The Doctor, now a lonely wanderer, winds up back in London on the trail of a wormhole, hops on a number 200 bus (this is the 200th serial, sort of) with an assortment of characters, including a cat burglar on the run, and accidentally gets transported to an alien planet. I guess they just wanted a reason to show a London bus in the middle of a desert, and to be fair, it is a strikingly memorable image.
What I find partially refreshing about this episode is the simplicity of the characters’ predicament. There’s no contrived reason for being trapped on the alien planet – they simply can’t pass back through the wormhole alive unless they’re protected by a metal container, and the bus is stuck in the sand, mere metres away from it. It takes a bit of good old-fashioned ingenuity to get them back rather than a wave of the magic screwdriver or a neutron polarity reversal or whatever. I like that.
There’s also no “bad guys” in this episode. The threat they face is a biological force of nature, a swarm of metal-coated stingray aliens, flying from planet to planet, consuming it as part of their natural life cycle. There’s no menace, just survival instinct. The marooned fly-like aliens, the Tritovores, are friendly as well, despite their appearances (animals as aliens again, really?). With no villain, then, this becomes a simple story of survival, but one with a more jovial tone than perhaps it ought to. The music is more whimsical than usual and the presence of Lee Evans as the scientist bloke is for comic relief, but I quite like his character (more than his stand-up routines, anyway).
Michelle Ryan plays the Lady Christina, a rich thrill-seeker who just robbed a museum of a very valuable gold chalice, just for fun. Goodness knows, Doctor Who needs better female characters, but is this the answer? Christina is, much like the Doctor, overly-confident, authoritative and clever, but she’s barely passable as a human being and seems to be having far too much fun in every scene. She’s easy on the eyes, for sure, but what is her drive, her motivation? Who is she, other than “sassy, smart-talking, sexy thief”? The other bus passengers aren’t exactly three-dimensional either, which is unusual for a Russell T Davies story, and the Doctor doesn’t seem to care very much when the bus driver gets himself fried. The prophetic old woman is pulled from the Big Book of Clichés, teasingly informing the Doctor that his time is coming to an end. Apparently, psychic power in humans is nothing to worry about.
On the whole, I found enough to enjoy here. The big concept science fiction premise is appealingly simple and the imagery is excellent. There are, however, a few too many silly moments that take me right out of it. The incompetent security guards who stand with their backs to the chalice that they’re supposedly guarding, with no protection on top, is one thing, but then the police later are similarly dumb, keeping their police car door unlocked on the inside! It’s farcical!
Planet of the Dead is the first ever episode of Doctor Who to be made and shown in high definition. The location shooting in Dubai looks great. Some of the special effects do look a bit iffy, particularly the stingrays and some shots of the flying bus, but on the whole it’s a good looking production.