BBCHD - 11th April 2009 - 6.45pm
Clang, clang, clang goes the trolley...ding, ding ding goes the bell. That'll be the cloister bell, I suspect. The one doomily bonging all over the trailer for the Novemberish special, The Waters Of Mars. The clanging noise is definitely the sound of this particular little folly nosediving into the sands of Dubai. Was it me, or did this just feel like one big dollop of deja-vu? The story, slight as it was, seemed rather overstuffed with references as if it required some significant shoring up to pass muster. Everything from bits of The Highest Science, Iris Wildthyme (time travelling buses and commuters being dumped on alien planets) to The Langoliers, Pitch Black (the nasty manta-rays), Flight Of The Phoenix (stranded in the desert), Lara Croft and 50s pulp SF, with added Giant Robot joke. There’s even a quite unnecessary shoe-horning in of an Easter eggs reference simply to acknowledge that, you know, it’s an Easter special.
...silk purse and sow's ear
Nothing seemed particularly original or fresh this time round and that's a shame because the production side of the programme stepped up to the plate, providing the much needed scope and glossiness for the show's first outing in HD. Director James Strong certainly seized on the opportunities this afforded to make Planet Of The Dead the sweetest, most calorific eye candy he could. Signature crane shots of the bus in the desert, lush travelogues as the Doctor and Christina go exploring, lens flaring silhouettes of Tennant, and dissolves between London and the alien planet. It looked good but shooting in HD is a double edged sword judging by this initial attempt. For all the gorgeous desert vistas you get to see how really dreadful the weather conditions were when they were shooting in Cardiff. No hiding that rainfall now. The CG effects also will need to improve because, for all the fairly good shots of the Swarm, we got a number of rather iffy, cartoon moments of flying bus. The ratio between how small the story actually was and how jazzy it all looked suggested silk purse and sow's ear to me in this instance. For goodness sake, if you are going to shoot your flagship programme in HD then let's have a big enough story to reap the rewards from it.
What is this, The Crystal bloody Maze?
We never really get to know any of the passengers on the bus properly, which is unusual for a RTD script. Compare how successfully he writes for a similar character ensemble in Midnight and the difference is remarkable. None of them make much of an impression and this does make you care less about them. The life-cycle of the metallic ray creatures is interesting and as a metaphor for the way blind greed can bring down civilisations it works quite well in these economically turbulent times. Tennant, as ever, simply slips back into the role and is pretty much on automatic pilot. There is that terrific scene where the Doctor asks each of the bus passengers about their 'chops and gravy' destinations, the witty translation banter with the Tritovores ('trite' is probably the best word to describe these fly headed, jump suit wearing, ray gun brandishing, self-sacrificing cliches) and the Billy No Mates confrontation between him and Christina as she unsuccessfully begs for the spare TARDIS key. I liked the way that the script offered us the Doctor and Christina as similar in their independence, where the Doctor reminisces on his own theft of the TARDIS and acknowledges her a kindred spirit, whom he sets free because he’s not really fit to judge her past actions. Michelle Ryan was good enough in the Lara Croft role for me to want her to pop into the TARDIS with Tennant so it made a bit of a change for him to turn a protege down. However, points deducted for the rather obvious need for Christina to repeat her Mission Impossible act to recover the crystal when she's already done the goblet stealing in the pre-titles. What is this, The Crystal bloody Maze?. And just where is she going to take that flying bus? It's not a spacecraft and she might be waiting a while before another wormhole pops into existence. Air traffic control is going to spot her eventually.
Lee Evans predictably did his goofy, physical comedy nonsense
I'm liking Captain Erisa Magambo as the new face of UNIT and once she gets herself and the troops sorted out (e.g. all shooting straight and not fawning over or saluting the Doctor everytime he walks by) then it might be worth bringing her back. I would have cheered if she had shot Malcolm and the attempt at raising the tension in that scene simply didn't work because the editing failed to compress the time between Magambo raising her gun at Malcolm and the Doctor driving the bus through the wormhole. And why did only three of the Swarm make it through the wormhole. Did the rest all stop for a bit of a breather? Unfortunately, both Lee Evans and Adam James did not find themselves in my good books. As D.I. Macmillan, James seemed to be borrowing Tom Chadbon's dumb show as Duggan from City Of Death but without replicating any of the charm and, as Malcolm, Lee Evans predictably did his goofy, physical comedy nonsense and, rather disturbingly, seemed to attempt to shag the Doctor's leg like a forlorn puppy at the end of the story. All that "I love you" crap was neither endearing nor particularly funny.
The word 'romp' is being liberally bandied about to try and deflect us from Planet Of The Dead's shortcomings and I suppose it just about qualifies for that status. A slight story, visually impressive, but with its fair share of cliches, wafer thin characterisation, cannon fodder nice aliens, nasty but dull aliens and stretches of dubious acting. It really only moved into gear when Carmen glared at the Doctor and predicted his demise. Cue cloister bell. Day return to Mars, please.
Cathode Ray Tube Planet Of The Dead Easter Special Doctor Who