Thursday, April 16, 2009

Doctor Who: 'Planet of the Dead'

This Easter’s Doctor Who special was, much like the Christmas special that preceded it, a mildly entertaining, but ultimately hollow hour, primarily because of its disconnected feel from the overall narrative of the series. One of the trickiest things in long form serial fiction is making a story feel like it matters. In the case of Who, we know that Tennant is going to regenerate into someone new at the end of these specials, so they serve as an extended curtain call after the massive season four finale.

The primary issue with this episode is that it’s totally without context, and gives us no real reason to invest in it beyond the specifics of what happens on screen. The series gives us a lot of seemingly disconnected standalone episodes, but there we at least have the evolving relationship between the Doctor and companion to keep our interest when the story proper lags. In the case of this episode, we know that the world isn’t going to end, that they’re going to close the wormhole and all will be reset. So, it’s the same exact emotional beats as the Christmas special, leaving us with a sad Doctor alone, with only an ominous warning at his future as any sort of overarching narrative.

I think it’s less true of the old series, but in the current incarnation, the core of the show is the relationship between the Doctor and his companion. Much like The X-Files is ostensibly about scary stories, but is really about the relationship between Mulder and Scully, the various adventures serve as a device to let us get to know the Doctor and his companion better. Each season is defined largely by the chemistry between that specific Doctor and his companion, and without the companion to work with, these specials feel a bit hollow.

That’s no knock on Tennant, who’s as enthusiastic as usual. It’s more a consequence of the fact that no one’s really waiting to see these stories. I’m really curious to see the finale for Tennant, and to see stories with the new Doctor in the Moffat era, but this episode is just a place holder.


Gil said...


I'm getting somewhat bored of the "Humans. Aren't they brilliant! I love 'em. You're amazing! And I'm gonna get you all home!" routine. With stirring music 'n' all. I hope they come up with a new gambit for Matt Smith.

The biggest problem with this episode for me was the annoying pantomime element which pulls me completely out of the moment... usually accompanied by dodgy special effects, in this case that godawful bus! OK, a couple of people got killed, but there was a distinct atmosphere of jollies and fun about it all. I'd have preferred, for example, the UNIT woman shooting the Lee Evans character as she was threatening to do, and then closing the wormhole moments after the Doctor got the bus through. That would have added a certain bite to the proceedings. Instead she completely fails to protect the Earth - just as well the Doctor's there for us! - and is then back to being a cheering, saluting, fawning girl within moments.

Oh well. Wasn't Michelle Ryan much better as Lara Croft than as Jamie Sommers? ;-)

~ Gil

Gil said...

NB The reason I'm bored of that particular routine is that Tom Baker did it exactly once, in "The Ark In Space", and it *completely ruled*. I love David Tennant's characterization of the Doctor, but he's asked to bang on that drum entirely too many times...

Patrick said...

I thought Michelle Ryan was definitely better here than in Bionic Woman, but I would have liked to see the character developed a bit more. I do have a soft spot for those badass black clad female heroes, but there wasn't much to distinguish her from countless others we've seen before.

That said, I would like to see someone like her as the next companion as opposed to another ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances.

And, I totally agree on the wonderful humans thing. A lot of this episode felt like Davies on autopilot, hitting beats that have worked in the past, but didn't feel as potent here.