NuWho 10th Anniversary: What Is Your Most Underrated Specials Story?
This year, Doctor Who has been back on our screen ten whole years. It feels like yesterday that the TARDIS materialised once more; suitably, it also feels like forever.
So join us as we celebrate a decade with the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Doctors. Let’s find out which serials are our favourites, and shine a light on the underrated ones too. Watch us run.
And then vote on your favourites. At the end of the year, we’ll find out which serials showcase our beloved show at the height of its game.
Donna became the most important woman in the universe – and then it was all snatched away from her, and from us. But at least we can relive her adventures whenever we want. You know our favourites of the 2008/9 Specials, but what’s the most underrated serial…?
Tony Jones: Planet of the Dead
It can’t be argued that 2009 was a funny year for Doctor Who and produced some intriguing and popular episodes that perhaps produced a reaction of So What? For me it is Planet of the Dead we should turn to when we want to look at how 2009 might have been had we been treated to a full season of stories rather than a few specials.
Yes, Planet of the Dead gives us a clue as to the final end of the Tenth Doctor, with the mysterious clue of he will knock four times and its link to David Tennant’s final scenes prior to regeneration. And yes, Planet of the Dead is interesting, as in some ways, it is a Gareth Roberts’s book The Highest Science brought to screen though as he explains in the interviews on the Big Finish audio for the adaption of the latter, the remnants of his original story are actually few.
I think it’s interesting to imagine what could, or should have happened had Planet of the Dead been a two-part introduction to a new series. Most obvious is Michelle Ryan’s companion in all but fact, Lady Christina de Souza. The on-screen chemistry between the characters was strong, and in some ways she could even be seen as an update of the Andrew Cartmel character of Raine Creevy who would have appeared with the Seventh Doctor had the show not taken a brief break for a few years.
I’d also argue (though less obvious at the time) we have another new companion in this story as well. Take the UNIT scientist Malcolm Taylor played by Lee Evans. Is this not just the fan favourite Osgood as played by Ingrid Oliver? It’s not a big leap to change gender and there we have two new companions for the Doctor. We can imagine the arc now: Osgood follows the Doctor around puppy-like for a few episodes but as his behaviour grows more reckless, she rejects him, betrays him, then finally accepts him as a person not as someone to worship. Meanwhile Lady Christina flirts outrageously, upsets River Song, turns out to be working for the Master and in the end gives her life to save the day.
That, to me, is the story of Planet of the Dead – the doorway to the series we never had.
Jeremy Remy: Planet of the Dead
If I’m honest, I had a hard time with the 2009 Specials. They failed to maintain a connection between plots, relied a bit too much on gimmicks, and had too many one-time companions for my taste. In the end, the interim season felt like a dragged out and unfortunate way to conclude the Tenth Doctor era, and Planet of the Dead may have the most marks against it: it was finished at the last minute (just five days before airing), the CGI is somehow both overdone and underdeveloped, most of the characters are one-dimensional, the acting is over-the-top, and then there’s the condemnable choice to film on location in Dubai.
All this said, I have to admit there are virtues to be found in Planet of the Dead. David Tennant – fresh off his stint as Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company – plays the Doctor with a determination and dedication as fresh as some of his earliest episodes. Arguably the most outrageous character, Malcom, is a predecessor to Osgood, who would later help shift the presentation of UNIT from a punchline back to a professional organization with the Doctor more employee than legend. The episode itself is a clear mark of success as the 200th Doctor Who story. It is also the first episode to be filmed in high definition, changing the way all future episodes of the show have been filmed and allowing for development of Doctor Who on Blu-ray and the possibility of presenting the 50th anniversary in cinemas. And, while it may not live up to the standards we expect from Doctor Who today, it was nominated for a 2010 Hugo Award.
In the end, the episode has its weaknesses, but it succeeds in introducing a new era of Doctor Who.
Drew Boynton: Planet of the Dead
You can never go wrong with a Doctor Who story that has either the word “Planet” or “Dead” in the title. Well, OK… maybe you can. But 2009’s special of the day, Planet of the Dead, is full of cool stuff: Michelle Ryan, coming off a failed shot at big-time USA stardom in the remake of Bionic Woman, is cool and calculating as a thief who ends of being the Doctor’s companion for a few hours on a desert planet. Comedian Lee Evans is so completely uncool that he’s almost cool as a UNIT scientist who is sort of an over-the-top cheesy forerunner of Osgood. There are a couple of pretty cool-looking housefly-inspired aliens, although most of the budget must have went to their heads (caretaker coveralls, guys? Sheesh).
Planet of the Dead gets my “Most Underrated” vote, though, because of its setting. The episode was famously filmed in the desert of Dubai, and the sandy setting is one of Doctor Who‘s best. The juxtaposition of having a big red London bus sitting smack-dab in the middle of this bright yellow landscape is a really cool idea that must have come to Russell T. Davies after a long night of too much coffee and a friend’s vacation slideshow.
Honestly, in the end, Planet of the Dead doesn’t really come together, but it is a bold and silly try at doing something cool and different, which makes it worthy of an “Underrated” watch on DVD.
Philip Bates: The Next Doctor
Even I’m surprised I’ve gone for The Next Doctor! My money was on Planet of the Dead, seen as it features beautiful scenery, a mostly-fine plot, Tritovores, and truly wonderful direction.
But The Next Doctor is surprisingly good on a rewatch. Not great – certainly not. But I’ve always a soft spot for Christmas specials. And Cybermen! I love the Cybermen. That’s really the problem with The Next Doctor: one of the Doctor’s best-known and much-loved enemies are undermined completely by the ‘stronger will’ of a pitiful human. And then they blew up because Ms. Hartigan screamed! How disappointing.
But we’re also given breathtaking scenes of the Cybermen’s march through a snowy graveyard, while a vision in red waits over a coffin. It’s a surprise that director, Andy Goddard has never been invited back – yet – but his sole contribution so far looks amazing. He does a particularly great job at livening up the typically-dour Victorian setting. Infostamps displaying the Doctor’s many faces help this, mind. The factory sets towards the end are fairly uninspiring, but hey, you can’t have it all.
And no, I’m not a huge fan of the so-called CyberKing (or the Shades for that matter), but only because people would definitely remember a great big dreadnaught hulking over London. Fortunately, Steven Moffat cleared up this omission in Flesh and Stone, and so cleverly too. Nonetheless, the shots of the Doctor sending it to disintegrate in the Time Vortex are fantastic.
The heart, of course, is David Morrissey, who displays the breathless excitement and heartbreaking loss of both being the Doctor and Jackson Lake perfectly. It’s a mystery seemingly over within half an hour, but his performance sticks in the mind, as do his interactions with the ever-excellent David Tennant. The next Doctor, as we now know, was fortunately the exceptional Matt Smith, but I wouldn’t actually mind if Morrissey still turned out to be a future face of the Time Lord. For that one brief Christmas in 2008, he did superbly.
Katie Gribble: Planet of the Dead
Out of the Specials, Planet of the Dead has never reached the top of any polls for viewer favourite. However, there is a particular group of people who are not recognised enough, mainly because their narrative is secondary to the main action with the Doctor and the Lady Christina. This group is the supporting cast. Namely the characters on the bus who are dragged into the Doctor Who universe, whether they wanted it or not. Lou and Carmen, Nathan, Barclay, and Angela are all taken on a journey to a far flung world, when all they really want to do is get home. They are the epitome of a very human trait; the weary travellers wanting to go home. The scene which shows this beautifully begins when Christina makes everybody on the bus introduce themselves.
You have Angela going home to Mike and Suzanne. Barclay going to see poor Tina. Nathan who lost his job last week and was staying in to watch television. Then Louis and Carmen off home for Lou to cook chops for dinner. And of course, Christina who is going so very far away.
What is so wonderful about this scene, these characters and what Doctor Who can do is highlight how the everyday, how the normal human way of life can be so extraordinary.
James Lomond: Planet of the Dead
Planet of the Dead wasn’t great, but it had so much that was pitch-perfect Doctor Who it seems strange that it hasn’t got a better reputation. That could be due to a number of things – a slightly loose plot and a few over-camp or overacted performances spring to mind. But the idea of a group of people thrown together by chance, stuck on the far side of an otherworldly portal with mystery and danger lurking in an alien landscape while UNIT (hurrah!) frets back on Earth is a perfect Pertwee set-up.
There are some wonderful images and conceits – a skeleton emerging from nowhere as the driver makes a break for it, and the glorious sight of a red London bus taking to the air and transporting its passengers through a worm hole and even the stingray-like creatures that create such space-time anomalies by flying around a planet at extreme speeds en mass to seek out another planet to drain is a brilliant idea for a species and its behaviour. This was the first NuWho to appear in HD and good use was made of the location work in Dubai. My main gripe, other than the occasional CBBC flavour, was that now we’ve had a flying London bus in this special, we’re unlikely to ever see the Transtemporal Adventuress, Iris Wildthyme, appear in her TARDIS disguised as the number 22 to Putney Common. While she is both a deliberate parody of the Doctor on the part of her creator and on the part of the character herself, there’s something a bit fantastic about flying buses and I can’t blame NuWho for pilfering the idea.
So pity poor Planet of the Dead. It’s got a lot that misses the mark but a lot more to love. Just imagine it with the Third Doctor and Jo…
Alex Skerratt: Planet of the Dead
I feel a bit sorry for Planet of the Dead. It’s no masterpiece, but it has a lot going for it. The location work in Dubai is stunning, and Lee Evans gives a wonderfully comedic performance as Malcolm Taylor, UNIT’s science man! Moreover, there are some truly sinister elements, such as the sudden, almost throwaway death of the bus driver, and the gross Tritovores, and the eerie prophecies of the chops n’ gravy lady. Then there’s the cliffhanger… Well, if you can call it a cliffhanger. “He will knock four times…” Such an intriguing, and now iconic, line… Yes, this story is no stinker. 6 Malcolms from me!
Well, that was nearly unanimous! That’s what we think. Now it’s your turn! Vote below for the most underrated serial of these four storylines, and we’ll find out the overall winner later this year…