Top 10 Alien Planets (New Who Part 1)
In the build-up to The Rings of Akhaten, David Selby counts down his top 10 alien planets.
“Oh, you should have seen it! That old planet… The second sun would rise in the south, and the mountains would shine. The leaves on the trees were silver, when they caught the light, every morning it looked like a forest on fire. When the autumn came, a brilliant glow though the branches…”
Doctor Who is a show that can go anywhere and everywhere – and so it does. The series is full of rich, vibrant landscapes, and as the FX gets better, so do these. Even in dialogue, before the visuals can achieve this, the descriptions are vivid and imaginative, as shown in the above quotation from the Russell T. Davies episode Gridlock.
If you’re looking for sci-fi, you’ll probably turn to Doctor Who, and if you’re looking for sci-fi, you want to see some alien planets. There are a lot of complaints (that I’m personally averse to) that the Russell T. Davies era is too ‘Earthbound’, and that it needed ‘livening up’. But if you’re being picky, that applies for all of Who, and the alien planets are what ‘liven up’ the series. To quote the First Doctor, “If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?” That applies for both the fictional characters and the viewer.
Here I will count down the Top 10 planets (not including Earth) from the new series, based on not just graphics, but description, ideas, inhabitants and backstories/established history.
10. Other Earth (Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, Army of Ghosts/Doomsday)
Whilst I’m obliged to avoid the Earth per se, this was still technically alien by definition. Many of you here will recall (and perhaps share) my love for MacRae’s criminally underrated Cybermen-reviving two-parter, Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel. The changes in the parallel universe were minimal, meaning that the VFX weren’t too costly, but the changes that were made had an influence over the whole world; the zeppelins causing a physical segregation between the upper and lower classes, and the insane John Lumic nearly causing the complete annihilation of the planet. In a nutshell, this proves how one person, or one invention, can be catastrophic, or game-changing.
9. Ember (A Christmas Carol)
Although not mentioned onscreen (but confirmed in 2012 edition of The Brilliant Book), Ember is the planet where Sardicktown is based, the town featured in the sensational Christmas special. It’s a fun, suitably explained/developed and refreshing Christmassy planet, and that’s what’s important. In many ways, it’s a bit like Seuss’ children’s story setting Whoville (ironic title, giving the show it’s being compared to), but with a tiny little vibe of steampunk in the background. It’s not the best planet in Doctor Who, but in the context of the episode, it more than does its job. There are some fascinating concepts; the Cloud Belt, the Flying Fish, The Debt System, and the authority Mr. Sardick has over even the president. It’s a setting I’d happily see revisited. It has a clear depiction of the rich and poor, and the sacrifices which the poor have to make; it’s a look like Victorian England, but ‘Who-ified’.
8. Mars (The Waters of Mars)
An uninhabitable planet to even the Doctor, resulting in a claustrophobic and philosophical thriller which finally unleashes the Doctor’s catharsis – it’s wonderful, and it’s even a planet we already know: Earth’s neighbour, and if you can’t trust your neighbour, you’re in trouble. The Flood are more primarily the nominees here as the inhabitants, as they’re good in so many aspects. They’re scary; a grotesque regression of us, an aspect which is supported by the physiognomy of the cracked lips which portray a lacking humanity. They’re dangerous; they possess; a notion terrifying to all humans (see: The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit). They’re sensibly incongruous: of all creatures to occupy Mars, they are made of water, which is the planet’s primary deficiency. They’re also unknown, and like the Midnight Creature, that’s the epitome of their scare-factor.
Whilst this is diverging slightly from my intended format, I should briefly mention the use of Mars in the classic series, on several occasions. I particularly enjoyed the twist with Sutekh; being misinterpreted by history as a good, when he is, in fact, an extra-terrestrial demon. Mars’ history with the Ice Warriors was alluded to in The Waters of Mars, keeping within Who continuity.
7. Krop Tor (The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit)
In my opinion, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit is by miles the scariest, and also one of the most captivating, well-written and moving episodes of Doctor Who.
Krop Tor scares me because of its situation; even the Doctor, having had experiences with them in the past (I’m thinking of Omega here), knows how hypothetically ruinous black holes can be. The whole jeopardy of the excursion; the fact that they could fall into this chasm any moment, adds to how terrifying the story is. The barren and hostile topography is terrifically executed by writing, visuals, acting and music, and you can feel the paranormal horror of it. It makes you want to run, and hide, and never think about it again.
Even the base is chilling; it’s not exactly a cosy expedition, particularly when there is an omniscient menace infiltrating even the (presumably) pre-recorded speaker.
I’ve gone for another gripping, spine-tingling, claustrophobic yet superficially harmless and ‘fun’ one here, haven’t I?
What classic Doctor Who is all about is taking a beautiful, appealing place and corrupting it; embroiling the characters in complex and immoral affairs, thus stimulating the audience, and making them question this world. Is it safe? Are the inhabitants correct in their actions?
Midnight does this particularly well, especially using the hair-raising ‘Midnight Creature’; a brutal, shadowy entity with unknown motivations and unidentified plans. What does it want with the people? What would it do if it reached civilisation? There’s a crippling sense of defeat and anxiety as the Doctor is possessed; he’s finally given in, and the fright has manifested itself in the travellers, who are planning on sending him to his execution.
The way Midnight achieves this, though, is through the planet. It’s a ‘leisure hive’ (yes, that pun was intended), and accordingly should be safe. But it’s inhospitable. Even the rays of sunlight are potentially harmful. The fact that the crew can’t leave the cruiser, and that the Midnight entity could survive outside, is just as unsettling a notion as the premise itself. Furthermore, there are still some gorgeous, enticing shots of the planet; both the humanized and natural aspects. It conjures images of the planet’s past, and how it became the place it is. It allows the human mind to wander away from the episode afterwards and create a canon of its own.
Honourable Mention: The Great Unseen
Over the course of Doctor Who’s long and complicated history (predominantly in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy), a number of planets have been mentioned, but not seen. Yes, I know what you’re thinking; what’s in a name? Well, certain planets have been referred to many times, or have been taken to further depths off-screen, but have still never made a televised appearance. An example here is Arcadia: we know, without having an episode make more than a passing reference, that it is or was inhabited by humans, and that it fell in the Last Great Time War. The Doctor witnessed the planet’s destruction.
To me, it’s these ‘passing references’ which help build up the show’s legacy, and introduce new ideas to one day be adapted. You never know; in ten years’ time we might have seen The Fall of Arcadia, or War of the Arcadians…
Honourable Mention: Spin-off Content
It’s hard to gage how many of these fit into Doctor Who canon, because everyone has their own idea of continuity. All on-screen spin-offs seldom ventured outside Earth, so it’s hard to nominate any worthy planets there, though the one that probably comes closest is the planet featured in The Sarah Jane Adventures’ The Empty Planet; a virtually celestial utopia with a curious monarchy system. Cornucopia (for those who aren’t aware, a word that actually means abundance), featured in the Doctor Who Magazine’s graphic novelisation series on more than one occasion, is a unique and beguiling locale, with a superb insight into crime and debasing gluttony.
Above are some of the finest examples of alien landscapes, each of which have their own respective mythology and appeal. But there’s even better, yet; worlds which are so well-thought that they almost seem real. Which planets will make the final five?
[The countdown concludes tomorrow]