Planet of the Dead

Standard DVD
5-episode
box set
NTSC Region 1

Standard DVD
5-episode
box set
PAL Region 2
Standard DVD
1-episode
volume


See below for Blu-Ray options
(Doctor Who Story No. 205, starring David Tennant)
  • written by Russell T. Davies and Gareth Roberts
  • directed by James Strong
  • produced by Tracie Simpson
  • music by Murray Gold
  • 1 episode @ 59 min.
Story: Hot on the trail of Rhondium particles and the rip in the time/space continuum that they signify, the Doctor takes the bus.... and UNIT is quickly called in to seal off the area where the double-decker vanished. What purpose lies behind the creation of an interplanetary wormhole? What secrets are to be discovered in the endless sands of San Helios? And what haunting terrors is the storm sweeping towards the Doctor and friends?

DVD Extras include:

  • Doctor Who Confidential featurette: Desert Storm (57 min.) (also available on the 1-episode volume) with David Tennant (The Doctor),
    Michelle Ryan (Lady Christina de Souza), Adam James (Detective Inspector McMillan), Paul Kasey (Sorvin), co-writer Russell T. Davies, director James Strong, producer Tracie Simpson, production designer Ed Thomas, and others... Narrated by Noel Clarke.
  • David Tennant's Video Diaries (box sets only, 20 min.)
  • Deleted & Extended Scenes (box sets only, 3 min.)

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program.
To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.


This tale had a similar effect on me as many of William Hartnell's Season Two Doctor Who stories: A lot of fascinating and cool elements drew me into the story, but in the end, most of them delivered far less than what I'd been hoping for. "Planet of the Dead" earns many points for creating anticipation, but not so many for creating satisfaction.


Having now gotten four Christmas specials under its belt in as many years, Doctor Who now tackles Easter. I'm left wondering why? Seriously, the Doctor shows up in this adventure simply wandering onto a bus. There is no sense that he is someone that roams the universe here, otherwise he could be showing us an alien culture with holidays that we've never heard of before. The TARDIS makes a pitiful showing in this adventure, barely carted in by jeep near the end and demonstrating neither the interior nor any of its own ability for trans-dimensional movement. Despite the anticipation of an alien planet created by the story title, a very disappointing Earth-bound stigma surrounds this adventure. An interesting comparison is "Turn Left" (story no. 202), because despite it having a higher percentage of Earthly footage, it created a greater sense of the Doctor and his TARDIS taking us viewers to new places.

Michelle Ryan's character of Lady Christina is rich and exciting, and easily far more suitable and interesting for the Doctor to start traveling with than Rose ever was. Nice one. Combined with the situation that unfolds, the parallels to the character of Kate on "Lost" are huge. Ryan does great work portraying the character. Had she continued on to travel with the Doctor as I'd hoped, he would have had his most attractive companion of the New Millennium so far.

The police presence at the end of the show really heightens the question of whether or not he'd allow himself to accept a wanted criminal as a companion, one who stole for no reason other than self-satisfaction. And can the Doctor really stand on high ground for saying no considering that he admits to stealing the TARDIS long before the show started while no one really knows what his motives or circumstances were? Tough choice. But this doesn't seem to be his consideration at the moment of decision. Instead he says he can't handle the inevitable loss later on. Huh? As presented in the story, it sounds wimpy, although Russell T. Davies gives a much better defense of this stance on the extras. And the story takes too long toying around with Christina's fate, making you wish they'd just make up their minds and end the show already.

After declaring that the setting just isn't as alien as I'd hoped, I'm now floored to learn from the extras that they actually went to the enormous expense of shipping the cast, crew, and a double-decker bus all the way to Dubai to shoot this. Holy waste of money! Seriously, we got just as good an effect when "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy" (story no. 155) gave us a bus in a quarry, while also delivering better action surrounding it, and a more interesting cultured alien planet to boot. In fact, the Season Two William Hartnell story "The Chase" (story no. 16) also gave us a very similar looking desert and a better story to boot without shooting very much outside of the studio. Perhaps this is why the extras on the "Planet of the Dead" DVD can go on just as long as the show itself - it is almost more interesting to learn how this story was made than to watch the story itself. Writers Davies and Gareth Roberts (not to mention executive producer Julie Gardner) would be better off focusing on story than on production stunts. There is nothing wrong with your local English quarries, guys. Just get the stories right.

Perhaps emphasizing that the story is too Earthly, UNIT is called in to occupy a major quantity of screen time. We can be thankful that the crew finally saw enough of the light to bring back a UNIT character that had appeared on the show before, settling on Noma Dumezweni's Captain Magambo who had previously worked with Rose in "Turn Left". Good move. While I might have preferred Colonel Mace and/or Captain Price, Dumezweni begins here to add the odd touches of humour and flavour to help bring Magambo to life to a greater degree than was managed when the role was smaller in "Turn Left". Her entrance is actually quite unendearing however, scripted as she is to be such a poor listener to the man who requested UNIT's presence in the first place. NOT the move of a wise leader at all.

But of course, amongst the UNIT ranks, the completely new character of Malcolm Taylor steals the show, thanks to a constantly inventive performance from actor Lee Evans. Fans may well be demanding his return in future stories, and with good reason. The character takes command of an entire plot strand and leads the story through many important beats, while being thoroughly entertaining at the same time. I think we have to acknowledge the work of director James Strong and his editor(s) here, in picking just enough of the right moments of Evans' performance to make the humour and the story work best, because judging by Evans' appearance in the extras, he's constantly being over-the-top jokey and giving more than one could tastefully use in the program. A very good collaboration in the end!

If I had to single out only one other character to talk about, it would have to be Carmen, the woman aboard the bus with the amazing psychic abilities. She becomes a very useful tool for the scriptwriters in creating and maintaining tension and anticipation during this story, because let's face it, there are long sections in this tale where not much happens, and the characters who interact with each other are all really on the same side. This story needs Carmen badly, and it's great to see that she worked so well. Ellen Thomas plays the role with absolute sincerity and makes her easy to believe in.

Early on, anticipation is built up for an encounter with some kind of alien mastermind behind the whole plot.... and this becomes one of the major disappointments of the story. One is led to believe that this mastermind is in fact one of the insectoid Tritovores studying the bus on a scanner screen. Sorry. Despite a large quantity of good material happening on board their spaceship, the two Tritovores generate quite minor levels of interest in their characters or in their design as aliens. While the head-masks are quite nicely made, the creatures can't really break free of the man-in-a-rubber-suit stigma that dogs science fiction so frequently. In fact, a kind of man-in-overalls-with-mask stigma seems to have settled onto Doctor Who recently, with the Hath in "The Doctor's Daughter" (story no. 198) falling equally victim. The Ood fare a bit better, probably by not being derived from any one particular Earthly animal like fish or flies that we'd expect to have radically different bodies. Also by splitting the performance between Paul Kasey under the mask, the sound effect editors on the voice, and David Tennant translating what they're saying for Christina and the audience, it's harder for them to own their own characteristics. Plus they're not really driving the plot either, and quickly get relegated to minor tag-along characters, standing off-screen in the background while Tennant owns the exposition of most of the ideas explored while on their ship. The Tritovores are interesting in having a language and culture of their own, but as this certainly doesn't occupy much screen time, it still leaves today's alien planet a bit more empty than we want. I wonder if co-writer Gareth Roberts has a softspot for insect-derived or flight-derived aliens? It's very surprising to see Russell T. Davies share writing privileges with others outside of the middle of a proper season, but he doesn't seem to acknowledge any contribution by Roberts during the extras, while Roberts himself does not appear. Weird....

At this point, the story seemed very reminiscent of the season three opener "Galaxy Four" (story no. 18). Anyone familiar with that story will recognize the similarities in the plot situation. If that brings the Tritovores into comparison with the Rills, I think the Rills will come out on top as being more alien and in owning their own culture and characters. Still distant and having translation difficulties, both the Rills and their technology have their own voices and come through with their own characters. "Galaxy Four" also had a lovely point to the whole adventure. Davies gives a big explanation on the extras why "Planet of the Dead" needed to deal the Tritovores the ending they got, which perhaps demonstrates why the exploration of this planet didn't really benefit from being framed by everyday Earth.

Music by Murray Gold
A suite of original music new for this story is available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who: Original
Music from "Series 4: The Specials".
2-disc Audio CD album

More info & buying options

"A Pressing Need to Save the World",
"Corridors and Fire Escapes",
"The Greatest Story Never Told" (a),
and an alternate version of "Midnight"
are available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who:
Original Music from "Series 4" (2008)

More info & buying options

An alternate version of "The Doctor Forever"
is available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who:
Original Music from "Series 3" (2007)

More info & buying options

"UNIT" is available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who by Murray Gold
Silva Screen SILCD1224

More info & buying options


One of my favourite bits of this story are all the visuals brought up on the Tritovore ship's screens and the story points behind them, including the identification of the planet as San Helios, within the Scorpion Nebula, and the visuals of what the place looked like a year previous when its civilization thrived. Great stuff. In fact, that's where and when the TARDIS should have taken us, were we exploring the universe properly as we should. By the way, how long is the San Helian / Tritovorian year, by which we're measuring the age of this recording?

The real mastermind(s) / villains behind this tale turn out to be pure CGI creations that fuel equally few interesting character interactions. While I don't really have any problem with what they are or their simplicity, my point is that they are less than what many of the Doctor's and Carmen's monologues led us to anticipate, which is formula for disappointment. A difficult problem for writing science fiction, as characters explore the unknown and speculate on what they might find, there should be room for them to be wrong in both directions.

Story structure is actually fairly good for a Davies script, given what elements we're working with, suggesting perhaps that his collaboration with Gareth Roberts brought some benefits. While the first 2/3 of the story is drawn along quite strongly by exploring places and ideas, although not as many interesting character points as would be ideal, the final third is a fairly logical escalation of several successful action sequences. Sadly this last third offers few surprises and is quite predictable. As such, some of it seems to go on too long. I'm particularly surprised that so much expensive CGI footage of the flying bus was ordered up. You'd think it would just rise, get through the hole as quickly as possible, and set down again. But no, the Doctor seems to want to fly around in it as much as possible without any good reason, while there are lots of other good things he could be applying his expertise to. But it's not bad. Everyone has their own good thing to do, with the Doctor owning the most important actions. Predictable and decent.

What would have held my interest far better would have been a solution that could have saved San Helios, its population, its civilization and architecture. That would have been a cool ending. We need to see the Doctor saving other planets and civilizations for a change. Threatening the Earth, yet again, is not going to keep us on the edge of our seats, or make us believe that there's much chance of the enemy force winning the day. That's part of the benefit of truly going to alien planets - not being able to predict what the ending will bring, because absolutely any outcome is possible.


Well, though this story may have been less than what I'd wanted or hoped for, it is still very well done, and does take us to an alien planet and another part of the universe like this show should, so it's still good. I do still prefer the previous tale "The Next Doctor" as a story, although this one certainly beats other specials like "The Christmas Invasion" (story no. 171) and "The Runaway Bride" (story no. 182) by a long shot. And in terms of the three stories that Gareth Roberts has written, this one is certainly the best.

And now it looks like David Tennant's era will be coming to a close soon. Too soon for me, I think. But, perhaps the best of all is yet to come....



"Planet of the Dead" has become available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and is the first Doctor Who story shot in high definition for the Blu-Ray format.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the location nearest you for pricing and availability:

DVD NTSC Region 1
5-episode box set
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
5-episode box set
for the U.K.
Standard DVD 1-episode volume
NTSC Region 1 - U.S.
NTSC Region 1 - Canada
PAL Region 2 - U.K.
Blu-Ray 1-episode volume
NTSC Region 1 - U.S.
NTSC Region 1 - Canada
PAL Region 2 - U.K.

Blu-Ray NTSC Region 1
5-episode box set
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada

Blu-Ray PAL Region 2
5-episode box set
for the U.K.


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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Waters of Mars"



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