Tag Archives: ood

Ms Coats’ rules, Mr Jones’ mysteries and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (2006)

IDA: But Doctor, what did you find down there? That creature, what was it?

DOCTOR: I don’t know. Never did decipher that writing. But that’s good. Day I know everything? Might as well stop.

ROSE: What do you think it was, really?

DOCTOR: I think we beat it. That’s good enough for me.

Films and TV programs generally explain everything about the story they’re telling. They leave no stone unturned, they explain all the relevant events and all the characters’ motivations. Generally speaking, this is good practice. If they didn’t do this, we’d complain about sloppy writing, and about story threads left untied.

In this way, stories are really not like real life, where it’s quite common to not find out everything. Some things that happen to us remain unexplained forever. We never find out exactly what happened. That, as they say, is life.

There are quite a few things about The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit that we never get to the bottom of, the true nature of the Beast being just one of them. Why, for instance, can it not speak in its bestial form, but can when possessing an Ood? How can it speak out of thin air when tormenting archaeologist Toby Zed (Will Thorp)? Why does it suddenly appear as a hologram on the control deck? I’m prepared to accept that it can somehow transfer the spooky rock writing to Toby’s hands and face when it possesses him, and make it appear and disappear at will, but how can he stand on the surface of Krop Tor unprotected and survive? And why, in the close knit team of Sanctuary Base 6, do two dialogue-less crew members, unfortunately killed by Ood, not have names? (I like to think of them as Mr Cannon and Ms Fodder, though acting Captain Zachary Cross Flame (Shaun Parkes) doesn’t even list them in his litany of the dead at the story’s end, so we’ll never know.)

The Doctor’s right. Not knowing can be good. If we’re satisfied with everything else; the story, the direction, the atmosphere. We’ll go along with things for a surprising amount of time. And it helps that The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit gets so much right; well defined characters played by able actors, some great design work that allows us to forgive the inevitable running along corridors,  and some directorial flourishes straight out of a 1980s horror film. And if there’s some mystery left over about origins and motivations, maybe it just makes the whole thing that bit more unsettling.

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But on the other hand… consider No. 19 of Emma Coats’ 22 rules of storytelling, as observed from working on Pixar films.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Both of these apply to this story and oddly enough both involve the TARDIS. When a quake hits the Sanctuary base, four of its storage bays fall into centre of the planet. As it happens, the TARDIS is in one of those storage bays, making life very tricky for the Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose (Billie Piper). That’s a coincidence which gets our heroes into trouble, and they worry about it from that point forward, even going as far as to contemplate getting a mortgage. (The Doctor looks horrified, so presumably he’s thinking of how much he’ll have to fork out for a one-bedder in Sydney. And those things aint bigger on the inside.)

But towards the end of the story, when the Doctor is facing the Beast alone, deep within the planet’s underworld, the TARDIS miraculously turns up. And handily, at exactly the right time to save the day. That’s the second kind of coincidence. I’d hesitate to call it cheating. But it’s one of those illusion shattering moments. A real shame too, because up until then the story had stayed this side of believability.

Back when talking about The Power of Three, I’d mentioned Speed and the bus jumping over the gap in the overpass. The TARDIS turning up in the final reel is this story’s bus moment. But it’s interesting how much it got away with before that happened. The Beast and its inconsistent ability to speak? Toby surviving on the planet’s surface? All this the story’s pace and slick direction helped hide. But when the TARDIS shows up, we feel that bus land with a thud. Who can tell why? More mysteries. Perhaps Ms Coats knows.

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The overall impression of this story is of scary things left unexplained. Which in a way is absolutely fitting for a tale which is really about the nature of belief. Even the Doctor, normally silent on the question of faith, is forced to question what he holds as true and the reasons why. But in order to defeat the Beast, he has to take a giant leap of faith; he has to cut off Rose’s escape route, while trusting that she has the smarts to get herself out of trouble. Rose too has exhibited an unfailing belief that the Doctor would find a way back from the base of the pit, and indeed he does. In both cases, faith gets rewarded.

This air of mystery leaks out of its fictional universe and into ours as well. In normal circumstances we’d turn to the story’s writer to give us some insight into all these narrative gaps. But Matt Jones has been silent on the topic, for over ten years. Never giving an interview, and least none I’ve seen (correct me in the comments if you can). In fact, is he the only new series writer to not talk about his script, not in press interviews, or DVD commentaries or on Doctor Who Confidential? As silent as that voiceless Beast stuck down the pit.

The day we know everything about The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit? I don’t think it’ll ever come.

LINK TO The Day of the Doctor: both star Tennant and Piper. Hmm, Tennant and Piper. Precocious children’s names bestowed by posh parents or a seventies pop duo?

NEXT TIME… it’s all aboard Tardis with Dr. Who, Susie, Tom and Louise as we go back to the cinema for Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.

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Gunfire, accusation and Planet of the Ood (2008)

planetood

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.