To celebrate The Dark Knight Rises coming to theaters, let’s talk about that Doctor Who episode based on a “Catwoman Meets Doctor Who” fanfic. You know what I mean!
I should probably be really upfront: I don’t care for “Planet of the Dead.” It’s probably my least favorite of the “End of the Tenth Doctor” mega-epic besides of course That Which Shall Not Be Named Yet. I wish I liked it because it’s co-written by Gareth Roberts, who wrote one of my favorite episodes of the new series “The Lodger,” but regardless I don’t like it, to the point that I had to coax myself into rewatching it just for this post. I’ll be honest and admit that part of the reason I don’t like it is for political elements that have nothing to do with the aesthetics of the episode, specifically that Russell T. Davies, a gay man, chose to have most of the episode filmed in Dubai, a country where gay people are arrested, tortured, and executed. Diamanda Hagan covers the topic with the appropriate venom so I won’t really get into it here, except to say that I’d definitely be really pissed off about it if I was a UK taxpayer. Besides, my main issue really has to do with how this episode combines the worst of Davies’ tendency to write the Doctor like an American superhero with one of the most obnoxious attempts at making a “strong” female character in history: Christina de Souza. Why did we end up with a third-rate Catwoman or Lara Croft when they could have used a much more powerful fictional woman as their model:
Okay, I’m joking…but only kind of. Believe it or not, and because of my weird fixation on Chaos! Comics feel free not to, but at least with Lady Death Brian Pulido was pushing the boundaries of what’s morally acceptable for a female protagonist to do. Christina de Souza is just so…stock. For me the litmus test for seeing if a character is badly written is how easy it is to imagine a bunch of writers coming up with the character via a Mad Libs game, and that’s the case here. See: Christina de Souza is a(n) aristocrat who is unhappy with her station in life and rebels by being a thief and putting on a strong front along with wit and flirtatiousness but she really has a heart of gold! For me personally when her character seriously said, “That’s how I like things…extreme,” it was all over.
Of course, it didn’t help that when she’s introduced she lets the police arrested her boyfriend who was serving as a getaway driver, and it’s okay and doesn’t make her unlikable at all because, uh…she’s a strong female character, okay?!
You know, one way the character might have been salvaged is if this took place in another time period. If she was a noblewoman from just about anytime before the late twentieth century, she might have come across as more interesting, or at least it would have forced the writers to put more effort into her character. However, since Davies is behind the wheel in part, our choices are just contemporary London or a far future resembling contemporary Britain. For part of this one, it’s the former.
While escaping the cops, Christina boards a bus that happens to have the Doctor on it…and happens to drive through a wormhole to apparently a desert planet…and happens to include a female Magic Negro, who “hears” the voices of the dead on the planet. I’m not at all against metaphysical elements in my Doctor Who – let’s face it, from the start the show was as much fantasy as it was sci-fi under most definitions of either genre – but the character’s abilities literally add almost nothing to the story…except one thing, but we’ll get to that. The other people on the bus are worth mentioning even less. At first it seems like we’re going to get a “Midnight”-like character study of the Doctor dealing with humans in a crisis, but honestly they all end up being set pieces behind the Doctor and Christina…as shown below.
So the Doctor and Christina set out alone to find the cause of the wormhole. You know the drill: Christina is flirtatious and tough but occasionally acts girly because, you know…strong female character. They stumble across a group of humanoid flies, who reveal that the planet was once home to a thriving civilization with hospitable environments but they were wiped out by a horde of locust-like creatures (although when we see them they look more like sting rays) who devastate an entire planet, reproduce, and then move on to a new world via a wormhole they create themselves.
Honestly the fly humanoids are the best thing in this episode, if only because their reason for being on the planet was that they were carrying out a trade for the planet’s capital’s manure. Fill in your own joke about the quality of this episode here.
Of course, because I found them interesting, they get killed off as soon as the threat of the episode is revealed. I forgot to mention while this is going on UNIT (sans the Brigadier sadly) is investigating the wormhole. Their scientist Malcolm deduces that the wormhole is growing larger. While they do have the technology to shut it down, Malcolm hesitates because the Doctor is still on the other side and Malcolm happens to be a fan. According to production notes, Malcolm was either meant to be or turned into an allegory for Doctor Who‘s entire fan base. I actually like the idea behind the character, even if in execution it’s a little too over-the-top like all of Davies’ “cute” ideas. But it helps if you actually see the character as Davies’ own Mary Sue (assuming that Rose Tyler didn’t already serve that purpose…).
This does lead into the one other thing I liked about this special. The UNIT commander, Captain Magambo, wants to close the wormhole immediately, to the point that she actually threatens Malcolm with a gun. Rather than being completely unsympathetic, the episode concedes that she has a point, and the implication is there that Malcolm is willing to risk the lives of everybody just out of his fanboyish love of the Doctor (like you wouldn’t!).
Unfortunately, in the end not much is done with it, and the dark tone from this subplot (not to mention the tragic implications of countless inhabited planets getting wiped out by an unending horde of planet-destroying monsters) is overshadowed by the frothy light-hearted adventure Davies keeps trying to impose over the proceedings. The Doctor rigs the bus to fly through the wormhole, Christina does some more strong female character things (like whining about the Doctor using the gold from an Anglo-Saxon era goblet that she stole for his device), and three of the creatures do escape but get killed by UNIT soldiers.
Once the crisis du jour is averted, Christina offers to travel with the Doctor, but he refuses, still reluctant to take a companion after what happened to Donna. He does, however, give her an opportunity to escape arrest. This would annoy me, but at least there’s the assurance she won’t ever be coming back (Steven Moffat willing!).
But there was one other thing. What was it?
So via the psychic Davies unleashes on his audience one more bullshit teaser: the Doctor is warned that “he will knock three times,” signaling the Doctor’s “death.” Honestly, when this episode first came out, I actually enjoyed the fan speculation that ensued, so I really can’t blame Davies, especially since it was a perfectly conceived hint; just vague enough that one could construct the most elaborate and outlandish theories around it. Unfortunately, since the reveal came in That Which Will Not Be Named Yet, some of the fan theories turned out to be more interesting than the end result…but that’s for another time.
Until then, we have “The Waters of Mars,” which believe it or not I really liked. Am I capable of not being overly negative when it comes to a story by the man I owe contemporary Doctor Who to in the first place? We’ll see!