Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Planet of the Ood

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It’s not so different from your time.

In a sense, Planet of the Ood was always going to be necessary. Following their introduction in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, the Ood demanded a follow up; indeed, one was initially planned for Series 3, in the episode that became 42.

The reason it was necessary is simple, if not necessarily obvious. It’s not the fact that the Ood have a distinct and memorable design, though they do; it’s also not a case of budgetary limitations and the need to reuse props, though I imagine that did play a part. Rather, it’s because the fundamental concept of the Ood demands consideration and deconstruction as soon as it’s raised, and that’s not something they found the time for in their original story.

At first glance, we were told that the Ood were a race of natural slaves, a servant race who need to be given something to do – ‘employing’ the Ood, as it were, was a kindness more than anything else. It’s not difficult to see the parallels between that and historic justifications of slavery; when those parallels exist, and as overtly as they are in the case of the Ood, it’s important to take them and respond to them. If ignored, it’s an uncomfortable lapse at best, and a damning flaw at worst – look at the House Elves in Harry Potter, for one thing. (Of course, there’s a lot of things like this in Harry Potter if you look back on it in hindsight.)

So, yes, Planet of the Ood – an episode dedicating to questioning and deconstructing the assumptions made during the Ood’s first introduction – was necessary. Arguably especially necessary in something like Doctor Who, in fact, given that a big part of the series is about, at least nominally, helping people, questioning authority, and standing up to injustice. That’s a poor encapsulation, admittedly, but it’s the basic idea – certainly in an episode where humans have been enslaved by funny looking aliens, you’d expect the plot to be about freeing the humans. So, yes, of course it’s necessary to do an episode about helping the Ood.

That having been said, though, the most interesting part of Planet of the Ood is how it’s very pointedly not about ‘helping the Ood’.

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It looks like it is, certainly. There’s definitely a sense of active involvement; it follows the same broad shape of most Doctor Who episodes, and between the chase scenes, action set pieces and eventual confrontation with the villain, it feels like the Doctor comes in and saves the day.

Instead, Planet of the Ood actually avoids that – sure, the structure obscures things, but for the most part the Doctor and Donna are actually just observers, just watching a revolution from the outside. In doing so, Planet of the Ood very neatly refutes the white saviour concept that can, in fact, be read into a lot of episodes of Doctor Who. The Doctor doesn’t wade in and save the day, because there’s actually not a need for him to; it’s not his place to. But there’s another smart thing going on here too, advancing that idea further. The episode doesn’t just position the Doctor and Donna as observers, but up to a point, they’re arguably complicit. Certainly, there’s a very pointed critique of how the Doctor acted in The Impossible Planet, and the way he just accepted the suggestion the Ood are naturally docile, naturally servants. He might be an observer, but he’s not outside the system.

In turn, it’s worth looking at Donna, and her role in the story. If there was still any expectation that Donna would be a silly, comedic companion, this would surely have disproved it entirely; this episode has some of Catherine Tate’s best work in the role. What’s particularly notable is that for all the past few years of Doctor Who have been about opening companions eyes – Rose’s speech about “a different way to live springs to mind – this is the first time the show has really delved into that. Listening to the song of the Ood is much more of a different way to live than simply walking in a time long since past or breathing in the alien air. It’s a far more nuanced and considered portrayal of how TARDIS travel can change perspective than we’ve seen so far, and it’s something I hope we’ll see again in future.

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Admittedly, it’s not perfect – there’s one particular flaw that springs to mind.

The ending feels a little easy, almost as though it’s missing part of the point of the wider episode. By that I don’t mean the moment where the Doctor turns off the psychic dampener affecting the Ood brain – though one does sort of wish Sigma had been allowed to have that moment – but rather the line about how all the Ood will be returning home soon. It’s less than convincing, a line that seems to aim more for a neat conclusion that trying to ring true particularly; if you look back in real life, it’s never really that simple. Even after slavery was made illegal, it still continued for the next few decades – and that’s even before you get into the whole “who do you think made your clothes” sort of thing. It’s difficult to believe that everyone would simply go “well, better send the Ood home now” – arguably, it feels like a blindspot that would prompt another story in the same sense that The Impossible Planet’s claim the Ood were a natural slave race prompted this one. Indeed, you can easily imagine a Jodie Whittaker story set on a mining base a year or two after this story, with a corporation taking advantage of illegal Ood labour they’re simply not mentioning.

But that’s one flaw in a story that has a lot to like going on within it. Russell T Davies described this story as being quite grim, and he’s not wrong exactly, but equally – Planet of the Ood is a pretty effective model of ‘mature’ Doctor Who. It’s still got a certain humour and levity to it, but there’s a very thoughtful, very conscious through line to the story; this is the sort of story to aspire to, rather than big battle scenes and threatening aliens.

Ultimately, then, it’s a very strong episode – the best of Series 4 so far, and I suspect were I ever to try and rank them, I’d consider it amongst the best of the Tennant era full stop.

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Satan Pit

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If I believe in anything, I believe in her

There’s a certain camp of the audience who would hold this episode up as the best of each of the Doctor Who two parters – certainly, the best of the Tennant era in any case. Of course, right now, I can’t really comment on that (I try my best to make sure not to make such sweeping generalisations without having, you know, seen the episodes within the past few years) but I can certainly attest to the fact that this episode really is pretty damn good.

In my reviews I do tend to focus on the writing side of things, because that’s typically what I’m interested in – I like to think of myself as something of a writer, so it’s the story side of things that I’m most concerned with when it comes down to these reviews. To an extent I’ll also talk about the acting, but I know that I often let that fall by the wayside. It’s rarer still that I refer to and commend the direction, the score, or the set design; in part, because they’re not really my area of expertise, but also, admittedly, a tendency on my behalf to take them for granted.

Now seems as good a time as any to rectify this, because The Satan Pit is an impressively well-constructed piece of television.

James Strong, the director, did a wonderful job of making this a very atmospheric episode. Something that stood out to me at the time – and has remained with me ever since – is the ventilation shaft chase. It’s a brilliant sequence, which is genuinely, properly tense; probably one of the best air vent chase sequences I’ve ever seen. Jefferson’s death is particularly chilling, in fact, and well portrayed by all involved.

Last week I spoke about the design, and how impressive it was – largely, though, I was focused on the base. I didn’t really mention the underground cavern; impressive though it was, it didn’t really get a lot of screentime last episode. It’s a really lovely design though; a wide expanse, hinting at an impossibly old civilisation. When Ida says it’s beautiful down there, well… she’s right.

As ever, of course, there’s also Murray Gold’s music. He comes under criticism at times for overdoing it – making the scores very overt, telegraphing exactly how you’re meant to feel at any given time – but the musical cues are, I think, undeniably quite effective here. There’s one recurring motif that crops up quite often in this episode, and it’s absolutely the right sort of piercing noise for this quite frightening episode.

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One of the central ideas of this episode is the fact that the Doctor confronts the Devil. On paper, that’s both insane and irresistible – the Doctor confronting the ultimate evil? It’s reaching for something so grand and so compelling that it’s a hugely rich concept in and of itself… but it’s also very difficult to execute, isn’t it? I mean, on some level, doesn’t that implicitly do away with the vision of the Doctor as just a guy with a box, if he’s someone who comes up against the Devil? Then again, perhaps it’s an idea that’s more palatable following the Time War – even then, though, what do they say to each other? How do you write that dialogue? What does the Devil say?

At first glance, they avoid this confrontation. Just write around it entirely, really; the Doctor never does speak to the Beast. He confronts only the body – only the animal. Except it’s not really true, there, because what the Doctor is actually confronting is the iconography of the Beast – the image of evil, and the idea of it. He’s forced to examine his own beliefs; right at the beginning of the writing process, that was the pitch for this episode. To write a scenario where the Doctor has to genuinely assess what he believes to be true. You can see him genuinely having to take pause throughout; not just in terms of whether or not the Beast can be “before time”, but also whether or not there genuinely is one single entity of evil. He’d normally take the same stance as Ida, in her neoclassical church, that evil is simply the actions that men do… but what if?

Rather fantastically, though, this debate is woven through the fabric of the episode itself. Because the beliefs the Doctor has been espousing so enthusiastically across this two parter – about the ingenuity and curiosity and initiative of the human spirit – is one that is in a fundamental diametric opposition to this endless, inconceivable evil. It’s brought up early on, of course, when the Beast first starts sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of the crew, but it’s always there as a creeping undertone.

And, ultimately, it’s left down to interpretation who wins out in the end. The Doctor’s fall is stopped – so perhaps that niggling desire to fall is bested by the positive desires to explore. But then he does have to fall; he has to be subsumed by the unknown. You’ve got Jefferson’s death – is it a noble sacrifice, or pointless brutality? Right at the end, the focus of the episode isn’t the Doctor’s faith in Rose; the final word goes to the Ood. The last note of this story is death.

Maybe the Beast was sent into the Black Hole. But if the Devil really is just an idea… who got the last word?

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Also following on from last week is the further development of the relationship between the Doctor and Rose.

And I can wholeheartedly say that they are indeed blatantly in love with one another.

It’s quite clear throughout, really; they’re genuinely distressed at being separate from one another, far moreso now than ever before, because here it seems like it might be permanent. Rose is terrified of a life without the Doctor – even to the point of being more willing to stay in the base, facing certain death, than she is to face a life without the Doctor.

Earlier in the episode, you’ve got the moment where the Doctor is about to fall into the pit – facing god knows what, with no way of knowing whether or not he’d come back. Facing, quite possibly, a far more permanent death than ever before. And his final thought is of Rose, but he still can’t quite articulate it. He’s about to say he loves her; we all know that – but he believes she knows it too. It’s a nice little parallel (or more accurately, piece of foreshadowing) to what’s coming at the end of Doomsday.

What’s most interesting, though, is that in the face of the Beast, what they ultimately assert is their faith in each other. If the Doctor believes in one thing, he believes in her – and that is the best statement of their relationship that exists. Certainly, it’s this episode which deserves to be held up as one of the most iconic of their relationship, because this is the story where their relationship is most emphatically defined.

It’s a really, genuinely triumphant moment – when the Doctor says at the end, all he knows is that they beat the Devil… the reason for that was because of the bond he shares with Rose. That, according to Doctor Who, is what you need to beat evil – faith in the people around you. The people you love.

That’s probably the most innately Doctor Who philosophy that this episode could ever have proposed. A really, genuinely, properly Who thing to say.

So! A very good episode this week. I enjoyed it a lot.

8/10

(Gotta say, I am hugely looking forward to next week, because the episode that follows this one is amongst my favourite Doctor Who episodes of all time. Yes, honestly.)

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Impossible Planet

doctor who the impossible planet review matt jones james strong russell t davies ood satan 666 david tennant billie piper

We are the legion of the beast. The legion shall be many; and the legion shall be free.

One of the most interesting aspects of these two part stories is their capacity for world building. Given the style and format of the average 45-minute episode of Doctor Who, there isn’t necessarily the opportunity to really delve into the culture and society of each place the Doctor and Rose land week on week. Consider, for instance, something like New Earth; we get a deft sketch of the hospital, yes, but there’s not a huge amount of detail regarding how it works, what the rest of the world is like, and so on and so forth.

Don’t get me wrong, that absolutely works. I think one of Russell T Davies’ most useful skills as a Doctor Who writer is his ability to give the impression of a wider world with just a few short lines. He’s great at things like that, quite often deploying evocative and imaginative lines, referring to the planet Felspoon, where the mountains sway in the breeze, and so on and so forth. It’s a clever way of hinting at and showing us the shape of a broader world, while still working within the constraints of the format.

But! It’s still really nice to be able to spend some time getting to know a place more slowly, learning about the characters, and just generally sort of luxuriate in the world itself. There was a scene in this episode where we took a couple of minutes to watch Scooti take a space-walk and do some maintenance; though it also works as set up for a later sequence, it is genuinely difficult to imagine this sort of thing happening in the Moffat era, with its hyper compressed narrative speed. It wouldn’t always work, of course, and spending too long on the slower moments would be a mistake… but in this instance, I was quite fond of the little stuff.

The entire episode makes great use of the dirty, “used future” aesthetic that was so popular in movies like the original Star Wars trilogy, or the Alien franchise; we get a real sense that this base is lived in and battered and genuinely right out there on the edge. It’s a really nice way of giving us a sense of a living, breathing world; these people are right out there on the edge of the frontier, just barely holding on and pulling through. You get a sense of that through the characters as well – little details like Zachary Cross Flane (a fantastic, eccentrically futuristic name) being the Acting Captain, rather than the original Captain, giving the impression of the peril they’d been through previously.

Similarly, the Ood are a wonderful race. Neil Gorton did a fantastic job with the prosthetics and the general design – personally speaking, I think the Ood have the best look of all the New Series Doctor Who monsters. That, I imagine, is why they’re so iconic – it’s all down to that bulbous head and those dangly fronds. The design belies a similarly interesting concept, which is that of a slave race. As we know, this is followed up on in the fourth series, but for now, we’re once again given a look at a new and unfamiliar side of the universe.

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Another notable aspect of The Impossible Planet is the manner in which it blurs the lines between different genres, being simultaneously one of the furthest that new Doctor Who has gone into ‘hard’ science fiction, and the one of the furthest that Doctor Who has gone into a sort of… fantasy horror type genre.

Before this point, the closest to a ‘hard’ science fiction was The Long Game, but even then it was centred quite firmly around Earth and the human experience, given that it was a news satellite orbiting our planet. Here, though, we’re almost entirely divorced from the Earth – yes, obviously, we’ve got a human crew, but that’s just about it. There are a large number of Ood hanging around, we’re on a gritty and grimy space base, and we’re on a faraway planet orbiting a black hole, of all things. This is as sci-fi as Doctor Who has ever been in the past two years.

(I’m using the term ‘hard science fiction’ loosely, realising that Doctor Who takes many liberties with science quite often; I’d be genuinely surprised if any part of this episode was in any way accurate at all. What I’m referring to is more the iconography and the images associated with it, which are of course on full display in this episode.)

At the same time, though, it’s the most overtly horror/fantasy story that the series has done so far as well. We’ve got an ancient language that defies translation, powerful sigils and possession. There’s even the idea of the Devil himself – not a devil, or a demon, but the Devil. Satan, Abbadon, Krop Tor. I’ll talk about this a lot more next week, obviously, as the story delves into this idea more, but for now I just want to highlight how well these aspects work, and the genuine sense fear and tension that’s palpable throughout the episode.

(Again, the term ‘horror/fantasy’ is a bit of a loose one here. I’m aware of things like The Unquiet Dead, obviously, but I feel like the difference is that this is much more of a sort of… almost cosmological horror, really. The Unquiet Dead or Tooth and Claw both saw fairly traditional monsters – ghosts and werewolves respectively. This, to me, feels like something a little more off the wall and outlandish in its approach.)

Essentially, what we’ve got is a sci-fi story which is being haunted by something much older, and much more complex. It gives the whole story a really rich and compelling tone throughout, far more so than it would have had had it simply been about a space base under siege, or a possession story on Earth. By blending these ideas together, The Impossible Planet has a much more powerful set of iconographies working in its favour, and the episode is stronger because of it.

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It’s also worth talking about Rose and the Doctor here, not least because there’s some further development of their arc together, but also simply because I’ve not really discussed it in a while.

Often, we talk about the Doctor and Rose as being a love story, and… to an extent, yes, that’s been there for a long time. Certainly, there are little impressions of it during the series – Rise of the Cybermen and Age of Steel both have quite a few moments where you can see how devoted they are to one another – but for my money, this is where it stops becoming subtext, and starts becoming more overt.

A moment that sticks in my mind is when the Doctor and Rose are discussing the possibility of them getting a mortgage. It’s an entertaining exchange in and of itself, because of how utterly the Doctor rejects the idea of a normal life, but there’s a lot more going on there. It’s clearly building to Rose trying to ask the Doctor about the pair of them living together, but when she does bring up the shared mortgage, she ultimately fumbles the moment.

And I liked that! It was awkward, but it felt true to life. The pair of them share such a deep bond, and they’ve saved each other’s lives countless times, but they still struggle with the more banal expressions of affection. To me, that was a pretty nice moment in terms of the development of their relationship, and the general continuation of that plotline.

They both got a lot of nice individual moments too, of course. I was particularly fond of the Doctor asking to hug Acting Captain Zachary, and Rose expressing empathy towards and taking an interest in the Ood works really well. It’s a nice moment which is in keeping with what we’ve seen from her so many times before, and it feeds into the broader message of compassion and tolerance which is so central to Doctor Who.

Obviously, it’s difficult to properly judge this episode, given that it’s only half of a much larger story. I know that the relationship between the Doctor and Rose is going to develop further next week, and similarly the idea of the Beast is going to become much more central to proceedings next week also.

Nonetheless, this episode is still an entertaining episode in its own right; while I’d never just watch it on its own normally, having done so this week, I don’t feel like my enjoyment of it is dependent on seeing The Satan Pit as well.

Still, though.

I’m very much looking forward to it!

8/10

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