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Doctor Who: Planet of the Ood (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Planet of the Ood originally aired in 2008.

How many Ood in total?

I’d say about two thousand, sir.

We can write them off. That’s what insurance is for.

– Halpen and Kess remind us that these are not nice people

Planet of the Ood is a bit blunt. And by “a bit”, I mean “a lot.” It’s an allegorical exploration of unchecked capitalism and slavery, using the science-fiction setting to tell a story with a familiar moral.Then again, Planet of the Ood largely works because that moral remains rather timely and relevant, but also because it’s a fantastically produced piece of television. It’s fast and pacey, it looks stylish, it has a fantastic cast and an efficient script. Sure, there are rough edges, but Planet of the Ood continues a fairly strong start for the fourth season.

Soaring...

Soaring…

The fourth season is quite ambitious when it comes to its science-fiction episodes. The first season of the revived Doctor Who was firmly anchored to Earth, with all the stories unfolding on or around the planet, and the first futuristic serial – The End of the World – almost blowing the entire season’s budget. Since then, the show seems have been getting more comfortable with the goofy futuristic surroundings and settings.

The second season got a little more ambitious. Rose and the Doctor took their first trip to a new world in New Earth and their first visit to a non-Earth-like location outside the solar system The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, but the wealth of alien imagery was reserved for snippets glimpsed at the start of Army of Ghosts. The third season seemed to get a bit more comfortable with the show’s science-fiction settings. Indeed, the first episode of the final three-parter (or the last episode before the final two-parter), Utopia featured the characters running around an old quarry in the style of classic Doctor Who.

Simply shocking...

Simply shocking…

The fourth season pushes this comfort level a little bit further. Planet of the Ood is a trip to a planet that is very specifically designed to be different from Earth, the home planet of an entirely alien race. Later on, we’ll have a whole bunch of futuristic science-fiction high-concepts thrown together in the ambitious misfire that is The Doctor’s Daughter. Both the Doctor- and companion-lite stories open on alien worlds, even if Turn Left brings us quickly back to Earth. The Stolen Earth features the oft-cited Shadow Proclamation, in a scene that Davies had intended to bring back virtually every monster from the show to date.

There are quite a few other suggestions that the show is getting more comfortable with itself. The reveal of the strange creature on Donna’s back – foreshadowed throughout the season – is really just an update of a similar scenario involving Sarah Jane from Planet of the Spiders. (It’s also something that could easily look pretty dodgy, but winds up looking quite eerie and unsettling.) Even the naming convention of Planet of the Ood feels like an attempt to embrace the decidedly goofy feel of classic episode titles like Planet of Evil or Planet of the Spiders.

Feeling caged in...

Feeling caged in…

There’s also a sense of the show fostering internal continuity – homaging the revival as well as the classic show. Unlike the reuse of the Slitheen in Boom Town, the use of the Ood here was not dictated by budget. The decision to offer a direct follow-up to The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit feels like a show that recognises the contributions made to the mythos in the last three years – comfortable with itself as much as with the original television show.

A large part of what’s interesting about the fourth season is the sense that the revived show is completely comfortable with itself. Davies has been quite willing to slip shout-outs and references into the first three seasons of the show, but he was also a little cautious about alienating new viewers. The revived Doctor Who was very much built from the ground up to be entirely accessible to those people who were unfamiliar with a cult television show that was cancelled in 1989.

Out in the cold...

Out in the cold…

It’s worth stressing that this is important. Classic Doctor Who fans, like fans of so many science-fiction properties, tend to be defensive of their favourite television show. There’s a tiny – but very vocal – group of fandom that has complained ceaselessly about the revival since it first aired, objecting in various close-minded ways about how “it’s not really Doctor Who” or how Moffat and Davies are pushing some sort of social agenda or that the revival is too sexual or even that the show has no respect for its predecessor.

One of the paradoxes of major geek fandom is that many people seem to actively hate the very things they claim to love. Somehow, the fact that the revived Doctor Who doesn’t meet their very narrow definition of what the show should be retroactively ruins a franchise that they claim to have greatly enjoyed. Watching on-line discussions over Steven Moffat’s plans for the fiftieth anniversary, you’d assume the poor guy had spent the show’s budget touring the country so he could urinate on each and every fan’s cereal.

Would!? You!? Care!? For!? Some!? Tea!?

Would!? You!? Care!? For!? Some!? Tea!?

Alternatively, look at the bitter conspiracy theorising going on around the recent recovery of The Enemy of the World or The Web of Fear. Fans seem intent of accusing the BBC of some vast conspiracy because they tried to maximise the publicity and profile of the reveal, a strategy that pushed two episodes (one of which was incomplete) of a quirky sixties black-and-white science-fiction show briefly to the top of the iTunes charts on the week of release.

This is, of course, not unique to Doctor Who. Star Trek fans have turned internal rivalry into an art form, with various individuals having strong opinions about what does and doesn’t count, whether a particular interpretation should be considered legitimate. It seems to be part of the possessive nature of fandom, a bizarre expression of the protective possessiveness that some fans tend to feel for the subject of their affection.

Watch out!

Watch out!

The truth is that the revived Doctor Who has always had an abiding affection for the original show. Rose featured the Autons. The first season reintroduced the Daleks without any bells or whistles. (Compare to the plans for “Spider Daleks” suggested for the 1996 telemovie.) The show’s second year brought the Cybermen up to date in a direct update of a celebrated audio play, but also featured the return of Sarah Jane Smith, who would spin off into her own licensed tie-in show. The third season featured a quick appearance from the Macra, Paul Cornell adapting his own well-loved novel and the return of the Master.

There were always shout-outs and affectionate nods and references to earlier stories. However, there was also a hit of trepidation, as if Davies was a little worried about frightening away new viewers. Instead, the show eased into its legacy. It’s no coincidence that the returning elements became a bit more niche and esoteric as the series went on, opening with the big recognisable parts of Doctor Who and segueing gently into the full four-and-a-half decades of legacy.

We have top men working on it...

We have top men working on it…

The fourth season sees the show embracing this history with open arms, as if comfortable with the way that Davies had resurrected and revived the show, turning it into a television juggernaut. “Now kids, come and meet some of the show’s old friends!” it seems to say. Voyage of the Damned, a gigantic Douglas Adams homage, came with a prequel featuring the first in-the-flesh appearance of a classic Doctor on the show. Partners in Crime references Survival. The Fires of Pompeii features a shout-out to The Romans.

Later in the season, the show will reintroduce the Sontarans, perhaps the most ridiculous of the Doctor Who aliens to make a comeback on the main show. It will also gives us Davros in The Stolen Earth and even tease the audience with an episode titled The Doctor’s Daughter – which seems like an obvious shout-out to the first companion, the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan.

The brain of the operation...

The brain of the operation…

And Planet of the Ood also features the same sorts of shout-outs, tying back to the very first season of the show. The Doctor confirms a nice connection that had been made in fanlore, tying the Ood from the revival to The Sensorites from the very first season of the show. “The Ood Sphere, I’ve been to this solar system before,” the Doctor tells us. “Years ago. Ages. Close to the planet Sense Sphere.”

It all comes around. Everything is connected. No matter how far you go, you always come back to the same things. This is a nice piece of commentary on the show itself – no matter how far the Doctor evolves, or how radically the show shifts, it will never venture too far from its origins. For one thing, there will always be Daleks, who anchored themselves to the series as early as the second serial. It will all come home, and it will all tie together in some rough fashion.

Feeling boxed in...

Feeling boxed in…

As much as the cynics might decry liberties taken with the revival, it’s still the same show. It can’t be anything but. Rose might be quite different from any episode produced before, and represent something of a clear break from the legacy – a nice way for viewers to ease into the show’s mythology – there’s a point where the show will reconnect with that past. Because it can’t avoid it. It’s like gravity.

“The circle must be broken,” the Ood chant. In a fashion quite common in the new series, it turns out that the Ood are being remarkably literal – they are referencing the electronic force-fields being used to hem in the telepathic Ood-brain. However, it’s also metaphorical. The Ood are drawing attention to the fact that shows like Doctor Who tend to have cyclic narratives. Unlike something like The Wire or The Sopranos, the show will never end. No matter how crazy things get, it will always come back around.

An odd Ood...

An odd Ood…

It’s worth pointing out that Planet of the Ood directly follows The Fires of Pompeii. The two episodes are separated by millennia, but it’s worth noting that the crimes committed here by the “Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire” were also common practice in the Roman Empire. “A great big empire built on slavery,” Donna muses, a description that just as easily applies to the Roman Empire. The more things change, the more they stay the same – what goes around comes around, with the notion that time is less of a line and more of a wheel.

(This does raise a big logical question about why slavery in Ancient Rome bothers him less – the family he saved in The Fires of Pompeii keep slaves – but it’s probably best not to worry about it too much. The Doctor can end slavery here because it’s set in the distant future relative to the viewer, rather than the past of modern-day Earth. I suppose you can rationalise about “fixed points in history”, the Doctor was not at all bother by the social injustices of Pompeii at all.)

It's great big universe...

It’s great big universe…

In a way, this circular motif is a nice way of tying into Donna’s character arc for the fourth season. She has an absolutely amazing mind-altering horizon-expanding adventure… and then winds up back where she started. Donna is “reset”, pushed back to the point before The Runaway Bride. It’s a rather beautiful ending, for a number of reasons we’ll get to when we discuss Journey’s End, but it also feels quite loaded.

Davies knew, at this point, that the fourth season would be his final year on Doctor Who. In a way, it’s hard not read something quite personal into the arc he has given Donna – the sense that he has taken this absolutely amazing adventure, done completely impossible things, seen the most ridiculous wonders… and knowing that, in the end, life goes on. The show will continue without him, and he without it. His time on the show will cease to be “Doctor Who”, and will instead become “the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who.”

Snow where else to go...

Snow where else to go…

As Steven Moffat takes over, the show will radically change. It’s a natural process, and it’s personal preference whether you see this as a good or a bad thing. However, what makes the show uniquely Davies’ will fade away and be replaced by something that makes it uniquely Moffat’s. What will remain, what will be constant, is the sheer Doctor Who-ness of it all. Donna may be gone, but the Doctor will continue on.

(Again, I’d argue the fourth season holds together a lot better than any of Davies’ other seasons, save perhaps the very first year of the revival. Like The Fires of Pompeii, the song of “the DoctorDonna” is a plot resolution that might feel overly sweet or cloying on first viewing, but which becomes a lot easier to handle on re-watch, knowing how cruel Donna’s fate would be.)

Getting up to their usual ice-scapades...

Getting up to their usual ice-scapades…

As a story in its own right, Planet of the Ood can be a bit blunt at times. Any episode about slavery tends to get heavy-handed, and understandably so. Slavery is one of those topics that is very hard to handle in a manner that doesn’t feel blunt or heavy-handed. Some acts are so abhorrent and so disconcerting that it’s really hard to find nuance or subtlety in their brutality. Keith Temple’s script tackles the subject with remarkable clarity, plowing straight through the ground that needs to covered with a ruthless efficiency.

While the beauty of James Moran’s Fires of Pompeii script was the way that it managed to skilfully avoid answering an unanswerable moral quandary by throwing sharp curve balls, Temple’s script is a lot stronger for engaging with the issues head-on. All the necessary points are covered. The Planet of the Ood deals with the ways that society covers up or justifies slavery, through clever word-play, self-delusion or indifferent complicity.

Red-Eye...

Red-Eye…

“We keep them in facilities of the highest standard,” the PR executive insists, speaking with something approaching the white man’s burden – perhaps better classified as the privileged’s burden. “We keep the Ood healthy, safe, and educated.  We don’t just breed the Ood. We make them better.” Humanity, we’re told, brings meaning and civilisation to a race that are born to be subservient. The subservient argument articulated in The Impossible Planet is revealed to be a self-serving myth, something humans say and repeat to justify their actions.

After all, this sort of abuse isn’t something that can be laid at the feet of any individual or corporation. It’s a problem that exists at a societal level, and passive acceptance of the status quo makes a person just as complicit as active participation. “If people back on Earth knew what was going on here,” Donna begins. The executive cuts her off. “Oh, don’t be so stupid. Of course they know.” This catches Donna’s attention. “They know how you treat the Ood?” she demands. Solana responds, “They don’t ask. Same thing.”

Straight from the CEO's mouth...

Straight from the CEO’s mouth…

The Doctor himself catches Donna out on this, pointing out that her moral outrage only bubbles to the surface when she’s directly confronted by all this. “It’s not so different from your time,” the Doctor remarks at one point, after Donna expresses her horror. “Oi,” she protests. “I haven’t got slaves.” The Doctor rather curtly responds, “Who do you think made your clothes?” It’s a very pointed criticism, one arguably directed as much at the audience as at Donna. That said, given the Doctor’s indifference towards the suffering of slaves in Rome and Pompeii, it does feel a bit like a “cheap shot”, as Donna argues.

It also draws attention to some of the series’ more hypocritical moments. The following year, as part of the five final “special” episodes marking the departure of Tennant and Davies from the series, the show would film Planet of the Dead in Dubai. Spending British tax payers’ money to film an Easter special in the homophobic surroundings of Dubai seems a decision that is – for a show with a large gay following, and with a very progressive view of LGBT rights –  at best as wilfully oblivious as Donna is here.

Far from a perfect Ten...

Far from a perfect Ten…

That said, Temple’s script is at least self-aware enough that none of this feels too earnest. Casting minorities as members of the staff oppressing the Ood feels a little on-the-nose, but the show moves briskly enough that there’s never enough time for the casting of Roger Griffiths or Ayesha Dharker to become distracting. It’s a valid point about how the institutionalisation of these sorts of practices reinforces prejudice even amongst those segments of society that have been victims of that same oppression themselves, but Solana and Kess are never developed enough that they feel like anything more than just broad outlines of characters.

Temple’s script is quite effective here. The way that show leaves this observation about the ethnicities of Solana and Kess unstated by any of the characters helps. Indeed, the closest the show comes to overtly acknowledging this is when Halpen gets a little snippy with Solana, curtly instructing her on what to do and urging her to “hurry up!”, earning a rather subdued “yes sir” in response, as she’s reminded of her place in Halpen’s grant scheme of things.

Still in their original packaging!

Still in their original packaging!

The show moves along too briskly for any of this to really feel like a problem. Director Graeme Harper has the distinction of being one of the best directors of the classic show and one of the best directors of the revival. He’s able to lend Planet of the Ood a genuinely blockbuster feel, zipping along through a series of well-staged set pieces at a frantic pace. There’s absolutely no justification for the gigantic claw scene other than “it looks cool”“I’ve always wanted to do this,” Kess admits, and one imagines he’s speaking for the entire production staff – but it looks cool enough that it works.

Harper manages to take what amounts to little more than a factory in the snow, and to craft an entire world around it. Planet of the Ood is hardly the most inventive of extraterrestrial environments, looking a bit like a beaten-down industrial site. However, Harper makes it feel distinct and alien enough that it works. In its own hyper-stylised way, it’s just as convincing as the fantastic studio sets and location shooting on The Fires of Pompeii.

Shipping-shape, eh?

Shipping-shape, eh?

That said, the ending feels a little awkward – the decision to change Halpen into an Ood. It’s hard to figure out exactly what Temple was going for here, beyond quite a wonderful visual transformation. (Face tentacles!) Is it meant to be a punishment? It’s quite  disturbing visual, but the whole point of Planet of the Ood is that the Ood are actually nice creatures, capable of thought and will and compassion. After all, the Ood promise to “take care of him.”

Is Halpen’s transformation intended to “teach him a lesson” in a “grass is always greener” sort of way? Is the idea that the only way Halpen can understand prejudice by becoming a member of an oppressed group? If so, the implication is troubling. After all, wasn’t the whole point of the rest of the show that the Doctor and Donna are capable of incredible empathy for the plight of the Ood?It’s a pretty standard moral for stories like this – “a mile in their shoes” – but it feels just a little trite and cliché.

A chilly tale...

A chilly tale…

More than that, how much of Halpen remains? Has his personality been wiped as well, or is he the same person in a different body? The way Ood Sigma suggests they will “take care of him” implies that Ood!Halpen isn’t all there. For a show about respecting the Ood’s own ethnic identity, and realising that they have inalienable rights that involve not being transformed into consumerist objects, that final scene feels like it misses the mark. The transformation feels like an idea that the writers seized upon as looking “cool”, rather than an organic development as part of the script.

To be fair, Planet of the Ood has Donna call the Doctor out on this. “It’s weird, being with you,” she observes. “I can’t tell what’s right and what’s wrong any more.” The Doctor glibly replies, “It’s better that way. People who know for certain tend to be like Mister Halpen.” There’s a nice bit of irony here, as Davies has been building the idea that the Tenth Doctor is undermined by his own hubris. What else is The Waters of Mars beyond the Doctor being “certain” that he knows best? It’s a recurring theme throughout David Tennant’s time in the lead role, with his decision to depose Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion coming back to bite him in The Sound of Drums.

Slave for you...

Slave for you…

In fact, Planet of the Ood seems based around another previous failure of the Tenth Doctor, another example of how he was too narrow-minded or too short-sighted to deal with anything beyond the crisis at hand. The Impossible Planet was an over-loaded script, and it felt like the Ood were never developed as much as they should have been. Barring the lovely decision to list them individually among the casualties of the mission in The Satan Pit, they felt more like plot devices than a developed race of characters.

There were likely production reasons for that – given the behind-the-scenes turmoil rocking the second half of the revived show’s second season. However, Planet of the Ood allows the show to point to it as a moral failing on the part of the Doctor. “Servants?” Donna asks at one point, after the Doctor has casually described the Ood as “servants of humans in the forty-second century.” Donna protests, “They’re slaves.” The Doctor concedes, “Last time I met the Ood, I never thought. I never asked.” He half-heartedly offers a defence. “I was busy.” So busy, so focused on the grand scheme of things that he missed the subjugation of an entire species.

Sigma-fying a major moral short-coming on the part of the Doctor...

Sigma-fying a major moral short-coming on the part of the Doctor…

As such, the casting of Donna feels appropriate at this point in the character’s arc. Donna isn’t afraid to stand up to the Doctor. In The Fires of Pompeii, she managed to convince him to at least save somebody. Here, she calls him out on his “cheap shots” and suggests that Halpen’s transformation is not necessarily above-board. In The Sontaran Stratagem, we see Donna acting almost as a maternal figure towards Martha, while the series climaxes with Donna being able to take on some of the burden of being the Doctor.

It’s hinted at here, as the Doctor reveals the weight of the universe pressing down on him – somewhat similar to The Fires of Pompeii. There, it was the rules of time that seemed to weigh upon his shoulders. Here, it’s the burden of all the people who need to be saved. Donna’s perspective is limited in comparison, she’s only human. The Doctor repeatedly references a song that she can’t hear, just as he referenced rules she couldn’t understand in The Fires of Pompeii.

The ball's in their court...

The ball’s in their court…

For a brief moment here, the Docto shares that burden. Donna hears the universe as the Doctor hears it, but only for a second. “Take it away,” she begs. “I can’t bear it.” This is the weight that rests on the Doctor’s shoulders, that most impossible burden. Donna can withstand it for a second, just like she can help him press the plunger in The Fires of Pompeii, but she can’t hold that weight forever. There’s only so much a person can carry, and only so long she can carry it. Donna’s story feels like it was always going to be a tragedy.

The suggestion, perhaps, is that the Doctor must also have a limit – an upper threshold of tolerance for all that responsibility. Naturally, it’s a lot higher than the threshold of the humans around him, but it must still exist. There will come a time when that weight becomes too much, and when the Doctor finally cracks under all that pressure. I’ve gone on record as a massive fan of Davies’ fourth season, and I think that it holds together a lot more consistently than the second or third seasons of the revived show – with a clear through-line leading from The Voyage of the Damned straight through to The End of Time, Part II.

No IDea what's going on...

No IDea what’s going on…

Planet of the Ood is a pretty solid companion piece to The Fires of Pompeii, right down to the complimentary red/blue hue given to the two episodes. It’s occasionally a little too heavy-handed, but the episode compensates well. Temple’s script keeps the characters moving quickly enough that the problems never really catch up, and director Graeme Harper demonstrates why he’s the longest serving member of the Doctor Who production team.

You might be interested in our other reviews from David Tennant’s third season of Doctor Who:

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4 Responses

  1. This is a brilliant summation – thank you!

  2. I’m fairly new to Doctor Who fandom and not as familiar with the classic series as you obviously are. While the title of this episode may, as you note, in fact be a call back to earlier serials such as “Planet of the Spiders”, I’ve always considered it an homage to Planet of the Apes. In fact, I’ve joked that the episode should be called “Conquest of the Planet of the Ood,” as, like the fourth Apes movie, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” it tells the story of a slave race rising up against its oppressors.

    • I like it! That’s actually quite brilliant!

      (And the “xxx of the yyy of the zzz” would be the most Doctor Who Doctor Who title ever!)

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