Planet of the Dead

Story No. 217 They devoured everything.
Production Code Specials Episode Two
Dates April 11, 2009

With David Tennant, Michelle Ryan
Written by Russell T Davies and Gareth Roberts Directed by James Strong
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.

Synopsis: A bus gets sucked through a wormhole to a desert-like planet.


The Special that wasn't by Marcus O'Connor 5/3/12

I have rarely been as disappointed with an episode of Doctor Who as I was after watching Planet of the Dead. Given the scarcity of Who that was on TV that year, each of the specials was eagerly awaited. The others were worth the wait; this was the exception.

So much is wrong in this hour of our hero's adventures. For a start, the plot is very thin, and stretched out over an hour it looks like something that was written in a hurry to just be a filler between The Next Doctor and The End of Time. The supporting characters are a mixture of very bland and downright annoying. Let us begin with Lady Christina: thank goodness she remained a one-off character. Shallow and ignorant, her character was based largely on the fact that she considered it okay for her to steal on account of her class and background. From their first meeting on the bus to their corny exhange as she flies the bus away at the end, there is very little chemistry between her and the Doctor. Then there is Malcolm; his character was a lazy stereotype and made me cringe. The other passengers had little that was engaging about them, with Carmen's prophecy one of the few interesting lines spoken by any of them.

I don't how much it cost to move the cast, crew and the bus to Dubai, but I'm guessing that it was very expensive, and, alas, the location was not used as well as it could have been. If you are going to go to all that inconvenience and expense and suffer the traumas that occurred in getting the bus to the destination, then you should at least get everything that you can out of the location. However, little was added that could not have been achieved elsewhere, closer to home.

It is very rare that an episode comes along that I dislike. For the most part, even those episodes that are low-rated have at least one saving grace, such as a scene, character or plot development that ignites the interest. But Planet of the Dead has no such saving grace. It cannot even be given the excuse that "at least it was a good idea, it just could have done with another re-write", because the idea behind this episode was so thin to begin with. Thankfully, much better was to come, though we would have to wait until November for the fantastic Waters of Mars.

"Tough Love" by Thomas Cookson 26/8/16

I wasn't planning on reviewing this one. In fact, I'd kept it conspicuously absent from my other 2009 specials reviews.

There wasn't much to say on this thinly plotted piece of fluff, besides that its plot transparently could've been resolved in 10 minutes. It was easily the least 'special' of the specials. In discussion with Matthew Kresal, he concurred that, regarding this story, 'the less said, the better'.

But, thinking about it, this story just sums up exactly why the 2009 specials left such a noxious aftertaste.

Why's Russell still here? His swansong should've been Journey's End. In fact, he was probably done by The Parting of the Ways, if not World War Three.

The only good thing I think came from the specials was giving Moffat a year's prep time for Series Five. Otherwise, they were a stupid idea by the BBC who should've let Russell go from this franchise far sooner.

Arguably Russell's time was over. The specials were simply an exercise in stretching him further beyond what he had left to offer. They weren't even about what he had to offer us or the show, but simply what he had to offer himself, which was oodles of self-congratulation and self-worship.

The 20 minute long farewell tour of The End of Time is the part most fans hate the most about the specials, but that's really just a microcosm for what they were.

Philip Sandifer heavily panned The Eight Doctors for not only being an indulgent continuity exercise but for showing overt favouritism to the bits of past lore that Terrance Dicks had himself created. Sandifer described his Pertwee focus as 'ego-stroking'. Except it's actually quite sensible for a writer like Terrance Dicks to focus on the lore he personally knows best, and if Terrance had accommodated continuity from other past stories beyond his own, Sandifer would've probably complained the book was too laden.

Was it similarly ego-stroking when Robert Holmes wrote the conclusion to Trial that ignored the Vervoids story in favour of the Ravalox business, brought back his own creation, the Master, and sidelined Mel in favour of making his own Sabalom Glitz the companion? No, it's a writer sticking with what he's familiar with.

Russell wasn't paying homage to 46 years of the show, he was paying homage to just the five years he was writing for it. It wasn't an anniversary story either, it was just marking the fact that he personally wanted to spend his last story bragging about all his others.

RTD had limited the show from being too intelligent, imaginative or 'out there' in so many ways to appease the common tastes of an apparently philistine, parochial and fickle mass-viewership. Now all he can add to his shrinking canvas is loud declarations of how wacky and great this show's been and how beloved his show is. Trying to juice its seemingly short shelf life that bit more.

This is one long exercise in building as much hot air and bombast from a flimsy premise as possible. The moment the Doctor calls UNIT, all they need do is fetch an armoured lightning-proof tank, ferry the passengers through and the plot's resolved in two minutes flat.

Actually, reconsidering this story's 'exciting' opening chase scene, I take that back. The entire plot's a stupid non-starter from the outset. First of all, it requires us to buy that Christina could sneak into the museum, dangling by a wire from the ceiling whilst all four security guards conveniently have their backs to her and somehow none of them see her.

I can't help think if this was Classic Who then the goblet she'd stolen would turn out to have some cosmic significance, like a segment of the Key to Time or a stray artefact from Sarn. Some way whereby the greedy human thieves turn out to be ignorant about its true actual value. But no, here the goblet actually is the prize reward for nothing but our sheer materialism.

Then it gets ridiculously stupid when we have a police chase through a tunnel to intercept a bus that clearly can't drive that fast and is being driven by someone who knows he's obliged to pull over and not ignore the police sirens like a fool. Whether he's been paid in diamonds or not, he'd know he's instantly liable for obstructing justice.

But then we wouldn't be able to have this stupid car chase for spectacle's sake. It's like I've woken up in some alternate reality where fans thought all along that the motorbike chase in the TV Movie was the actually best thing about it and exactly what Doctor Who should be all about.

The entire plot relies on unbelievable character idiocy in order to work at all, and it keeps returning to that problem that this is just a double decker bus, and yet we're meant to believe it survived the journey through this deadly electrostatic wormhole with the windows still intact?

But it gets worse when UNIT get involved and seem to exist here just to be unbearably sycophantic towards the Doctor and ultimately end the story by giving him a big hug and declaring how much they love him.

This has been a long running and shameful aspect of the RTD era and apparently the NAs too. Fan writers using the series to shamelessly tongue-bath the arse of their favourite fictional character and gush about how wonderful he is. And it's something that's been dogging the TV show since at least Love & Monsters, and it's certainly a big reason why that story rubs some fans up the wrong way. Well, that and the tasteless blowjob gag that served only to put an ugly and specific pornographic image in the viewer's mind, which is just a horrid turn-off, and a bit like being victimised by a streaker.

Why this sycophancy offends is partly simple continuity. The Third Doctor was never a figure of worship or adulation to UNIT. He was an advisor and carried no real rank. In fact, on the contrary, the Doctor's loyalties to UNIT were left gravely in doubt in The Silurians, and the Master escaped repeatedly on his watch, going unpunished for the many soldiers he'd murdered. That's not going to make the Doctor popular with their victim's comrades.

The Doctor was someone UNIT relied on because there was no one else, but they couldn't entirely trust him.

Seemingly, now UNIT staff have had their intellects removed and are now populated by fawning lobotomised idiots and fanboys who are incapable of thinking sceptically about the Doctor. As such, I can't believe in what I'm watching.

The other reason this sycophancy annoys fans is that it goes out of its way to turn the Doctor into a figure of popularity. The character's entire appeal was that he was like us, an outsider whom no one had a high opinion of and was content with that. Turning him into the popular kid is one sure way to make us borderline hate him.

And I'm sure RTD absolutely knew this, and it only encouraged him to do it more. Which defines my constant issue with RTD. Yes, a modern showrunner rebooting the show for a new audience absolutely should ignore older fans and not care what they say.

This isn't ignoring the fans, and it's actually as harmful to the show's appeal as doing a story like Attack of the Cybermen.

It smacks of cheap fan-baiting and a rather obsequious wish-fulfillment for those fans writing this sap who believe it's an injustice that the Doctor has never been a popular figure before and now should be.

Something about this obsequious love affair fans have with the Doctor does bug me. Especially when taken to the extreme of turning him into some kind of fan cult messiah. I enjoy the show and I do think the Doctor was, at least up until 1982, a great character, but I don't accept I'm supposed to worship at the show's feet.

That I have such a problem with Warriors of the Deep's character assassination of the Doctor,does tell me I am protective of the character and what he represents. We live vicariously through these heroes, and the Doctor acts to save the day in ways that don't relish sordid behaviour or cause needless harm. Speaking to our desire to be better people. So when Warriors of the Deep tricks us into going with his 'better' methods for a better outcome only to prove him a paralytic insensible idiot who gets everyone needlessly killed by doing nothing, the only emotion you're left with is anger.

But, by and large, the Doctor is not a saviour to make all our world's problems go away. The Green Death and Genesis of the Daleks were about our collective responsibility. Also, arguably only the First and Fourth Doctors were real, dimensional characters with depth.

There are some things the viewer doesn't want to see happen to the Doctor. Some of us want to see him remain a thankless hero who does what he does for altruistic reasons, without the rewards of fame. Viewers don't want to be 'told' to love the hero. Some of us don't want to be in a position of jealousy or envy of the character for how much he's suddenly loved and praised and how ridiculously fortunate he is compared to many of us. The hero then becomes someone insufferable and detestable. Someone to be sick of, like his virtues are being forced down our throat.

Is it a worrying disconnect from reality that bugs me about RTD's praise of the Doctor?

Well, in my experience, the fans who are this gushing toward this fictional character are conversely pretty vile to fans they consider lower in the pecking order.

Hell, Jon Blum threw a hissy fit on Gallifrey Base about how fandom's disappreciation of this story's ending is typical of small-time fans' jealous attacks upon him, his wife and other fan writers for their success. It was all nauseating, self-centred bollocks.

But this gets to the heart of the fact that the fans who praise how wonderful a person the Doctor is, and lauds how emotionally progressive they are to be able to say so, are more often than not the worst kind of elitists who'll put fictional characters above their own fan brethren, have a shocking lack of empathy and who'll see feelings of dejection in some fans as an opportunity to stick the knife in, much like the Bullington Gang burning 100 pound notes in front of a homeless man.

These aren't people I want in my living room. And there's a problem when fans who literally can't imagine why audiences wouldn't love the Doctor and wouldn't enjoy see him being lapped at by the adoring crowds are the ones making the show.

Maybe falling in love with the character and having an affinity with him as being our surrogate father, best friend or someone who was always on our side isn't so strange. But arguably there's a time and a place for it and not in the show's fiction itself.

Fish Fingers and Custard had a beautiful biographical story of one American fan who was a teenager going off the rails and contemplating suicide before she happened upon Planet of Fire and became fascinated by its virtuous, sensible hero and began turning her life and school grades around in emulation of him.

Here the Doctor helps Christina escape, even after her momentary selfish refusal to relinquish the goblet for everyone else's interests should've instantly killed his respect for her, but perhaps her nubile sexiness turned his head.

It's clear this isn't the same character or the same show. It has no such virtuous standards worth aspiring to, no respect for itself or anything. It just wants attention and approval at any price to its dignity.

Really? What was your favorite, giant robot? by Evan Weston 4/10/16

Planet of the Dead sucks. So, so goddamn much. It occurred to me while watching it that I'm eternally grateful I didn't watch the Russell T Davies era live. Imagine (though you might not have to) waiting nearly four months for your favorite show to return for one measly hour-long special before it disappears again, looking all over for rumors and tidbits, maybe popping some popcorn and making a night of it, and then - you get to watch Planet of the Dead, with its plot contrivances that don't even try to make sense, its shoddy one-dimensional characters and Michelle Ryan making an ass of herself on national television. It's not as deeply offensive as The Stolen Earth/Journey's End, but that's only because it's inconsequential. Planet of the Dead is just a depressingly bad episode of television.

It's difficult to understand why, really. Despite my misgivings about the front half-and-change of Series 4, there's a universe in which most of those stories can be justified with a basic concept. Except The Fires of Pompeii. Not sure what happened there. But Planet of the Dead is just utterly stupid even in a one-line summary. The Doctor, an obnoxious jewel thief-slash-aristocrat and some other undeveloped characters get transported to a desert to... do nothing for about forty minutes. Maybe Davies, Roberts and Tennant wanted to spend some quality time in Dubai? This special actually meant something to the viewership. You couldn't just brush it off and say, "well, maybe they'll get it right next week". This was all anybody had for months, and the crew clearly couldn't be bothered to make it even halfway decent.

The script is probably the worst ever produced on modern Doctor Who, running neck-and-neck with the overcooked madness of The Stolen Earth/Journey's End. But while there were at least a couple running themes and a bunch of plotlines to pull from there, nothing happens in Planet of the Dead - and yet we still need ridiculous plot holes to get us going anywhere. I had to sign up for Weight Watchers after devouring that much technobabble, and there are so many little things gone wrong that its evident there's something lacking in the fundamentals. From the very first scene, you can tell something's wrong. Christina simply drops down from the apparently unguarded ceiling and steals that cup thing unnoticed. There was absolutely no security between her and her prize. That's utterly ridiculous on its face.

It gets worse from there, with nothing working less than the stupid psychic woman, who exists for two reasons: to inject some moody dread into what must have obviously looked like a lifeless story, and to provide credibility for the "he will knock four times" cliffhanger that signaled the Master's return at the end. The problem is, her lines are absolutely dreadful, and she comes off as annoying and petulant rather than genuinely scared. This is the prime example, but basically everything here exists for one sole purpose. Barclay is on board because he happens to be a mechanic. The Tritovores are there, like the Shadow Proclamation in The Stolen Earth/Journey's End, just to provide the Doctor their technology and lend us a meaningless action sequence (it doesn't make any sense, either - how could one of the Stingrays be on board their ship?!). The bus flies because hey, the kids will love that!

The performances are almost universally awful - don't worry, we'll get to the lone good one - and the leader in the clubhouse is easily Michelle Ryan as the loathsome Christina. Ryan, simply put, delivers the worst companion ever to appear on Doctor Who by a mile. She's worse than even the lowest of Catherine Tate. Her delivery is flat and unenthusiastic at every turn, and she fails to do anything but look pretty and bat her eyes at a clearly-uninterested Doctor. Ryan certainly isn't helped by the way her character is written: Christina is a rich noble who steals, get this, to get attention. You figure Davies would at least write her some tragic backstory to get us on her side, but nope, we're forced to watch this story unfold through the eyes of a spoiled brat. In fact, it's never apparent why the Doctor takes a liking to her at all - it's fairly obvious that she's the kind of person the Doctor would look down upon. By the end of the episode, I was actively rooting for her to go to prison; when the Doctor facilitated her escape, I was legitimately angry.

Speaking of our favorite Time Lord, Tennant sleepwalks through this like you've rarely seen. He's clearly quit the show in his mind and is just waiting for the big finish to bring his A-game, and in Planet of the Dead his Doctor is at turns crass, annoying and egotistic to a fault. The supporting cast doesn't really get to do anything, though they all manage to frustrate anyway. We've already mentioned Ellen Thomas' shamefully bad Carmen, but, among the other passengers, Victoria Alcock and David Ames are merely window dressing, and Daniel Kaluuya is straight-up bad as Barclay. Davies and Roberts even waste the return of Captain Magambo, turning her into a one-dimensional parody of the at-any-cost officer.

The saving grace of Planet of the Dead, and literally the only reason to tune in (well, the HD looks good, but that's commonplace now), is Lee Evans' wonderful scientist Malcolm. One of the better comic relief characters of the whole era, Malcolm is charming, funny and adorable. It's actually Doctor-worship that doesn't come off as silly, because Malcolm is just a giant nerd. But we're not laughing at him; by the end, we're laughing with him, and he's become the hero of the story. Tennant is at his best when playing with Evans, who nails the quirks of comic relief with perfect precision. I came away thinking, "Wow, that was bad... but more Malcolm, please."

While Malcolm might have saved Planet of the Dead from a failing grade, I can in no state of mind recommend watching this to anyone. What little story exists is thin and forced - I didn't even mention the Stingrays, such an awful monster as to escape my conscious mind entirely - almost nothing makes sense, and Michelle Ryan alone is enough to drive you away. I wish I knew what happened here. You can't even pin it on the show's first ever writing partnership, because The Waters of Mars does the same thing and it's infinitely better. Perhaps Gareth Roberts failed the episode, but he'd already written two more-successful-than-not stories. We'll probably never know. And maybe that's a good thing.


Misfiring on All Six Cylinders by Jason A. Miller 19/2/20

Not only have I not seen Planet of the Dead since its original airing in April 2009, but, come to find out, my Blu-ray box set of the year-2009 "specials" -- the gap year caused by David Tennant running off to do Hamlet, and by Doctor Who busting its entire budget to be able to afford a year of Catherine Tate -- had, in fact, never even been opened. I took it down off the shelf in November 2018 to watch for part of my 55th anniversary mini-marathon, only to see that the box set was still covered in its original shrink wrap. That was obviously 50 bucks poorly spent (as the aging price tag from Best Buy, still stuck on the wrap, informed me).

My only remaining memories of Planet of the Dead before this weekend were a lingering sense of disappointment in the episode and a dislike of Lee Evans' overly comic turn as Malcolm Taylor, UNIT's scientific advisor du jour.

What I was not prepared for, of course, was the sheer level of vitriol contained in the three previous Ratings Guide reviews posted for Planet of the Dead. Ouch, fellas! So I basically went into this rewatch, nearly ten years later, with essentially an open mind, but wondering why not a single other soul on the Ratings Guide had offered up any praise for the poor thing.

In essence, this time I did enjoy Planet of the Dead minute by minute, but the story still has several glaring flaws. It's Russell and Gareth in full-on Romp Mode; specifically meant to be an Easter Sunday trifle (except aired on Saturday) and meant to be a 200th-episode victory lap (except that you have to do creative bookkeeping with Doctor Who's episode guide in order to make this thing Number 200), but clearly not intended by the authors to be among their very best work.

I did like the frenetic verve to the enterprise. That was a Russell T. Davies specialty, wasn't it? His scripts tended to do two things, at heart: one, stop every five minutes to explain the plot [1], and two, stop every other five minutes to include a high-octane action sequence. So, in Planet of the Dead, we get two Indiana Jones/James Bond-inspired cat-burglar journeys on wire down long shafts, two CGI effect-heavy bus trips through a wormhole, a flying bus, an angry swarm of flying metal sting-rays, and lots of boot-tramping UNIT soldiers. That's all fun, if you're just watching for the spectacle.

[1] I said the exact same thing last November anniversary weekend, when I watched and reviewed Planet of the Ood. By this logic, come back in a year and see if I haven't wound up watching Planet of the Daleks and/or Spiders, for the next anniversary ...

The origin point for all this was Gareth Roberts' debut novel, the 1993 Doctor Who New Adventures tale The Highest Science, which featured a train that fell through a wormhole (or "Fortean flicker") onto an abandoned planet. The Highest Science was an interesting look at the inside of Gareth's brain as it would have been 25 years ago, before his Twitter feed degenerated into a series of alt-right talking points and trans-phobic "jokes". Roberts was the NA writer who specialized in romps, except that Highest Science was a bit of an uneasy mash-up between romp and cynical, hard-edged sci-fi. Planet of the Dead, as re-imagined for TV and co-written by Russell T Davies, leaves just the kernel of the missing-train-in-space and builds up a more optimistic, soft, fluffy tale. And, oh boy, is it ever fluffy. Most of the script is given over to self-congratulatory mythologizing, and that's what's so irked my fellow reviewers in the above three posts. I'd say more than half the script is warm-fuzzy dialogue. The Doctor and Lady de Souza spend half of their time flirting and teasing her pseudo-companion status.

"Let's just say we're two equal mysteries."
"We make quite a couple."
"We don't make any sort of couple, thank you very much."
The bit with the Doctor meeting every other passenger on the Number 200 bus is a more extreme and light-hearted version of the previous year's Midnight, to which the script alludes. UNIT appears only to worship the Doctor. The ill-conceived Taylor has a ridiculously overstated man-crush on the Doctor -- come back to the show a few seasons later, and this got reworked into the Osgood character (and Taylor himself is basically a lift of the other scientific advisor Osgood, from The Daemons, who also communicated with the Doctor almost solely over a radio link). And then there's UNIT Captain Magambo, another strange character, who one minute pulls a gun on Taylor (who had attempted to buy the Doctor time to escape the wormhole by delaying a counter-attack on the alien menace), but who then, five minutes later, mawkishly praises the Doctor: "Doctor, I salute you whether you like it or not." That Magambo bit is really bad writing or script editing. I'm not sure where they thought they were going with that.

And tons of continuity references abound, another sign that the script was intentionally designed as a victory lap rather than as a self-sustaining story. Several previous RTD-era stories are mentioned, and we learn that Taylor is evidently a disciple of the Target novelizations (as are both Davies and Roberts) -- he's read all the Doctor's "files", including a direct namecheck to Doctor Who and the Giant Robot.

The patronizing of the guest characters is a bit much. Carmen, the psychic lady from the West Indies, only has enough power to predict $10 worth of lottery winnings every week but is able to outline what's coming in The End of Time only in the most vague terms. The other bus passengers are strictly one-dimensional, and of course the Doctor makes it a point to more closely befriend only the one smoking-hot cat burglar in the form-fitting black jumpsuit. I much preferred the more selfish and unsentimental crew of passengers from Midnight, if I had to choose.

But therein lies the gap between Doctor Who's casual audience and the sort of serious-minded fan who spends an hour on an American holiday weekend reviewing this ten year old story. The episodes works fine as an Easter Sunday diversion, the only Doctor Who episode that aired in an eleven-month stretch between The Next Doctor and The Waters of Mars. It moves along, it's zippy, it's got a mix of danger and sentiment, with a trio of tragic deaths (the bus driver, and the two lost Tritovores who perish in the desert), and the lush visuals of the Dubai sands. And, of course, a flying bus, and a rousing send-off for Lady de Souza.

Planet of the Dead is a lot of fun to look at but torture to think about. It was meant specifically for the kind of casual fan who doesn't come to the Ratings Guide to learn what other people think. It was intended only to be disposable. And, to damn this episode with faint praise, it certainly satisfied that aim. Too bad for us hard-core fans that it didn't aim for anything else.