As far as Doctor Who episodes go, “Planet Of The Dead” (co-written by Russell T. Davies and Gareth Roberts, the go-to man for lighthearted stories at this point in the show) is quite an oddity in the canon. It’s nominally an Easter special, something Doctor Who had never had before 2009, and something the series has never done again since. The episode’s plot really has nothing to do with the old Earth holiday, save for a few quick gags early on, and most of “Planet Of The Dead” isn’t even set on Earth but an alien planet halfway across the galaxy. So the novelty of Doctor Who having an Easter special is mainly an excuse for this episode to exist, to tide over fans of the show who were thirsty for content during 2009.
Doctor Who was having a gap year at the time (something that has grown a lot more common over the years, unfortunately) as Russell T. Davies passed the showrunning reins over to Steven Moffat and the show’s production team changed a lot behind the scenes, so “Planet Of The Dead” serves as an appetizer for hungry fans until “The End Of Time” rolled around at Christmas (“The Waters Of Mars” exists for similar reasons, which aired around Thanksgiving that year and had even less to do with that holiday than “Planet Of The Dead” did with Easter, though “The Water Of Mars” does have a more direct job of setting up Ten’s regeneration story). Like “The Next Doctor“, “Planet Of The Dead” is an episode that’s fairly light on substance, since its intended to be a breezy romp episode and the show is basically playing it safe at the moment, relying on a lot of tried and tested tropes of the RTD era. “Planet Of The Dead” is one last bit of silly fun for the RTD era and one last breather episode, because from here on out, the next two specials are going to get a lot more dark, grim and contemplative.
Trouble brews for the Tenth Doctor when he and his fellow passengers on a double-decker bus are transported through a wormhole in the middle of London, and stranded on an alien planet. Like “Smith And Jones“, this episode is a pretty run-of-the-mill adventure for Ten, albeit with more of a time crunch than usual, and like “The Unicorn And The Wasp“, the Doctor doesn’t have an emotional journey to undertake here, so he mainly serves as a source of exposition and the voice of reason in a crowd. At one point, he manages to quell his fellow passengers’ fears and improve their morale by appealing to each one of their individual strengths, encouraging them to overcome insurmountable odds, delivering the sort of inspirational pep talk you’d expect from the Tenth Doctor since Russell T. Davies and David Tennant both know his personality inside and out by this point in his tenure.
Consulting with UNIT for help, the Doctor has to contend with a superfan of his, Malcolm, and is quite short with him, like he normally is with UNIT workers, though even he has to revise his opinion of the spastic man and pay him the proper amount of respect after Malcolm comes through and saves his bacon. Its subtle, but the Tenth Doctor’s demeanor is a bit different in this episode: he’s more guarded and secretive with everyone he comes across than he was in Series 4, where he was a lot more laidback. Ten has been traveling alone for quite some time now, having sworn off companions after he lost Donna, and it’s already starting to have an effect on him. Ten clearly admires some of Christina’s skills and he fully acknowledges that the two of them would make a good team, but he still flatly and coldly rejects her offer to travel with him at the end of the episode, so he won’t be burned again, which is a pretty harsh moment for him – though he does decide to do her a favor and help her escape from the cops (never let it be said that the Doctor doesn’t make his share of morally dubious decisions in this show).
Another holiday special for the Tenth Doctor requires another one-off companion, so Russell whips up the Lady Christina De Souza, who’s cut from a very different cloth than her immediate predecessor, Jackson Lake. Jackson was a noble, selfless and foolhardy classical hero, while Christina is a morally dubious, opportunistic anti-hero: a cat burglar whose path just happens to cross with the Doctor’s when her latest heist goes wrong. Christina is not always the most likable co-protagonist since, naturally she can be pretty self-centered (as seen by how easily she abandons her accomplice to be arrested during the prologue), but she is nonetheless a very helpful character to have around during a crisis. She proves to be a cool head under pressure: appointing herself leader of the survivors, she quickly assesses the situation she and her fellow passengers are in, pools their resources, plays to each of their strengths, and always consults the Doctor for information, since he’s clearly the alien expert.
As a master thief, Christina is prepared for all sorts of eventualities, allowing her to upstage the Doctor a few times with her tricks of her trade, and during the climax, we’re shown that she does have some standards, since she willingly (if begrudgingly) sacrifices her priceless trinket to save the lives of everyone onboard the bus. Christina is an adrenaline junkie and a shameless thrill-seeker, who got into a life of crime for the adventure as much as the money, so naturally, as she learns more about the Doctor and finds they have some traits in common, she starts to be drawn towards the idea of traveling in the TARDIS. The Doctor shuts the idea down by the end of the episode, which was probably for the best. They’re a bit too much alike in the most dangerous ways, and the two of them traveling together would probably result in them encouraging each other’s worst personality traits and becoming overly reckless, eventually ending in tragedy, much like what happened with Clara Oswald and the Twelfth Doctor in Series 9.
Compared to some previous episodes Russell T. Davies has written like “Bad Wolf“, “Gridlock“, “Voyage Of The Damned” and “Midnight“, “Planet Of The Dead” is populated with some pretty forgettable side characters, since none of the Doctor’s fellow passengers on the bus (besides Christina) have any standout personalities. The worst of the bunch is probably Carmen the eccentric psychic, who’s given some truly awful dialogue that’s largely comprised of her talking in cryptic warnings and enigmatic riddles all the time (in fact, the most unintentionally funny scene in the episode has to be Ten and Christina booking a hasty retreat back to the double-decker bus, intercut with random shots of Carmen freaking out and yelling for them to run for their lives. I thought that directing choice was hilarious). Still, Carmen is given a decent amount of plot importance, especially when she delivers a foreboding prophecy to the Doctor in the final scene that will have enormous ramifications over the next two episodes.
“Planet Of The Dead” is UNIT’s last appearance in the RTD era, and their last one in general until “The Power Of Three” in Series 7, so they’re given a pretty good showing here before they’re put to rest for a few seasons. The UNIT member who’s given the most focus is Malcolm, the team’s scientific advisor, who like Elton and Larry before him, serves as a stand-in character for the audience: a self-confessed nerdy guy who’s read all about the Doctor’s history with UNIT and is his biggest fanboy. Since this is a UNIT story, we’ve once again given a glimpse of the organization’s ruthless streak – their general mentality that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of few – which is the primary reason why, despite them being the Doctor’s allies, the time lord prefers not to work with them. Malcolm might be kind of annoying, but I have plenty of respect for him for standing up to his superior and refusing to betray the Doctor’s trust, and since we never see Malcolm again after this episode, we have little reason to assume he wasn’t subsequently fired and dismissed for insubordination.
“Planet Of The Dead” is helmed by James Strong, whose work on previous episodes includes “Daleks In Manhattan“, “Voyage Of The Damned” and “Partners In Crime“, and his direction for this episode is reliably bouncy and energetic. “Planet Of The Dead” sports some pretty impressive cinematography from the show’s steadily evolving production values, and the location shooting that was done in the deserts of Dubai makes for some suitably gorgeous scenery throughout the hour. An interesting tidbit about the episode’s troubled production is that the double decker bus that’s central to the story’s plot was damaged when it was shipped overseas, so the script had to be hastily rewritten at the last minute to handwave an explanation about the wormhole being deadly to anyone who passed through it (which led to another scene being added of the bus driver being killed off).
This Easter special has the distinction of being the first Doctor Who episode to be shot in high definition, and as a result, right from the opening scenes, it looks subtly different from all the episodes that came before it (in fact, I’d argue that the initial prologue feels more like a scene from “Torchwood” than an episode of Doctor Who). The CGI from the Mill has its peaks and valleys throughout this episode: on the one hand, the wide shots of the string-rays swarming around the desert are pretty convincing and quite intimidating at times, and on the other hand, the CGI for the flying bus at the end really doesn’t work at all, and like the giant rampaging Cyberman in the last episode, looks really goofy. As the RTD era steadily draws to a close, Murray Gold revisits a lot of his old themes from the last four seasons throughout his score for “Planet Of The Dead”. Throughout the soundtrack, you can pick up energized reprises and rearrangements of “Westminster Bridge”, “UNIT Rocks”, “A Pressing Need To Save The World”, “Corridors And Fire Escapes”, and “The Greatest Story Never Told”.
Much like “The Next Doctor”, “Planet Of The Dead” is a fun, disposable bit of fluff that shows off the charming, adventurous side of the Tenth Doctor’s era, while also setting the stage for his swansong to come.
* Something else that adds to the “Torchwood” vibes this episode’s teaser gives off is the fact that the Lady Christina looks more than a bit like Gwen Cooper.
* “Rhondium particles, that’s what I’m looking for. This thing detects them. Look, this should go round, that little dish there” “Right now, a way out would come in pretty handy. Can you detect me one of those?” Honey, you’re about to get your wish.
* “I’m not going out there. They’re still calling. All around us. The voices are crying” “What voices, sweetheart?” “The dead. We’re surrounded by the dead”.
* “He was a skeleton, man! Just bones!” Like something straight out of Scooby-Doo.
* “Then we have to drive five tons of bus, which is currently buried in the sand, and we’ve got nothing but our bare hands. Correct?” “I’d say nine and a half tons, but the point still stands, yes”.
* “What can you see, Carmen? Tell me, what’s out there?” “Something, something is coming. Riding on the wind, and shining” “What is it?” “Death. Death is coming” “We’re going to die!” “I knew it, man! I said so!”
* “What about you, Christina?” “I was going… so far away” To the nearest black market, I’m guessing.
* “Oh, never mind losing half the top deck. You know what’s worse? Sand” Don’t let it’s idle graininess fool you. Sand is pure evil.
* “Doctor? This is Captain Erisa Magambo. Might I say, sir, it’s an honor” “Did you just salute?” “…No”.
* “The Doctor! Cor blimey. I can’t believe I’m actually speaking to you. I mean, I’ve read all the files!” “Really? What was your favorite, the giant robot?”.
* “Oh, this is beautiful. Intact, it must have been magnificent. A proper streamlined deep spacer” “I’ll remember that as I’m being slowly tortured. At least I’m bleeding on the floor of a really well designed spaceship”.
* “I’m the Doctor, by the way, and this is Christina. The Honorable Lady Christina. At least I hope she’s honorable” Savage, Doctor.
* “The Tritovores were going to trade with San Helios. Population of one hundred billion. Plenty of waste matter for them to absorb” “By waste matter, you mean…?” “They feed off what others leave behind… from their behind, if you see what I mean” Stay classy, Doctor Who.
* “But I’ve got sand in my hair. That’s dead people! Oh, that’s disgusting! Ugh!” “Something destroyed the whole of San Helois” “Yes, but in my hair!” This is why Anakin Skywalker always hated sand.
* You can see a little bit of Ten’s soul die inside when the other passengers call him and let him know the bus is all out of gas.
* “Those things are going to turn the entire Earth into a desert. So why exactly are you smiling?” “The worse it gets, the more I love it” “Me too” You two have got some problems.
* “What are you doing with this?” “Excuse me. A gentleman never goes through a lady’s possessions”.
* “No, no, no. If you’re short of cash, you rob a bank. Stealing this? That’s a lifestyle” “I take it you disapprove?” “Absolutely. Except… That little blue box… I stole it from my own people” “Good boy”.
* As soon as the fly people have served their plot purpose, Russell immediately and unceremoniously kills them both off and moves right along. That seems rather rude.
* “Ugh, I risked my life for that!” Literally no one made you go down there, Christina.
* “It’s over a thousand years old, worth eighteen million pounds. Promise me you’ll be careful” “I promise” The Doctor starts beating it into oblivion “I hate you” River Song feels your pain, dear.
* “Doctor? You take care now” “You too. Chops and gravy, lovely” “No, but you be careful. Because your song is ending, sir” “What do you mean?” “It is returning. It is returning through the dark. And then, Doctor? Oh, but then he will knock four times”.