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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: Turn Left (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.

Turn Left originally aired in 2008.

You said I was going to die, but you mean this whole world is going to blink out of existence. But that’s not dying, because a better world takes its place. The Doctor’s world. And I’m still alive. That’s right, isn’t it? I don’t die. If I change things, I don’t die. That’s that’s right, isn’t it?

– poor Donna… poor, poor Donna

The fourth season is basically one gigantic victory lap for Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who. Davies has done the hard work of returning the show to television. He’s made the Daleks threatening. He’s rebooted the Cybermen. He’s made the Master sexy again. The fourth season is really just about enjoying the success of the show, and using that success to do crazy things like bringing back the Sontarans or Davros. Because nobody was clamouring for another Sontaran or Davros story.

That sense of celebration is probably most obvious in Turn Left, the penultimate story of the fourth season. It’s basically It’s a Wonderful Life, starring the Tenth Doctor. Or, to be more accurate, It’s a Wonderful Life for the new series of Doctor Who. It’s an excuse to celebrate a raft of continuity from The Runaway Bride through to The Sontaran Stratagem, to bring back Billie Piper and just to celebrate not only the wonder of Doctor Who, but the virtue of Davies’ approach to the series.

Everything goes up in smoke...

Everything goes up in smoke…

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Doctor Who: The Poison Sky (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.

The Poison Sky originally aired in 2008.

They’ve taken it. I’m stuck on Earth like, like an ordinary person. Like a human. How rubbish is that? Sorry, no offense, but come on.

– take that, Jon Pertwee!

Like The Sontaran Stratagem before it, The Poison Sky is pretty effective at accomplishing what it sets out to do. The first two-parter was always a troubled part of the Davies era, and so it feels strangely appropriate that the production team should manage to nail it on the fourth and final go-round. The Poison Sky isn’t the best episode of the show’s superlative fourth season, but neither it nor The Sontaran Stratagem are the worst, either. Instead, it’s a solidly entertaining feature-length adventure featuring the return of various old favourites from the classic show (U.N.I.T.! Sontarans!) and the revived series (Martha! the Valiant!).

It is goofy, silly, and fluffy, but it’s entertaining fluff.

His finger on the button...

His finger on the button…

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Doctor Who: The Sontaran Stratagem (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.

The Sontaran Stratagem originally aired in 2008.

Sontar-Ha!

– Sontaran hakka

The expectations for the opening two-parter of any Russell T. Davies season are markedly different from the expectations surrounding the second two-parter or even the season finalé – just as the expectations for the opening few episodes are different from the expectations for a mid-season stand-alone. It should go without saying, but it’s worth stressing at this point. The opening two-parter of a Davies season isn’t meant for the adults in the audience – it’s traditionally aimed towards the kids, with big epic iconic monsters, ridiculous set-pieces, broadly-defined settings and little room for nuance.

That’s not to excuses messes like World War III or Evolution of the Daleks, but simply to place them in context. The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky aren’t quite as profound or weighty as The Fires of Pompeii or Planet of the Ood. Instead, they offer bombastic spectacle, goofy visuals and a heightened sense of absolutely everything. In other words, The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky combine to form the strongest opening two-parter of the Davies era.

They hardly represent a crowning artistic accomplishment for the show, but they do a great job of accomplishing what they set out to do.

There's a potato eyes joke here, but I just can't make it work...

There’s a potato eyes joke here, but I just can’t make it work…

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Doctor Who: The Hungry Earth (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.

The Hungry Earth originally aired in 2010.

Oh look! Big mining thing! Oh, I love a big mining thing. See, way better than Rio. Rio doesn’t have a big mining thing.

– the Doctor looks on the bright side of arriving in not!Rio

The Hungry Earth represents the biggest structural shift of Steven Moffat’s first season of Doctor Who. The writer would indulge in a number of radical structural changes over his time running the show, but his first season as showrunner conforms to the pattern of Russell T. Davies’ four full seasons. There’s the introductory present/past/future trilogy, the two mid-season two-parters and the gigantic two-part season finalé. The content of Moffat’s season might have been markedly different (actual romantic snog! a season building an arc that isn’t just references and easter eggs!), but the format was carried over faithfully.

Moffat’s following two seasons would get more experimental. For one thing, both seasons would be split in half. This allowed Moffat to offer the first genuine cliffhanger in the revival’s history to last more than a week, with a gap of several months between A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler. His second season would feature the first two-part season opener (and first one-part season finalé) of the revived television show. His third season would feature no two-part episodes, spread across two calendar years.

However, sitting at the tail end of his first season, The Hungry Earth feels like the strangest structural element of Moffat’s first year in charge of Doctor Who. It’s what would traditionally be the first two-parter of the season, pushed back towards the end of the year.

Balancing the scales...

Balancing the scales…

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