Since the beloved science-fiction series Doctor Who returned to the BBC in 2005 (after its 1989 cancellation), executive producer Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk) has overseen four seasons of thirteen episodes and four Christmas specials. In the role of the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) has starred in forty-three of those fifty-six episodes and become synonymous with the character for a generation of fans. In 2008, Tennant announced his impending exit from the series after appearing in a series of four special one-hour episodes to air in 2009. The first of these is "Planet of the Dead," written by Davies & Gareth Roberts.
Aired on Easter weekend, "Planet of the Dead" comes on as the series' first Easter special. "Hello, I'm the Doctor," the hero cheerfully announces between bites of chocolate. "Happy Easter!" ("I remember the original," he adds.) Puttering about London, the Doctor gets himself into serious trouble when the double-decker bus he's just boarded goes through a wormhole to an alien desert (shot on location in Dubai). TARDIS-less, the Doctor must make the most of what's in his pockets and the bag of one Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan, the erstwhile Bionic Woman), a cat burglar who's only just made off with the pride of the International Gallery: the golden Cup of Athelstan. Though the bus is rather deeply sand-logged, the Doctor delivers a pep talk that he'll get the passengers home to the holiday hallmarks of "food and home and people."
The Doctor's expertise in boosting cell signals allows him to make contact with the UNified Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT), now stationed on the other side of the wormhole. Specifically, the Doctor works with UNIT Captain Erisa Magambo (Noma Dumezweni) and scientific advisor and Doctor super-fan Dr. Malcolm Taylor (Lee Evans of There's Something About Mary). The Doctor and Christina take off on a recce and discover fly people (Tritivores) and flying metal-eating stingrays. Tennant's ever-randy Doctor also flirts mercilessly with Christina:
The Doctor: Who are you?
Chistina: You can talk. Let's just say we're two equal mysteries.
The Doctor: We'd make quite a couple.
Christina: We don't make any sort of couple, thank you very much.
The gag is that Christina is the best companion the Doctor never had, the one who gets away. She's as much of a bona fide adventure junkie as the Doctor, throwing herself into insane risk...and loving it.
"Planet of the Dead" is by no means sophisticated science fiction, but it is a helluva lot of fun. Along with emotional melodrama, Davies specializes in this sort of high-spirited nonsense, which he characterizes as a last chance for the Tenth Doctor to have a fun-loving romp (an ominous prophecy teases the last three episodes to come). Doctor Who has always been a family show, and this one's for the young at heart, with Evans' goofy science geek as bonus comic relief, B-movie trappings like the rubber-headed fly creatures, and even a dash of Harry Potter-style magic as the double-decker bus climactically does the impossible. Ignore the many plotholes (my favorite: the Tritovores' "internal comms" are a perfect fit for the Doctor and Christina, but would never work on the fly heads). As the Daleks used to say, "Resistance is useless!"
"Planet of the Dead" is the first Doctor Who episode ever shot in HD. My understanding is that it was shot in 1080p, so I'm not entirely sure why the Blu-ray disc is encoded at 1080i, but it looks lovely all the same. It's certainly nice to see the Doctor in Blu-ray hi-def, with sharp detail and brilliant color. There's a touch of minor video distortion in the early scenes, but really there's very little to complain about in this attractive picture. The DTS-HD 5.1 surround mix uses the surrounds to give some immersion. It's punchy enough with the effects and nicely clear with the dialogue.
There's only one bonus feature, but it's significant. As is the BBC's wont (for both Doctor Who and Torchwood), it has produced a behind-the scenes "Confidential" special and, in this case, one as long as the special episode it documents. "Planet of the Dead Confidential" (57:02, HD) tells the complete story of the episode's production, with a bit of commentary about the show's artistic intentions but a main focus on the production challenges of shooting in Dubai. The producers must troubleshoot an especially daunting setback: what to do when your double-decker bus is crushed in transit?
Interviewees include head writer Russell T. Davies, David Tennant, Michelle Ryan, Lee Evans, Adam James, Paul Kasey, director James Strong, executive producer Julie Gardner, production designer Edward Thomas, producer Tracie Simpson, chief supervising art director Stephen Nicholas, set decorator Julian Luxton, production manager Debbi Slater, location manager Gareth Skelding, special effects supervisor Danny Hargreaves, make-up designer Barbara Southcott, make-up supervisor Pam Mullins, sound recordist Julian Howarth, and prosthetics designer Neill Gorton.
I can without reservation recommend Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead to Whovians salivating over the hi-def transition, and to potential new fans young and old looking for some cheery fantasy.
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