(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them...)
It’s ironic that a story as concerned as this one is with all things airborne, should suffer so badly under the weight of its own gravity. But the expectations that greeted Planet of the Dead were far greater than anything it could hope to deliver.
As the first in the “Year of Specials” that rounded out David Tennant’s time as the Doctor – not to mention Russell T Davies’ as showrunner – this story is saddled with two major elements that pretty much sink it from the off. Firstly, as the “Easter Special,” Planet of the Dead is the only broadcast episode of Doctor Who in an entire eleventh month period that would normally have seen the transmission of a whole thirteen episode series, and secondly, that name on the credits: Russell T Davies. Why? Because Planet of the Dead is Gareth Roberts’ story – and Gareth Roberts’ script, too, by and large – and the main reason Davies’ name is included as co-writer is to ensure a sense of continuity in the minds of the general public, across the four stories that make up Tennant and Davies’ valedictory year. Had Planet of the Dead been broadcast under Roberts’ name alone (for Davies presumably did little more in the way of scripting and rewriting than he would ordinarily have done with a mid-series script), and had it been transmitted in the middle of a run of episodes rather than completely on its own, it would have emerged as a light-hearted runaround, something cherishable and fun, rather than the ultimately disappointing – in the sense of an “importance” unfulfilled – beginning of the tenth Doctor’s end.
Having said all that, Roberts’ story is one of the kind that will no doubt age rather well, once divorced from its place in the scheme of things. There’s plenty to enjoy. It’s a laidback, easygoing romp, revolving around the Doctor’s relationship with Lady cat burglar Christina de Souza. It’s a role that’s quite comfortably inhabited by ex-Eastender Michelle Ryan, even if she never quite convinces the viewer that the Doctor really ought to grant her her freedom at the episode’s conclusion; for all the hard work that’s being done to sell us their relationship, there’s precious little chemistry between Ryan and Tennant. Elsewhere, Lee Evans pretty much steals the show as Malcolm, joining the list of top-notch celebrity talent to have graced the series’ books, and Adam James makes the most of an under-written part, hamming it up for all he’s worth as the Detective Inspector hot on de Souza’s tail.
Planet of the Dead is a little like the undercooked cousin to the previous year’s episode Midnight, involving as it does a small ensemble cast marooned on an inhospitable world, all the while in fear of attack from without. It’s a classic Doctor Who set-up, but while Midnight turns the idea into a taut, character-led drama, here the majority of the stranded travellers barely get a look in (let alone a chance to shine in the desert sun); Roberts instead opts to open the concept up and make good use of the Planet of the Dead itself. And that’s where this episode really scores highly: the Dubai location filming creates almost certainly the best realised alien world ever seen in the series, and grounds the production entirely in an authentic fictional reality. Which is just as well, as the special effects are occasionally iffy (having been completed in something of a hurry due to the Easter production deadline), and the plot twists – although satisfying in a Horns of Nimonesque manner – do take some swallowing. The stingray aliens of San Helios are an effective enough creation (and the swarming effects are among the best the Mill has ever provided), but while the insectoid Tritovores are kinda cute, they’re also terribly cheap looking – and it’s little wonder that Character Options have yet to take up an option on manufacturing action figures of the characters. The story’s main selling point, on the other hand – the sight of a big red double-decker bus trapped in a vast alien sandscape – is classic Doctor Who; it’s one of those incongruous visuals that no other series could hope to pull off, and yet it’s almost second nature to this programme. In fact, Roberts’ inspiration for the image came from his own Virgin New Adventure The Highest Science – albeit there the bus was a train – but it was a strong enough idea to warrant its adaptation for the television series.
This is David Tennant’s show, though, his last chance to charm his way through a relatively inconsequential adventure before heading into darker places in the stories still to come, and as such, it must be judged a success. Here Tennant is almost playing to the Doctor’s Greatest Hits, an insouciant adventurer one minute, electric with enthusiasm the next. We even get the “worried frown” as the Doctor’s fortune comes a-knocking at the end, but it’s the iconic image of the Doctor, designer shades in place, standing in the sand that we take away with us.
Planet of the Dead isn’t a story that will win too many accolades among the series’ fans, and it’s not one of those stories that will be remembered in hushed tones in years to come (it’s no “the one with the maggots”). But for sixty minutes on a spring Saturday evening, it’s about as entertaining a Doctor Who adventure as you could wish for – even if its position as the series’ 200th story (hence the number on the bus) is eminently questionable. Just don’t expect too much of it.
(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here: http://watchingdoctorwho.weebly.com/)