Planet of the Dead is the first of four specials that mark the end of actor David Tennant and producer/writer/relauncher Russel T. Davies tenure on Doctor Who. Instead of a traditional season, they decided to take the special route to mark the transition between Tennant/Davies and new Doc actor Matt Smith and new show producer Stephen Moffat. Davies serves as head writer of this last stretch of Doctor Who's which includes the Christmas 2008 special The Next Doctor, Planet of the Dead, The Waters of Mars, and the two part conclusion airing at the end of this year, The End of Time.
The Doctor jumps on a bus. Holding a buzzing gizmo in one hand and a chocolate egg in the other, he is tracing some kind of universal anomaly something-or-other. The bus goes through the anomaly leaving the Doctor and the passengers stranded on a desert alien planet.
The other passengers are the usual scripted scrabble, two early twenties males, a mousy housewife, the old working class driver, a kindly couple (one of whom is psychic), and the girl who serves as our fill-in companion, Lady Chritina de Souza (Michelle Ryan), royal hot chick, thrill seeker, and cat burglar. Yeah, its a bit of a stretch even for a frothy fantasy show.
My biggest beef with Planet of the Dead lies in Christina. Because of the specials route, the Doctor finds himself without his usual tag alongs and they decided to go very big with the key character that he interacts with. The Christmas specials usually ape this too, even going so far as to make one special companion, Catherine Tates "Donna," a later full season companion. Problem is, Christina is so obviously pandering, Lara Croft/hipgirl copied and, worst of all, unbelievably unreal, I found her a little stomach churning. She's completely unphased by landing on an alien planet, always wisecracking, model perfect unfettered, instantly take charge, action loving, and as if you didn't know she was cool enough, she even spouts groaners like, "That's how I like things. Extreme," to remind you.
I'm easy, but I'm not that easy. I'm willing to bet viewers that are sold on Christina being radically awesome are limited to gullible teens and the kind of adults who buy into Olive Garden producing authentic Italian homecooking. Okay, enough about Lady Christina. Lets never speak of her again and pray that her ride into the sunset at the end is permanent. Trust me, thats not a spoiler. Despite her thieving on the run from the cops subplot, there's never any doubt. She's just TOO COOL to not get away.
In turns out the alien planet is not so dead. Once it was even thriving until a billion strong stingraylike aliens ate everything in sight. They travel from planet to planet, eating like locusts, then open a vortex and move to the next world. On the Earth side, UNIT shows up and tries to figure out how to close the vortex before the aliens arrive. There are also some other stranded travelers on the planet in the form of some fly aliens, who of course provide the tech for getting the big bus back through the anomaly. Its a typical bit of Who bafflegab- people cant pass through the vortex unless shielded, the bus cant move, aliens provide the gravity-doohickey-gadget that the Doc MacgGuyver's onto the bus, thus leading to the whole point of the special, seeing the Doc pilot the iconic double decker public transport over London.
Planet of the Dead's desert setting and alien menace are pretty much, near note-for-note rehashes of the film Pitch Black. I dont think its too much of a crime since Who usually spins from other sources, Jekyll & Hyde, Phantom of the Opera, etc, while adding a Who twist. Of course, it would have been nice if the aliens were less similar to Pitch's, but I guess the fx department was lazy. The threat dynamics fizzle out a bit as the aliens are devoid of any personality.
Perhaps because he wrote a similar Doc and a group on a stranded tour vehicle story, Midnight, the previous season, Davies skirts around the Doc interacting with the passengers too much. After the initial lets calm down and band together business, the Doc and Christina take off, so most of the ep amounts to the Doc and Christina playing off each other. It is really only within Tennant that the special shines (a shine dulled by Christina). Tennant is his usual, charming self, playing to another part of Davies Doc relaunch stratagem, smoothing the standoffish, weird, or and pricklier edges off the Doctors character to make him more mainstream friendly and always cheery affirmative. His Doctor is the kind of guy that would be positively overjoyed to be a parties designated driver. And drive he does, a bus, over nighttime London.
The DVD: BBC Worldwide.
This was the first Doctor Who shot in HD (previous of the new series were shot, I believe, in Digibeta). Planet of the Dead is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen. It looks pretty good and the HD comes across best in some of the exterior desert shots. Some of the interiors and night shots on the other hand aren't quite as robust. The image pops a little more, sure, but I couldn't tell a tremendous difference between Planet and other NewWho outings. Maybe the Bluray is better at showing the conversion.
Who has always been a show that struggled with the economy of Brit tv and fx. While the new incarnation has made leaps and bounds in those areas, it still often has the same old quirks, only now instead of cheap practicals it is cheap CGI. Tech junkies clamor for it, but I think the HD is either going to show the seams more or, hopefully, make producers more conscious about covering those things up. Personally, I dont care either way so long as they improve the scripts.
The special is presented with a very routine, sole, 2.0 Stereo, English language track with optional English subtitles. Decent stuff in terms of the scoring, fx, and dialogue. Audio has nice response but is still purely the basics. Bit strange how they push for improved visuals but dial it back on the audio.
The lone extra is a making of featurette, Planet of the Dead Confidential (56:58). While my interest waned about midway through the special, the early going provides some good anecdotes/footage of the difficulties the special underwent (getting a London bus to the Dubai desert, even harder than you think). In the end, I thought there was just a bit too much back-patting hyperbole from the cast and crew flooding over the finer details of how the special came together. For instance, the fx guy cant just talk about the fly alien design, he has to gush about how Davies always comes up with "imaginative" animal-based aliens. For me, and I imagine most everyone, saying, "Cat-people! Rhino-people! Fly-people, like in... uhhhh, whats that movie? The Fly!" is about the least imaginative thing a sci fi writer can do when visualizing beings from other worlds.
Conclusion: Planet of the Dead plays like entertaining filler, a brief touchstone before Doctor Who gets to more serious things. Adding up the special and the featurette, the disc gives you two hours of okay entertainment. Really though, it doesn't stand alone as a compelling Who entry and is the kind of thing that should be gathered in a box of all the specials (and maybe will at some point), so I'll lean towards a rental.