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maryann johanson | takeaway only

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

(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 1: “The Next Doctor”)
I see, after going through the comments posted this past week, that lots of you have been clamoring for just this very post. (I deleted some of those comments, especially in threads unrelated to Doctor Who, but that doesn’t mean I don’t hear your pain.) Why the delay? I really did have every intention of getting this posted a week ago. But apart from the usual tired bullshit that even I get tired of hearing myself spout about how there’s not enough hours in the day and I really would devote myself 24/7 to writing about the stuff I’m obsessed with (Doctor Who, movies, etc.) if there weren’t other necessary work to be done, there’s this:

I’ve found it tough to sit down and think too much about “Planet of the Dead” because I’m so freakin’ disappointed by it.

I mean, I’m so disappointed that I’m gonna have to ignore my own imprecations posted above to those who refuse to join the lovefest. I’m gonna be a party pooper myself… but only because Russell Davies and Gareth Roberts, who wrote this episode, beat us to it.

I’m extremely forgiving as a Doctor Who fan: there’s a lot of crap I can put up with because I don’t even see it as long as I’m getting to spend time with the Doctor. And there’s a lot of implausibility I can put up with as long as the Doctor is behaving in a way that doesn’t violate his own selfness. But those kinds of absurdities cannot be ignored when they do occur, and basic plot plausibility cannot be ignored when it seems to come out of the laziness of the writers. The fudging of some scientific principles, say, can be overlooked if they’re fudged in aid of telling a cracking yarn. But ridiculous things that make no sense and contribute to the telling a not-cracking yarn as if by design? I call bullshit on those things.

Like, right from the get-go, this:

This is “security”? Do those guards stand there every night like that? With no one actually looking at the damn thing they’re guarding? This seems absolutely contrived to allow for just the sort of theft that occurs. Are these guys deaf as well as utterly lacking in peripheral vision?

And yes, it’s very Indy-in-the-South-American-temple, Christina’s switchout of the cup for the waving Chinese cat statue. But come on! Why does she act surprised that the alarms go off? She was clearly intending to taunt the guards with the Chinese kitty — she had to know they were going to catch on sooner rather than later. And why does she take the mask off while she’s still in the museum? Hasn’t she heard of security cameras? This is supposed to be London, for pete’s sake — the most CCTVed city in the world — so even if the museum, for some bizarre reason, isn’t covered inside by CCTV, the second she steps onto the street, she’s going to be caught on multiple cameras that the police will go to first thing. Either she doesn’t mind being caught on camera because she likes to taunt the authorities, in which case she wouldn’t have worn a mask in the first place, or she doesn’t want to be seen, in which case she wouldn’t have removed the mask until she was well away.

The frustrating thing is that there’s no reason at all — not even in a stupid plot-convenience way required to move the story forward — for her to behave as she does. It’s just sloppy, sloppy writing.

Still, I was in a forgiving enough mood, because I figured: Okay, cool, she doesn’t realize that she’s stolen something that’s actually an alien artifact, or a piece of antique time technology, or something neat-o and impressive and wibbly wobbly, timey whimey that the Doctor will be totally fascinated in, too. (And I was also all, Damn! because I thought this was gonna mirror a fan fiction story I wrote almost 20 years ago, and I’d already figured — in a half-joking, half-not way — that Russell Davies had read my fanfic years ago, so often does he seem to echo things I wrote. I’ve posted that story, “The Locksley Dagger,” over at my portfolio site, for your enjoyment. It’s about a stolen museum object that’s a piece of antique time technology the theft of which the Doctor is called in to investigate.)

And sure enough, my suspicions appeared to have been confirmed when Christina, in her bizarre escape attempt, hops onto a London bus, demonstrates utter cluelessness about how to pay for the ride, and appears to draw the Doctor right to her, for he hops onto the bus and plops himself right down next to her. Aha! Maybe she’s an alien too! (You can always spot the aliens: they get mixed up about the money and about how to pay for mass transit.) But at a minimum, I could see, even if she’s human, what she stole is clearly setting off the Doctor’s gadget that goes ding when there’s stuff.

But no. That’s not it at all. Christina’s presence on the bus is a complete coincidence with the Doctor’s presence there. And the Doctor’s presence there makes no sense whatsoever. Why does he get on the bus? He’s tracking something with his little dish, but he has no reason at all to expect that the bus will be heading in the direction he also needs to go in to track the something. Why does he sit down next to her? (Apart from the obvious and usual reason, which is that he just really likes pretty girls.) No reason at all… and it looks particularly strange, even for the Doctor, with the bus mostly empty.

And then, it’s completely ridiculous that the police could not stop that bus. They could have easily overtaken it — they’re in police cars, for pete’s sake: they tend to be able to go fast enough to overtake a lumbering double-decker bus. It’s not as if the cops think Christina is dangerous, that she might take hostages or something is she’s cornered. So why don’t they corner her? Why don’t they get the dispatcher to tell the driver to stop? It’s almost like the cops don’t want to catch the bus or Christina.

And then, the Doctor tells everyone on the bus to “hold on tight.” He knows what’s going to happen! Why doesn’t he tell the driver to stop? The driver probably wouldn’t listen, but when has that ever stopped the Doctor from telling people to do things he knows need doing?

This is all so preposterous on a storytelling level that it makes me want to scream. The Doctor, the cops, Christina… all are behaving in ways that make no sense at all. Instead of being clever enough to work around the way that real museums and real thieves and real cops and, ahem, real Time Lords work, Davies and Roberts just pretended they didn’t need to be concerned about plausibility. Instead of crafting a scenario that worked with reality, they invented their own ridiculous detours. (See, for contrast, “Partners in Crime,” which is fun and fantastical but instead of ignoring the way a real corporate cube farm operates, it played with the weaknesses in that real system to shove an entertaining story through those cracks.)

But that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is how Davies and Roberts treat the Doctor… and if they’re not gonna at least be fair to the Doctor, what’s the point of any of it? (And I don’t mean that have to be nice to the Doctor — I mean they have to be true to him as a character.) It’s as if everything that Davies has made the Doctor about these last four years went out the window (or down a wormhole) here. The Doctor with his ordinary-life porn of chops-and-gravy and watching telly… Davies has been making sure the Doctor has been harping on this stuff for ages, from at least “Father’s Day,” where he’d talked about never having the kind of life that’s about waiting for a cab at 2am. And he — Davies — is not doing anything with it precisely where this psychosis of the Doctor’s could all be coming to a head, in these last few episodes with Tennant as the Doctor.

Look: Davies has already established — in “Turn Left” — that a Doctor without a human companion to hold his worst impulses in check is a dead Doctor, or a Doctor who fucks up spectacularly. And here we have a Doctor who is specifically pushing away all prolonged contact with humans, at the same time he continues — at least on one level that he may not even recognize — to long for that contact, to long for a life that human contact might provide. And I call this a psychosis because the Doctor isn’t human, and what he wants is the functional equivalent of a human who longs to live life like a dog, or a gorilla, or a dolphin. Surely his own people would consider the Doctor as mentally ill as they would consider the Master. That’s something that I’ve always had in the back of my head as I wrote my fanfic — that no matter what we think of the Doctor, other Gallifreyans would consider him seriously deranged, and in a deeply disturbing way that they’d find icky (“He does what with those primitive apes? Ugh!”) — and it’s one of the things that made me half-kid myself that Davies must have read my fanfic, because that same idea does appear to be woven into Davies’ Doctor. As, indeed, it still is here.

But if Davies were going to follow through on that — and not do so is such a copout — then the Doctor would here promise to save all these people and get them back to their wonderful ordinary lives and then end up getting them all killed in the process. All except Christina, perhaps, so that when he rejects her in the end, it would actually make some freakin’ sense. All through this episode he’s completely intrigued by her, by everything about her: her calmness, her take-chargedness, her enthusiasm, her love of adventure, even her nonviolent criminality. (As he notes, he’s a thief too.) And Tennant plays it to the hilt:

He’s all “We make quite a couple” and “We were made for each other” (and despite her “We don’t make any sort of couple, thank you very much,” you know she sees it right away, too). And you cannot tell me that this exchange:

“You’re an alien?” –Christina
“Yeah, but you don’t have to kiss me either.” –the Doctor
“You look human.” –Christina
“You look Time Lord.” –the Doctor

ain’t his way of saying, “I’m not that alien,” or perhaps: “You’re an alien to me, but I don’t care, so why should you?”

(That was the exchange, by the way, that sounds very much like something I wrote for the latest installment of my ongoing fanfic story, though the context is somewhat different. Which clearly indicates that not only has Davies read my old fanfic, he’s got a tap into my computer to read the new stuff while I’m still in the process of writing it.)

You might say, “Well, because the Doctor wrapped up this situation cleanly and with no one getting hurt, he figures he really doesn’t need a human companion around to temper him, and that’s why he rejects Christina when she asks to come travel with him in the TARDIS.” But the problem with that is that the Doctor doesn’t know he needs a human around: it’s Russell Davies who knows that. The Doctor is not self-aware enough to reason with himself like this. All he knows is that he’s feeling a push-and-pull: he wants company, but he doesn’t want to get hurt again when they leave him (however they leave him). But to have been so drawn to Christina and then turn her away — especially after the ordinary-life porn he indulged in earlier — does not make any sense for the Doctor. He needed some powerful, immediate, in-his-face reason to reject Christina, which he would have had if all these humans who were relying on him had died, preferrably in awful ways. Ooo, and how about if he’d made a choice to save Christina over them, and then was wracked with guilt over that so that he couldn’t bear to face her again?

It’s as if Davies has given up on that dark, complicated Doctor he reinvented, and that dark, complicated Doctor Who, and is only interested in making a kiddie show. I can’t imagine why, but what other explanation can there be?

Random thoughts on “Planet of the Dead”:

• Oh, of course the psychic paper works to fake out the Oyster-card reader! And it never has to be topped up, either!

(But wait! Does this mean that the bus is slightly sentient itself? Cuz wouldn’t it have to be to be faked out by psychic paper…?)

• Didja see this ad on the bus?

As far as I can see on the not-HD download I watched, the ad is for a book called Ocean Something by E.R. Butler, and I can’t read the rest of the ad copy at all. But of course other fans are on it. A forum poster at Digital Spy notes that the book is Ocean of Noise and that the sales copy reads:

the debut novel by E R Butler offers a window into a world that is as dark as it is enlightening

There’s no such book in real life, but another commenter notices that “Ocean of Noise” is an anagram of “An Ice Foe Soon” (the Brits love anagrams), and seeing as how we’re promised “The Waters of Mars” next, that must mean the Ice Warriors (enemies of the Doctor’s of old, from the original series) are returning.

I will note that “Ocean of Noise” could be considered a very apt description for the fan hubbub that erupts online immediately after a new episode of Doctor Who airs.

• Barkley and Nathan have this little exchange after they land in the alien desert:

“It’s like that night when all them planets were up in the sky.” –Barkley
“But it was the Earth that moved back then, wasn’t it?” –Nathan

So obviously people did take notice of the fact that the freakin’ planet moved in space, but it hasn’t changed life on Earth noticable? I think it should have. I think it should have shaken up people so much that cultural earthquakes should be happening, not just random asides. (Maybe the Icelandic banks collapsed and Nathan lost his job because of economic upheaval caused by the enormous paradigm shift that occurred when the Earth moved in space because of alien influence and no one could deny it.) But that’s just me.

• “The collapse of the Icelandic banks” does sound like something out of science fiction, doesn’t it?

• Nice, the Doctor using the sonic screwdriver to turn his brainy specs into shades. I bet that little toy has all sorts of interesting uses we haven’t seen yet…

• The UNIT phone menu? Very funny.

• Why in the Five Galaxies would the “internal coms” on the bug guys’ ship be perfectly designed to work with humanoid heads?

• Dr. Malcolm Taylor, the scientific advisor, makes reference to Quatermass, which is a classic British sci-fi thing (a remake of which David Tennant starred in recently, which I plan to review soonish). But this kind of thing always reminds me that the geeks of Malcolm’s world — and Malcolm is most certainly a geek — don’t have a Doctor Who to geek out over, because of course Malcolm’s world is a slight alternate universe of ours in which the Doctor is real and not a fictional character. So what is the Doctor Who of Malcolm’s world? Is it a Quatermass series?

• What a copout, killing the bug guys! That was too easy, and too cheap. They could have come back to Earth — wouldn’t Magambo and Malcolm have loved that!

• The flying bus is very… I dunno. It’s on the tip of my brain. I want to say “very Douglas Adams” except there was no flying bus in Douglas Adams (or was there, and I’m blanking on it?). But I think he would approve:

• What Doctor Who needs more of? Smooching:

• It’s nice that the Doctor put Magambo onto the “two lads” who are “good in a crisis.” I like to think that UNIT troops would be the elite of the elite, and maybe they are, but maybe there’s room for those the Doctor recommends too.

• Oh, I’d be Malcolm: I love you I love you I love you:

• “Your song is endin’, sir. It is returnin’; it is returnin’ tru da dark… He will knock four times.” Ah, so that was the whole point of the psychic lady: so she could intone some ominous and menacing hints about the Doctor’s impending demise. I refuse to engage in speculation about this, because that’s exactly what Russell Davies wants us to do, and I’m mad at him right now.

• Great quotes:

“The funny thing is, I don’t usually do Easter. I can never find it. It’s always that different time. Although… I remember the original. Between you and me, what really happened was–” –the Doctor (and there’s Russell Davies’ atheism rearing its head again: hoorah!)

“Oh, humans on buses, always blaming me.” –the Doctor (at least they nodded to “Midnight,” which this bears too many thematic similarities to)

(next: The Sarah Jane Adventures: “The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith”)

MPAA: not rated

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