|It doesn’t taste anything like chicken!
It’s April 19th, 2008. Estelle remain at number one, and the only new entry into the charts at all is September with “Cry For You.” Chris Brown, who violently beat his partner, is also still in the charts. In news, Delta and Northwest agree to merge to become the world’s biggest airline, and Silvio Berlusconi starts his third stint as Prime Minister of Italy.
On television, meanwhile, we have Planet of the Ood. It’s interesting that this is the second consecutive story to have a direct shout-out to the Hartnell era. But where The Fires of Pompeii was just a moment of arch-fannishness (albeit the most rawly fannish in-joke the series had produced to date, serving as it does no narrative function whatsoever), Planet of the Ood’s invocation of The Sensorites is a deliberate reference confirming something Davies had floated on Doctor Who Confidential when the Ood debuted. Davies, in other words, actively wants the Ood to be read in light of an obscure monster from a terribly unloved story in Doctor Who’s first season.
The Sensorites is an odd duck of a story. It suffers even more than most 1960s stories from its languid pacing, and to a modern eye seems terribly cliche. But it is in practice a story that is cliche because of how often it’s been imitated. Indeed, upon reflection it is the story that introduces the idea that the alien can be a sense of wonder instead of terror, as what appear to be terrible monsters at first are steadily revealed to be gentle, kindly, and even timid creatures. (Note how this is paralleled closely with Susan’s awed description of her homeworld – it’s not a side detail, it’s the entire point of The Sensorites)
This is useful background for Planet of the Ood, which begins by pretending to be a story about monsters and ends somewhere almost entirely different. At first we are led to believe that the story is as it was in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit – a story about the Ood being taken over to go bad in some fashion. The iconography of the episode encourages this, with the problem afflicting the Ood being that their eyes turn red and they start killing things. Under standard Doctor Who iconography, this means possession, especially given that this is historically what the Ood are for.
So the story appears straightforward. And yet even from the start it’s clear that there’s going to be some sort of comeuppance for the evil corporation. For one thing, there’s an evil corporation, and standard Doctor Who logic draws conclusions from putting an evil corporation in the first act. More broadly, the Ood are a pointedly unanswered question. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit raised the possibility that there was more to them than appeared, but also never quite rocked the boat.
This tension underlies everything in Planet of the Ood. The plot consists, broadly speaking, of the Doctor working out a mystery, namely what’s up with the red-eye. But in this case the plot isn’t the bulk of what happens. The Doctor’s investigation provides our two main characters with motivation, sure, but the investigation isn’t what happens. What happens is that the Ood rise up and liberate themselves while the Doctor is investigating what is subtly the wrong mystery. Indeed, more than anywhere in the new series, the Doctor is a complete bystander here. His only role is to be called upon by Ood Sigma to bear witness to the final step of the revolution. Everything would have played out exactly the same if he’d never arrived.
Tellingly, then, all the clues the Doctor acquires are clues to the wrong mystery, and ones that steadily dismantle the previous assumptions about what the Ood are. The key moment in this regard is when the Doctor casually discards what had been one of the operating assumptions of the Ood, that they’re a race of natural servants. It’s telling that this is done as a sort of belated reasoning – a case of applying refrigerator logic to The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and going “wait a moment, the science underlying this science fiction is crap.” The point, in other words, isn’t just about a misdirection within the story where one plot obscures the other. It’s a more fundamental issue – one in which the entire framework in which we consider the story turns out to be wrong.
And yet there’s only so far in this direction that we can go. After all, the framework we consider the story in is, ultimately, one in which the Doctor saves the day. But that has always introduced a problem, which is that it’s still always a narrative in which oppressed populations are saved by the noble intervention of an outsider. Specifically a white British dude. There’s no easy way to strip empire out of Doctor Who’s underpinnings. Even if the show rails against imperialism – and it usually does – it’s still a story about a well-heeled British man who travels and saves other people. The fantasy of empire can’t be stripped out of the Victorian adventurer tradition from which the Doctor hails.
This crystalizes in an oft talked about moment in the story, when the Doctor makes the swipe at Donna about the labor conditions from which her clothes originated. Let’s note a couple of things here. First, of course, on a level of basic factual correctness the Doctor is right. The labor conditions in the textiles industry are particularly egregious, and in a way that is consciously hidden from consumers. To rail against slavery while ignoring the fact that large swaths of the global economy are based on exploitative labor practices is, if not hypocritical, at least shortsighted in the extreme.
Second, however, as the esteemed Jack Graham points out, the Doctor is being a self-righteous prick here. For one thing, who does he think made his clothes? Even if we accept some argument that he meticulously ethically sourced them (and really, the Doctor seems much more likely to just grab something at a random stall on a random planet because it looks nice), that’s only a diegetic argument. The show can’t get away with this because we know full well that David Tennant himself is, in point of fact, wearing clothes that emerged out of the late capitalist economy of early 21st century Britain. And is made by the BBC in the same culture. To issue that critique from a position of authority is fundamentally wrong.
And this is the point of Planet of the Ood. The Doctor is complicit in the system, at least in part. He didn’t save the Ood in The Satan Pit – in fact, he made a conscious decision to prioritize saving the person who looked more like him. He didn’t question the conditions of their labor. However well-intentioned he may be, he’s merely an ally to an oppressed population. And the thing about allies is that they are always imperfect and compromised. They have always come to sympathy from a position of being an oppressor, however tacitly.
Which brings us around to the conclusion, where Ood Sigma converts Halpen into an Ood. This scene, however, requires a little further attention to the overall arc of the story. Over the backdrop of the Doctor’s investigation we see the Ood revolution progress steadily. In the course of this we also see Ood Operations revealed as what it is, the slick PR facade of the beginning falling away to reveal casual brutality of the most basic sort: sadistic thugs running security, grotesque torture and mutilation of the Ood, et cetera. None of this surprises, but it’s part of a meticulous buildup, as is Solana’s declined moment of redemption.
Meanwhile, the true nature of the Ood is revealed, along with the full horror of their condition. We see the Ood not as cute and kind of funny aliens based on the disjunct between their tentacled faces and nicely asking if people would like a cup of tea, nor as monsters, but as scared and hurt creatures singing their song of captivity – a song so awful Donna asks for it to be taken away.
So when the Ood finally rise up we find ourselves in a position where we are sympathetic to the sorts of things we are not normally inclined to be sympathetic towards. Scenes of the Ood slaughtering people are thrilling not just in the “well done action sequence” sense, but in a “punch the air because the bad guys are getting what’s coming to them” sense. We’re even led to a point where, when the Ood turn on their jailers and shove them into cages to be gassed in their place, we broadly sympathize with the Ood.
It’s important to recognize just how radical this switch is. The gassing is, of course, meant to invoke the Holocaust – it’s originally intended as a mass slaughter of the Ood. Even as it’s turned around so that only one guard is gassed, it’s still an image that’s supposed to be titanically unethical in the normal order of things. And yet the guard is so asininely sadistic (his decision to screw around with chasing the Doctor via crane is telling) and willing to slaughter thousands that we just don’t care. The gassing to death of a human being becomes a moment of triumph.
All of this builds to the final scene, where, confronted with the bizarre body horror of a person’s skin peeling off as they become an Ood, Donna admits that she can’t tell what’s right or wrong anymore, and the Doctor shrugs and decides, yep, he’s not judging this one. Because he has no place to. This isn’t his revolution.
And that’s a brave moral statement for Doctor Who to make – arguably the bravest one of the new series. The privileged don’t get to set the rules by which the oppressed rebel. Not even the allies. They don’t get to make tedious speeches about men who never would. They don’t get to be the judges. They don’t get to set demands. They get to get shoved up against the wall like everybody else, and maybe the oppressed will believe them when they chant the slogans of oppression and plea that they’re friends. Or maybe not. Either way, their salvation doesn’t come from the particular moral tact they took. Nobody mourns the Friends of the Ood activist who gets killed in the end. Oppression is too systemic for that. That’s what the point of the whole “who made your clothes” line is – that there’s no way to get outside the system to make a moral judgment, and certainly not one about yourself. How many times did the Friends of the Ood activist take a cup of tea from an enslaved Ood, justifying it to himself that he’d free them one day? And how acceptable is that? The power to answer that is, in the end, given to the Ood alone.
There’s a totality to this argument that the new series, and indeed the classic series has been unwilling to go for. That, in fact, popular media in general usually shies from. (I was just talking to someone about how the history of the X-Men consists of middle class white men coming up with justifications for why a population that’s the target of attempted genocide shouldn’t violently rebel against their oppressors. I should write a book, really.) And of course it does. Dictating the conditions under which resistance is permitted is one of the most basic oppressive tactics in existence. See also the Chelsea Manning/Wikipedia posts. To give up that weapon is, in effect, to give up the entire war and concede that, no, actually, there’s no way out of oppression beyond accepting that oppressed populations are going to rise up overthrow you. And that this will probably not be pleasant, or, at least, not for you.
The secret of alchemy is material social progress. But the mechanism of alchemy is often putrefaction. Fair enough. Up against the wall, motherfuckers.