|Roughly speaking, the tagline for Planet of the Dead was|
“David Tennant and Michelle Ryan went to Dubai and stood
sexily in front of a London double decker bus we smashed.
It’s April 11th, 2009. Lady Gaga is at number one with “Poker Face,” with Flo Rida and Ke$ha, Beyonce, and Taylor Swift also charting. This feels like yesterday, as is fitting for an era of Doctor Who that is already colliding with the series’ onrushing present. Since the banalities of The Next Doctor, Israel announced a ceasefire in the Gaza War, quickly followed by Hamas doing the same. The President of Guinea-Bissau was assassinated, and the Icelandic economic crash happened. And, a few weeks ago there was a G-20 summit on the subject of the financial crisis in London. Protests during this summit resulted in Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor who suffered a fatal heart attack after a severe police beating administered despite no evidence of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, at the summit a large financial stimulus was agreed upon, and the Queen scolded Silvio Berlusconi.
While on TV is the much-maligned Planet of the Dead. It seems strange that such a slender and basically toothless little story has attracted such condemnation as one of the worst of the Davies era. Certainly, in the cold, harsh light of the Capaldi era it is difficult to argue seriously that this is the era’s nadir. It is a piece of fluff, certainly, but a basically well-structured bit of fluff that gets its desired jobs done. There’s one big critique, which is the decision to film in Dubai, a location with, to say the least, problematic laws and policies not least of which is the active criminalization of homosexuality. Certainly there’s something to sigh somewhat wearily about in that decision, although, on the other hand, it’s not as though one couldn’t imagine any number of great outraged critiques about the moral obscenities involved in filming in a country that’s formulated a massive surveillance state with cameras on every street corner, or one whose actively imperialistic tendencies are the ruin of hosts of developing economies. Which is to say that while the political regime of Dubai is undoubtedly a nasty piece of work, it’s also low-hanging fruit that encourages a myopic view about how bad foreign places are.
But that’s not the usual critique anyway. The usual critique is just some variation on the idea that the story is “dumb.” This seems positively bizarre, save for the context of its original presentation, as an Easter special and as the only island of Doctor Who between Christmas and the end of the year. What would have survived perfectly fine in the giddy second or third episode slot of The Fires of Pompeii, Tooth and Claw, or The Shakespeare Code instead ended up having to serve as exactly the sort of big, tentpole event it was never designed to be. The episode’s officially sanctioned description was as the last time Tennant’s Doctor got to have fun, but that sits in almost conscious opposition to the notion of “the only Doctor Who you get in an eleven month period.” This is the only special that could have been eliminated entirely. Just move the “knock four times” prophecy over to Dalek Caan and you’ve basically gotten rid of any purpose this special filled other than giving the BBC another hour of Doctor Who to flog. Which has never been an inherently bad reason to make an episode of Doctor Who, but it may very well be a bad reason to spend scads of money flying to Dubai to make a “special” episode that you release as the oasis of Doctor Who in an otherwise barren year. Which is, in the end, the heart of a lot of the complaints. At the time, this was terribly frustrating because it’s one of two episodes of Doctor Who in a sixteen month period, and both of them are fluffy bits of filler. You can do “Doctor Who as huge event television that appears occasionally,” but you can’t do it with the completely and utterly disposable.
There’s little evidence that anyone outside of fandom thought so, however. Ratings were marvelous, the AI figure was great, and the general public appears to have been reasonably happy with this episode. Yes, it was unsatisfying for anyone weird enough to keep track of how long it is until the next episode of Doctor Who (roughly 220 days at time of writing), but people like that are paraphiliacs whose opinions are rightly not to be taken seriously when structuring a television schedule. (Rule of thumb, if 365 episodes of Doctor Who a year would not be wildly too much for you to handle, your opinions on scheduling are suspect.) The aesthetic under which this is a problem is, to be sure, a suspect one.
But equally, there is something slender about this. It is, under the hood, a rewrite of Gareth Roberts’s first New Adventure, The Highest Science, although other than the bus and the presence of the “the 200” joke (which, with a different number, was a major plot point of the novel), even less of this survives than the influence of Roberts and Hickman’s The One Doctor on the previous story. That novel was notable primarily for how it stood out in the New Adventures line at that point. At a time when Doctor Who was focusing increasingly on the Doctor as a figure of mystery and even menace who manipulated vast numbers of events to his advantage, Roberts wrote a novel that was full of warmth and humor and was very consciously aimed as a critique of the usual picture of the character at that time.
That doesn’t really apply here, though. Sure, Tennant’s Doctor is full of standing in the rain looking miserable, but there’s nothing like the move towards a gloomy arch-manipulator that the earliest New Adventures at times risked. A move back towards whimsy and humor isn’t a revolutionary act in 2009 in the same way that it was in 1993. This might be taken to explain why large swaths of the story have been changed from that original version, but the thing is, they haven’t been changed to anything. The story is still basically a romp for the sake of having fun.
If anything, what jumps out about this story is that despite having an entire hour, precious little happens in it. For the third time in just over a year we have the Doctor and a bunch of passengers on a vehicle where everything goes terribly wrong. For the second time, it’s a bus – a fact that gets casually lampshaded. The first time, Davies did a story about the nobility of people. The second, about their monstrosity. Without any further options on that spectrum, we here get a story that’s basically about their disposability. Other than the magical black woman who provides running prophetic commentary, nobody save our companion of the week is a character to speak of. Barclay and Nathan are so utterly interchangeable that you could collapse them into one role, except of course that the black one gets jokes made about how thick he is. Angela doesn’t even have a role in the plot, nor, for that matter, does Lou, who exists mostly to talk to Carmen occasionally. Instead we get a lengthy side plot with insects who get casually killed off the moment they might be required to do more than chitter and allow the Doctor to explain a bit more of the plot, we get the entire Malcolm thing, and we get a lot of excuses to hang Michelle Ryan from wires in ways that flatter her figure.
The obvious interpretive line here is one of hubris, but we’ve been taking that one for a while now. Yes, this is the program rather embarrassingly deciding that it doesn’t actually need to try, but for one thing, it’s still basically getting away with it, and for another, it didn’t try last episode either. The decision to give us an episode that consists of nothing save for Tennant’s Doctor having fun for the last time is, to be sure, egotistical, but it’s not actually unpleasant as such. It’s just froth – a bit of excitable nonsense that is gone the moment it’s consumed. On the other hand, this does have the effect of turning the final scenes, in which the Doctor’s imminent death is finally teased and built towards, into something almost relieving. One comes to welcome the fact that the Doctor is dying, simply because it at least means the Doctor is doing something.
It’s worth comparing this story to the “last hurrah” stories that other Doctors have gotten, as this is a distinct genre. Many of the Doctors have an adventure towards the end of their run where everybody seems to be aware that they’re doing classic, iconic things for the last time: The Smugglers, The Seeds of Death, The Monster of Peladon, State of Decay, and Frontios spring to mind as stories that are, on some level, aware that the normal order of things is going to break down shortly. These stories vary in quality. Some – The Monster of Peladon most notably – are appalling wrecks that seem mostly to confirm the worst instincts of the eras they represent. Others are suffused with an idiosyncratic melancholy that makes them interesting despite the many ways in which they are retreads – The Seeds of Death and Frontios, most obviously. But what these stories all have in common is that they all make the end of their eras necessary in a sense.
Put another way, there is no other moment in the Russell T Davies era where it is possible to imagine the sheer and unbridled laziness that Planet of the Dead represents. At no other point in the new series’ history has there been the sense that Davies would ever allow a story to be made that exists purely to do what is expected of it. The idea of a story that exists purely to be froth, with no twist whatsoever to it is simply unthinkable. At every previous nadir of the new series, regardless of what you think those nadirs are, there’s at least been a sincere effort to do something interesting. Hate The Doctor’s Daughter or Love and Monsters or 42 as much as you like, but all of them are at least trying to do something new and to be special and exciting.
Which is to say that Planet of the Dead is a story that only makes sense in the very context in which it disappointed – as a story that exists in this space after the Tennant era has ended but before it’s gone off the air. It is an episode that takes all of its power from the fact that Tennant’s Doctor is a dead man walking. In truth, it’s essentially the sort of episode you’d do early in a Doctor’s run. It’s not unlike Tooth and Claw or New Earth – episodes that have little going on beyond “you’ve not seen this particular Doctor do the usual stuff yet!” Which is important for introducing a character, but, equally, it’s important for his exit. In essence, Planet of the Dead is the story that says what the Tennant era was, as opposed to what the remaining two stories will be, which is actually saying goodbye to all of that.
The thing is that this inverts the Tooth and Claw or New Earth paradigm. Where those headlined themselves with some high concept bit of “something we’ve never done before,” Planet of the Dead ultimately doesn’t. The Dubai filming? The bus? The swarm of CGI metal manta rays? None of this is in this story for any reason in particular. It’s just a jumble of big ticket items put together for the sake of having a story. The entire point is that you have seen Doctor Who do all of this before, albeit with a handful of changes. This story ends up turning the Russell T Davies era into Season Five of the classic series – suddenly everything before feels like it’s been the same, no matter how much it didn’t feel that way at the time.
The trouble, though, is that what the Tennant era was appears to be froth and empty calories – an insubstantial flicker of spectacle whose only real appeal is that it weds together things other shows don’t into particularly strange and alluring images. Which is, perhaps, the real problem that can be raised with the Davies era in general: a handful of genuinely meritorious exceptions aside, it is frustratingly timid. Yes, it succeeded in breaking Doctor Who out to a massive new audience, but it seemed at times terrified into impotence at the prospect of losing that audience. On the occasions where it did go far enough to actually alienate a few people – Love and Monsters or Aliens of London spring to mind – it retreated quickly and seemed to promise to never be so daring again. Davies would occasionally throw a brave punch or embrace the experimental, but more often he was populist to a fault. Sure, the show was massive, but it often seemed as though it was willing to hold onto that massive popularity at any cost. Which mostly means that it tried the same basic things that had worked before, without enough changes to constitute a risk.
It’s easy to make too much of that criticism. Davies made tremendously successful popular entertainment and made it so that it’s unthinkable that Doctor Who will be cancelled any time soon. But for a program we have, throughout this project, valued for its ability to inject weirdness into the mainstream culture, it is worth being at least a little bit frustrated in how little Davies seemed interested in exploring that weirdness. Perhaps the most bizarre thing about Planet of the Dead is how a story about an aristocratic cat burglar, a flying bus, a psychic, a planet full of deadly metal manta rays, and some talking flies can be so utterly straightforward.
But it is. Everything is played in the most predictable manner possible. Given the chance to make four final statements, Davies chose to use one of them with the safest and most banal story imaginable. Sure, it’s fun, and as advertised, Tennant’s Doctor gets his last hurrah of simple pleasures. That’s not a problem as such. But it’s nothing to celebrate either. The major effect of Planet of the Dead is that when you’re done watching it, it’s an hour later than when you started.