Every year since it returned to our screens, the first three episodes of Doctor Who have treated us to life in the past, present and future. And so, after cutesy blobs of fat in the present and lava leviathans in ancient Pompeii, the Doctor takes Donna to the future — and not only that, but her first alien world to boot.
Unfortunately, that world is the Ood-Sphere, the homeworld of the subservient creatures first seen two series ago in the two-part story The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. A world of trouble, then — and one in which we discover the rather shocking truth that Slavery Is Bad, Kids, via a lot of unnecessary running around and shouting.
As with the previous two episodes this series, the cream of the lines are given to Donna, fast becoming one of the strongest and most well-rounded companions in the series’ history. Whether it’s joshing with the Doctor about being unable to hear in her fluffy parka, calming a distressed Ood while he lies dying in the snow, or begging the Doctor to stop her hearing the telepathic Ood-song, Catherine Tate’s characterisation of Donna is quickly becoming the most interesting aspect of this series of Doctor Who.
In contrast, the rest of this week’s episode consisted of some fairly familiar elements. Tim McInnerny’s Mr Halpern was a typical villain, the unctious corporate overlord being a Doctor Who staple since time immemorial. Indeed, the whole set-up, that of the evil corporation suppressing an indigenous population, has been done many times before, and often with more subtlety and better characterisation. Pretty much the only surprise in the way the humans who made up the Ood Corporation were presented came as PR girl Solana escaped with the Doctor and Donna, only to betray their position by calling for the guards.
Even the sole ‘good’ human (save for Donna), scientist Dr Ryder (Adrian Rawlins), never really gets a chance to show his mettle until the final reel. The revelation that he has been working to infiltrate the Corporation is thrown away — along with Ryder’s body — as quickly as it is revealed. The net effect is that every single human character ends up dead (or, in Halpern’s case, no longer human) by the end of the episode, most at the hands of the Ood. Again, the ‘everybody dies’ scenario is a Doctor Who staple, but rarely are we asked to empathise with the culprits as much as we are here. It’s as if the message is not that Slavery Is Wrong, but also that Humans Deserve Everything They Get. For me, that left a bitter taste.
Still, there were some nice interpretations of the Ood’s natural development. The revelation that their translation balls are a surgical parody of their natural state, carrying their secondary brains in their hands, added a unique sense of tragedy to their enslavement. This was further enhanced by allowing Donna to observe how their unique biology would have led the Ood to lead lives based on trust and cooperation. That such an observation comes from the mouth of the companion rather than the Doctor is a real step change from the last few years of the show.
In fact, the Doctor is a muted presence throughout here. While he can hear the Ood song and allows Donna to hear it too, he plays no real part in the thwarting of the humans’ plans for the Ood. One gets the impression that the overthrow of the Corporation and the release of the Ood from their servitude would have happened even if the TARDIS had not landed on Ood-Sphere. And while I’m no fan of the ‘Doctor as superhero’ style of stories, I think the level of passivity on display here does not make for the greatest of Doctor Who tales.
Still, next week, we are promised the return of Martha Jones, the return of UNIT and a fully-fledged Sontaran invasion. And, despite the premature promise I gave two weeks ago, it will also see the return of Mark Wright to reviewing duties. Join us next week for The Sontaran Stratagem…