Saturday, July 18, 2009

Doctor Who - Planet of Dust


Look at me looking at you
There ain't a thing that I can do
You are lost, your mind is a whirl
Baby, such a stupid girl!

Coz I'm stranded on my own!
Stranded far from home!

Livin' in a world insane!
They cut out some heart and some brain
Been filling it up with dirt
Do you know how much it hurts?

To be stranded on your own?
Stranded far from home?

This particular special of Doctor Who was in April. I didn't bother to review it then for some reason. It boils down to the dilemma - which is worse, Creed of the Kromon or The Next Life? A spectacular failure to be an epic adventure or a boring runaround not even trying to be anything beyond itself? I tend to side on the Kromon being worse angle, as I am generally willing to forgive a failure if the heart was in it, which is why I rate The Twin Dilemma over The Monster of Peladon. But then again, maybe an interesting failure is better than a boring success?

The Next Doctor wasn't really that bad a failure, on its own terms. Certainly it worked better than Planet of the Dead - perhaps the most perfect evocation of the Pertwee era. I'm not saying that because it's got UNIT and monsters and stuff, but that the show's successful status leads to everyone resting on their laurels. It's the mindset behind The Time Monster, a greatest hits package with little to no imagination or anything new to say. They can get away with it, so why bother? There's more chance of Ben Chatham getting on television than Planet of Dead being made in the Eccleston era, when no one was sure if the show would sink or swim.

With this in mind (and it's hardly a secret, since RTD's quite honest that this is a disposable romp whose only reason for being is that it's the LAST EVER disposable romp Tennant's Doctor will have, all the spin off media notwithstanding), I might have enjoyed Planet of the Dead. Or at least reached an understanding with it like I did with Love & Monsters.

The problem, really, fundamentally is a case of two writers not on the same page.

Considering RTD has worked brilliantly with other writers, and he and Gareth Roberts achieved a better-than-decent rapport for Invasion of the Bane, this was a total surprise to me. But now I suspect Jared is right and Invasion of the Bane was Roberts rewriting Rose rather than writing with RTD. Because this clash is awful. Truly, truly awful. All the flaws are magnified and all the strengths have buggered off home early.

RTD wants a cynical, tense thriller. He wants, basically if not literally, Voyage of the Damned.

Gareth Roberts wants a fun, lightweight bit of frippery nonsense to zone out to. He wants, basically if not literally, Delta and the Bannerman without the Bannerman.

(Of course, I hasten to add, I could be completely wrong about who wanted what but while I have seen RTD do shiny happy people I have also seen him murdering children in cold blood... er, figuratively.)

So... my problems are...

Firstly, the companion.

She's supposed to be sexy, apparently, but then so was Lilith and Miss Hartigan. At least in RTD's land, he leaves any "sexiness" down to the given actress and instead focus on characterization, which is why eminent bachelorette Miss Mercy scores low compared to blackamoor prostitute Rosita. Rather dispiritingly, the only time I have seen anyone describe Christina (rather than Michelle Ryan) as being remotely shaggable is when she appears to sit on the camera half-way through the story. Turtle-neck black sweaters and gloves don't exactly scream pheremonal fertility either, but even during those publicity photos of her posing with DT under the hot, hot sun she barely scrapes in as "cute". "Zero on the hornometer," as Rik Mayall would say.

My point being that saying "Christina is sexy" isn't going to cover ANY sins, and there are a few.

It's quite clear that one writer doesn't like Christina, and doesn't want us to like her. But the other one does. Scenes alternate with her as a manipulative psycho bitch or just generic wisecracking babe. Here's a bit of trivia I know for a fact: during Voyage of the Damned, RTD considered not killing off Astrid, but having the Doctor refuse to take her with him when she kills someone. She doesn't quite make the grade, not because of cowardice, selfishness or stupidity, but just a bit too ruthless to trust. And, since he's clearly cannibalized his original Season 4 opener for this story, I think he reused this idea as well. Christina was never going to be allowed into the TARDIS, because, deep down, she's just nasty.

With my oft despairing of female companions like Lucie Miller, Dara Hamilton or... er... Katie Ryan, I do sometimes wonder if I might be a misogynist. But not this time.

Watch, if you can, the opening of the story. Chris pulls off the robbery (I will vent over that later), and leaves the museum where a man waiting for her has been caught by police. "Goodbye, lover," she sneers, and then runs off.


There is but one way to interpret that scene - she left her partner to face the music, with no intention of returning. Either she was sleeping with him to help her scam, or else he was her genuine boyfriend and abandoned nonetheless. Our companion character betrayed and abandoned someone that close to her.

Now, that's hardly nice. I can't off the top think of any companion who would be as cruel as that (wait... NA Ace, but that's not the point). But I can think of a character in Nu Who who acted in such an asshole manner, and that was Lance in The Runaway Bride. A guy so utterly nasty, even the Doctor doesn't regret him dying.

This scene pretty much made me hate Christina and put a real slant on her actions since. Does she really give a rat's arse about anyone else on that bus? True, she takes command and acts nice, but as the bint keeps telling us, she's aristocratic and the one thing all aristocrats do is act diplomatic and hide their true feelings. She uses everyone on that bus to get her home. She has no interest in the fact that all life on San Helios died. She doesn't give a toss about the Tritovores dying. She significantly only asks to go in the TARDIS when she sees the copper closing in on her - she doesn't want to see the universe, she just wants a getaway.

And then there's her "the Aristocrisy, ready for everything" Chathamesque attitude (which prompted more than myself to shout "Tell that to the French, you stupid cow!") which annoys the hell out of the Doctor. And if the Doctor thinks she's a nasty piece of work, well...

The trouble is, mainly, that DT plays it like The Runaway Bride, a romantic comedy. The Doctor's interest in Christina is trying to work out what's up with her, but its portrayed as the usual flirty companion audition. All those scenes where they compliment each other, as apparently being a great team, don't sit well - he's apparently all but in love with her, yet we see him furious at her dismissal of the aliens and reckless attempts to get a crystal, her moronic belief she knows better than him. The mandatory kiss scene is treated with the same joy de viere as Astrid standing on a box to snog the man she's clearly fallen in love with, yet I cannot bring myself to believe it. Christina snogs the Doctor as a reward for saving her. She thinks he wants a snog. Is she that stupid? Or is it just the usual way she rewards people? Like her "lover", now rotting in jail?


This is the problem: not Christina being a heartless bitch, but the story not seemingly being sure if she is a heartless bitch. We see all this evidence of her being a borderline psychotic, but the ending has her applauded as she escapes justice - it's like Camille in Red Dwarf, where Rimmer hears and sees a different girl to the one Lister is talking to. All concerned treat Christina like she's Vila Restal, gentle-lady thief, not quite a Robin Hood but someone they all think is cool and fun. Why?

Well, it's obvious: it's a Sunday Night Christmas special. We don't need any bleak dark subtext in an adventure story, do we? The idea is clearly a take on The Ribos Operation, with Christina being the First Romana, opposites attracting, the Ice Maiden melting and lightening up. It's such a pity they didn't do a total rewrite and make her so. Hell, cutting the "Goodbye, lover" line would have helped.

It all reaches saturation point. Christina, desperate to escape the cops, puts on an obviously fake "jolly" mood and asks the Doctor to take her with him. He, to put it bluntly, tells her fuck off. This bit of the script and story is clearly the "Christina is an untrustworthy bitch and the Doctor has not fallen for it" part. But then its suddenly "Christina is a cool babe", so the reason the Doctor has to get some OTHER reason to tell her to fuck off. Since he can't do a "Sorry, I'm turning into Matt Smith soon, apply next year" or a "Sorry, I need to be companionless for The Waters of Mars" we get the now cliched Mopy Doctor.

"I lost them all," the Doctor all but sobs of his earlier companions. Now, at first glance this seems to be a cut and paste of The Next Doctor where our hero admits all his companions break his hearts when they leave. But come on. "LOST" them all? What crap is this? How did he lose Jackson Lake? Or Mickey? Or even Rose, who he deliberately told to take a hike with a copy of himself. According to the licenced media, he's had at least two companions since Donna left. Are we supposed to believe Magenta Price and Heather McCrimmon both met nasty ends? Surely the whole point of Journey's End was him parting with his friends on good terms.

Is the Doctor just talking crap to spare Christina's feelings? Is he just talking crap because it seems the entire ending of the story was re-written at the last second? Christina's a thief, stealing for pleasure and with no interest in whatever pain she may cause. To quote Servalan, "I think you're lucky to have your life". The Doctor saved her more than once, brought her back to Earth. He owes her nothing and a bit of jail time would probably give the uppity ratbag a bit of common sense.

But that would be a downer ending (and Planet of the Dead is the last time they can apparently avoid one) and thus instead Christina escapes justice and flees in a flying bus. With alien technology. And this is the Doctor who refused to even let Captain Jack have a fucking teleport. I know we're not supposed to worry about such niggles, but aren't you worried she'll crash into a plane or something? That's ASSUMING she knows how to drive a bus, let alone a FLYING bus.

And I tell you this, wherever she's going, it's NOT to rescue her lover from police.

Right. What next? Oh, I know. The Tritovores.

Firstly, I'm delighted to see that the rape and pillage of the 1986 Doctor Who Annual continues apace. The book gave us the idea of a time rift accessable in a sewer (later in Torchwood), the Master hypnotizing the population of Great Britain (Sound of Drums), different time zones accessible from a single building (Girl in the Fireplace), evil statues that move when you look away (Blink), a Utopean society based over a sacrificial race of plague victims (New Earth) and now, finally the Tritovores!

If JNT had made Planet of the Dead...

I actually quite like the Tritovores. It's nice to meet a race of friendly aliens nowadays - the Adipose adults were amoral murders, Pyroviles parasitic scum, Ood schizo serial killers, Hath aggressive pushovers, Vespiforms either horny or insane, and don't get me started on Vashta Nerada. Even the Shadow Proclaimation turned bad. But these bug-headed spacemen who literally eat the shit off the ground were nice - one of them is clearly as smitten with the Doctor as Astrid was, and the other refuses to leave its friend to die, and the Captain refuses to abandon his ship.

But these lovely little aliens, easily the most endearing "hideous monsters" since the Moxx of Balhoun or Alpha Centauri, are killed off in a pathetically obvious way even though the audience is more likely to sympathize with them than the bunch of losers on the bus who only have the "innocent bystanders" card to stop them turning totally invisible.

OK, so the stingrays needed more than their past reputation with Steve Irwin to impress us, so we had to see them kill someone rather than remain a conceptual menace. But killing the Tritovores rather than the humans just felt cheap, especially after the token bus driver was atomized - if we needed a happy ending where no humans died, why kill off the bus driver? Basically, when your alien monsters are more obvious companion material than the genuine article, you're in trouble, and the Tritovores definitely needed a better exit than our hero the Doctor going, "Oh well, YOU'RE obviously stuffed so I'll be off now!"

Would it have been so difficult for one of them have made it to Earth? To see the Doctor turning down the token hot chick but travel with the walking house fly would reinforce the 'don't-judge-by-appearances' angle Planet of the Dead seemingly can't make up its mind up about. The Tritovores were good people. Christina is not. Yet we're supposed to applaud her as she pulls a Christopher Skase...

And then there is some problems I just have with the whole thing...

- Planet of the Dead is a title used more than once and conjured up a far cooler story than the one we got. All the fans wondered if it might be Skaro or Gallifrey or a world of ghosts of all those the Doctor had failed to save... but no. Just a very generic alien place that was nuked to a desert. As a big part of the story seems to be about fluke bad luck, why not just have San Helios a desert planet all on its own? Dying of dehydration is as dangerous as being attacked by flying sting rays. Anyone who's seen Pitch Black will see a Doctor Who story struggling to get out and the idea that the entire population and every geological feature was turned to dust... that psychically screamed for all eternity... was a waste of time. Planet of Dust? Another annual nick, but it makes more of the idea, a less utterly generic title...

- the burglary. In a scene that might have had some kind of cultural reference in the mid-1990s but now feels braindamaged from its lack of a punchline - see how The Lone Gunmen did wonders with this Mission: Impossible shite of dangling upside down on wires. Not only is Christina so mentally damaged she leaves a squeaky cat toy that gives her away, when the alarms goes off she takes off her mask so absolutely EVERYONE can see what she looks like and identify her. I contemplated taking my own life in this sequence, and pray for the deleted scene that reveals her "lover" was the owner of the museum and it was all an insurance scam, which was why the cup was placed just where anyone could steal it with useless guards all facing the wrong direction. This sequence has crappiness rivalling Battlefield, The War Machines and The Idiot's Lantern for reasons why we should be ashamed of Doctor Who.

- the wormhole. Did ANYONE give any thought to this? It apparently forms at the exact moment that the bus can fly through it. Fair enough, but then all the cops drive through the exact spot and find nothing. Then the wormhole reappears and apparently has a circumfrence of TEN MILES, but is barely large enough for the bus to enter... at ground level... despite flying in the sky on the other side.

- why didn't the Doctor ask for a tank or something on a long chain driven through the wormhole, get everyone inside and have it dragged back? Or at least have a scene explaining why he COULDN'T?

- The Doctor tells Bambera the Second that the two guys on the bus should be given jobs at UNIT. I thought he hated the military? I mean, shouldn't he consult them before saying, "BTW, you are now in the army and likely to die on the front line the next time aliens turn up?" I know one of the kids was depressed and unemployed, but the other had his own life to lead. Considering niether of them got screentime long enough for me to even remember their NAMES, this screams of "ooh, must give everyone a happy ending" without doing something normal like, I dunno, having the Doctor say goodbye to them?

- Malcolm screaming "I love you!" at the Doctor. Dude... calm down. And where's the punchline? He just stands there screaming "I love you!" like Nick Briggs noting his vision is impaired, the Doctor smiling indulgently and... um. That's it? It seemed totally out of the blue. Maybe if Malcolm was suddenly, "Ooh, I'm not GAY though, Doctor, though not that there's anything wrong with that..." it might have had a point. Or if Malcolm was so tongue-tied at seeing the Doctor in the flesh, he couldn't talk, and then did that as the Doctor was about to leave in the TARDIS, taking his last chance, well, that might have made sense too.

My biggest problem... bar Christina anyway... is the Ominous Foreshadowing Scene. Am I the only one COMPLETELEY AND UTTERLY FUCKING SICK of this scene where we bump into a random woman who tells us "Dark Shit Is Going Down" in a way that manages to be oh-so-spooky-and-doom-laden but actually totally meaningless? How many times have they done this?

From Gwenyth to the Doctor to the Face of Boe in to the dueling soothsayers to River Song to Chantho's Evil Sister to that Albino Chick, there seem to be an endless array of totally unhelpful bits of forewarning. It reminds me so much of that special trailer to Season 17 where the Fourth Doctor confronts such a bit of ridiculous scaremongering...

"You will be pitted against an evil force!"
"Is that all?"
"Forewarned is forearmed!"
"What sort of gibberish is that? Go away!"

Perhaps my big deal with the scene is the actress. I love that actress. She was brilliant as Dilbert Wilkin's mum in The Lenny Henry Show, the butch nurse in TLC, Claire in Teachers, and the Clockwork Woman in The Girl In The Fireplace. And when she finally appears in my favorite show and she plays a totally useless and seemingly brain damaged pensioner who sits, doing absolutely nothing babbling about death since absolutely sod all interesting is happening. Her sole purpose is to hint that maybe things might be dangerous on an alien planet (duhhhhh) and that the Doctor is doomed to die when someone knocks on the door and then runs away or something.

Does she ACTUALLY think that is going to help? "Be careful"?! What the fuck?

Apart from anything else, her amazing abilities are seeming to see the future on Earth while on San Helios she can only detect the present. What utter crap. Everyone knows Tennant has quit. Everyone knows who's replacing him. What in the name of God's bollocks lead to them pulling this stunt, already done three times in consecutive stories, to try and ramp up tension for a story that wouldn't be screened until the end of the year?

It's the most pathetic part of the episode, and indeed the RTD era, despite the truly brilliant acting of all concerned as DT looks like he's just realized he's given every puppy in the world cancer and Carmen shakes with fear... but then they jam this scene in the MIDDLE of the end. What should have happened was the story ending right there, but no we get some comedy as the Doctor releases a felon and she escapes and everyone's laughing... like none of it happened.

Why not? Absolutely none of it mattered, did it?

This may be The Creed of the Kromon of the new series, but like The Next Life, the trailer for the next story is the only reason to see it...


Next Time:
"Water always wins!"
It's like 42 only wet! Dripping taps turn ordinary human beings into clones of Burn Gorman with perpetually damp handshakes! And ask not for whom the bell tolls... lest Adrian Edmonsen run into the Cloister Room screaming "SHUT UP YOU BASTARDS! IT'S ONLY ELEVEN O'CLOCK! TURN THE BLOODY BELL OFF!!!"


Jared "No Nickname" Hansen said...

Am I the only one COMPLETELEY AND UTTERLY FUCKING SICK of this scene where we bump into a random woman who tells us "Dark Shit Is Going Down" in a way that manages to be oh-so-spooky-and-doom-laden but actually totally meaningless? How many times have they done this?

No, you really, really are not.

I thought much the same of the two guys that Tennant randomly gave over to UNIT, as well. It's no like the military is a dream job at the moment, is it?

We see eye to eye on a lot of stuff - and I have to admit that it never even occurred to me to send an APC through the wormhole, so I clearly wasn't watching the story too carefully.

Youth of Australia said...

I thought much the same of the two guys that Tennant randomly gave over to UNIT, as well. It's no like the military is a dream job at the moment, is it?
In fact, I thought it bordered on the cruel - he's not just chosen the careers of two blokes he's barely said two words to, he's given them a job to be canon fodder when the aliens attack. (OK, arguably the mechanic might be safer back at base fixing tanks... but then again, he wasn't REALLY that good a mechanic, was he? So he might get sent to the front line anyway. And his pal definitely will.)

And given that both the guys chat about the events of Stolen Earth, they are both clearly aware of the time the flying saucers came and wiped out 90% of UNIT.

I mean... ALL the writers had to do was have the Doctor just say goodbye to them and add, "You know, if you're interested, there are probably jobs going at UNIT for a mechanic and morale officer?" and let them make their own minds up.

Looking at that horribly structured ending, I wonder if it was maybe a last-second remount after the original got accidentally deleted or something.

*Ah! Crap! We have to do the ending again, but we don't have half the actors! Get Tennant and the black chicks to mumble story resolution for the ones who aren't here, will you?*
*Shall we jam in Random Foreshadowing Old Lady?*
*Why the hell not? We need to pad it out as much as possible!*

We see eye to eye on a lot of stuff - and I have to admit that it never even occurred to me to send an APC through the wormhole, so I clearly wasn't watching the story too carefully.
Well, they needed to be in a metal vehicle that could survive the wormhole, and a tank is better than a bus at that... at the very least UNIT could have thrown a chain through and dragged them out...