Series 4, Episode 3: Planet of the Ood

“The circle must be broken!”

It’s a planet. It’s where the Ood come from. Yessir, this episode certainly does what it says on the tin. But under the expert direction of Graeme Harper, it did so much more. The script, by newcomer Keith Temple, was actually rather a mixed bag, with moments of profundity balanced out by somewhat clumsy messages about slavery and greed, but the sci-fi concepts explored were truly imaginative.

Last time we saw the Ood, they weren’t much more than a cipher, an impressive looking bunch of aliens without much in the way of background. But they plainly made an impression, especially to those of us dedicated to the worship of Dr John Zoidberg. An episode with the spag bol faced creations was an inevitability, but who would have expected it to be so deep? It seemed uncharacteristic the last time we saw them for the Doctor to be so uncaring about what was obviously a race of slaves, but then he had other things on his mind, what with the Devil coming back and all. Clearly there was unfinished business, and as befits an alien so … alien-looking as the Ood, we had a glimpse into a truly weird life form.

The concept of the Ood having multiple brains, one of which was some sort of centralised hive-mind, was intriguing, although perhaps a little above the heads of some of the show’s younger viewers. But it gave the script the right kind of moral outrage when we realised that one of those brains was ripped away to be replaced with the translator that was a symbol of servitude. Shame, then, that the giant “central” brain was about as convincing as something from a 1959 Ed Wood movie. In fact, visually it looked like nothing so much as the even more giant brain in naff Blake’s 7 episode Ultraworld, proof if proof be need be that hi-tech CG can look just as ropey as good old miniatures.

Donna got to display some fine moral chops again in this episode, albeit with the irritating “Why do you call me miss, do I look single?” line to remind us that we’re watching Catherine Tate. Only three episodes in, and she’s displaying the kind of self-righteous rectitude that Tegan always had. And I’m rather enjoying that. Her compassion towards the Ood was somehow more convincing than I would have expected from Martha or Rose, but then maybe it’s the shock of the new. Or the refreshing change of a companion who doesn’t spend every couple of minutes gazing wistfully at the Doctor.

With the moral focus squarely on Donna, the Doctor’s function this week was mainly to explain the plot. Which occasionally got a little lost in the melee of concepts and subtexts. Still, David Tennant had a whale of a time running around being chased by a giant claw, all the while managing to keep his improbably styled hair immaculate. And he got that marvellous continuity nod to The Sensorites, neatly explaining the Ood’s slight resemblance to that noble race who can’t tell each other apart. So Ood Sphere is twin to Sense Sphere? That makes… sense.

Nice, too, to see Tim McInnerny, who’s developed a neat line in barking bad guys since his turn as Oliver Mace in Spooks. But even he couldn’t make much more than a cipher out of the character of Mr Halpen, who wasn’t well-drawn enough to be truly believable. Doctor Who is swarming with unscrupulous businessmen out to make a profit from the suffering of others, and Halpen was less compelling than the likes of Stevens in The Green Death or Morgus in The Caves of Androzani. His vanity about his hair loss was the only real humanising aspect to him, and McInnerney played that well, but like many a fine actor he descended into ham when confronted with the blunt edges of the script. And it has to be said, his final transformation into an Ood, while it made perfect sense dramatically, seemed a little too much like magic given what had gone before.

The sledgehammer message that slavery isn’t very nice would have seemed too obvious, but the writer counterbalanced it nicely with his comparison of the Ood to contemporary sweatshop workers. And the most sinister thing about the Ood since their first appearance was the way they seemed to like being slaves. The marketing exhibition was a nice touch, with the PR woman the most easily identifiable-with character in it. Would we stand up to injustice at the price of our cushy, high-paying jobs?

The real star, though, apart from Graeme Harper’s masterly direction, was Murray Gold’s music. Perilously skirting the border with schmaltz in the same way as Danny Elfman’s score for Edward Scissorhands, Murray gave us some moments of genuine beauty, fitting for a story in which the aliens were bound up with song. The scene in which the Doctor grants Donna the ability to hear the Ood’s song was a little masterpiece, played to perfection by Tennant and Tate and made haunting by Murray’s music. The score for this should be the highlight of the series four CD when it comes out.

Overall, Planet of the Ood was more reminiscent of old Who than we’ve seen recently. It had a sledgehammer political message delivered by ciphers and a denouement hinging on a giant, unconvincing brain. And yet it also had moments of astounding beauty and profundity, and some nice foreshadowing of events. Why must the Doctor’s song end? Oh, and what has happened to the bees? Hmmm…