This episode seems to exist for the sole purpose of putting right a mistake in The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit. And it’s a really, really big mistake. The Doctor accepts that the Ood are a natural race of slaves, happy to work for the humans. I can just about accept that could be a possibility – I wouldn’t say it’s completely impossible to exist anywhere in the universe, but as an idea it makes little sense and always seemed decidedly fishy. The Doctor should have challenged it rather than just move on after the end of the story. In the same story he chooses to save Rose and let all the Ood die because… well he fancies her, and then he shrugs off what just happened. So this episode tries to put some of that right and show us how the Ood really became slaves and, surprise surprise, they’re not really very happy about it.
The episode plays a very clever trick on us by making it appear that this is a re-run of The Impossible Planet with the red eyes presumably indicating another possession. In fact, when I first watched this I was fully expecting to hear Gabriel Woolf’s voice. But this is all about challenging our assumptions, and then throwing a moral issue at us that doesn’t have a black or white answer. I’ll return to that at the end, because it’s the key to understanding what this is all about. But I can’t let this review go by without mentioning some of the things this episode gets exactly right:
In many ways, this is such a cleverly constructed story. Everything ties up together so neatly at the end, particularly Dr Ryder’s role in the story, and Ood Sigma with his ‘hair tonic’. There is some beautiful dialogue: just savour Ood Sigma’s final speech: ‘our children will sing of the Doctor-Donna and our children’s children and the wind and the ice and the snow will carry your names forever.’ Talk about tugging at the heart-strings! These are the feel-good moments that Doctor Who has done so well since 2005. But there’s a big problem with that speech: the Doctor doesn’t earn these words. The story plays out with very little help from the Doctor and for the most part nothing would have been any different if he had never turned up. In fact he spends a lot of the episode barking up the wrong tree altogether.
So what is the Doctor and Donna’s function in the story? Little more than to be shown how slavery leads to revolution, learn how oppressors with sympathy for the oppressed don’t necessary get a free pass when it all kicks off, see the consequences of the revolt, and get confused by the morality of it all, which is actually vocalised by Donna. And here’s where the episode becomes something that is quite unpleasant…
Halpen’s transformation is a nasty moment. This sort of thing tends to escape with little complaint nowadays, but that does not mean the producers should become complacent about what they allow into the show. They have a duty to ensure that Doctor Who remains suitable for all the family to watch: somebody pulling away the skin from their scalp is OK for something like Torchwood but not for Doctor Who. As impressive as it was, the shot should have been cut more severely and we would still have got the idea. But this is not the nastiest thing about the episode.
No, the worst thing about it is the journey it takes the viewer on. We are supposed to be on the side of the revolutionaries, which is absolutely fine, but the episode then brings us to the point where we side with them to the extent that deaths of the humans are played out as moments we are supposed to cheer on. This is the bad-guys-get-their-comeuppance part of the episode. And when that takes us to a place where somebody ending up in a gas chamber is something we are led by the writer to a position of approval, then we are in some pretty dark territory. This was one of those times where a line was crossed, and it won’t be the last… RP
The view from across the pond:
Back in 2006, I questioned whether we would ever learn more about the Ood. We got lucky…
But first, I need to take a look at the Doctor. At least since the new series, he has a certain way of doing things, a modus operandi, if you will, that has been consistent from companion to companion. With each, we see that MO emerge: he meets them in their own time, whisks them off to the distant past, then the distant future (or reverse). Once he has established that the companion can handle themselves in either range of the spectrum, the vortex is the limit! Here we have it:
- Rose: present, far future, past.
- Martha: present, past, far future.
- Donna: present, past, far future.
- Amy: present, far future, past.
- Clara’s storyline is too damned confusing so I’m not even going to try!
- Bill: present, far future, past.
For this story, we are in Donna’s “far future test drive” which takes us to the Planet of the Ood (and a night at the opera. And good lord, this is one heck of an opera!) There are a number of stunning things about this episode: the visuals are amazing when the Doctor and Donna arrive on the icy world. We are almost instantly provided a mystery about a circle that needs to be broken and Donna gets her first look at an Ood. This is interesting because we see how Donna handles herself: she’s unsure how to speak to them, thinking she needs to speak into their globe. When that Ood dies, she leans in, touches his head and says “there you are, sweetheart”. This is a woman who is growing, changing since we first met her. It was a risky character arc starting with The Runaway Bride, introducing us to a character that was abrasive, but her story is developing, and this is where we get our first hint that it will be something remarkable! Kudos for the writing, kudos for being brave enough to try it and kudos to Catherine Tate for pulling it off.
The Ood themselves are a slave race; we’ve established that before. What we did not understand is why they were typically such peaceful creatures: they are born with part of their brains in their hands. These creatures are instantly likable and a timeless design. (Lovecraft should be proud!) As we experienced in their first outing, we still get the red eyes when things go bad, but not because they are controlled by “the beast”.
Speaking of beasts, though, Tim McInnerny as Mr. Halpern is a loathsome character, beastly in his treatment of the Ood and people. He gets his just comeuppance at the end. The Doctor and Donna (aka The Doctor/Donna) are in great form; the easy comedy that exists between Tennant and Tate is fantastic. There’s an ongoing joke about them being married that is funny, every time. Ood Sigma makes his first appearance; he’ll be back again when the Doctor’s song ends. Speaking of songs…
Possibly the most stunning aspect about Planet of the Ood is the music. There’s an operatic brilliance to it; deeply moving and almost spiritual. Murray Gold struck gold when he composed this piece. Their song of captivity is amazing. The song of freedom… there just aren’t words to describe it! Donna can’t cope and she’s right to be shaken. To actually be exposed to that, unfiltered, would rock a person to their core. The best part is… it’s not the only time we get to hear it! (Though we will have to wait a bit…)
This may be a pretty basic “defend the weak” story, but for the character development of Donna, the foreshadowing of what’s coming for the Doctor and the opportunity to hear that music all make this is one of the best of the Doctor’s “test drives”.
This is the second time a truth has been spoken in new Who, and ironically both times were Ood stories! The first ends with the Doctor and Rose referring to themselves as “the stuff of legend”. We get another here:
“And know this, Doctor/Donna: you will never be forgotten…”
Truer words have never been spoken!
Read next in the Junkyard… The Sontaran Stratagem
I feel the sting from your final words!
But in Halpern’s case, while he does get his “just comeuppance”, he doesn’t die. I agree that cheering for people’s deaths is dark territory but when Halpern is changed, Ood Sigma says he will be taken care of. Not tortured, not killed, not even locked up. There’s no sense of retribution, just: he will be taken care of. (Not in the evil, cynical way that says “killed” because they could have done that, but instead they transformed him. And who can say whether he can be changed back or not, once he’s had some perspective?)
So maybe I’m splitting hairs, but I do think that’s an important distinction. Walk a mile in another person’s shoes, you know! Now, I don’t recall cheering when… oh, wait, no, there was one death I was not unhappy about: Commander Kess. His death I might have cheered, come to think of it. So, I accept my guilt on that count!
I was so hoping I’d be innocent…
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Yes, good points, and as far as Halpern is concerned the graphic way in which the transformation is shown on screen is something I take issue with much more strongly than what actually happens to him.
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I just got back home from a brutally hot afternoon which I think makes me empathize with how this story has been reviewed by us all so far. Because I was stressed out to the point of feeling utterly sympathetic to those who can’t help but lash out against oppression which, in respects to how the Ood gave Halpern his comeuppance with a most poetically Twilight-Zone-ish simplicity, may have given me more respect for these SF alien races whose humbleness actually helps them find non-violent solutions that we, in our more aggressive human natures, may not.
Quite openly I’m easily agitated by such cruelties as slavery and extreme humiliation. Hence our understandable issues with Halpern’s transformation. It might agreeably still be unpleasant. But even more to the point, it might remind of us of how consequently unpleasant our human way of punishing villains may unavoidably be. The Ood, realistically enough, can have their equilibrium between pleasant and unpleasant. I like them as a potentially nice alien race. But it makes them more realistic to understand that even in their own way, they have their shares of imperfections.
Thanks again for the reviews.
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Thanks Mike for your very thoughtful and balanced comment 🙂
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You’re very welcome.
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