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Doctor Who: The Specials (Review/Retrospective)

In theory, the specials were a great idea. The BBC is in the middle of converting to high-definition broadcast. One of their best-loved and most respected dramas isn’t quite ready to make that leap, and will require extensive re-working in order to be sustainable for high-definition broadcast, which seems to be the future of home entertainment. It’ll be a year before the show can get back to churning out thirteen episodes and a Christmas Special.

However, the show runner who brought the show back from the dead and turned it into a highlight of your broadcast schedule, and the beloved lead actor who has become deeply associated with the lead role are willing to do a series of five specials that you can broadcast to fill the gap year. Producing a series of Doctor Who specials to tide over the viewing public and keep the show fresh in the public’s mind was a great idea. After all, you don’t want fans to forget about the show.


The plan has the added benefit of allowing Russell T. Davies and David Tennant a bit more freedom to stretch their wings. Davies can work on Torchwood in a way that he was never able to find time before, producing the superb Children of Earth. Tennant can work with Royal Shakespearean Company, playing the lead in Hamlet. All this, and fans get their prescription dose of Doctor Who and the BBC has the time to upgrade the show so it can broadcast in high definition. Everybody wins! Everybody stays happy!

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a catch. It turns out that these five episodes have to do more than merely “tide” fans over. These five specials are also the last episodes that will be written by Davies and that will star Tennant. So these five specials become more than just a way to stop the public forgetting about Doctor Who. They also have to close out what has been a phenomenal era for the show, and wrap up everything in a nice big bow. And this is where the specials don’t really work.


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Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead (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 Dead originally aired in 2009.

Hello, I’m the Doctor. Happy Easter!

– the Doctor sets the mood

Planet of the Dead is light-weight Doctor Who. That wouldn’t normally be a problem. In fact, there’s a significant portion of each season devoted to light-weight run-around adventures. The problem is that it didn’t air as part of a season. It aired as the first piece of Doctor Who since Christmas and the next aired around Halloween. This was something of an attempt to tide fans over, to remind everybody that Doctor Who was still on the air while Steven Moffat and Matt Smith prepared to take over the TARDIS, the BBC got used to filming in HD and David Tennant pursued his career beyond the show.

As a result, the special feel a little funny. In a way, they seem like an attempt to truncate a standard season of Davies’ Doctor Who. The Next Doctor fits the mould of Christmas special quite well. It even snows! The Waters of Mars is the darker second two-parter of the season, dealing with bigger ideas and adult fears. The End of Time is very much a spiritual successor to Journey’s End. All of this is a way of pointing out that Planet of the Dead is clearly designed to serve as the bombastic family-friendly adventure two-parter that typically aired after the first two episodes of a given season.

As such, the logical point of comparison is Rise of the Cybermen, The Sontaran Stratagem or Daleks in Manhattan. Indeed, Planet of the Dead is conspicuous for its gratuitous location shooting; the last time the production team went abroad to film a story was Daleks of Manhattan, even if the cast stayed at home that time. The problem is that those light two-parters are tolerable in the context of a longer series. On its own, Planet of the Dead is far from satisfying.

Egging him on...

Egging him on…

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead

There’s nothing necessarily bad about Planet of the Dead. Okay, there’s nothing necessarily unforgiveably terrible about the episode. It certainly isn’t anywhere near the worst episode of the show since the revival. On the other hand, there isn’t anything essential or even spectacular about it. In any given season, it would probably be mid-year filler and pass without note or scrutiny. Unfortunately we only got five of these specials, so each on seems just a little bit more important than a regular episode – even more with the countdown ticking towards David Tennant’s departure. Despite some lovely scenery and a few hints of charm and whimsy, the episode seems too much like treading water.

Somebody missed their stop...

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