Tony bursts into song.
Series 4 of New Who started strong, taking the Donna Noble of The Runaway Bride and softening her edges, establishing her as have-a-go, unafraid to put herself in the middle of things, and absolutely determined to be the person the Doctor can rely on, both to help him through the difficult decisions he has to make – as when she’s there for him in the Pyrovile escape capsule, sharing the burden of history for what will happen to Pompeii as a result of their actions – and to stand between the Doctor and the terrible cold perspective of the Time Lord, begging him to just save someone from the ensuing carnage, and reminding him of the ‘betterness’ of human compassion.
Meanwhile, two series earlier, The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit had been stand-outs from the first Tennant run for a host of reasons, one of the most significant being the invention of the Ood – a visually disturbing species of ‘servants’ (which it established meant ‘slaves’), on which a great human empire is built. These tentacle-faced servants looked uniform, and were telepathic, meaning they delivered the creepy vibe of Robots of Death in a far more effective way than Russell T Davies’ attempt to actually ‘do’ Robots of Death with the Heavenly Host in Voyage of the Damned. Even the signature method for telling ‘bad robots’ from ‘good robots’ was transplanted straight into the Ood – their eyes handily changed colour to let you know which ones to run away from very fast. The Ood took the potential of the innocent-servitors-turned-evil role established by the Voc Robots and knocked it clean out of the park for a whole new generation of fans.
But there were still questions left hanging when The Satan Pit was done, most notably because the focus was on other things, and there was little time to explore Rose’s reaction to the Ood and the fact that they were slaves. When they were sent spiralling into a black hole, their loss was recorded with honours, but there wasn’t the scope to say ‘Hang on – slaves?’
The Ood’s return in Series 4 took us right to the heart of their mystery, and the heart of human darkness, as we went home to the Oodsphere to examine how the Ood were born and processed and sent out to service the second great and bountiful human empire. Whereas their first adventure saw them taken over by ‘the Devil,’ things were about to get a whole lot grimmer and more fundamentally real in Planet of the Ood. So how else do you begin, but with a commercial. A commercial enticing you to buy Ood at a knock-down price.
Imagine for a moment the Roman empire never fell, or the South won the US Civil War. Right now, along with commercials for erection boosters and breakfast cereals, we might absolutely have TV commercials for slaves and slave markets. ‘Come down to Crazy Al’s Budget Slave-O-Rama, right now we have a special on Nubians – buy an adult, get a child for free!’
That’s the impact of the opening of Planet of the Ood. It puts the whole of The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit in a kind of ghastly context right from the off, and sets us up for the dynamic of the story to come, which is essentially ‘Slavery – baaaad,’ but also, and perhaps with more scattergun success, ‘Slavery – not always what you think it is.’ Certainly the whole mystery of the Ood going all red-eyed and murdery isn’t kept as a special secret for much of the episode – that bolt had already been shot in the Satan stories, so before the pre-credit sequence is even done, a red-eyed Ood has taken its first victim. The mystery this time isn’t so much that they do this, as why they do this.
Meanwhile on board the Tardis, it’s fun times galore – Donna establishing herself as a fizzing kid in a universal candy store, waiting to see her first alien planet. It’s a childlike glee that this most childlike of Doctors can respond to in kind, without any of the emotional baggage of his first two companions and for large sections of the audience, it’s an absolutely blessed relief to get back to the spirit of the ‘Classic’ companions, from an age before Time Lords had hormones. And whereas both Rose and Martha did the ‘Oh wow, I’m on another planet’ spiel their first time out, Donna’s able to undercut that awe by missing the Doctor’s lyrical waxing – she’s not daft, the planet’s freezing, so she nips back inside to get a coat.
Planet of the Ood is an essay in different forms of callousness and apathy, and the terrible things they allow to happen, most particularly the commoditisation of other life forms. Most of the human characters are ‘bad’ in either an active or a passive way – Mr Halpen (Tim McInerny doing good solid baddie acting) is the pinnacle of callousness, making planetfulls of cash from the enslavement of the Ood. Commander Kess is your typical sadistic overseer, complete with whip and secret desire to chase people with a giant crane. Even Solana Mercurio, the PR face of Ood Operations, has the chance to do the right thing, and doesn’t take it. They’re each in need of redemption – the exploiter, the sadist, the dignity-stripper (Solana’s chuckling show of different ‘voices’ for the Ood is monstrous, and underscores their slavery just as much as Kess’ whipping of the injured, exhausted creatures). Only Dr Ryder is on the side of ‘right’ and he’s instrumental in the fight for Ood Freedom, paying, as so many do who fight the good fight, a terrible price for his actions. Beyond all these archetypes that keep the enslavement and misery of the Ood in place, it’s Solana who delivers the body-blow to us as viewers – when Donna says ‘If the people out there knew how you treat the Ood…’, Solana dismisses her moral indignation. ‘Of course they know. They don’t ask – it’s the same thing.’
And so we all stand accused, in our comfortable Western lives, of being like the self-blinding people outside the gates, who know, or can know, the truth of slavery in our own lives, but don’t ask. Exactly what we don’t ask is less precisely conveyed in Keith Temple’s script – there are several references to the Ood as ‘livestock,’ which suggests Planet of the Ood is an anti-meat-eating polemic, especially given conditions in the factory farming methods that make meat-eating such a staggering convenience in the West, but the Doctor also makes a quip - ‘Who do you think makes your clothes?’ – highlighting the slave wages and conditions in the sweatshops of our world that allow us to wear fashionable labels at a mark-up that makes the companies who use the sweatshops rich, while the workers toil away their lives for subsistence wages. While this somewhat dilutes the message, ultimately, the idea is sound – look up once in a while and see the slavery everywhere around you. It’s an idea even explicitly delivered in the Ood-song. Donna simply can’t hear it, and when she does, she can’t bear it and has to have its presence taken away almost immediately in order to keep functioning. ‘But you can still hear it,’ she gasps, and the Doctor’s nature as our hero is established in just three words: ‘All the time.’ This is how he sees the universe – hearing the song of captivity, of oppression, of enslavement everywhere, unable to block it out like we can, and determined to do what he can to help. That’s what being the Doctor means.
While the horror of Planet of the Ood is intense if applied back to our own lives, it manages to end with joy and freedom, the Ood having won their independence from Humanity, and returning to the Oodsphere to nurture the future of their planet. The song of joy sings out from the Oodsphere for the first time in over two hundred years, and the architects of the enslaving system are defeated. In a way, the message ends up being that action that’s on the right side of history brings ultimately only joy.
For all the horror and joy and triumph, it’s important to remember the contribution of Donna Noble to the story. From her childlike joy at the universe, through her awkward but instant compassion for a dying Ood, through the flinty anger of ‘Do the Ood get a say in this?’ to her burning fury when she declares Halpen an idiot for not understanding the peaceful nature of the Ood, Planet of the Ood builds on Catherine Tate’s three previous stories, adding dimensions of Sarah-Jane bolshiness, compassion and cleverness to Donna Noble’s personality, making her journey from someone who can’t hear the song of captivity to someone who helps orchestrate the song of joy a thing of heartbreaking beauty, that matches the fate of the Ood themselves.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk