Planet of the Dead

Planet of the Dead has landed in “Who Lite” year, in which everyone currently associated with the series is looking around for something else to do when they move on. Thankfully though they love the fans enough to at least look interested in what they’re up to and not leave us with some substandard sugary Easter Bunny fluff in pink with shiny bits on… don’t they?

Let’s get one thing straight right now. If there are just 4 episodes of Doctor Who on TV in 2009, then they should be the very best that Doctor Who can give us; four episodes of the stature and standard of The Empty Child, Human Nature, The Girl in the Fireplace, Midnight, The Shakespeare Code.

Production on Doctor Who was effectively on hiatus from May last through to January this year, giving plenty of time for definitions and statements of intent, sorting out budgets, making a decision as to whether HD and BBC-style CGI is possible and lest we forget writing a decent script. (Incidentally there’s no more mention of dodgy CGI in this review. It looked bad on normal TV, apparently woeful on HD and it seems there is much work to be done in that department.)

Geared up for viewing of the first new Who in 4 months and the last until at least October, I was virtually wetting myself with excitement at the prospect of some fresh Doctor Who. Sadly as the opening Mission Impossible balderdash unfolded, I quickly realized that Russell T Davies and Gareth Roberts had conspired not to give the “faithful viewers” an amazing tale cut from the cloth of The Shakespeare Code and Midnight but instead some sub-par Bank Holiday underwhelming Close Encounters/Pitch Black/Harry Potter riffing, a wooden sidekick and some forced tension in the last 5 minutes.

If this was a school report I would wholeheartedly be scrawling in green or red biro “must do better” on both culprits, before sending Davies and Roberts off to see the headmistress. Taking a Gareth Roberts Doctor Who novel from the mi-1990s as a starting point seems like a good idea, but I’m afraid that the various flaws in logic and the unoriginal Lady Christina de Souza mean it’s detention for the RTD and a letter home for Roberts.

Enough about production failings, though – we could be here all night. Whatabout the players?

I’m going to come in for some stick with this, but I really feel as if David Tennant should have already gone by now. It’s not simply the fact that we know Matt Smith is waiting in the wings, either. He looked a bit bored to me, spouting the same “I’ll get you home” guff that his Doctor seems obsessed with once the bus had (effectively and without any notable SFX) fallen through a swarm-induced wormhole.

Whether he was on the bus at the start of the adventure, marching through the sand of the alien planet, finding a stricken vessel in the dunes or flying the bus out of trouble, there was more than a hint of “been there, done that” to proceedings. We’ll see my argument as to why that is a little bit later.

Michelle Ryan meanwhile… well what can you say? She looks lovely doesn’t she, but there isn’t much in the way of a realistic rapport between her slightly poshed-up Lady Christina and the Lord of Time. I’ve never seen Merlin properly so I’m not fully blessed with exposure to Ryan’s acting range and ability –however I have seen every episode of her Bionic Woman and can honestly say that I was expecting her to give us more Zoe Slater (EastEnders) than Jaime Sommers. Lacked punch.

The real surprise of Planet of the Dead was Lee Evans as a character who wwas an “loving” portrayal of Doctor Who fans. I was literally dreading the appearance of Evans as UNIT’s modern day Sgt Osgood, Professor Malcolm Taylor but he stole every scene he was in despite entering into a universe-spanning gurning competition with the Tenth Doctor. Evans was certainly worth watching and made his inclusion in the casting something to behold rather than something to dread, so a little triumph for the production there.

Director James Strong has helmed a number of nuWho’s, including Voyage of the Damned and The Satan Pit, to adventures with considerable – but differing – scale. He’s pretty much got off scot-free with any lacking moments because of this, but the story is different this time around. As director, Strong is responsible for the allocation of effects shots to The Mill, not to mention coaxing the best out of his cast. Sure, there’s some smashing framing of shots but Strong also has a cinematographer on hand to assist with that stuff. I contend here that Strong was punching above his weight with The Satan Pit, got lucky with most of Voyage of the Damned and is now, post Bonekickers, trying to carry on the charade.

Regardless of the quality of the script and cast, Strong’s performance as director in Planet of the Dead is the real weak link. Some marvelous films are made with otherwise mediocre actors based on average scripts and for all I’ve pointed out concerning the various failings of both cast, script and special effects, the same could have been true here.

Planet of the Dead wasn’t quite as disappointing as The Next Doctor, but it was no Christmas Invasion, feeling more like an early season adventure than something special, something rare in 2009 and by definition something that should have been fantastic.


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