13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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PLANET OF THE OOD
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Slavery. It’s a really bad idea.
All righty then, hands up. Did anybody out there, on reading the last paragraph, sit up a bit straighter in their chairs and murmur to themselves “Hey, yeah! You know, that’s totally true! How insightful!”
We didn’t think so. And that’s a lot of what’s wrong with Planet Of The Ood. It’s determined to hit you over the head with what you already know backwards.
Doctor Who has done this story before in Warriors' Gate. And bloody good it was too. We said about the treatment of slavery in that episode: "We have two groups of people in opposition with each other, neither of whom are exactly lilywhite. It's the banality of it all that's so impressive: the slavers aren't frothing at the mouth and ranting about doom, they're just decent honest working guys trying to get the job done. The fact that the job involves capturing and enslaving a sentient race is just part of the day's work. And there's a wonderfully neat reversal when the Tharils, who are set up in the beginning to look like the innocent victims, turn out to be almost as bad as their enslavers."
Wow, those were the days. Subtle, complex, layered. Can we remind you that it was supposed to be a children's programme then too?
In contrast, in Planet Of The Ood we get morality in monochrome. The Ood are farmed, lobotomised and deprived of their free will, kept in concentration camp-like conditions and sold for the benefit of humans. Is there any doubt that this is unethical and wrong? Well, duh! Rewriting an episode into the one you wish you’d seen leads only to madness, but sometimes it’s irresistible: how much more interesting would this have been if it had been about slaves who chose their slavery of their own free will? Or about slaves who were treated incredibly kindly by their owners and had better lives than much of the free population, lacking for nothing except freedom? We’d a million times rather see the Doctor wrestling with either of these moral conundra than with the by-the-numbers morality we get instead.
It’s not just that it’s unsubtle, it’s that they go out of their way to make it even more so. Was there really any need, for example, for the guy supervising the Ood who stumbles in the snow to crack a whip? What’s the point, when the Ood are utterly compliant and unresisting? None at all, other than to underscore their plight with an even heavier hand.
It’s a real shame, because in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, the Ood are a lot more interesting: their willingness to be slaves is intriguing, the range of the humans’ attitudes towards them is thought-provoking, and it’s genuinely tragic when the Doctor can’t save them. Planet Of The Ood takes that promising beginning and systematically strips it of everything that made it worthwhile.
But that’s just getting started in the belabouring us about the head department. This would have been far more chilling if the slavery was just business. Instead, we get that perennial Russell T Davies favourite, the Evil Capitalist. It’s not enough for Halpen merely to treat the Ood like livestock. Instead, he has to crunch up the scenery, cracking evil jokes about how you have to kill an Ood before you can do a postmortem, chuckling evilly at the Oods’ situation and pouring a drink evilly into the Ood brain. It’s about as nuanced as a gangsta rap video. What’s more, this is the third Evil Capitalist in the last four episodes, which is about, ooh, three too many.
That’s not all that’s wrong with it, either.
In The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, the Ood when possessed overcome their Robots Of Deathishness by the power of sheer creepiness. It’s an old story – possession, base under siege - but it’s given a fantastic jolt in the arm. Unfortunately, Planet Of The Ood is a sadly mutated version of that. There’s nothing wrong with using well-worn concepts like base under siege, but there is something wrong with repeating it in the same way it’s been done a million times before. That’s not classic Who. It’s just boring.
As for the Ood song, it could have been touching if, again, it hadn’t been so heavy-handed. That “DoctorDonna friend!” stuff was amazingly patronising. Every other species can speak perfect English thanks to the TARDIS, so why the pidgin?
And come to that, just why are the Doctor and Donna Ood BFFs anyway? What did they do, other than switching off the brain fence which the scientist guy was going to do anyway, to change the course of events? Wouldn't things have played out pretty much the same if they'd spent the time tobogganing? Also, poor scientist guy! There he is, sneakily infiltrating away for ten years, then at the last minute he does a brain swan dive and some Gallifreyan dude steals all his glory. Part of the Ood song forever, indeed. (Many thanks to David Baker for pointing this out.) Of course, if he'd just switched the fence off ten years ago in one go, he could have saved himself a lot of aggravation. But that's no dumber than having a giant brain in the first place. Let's just say that again. Giant brain. Giant brain.
The good stuff? It’s not on Earth. Yay! Yes, it’s a bit quarry and matte painting-heavy (when Donna said "What is it?", we said simultaneously "It's a quarry) but so what? Looks fine to us. Even though the claw chase is gratuitous (and try dividing a three-part claw into a four-sided container) we must admit we quite enjoyed it. When the Doctor’s not patronising the local wildlife, he’s reliably good if not stellar.
As for Donna, we’re not so sure this week. Sometimes she’s great, and others she’s over the top, although that could be the script’s fault as much as hers. We weren’t impressed by her bottling out of listening to the Ood song, nor by her wanting to go home (and we didn’t think the Doctor’s remarks about how her clothes were made were cheap shots at all. It’s a perfectly valid point she just doesn’t want to confront). But we’re still really enjoying her as a non gooey-eyed foil to the Doctor.
It has the makings, but it underdelivers by quite a long way. Sad.
MORAL: Slavery. Is. BAD!
THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO
We like Donna’s rapture at seeing a proper spaceship – funnier than “You’ve got a box, he’s got a Ferrari!” is the Doctor’s hurt expression.
THESE BOOTS ARE MADE FOR TEETERING
We love Solana’s boots. There’s been a dearth of fabulous boots since the halcyon Third Doctor days.
EAT MY SHORTS
4126, and they’re still saying “D’oh!”? How we hate this. In the olden days, part of the attraction of Doctor Who for an audience was that it showed them something different. Now, they have to reassure the audience that everybody in every time period is exactly the same as them. Ancient Romans spoke Mockney. In the distant future they’re watching Big Brother. Ick.
Solana says there’s no alcohol allowed on the base, doesn’t she? So why is that guy so thrilled about the free bar?
YOU JUST PUT YOUR LIPS TOGETHER AND BLOW
“Where’d you learn to whistle?” Huh? “Where’d you learn to write your name on a grain of rice?”, we could understand. But whistling’s not that arcane a skill, is it?
Donna being locked in with the Ood was seriously creepy. Then two seconds later, without anything happening, she’s let out again. Talk about a fizzler.
Donna, please stop crying. Twice in two episodes is way too much.
PUMP UP THE VOLUME
You could practically hear the scratching of heads as they puzzled over how to get across Ood music which various people at various times can hear. First it’s soft to indicate only the Doctor can hear it, then it’s loud when Donna can. Then the Doctor switches it off in Donna’s head, so you’d expect it to go back to being soft, but to hammer the point home it’s switched off altogether.
TALK TO THE HAND
Doesn’t it seem a rather unlikely evolutionary adaptation that you’d develop hands and fingers for the sole purpose of clutching your brain? How do they ever get anything done? And also, considering how squishy a brain is, isn’t it a bit dangerous?
Couldn’t the Ood be a bit more helpful than saying “the circle must be broken”? How about “Could you remove the wiring from our giant brain, please?”
Why does Halpen make a big fuss about how he’s never shot somebody before and he’s not going to like it? He’s just murdered someone else by shoving them into a brain!
Buy this Dr Who DVD: UK
Buy entire series DVD box set: UK US