May 30, 2009
"Planet of the Dead" is an episode of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who that was simultaneously broadcast on BBC One and BBC HD on 11 April 2009. It is the first of four special episodes to be broadcast throughout 2009 and early 2010, which serve as lead actor David Tennant's denouement as the Tenth Doctor. He is joined in the episode by actress Michelle Ryan, who plays one-off companion to the Doctor Lady Christina de Souza. The episode was co-written by Russell T Davies and Gareth Roberts: the first writing partnership since the show's revival in 2005.
The episode depicts Christina fleeing the police from a museum robbery by boarding a bus that accidentally travels from London to the desert planet of San Helios, trapping her, the Doctor, and several passengers on board a damaged bus. After the bus driver dies trying to return to Earth, the Unified Intelligence Taskforce, headed by Captain Erisa Magambo (Noma Dumezweni) and scientific advisor Malcolm Taylor (Lee Evans), attempt to return the bus to Earth while preventing a race of metallic stingray aliens from posing a threat to Earth. At the end of the episode, one of the passengers delivers a warning to the Doctor which foreshadows the remaining three specials.
"Planet of the Dead" is the first Doctor Who episode to be filmed in high definition, after a positive reaction to the visual quality of spin-off series Torchwood and the financial viability of HDTV convinced the production team to switch formats. To ensure that the desert scenes looked as realistic as possible, the production team filmed in Dubai for three days, sending several props—most notably, a 1980 double-decker Bristol VR bus—to the United Arab Emirates for filming. After the bus was unintentionally damaged in Dubai by a shipping container, Davies rewrote the script to explain the damage in the narrative.
Reaction to the episode was mixed: the audience gave the episode an Appreciation Index of 88—considered excellent—but critics gave average reviews to the episode. The consensus among critics was that it was enjoyable as a whole but that it was only an average script. The main point of praise was Evans' performance alongside Dumezweni in scenes set on Earth, which countered their criticism of the events on San Helios as being relatively boring.
The episode begins with a young thrill-seeking burglar, Lady Christina de Souza (Ryan), stealing a gold chalice once belonging to King Athelstan from a museum. She then narrowly evades the police by riding on a London bus on which the Doctor (Tennant) is also travelling, shortly before the bus suddenly passes through a wormhole and arrives on the desert planet of San Helios. The Doctor and the other passengers find that the wormhole is still present, but deduce that the bus had protected them like a Faraday cage after the bus driver is killed trying to cross back on foot, evaporating to a skeleton instantly. Seeing the driver's skeleton coming out on the other side of the portal, the police call in UNIT, commanded by Captain Erisa Magambo (Dumezweni) and aided by scientific advisor Malcolm Taylor (Evans), to close the wormhole. Trapped on a heavily damaged bus, the other passengers introduce themselves: Angela (Victoria Alcock) is a middle-aged mother travelling home to her family; Lou (Reginald Tsiboe) and Carmen (Ellen Thomas) are an elderly couple who win £10 each time they play the National Lottery due to Carmen's low-level psychic abilities; Barclay (Daniel Kaluuya) was travelling to a friend's house to ask her on a date; and Nathan (David Ames) was travelling home to watch television. The Doctor and Christina decide to scout the planet, spotting an approaching storm, while Nathan and Barclay try to fix the bus.
As they travel, the Doctor learns of Christina's troubled history, and appreciates her callousness and aptitude to the alien situation. The Doctor and Christina encounter the Tritovore, an anthropomorphic fly species, who take them to their wrecked spaceship. The Tritovore explain that they were making a routine goods collection from the planet but crashed in an unfamiliar environment; a year previously, the planet housed a hundred billion inhabitants and a thriving ecosystem. The Tritovore send out a probe to investigate the cause, and discover a large swarm of metallic stingray-like aliens who routinely create wormholes and destroy ecospheres as their biological imperatives. To rescue the Tritovore and the bus passengers, Christina uses her burglary skills to retrieve a crystal which powers the spaceship (together with the pedestal it is located on), unintentionally awakening a stingray that kills the two Tritovore.
The Doctor attaches parts of the pedestal to the bus and uses the chalice of Athelstan as an interface to the technology. This allows the bus to fly through the wormhole, with the stingrays in hot pursuit. Taylor quickly closes the wormhole but not before three of the stingrays pass through it. After UNIT has shot down the stingrays and the passengers have been debriefed, Christina asks the Doctor to let her travel with him; he rejects her because he does not want to lose another companion. The characters part ways. The Doctor recommends that UNIT hire Barclay and Nathan, Christina is arrested by the police for the theft and Carmen has a premonition that visibly unnerves the Doctor:
You be careful, because your song is ending, sir. It is returning, it is returning through the dark. And then Doctor... oh, but then... he will knock four times.—Carmen, "Planet of the Dead"
As a final act of kindness, the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to release Christina from her handcuffs. The pair part on good terms as she flies away in the bus as the Doctor enters his TARDIS and dematerialises.
Russell T Davies co-wrote the episode with Gareth Roberts, the first writing partnership for the show since its 2005 revival. "Planet of the Dead" was a departure from Roberts' usual stories—Roberts had previously only written pseudo-historical stories—and instead consisted of "wild" science fiction elements from his literary career and teenage imagination. The episode had no clear concept—such as Shakespeare and witches in "The Shakespeare Code" or Agatha Christie and a murder mystery in "The Unicorn and the Wasp"—and instead was a deliberate "clash [of concepts] with many disparate elements". Roberts explained he was cautious to ensure that each element had to "feel precise and defined ... like we meant that", citing the serial Arc of Infinity as an example where such control was not enforced. The episode includes a common feature of Davies' writing in that there is no clear antagonist: the Tritovore are eventually sympathetic to the protagonists and the stingrays are only following their biological imperative.
Unlike the Christmas specials, the theme of Easter was not emphasised in the story; the episode only contained a "fleeting mention" of the holiday instead of "robot bunnies carrying baskets full of deadly egg bombs". The episode's tone word—"joyous"—was influenced by Davies' realisation that "every story since "The Fires of Pompeii" [had] a bittersweet quality" and subsequent desire to avoid the recurring theme. The starting point for the story was Roberts' first novel The Highest Science. Davies liked the image of a London Underground train on a desert planet and rewrote it to contain a bus. Davies nevertheless emphasised it was not an "adaptation as such" because tangential elements were constantly being conceived and added.
Michelle Ryan portrays Lady Christina de Souza, the daughter of a recently impoverished aristocrat and adrenaline junkie. Christina is a "typical" Doctor Who companion, Davies electing to draw parallels from the Time Lady Romana rather than new series companion Rose Tyler. Roberts described her as an "adventuress" who is "upper class and glam, suited and booted, and extremely intelligent" which the Doctor could relate to because they both rejected their heritages. The episode's director James Strong described the character as reverting to a traditional romantic-based companionship—rather than the platonic companionship of Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) in the fourth series—while still being a unique companion:
It's back to basics: she's probably more of a traditional, romantic kind of Thomas Crown Affair kind of heroine, if you like. [...] It echoes to me of Rose, in that there may be a good old fashioned romantic connection between them. She's young, she's beautiful, she's sexy, but whereas Rose was a very ordinary, normal girl, Lady Christina is a lady, she comes from a very privileged, very elite background. She's different to any of the companions we've ever had in that she doesn't particularly want to get caught up with the Doctor. She's got her own thing going on, so she's very much a match for the Doctor and very much an equal. Often in an adventure the Doctor will take control and everyone will do what he says. She's very much in control – the two of them are in a sparring way, battling against each other to get through this adventure.
Comedian Lee Evans plays Professor Malcolm Taylor, a UNIT scientist devoted to his predecessor, the Doctor. Davies created Evans' character to serve as a foil for Noma Dumezweni's pragmatic character Captain Erisa Magambo, who previously appeared in the episode "Turn Left". Roberts noted after writing the episode that Evans' character had unintentionally become a "loving" caricature of Doctor Who fandom.
The episode was influenced by several works: Davies described "Planet of the Dead" as "a great big adventure, a little bit Indiana Jones, a little bit Flight of the Phoenix, a little bit Pitch Black."; the relationship between the Doctor and Christina was influenced by 1960s films such as Charade and Topkapi, which included Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn "being witty and sophisticated together, and then running for their lives"; and the Tritovore were influenced by 1950s and 1970s science fiction B-movies such as The Fly and Davies' habit of including aliens that were recognisable to the audience as animals from Earth, such as the Judoon. Carmen's warning evoked memories of the Ood's warning to the Doctor and Donna in the fourth series episode "Planet of the Ood". Tennant explained the prophecy meant that the Doctor's "card [had become] marked" and the three specials would thus be darker—characterising "Planet of the Dead" as the "last time the Doctor gets to have any fun"—and that the subject of the prophecy was not the obvious answer:
- David Tennant
- Really, from this moment on, the Doctor's card is marked. Because when we come back in "The Waters of Mars", it's all become a little bit darker.
- Julie Gardner
- And as we know, David, he really does knock four times.
- Yeah, absolutely, and if you think you've figured out what that means, you're wrong!
- But when you do figure it out, it's a sad day.
Pre-production on the four specials started on 20 November 2008—four days before scheduled—because the episode's overseas filming in Dubai required the extra planning time. Two weeks later, the production team was on a recce for the special and the final draft of the script was completed. The production team examined overseas locations to film the episode because they wanted the scenery to feel "real" and thought that they would be unable to film on a Welsh beach in winter. After examining countries such as Morocco and Tunisia, the production team decided to film in Dubai because the area was more amicable to the filming industry and viable filming locations were nearer to urban areas than other locations.
Production began on 19 January in Wales. The special was the first Doctor Who episode to be filmed in high-definition television resolution. The move to HD had previously been resisted for two major reasons: when the show was revived in 2005, high-definition television was not adopted by an adequate portion of the audience to be financially viable; and special effects were considerably more expensive to create in high-definition than in standard-definition. "Planet of the Dead" was used to switch to HD because of the show's reduced schedule in 2009 and because the filming crew had become experienced with the equipment while they were filming Torchwood.
Filming began at the National Museum Cardiff,[location 1] which doubled for the history museum depicted in the episode's first scene. To portray the tunnel the bus travelled into, the Queen's Gate Tunnel of the A4232 road in Butetown[location 2] was closed for four nights to accommodate filming. The last major piece of filming in Wales took place in the closed Mir (formerly Alphasteel) steelworks in Newport,[location 3] which doubled almost unaltered for the Tritovore spaceship. Filming took place at the peak of the February 2009 Great Britain snowfall, where the sub-zero temperatures slowed filming and had a visible effect on the cast. To accommodate for the adverse conditions, Davies included a line in the script that specified that the Tritovore spaceship cooled as external temperatures increase.
Filming in Dubai[location 4] took place in mid-February 2009. Two weeks previously, one of the two 1980 Bristol VR double-decker buses bought for filming had been substantially damaged when a crane accidentally dropped a container in Dubai City Port.After an emergency discussion by the production team, they agreed that the damage was unintentionally artistic and decided to include the damaged bus in the episode; instead of shipping the spare bus from Cardiff—which would have delayed the already hurried filming schedule—the production team decided to partially reconstruct the bus in Dubai, damage the spare bus in Cardiff to match the bus in Dubai, and rewrite part of the script to accommodate and mention the damage to the bus. James Strong recalled the reaction of the production team to the damage to the bus in an issue of Doctor Who Magazine:
One morning in the first week of February, I was leaving my flat when Julie Gardner phoned. She said, "there's been a little accident with the bus [...] it's a disaster; the bus is fucked." When I got into the office, I was handed a photograph—and my initial reaction was absolute horror. We called an emergency meeting. Russell came in [...] and we discussed our options. We had bought an identical London bus to film on in Cardiff, so could we send that out to Dubai? We could have got it out in time if it'd left Cardiff, literally, the next day, but we'd have had to find a third bus, an exact replica, to film on in Cardiff a week later. It had taken us a month to find the one we had. It was even mooted that we'd have to forget Dubai and opt for a beach in the UK. But Russell's response was "Okay, let's embrace it. Let's say that the bus was damaged on its way to the alien planet. [...] He wove it into the narrative. We're not trying to hide the damage at all. In fact, we show it off, enhancing it with special effects, smoke and sparks. It works rather marvellously. That London bus, damaged and smoking, in the middle of the desert—yeah, it looks incredible, especially in gorgeous hi-def.
The damaged bus was not the only problem to filming in Dubai: the first of the three days was afflicted by a sandstorm which left most of the footage shot unusable. The production team then struggled to complete three days of filming in two days; the last day was compared to "filming Lawrence of Arabia". To complete the episode's filming, interior scenes in the bus were filmed in a studio in Wales. To disguise the fact they were using a translite—a 360-degree background image—, Strong utilised often-avoided techniques such as muddied windows and lens flares; the latter also served to create a warmer environment for the viewer. After filming ended, editing and post-processing took place until two days before transmission, leaving the BBC to resort to using an unfinished copy to market the episode.
"Planet of the Dead" was advertised as Doctor Who's 200th story. Writer Russell T Davies admitted that the designation was arbitrary and debatable, based upon how fans counted the unfinished serial Shada, the season-long fourteen-part serial The Trial of a Time Lord, and the third series finale consisting of "Utopia", "The Sound of Drums" and "Last of the Time Lords". Davies personally disagreed about counting The Trial of a Time Lord as one serial—arguing that it "felt like four stories" to him—and grouping "Utopia" with its following episodes, but agreed that it was only an opinion which did not override any others. Gareth Roberts inserted a reference to the landmark—specifically, the bus number is 200—and Davies emailed the show's publicity team to advertise the special as such. Doctor Who Magazine's editor Tom Spilsbury aknowledged the controversy in the magazine's 407th issue, which ran a reader survey of all 200 stories.
Overnight figures estimated that the special was watched by 8.41 million people, a 39.6% share of the audience. An additional 184,000 watched the programme on BBC HD, the channel's highest rating so far. The initial showing had an Appreciation Index of 88: considered excellent. A BBC One repeat, two days later, gained an overnight figure of 1.8 million viewers. The special was therefore the second most watched programme of the day, being beaten by the premiere of the new series of Britain's Got Talent. The final viewing figure for the initial broadcast was 9.54 million viewers on BBC One and 200,000 viewers on BBC HD, making it the fifth most watched programme of the week and the most watched programme ever aired on BBC HD. Including repeats in the following week and viewings on the BBC iPlayer, 13.89 million viewers watched the episode in total.
The episode received average critical reviews. Simon Brew of science fiction blog Den of Geek said the episode was "by turns ambitious and predictable" but "still quite entertaining". The first part of the review mentioned an objection from his wife that the bus trapped in the sand "[looked] really fake", despite the episode being actually filmed in Dubai, and then mentioned Brew's appreciation of the concept of people stranded in the desert and concluded that "made a fair fist of it". Brew positively reviewed Michelle Ryan's performance—comparing her performance to be on par to her role in Bionic Woman rather than her role as Zoe Slater in Eastenders—and Lee Evans' performance as Malcolm Taylor, calling him the highlight of the episode because of his dialogue. He closed his review by saying that ""Planet of the Dead" was passable enough": he thought it "never really gelled" for him; but he thought it was overall entertaining and was excited for the remaining three specials as a result of Carmen's prophecy.
POTD was pretty much everything you've come to expect from Russell T. Davies' Who: crazy adventures, slightly cartoony characters, clever dialogue, moments of sheer silly fun, a childlike solemnity, a miraculous save, bombastic music, and one woman who's held up as being the most special person ever.
It didn't hurt that POTD had all the elements of a cracking good story: The Doctor and friends trapped on an alien planet, on the other side of the universe, with no easy way to get home. Alien creatures who might be hostile. A deadly swarm coming to tear our heroes apart. And UNIT on the other side of the wormhole, trying to come to grips with this almost unimaginable threat.
She compared it to two previous episodes, "The Impossible Planet" and "Midnight", both of which she enjoyed. She criticised three aspects of the episode: Lady Christina, who was the "first RTD heroine who actually filled [her] with revulsion", leaving her hoping that the character would be killed off-screen, Malcolm's reluctance to close the wormhole and the implausibility of only three stingrays travelling through it. She thought that the episode was "a pretty solid adventure with a cool set of monsters".
Ben Rawson-Jones of entertainment website Digital Spy gave the episode two stars out of five. He characterised the episode as being "as hollow as a big chocolate Easter egg" because it was "lacking in the enthralling drama and compelling characterisation that has been the lynchpin of the Russell T Davies era". His main criticism was towards Ryan's character, describing the romantic tension between Christina and the Doctor as "feeling forced" and arguing that Ryan was "utterly unconvincing" as Christina. Conversely, he was appreciative of Strong's direction and the UNIT subplot. Specifically, he approved of Evans' performance, noting that "the fact that Malcolm names a unit of measurement after himself is both inspired and hilarious". His review ended by describing the episode as "lifeless for much of the hour" and expressing his hope that the ambiguous entity from Carmen's premonition would "hurry up".
Orlando Parfitt of IGN gave the episode a 7.1 (Good) rating out of ten. Parfitt called it a "straightforward story" that did not elevate to the level of excitement typically seen in Doctor Who until the episode's climax, instead describing the majority of the story as being "taken up with Tennant and Ryan standing in the desert, swapping flirtatious banter in between proclaiming how dire their situation in between", and criticised the writing of the part of the episode where the bus was on San Helios, claiming that plot devices such as the Tritovore or Taylor being held at gunpoint and ordered to close the wormhole as "feel[ing] forced and unnaturally shoe-horned into the script". His praise of the episode went to Ryan and Evans: although he thought of Christina as a "shameless Lara Croft ripoff", he said that the character "still proves a sexy and wise-cracking counterpart to the Doctor"; and Evans' acting alongside Dumezweni highlighted his "undeniably great comic acting" as opposed to his "love-it-or-hate-it" stand-up comedy. The last paragraph of his review focused on the climax, which he thought was "a cracker [that] just-about makes up for the previously plodding plot", and described the entire episode as having "enough enjoyable moments" to entertain fans before the transmission of "The Waters of Mars".