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Doctor Who 4[XXX].3: Planet of the Ood

April 19th, 2008 (11:27 pm)

So, I didn't get to see this with ou3fs as planned, thanks to the sport audience having got to the television room first. A small breakaway group managed to coalesce at another location, however, and all I missed was the pre-credits sequence.

There are definitely attributes in today’s Doctor Who which would have seemed awkward to me twenty years ago; but then, the present team seem much more committed to doing their best work, as a whole, and every story coheres much better than the productions of the mid-to-late John Nathan-Turner period. This is most noticeable in the detail. I’d have winced at the plastic folders handed to the corporate clients if they’d appeared in a Sylvester McCoy story, thinking them a tatty way of seeming futuristic; now, they are part of the shorthand intended to reconcile viewers with drama set on other worlds. Whether or not you think this is necessary - and The Daleks, which used different methods, stood up well on BBC Four the other week, with one family member finding it a better watch than Partners in Crime - there’s enough evidence there for the BBC to say that it works.

Similarly though some of the acting in this episode was a little more arch than I like in Doctor Who - Adrian Rawlins’s occasional unctuousness took the edge off Tim McInnerny’s performance - I can think of periods in the series’ history where some elements in this episode would have been completely overwrought. The sequence where Kess pursues the Doctor using the claw was appropriately underplayed because for Kess the enjoyment of cruelty was routine. Solana’s refusal to help the Doctor and Donna was well-judged, too; though it would have been unnatural for her to have had a change of heart from a character point of view, from a structural point of view the Doctor and Donna could have been expected to gain a human ally at two-thirds of the way through the story, and they do not.

For a series tagged, in at least one overseas market, as ’Adventures in the human race’, Planet of the Ood offers perhaps the bleakest portrayal of the fate of humanity yet. The Toclafane could almost be excused as the result of intervention by the Master; but Doctor Who says that in two millennia’s time, we will still be enslaving other people using physical and cultural differences as an excuse, and human beings of all ethnicities will be implicated. Utilitarianism is not enough; Dr Ryder’s work for the company has compromised him and his demise suggests that his ends - which have involved the deaths of numbers of people, Ood or human - don’t justify his means. The humans involved can only be redeemed by becoming Ood themselves, whether physically like Halpen, or by putting down their weapons and becoming passive like the remaining company soldiers at the end of the story. Having treated those for whom he has responsibility as commodities throughout his life, Ood justice turns him into an expression of his loathing for the creatures and for his own self. Ood Sigma says that Halpen will be taken care of; he is condemned to join a song he did not want and be the recipient of a love he could not feel as human. The thinking behind the transformation is reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s ‘Royal Jelly’story.

The Doctor’s one-time enthusiasm for the Great and Bountiful Human Empire has been tarnished by experience; or perhaps the tenth Doctor is just less prone to denial than the ninth. The Doctor here is noticeably less godlike than he has been in recent episodes; he doesn’t know why the Ood are slaves or who has enslaved them, and very little about their biological or social nature. He has to work things out, and the sonic screwdriver is used to fasten a lock rather than as an all-purpose magic wand. He doesn’t even have the foreknowledge that he is in the same system he visited back in The Sensorites. Two Hartnell era references in a row… There was another scientific reference, to the amygdala, which had me and no doubt lots of others scurrying to Wikipedia. Much as I like the frenetic, confident style when it’s done well (and better last year, in general, than in Tennant’s first one), breaking away from it and showing the Doctor as an investigator again is all to the good.

Donna remains very strong, despite the occasional Tateish ticks Catherine has no doubt been asked to retain. There’s a distinct character arc within this episode, from discovery of another world, to disgust with humanity’s future, to acceptance of the This Donna is even more of a distinct character from the one we met in The Runaway Bride, and if it turned out that Donna was being manipulated to become the perfect conscience, the ideal companion for this Doctor, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Perhaps this period with Donna is the Doctor’s song, and it will be a cynicised Time Lord who goes into the Christmas special.

Still, for the moment this was another well-made, uplifting story, after several tense moments and much apprehension; and with the Doctor recognised as a friend of the Ood, his neglect at the end of The Satan Pit, where the Ood were left to fall into the black hole, was in part redeemed. I wonder whether the Doctor confessed, and what the Ood said. Donna’s declaration that she no longer wanted to go home opened up the series’ horizons well, and framed the phone call from Martha which will drag her back after all neatly.

ETA: One of the successes, though, was the creation of a locale. A quarry and its buildings covered in fake snow stood in with ease for the Ood processing centre, successfully evoking the Siberian labour camp. The ice bridge helped with this too, the Doctor and Donna crossing from the TARDIS's landing site 'into' the adventure - another bit of Mill CGI on screen for a second, but that was all that was needed.

louisedennis has a good point about the Doctor and Donna not doing anything to advance the plot. Perhaps that's the missing element in my thinking about the Doctor's redemption; although he is full of good intentions, the Doctor finds that the Ood are ahead of him, and he ends up asking to be their instrument, recognising that this episode is their story, not his.


Posted by: ms_rebecca_riot (ms_rebecca_riot)
Posted at: April 19th, 2008 11:05 pm (UTC)

thanks for another interesting review.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 19th, 2008 11:15 pm (UTC)

This series is working very well; there's a bit more care all round this year compared to last. Occasional overacting from the leads is usually deployed early on, as part of the act of introducing the audience to the story - and for a 'light entertainment' slot to be treated to a story where there are no human heroes bar Donna, and the various members of the slave-trading corporation fail to grasp opportunities for redemption and are despatched by "Persil ball", as Donna describes the Ood translator device.

Posted by: ms_rebecca_riot (ms_rebecca_riot)
Posted at: April 19th, 2008 11:17 pm (UTC)

Persil ball- ahahahar.

& I read that as 'light enslavement' first time round. ho.