When watching a special episode of Doctor Who such as Planet Of The Dead, I find it difficult to know what to compare it with. The specials seem to be a distinct entity of their own, with their own identity, form, even audience. To paraphrase the tagline of the 90s New Adventures, the specials seem aiming to be ‘broader and shallower’ than the series proper.
I should say now that I prefer the series to the specials. I find the attempt to produce something self-consciously spectacular and popular to be a little crass. Of the Christmas specials, only The Next Doctor has endeared itself to me, and that’s because of a slightly old-fashioned, old-Who feel to it. I watched the others wondering why I didn’t enjoy them as much as the series and why they didn’t feel to me to be ‘special’. The conclusion I came to was that they were too disposable, too transient. In order to snare occasional viewers, the specials always feel dislocated from the series.
And Planet Of The Dead is just as transient as the Christmas specials. The episode focuses on Lady Christina de Souza played by Michelle Ryan, an aristocratic thief on the run from the cops. In her escape she ends up transported through a wormhole to the planet San Helios with the Doctor, some Londoners, a doomed bus driver and a double decker London bus. The slightly complex plot revolves around the groups attempt to repair the bus to return through the wormhole, being assisted by the benevolent, ant-man Tritovores and threatened by a swarm of omnivorous world-eating metal stingray. With the help of UNIT on the other side of the wormhole, the Doctor manages to get the bus back to London and prevent the Earth being destroyed by the swarm.
The main selling point of this adventure is the desert location. The look of the scenes set on San Helios, filmed in Dubai, are undeniably impressive, reminiscent of Flight Of The Phoenix, Lawrence Of Arabia or Ice Cold In Alex. I wonder, though, whether the cost of the location filming to get the scenic vistas of the desert landscape is money well spent. Whilst it visibly references desert movies, what it lacks is a sense of danger from the sand itself. In all these films the desert is threatening, not just because of the way it looks, but because of the amount of time characters spend in it – you should get to the end of the film and feel as parched as the protagonists. In short, the characters in Planet Of The Dead aren’t in the desert for long enough – the pacing of the episode, a key factor in a special, means that the location is somewhat wasted.
In general the episode is well performed. I liked Michelle Ryan but again felt that the one-off-ness of the plot only allows her a limited amount of character development. She isn’t allowed the roundness of Rose or even Donna and becomes instead a cipher of a character. The two stand out performances are those of David Tennant and, surprisingly for me, of Lee Evans, playing Malcolm, UNIT’s scientific advisor. Between them, they transform a pretty mundane script into something special.
The scenes set in the desert are reminiscent of the fourth season episode Midnight, but with under-developed characters and less tension… …and more budget. Tennant really hits the mark in these scenes though. His Tom Baker-esque verbal and physical ticks demand the attention of the viewer. Likewise, Evans brings a touch of humanity to the scenes involving wooden UNIT troops and surplus-to-requirement police officers.
The special effects are, as always, excellent. The Harry Potter-esque flying bus, while a little unrealistic in the desert, becomes majestic in the London sky and the swarm of stingray are well conceived if a little under-used.
I have to wonder what makes this episode special though. Aside from the novelty of seeing Doctor Who in a setting other than a Welsh quarry and the spectacle of the expensive special effects, the episode delivers a disposable, simplified version of the main series. Episodes that bear similarities with Planet Of The Deadsuch as Midnight and Smith And Jones are less spectacular, but in character and narrative more special. Aside from an ominous moment at the end of the episode in which a psychic character predicts the end of the tenth Doctor, Planet Of The Dead is hermetically sealed against the series proper. The Doctor begins and ends the story in exactly the same state: alone and travelling. No doubt this is done on purpose, but these 2009 specials seem a perfect opportunity to give the viewer a selection of humdinger cliffhangers.
The DVD comes with the relevant episode of Doctor Who Confidential which, as expected, focuses on the Dubai filming. The unfortunate effect of watching this is to somewhat undermine the visual impact of the desert scenes in the episode. Filmed at a lower quality in the documentary and without the painstaking location dressing, the desert ironically resembles a dull, dusty British quarry.