Veteran Who director Graeme Harper and the gritty sci-fi episodes seem to go together naturally – he was responsible for two of the better episodes of S3, and now he’s delivered what’s definitely the best episode of the season yet. While there’s a certain familiarity to a lot of the story structure (It’s the traditional Crichton-esque closed system destined to collapse into chaos), it managed to tackle the Ood in a way that managed to be interesting, original and well-thought out. One of the prime influences of S2’s Impossible Planet/Satan Pit two-parter was the classic Who story Robots of Death (which again dealt with the idea of a servant underclass rebelling), but even though Robots is one of my favourite story, the slavery subtext remains a subtext and never tries to touch the emotions. Here, it’s put upfront in pretty brutal terms, and it’s this that makes the episode work – the big emotion needs to be earned, and while there were a few overplayed moments, the edginess and power of images like the Ood huddled in the cage kept the balance right. With CG vistas, rockets and plenty of snow, this is some of the biggest scale SF storytelling the show’s done, but- curiously enough- it’s also quintessentially Who (and, to be honest, Blakes 7 as well), with soldiers battling aliens in a semi-industrial location, and lots of nuts-and-bolts SF action.
The CG was a little strained at times (the pulsing pipe feeding into the brain was a little creaky), but considering how well the story stood up, it barely mattered. Littered with bodies and brutality, and with a fantastically gross transformation sequence (I knew the mouth tentacles were coming, but sneezing out the brain, and the shot with the skin being peeled off the skull were both major surprise), this felt like old-school Who done the right way, and with another plot that actually held together rather than disintegrating in the last ten minutes. Tate is continuing to be an infuriating mixture of brilliant and bloody awful, while even with his occasional OTT moments, Tennant really owns the role of the Doctor now in a way that few actors have managed, which has to be saluted. (This week, I accidentally caught a few minutes of the S2 climax ‘Doomsday’, and- apart from reminding me why I didn’t like S2- it also brought home how much Tennant has improved over S3, going from a fairly shaky and often nondescript start to the kind of work he’s delivering on a regular basis now). All in all, a strong (if not quite classic) episode, with great direction, plenty of powerful images that show how effective Who can be when it tries, and that emotion and sci-fi storytelling can go together (Even if the Ood’s “brain in hand” strategy soes seem a little bit of a push…). So far, S4 seems to be holding steady at a “pretty good” quality level (although let’s see how long that lasts before I find something else to complain about…). Next week: Martha Jones (with new hairstyle), the return of UNIT and – more importantly – the return of the Sontarans.