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New Series Episode 59:
Planet Of The Dead
Tracking a mysterious energy signal, the Doctor boards a London bus upon which cat burglar Lady Christina de Souza is also a passenger. Suddenly, the bus is catapulted through a wormhole to San Helios, on the other side of the universe. The planet seems to be just one enormous desert, but after encountering stranded Tritovore traders, the Doctor and Christina learn that San Helios is meant to be a bustling world of billions. Soon, it becomes clear that the wormhole and the devastation of San Helios are linked... and the Earth may be destined for a similar fate.
By mid-2006, Doctor Who executive producers Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner had agreed on a long-term plan for the programme's future. Both were aware that their time on Doctor Who was finite, and they were keen to ensure that the handover to a new production team would be as smooth as possible. At the same time, they were also concerned about Doctor Who fading into the general television landscape -- that, given time, viewers might start to take it for granted. So they decided that, after the 2008 season, Doctor Who would go on a semi-hiatus for a year before returning for its next full season in 2010. The interim would be bridged by a handful of specials which would mark Davies' and Gardner's final work on the show.
What was not clear at this point, however, was the precise number and scheduling of these specials. By May 2007, it was felt that there would be two specials in 2009 -- probably at Easter (when the new season of Doctor Who traditionally debuted) and Christmas -- followed by a third special in 2010 which would lead into Season Thirty-One. These specials would be made directly after the 2008 Christmas episode, The Next Doctor. Over the summer, the dates for these specials drifted to Christmas 2009, New Year's Day 2010 and Easter 2010. But it was then realised that, with David Tennant planning to appear in Hamlet and Love's Labour's Lost for the Royal Shakespeare Company from July, there simply wouldn't be time to record three specials in 2008. To make matters worse, Tennant was only scheduled to have a handful of weeks free after finishing with the RSC, which also wouldn't allow for the filming of three specials.
Several alternatives were considered. The team might cut back to just two specials (either Christmas 2009 and New Year's Day 2010, or Hallowe'en and Christmas 2009), although neither Davies nor Gardner was keen to lose one of their final stories. Gardner proposed filming the first special in two parts, split in half by Tennant's RSC commitments. Davies, however, was concerned about the likely loss of continuity across the two recording blocks, and so it was agreed that all filming for the specials would take place from January 2009. Even this was problematic, because the team was still eager to air one of the specials around Easter 2009 so that Doctor Who wouldn't spend a year completely off the air. Unfortunately, it seemed impossible to begin production on a special in January and have it ready for broadcast in April.
Finally, by April 2008, the production team's plans had started to solidify. It was decided that the first special would be an effects-heavy space opera-style adventure. This way, a number of scenes could be created entirely by visual effects house The Mill, who could begin work before any filming had taken place. This would allow enough time for recording and post-production to be completed ahead of the planned Easter airdate.
However, it was also clear that another element of the plan -- that Davies would write all three specials himself -- would have to be abandoned. Davies was now extremely busy coordinating and writing for Children Of Earth, the massive five-part event which would comprise the third season of Torchwood. As a result, Davies conceded that he would have to offer the lion's share of the scripting duties on the Easter and Christmas specials to other writers. Gardner insisted that Davies retain a co-writer credit on the two episodes, however, because she felt that his name would be important to attract prominent guest stars.
For the Easter special, Davies' thoughts immediately turned to Gareth Roberts. Since writing The Unicorn And The Wasp for Season Thirty, Roberts had written Secrets Of The Stars and The Temptation Of Sarah Jane Smith for the second season of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Davies also fondly remembered some of the novels Roberts had written for Virgin Publishing's Doctor Who: The New Adventures line of novels -- most notably 1993's The Highest Science, Roberts' first professionally-published Doctor Who work -- which he felt represented exactly the kind of colourful, entertaining Doctor Who adventure he wanted for Easter.
At this point, Davies was toying with two possible storylines to hand over to Roberts. One involved the TARDIS materialising in the midst of a Star Wars-style dogfight in space. The Doctor would befriend a female pilot (who would become his companion for the adventure), and defuse the space battle by employing a weapons-jamming device; Davies thought that this would be an effective subversion of the genre.
Alternatively, Davies considered reviving an idea he and Gardner had toyed with in 2004 while developing Doctor Who's return. They had hoped to coordinate a crossover between Doctor Who and Star Trek: Enterprise -- a concept which was dropped only after the latter's cancellation in 2005. Davies now thought that he might invent a thinly-veiled parody of the Star Trek franchise, with the Doctor finding himself aboard the spaceship “Endeavour”.
However, Davies was concerned that a spoof might not be the best use of one of the final episodes produced under his aegis, and so it was the war-in-space concept he asked Roberts to develop. He suggested that this might pit humanity against the Chelonians, the warlike turtle aliens Roberts had introduced in The Highest Science. Davies also encouraged Roberts to adapt another element of the novel, which had seen an English train carrying normal, everyday passengers teleported to the planet Sakkrat. He suggested that an element of Roberts' story might be a London double-decker bus which passes through a wormhole and appears in the middle of the space battle; the Doctor could be one of the passengers.
By the end of April, David Tennant had confirmed that he would be leaving Doctor Who after the specials, alongside Davies and Gardner. As a result, it was decided that the concluding special would be split into two episodes. Meanwhile, Roberts was working on a storyline for the Easter special. Initially, he had begun incorporating a subplot about a hotel in which humans are being implanted with alien eggs (tying in to the planned Easter airdate). However, this veered too closely to an idea Davies had originally had for the 2008 Christmas special, and which he had now given to Phil Ford to develop for the adventure which would follow Roberts'. At the same time, Roberts and Davies had become concerned with several inconsistencies in their original ideas, such as the conundrum of how the bus passengers would be able to breathe in space.
This forced a major refocussing of the adventure's concepts. Davies and Roberts decided to move away from the space battle setting, and instead have the bus transported to another planet. Davies had been investigating the possibility of foreign location filming for Tennant's concluding two-part story; this would now feature the Master, and Davies envisaged a climactic battle between the two Time Lords in a vast desert. He decided that the desert setting would serve the Easter special better, and this guided Roberts' conception of the alien planet. Instead of animating a vast battle in space, The Mill would now be asked to create scenes involving a horde of deadly flying stingray-like aliens.
The major element of the story still to be decided upon was the Doctor's temporary companion. The spaceship pilot concept Davies had originally mooted would no longer fit the revised plot. Instead, it was decided that the companion's role would be filled by Rebecca, a tour guide on the double-decker bus. Roberts developed Rebecca as a cheery, overweight woman in the mold of Tracy Turnblad from the 1988 movie Hairspray. Stuck in a dead-end job, she is shaken out of her complacency by her experiences with the Doctor; the story would conclude with her becoming an ambassador to the Chelonians.
Davies, however, came to feel that the Rebecca character was simply too unimpressive and out of keeping with the style of story he envisaged. Instead, he came up with a cat burglar named Hermione, inspired by the DC Comics super-heroine the Black Canary. Hermione would be introduced in a fast-paced opening segment in which she steals a priceless jewel, drawing upon the 1996 movie Mission: Impossible. Hermione would then board the double-decker bus to evade the police, and encounter the Doctor there. He envisaged the Doctor and Hermione having a relationship akin to Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in the 1963 thriller Charade.
Meanwhile, it was realised that the change in setting meant that Roberts could no longer use the Chelonians in his tale. The extreme heat of filming on location in a desert environment would make it impractical for an actor to wear the bulky costume necessary to bring the Chelonians to life. It was decided to replace them instead with half-man, half-insect aliens who would turn out to be friendly -- a concept partly inspired by the 1958 horror film The Fly.
On August 11th, Tracie Simpson was named the new producer of Doctor Who. Simpson had worked on the show as a production manager since its return in 2005, and had only recently left Doctor Who towards the start of the 2008 season. Simpson would produce Roberts' story and Tennant's concluding two-parter. However, because of the tight deadline on the Easter special, she would be replaced for the middle special by Nikki Wilson (nee Smith). Wilson had script edited Season Thirty's The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky, having also been a script editor on programmes such as Trial & Retribution and The Bill. More recently, Wilson had produced the second season of The Sarah Jane Adventures.
By the end of August, Davies was once again reconsidering the companion figure in Roberts' story. He had become concerned that a jewel thief was too remote a character for the audience to relate to, and instead suggested that the woman who boards the bus might be a middle-aged housewife called Eileen, trapped in a loveless marriage to a man named Trevor. After delivering his first draft in early September, Roberts agreed to consider how the adventure might play out with Eileen in place of his cat burglar, whom he had renamed Christina. By September 16th, however, it had become clear that none of the potential actresses available to play Eileen were compelling enough for the production team to make the switch, and so Roberts was told to proceed with Christina as the companion.
By December, Roberts' story had gained the title Planet Of The Dead. It would be directed by James Strong, who had most recently helmed the Season Thirty premiere, Partners In Crime. For the location shoot, the production team had considered several venues such as Tunisia (where numerous scenes in the Star Wars movies had been filmed) before settling on Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Dubai offered a desert location which was not far from the production base, and UAE-centred Central Films had previously worked with the BBC in 2006 on an episode of Holby City.
It had also been decided that Planet Of The Dead would become the first Doctor Who story recorded in High Definition, breaking a string of episodes taped in the 625-line format dating back to The Enemy Of The World in 1967. Consideration had been given to making Doctor Who in HD ever since the series' return in 2005, but the adoption of the new standard had been deferred due to concerns about the resulting rise in visual effects costs. Instead, HD had first been used for Torchwood, and when this proved successful, the standalone nature of the specials offered an excellent opportunity to introduce HD to Doctor Who. Unfortunately, however, a misunderstanding within the BBC led to some of the funding for the transition to HD becoming unavailable; consequently, Davies was forced to shift moneys to Planet Of The Dead from the next special, The Waters Of Mars.
The script for Planet Of The Dead continued to evolve as production loomed. The coda in which Carmen gives the Doctor a dire premonition of his future was originally meant to be an element of The Waters Of Mars. A lot more material involving Malcolm was added when Davies found that Roberts' script was seriously underrunning. In addition, both Doctor Who Magazine editor Tom Spilsbury and Benjamin Cook, a DWM writer with whom Davies had collaborated on the book Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale, had pointed out that Planet Of The Dead would be the two hundredth Doctor Who story (depending on how some debatable cases were counted, such as the four segments of Season Twenty-Three's The Trial Of A Time Lord, or the conjoining of Season Twenty-Nine's Utopia and The Sound Of Drums / Last Of The Time Lords). Delighted, Davies decided that the bus should be the “Route 200”.
Two double-decker buses were purchased for Planet Of The Dead, one of which was despatched for Dubai via boat in early December, after air transport was ruled out due to the weight of the vehicle. On December 2nd, Strong and Simpson, along with production designer Edward Thomas, travelled to Dubai for a recce and to take plate shots of the desert which could be used by The Mill.
On December 9th, the press became frenzied when David Tennant was forced to step aside from Hamlet due to a longstanding back injury. Reports quickly circulated that Tennant's return to Doctor Who was in jeopardy, but the panic was largely invented by the tabloids. Tennant underwent a routine operation, and although he was unable to participate in publicity for The Next Doctor, the actor was not only healthy enough for the start of principal photography on Doctor Who, but was even able to return to Hamlet on January 3rd, 2009.
Meanwhile, shortly before Christmas, Michelle Ryan was cast as Lady Christina de Souza. Ryan had shot to fame on the soap opera EastEnders, and had since appeared in episodes of Marple, Mansfield Park and Merlin, as well as the thriller Jekyll created by Doctor Who's incoming showrunner, Steven Moffat. Ryan's profile had been further enhanced when she won the lead in the American remake Bionic Woman, although this was cancelled after just one season. Also in the cast was Adam James, playing DI McMillan. James was a good friend of Tennant's, and was the godson of Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor.
The dawn of 2009 greeted the production team with a brand new crisis. On January 8th, they were informed that there had been an accident at the docks in the UAE three days previously, and an eighteen-tonne cargo container had been dropped on the roof of the double-decker bus, which had just arrived in port. It was briefly suggested that the second bus, kept behind in Cardiff, might be hastily transported to Dubai in time for filming, but this bus would also be required for domestic recording both before and after the UAE shoot. The only option was to amend the script so that the bus now crumpled while travelling through the wormhole; a design team was quickly flown to the UAE to ensure that the damaged bus could still be used safely during production there. A third bus would also have to be acquired so that it could be similarly damaged and used for filming in Cardiff alongside the second, undamaged bus.
After being stood down for eight months since the completion of The Next Doctor, the Doctor Who team sprung back into action on January 19th, as filming for Planet Of The Dead began at the Welsh National Museum in Cardiff. This was the site of Christina's heist at the start of the episode. The next two nights involved recording at the Bute Town Tunnel, posing as the Gladwell Road Tunnel in which the bus vanishes. On the 22nd, Christina's escape down the alleyway took place adjacent to Principality House in Cardiff City Centre, while roadway sequences were completed in Cardiff Bay. Cast and crew then repaired to the usual Doctor Who studio home of Upper Boat Studios for special effects shots involving the bus. More studio work followed on the 23rd, concentrating on the UNIT mobile HQ.
On January 26th, Christina boarded the bus on St Mary's Street, after which two more nights were spent at the Bute Town Tunnel. Scenes aboard the bus were recorded at Upper Boat on the 29th, 30th and February 2nd; Tennant spent these days suffering from a weak voice. The interior of the Tritovore ship was actually Mir Steel in Newport, where filming took place from the 3rd to the 6th. It was extremely cold within the disused factory, and so the script was quickly amended to introduce the notion of Photafine Steel inverting the outside temperature. Then it was back to Upper Boat for two more days -- February 7th and 9th -- for further scenes aboard the bus, as well as various effects and insert shots.
On February 10th, the cast and crew of Planet Of The Dead flew from London to Dubai. The excursion became unexpectedly eventful during the trip from the airport to the hotel: of the three minibuses hired for the journey, one (carrying Tennant and Ryan) was pulled over by the police, while a second was briefly lost in the desert. No filming took place on the 11th, which was used purely as a recce day for the location at Margham.
Unfortunately, a sandstorm arose the next day, and although the Doctor Who team tried to press ahead, it soon became clear that Strong would be able to complete virtually none of his planned shots. With time now extremely tight, it appeared that material would have to be cut, and remounts scheduled for somewhere in Wales. But happily, the weather improved tremendously over the final two days -- the 13th and 14th -- and Strong not only carried out all of the scheduled filming, but was even able to record an additional scene as well. Buoyed by this change of fortune, the Doctor Who team returned to the UK on February 15th.
The last day of recording for Planet Of The Dead was February 18th. This took place at Upper Boat, and dealt with various pick-up and effects shots involving Ryan, most notably her wirework for the opening heist scene and the sequence in the Tritovore ship. The race was then on for The Mill to complete the effects work for the story. The tight deadline meant that, unusually, there would be no press launch for Planet Of The Dead: the episode simply wouldn't be ready in time.
A minor panic arose in early April over an mock advertisement featured on the bus for a mobile phone billed as “Neon by Naismith”. This was meant to foreshadow the introduction of the wealthy Joshua Naismith in the final two-part special, The End Of Time. However, after filming had concluded, AT&T in the United States had introduced a cell phone called the LG Neon, and some within the BBC were concerned that Planet Of The Dead might appear to be advertising the product for free. Gardner pointed out that the Neon ad had already appeared in publicity photos (although she did not mention that it was barely visible), and the matter was dropped.
Planet Of The Dead debuted on Easter Saturday, April 11th. Since Doctor Who was now being filmed in HD, the special became the first episode to air simultaneously on BBC1 and BBCHD -- a practise which would thenceforth become the norm.
|Updated 11th August 2013|
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