This story in a nutshell: We’re off to the Ood Sphere to start a revolution! Oh wait…they’ve done it already! Carry on.
Tempestuous Temp: You see this is why we love Donna so much. She’s absolutely terrified to be on an alien planet and grinning about it all the while. Imagine the similarly verbose Tegan Jovanka in this situation…she would be slitting her wrists whilst offering to do everybody else at the same time. Donna loves the unpredictability of this life and so do we – she’s basically us but funnier and gorgeous. Fabulously she doesn’t wait around whilst the Doctor makes a grand speech about travelling in the TARDIS, she’s already back inside fetching the cutest fur coat on the planet! The few laughs we do get all come from Donna and I especially enjoy the moment when she picks up the translator ball thinking that is how the Ood communicate. It's embarrassing and feels very real. She is so sweet when she strokes the aliens head when she realises it has died. Her ‘why d’you say Miss…do I look single?’ feels like a direct leap from her own sketch show which I happen to adore but for others who are less keen it might be a step too far.It's unavoidable in some scene because there are only a certain amount of ways that you can say lines. How formidable is Donna? Not only has learnt to kick doors down (to try and catch naughty lovers in a clinch) but she also learnt to wolf whistle down West Ham every Saturday. I have heard the complaint that Catherine Tate pours out tears in every single episode and whilst this may have some merit the writers ensure that each and every time it happens there is a damn good reason for it (the deaths of thousands in Pompeii, returning home to her Granddad, realising she is going to die…I defy you to remain stoic and emotionless in the same situations) and every time it breaks my heart because Tate is just so good at driving the emotion of these scenes right at you. Maybe it's because she is so shallow and bolshie at times that these moments truly stand out and humanise Donna or perhaps the writing, direction and performances are just really good. When Donna hears the silent scream of the Ood she wells up and so do we – she is hearing the sound of an oppressive race crying out for help and that is a genuinely moving experience. Suddenly all this horror means something. It's enough for Donna to ask the Doctor to take her home because the horrors of this world have repulsed her so much she just needs to experience something normal.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Are we like explorers or more like a virus?’ ‘Sometimes I wonder’ – Donna and the Doctor discussing the human race!
‘Being with you I can’t tell what’s right or wrong anymore!’ ‘It's better that way…’
The Good: How groovy is that kaleidoscopic effect of zooming in on the Ood in the teaser? What could be more glorious visually than the TARDIS as a minute dot on a stunning snow swept landscape with giant stalactites hanging from canyons and planets with rings filling the sky? There is a glorious feeling of classic Who about this adventure with the Doctor and Donna enjoying each others company as friends (they remind me strongly of the fourth Doctor and Sarah), location work around some industrial nightmare (the sort you would find in Day of the Daleks, The Green Death, The Sun Makers), an icky looking monster in the snow (Revelation of the Daleks) and scary monsters with red eyes and silky voices (ala The Robots of Death). Oh yeah and there’s a giant brain that features strongly in the conclusion (Time and the Rani). The mention of the Sense Sphere reminded the audience in the know that the Ood resemble the Sensorites. It is a forty year plus reference only Doctor Who could get away with. Tim McInnerny shows the others how a good villain ought to be portrayed; he gives a twitchy, stressed out performance that makes you wonder which way he will jump, he’s thoroughly nasty to his employees and has a surprising bloodlust and love of money that seems to be the staple of all the memorable bad guys. You want to hiss at him like a pantomime villain even though he isn’t played as such (we’ll leave that to Anthony Ainley) and being so thoroughly despicable is what makes him so memorable. Businessman never get a fair deal in Doctor Who, do they? They’re all corrupt murderers (Morgus, Max Capricorn, Sil) or ambiguously villainous (Drax). Intercutting between an Ood being hunted down and Solana making a speech about how they are happy to serve and do as they are told is dynamically realised– it's far more assured storytelling than the unsubtle pre credits sequence. A rabid Ood being gunned down is a surprisingly adult thing for the show to even imply but they charge on brazenly. Images of the Ood being marched like Jews in a Nazi slave camp and being whipped if they fall behind is typically powerful Graeme Harper direction – he would pull off more effective wartime imagery in Turn Left when Rocco is driven off to a slave labour camp to similar disturbing effect. The location work in and around the power complex is stunning, Harper employs plenty of low angles to ensure that the scale of the plant fills the background of dialogue scenes. The notion of a telepathic scream encapsulating all the fear and pain that the Ood are going through is powerfully alien. You will never find a better example of what Doctor Who can do with its fast direction and stunning effects in the new series than the sequence where the twitchy, aroused guard menaces the Doctor though the storage bay with the mechanical claw. Dynamic, exciting and climaxing with that gorgeous crane shot of the claw hanging silently right over the Doctor. There’s an awesome political commentary that practically goes unnoticed because it is so brief; Donna suggests that if people on Earth knew what was going on they would be appalled but Solana declares that they do know but they ‘just don’t ask.’ There’s so much that could be applied I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. Action sequences in the snow? How can that be anything other than a feast for the eyes? Some of these pans across the gunfight look as though they have leapt from a feature film. Halpen letting his personal slave Ood go and join his people (even if that will probably result in his death) is a small act of mercy that momentarily made me reconsider this character – a great touch. Ugh – how nasty as the Ood that savagely bites at the scientists face? What’s so glorious about Halpen’s transformation at the end (besides the fact that it is still a shock despite being signposted throughout) is that I thought his hair loss was already a wonderful punishment for being such a creep. It's almost as if his body is rebelling against his nature, saying that he cannot be a nasty piece of work and a good looking man. Then they go one further and have him literally peel his head away to reveal the face of the very creatures he has been enslaving and killing. It has such a disgusting irony to it I felt like applauding, it shows that the Ood are far more savvy than they appear and director Graeme Harper magnificently refuses to shy away from the horror of the scene. Gooey skin peels away and tendrils vomit from his mouth. Its just glorious. Murray Gold’s music comes into its own during the climax as the Ood sing their song of freedom.
The Bad: The Ood killing Halpen’s business associate comes far too soon into the episode. It rather spoils the idea that there is anything wrong in Ood Central and gives you a massive hint as to the revolution that is to follow – all in the first minute of the show! I know that in single part stories this is the one chance to squeeze in a cliffhanger (of sorts) but had this moment come ten/fifteen minutes into the episode it would have been far more memorable. Unusually for NuWho the guest characters don’t really live up to their name. Take Solana for example, we figure she is competent at her job and makes the mistake of turning on the Doctor but we never learn anything about her life, whether she has any strengths, weaknesses, quirks…she’s a function of the plot rather than a character driving it and you could say that about all of the character except Halpen. The most we learn about her is ‘it's nothing to do with me’ when it comes to assigning the blame which just doesn’t cut it in my book. Her death is unfortunate too because it seems as though the episode is saying that everybody who makes a wrong choice gets punished but that is far too black and white to be realistic. It’s the same with the sadistic guard. It would have been far more effective had one of them escaped at the end and been left contemplate their choices. The Homer Simpson gag falls way short of the mark for me. Perhaps if the Ood truly were complicit it might work but this is the same discomfort I would feel with poking fun at the retarded. The idea of filling containers full of Ood and shipping them out like groceries might have laboured the point a bit too far. The song was affecting enough, did we really need the added touch of the brains in their hands (although I did love Donna pointing out that makes them peaceful)? It's odd how this episode can swing like a big dramatic pendulum between the restrained and the mallet over the head extreme. The drunken executives all need to be shot too, what dicks. Where the hell does that subplot about ‘Friends of the Ood’ come from? That hasn’t been foreshadowed in any way besides the character (who has makes very little impression otherwise) lurking around like Halpen’s shadow. That’s the worst kind of twist, one which doesn’t surprise the audience as much as it does cheat them. Still he does get eaten by a giant brain so its not all bad.
The Shallow Bit: How stunning does Catherine Tate look with her hair styled like this? Billie Piper, Freema Agyeman and Karen Gillan might be what people consider conventionally beautiful but this is a natural looking redhead who has a hell of a lot of style.
Result: Planet of the Ood is an odd story for sure because it has all the ingredients that should make it an instant classic; the return of a memorable monster, Catherine Tate as exuberant as ever, Graeme Harper giving the action scenes a sense of scale and gritty atmosphere and a fabulous villain in Tim McInnerny’s Halpen. It's certainly not a bad episode by any means and it looks like it has ten times its budget but my only problem is that it is so unrelentingly grim that (like a classic finale of the Davison era I could mention) that I rarely feel the urge to take it off the shelf and give it a re-watch. Saying that though there are lots of other pluses too – a bona fide alien world that is exceptionally realised, some real gore that the new series has been lacking and some smirk worthy b-movie moments (a giant brain, the title sequence which could have come straight from the classic series) that no other show would dare to attempt. It's almost a shame that it is so serious because some smart humour and a few more likeable (or even interesting) characters would have made this near perfect. As it is it is a perfectly serviceable action tale with plenty to drink in visually and possibly even intellectually if you are in the right mood (although this swings dramatically between the subtle and the obvious that it is quite jarring in places) but there’s not a lot here to make you smile. Massive kudos for Murray Gold’s score which manages to express so many emotions whilst remaining lyrical and strange: 7/10