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Beautiful art thief Lady Christina de Souza joins the Doctor and several other passengers on a bus trip that takes an unexpected detour into danger. They find themselves transported to the barren planet of San Helios, where the Doctor and Christina struggle to uncover the mysteries beneath the desert sands, while a sinister swarm draws ever closer...
The 2009 “Easter special” has suffered from some indifferent reviews. Planet of the Dead is an OK episode, and if it had been transmitted as part of a weekly series, it would probably have escaped some of the criticism that has been levelled against it. However, as this is the only new Who for nearly a year, it becomes readily apparent that this “special” isn’t so special.
Principal guest star Michelle (Bionic Woman) Ryan is effective as lady thief Christina de Souza, looking suitably Lara Croft-ish in her catsuit and making a nice change from Russell T Davies’s usual brand of middle- to working class companions (though her delivery of certain lines is a bit stilted). Actor / comedian Lee Evans ably provides comic relief as UNIT scientist Malcolm Taylor (who has a whiff of Sergeant Osgood from The Daemons about him). Noma Dumezweni returns as UNIT’s Captain Erisa Magambo (though her threatening of Malcolm towards the end of the story feels forced for the sake of ramping up the dramatic tension). Dumezweni previously portrayed an alternate timeline version of the character in Turn Left - interestingly, David Tennant’s audio drama UNIT character Colonel Ross Brimmicombe-Wood had a similar origin, debuting in the parallel universe of the Doctor Who Unbound release Sympathy for the Devil.
The desert filming is impressive, as are the CGI stingray thingies (though we don’t get to see enough of them). Visually, a couple of aspects of the story cause confusion, though. From the brief glimpse we see of Christina’s accomplice (and possibly lover) at the beginning of the story (who gets arrested while she escapes), I thought at first that he was the Doctor (David Tennant). And the visual effect for San Helios’s triple suns is too subtle - initially I didn’t notice the two extra suns because I thought they were just reflections on the camera lens.
That there’s only really enough plot in Davies’s and Gareth Roberts’s script to sustain a regular 45-minute episode is given away by the fact that the last ten minutes of this hour-long show are little more than an epilogue, albeit one that is enlivened by some exciting foreshadowing of the next episode, The Waters of Mars. The story would have been over even more quickly if either the Doctor or UNIT had thought to send the TARDIS through the wormhole!
Fortunately, the hour-long Doctor Who Confidential, also included on the disc, is one of the better examples. I have more respect for the production now that I have learned the full details of the trials of tribulations of the desert shoot and of getting a double-decker bus to the location in the first place. There are also some genuine laughs among the interviews with cast and crew, and a soundtrack of jaunty pop tunes.
As I said, Planet of the Dead is OK, but it’s not really substantial enough fare (bus travel pun not intended) to keep fans going until the next episode. You might wish to seek out some Tenth Doctor novels or audio books to tide you over until The Waters of Mars...