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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Planet of the Ood”

(tons of spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode! and no comments from party poopers — this is a love fest only / previous: Episode 2: “The Fires of Pompeii”)

I’m gonna give a big shoutout to screenwriter Keith Temple for this one, because there’s a whole giant bunch of juicy stuff here that captures why the idea of the Doctor is so damn appealing, and why we kept coming back to this show even when it used to be way sillier than it is now, and why we keep coming back to it now.
First, there’s the Time Lord himself. “I know what it’s like,” he tells Donna right at the opening of this episode, “everything you’re feeling right now: the fear, the joy, the wonder. I get that.” The Doctor used to come across, on the old show, as way more nonchalant about his extraordinary life than it would seem possible to be — because even he’s not living the life of a normal Time Lord; even by the standards of his own culture, he’s living an adventure. Now, though, he’s just as enthusiastic as we are (“I’ve only ever done package holidays, and now I’m here!” Donna practically screams in ecstasy, which I’d probably do too — though I’ve never done a package holiday). Which makes him even more ridiculously, mysteriously charming than he already was. Because he’s still alien, but he’s a more believable person than he ever was before. I’ve been raving about this aspect of the new Doctor Who since the beginning: the stuff that made the Doctor real before was the stuff we brought to the show. But now it’s all there: it’s not in the subtext — and sometimes we had to imagine the subtext, too — it’s all there on the surface.

Of course the other big thing we brought to the show was a desire to escape humdrum life stuck on this one lonely boring rock. And now that’s all right out there on the surface, too: “You had a life,” the Doctor says to Donna, “of work and sleep and telly and rent and tax and take-away dinners, all birthdays and Christmases and two-weeks’ holiday a year, and then you end up here. Donna Noble, citizen of the Earth, standing on a different planet.” There’s fiction as escapist fantasy, in which the unspoken undertone is, “Hey, look at what life looks like when there’s cooler stuff to worry about than paying the bills and changing the cat box.” And then there’s this far more specific kind of escapism that panders to our desire to believe we are exceptional: “Being a drone may be fine for everyone else, but I deserve better.” It’s a lot lighter in tone here, but The Matrix did the same thing, told us that if we felt like we were too smart and too special to be contrained by the mundane rules that everyone else is stuck with, well, that’s just a sign not that we’re useless misfits but that we’re clued in to a higher reality in which we might turn out to be the savior of all those numb drones.

Or the Ood.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that these themes crop up around this story — or maybe it’s just that this story made me hone in on these themes — because that idea of being able to step outside the conventional and look back at it and see it as an invisible status quo is what all science fiction is about, in a meta sense. (Which is why all SF, no matter when and where it’s set, is ultimately about the time and place in which it is written.) The people of the 42rd century take the Ood and their servitude for granted, and tell themselves pleasant lies — “we keep the Ood healthy, safe, and educated; we make them better” — when they’re in danger of seeing the truth about what they’ve done to another intelligent species. And we watch the advertisement for the Ood and think it’s clever, and notice the Warhol-esque depictions of the Ood and think they’re snarky, and we don’t even notice the commodification of people (“It’s a he, not an it”) until this:

“A great big empire built on slavery…” –Donna

“It’s not so different from your time.” –the Doctor

“Oy, I haven’t got slaves!” –Donna

“Who do you think made your clothes?” –the Doctor

Man, that cuts like a knife, and suddenly brings all the fun escapist fantasy down to a level that makes you want to weep. Imagine the Doctor landing in a sweatshop in Guatemala or Vietnam. Imagine Donna confronted with eight-year-olds bent over sewing machines for 18 hours a day making Nike sneakers and designer jeans. What could they possibly do that would make a whit of difference in the long run, or even the short?

Even the Doctor’s optimism about us is tempered:

“Back home, the papers and the telly, they keep saying we haven’t got long to live: global warming, flooding, all the bees disappearing… But look at us. We’re everywhere. Is that good or bad, though? I mean, are we like explorers or more like a virus?” –Donna

“Sometimes I wonder…” –the Doctor

I watch the show these days as much for Tennant as I do for just the SF nuttiness of it, because actors fascinate me and he’s a particularly fascinating actor. I love watching an actor who gives me a sense that he’s always there in the moment, that even when his character isn’t the focus of a scene he’s doing something with the character, that he really understands this person that he’s playing, even if there isn’t always an opportunity to reveal all that he knows.

And as a writer of fiction, I know that inventing this kind of stuff isn’t always a conscious thing — you don’t always know where it comes from, and sometimes it’s true that later you go back and look at what you created and see things that you know you did not deliberately intend to be there. So I’d love to ask Tennant, just as a fer-instance in this episode, whether his bit that begins with “Oh, dear,” as the Doctor learns that Mr. Halpen is being transformed into an Ood, was a deliberate invocation of Peter Davison’s Doctor. Because his whole performance in that scene from that moment on is so Peter Davison — there’ve been hints of that before in Tennant’s take on the Doctor, as well as hints of Tom Baker’s Doctor — but whether he meant it to be or whether it just springs from his own lifelong love of the show and the character and what he grew up watching I’m simply dying to know. Partly because I always want to know whether other creative people are as crazy as as I am.

But that’s all really by way of introduction to saying that as much as I find my eye drawn to watching Tennant, I love watching Catherine Tate here, too, because she’s doing all the same things. The slightest hint of Donna rolling her eyes at the “little something for the gentleman” — the rather disturbing “sexy voice” coming from the Ood — is hilarious. How Donna swings from “eww” at meeting her first Ood to sympathy is wonderful… and how she leaps to reapproach Delta 50 after the scary red-eye manifests itself, even as the Doctor hangs back, is terrific. And together: wow. Their scene in front of the Ood cage, when she wants to hear their psychic song and then can’t take it: magic. He’s a little disappointed in her, she’s disappointed in herself, and yet, there’s a solidarity to them that seems to transcend what either of them really appreciates about the other.

I don’t know whether Tennant or Tate intended that, but that’s something else I’d love to talk to them about, too.

Random thoughts on “Planet of the Ood”:

• The Ood saying “D’oh!”: first reference to The Simpsons on Doctor Who? I believe it is.

• Looks like that bouncy ’60s spy music is gonna be Donna’s theme — strains of it in a minor key show up here and there in this episode.

• Donna, Donna, Donna. I know she has to keep up the not-attracted-to-the-Doctor thing since he made himself so clear about the limits of their relationship — “we’re so not married, never ever” — but come on: “A real spaceship… You’ve got a box, he’s got a Ferrari”? Um, even if the idea of all those lovely bedrooms is off limits, the TARDIS is still full of wardrobes of wonderful clothing and libraries of wonderful books and cloisters to stroll in and Rassilon knows what else… I refuse to believe that Donna is that shallow. Perhaps she’s working with a reverse psychology thing: drive him so crazy with her (pretend) disdain that he decides he must have the one person who treats him like shit? I don’t get that… but then, I don’t get a lot of stuff about people.

• If you haven’t seen David Tennant in anything other than Doctor Who, you have to know that almost every other role he’s played on film or TV has been, at best, decidedly nonheroic and, at worst, downright creepy. (There’s not that many of them, and I’ve seen most of them by now, and I’m seriously thinking I need to write about them all this summer in preparation for my seeing him take on Hamlet in Stratford this fall. So stay tuned.) He’s amazingly versatile as an actor, but if I’d been more aware of his body of work before I learned he would be playing the Doctor — I’d only seen him do the disgustingly slithery Barty Crouch Jr. in Harry Potter, and I thought, Eww, he’s gonna be the Doctor? — I wouldn’t have been able to see him in the role. And now, this moment:

makes me wonder whether Russell Davies might not be planning to take the character in a different direction, maybe even in the cause of killing the show, if not the Doctor himself. Cuz when the Ood tells the Doctor, “I think your song must end soon,” this worries me greatly. Maybe it just means that Tennant wants to leave the show and the Doctor will regenerate, but I don’t know if I’m ready for even that.

• As well-written as the bulk of this episode is, I’m not sure I buy the sadistic head guard: he seems tossed in as an excuse to have the Doctor be more athletic than we usually get to see him being, running around the warehouse and bouncing off the sides of cargo containers and chased by a giant robot arm and all. I mean, I guess it’s cool in a video game kind of way, in a way for the show to show off what it can do with a budget, but still… does it really serve the story?

• I can’t look at Tim McInnerny, who plays the guy turning into an Ood here, and not think of Captain Darling. Sorry, Tim: I know that’s not fair, but there we are.

(next: Episode 4: “The Sontaran Stratagem”)

MPAA: not rated

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