Just last random, I mentioned that you don’t see gunfights in new Who. This isn’t quite right. Planet of the Ood for instance has loads of gunfire. Set on the squiddy ones’ home planet, the Ood-sphere, it tells the story of some Ood-exploiting big business types who employ lots of gun-totin’ guards. Why they employ them, it’s not quite clear. Where’s the security threat on a planet inhabited only by the benign Ood? But anyway, it’s just as well they did employ them because soon they’re in the middle of an Ood revolution. And the shooting – lots of it – begins.
But there’s am important difference between gunfire in old and new Who. In old Who the bullets hit their targets.
In Planet of the Ood, this difference is writ large. On lots of occasions, we see soldiers opening fire on the menacing Ood. They’re firing multiple rounds from what look like sub automatic weapons (like I know what sort of guns they are, though) and point blank range. And every time, the camera cuts to another shot. Or to another scene. Or we quickly close up on the guns. We see flashes from muzzles, we hear gunfire on the soundtrack. We see their bodies fall on the shredded paper we’re all agreeing to call snow. But we never see a bullet hit an Ood and we never see one bleed.
Old Who was never so squeamish. Think of bullets smacking into Haemovores in The Curse of Fenric. Think of Solon shooting his brutish servant Condo at close range in The Brain of Morbius. Or of our good friend the Brigadier blazing away in a warehouse full of cronies in The Ambassadors of Death. And of course there was blood. Blood all over the place, in dozens of stories. Doctor Who was never an overly gory programme, but it shows gunshots and blood frequently and uncompromisingly.
It also had its fair share of fist fights and hand-to-hand combat too, often involving the Doctor. It wasn’t unusual to see Doctors 3 through 6 getting involved in a dust up, and before that male companions Ian, Steven, Ben and Jamie handled the rough stuff. But in new Who, a bit of biff is rare. Eccleston fought he way out of gaol once and Smith once punched an android. Did Tennant ever have to hit someone? I don’t think he did. The Pert would wipe the floor with all of them.
But, as I’ve mentioned before any shocking piece of violence was likely to be followed by a shockingly fake one. Guards in old Who were forever being rendered unconscious by light taps on the neck. A soft double handed blow to the top of the spine felled many an extra. A small twist to the arm was enough to send Stuart Fell tumbling and if Tom Baker knocked two heads together their owners were out for the count. Sometimes it was too cheesy for words, as in The Visitation when it became clear the Doctor and crew must have practiced a few moves in the TARDIS dojo, including the old ‘you run behind him and crawl up into a ball and I’ll push him over’ routine.
So old Who featured a mix of realistic and non-realistic violence in equal measure. There was a sort of logic around what was acceptable and not. And so it is in new Who. Planet of the Ood for instance shows many guards being sci-fi electrocuted by Ood translator globes, and that’s OK. And generally speaking, being struck by alien ray guns is fine. If it’s death by special effect, no problem.
But other moments can be surprisingly visceral. Late in the episode, big bad businessman Kleinman Halpen (Tim McInnerney, forever remembered as the snotty Captain Darling in Blackadder Goes Fourth) peels off his own head and is transformed into an Ood. It’s strong stuff, just as shocking as it is gross. But apparently not as bad as seeing a bullet hit its target. We can see an Ood vomit up its own brain, but not be shot. So there’s a weird double standard going on, where some confronting imagery is allowed, but some is specifically prohibited.
This careful approach to the depiction of violence is characteristic of the new series, and you can see it influencing the show in interesting ways. The new version’s most successful recurring monsters are the Weeping Angels and they kill without guns or even striking a blow, but are still beautifully creepy. And vampire stories such as Smith and Jones are devoid of blood, or even, as in The Vampires of Venice, devoid of vampires. But there’s a corresponding reliance on disturbing ideas which don’t necessarily need graphic visuals to back them up. Steven Moffat’s scripts are particularly relevant here, with danger being found by trying to prevent the most unconscious of human habits: don’t Blink, take a Deep Breath and Listen, there’s someone behind you.
In Planet of the Ood, the idea is that humans make for brutal slave masters and we’ll ruthlessly exploit our servants and gas them when they go feral. It’s the Doctor who invites the audience to compare themselves directly with the futuristic slave traders presented here. “Who do you think made your clothes?”, he snarls at Donna at one point. And although she snaps straight back at him, his point is made. It’s reinforced later on when our heroes are on the run and all rigourously sanitised hell is breaking loose:
DONNA: If people back on Earth knew what was going on here…
SOLANA: Oh, don’t be so stupid. Of course they know.
DONNA: They know how you treat the Ood?
SOLANA: They don’t ask. Same thing.
It’s a criticism this episode is levelling at its audience, at the very society that produced it. It’s unusual and unsettling for new Who to adopt such an accusatory tone. We feel it again when Donna’s reduced to tears by the song of the captive Ood. All in all, it’s much more disturbing than a punch, a gunshot or blood stains on the shredded paper snow.
ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: Halpen accuses the Doctor and Donna of being “photo activists”, rather than FOTO activists, or Friends Of The Ood. Which is odd because they get it right in the deleted scenes package on the DVD.
LINK TO The TV Movie: villains with glowing eyes. Not unique in Who is it. Let’s just quietly walk away from that.
NEXT TIME… Witch-wiggler? Wangateur? Fortune teller? Mundunugu? I’ve never seen such a State of Decay.