Humanity, Empire, and the Ood – Reactions to Doctor Who S04E03 “Planet of the Ood”

I just finished watching Doctor Who season four episode three–“Planet of the Ood.” I felt moved to write something. It’s not a review and definitely not a formal essay. That’s why I’m calling this a reactions piece–a rambling, hopefully coherent piece that will share my thoughts about the episode.

For those of you who don’t know, Doctor Who is an extremely long running British television series. And also for those of you who also don’t know, I’m from the US, and I just started watching the show this year. The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that the series has a fundamental British-ness about it–whatever that means. I believe that “Planet of the Ood” exemplifies the series’ British-ness, especially surrounding concepts like empire and the Other.

The episode opens with the Doctor taking Donna to the Ood-Sphere, an ice planet and home of the Ood, in the year 4126. During the course of the episode, he remarks that they are in the middle of the Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire. Little warning bells went off in my mind as soon as he said that. And I think this is where the series’ inherent British-ness is really apparent. This is a sweeping generalization, but I feel like because empire played such a huge role throughout the course of British history that the fabric of empire has been imprinted on the modern British psyche–for better and worse.

I don’t think it’s any secret that we’re supposed to draw parallels between this Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire and the British Empire. What’s interesting is how many critics praised the episode for its commentary on slavery, but I don’t see it. Not the commentary itself–I saw that–but why the episode is deserving of so much praise (on those ideological grounds).

The Ood are a perfect Other. They’re humanoid, but distinctly not-human. With squid-like tentacles where a human’s mouth would be and a strange appendage attached to their heads, the Ood are both fascinating and terrifying because of how similar and how strange they are. The fact that the Doctor and Donna fight for the Ood against oppression is supposed to be seen as a major victory.

In the episode we learn that the Ood are being sold in three human-dominated galaxies as the perfect servants. In fact, they’ve been bred and surgically manipulated to be that way. Obviously there are parallels with slavery on Earth, and when the Ood finally free themselves the Doctor and Donna pat themselves on the back for a job well done. The Ood are free because they deserve to be free because slavery’s bad. We get it. It’s very surface level.

The problem comes down to the inherent British-ness of the series. The way I see it, Doctor Who sees slavery as bad (because it is) but doesn’t seem to recognize that empire is just as bad and leads to things like oppression and slavery. The concept of empire, with its unequal power structures, creates Others its less fortunate subjects–some of them slaves. If the Doctor was really trying to stop slavery, he wouldn’t just fly away in the TARDIS after helping the Ood. Instead he’d go help dismantle this Second (Supposedly) Great and Bountiful Human Empire.

I realize that this is just a TV and that the United States also has a tumultuous history with empire, but I can’t help but feel like the episode missed the point a little bit. And now my train of thought is starting to come apart. I know there’s a lot more that could be said about empire, the Doctor, the Ood, and the Other, but my brain’s tired and I need to go to bed. I’m going to keep watching the series because for the most part it has an element of absurdity to it that’s pretty awesome. I just hope the next episode they try to do some serious commentary it’s a little more successful.