Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Planet of the Dead

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The aristocracy always survives.

One of the more interesting things Steven Moffat has said about Doctor Who – one of the things that’s informed my own thinking about the programme, and what I expect from it – came in 2014, as part of the promotion for Capaldi’s first series. Moffat, talking about Danny Pink’s role as a foil to the Doctor, as well as Robot of Sherwood, “a high-born nobleman, used to wealth and privilege, who decided to come down among us lot and help out. He thinks he’s one of the guys, but never stops assuming that he’s in charge and that people will make him tea”.

Since I read that, and indeed across the Capaldi era and some of the more frustrating aspects of Whittaker’s opening series, it’s struck me as one of the more compelling points of tension to the character. (Actually, it could perhaps be a particularly compelling lens to approach Series 11 from, given Whittaker’s Doctor seems less inclined to take charge of a situation in the way her predecessors would – how much of that is down to an evolving position on the Doctor as an autocrat, can it simply be ascribed to her gender, is there anything more engaging to consider beyond dismissing it as the limitations of Chibnall’s writing? Admittedly, the answer to that last question might just be “no”, but you know.)

It was on my mind again watching Planet of the Dead, in case that weren’t already clear. The quote often feels particularly applicable to Tennant’s Doctor, actually – much as I do genuinely love this take on the character, and much as I am willing to defend it to its detractors – but it seems especially relevant to Planet of the Dead. Not because of any egregious excesses on the part of the Doctor here (this episode is, for the most part, an almost self consciously ‘business as usual’ piece, very much the light episode that comes at the start of a series), but his almost-companion this episode: Lady Christina.

Christina is embarrassing, frankly. There was something more than a little uncomfortable about the bourgeoise cat burglar, from Michelle Ryan’s cloyingly self-satisfied performance (which, in fairness, is exactly the right way to pitch the character) to her dismissive jokes about the other characters, and indeed the still-recent financial crash. One imagines the latter would’ve played somewhat worse in 2009, but even now it’s hardly endearing.

What’s embarrassing, though, isn’t simply that the character is so obnoxiously, so aggressively bourgeoisie – rather, it’s embarrassing to see Doctor Who hold this character up as a perfect foil to the Doctor. More than that: the ideal companion.

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If Planet of the Dead can be said to have any particular throughline – and it is, otherwise, a remarkably slight affair – it’s how the episode parallels the Doctor and Christina.

It’s far from subtle, certainly: she’s a Lady and he’s a Time Lord; they’re both always prepared for any eventuality, both always looking for adventure; he’s a thief just like her, revealing I think for the first time in the new series that the Doctor stole the TARDIS. The point is screamingly obvious – they were made for each other, as the dialogue even declares. It’s hardly unique to this episode; as a way to introduce a new companion, overtly paralleling them with the Doctor is one of the more obvious options to pursue. (Indeed, it’s why I spent most of Series 11 caught between surprise and relief that Chibnall never really drove home the Yaz-is-a-policewoman/the-Doctor-lives-in-a-police-box angle.) The last time Davies introduced a companion as an almost-Doctor figure (he tended to be less fond of it than Moffat), though, it was Martha – a resourceful medical student, a character as clearly from the Doctor’s same sci-fi milieu as Rose was separate from it. There’s something a little similar to Lady Christina – she does, arguably, trade on a lot of adventure fiction staples that recur throughout Doctor Who – but there’s a vast difference between Martha-as-perfect-companion and Christina-as-perfect-companion. (Perhaps particularly considering how obviously attracted the Doctor is to Christina, and how he very much wasn’t to Martha.)

Another version of this story wouldn’t have been quite so positive about Lady Christina; there’s a version of this story, a more interesting one I suspect, that uses the parallels as a way to complicate the Doctor, to question his privilege and to question his actions. It’s the sort of story Tennant’s Doctor might have benefitted from, and surely would’ve fit well within the examination of his hubris and arrogance that forms the bulk of this gap year. (Or, at least, I recall forming the bulk of the gap year; Planet of the Dead, and indeed Waters of Mars, are quite plausibly the episodes I’ve rewatched least.) It also, of course, very much isn’t the sort of story I’d expect Gareth Roberts to write; openly bigoted and openly conservative (and openly Conservative, insofar as that can’t be assumed already), one struggles to imagine him writing an episode that questions the Doctor along those lines. (Davies, for his part, probably would be more inclined too, but he’s much too enamoured with the aesthetic of the rich cat burglar to actually do it – and, I suspect at this point, basically content with having a comparatively throwaway victory lap episode that doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel.)

No, instead the point is to show that the Doctor, despite meeting the perfect companion, turns her down. It’s a story about how much he’s struggling after losing Donna; it’s about the deliberate refusal for Planet of the Dead to be the first episode of Series 5, turning down the prospect of thirteen episodes with Lady Christina.

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Christina, of course, is the wrong character to tell this story with. It’s difficult not to think it might be considerably more effective with another Lynda-with-a-y type character in Christina’s place, someone closer to the Tracy Flick type envisaged as an alternative to Christina. The version of Planet of the Dead that sees the Doctor reject, you know, Daisy Evans, or a similarly botanically named character, would likely go a long way towards underscoring the actual point of the episode.

Granted, it’s likely just a personal thing – my own general disinclination towards a character like Lady Christina, and the sort of self-critique I’d like to see Doctor Who occasionally offer. (As an aside, though, I’m largely convinced that Michelle Ryan thinks you’re supposed to dislike Christina too; the way she delivers the line about getting people-dust in her hair is markedly different to how Catherine Tate might have read a similar line, part of a wider disinterest in making Christina especially sympathetic.) It’s not difficult to imagine people liking this episode, and liking Lady Christina – if Big Finish is anything to go by, there’s apparently a market for a Lady Christina spin-off, so. Maybe there’s an appeal to the character I just don’t understand.

Nonetheless, though, I’d still maintain that Daisy Evans is the better character for a story like this – if the point is to shut down Tennant’s next series, to deconstruct the conventional opening episode we’ve become so used to, a character more straightforwardly evocative of previous companions is likely the more effective way to demonstrate that. Indeed, it’s not difficult to imagine a version of this episode that’s much more obviously structured as such; there’s potential, for example, to introduce Daisy’s version of Jackie or Mickey on the bus alongside her, the life she’s forced to go back to after seeing her first alien planet, her first alien species. That, surely, is an episode that’s much more important to the broader interrogation of the idea of the Doctor alone.

As an episode, this story is altogether less ambitious than the series openers it models itself upon – showy and arrogant, a programme so convinced of its own strengths that it doesn’t actually get around to displaying any of them. Planet of the Dead amounts to little more than a shrug, in the end; if this is the beginning to the end for the Tennant era, it’s also the most obvious indicator that there’s nowhere left to go.

4/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Unicorn and the Wasp

doctor who the unicorn and the wasp gareth roberts agatha christie tenth doctor david tennant donna noble catherine tate fenella woolgar

Can we return to sanity? There are no such things as giant wasps!

So, I had this review structured slightly differently, but it was bothering me, so I performed a bit of a quick cut and paste job. Leaving us, then, with this.

The Unicorn and the Wasp is pretty much the first episode of the new series to just unambiguously and straightforwardly play the whole thing as a comedy. And it works! It is a funny episode. There are lots of good jokes. I was particularly entertained by Colonel Mustard’s double layered flashback, that entertained me.

But I find comedy almost uniquely difficult to write about. A lot of that, for sure, is down to my own – numerous – limitations as a writer, but I’ve never quite been able to review comedy without essentially just descending into putting together a bullet point list of all the funny lines. At that point, it starts to beg the question as to why you don’t just go and watch the original piece, you know? And I’m finding largely the same issue with The Unicorn and the Wasp; accordingly, this is probably the closest I’ve ever come to just giving up and writing a fairly simple, one-line piece affirming my enjoyment. “Yep, that was pretty entertaining”.

Nonetheless, though, here we are. And I’m increasingly reminded of my need to reposition these reviews as something a little more intelligent, and not half collected thoughts put together immediately after watching the episode, in a rush so as to not miss a self-imposed deadline. Still, though, I’ve not managed to make the switch this week, so we’ll stick with it, and see how much – in this typically disorganised fashion – I can actually make of The Unicorn and The Wasp.

(I also feel the need to note, incidentally, that Gareth Roberts is absolutely vile. This was not something I said when I wrote about The Shakespeare Code, because it didn’t entirely feel relevant. Now I’m much less concerned with relevance, and feel like it’s worth noting anyway, because he really is quite awful.)

Anyway. What is there to be said about The Unicorn and the Wasp?

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There is probably an interesting line of criticism derived from just how, exactly, Doctor Who tends to engage with artists of history. With Dickens, Shakespeare, Christie and later Van Gogh their enduring appeal is grounded and talked about largely in terms of the fact that their works sold a lot, or continued to sell a lot, essentially forever. It’s easy to argue that there’s something more than a little capitalist about that, and quite uncomfortable as a result – distilling the worth of art down to its monetary value, as opposed to any other intrinsic value it might possess. That said, I don’t think that’s entirely what these stories are going for; more accurately, it’s about how they continue to be consumed. People continue to want them and engage with them and, in the case of Agatha Christie, buy the books. In that sense, it feels decidedly in line with Davies’ more hedonistic embrace of art, because it’s a stand in for continued enjoyment.

But of course, for all that there are lots of people who very much enjoy Agatha Christie novels and will continue to buy them for a billion billion years, I am not actually one of them (so far), because I’ve never read a single Agatha Christie book. No particular reason for it, I just sort of… haven’t.

It’s not an obstacle to my enjoyment of the story, though, which largely treats Christie as a set of symbols and archetypes to engage with – it’s the Agatha Christie story as a genre, more than anything else, and that’s very easy to recognise even if you’re not intimately familiar with the actual stories themselves. A game or two of Cluedo is basically enough to get the joke.

And it’s a good joke, as it goes. We’ve already established it’s funny. Catherine Tate makes it work really, really well. It’s probably a stretch to call it a good episode for Donna, but it’s definitely a great episode for Catherine Tate, one of the first times she’s got to flex that comedy muscle in quite a while.

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The only other thing that jumped out at me, I suppose, is the ending. Since reading The Writer’s Tale, I’ve been watching these episodes largely in light of what that book discusses, and the changes made to The Unicorn and the Waspdo strike me as quite interesting.

So, the original ending to The Unicorn and the Wasp had the Doctor run the Vespiform over in one of those 1920s cars – knocking it into the river, I think, as opposed to leaving a big squashed wasp in the middle of the road. That was filmed, but changed because David Tennant pointed out, rightly, that essentially that was the Doctor committing murder. Which isn’t great, obviously.

Whenever I read that, though, I could never quite remember how the episode itself ended. So it’s interesting to notice that they basically swapped the Doctor murdering the Vespiform for Donna doing it – which doesn’t strike me as much of a solution at all? Perhaps if this had been much earlier in the series, and we’re meant to read it as being a crucial point in her development where she realises aliens are people too, even the ones who don’t really look like people, it might have worked then. But I don’t know. It’s a weirdly misjudged moment – especially considering that, at one stage, they’d planned to have the body of the vicar float up to the surface, like some kind of reminder that the Vespiform had spent all those years living as a person anyway.

It’s the one weird moment in an episode that had, for the most part, always controlled its tone quite well. This feels decidedly different from all the comedy murders we’ve seen so far – it’s outside the joke of the genre, after all, and it’s just decidedly uncomfortable.

I don’t know. I suspect this was a fairly substanceless review, even by the standards of these fairly weak posts. I’d try and make it into a commentary on a substanceless episode, but that’s perhaps unfair. I don’t know. It didn’t inspire a great deal of thought in me. It was fine. A fine episode. You know. I just sorta struggled to bring myself to care about this one, though I did basically like it.

6/10

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