Saturday, 11 April 2009

TV Review: Dr Who - Planet Of The Dead

What's most amazing about 'Planet of the Dead' - the really rather astonishing Dr Who Easter episode screened this evening on BBC1 - is that three months ago it just didn't exist at all, save as a scintillating script from the dream team of Russell T Davies and Gareth Roberts. Words on a page. Ideas in imaginations. It's a testament to the incredible expertise and experience of the crews at BBC Wales that, under the guidance of director James Strong, twelve short weeks later this bold, brash, colourful and impossibly-exhilarating 60 minutes of television landed on our TV screens fully and perfectly-formed with all the spectacle and energy of half-a-dozen bigger budget feature films. They went and did it again.

'Planet of the Dead' was just the best thing on British TV since...well, 'The Next Doctor' on Christmas Day, if we're being honest. With the show on reduced duties this year this insanely-adrenalized romp of a yarn reminds us just how good Dr Who can be and still is, nearly five years since it burst back onto British TV. This was an episode which just roared out of the screen as if to say "This is us, this is Dr Who, this is what we do and don't you forget it." I loved every mad minute of this one and I wasn't always sure I would, having seen some of the pre-screenbing pictures (see my comments on the tritovore, below) and hearing puff about how this story was "a bit of a laugh, a romp." Yes, it was both of these things - but in the uplifting and life-affirming (yes, sorry about that old chestnut) way that only the very best Dr Who yarns can be. Some of the episodes described as 'romps' have tended to be a bit light and fluffy and not completely satisfying - 'The Runaway bride', 'New Earth', 'Voyage of the Damned' and even 'The Next Doctor' may all spring to mind at times but 'Planet of the Dead' is a romp with a bit more of a heart to go with its running about.And against all the odds I really think this episode is right up there with the very best of New Dr Who.

So where to start? How about the International Gallery where slinky jewel thief Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan, surprisingly impressive here after a string our dour performances in 'The Bionic Woman' and, oddly, Steven Moffatt's 'Jekyll' a couple of years back) steals the Cup of Athelstan from under the noses of some particularly dozey security guards? Chased the Police who, it seems, have been on her case for some time, Christina hides aboard a London bus (no. coincidence that this is the 200th Dr Who story) just as the Doctor, electronic gizmo flapping and whirring, climbs aboard too. he's following the trail of something too....but the trailleads the bus and its colourful cast of characters through a wormhole in Time and Space which dumps the vehicle, damaged in transit, onto the sandy surface of a boiling hot planet on the other side of the Universe. But how did it get there - and why? And what's the secret of the chittering insect creature watching curiously from afar? And what's that approaching sandstorm all about?

'Planet of the Dead' just doesn't pause for breath - and yet it's still a rich, well-observed character piece. At first the episode looks as if it's going to be revisiting territory last explored in the exceptional season four thriller 'Midnight' as the Doctor finds himself trapped on a crippled bus with a group of icnreasingly-hysterical passengers. But the script wrong-foots us here - we get to know a bit about the other passengers including the ill-fated driver, dowdy middle-aged mum Angela, likely lads Nathan and Barclay, elderly couple Lou and his low-level psychic wife Carmen (they win £10 on the lottery twice a week), before the Doctor and Christina are drawn together in finding a way back through the wormhole in a battered, smoking bus which, it transpires, is out of petrol. Back in London (well, the Bute Tunnel in Cardiff...I drive home from work through it most days and I've yet to plunge through a wormhole) the baffled Police led by DI McMillan (Adam James) have called in UNIT and before long Captain Magambo (Noma Dumezweni, last seen as the same character in 'Turn Left' last year) is on the scene with a few more soldiers than UNIT ever managed to mobilise in the 1970s and her very own scientific adviser named Malcolm (Lee Evans) who, it transpires, is a bit of a fan of one of his predecessors in the post.

So the pieces are in place and there are mysteries to solve. With much-publicised filming in Dubai adding a very real sense of 'alienness' to the off-Earth sequences (and no, they really couldn't have been filmed at some beach oir quarry in Wales) the story tears along, throwing in the usual mix of scientific mumbo jumbo and technobabble from Davies which makes its own sort of sense within its own narrative structure. For an episode put together in three months there's no scrimping on the visuals here - from the smashed Tritovore spaceship and its spectacularly-devastated interior, the swarm of metal-skinned flying killer stingrays, a flying bus, stunts, expolosions and gun battles, this is Dr Who doing it big and loud again. The Tritovores themselves, which looked a bit cheesy in the publicity photos, actually looked rather convincing in action, despite the boiler suit space costumes. Communicating in insect-speak with the Doctor the Tritovores, also stranded on the desert planet by their own encounter with the stingrays, quickly become allies with the Doctor and Christina as they fashion, in best Dr Who make-do fashion, a route back to Earth by using cannibalised alien technology.

'Planet of the Dead' is just bristling with mad, vivacious ideas - a planet picked clean and its people and buildings turned to sand by the stingray predators which travel through space by moving so fast they gnereate wormhole gateways, a bus turned into a Harry Potter-style flying machine with the hel;p of some cobbled-together alien gizmos - all held in place by the rich tapestry of witty dialogue, fun characters and very real emotion, new Dr Who's stock in trade. Once again FX Supremos The Mill have worked wonders in a very short space of time and the visuals here are amongst the best seen yet in the programme - the swarming, devouring stingrays, the flying bus, the shattered Tritovore spacecraft, all big, rich images which perfectly complement the hue cinematic scale of the piece, a scale emphasised by Murray Gold's joyous score which might well have been taken from some Stephen Spielberg adventure epic. Only the coldest of cold hearts wouldn't have felt a thrill as the music reached its triumphant crescendo in the very final shot, panning up the shape of the TARDIS as the Doctor prepares to move on to pastures new.

So to the Doctor with David Tennant now in the home straight. seeing him here, crackling with enthusiasm, brings home yet again what a huge blow his loss will be to the series. He IS Dr Who now, he's come to mean so much to so many people and the joy evident in every second of his sharp, twinkling performance just rushes out of the screen. I have every faith in Matt Smith's ability as an actor but those shoes he's got to fill are looking bigger and bigger with every passing Tennant episode. And he's matched here by Michelle Ryanm, an actress I've never been impressed by before; but here she's quite magnificent as the wily, confidfent jewel thief Christina as she assumes control of the situaiton shortly after the bus has arrived at its alien location and then giving as good as she gets as she verbally spars with the Doctor; together Tennant and Ryan establish a chemistry which literally demands that their relationship carries on into further episodes and the Doctor's heart-breaking refusal to allow Christina to accompany him in his travels not only reminds us of how emotionally-raw the Doctor is after recent events but also robs us of a travelling team, which, as Davies says in the accompanying 'Confidential' behind-the-scenes documentary, would have blazed across the screen. Oh well...but 'Planet of the Dead' has finally shown that Ryan has got some serious acting chops and it'll be interesting to see what roles come her way now she's back in the UK after the 'Bionic Woman' debacle. Kudos too to Lee Evans who turned in an energetic but not over-the-top performance as UNIT's new top scientist, a little bit in awe of the Doctor and yet in love with him too - a bit like the rest of us, really.

Time to move on. I loved 'Planet of the Dead', as you may have gathered. In its fifty-nine minutes it encapsulates the whole ethos of Dr Who in the 21st century; mad throwaway sci-fi which may irritate the hardcore Who crowd but captivate a massive broad audience, wonderful moments of humanity and emotion in utterly inhuman situations and a real, palpable sense of triumph in a string of punch-the-air moments which, in this Who-starved year, remind us why this show is so damned good and so damned beloved. When the dust (or sand, arf arf) has settled, I suspect this brilliant romp will find itself regarded as one of the very best stories in the new Dr Who canon. Pretty much completely wonderful.

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