Planet of the Ood
|Production Code||Series Four Episode Three|
|Dates||Apr 19 2008|
With David Tennant,
Written by Keith Temple Directed by Graeme Harper
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.
|Synopsis: The Doctor and Donna investigate Ood Operations, a company who are selling the Ood as a servant race, to discover the reason the Ood are happy to serve.|
Ood Awakening by Mike Morris 25/8/08
Planet of the Ood stands out amongst the first half of Series 4 as the only episode that's actually worth 45 minutes of your time. Although far from perfect, it has interesting ideas at its heart and some wonderful scenes. It's also competently (in unspectacularly) plotted. If it weren't for a descent into silliness towards the end, it might actually have been in the shake-up for best episode of the season.
The idea of revisiting the Ood is a good one. The idea of a willing slave-race was trotted out in The One With the Devil In It, but the concept itself was never really examined. The questions the Ood give rise to, by their nature, are interesting: is it permissible to exploit somebody, if the exploitation is something they crave? Is it morally acceptable to have a willing slave-race, particularly if they die without that enslavement? The Ood were one of relatively few original creatures from the new series that really had legs, and it's good to see them back. Also good is their homeworld: the design of the Ood suggests they'll come from a swampland, but the ice-bound Oodsphere confounds those expectations and leads to some impressive shots. It's a shame that the CGI isn't quite up to scratch this time; the painted icescapes are pretty, but they look like what they are. Still, this is Doctor Who; in spite of what its producers seem to believe, spectacle certainly isn't why I tune in.
It's a Graeme Harper episode, and he knows what he's doing. This is probably Harper's finest turn behind the camera since Revelation of the Daleks, so well does he combine the requirements of fantastical action, grittiness, and moral outrage. It would have been easy for Planet of the Ood to fall into the trap of a silver-pyjamas abstract story, but the hard-nosed surroundings (an industrial factory, bullet-firing machine guns, metal containers you'll see on any port, and contemporarily bland suits for all involved) keep this feeling real. What Harper can do, what he could always do, was physicality; he understands that television is compelling when huge great lumps of stuff are flying about. The chase sequence, involving the Doctor and a big metal claw, is the best example. In other hands, it would be tedious rubbish. But Harper makes it work, and makes it work well, in spite of the glaring scripting problems behind the whole sequence (more on this shortly).
And there's the problem, then; the script isn't quite up to scratch. It moves efficiently from scene to scene, but it does feel like a storyboard rather than an organic story. Those set pieces can be effective - witness the way that an Ood escape is intercut with a sales pitch, bringing home the duplicity of what the Evil Corporation are doing - but they're so transparently set-pieces. It's one of those stories where you can literally see the structure as you watch, and not in a good way. There's barely a line of dialogue that isn't there to advance the plot or backstory, so you end up watching 'plot' rather than 'narrative'. Warehouse 15, Red-Eye, the Ood as Slaves... all of these crash into the story, thereby announcing themselves as the story's ultimate destination. This is exactly what Steven Moffatt never does, and what Russell T. Davies only does when he's playing to the imagined Stupid Sector of his audience. Watch Planet of the Ood, and wait for that line where the Doctor and Donna see Tim McInerney striding across the workyard. Donna says "that looks like the boss," a line that simply screams 'plot'. How, exactly, would she know who a bloke in a suit is?
In fact, the claw set-piece is the worst offender. Donna gets locked in a container, the Doctor gets chased around by a big metal thing... why, for heaven's sake? The guards have never met the Doctor or Donna, and there's been no indication of their psychosis before now... so why do they suddenly turn into raving sadists? Why on earth would the guards lock Donna in a container full of Ood, when they know the Ood are dangerous, and none of them even know who Donna is?
For all that, though, there are great moments. The "classic foot-and-mouth solution" is a clever analogy, and Marketing Girl at last confounds the stereotype of women who'll go along with the Doctor just 'cos they like his hair. Much of the story's interest, it must be said, comes from the inherent interest of the subject matter; I'm not sure that Keith Temple's ideas are particularly good. The only idea that feels like Temple's is the revelation of natural Ood anatomy; the initial revelation is a great moment, but the truth about Warehouse 15 is roaringly silly (it might have worked if the metaphor hadn't been so spectacularly literal). You certainly have to work hard to find a good line, and the characters work more because of performances than anything else.
Ah, performances. First up; Tim McInerney is magnificent here. The character, as scripted, is yer standard-issue corporate baddie. But McInerney gives him a sense of weakness, a subtlety and quiet self-doubt, that suggests far more complexity than you could imagine. His collapse into neurosis is wonderfully handled, and I liked the character's final fate (even if some of the people I know who watched this found it a bridge too far). However, the scene feels a touch bowdlerised, as if cut for fear of censorship.
Tennant is uneven here, as uneven as he's been since Series 2. He throws some important lines away in a most uncharacteristic way - "it's better that way" is given a horribly careless edge, and his regret that he didn't think to ask about the Ood first time round is muttered like he forgot the shopping. Possibly struggling with the sheer incompetence of some of the early-season scripts, Tennant's performance smacks of carelessness. Again, he's given some odd lines. After Donna's outburst of moral fury at Halpen, when she's (supposedly) furious and disgusted, he's asked to turn to her and say "oh, nice one." It would be difficult not to make that line seem crass. However, as has happened before, the sheer enthusiasm of his performance is enough, more or less, to carry it through.
Tate, on the other hand -
- deep breath -
Okay, here's the thing. Catherine Tate can do two things. She can do hysteria, and she can do tearful misery. Things she can't do, however, are... everything else. In isolation, there are a couple of scenes here where she's really, really good - not least where she reacts to the Ood song, which is lovely. But it comes smack bang after that godawful delivery of "we're locked in", or before that "they know how they treat the Ood?" Remember, Donna is supposed to be confronted with and sickened by the horror of the universe, but she delivers the line like she's trying to start a fight with An Essex Girl who's groped her boyfriend. By the time we reach the scene of the Ood song, I'd already lost my belief in her. In fact, I was already wavering after that initial TARDIS scene, which is so bad that I'm going to try and cut it out of my copy of the story from now on.
In general, in Tate's stories, if you removed 25% of the scenes where she's playing Catherine Tate, you'd have a moderate actress. In her better, later, stories, this ratio is maybe as low as 5%. In Planet of the Ood, it's well over half, and she manages to single-handedly bring the story crashing to the floor in some scenes. She's not helped by some inconsistent characterisation - her furied outburst to McInerney might have achieved some sort of impact, except that the viewer just starts wondering where Donna acquired all this knowledge of alien evolution.
In short, she's bad here, and she comes close to damaging the story irreparably. But it goes deeper than that. Real actresses, good actress, develop a character for themselves. Look at the way, instinctively, the viewer knows all sorts of stuff about Rose they haven't been told. You knew that she and her mother hadn't discussed her father for years, or that she didn't talk about him to anyone else, even before Father's Day aired. You knew she'd gone out with all sorts of "unsuitable" types in her youth, and that she'd settled with Mickey because she was smarter than him. You knew she had no sense of self-worth, that her teachers thought she was useless and that part of her believed them, that she was disgusted with the men her mum brought home.
But Donna? At the end of this series, I can't guess at anything about Donna. I don't even know how clever she is.
But back to the main feature. Planet of the Ood does work, just about, even if you can't help but feel that it should be better. The ideas are good and the direction's terrific, and - and this is well worth mentioning - Murray Gold's music is wonderful. Given that the story is largely about song, it was asking Gold to step up to the plate. He does.
It would be neglectful not to mention the story's worse cop-out; when confronted with Ood slavery, Donna comments that there are no slaves on her earth, to which the Doctor replies "who do you think made your clothes?" This is the most edgy thing the series has asked us sice the days of Ecclesdoc. And yet, Donna just accuses the Doctor of taking cheap shots, and - amazingly - he actually backs down apologises. Apologises for what, exactly?
(There's a point: so firmly has Series 1 become fixed in my head as Doctor Who at its finest, and so enamoured am I with Eccleston's interpretation of the role, that I instinctively find myself asking what he'd do. As with Partners in Crime, where I'm convinced he'd give the Adipose a hand. And I can't believe Eccleston would have left Donna within a hundred yards of the TARDIS.)
Still... even if the Doctor does back down, at least Planet of the Ood made the parallel in the first place. A bit like the story as a whole, really; there's all sorts of things wrong with it, but it still has interesting concerns at its core. I like it, even when it's failing, because it's trying to do something new. That alone is enough to place it firmly above most of Series 4's output.
Beggars can't be choosers, after all.
A Review by Finn Clark 29/8/09
If only I'd liked the 2008 season finale, I'd have been calling it the best year yet. At last they've worked out how to do the early one-parters without making them seem like filler. This story is one of my favourites, with almost nothing I don't love. I suppose the security chief's crane hook feels a bit dumb, but that's about it.
To go lowbrow for a moment, I love the aesthetic. This is the best-looking alien planet in Doctor Who to date. On the one hand, we have that gritty industrial look, reflecting the tone of the other 42nd century stories, 42 (hmmm) and The Satan Pit. It was filmed in a cement factory and an RAF hangar. The guns are real guns. It's also heavily multi-ethnic, which is nice. Just as importantly though, I'm in awe of the snow. That ice-capped wilderness is a thing of beauty. It's nice to be reminded that even alien planets can have weather. It might seem odd that tadpole people with tentacles seem to have evolved on a frozen world, but: (a) we're taking a lot on trust already with Ood evolution, and (b) who's to say that's what the whole planet looks like, all year round? Maybe the original slavers transplanted their big cahooney up to the Ood-Sphere North Pole just to make it harder for the natives to cause trouble?
Then there's the story, which works on three levels. Firstly, it's a good exciting monster bash, with evil bastards and lots of satisfying gross death. This is important. Secondly, it's returning to the slavery theme which was raised but never really explored in The Satan Pit. Mr Halpen and his employees would happily exterminate everyone for a profit, which is even given a bit of real-world context with the infamous line about "who made your clothes?" I liked that bit. It's just a throwaway reference, but it's worth it if it makes a few audience members think twice. I can see why some people would get hot under the collar about Doctor Who dragging such issues into a silly bit of SF nonsense, but, well, sod 'em.
By way of comparison, count the number of slavery references in the previous story, The Fires of Pompeii. You know, the one set in Roman times.
Then the story's third level involves the unpacking of its central puzzle. It's a detective story, basically. Doctor Who isn't normally hard SF at all, but for the space of these 45 minutes it's doing a pretty good impression of it. The Ood are genuinely freaky. They're neither evil monsters, nice people in funny make-up nor SF cliches based on a single trait. Instead, they're a well-imagined alien race, with a culture and psychology that arises from their unique physiology. They're scary, horrible and sympathetic all at once. They react unpredictably to being enslaved and mutilated. They have a double-blink. Admittedly it's hard to imagine them evolving like that in the first place, but I suppose you get a lot of advantages from a telepathic hive mind.
That's why it doesn't matter that the Doctor doesn't really do much this week. Admittedly, we get that rather a lot in New Who, especially in Dalek episodes, but here the action-adventure stuff is only the most basic story level. Donna's in charge when it comes to moral outrage (i.e. level 2), while the Doctor's role is to be our guide on level 3. He's our Sherlock Holmes, if you like. He wants to find out what's going on, which is why I'm not so fussed about counting his plot intervention scenes this time.
I even loved it as action-adventure, though. There's something very satisfying about an imaginatively horrible death, especially if the victim deserves it. Here we have an entire cast full of evil gits who'll have you laughing and cheering as they meet their ever-more-gruesome ends. I was happy to see the public relations officer get hers, but that's nothing compared with the laugh-out-loud demise of Mr Kess, the puzzling-but-gross attack by wiggly face tentacle and the truly freaky fate of Mr Halpern. All that's great fun. Note also that we're in no doubt that these victims mostly deserved it, with both Mr Kess and the public relations officer having been given their chance to be scum. "They're over here!" is one of my favourite moments in the new series, by the way. It's a little acid moment, just to show that life isn't just rainbows and butterflies after all. Give people a chance and sometimes they'll try to kick you in the teeth. Obviously I'm not saying I want an entire show like that (also known as the Saward era), but it's a realistic moment in a series that a lot of people would associate with glossy escapism.
There's an odd bit of internal continuity. The Doctor says that Ood slavery was a phenomenon of the 42nd century, this being the year 4126, but we later learn that it's been going on for 200 years and that it's going to end soon. I think the Doctor's being careless with his terminology again. On a greater level, the bits that looked at the time like important foreshadowing have turned out to be less significant than they looked. There's another nod to those bees, but I honestly can't remember the eventual explanation they threw in of the Doctor-Donna's song being about to end soon. Can't be important, then. It fits quite well with Tennant and Tate both leaving the show, mind you.
The regulars are on good form. I liked Donna without reservation this time, since I wasn't worrying about weaker moments to weigh against the scenes where she's outstanding. As usual, Catherine Tate's line deliveries include a few extreme choices, but for me these worked. "They turned him into an Ood." Tennant is excellent, as always, while Tim McInnery is strong as Mr Halpern. I laughed at "we're going to blow it up".
There are a few monsters who belong to a single Doctor. They're good enough to bring back, but somehow they never made it into the A-tier. I'm talking here about things like the Yeti, Ogrons, Mara and Sil. The Autons and Silurians/Sea Devils used to be in this category too. Obviously it's too early to be able to say for sure, but modern examples of this might end up including the Slitheen (Sarah Jane Adventures notwithstanding) and, yes, the Ood. I like all of those, you know. It's arguably a more interesting line-up than the more iconic and famous ones, which is probably why they got brought back, but not ad nauseum. I'm glad we got more Ood.