I was far too busy last week to write anything about Doctor Who but I’m nothing if not a completist so here, out of sequence and entirely too late to be of any interest, are some brief thoughts. Assuming I can actually remember anything about the episode…
An alien planet. An honest to goodness alien planet. Almost entirely populated by futuristic Earth people wearing contemporary Earth clothes and referencing Homer Simpson, but still. The snowy wilderness just about works despite some pretty but fake-looking CGI landscapes. (The effects throughout are a bit of a mixed bag, with the crane sequence being extremely effective but other parts, such as the huge glowing brain, looking very much like CGI.)
As for the Ood, they were always one of the new show’s best-realised prosthetics and they continue to convince here. At first it looks like we might just get a retread of their appearance last time, alternating between docile servants and insane killers, but the story actually does want to explore them in more depth and by the end they’ve become a far more rounded creation. There’s a slight sense too of the Doctor (and the show) making amends for the slightly off-hand treatment of the Ood in season 2. Here they’re painted as brutalised slaves clinging on to their own culture and identity in ways that are surprisingly direct in their evocation of slavery on Earth. Treated like animals, they emerge as quite sophisticated beings. I have to say the idea that they hold their brains in their hands, while original, doesn’t quite ring true (and there’s a certain ick factor involved). Likewise their collective consciousness seems to be taken a bit literally. Nonetheless they’re pleasingly alien and pleasingly science fictional for a series whose aliens are often little more than humans with funny-looking heads and delusions of grandeur.
As is often the case we have a lot of nice ideas plugged into an off-the-shelf setting, in this case another of those isolated base environments in which an external threat steadily wreaks chaos. The corrupt business meddling with forces that come back to bite it is another achingly familiar trope from past seasons old and new. It’s possibly a sign of the level on which I watch Doctor Who that the overly familiar elements don’t seem problematic as long as they’re executed well and the rest of the story has a few fresh elements. I quite often find myself saying this about the series, but I do think there’s a sense of ‘comfort food’ about it that’s partly nostalgia, partly switch-off-the-brain entertainment. At its best the show can be far more than this, but there’s room for this kind of stock episode too.
The scenes in which the characters gaze at a mysterious glowing alien in their superspecialsecritwarehouse are quite reminiscent of the original series, in fact. The modern show doesn’t tend to play the game of slowly teasing the audience as to what’s going on in quite this way.
Tim McInnerny is very well cast as the amoral businessman in a virtual reprise of his role in Spooks. Given how his character develops I do also wonder if he wasn’t cast as “Actor Who Most Resembles an Ood”. Some really quite nasty ideas play out in this episode, and his fate is definitely one of them, even if the transformation is so abrupt that it comes dangerously close to spoofing itself. Ayesha Dharker is also good as the PR rep who, for once, fails to rise to the Doctor’s impassioned attempt to see the best in people. It crosses my mind that this opens up the episode to accusations of racism or sexism, but she’s otherwise an interesting supporting character and it’s not as if any of the other guest characters come out of the story a) alive or b) smelling of roses.
Donna is played a little broadly at times this week, not assisted by the slightly melodramatic moments of emotion she’s given, but continues to be quite unreasonably empathic. We’re repeatedly shown how much she cares about others, which is something of a refreshing surprise given her self-centredness in the Christmas special. Tennant is playing quite broadly too, but while his manic gurning reaches new heights he’s also pretty commanding and gets a few nice Time Lord moments.
We were promised that the show would be a little less dark this season, but watching this story it’s difficult to see how. There are issues of slavery, torture, corruption, revenge, violent revolt, and mass executions here, and while the story dashes along at a fair old pace the darker elements are pretty front-and-centre for much of the time. It’s a bit frantic and a little uneven in tone, but I’d count this one as a success.