New Series Rewatch: Planet of the Dead

We’re back, after a VERY long break, with our Doctor Who new series rewatch! When we last watched, we looked at The Next Doctor, the 2008 Christmas Special. Today, we’re resuming with the first of the “year of specials”, 2009’s Planet of the Dead, guest starring Michelle Ryan as one-off companion Lady Christina de Souza. Written by Russell T. Davies and Gareth Roberts, this story remains the television series’ only Easter special; other episodes have been broadcast near the Easter holiday, but this story takes place on Easter Sunday 2009 (which actually causes a bit of confusion, as we’ll see later). Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not watched this episode!

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At London’s International Gallery museum, a talented thief takes advantage of the night shift to pull off a daring, Mission Impossible-esque robbery, stealing a thousand-year-old golden goblet worth millions.  She purposely alerts the guards and trips the alarms as she retreats through the roof.  In the street, she takes off her mask as her accomplice is arrested.  The thief, Lady Christina de Souza, takes a bus to escape, but is seen doing so, and the police follow the bus.  Meanwhile, she is met onboard by the Tenth Doctor.

The Doctor is using a small sensor to track rhondium particles, in the process drawing some critical looks from other passengers. He gets more than he bargained for when the bus passes through a tunnel, and disappears in front of the police, who then cordon off the area.  The bus takes heavy damage as it passes through some sort of portal, bursting windows and bending the frame.  When it crashes to a stop, the Doctor sees that they are elsewhere: it is now daytime, and instead of London, a sandy desert surrounds them.

He explains to the passengers that they are on a different world, and throws a handful of sand into the invisible portal, allowing them to see it via ripples in the air. When he is accused of causing it via the rhondium detector, he explains the full situation: he was tracking a hole in reality, which suddenly expanded just before the bus went through it.  The bus driver declares that they can return the same way, and runs for the wormhole; the Doctor tries to stop him, but he doesn’t listen.  As he enters, the passengers see his body burst into flames.  His bare, scorched skeleton comes out the other side, in the London tunnel.  The police, knowing they are in over their heads, call in UNIT, under the direction of Captain Erisa Magambo.

The Doctor tries to calm the passengers, and introduces himself to them: two younger men named Nathan and Barclay, an older woman named Angela Whittaker, and a couple named Louis and Carmen. Carmen surprises him by somehow knowing that the portal was placed deliberately; he realizes that she has a low-level psychic talent, a gift of foresight.  Lou confirms that she has had it all her life, and uses it for small benefits, such as winning ten pounds on the lottery each week.  She tells the Doctor that “Something is coming, riding on the wind and shining…death is coming.”  This upsets the others, and the Doctor has to calm them again, and get them to focus on making it home; and he promises to get them there.  Meanwhile, UNIT arrives and takes charge of the tunnel scene Earthside, and prepares to fire on anything hostile that comes through.

After some verbal sparring, the Doctor and Christina introduce themselves more fully, though each of them clearly have secrets to hide. They are distracted when they see storm clouds approaching—possibly a sandstorm, but possibly not.  They hurry back to the bus, and the Doctor borrows Barclay’s phone and alters it with his sonic screwdriver.  He then—after a small mixup—calls UNIT, and gets put through to Captain Magambo.  He explains the situation, and she connects him to the scientific advisor onsite, one Malcolm Taylor, who just happens to be an enormous, awestruck fan of the Doctor.  He is already at work; he has an unorthodox, but original, technique for measuring the wormhole—and it is growing.

The Doctor hangs up, and sets the group to digging out the wheels so they can drive the bus back through. Its metal shell serves as a Farraday cage, protecting them; even with damage, it should be sufficient.  Still, it won’t run, and so the Doctor and Christina go exploring for anything useful.  The storm continues to approach, and looks to be made of some kind of metal.  Carmen’s visions are increasing, telling her this storm devours.

An alien resembling a humanoid fly captures the Doctor and Christina and takes them to its crashed ship, meeting another of its kind there. The Doctor can converse with them, and tells Christina they are Tritovores, a harmless race.  When they realize that the passengers are also trapped, they become cooperative.  He fixes enough of the ship’s power to run scanners and a probe, which he sends to check on the storm.  He also finds they are in the Scorpio Nebula, on the planet San Helios, far from Earth indeed.  It used to be a heavily populated, advanced world, with cities; but now it is all desert.  Christina questions the Doctor’s familiarity with all of this, and he reveals that he is a Time Lord.  The planet, it seems, died just in the last year, with its population of 100 billion and all their works turning to dust.

Malcolm calls; the wormhole is now four miles wide, though still invisible. All air traffic has been stopped.  The call is interrupted by one from Nathan, who says that the bus is free, but the fuel has run out.  The Doctor drops the call when the probe reaches the storm.  The storm turns out to be a swarm of billions of carnivorous creatures, like massive flying stingrays with metal exoskeletons—and they eat the probe.  He realizes their collective velocity, increasing as they circle the planet, is creating the wormhole—this is how they travel from world to world, consuming everything as they go.  Soon they will pass through to Earth; their bodies are like living Farraday cages, protecting them as they do so.

The Doctor can save the humans and the Tritovores, but to do so, he needs the Tritovore ship’s crystalline power source. It is at the bottom of a gravity well engine, but the systems are down, and won’t bring it up.  While the Doctor tries to get it working, Christina uses her belaying system from the museum to rope down into the pit and retrieve the crystal.  The Doctor catches her just in time to disable a security grid before it would electrocute her.  Unknown to her, one of the stingray creatures is trapped in the shaft, and her presence awakens it; she gets the crystal, but the creature chases her up the shaft, and she is barely able to reactivate the security grid in time to stop it.  Meanwhile, the Doctor has gone through her rucksack, and found the goblet, which he recognizes from the court of King Athelstan a thousand years ago…but he doesn’t remember her being there.  When he confronts her, she admits to stealing it—or “liberating” it, as she puts it.  He doesn’t approve, but lets it go, admitting that he once stole his TARDIS.  Meanwhile, the creature starts eating its way through the ship, and they are forced to escape.  One Tritovore returns to shut down the systems, and is eaten; the other fires on the creature before being eaten as well.

Back at the bus, the Doctor tosses the crystal, saving only the anti-gravity clamps to which it was mounted. He puts one on each wheel of the bus, and uses the last on the steering wheel to tie the system together.  He calls Malcolm and tells him to prepare to close the wormhole.  Malcolm has a technique in mind.

The alien systems aren’t compatible with the bus, and it is not working well. The Doctor needs something “soft, malleable, non-corrosive and conductive” to bridge the two systems; Christina reluctantly gives him the golden goblet, warning him to be careful, as it is worth eighteen million pounds.  He promises he will—and then pounds it into deformity so as to make it fit into the system.  Christina tells him she hates him.

Magambo tells Malcolm to close the wormhole, despite the fact that the Doctor hasn’t returned. When he refuses, she draws her gun on him; but even so, he refuses, to her shock.  Meanwhile, the argument gives the Doctor all the time he needs, and he gets the bus into the air.  He takes it through the wormhole with the swarm immediately behind; three stingrays make it through before Malcolm gets it closed.  UNIT manages to shoot down two of the stingrays with missiles, but the Doctor is forced to handle the third; he rams it with the bus, stunning it enough for UNIT to take it out.  Christina kisses the Doctor and retracts her statement about hating him.

The bus lands near the tunnel, and the passengers are taken to be examined before release. Malcolm at last meets the Doctor face to face, and proclaims his undying love…or hero worship, at least.  Magambo salutes the Doctor even though he doesn’t like it.  He warns her that the creatures will create more portals; they can’t help it.  However, he will try to direct them to uninhabited worlds.  He suggests that she hire Nathan and Barclay, who were especially helpful in a crisis; Magambo says she will consider it.  She also presents the TARDIS, having found it on the grounds of Buckingham Palace.  The Doctor declines to stay and help with the paperwork, and the two part ways.

Christina, however, is not going to be freed. She runs to the Doctor, and asks to travel with him, but he turns her down, saying he will never take anyone with him again, having lost them all in the past.  The police arrive and arrest her for the museum theft.  The Doctor prepares to leave, but Carmen stops him and warns him that his “song is ending”.  She tells him that “it is returning. It is returning through the dark, and then Doctor…oh, but then…he will knock four times.”  The Doctor is disturbed by this prophecy.

As a last gesture, the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to unlock Christina’s handcuffs. She makes her escape and runs for the bus; locking the police out, she takes off in it.  The detective in charge threatens the Doctor with arrest; the Doctor comments that he’ll “just step in this police box and arrest myself.”  He watches Christina take off, and then returns to the TARDIS to leave.

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A good Doctor Who special is entertaining above all else. Occasionally we’ll get a continuity-defining moment, but we don’t expect that from a serial; we come here to have fun. Planet of the Dead certainly delivers on that goal. It’s not comical in the same sense as some audio dramas (Bang-Bang-A-Boom!, which I’ll be reviewing soon, comes to mind), but it’s upbeat and lighthearted even while dealing with a potentially world-ending threat—something, I might add, that Doctor Who does better than any other series, in my opinion. There are certainly somber moments, like the prophecies about the Doctor’s future (“He will knock four times”), but they’re few and far between.

The Davies era seemed to have a knack for picking one-off and short-term companions. Captain Jack Harkness, as short as his tenure was, became a veritable legend; Adam Mitchell, while by no means good, plays his intended role perfectly; Astrid Peth is charming in her position as temporary companion, and it’s a shame she had to die. Jackson Lake and Rosita were immensely fun, even if their episode has picked up a fair amount of criticism. Here, Lady Christina de Souza, played by Michelle Ryan, is excellent. She’s a combination of Ethan Hunt and Lara Croft, but with more class than either of them. One would think it would play as a string of clichés, but it doesn’t come across that way. She’s correct when she tells the Doctor, at the end, that they would have made a great team; he’s equally correct when he tells her that they already did. With all that said, I have no particular desire to see her return, not because she’s a bad character, but because some performances would just simply be hard to top. She would be not nearly as effective were she a regular companion, although I concede that she would have potential for growth (beginning as a criminal, as she does).

Recently someone posed the question of the differences between UNIT in the Davies era and the Moffat era. I didn’t weigh in at that time, but I’ve given it a bit of thought since then, and I think this episode highlights the problem with the RTD era. It’s an easy distinction: UNIT is best when it has strong characters. I suppose that observation seems elementary, but it’s no less accurate for that. In the classic series, UNIT was carried on the strength of the Brigadier, Sergeant Benton, Mike Yates, and (to a lesser degree) Jo Grant and Liz Shaw. Others came and went, but we don’t remember them nearly as fondly, and we don’t look at their episodes as favorably—in DWM’s 2014 episode ranking, Battlefield, featuring Brigadier Winifred Bambera and no familiar UNIT staff, ranked 159 out of 241. The Moffat era gave us strong UNIT figures, or at least memorable ones, with Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and Osgood. The Davies era did nothing of the sort; the UNIT staff were different in every appearance, and no one stood out as memorable. This episode is a great example of the kind of missed opportunities that abounded; Malcolm Taylor, the scientific advisor, could easily have been a good recurring character (and indeed, he gets a mention, but not an appearance, in The Day of the Doctor), but it was too little, too late. Thus, UNIT feels like an awkward adjunct to the series rather than one of its staples.

In my introduction, I mentioned some confusion regarding the in-universe date of this story. The events of The Stolen Earth, which are mentioned here, take place in May-June 2009, which would make this story occur in 2010, as we know it occurs on Easter. That timing is established in a novel, not in the episode itself. However, that would create a conflict with the upcoming Christmas special, The End of Time, which clearly takes place on Christmas 2009; this story cannot take place after The End of Time, because –among other reasons—an ad on the side of the bus mentions a company owned by billionaire Joshua Naismith, who is ruined in the events of The End of Time. The moral of the story: take any dates from other media with a grain of salt. (Or perhaps it just doesn’t matter—it’s your decision.)

Continuity references: There’s some discussion by bus passengers of the events of The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. The Doctor refers back to Midnight when he talks about the humans on the bus blaming him for their situation. He also mentions the K1 robot (Robot) when talking to Malcolm about UNIT’s files on him. Among Carmen’s prophecies, she tells the Doctor that “your song is ending”; he was also given this message in Planet of the Ood. Christina makes reference to an economic crash in 2008, which features into the audio drama Situation Vacant by way of Theo Lawson, the teenager who caused the crash. Malcolm’s reference to the “Bernard”, a custom unit of measurement, is a bit of a convoluted reference; he states that it refers to Professor Bernard Quatermass, who is fictional in the Doctor Who universe as he is in ours; however, there have been previous references to the Professor and his agency, the British Rocket Group, explicitly in Remembrance of the Daleks, and implicitly in Nightshade, where the titular Professor Nightshade was loosely based on Quatermass. (One day I’ll watch some of these Quatermass serials about which I’ve heard so much…) The TARDIS is found in the gardens of Buckingham Palace; his relationship with the Queen has been hinted in previous stories, including Silver Nemesis and Voyage of the Damned. The Doctor makes an oblique reference to Donna Noble, noting that a friend once called him “Spaceman”. He mentions having been to the end of the universe (Utopia).

Overall: A fun story, and that’s good enough—but we also get some dark hints of the end that is rapidly approaching. Our next installment won’t be so much fun.

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Next time: We’ll check out a well-known story—and a dark moment for the Doctor—in The Waters of Mars. See you there!

All episodes may be found on Dailymotion; link is below.

Planet of the Dead



One thought on “New Series Rewatch: Planet of the Dead

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