Tonight Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead, the first of four Doctor Who specials, David Tennant’s last appearances as the most iconic Doctor of all time, debuted on BBC America. It’s more than an episode but not quite a movie. Call it a mini-movie. In it, Tennant was as usual, brilliant. The writing? Maybe not so much.
The problem is they’ve done this story before, and done it better. The companionless Doctor trapped on a bus with nervous passengers as they face mortal peril was done fantastically in the not so long ago episode “Midnight”. This time the twist is that the peril is less mysterious and the humans less suspicious and as result the amazing tension which made “Midnight” so incredibly effective is utterly absent, replaced instead by those red-bereted dickheads with guns who call themselves “Unit”.
Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead works out a little something like this: The Doctor is roding a double-decker bus through London. Bus gets suck through a random portal and appears in the middle of a desert on an alien planet. If you saw Will Ferrell’s Land of the Lost, it’s actually a lot like that, which probably isn’t something you’d want to be associated with if you’re the guy who wrote it. In this case that’s Gareth Roberts and Russell T. Davies, who have written great things and ought to know better.
While being sucked through a wormhole The Doctor meets Christina, a spunky new girl with all the hallmarks of being a great new companion. One problem, she’s a thief and when The Doctor meets her she’s on the run from her latest robbery. She’s played by Michelle Ryan who really does an excellent job of going toe to toe with Tennant. It’s a shame her journey with him won’t continue further, she’d be a great fit lurking around inside the Tardis.
Which brings us back to Unit. While The Doctor is in the desert trying to get back home, Unit has lined up and pointed their guns at his random portal. Unit is a division of the British military which, in a sort of loose way, has attached itself to The Doctor and is used by the government as its defacto force of alien hunters. They never work right in any story, they’re kind of a dead end which the Doctor Who team uses when they need an obligatory force of soldiers to throw at something. In this case they’re at least given one person with a personality, a befuddled scientist who idolizes The Doctor and delivers the occasional comic relief.
Maybe my expectations were too high. The BBC has made such a big deal out of these mini-movies that delivering anything less than one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time would seem a disappointment. One of the best episodes this is definitely not, though it’s far from one of the worst. At least The Doctor’s not fighting magically animated Mannequins with machine guns inside their appendages. It just feels listless. The group on the bus is brilliant but the aliens they encounter are lame and the special effects seem as half-hearted as they story they’re being used in. Unit should never be allowed to appear in anything every again and you’re probably better off hunting down “Midnight” and watching it again.
Still Michelle Ryan is a dream and David Tennant, in case you haven’t heard, is brilliant. With only three more appearances for Tennant as The Doctor to go, treasure every moment, even if its stuck in a lackluster script.