There’s so much I love about ‘Planet of the Ood’. Picking a moment will be hard.
I love some of the things other people hate.
Unlike Lawrence Miles, I love that Donna ticks the Doctor off for his “Who do you think made your clothes?” crack. Why the hell should Donna put up with smuggery like that from a guy wearing Converse trainers? Who makes your clothes, Doctor? (Apart from anything else, one answer is probably ‘women’.) Okay, he apologises for making her feel uncomfortable, which is problematic… but it isn’t as if the episode lets the matter rest there.
Unlike many people, I love that the Ood thank DoctorDonna for, essentially, doing nothing. I love that they free themselves without any help from the Doctor. I like him better as an ally than as a messiah. The Ood don’t suffer the fate of the N’avi: they don’t get Whitey leading them to freedom. The DoctorDonna doesn’t interfere. DoctorDonna renounces any claim they might think they have to judge the oppressed, to moralise when the oppressed free themselves by any means necessary.
I love that the episode is nevertheless unambiguous about the right of the oppressed to use violence against their oppressors. There are no patronising sermons which hold the oppressed to a higher moral standard of forgiveness and forebearance. Violence is horrible, but the violence of the oppressed in revolt is fundamentally morally different to the violence – individual and structural – of the oppressors.
I love that the Solana doesn’t have a change of heart.
I love the vacuous marketing slime in the PR lounge, tittering at the accessories they can add to their living merchandise. Just as lobotomised, in their way, as their commodity.
I love that Halpen flatters himself by being kind to his personal Ood servant while contemplating genocide against the entire race.
It’s not perfect.
I have a problem with the racial politics. By making so many of the human oppressors into people of colour, the episode effaces the particularity of race as an axis of oppression. It seems to say that capitalism is colour blind and all it cares about is the colour of money. This is true to an extent, and I believe that economic factors are ultimately causal, but race is a specific category of oppression within capitalism, and slavery of all things is a colour issue.
And it is, basically, another orientalist fantasy for assuaging white guilt (though considerably better than most).
But it’s time to pick a moment… so here goes:
The Doctor and Donna, handcuffed, are being harangued by Mr Halpen.
“The Ood were nothing without us,” he blusters, “just animals roaming around on the ice!”
Yes, yes, that’s what they always say. The [insert name of ethnic group being enslaved here] were just slightly-more sophisticated ruminants until the civilised people came along to put them and their land to good use. That’s the essence of the liberal justification for Western colonialism going back to forever. We’re doing them a favour. Without us, they were just animals. Today the same justification is used, but in liberal code. Isn’t it great that we bombed and invaded – now the poor little chaps can have elections and feminism!
“That’s because you can’t hear them,” says the Doctor. Essentially: you don’t understand their language so you think they don’t have one.
Readers of this blog will already be able to guess all the stuff about capital expanding into new markets and utilising all the resources it can commodify and assimilate into itself, about commodity fetishism being when people are treated as commodities and commodities are treated as people, about slavery being fundamental to the rise of the capitalist system and its imperial expansion, about capital cutting into the body of the worker, etc., etc.
“They welcomed it,” says Halpen, “It’s not as if they put up a fight.”
Can’t win, can they? They don’t act violently = permission to enslave them. They do act violently = gas the savage monsters. It’s almost as if there’s a massive great big double standard at work.
“You idiot,” hisses Donna, “They’re born with their brains in their hands! Don’t you see, that makes them peaceful! They’ve got to be, because a creature like that would have to trust anyone it meets!”
That’s my favourite bit. It is a material explanation of consciousness. The Ood evolved to be communal, social, mutually-aiding. In packing crates they are pressed into rows but their natural pattern is a circle, a cornerless shape without top or bottom. They naturally see the social unity of people, to the point that they conceptualise the Doctor and Donna as ‘DoctorDonna’. None of this is because they’re saints or angels. It’s because of their material nature and circumstances. Like humans in pre-class societies, they had to rely on each other.
But – and this is the really great thing – there is also, implicitly, a dialectical explanation of changing consciousness. The Ood have changed in response to their new social situation. They Ood have shown themselves to be intricately related to their social environment, yet they never lose their agency. Even when parts of their brains have been cut away, their agency is not entirely gone. As the Doctor later says, it takes many forms. Revenge, rage, and patience. And then, revolution.
Now that’s a winning combination.