Top 10 Alien Planets (New Who Part 2)
In the build-up to The Rings of Akhaten, David Selby concludes his top 10 alien planets countdown.
“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.
“Sunsets, spires and soaring silver colonnades…”
This one has strength in all areas. The visuals are gorgeous, namely the Shill Governor’s Mansion gardens, which are a pleasure to watch (“freaky hedges, mind…”). The Two Streams facility was a stroke of brilliance on McRae’s half: it was kind and lovely, but at the same time, a really horrible notion. The combination of the idea and the backdrop was very effective, and made for a strong, moving storyline. The Handbots, the closest things we saw to natives, were the manifestation of the Two Streams principle: they kill you with kindness.
4. The Library
Whilst I frequently criticize Moffat in terms of storytelling and superfluity, I can’t help but admire his creativity when it comes to quintessential sci-fi concepts. The Library was one these; imagine it, a whole, vast planet dedicated simply to books. The possibilities are endless, and any of us who are book-lovers are awestruck by the sheer thought of it.
The best part of this, though, is the way Moffat chose to extend the image further; swiftly making the venue unsafe by introducing the Vashta Nerada, who hatched from the books – something which is necessary and irremovable from the planet.
The Data Core is the highlight, however, because of how utterly disturbing it is. Imagine it: a world which can be controlled at your fancy and shaped by your will, unknowingly, skipping the ‘boring bits’ and allowing you to live a happy, simplistic life. But as soon as you’re aware that it’s fiction, it begins to fall apart around you, and you turn it into a nightmare. Everything you think is real is fabricated, and what is real isn’t how it superficially appears; it’s an embodiment of library technologies. Wow, Moffat. That one was pretty impressive.
Whilst this one isn’t categorically a planet, it’s possibly the most ingenious, thought-provoking and inimitable on this list. House wasn’t just an asteroid; he was an antagonist, and one of the Doctor’s most challenging adversaries. His sadistic illusions created in the TARDIS were reflected back at the scenes between the Doctor and Idris, who we were now aware were standing on the shell of a perverse, malevolent being. House was suitably cunning and deceitful; enjoying every moment of prolonging the protagonists’ tortures. Michael Sheen’s performance enhanced this as we were presented with ‘a planet with a voice’. What’s unique about this place is that you can tell how House has shaped Auntie and Uncle; broken souls, who have been ‘patched over’ so many times that they’re now void of what made them human. Ultimately, it adds to the basest threat of House.
The junkyard aspect, meanwhile, was yet another form of originality from Gaiman. The pictorial aspect was spellbinding whilst the cluttered corridors symbolized terror and secrets around every corner.
2. New Earth
This particular area of the future was recounted by Russell T. Davies over three separate episodes (The End of the World/New Earth/Gridlock) and thus became something of a trilogy; telling the account of how humanity coped with the end of the world, how they found another home, and how that home met its downfall via corruption and disease.
The futuristic part of New Earth was Russell T. Davies’ science-fantasy (yes, I’m going there) at its absolute finest. The first scene when the Doctor and Rose materialise outside of the hospital transmits an aura of magic and wonder. Perhaps simply the setting, billions of years in our future (circa six billion, I believe?), was enough to do this, if you imagine the sheer quantity of years in between, and how we could have evolved. It’s a bit like heaven, really, because it’s so far away, and so unimaginable, that the mind can hardly cope with it all. It’s still true to science, though; as we adapt, so do diseases.
Something I really love, though, and what earns this the second place, is the hidden allegory for present day which lies beneath the surface of both the stories set on this planet.
In New Earth, Russell T. Davies is attempting to portray the healthcare system: it’s reliable, advanced, punctuous and constantly progressing, but it’s an immoral scheme; innocent lives (real life: animals, New Earth: eugenics) are being lost in the process of finding cures. It also illustrates how people can turn unethical or evil because of their fundamental survival instinct (Cassandra), and how this callous temperament can be brought on by low self-esteem (Cassandra valuing any kind of compliment greatly).
In Gridlock, we’re presented with the rather adult issue of drug dealing. You’ve got the girl who is tempted by her because it offers something appealing (Forget) but ends up messing with her body. You can see already that she’s pale, and drained of life; allusions to having dealt with these kind of drugs before. Both the dealers and the users don’t see the potential damage that the drugs do nor why they are any different to other medicine. But the drugs end up having cataclysmic influences; obliterating life in New New York within a matter of hours. It’s tragic, but true; subtly, Russell T. Davies is warning us of the dangers of drug use, and, in my experience, rightfully so.
What’s so beautiful about this methodology is that it makes you question the world around you, and how you would react in different circumstances. Profoundly, it alters your perspective on current affairs. And it’s managing to do that with young children – placing a message deep inside the subconscious that these sorts of things (i.e. drug abuse) are wrong. That should be enough to make parents force their kids to watch Doctor Who.
The classic series was all about establishing Gallifrey’s mythology and providing a basis for the show; a home for the Doctor. Gradually, Gallifrey was besmirched, as we saw the true nature of the Time Lords. In the dramatic conclusion to The War Games, we met the Time Lords for the first time, and witnessed the extent of their power. It was a very influential story, as we found out the truth behind the Doctor’s roots. Later, the sordidness of the Time Lords was exaggerated – this quote coming from The Ultimate Foe:
“In all my travelling throughout the universe, I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilisation: decadent, degenerate, and rotten to the core. Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen – they’re still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power. That’s what it takes to be really corrupt.”
The new series, however, took a much more suggestive approach; we only saw Gallifrey twice: once in The Sound of Drums, and a couple of times in The End of Time. Those one-off cinematic shots, I think, are much more significant and memorable than, say, a whole episode with a lower budget and a less impressive horizon. You get to see the splendour, the magnificence of the Time Lords in The Sound of Drums; whatever you’ve heard about them, you can’t help but admire their beautiful civilisation: the gleaming citadel, the burnt orange sky, it’s somewhat idyllic. It induces imagery of paradise with a single description (“They used to call it the Shining World of the Seven Systems. And on the continent of Wild Endeavour, in the mountains of Solace and Solitude, there stood the Citadel of the Time Lords”). It makes you want to be there; it makes you more upset by the Time War, as you see what could have been.
The End of Time then perverts this image, showing how this ‘heaven’ can soon become hell, bringing in more explicit, more vivid accounts of the Time War, but still keeping them brief. The Nightmare Child, in particular, has been accentuated upon in the new series, as possibly the greatest horror of the Time War. You can imagine it as a literal child, or the product (‘child’ in this instance signifying a ‘birth’ of a weapon) of war. Essentially, you have to imagine it as the worst thing you possibly can: a grotesque fusion of all your ghastliest nightmares.
That’s why I love Gallifrey. You see both sides; the blissful utopia (I found myself transported there simply by listening to Murray Gold’s divine This is Gallifrey), and the macabre war, where people are resurrected, only to find “new ways of dying”. You simply have to credit Russell T. Davies for his profound, if a little warped imagination in these cases.
Honourable Mention: The Runners-up
I had considered certain other choices for my Top Ten (although my Top Two were decided from the off). These included:
Malcassairo – An authentic depiction of a post-apocalyptic sanctuary; dwellers clinging onto the last shred of hope, and whilst technology has regressed, it still feels very, very far away
The Ood-Sphere – Accompanied by an extraordinarily harrowing history, but painfully realistic; an industrial trade-world illustrating humankind’s vilest ambitions
Messaline – Portrayal of harsh warfare; a bleak and barren world with evident dangers, plus proof of how unintended chicanery can lead to a huge misinterpretation
San Helios – A haunting world, with lasting echoes of the dead, and a horrific mystery which unfolds throughout the narrative
Honourable Mention: The Classics
Whilst this article isn’t strictly about the classic series, it would be an atrocity to go without mentioning it. There were innumerable alien planets featured in the classics, so it’s hard to do them all justice. Quite frankly, I’m stunned that I haven’t yet mentioned Skaro, but as I’m speaking about the classics, I’m obliged to; in Genesis of the Daleks, it was many of the above: a despicable war ground filled with experiments gone wrong, a ruined civilisation grasping onto hope, and the centre of a story rife with symbolism (Second World War/Skaro War). I extol the writers for showing it using a convoluted narrative; spacing its history non-chronologically over a number of years.
Other planets worth mentioning: Peladon, Mondas (for the stories that came out of it), Vortis, Marinus, Eden, Spiradon, the Cheetah Planet, Kastria, Metebelis Three, and, of course, Gallifrey again.
And so that’s the end of my article. I hope those of you who doubted The Rings of Akhaten have had your appetites whetted by this recapitulation; I hope you share my optimism based on the amount of tremendous alien planets we’ve had in the past. I also hope, though, that the episode doesn’t fall into the trap of relying too heavily on VFX; I want to see a strong storyline – not just some pretty pictures. In my opinion, that’s what the above did well: conveying an interesting and captivating narrative, developing the foundations of a new and exciting world, and bringing us legends from its past, leading to actions in the present, and an infinite number of possible futures.