Monday, April 8, 2013

Doctor Who: The Old in the New

One of the things I most enjoy about the modern Doctor Who is the way it reuses elements of the classic series. In some cases it's overt, such as the flying of the Dalek in the episode, 'Dalek,' or the Autons in the episode 'Rose.' At other times it's subtle, such as the way they drew from the character Sil, the villain from the episode 'Vengeance on Varos,' for Cassandra, in 'The End of the World.' I came to the classic series via the modern series. I love the modern series, especially the seasons under the guidance of Russel T Davies, and wanted to deepen my understanding of it. So, I started watching the classic series after having completed watching season 6.

Today we'll explore my favorite usage of the classic series, the rewriting of the Robots of Death. A few minutes into the episode the 'Robots of Death' I was arrested by the red eyes in the killer robots. The article in the Tardis wiki about the episode Planet of the Ood suggests that there may be connection between the story of the Ood and the robots. I believe that the evidence is overwhelming, especially when one brings the initial episode with the Ood, 'The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit,' into the discussion. On a recent day off I decided to go back and fully investigate the similarities.

Often, the use of the classic series is nothing more than a case of homage. It's a way of continuing to draw fans of the modern series into the classic and reviving childhood memories of those who grew up watching the Doctor. This was much more ambitious in its interaction, a presentation of a fresh take on a previously explored theme. A risky tactic that succeeded here as strongly as it backfired, in my opinion, in the way The God Complex drew upon the ending of The Curse of Fenric.[1] In this post, I will begin by fully cataloging all of the connections and then will conclude by examining what I believe Russel T Davies and team were doing in the process. The connections are far too deep to be a tip of the cap to the classic series.

Both the 'Robots of Death' and the 'Impossible Planet' are set in isolation, on a human station on an uninhabited planet which experiences a storm shortly after the Doctor and his companion arrive. In both cases the crew displays some shock at the arrival of visitors and again in both cases the Doctor has no idea where they are. The Tardis also gets displaced in both episodes. In 'The Robots of Death' the humans are mining the planet for minerals and additionally have scientists on board. In 'The Impossible Planet,' the humans are drilling to a power source and have an archaeologist on board. These connections are all superficial but they're key to seeing the structural connection between the two episodes. Both the Ood and robots are similarly named - via a combination of letters and numbers.[2]  Interestingly, the main Ood in 'The Planet of the Ood' and the main robot deviate from that standard naming convention. The Ood is simply Ood Alpha, while the robot uses two letters, being name SV7. Clearly this difference in naming signifies something special about them. The next set of parallels is where things get really interesting.

Both the robots and the Ood have a shared mind, if the robots can truly be said to have a mind, that is controlled from some center. This allows both to be controlled by humans (or by the Devil in the 'Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit'). Because of this, both are very effective slave "races" who do a range of activities for the humans. Interestingly, the robots are portrayed as being more capable than the Ood. They take on skilled labor like mining[3] where the Ood never seem to be anything other than servants or manual laborers. The subservience of each is strongly underscored. Both are said to have no purpose except that which humans give them. The Ood are even said to have the desire to be subservient.

There also are strong fraternal themes in both episodes, especially as they relate to questions of power and control. In the stories about the Ood we learn about a group known as 'the Friends of the Ood.' These are people who find humanity's treatment of the Ood unethical. They identify themselves relationally as friends. In 'The Robots of Death' the human antagonist, Taren Capel, calls the robots 'his brothers.' He even goes as far as painting himself with metallic paint and wearing clothing similar to the robots. When the robot uprising becomes overt he changes his appearance as an act of solidarity. Capel is portrayed as a madman, believing he is giving the robots freedom through his attempted coup. It's a false freedom, however, as the controls were simply shifted to Capel himself. In the 'Planet of the Ood' the primary human antagonist, Klineman Halpan, gets turned into an Ood at the conclusion of the Ood revolution. It's the final event in the revolution prior to the emancipation of the Ood brain. Control of the Ood brain is leaving human hands. The Ood will look after Halpen to make sure he is being taken care of.

Why all of these points of connection? It's obvious that it's not incidental nor do I think it's just for fun, to pay homage to the classic series. I believe the writers had at least these points in mind. If you see more, or disagree, chime in in the comments! Intelligence and capacity in no way determine intrinsic value. The Ood seemed unintelligent and incapable in comparison to the robots, but are of more value because they are living beings. Just because you can control someone or something doesn't mean you should, even if by doing so you think you are doing it good, as some of the humans argued. Second, the oppressed should use violence minimally. As soon as they freed the Ood brain, they ceased fighting and began singing. One gets the impression that the robots would not have stopped until Capel had conquered the galaxy. Capel linked freedom with death, the Ood linked it with singing. Third is the importance of identification. We all should be willing to undergo the transformation that Halpan went through to understand the plight of the oppressed. While Halpan was forced, those in power should be willing to lay down their privileges to join together with the weak as one family. It is through relationship that we all attain equality and freedom, not through violence.

In many ways, I believe the story of the Ood contain a summary of the message of the first four seasons of Doctor Who. I also hope it also inspires in you the love and appreciation for the 'Planet of the Ood' and Doctor Who in general that it has in me. More importantly, I hope it helps all of us wrestle with these difficult ethical issues.

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[1] I consider the God Complex to be an unparalleled disaster in the modern Doctor Who era. Moffat's complete inability to develop Amy Pond into a coherent or interesting character is magnified when one compares her to Ace. The experience Ace has in the conclusion of the Curse of Fenric fits her storyline perfectly. It completely destroys the coherence of Amy.

[2] The Ood use Greek letters and the robots use English letters.

[3] The captain does argue, however, that the robots are not as good as humans at mining because of their lack of instinct.

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