Locations, complications and Planet of the Dead (2009)

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Two of three regenerations ago, I worked as a location scout for film and TV productions. It was an interesting job, which involved a lot of driving to unusual places, clambering over fences, peering at maps, negotiating with security guards and taking lots and lots of photos.

Sometimes you were looking for windswept clifftops, tropical beaches and rainforest groves, but often it was more mundane fare – a particularly bendy piece of road for a car ad, an empty factory for a fashion shoot or a suburban house with a driveway and a tree in the front yard, but no fence and a view of the… well, you get the idea.

Even if you found the right looking location, there were other practical concerns to keep in mind. How would the production trucks get here? Where would they park? Was it quiet enough to shoot? Were there neighbours who might get annoyed? Does it get dark early here? Where’s the nearest pub (very important)? Many’s the location which is just right, except it’s right next to a highway (noise) or gets busy at 8:30am and 3pm because it’s near a school (crowds) or the person who owns it’s a jerk (permission). And so it goes.

But when you find the right location, with the right combination of factors, and the producer and the director and the DOP all like it… Hooray. Like solving a jigsaw puzzle. If it’s a really good location, you’ll hear a familiar phrase at the first onsite recce for all the heads of department, as they look around the place. “It could be anywhere,” they’ll say, which means the location’s versatile enough to work for all manner of shoots. Which is deeply ironic considering that as a location scout, you started off with a list of highly specific requirements; the very opposite of “anywhere”.

What all this means is I have an eye for locations. (Poor Mrs Spandrell. How many TV viewings interrupted by me wondering out loud, “where’d they shoot that then? oh, that’s at the old Whatsit place at Thingotown. That’s where we shot…”) So I notice the difference they make to a production.

Planet of the Dead has some brilliant locations, most notably the beautiful desert plains of Dubai, UAE. That first crane shot, after the bus arrives on sunny San Helios, that starts down low and then soars upwards so we can see the vast expanse of sand dunes all around – that orange sand and that deep blue sky – is stunning and heroic. The message is clear: we’re not in Cardiff any more.

Not being in Cardiff was important in 2009, and has got increasingly important since. Doctor Who‘s now been in production in Wales for over a decade, over 100 episodes made, lord know how many locations… You just couldn’t find them all within 2 hours’ drive of Cardiff. A beautiful and varied place it no doubt is, but you couldn’t find them all 2 hours’ drive from anywhere.

That’s why we keep seeing the same locations redressed. How many places has the Temple of Peace and Health been? What about those big wide passageways in Millennium Stadium? Caerphilly Castle must feel like a (cold uncomfortable) second home to the Doctor Who crew. And overuse of locations can make a show look a bit tired.

(That’s why I always sigh a little when I come across criticism of the Old Who’s occasional cut price international location shoots. The Two Doctors gets picked on in particular, for heading to Spain although there was no particular reason why the story had to be set there. Sure, so don’t bother going to Spain, and set it in some big old country manor house again, just like so many other Doctor Who stories. Frankly, yawn. The Two Doctors mightn’t have needed new, exciting locations but Doctor Who certainly did.)

And although The Return of Doctor Mysterio did a neat job of making Cardiff look like New York, there are are some locations you’re just not going to find in Wales. New Who’s previous overseas location shoot (Cinecitta Studios in Rome for The Fires of Pompeii) had been a choice of expedience; there was a ready made Roman city waiting to be used on set. At a pinch, you could have made that at home (and indeed, lots of it is shot in our old friend the Temple of Peace and Health). But going to Dubai for the Planet of the Dead is an aesthetic choice; a deliberate attempt to literally broaden the show’s horizons. Which is to say that writers Russell T Davies and Gareth Roberts deliberately wrote a story knowing it would need an overseas shoot. Deserts being hard to come by in Wales. Jungles and sunny beaches too, I’ve noticed. Forests, no problem.

Director James Strong and DOP Rory Taylor did a great job in Dubai, showcasing the size of those dunes and giving us some great sweeping perspectives, which match well with the CG elements. Well, with the Swarm anyway. The CGI bus has not aged well (I wonder if drones had been available in 2009, would we have got some more aerial shots across the plains, a Swarm’s eye view as it were?)

But judging by Doctor Who Confidential and the DWM set reports, it must have been a difficult shoot. Hot, remote and sand getting every-sodding-where. Doctor Who has travelled abroad lots since Dubai – Spain, Croatia, US, Lanzarote – and each time with impressive results. But I can’t help but wonder if the Dubai shoot, full of complications including a damaged bus, has meant that subsequent overseas locations have been chosen for their logistical convenience as much as their scenic charms.

Inevitably though, the complications of that exotic shoot sneak into the fictional world. Commuters Carmen (Ellen Thomas) and Lou (Reginald Tsiboe) clearly didn’t get a trip to Dubai, as they refuse to get out of the bus when it stops at San Helios (a whole other planet and they stay on the bus! Even if you were freaked out by psychic call outs from the long dead, you’d at least poke your head outside the door, right?). When the Doctor (a cool David Tennant) and Christina (a hot Michelle Ryan) are taken inside the flyboy Tritovores’ ship, there has to be a line inserted, in the grand tradition of ‘freak weather conditions’, to explain why their breath is steaming from the cold (the effect of photofine steel apparently, not that the actors are back in chilly Wales). And there’s a considerable effort to cut around the bus when it returns to Earth at the end of the story (shutting down a highway tunnel for filming! More location nightmares) to avoid showing that it’s not the mangled version from Dubai.

Still, anything to avoid the infamous quarries that Doctor Who‘s so known for. In fact in the very next story, The Waters of Mars, we’re back to one pretending to be Martian surface. It’s another old favourite, the Cemex quarry. Over the years it’s also been Mount Vesuvius, the Oodsphere, House and Skaro. That Cemex quarry, I bet someone has said during a long forgotten location recce, it could be anywhere.

With thanks to this glorious site: http://www.doctorwholocations.net/

LINK TO Heaven Sent: the Doctor’s without a regular companion.

NEXT TIME: Oh look! There’s the sweat on your brow. It’s the hit of the blitz in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.

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