The best thing about the last 120 minutes of Doctor Who has been, to put it quite simply, how much they’ve made me feel that I’m watching the classic series. Something in the atmosphere, the use of historical sets last week, and the industrial isolation of this week’s episode has resonated very strongly with the older series. Whilst we’ll never return to the slow builds which the previous format could offer, it’s seems that the new incarnation of the show – though it’s taken 3-odd seasons – has finally settled down into its own rhythm. What’s more, the Ood give off a wonderfully retro vibe to me; they’re classic Who aliens that smack less of a marketing strategy than the Adipose, or the return of the Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans (who, we see, will appear for the first time since 1978 in the next episode: The Sontaran Stratagem) et al. That makes The Planet of the Ood a welcome encore for the characters, which were so badly treated and left for dead in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit Season Two double-header.
With the Tardis set to pick a random destination, the Doctor and Donna land on a frozen planet, only to come across a dying Ood in the snow. His appearance is preceded by the Doctor hearing singing in his head, which Donna cannot. With their innate ability to sniff out trouble, the pair make their way to a factory complex which we have already seen is dedicated to the ‘production’ of Ood servants for the three galaxies of the latest Great and Bountiful Human Empire. What we also know is that the site is having ‘Ood issues’, relating to those pesky translator balls again – and a severe case of red-eye – and that people are getting killed. Things are bad enough for the company to draft in Mr. Halpern – played with a wonderfully malevolent sneer by Tim McInnery (better known as Darling from Blackadder) – a bad-ass member of the owning family and business trouble-shooter, to sort things out.
As the plot progresses it becomes increasingly obvious that the Ood we know, and get more than slightly creeped out by, are not naturally the subservient creatures their ‘creators’ would like their customers to believe. In fact, the humans producing and marketing them to the public are in fact replacing a ‘hind brain’, which the Ood carry in their hands, with the translation device, robbing them of their individuality and making them the almost perfect servants – apart from the occasional psychopathic episode, of course. What’s more, they’re suppressing a third brain – a collective Ood consciousness (realised by the singing the Doctor can hear) – in the form of a Huge Pulsating Brain that lives in Warehouse 15. No, really… A massive pulsating human-ish brain. Nice. Their telepathic abilities are nicely hinted at early in the episode, when the Doctor comments on Ood-Sphere, the planet on he and Donna have landed (the Ood’s homeworld), being close to Sense-Sphere, a planet inhabited by equally amphibian-esque Sensorites (if the Ood are squid, the Sensorites look like something from your Aquarium) first encountered by the first Doctor and Susan way back in 1964.
The underlying themes of the episode are interesting; the building of an Empire, the use of slavery – explicitly and implicitly (“who do you think makes your clothes?”) and the human ability to know about the ills of the world, but turn a blind eye anyway (“They don’t ask, that means they know”) all ring with a healthy tone of a good sci-fi plot. In general it’s strong stuff; yes, it’s frosted with the usual glitter which the current incarnation of the Doctor likes to liberally spray around – the mad eyes, the vocal exhortations and the running around – but it’s pretty classic stuff. Touching, thoughtful, exciting with a nice final twist. It looks like the move further towards tea-time isn’t going to be the disaster we thought – though anyone who’s watched Sarah Jane’s continuing adventures will know that children’s TV is far from synonymous with moronic themes and tame stories.
Hey, I’m not declaring the second coming of the Golden Age of Tom Baker here; we’ve still got a way to go, and if one thing remains constant in this ever-shifting universe, it’s my cynicism and confidence in the ability of the show’s current powers-that-be to take a killer concept and tinker with it incessantly, thus screwing it up. Which brings us back to Tate.
Yes, watching a mediocre actress try and wring the life out of a annoying character is always a little grating, but that’s ‘Who for you, isn’t it? As much as I personally dislike the casting of Catherine Tate, you can’t exactly say it isn’t par for the course on a show that fawns over Billie Piper whilst somewhat sidelining the far superior Freema Agyeman after one series; and the friction between Donna and the Doctor has played out nicely from time to time here, certainly in some of the more dramatic parts of this week’s episode. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Tate is much better when Donna is pushed emotionally to the brink; the aspects of humanity and decency that she represents stand well as a buffer for the Doctor’s more megalomaniacal tendencies. What’s less convincing is the way that she shifts so quickly from lovely insights and sentiments to outright stupidity, encased in Tate’s banal comic overacting. If she and the writers can tone down the caricature elements of the role, then there still may be hope, even there. But, I’m not holding my breath – especially when things get a little crowded on the assistant front.
So far, three strikes out of three for the new series, each episode having been fun in its own different way. The Planet of the Ood serves up as close to a slice of meaningful sci-fi as you’re going to get from today’s ‘Who. For that, I applaud it: as well as for the look and feel which the director and the cast bought to it. If they can pull off another Alien Resurrection with as much aplomb next week, it should be a bit of a cracker.