on a truck.

So why didn't they just drive the truck through the wormhole and deliver the TARDIS to the Doctor, who could then have used it to get everyone home safely? Even after he'd collapsed the wormhole on the alien planet-side?

Come to think of it - why was the Doctor on the bus in the first place? He was looking for the wormhole, but he could have done that just as well from inside his TARDIS...

In short, Planet of the Dead was not a very well-scripted episode of Doctor Who. Too many elements rung false, the climax was extended too much (I didn't really need the fight with the few stingrays, the escape back to Earth was more than sufficient and the real climactic moment of the story. All the rest was unnecessary filler), the emotional core of the story felt false, and the alien fly-people (or Tritivores) were neither interesting creations nor convincingly done - the overalls didn't help, either.
David Tennant's performance and the stingrays were the only really succesful elements here. Let's hope the next special, The Waters of Mars, is better.

Oh, and am I seeing too much in the final scene between the Doctor and Malcolm, where the latter repeatedly says 'I love you' to the former? I couldn't help thinking that this was Russell T. Davies himself expressing his feelings to the Doctor. Well, they both have glasses, they're both Welsh, and Malcolm could well be gay...

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