'Planet of Evil' has fallen on hard times. Back when fans' only knowledge of old Doctor Who stories were hazy memories story guides like that in Doctor Who: A Celebration, 'Planet of Evil' was a terrifying story that drew on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to great effect and was even compared to Alien, as a monster picked up on an alien planet slaughtered the crew of a spaceship. With the video release however, opinions became rather more divided, and 'Planet of Evil' was found by many to disappoint. But 'Planet of Evil' doesn't really deserve its poor reputation. Whilst it is overshadowed by the stories on either side of it, it still has much to offer.
Firstly, the jungle set, one of the story's most famous aspects, is pretty good. It looks suitably different from any jungle on Earth, and its rubbery vegetation gives it a very alien feel, which is enhanced greatly by the wise decision to shoot many of the jungle scenes on film. Indeed, Zeta Minor is one of the most unearthly alien planets seen in the series, with its weird foliage, non-reflective black pool and the Anti-Matter monster. The monster too is far more alien than many seen in the series, due to its appearance as a red outline (an obvious, but effective homage to Forbidden Planet), and the fact that unlike many intelligent aliens in Doctor Who it doesn't speak English, its only communication with the Doctor achieved through a surreal scene in a black void.
Set amidst this alien landscape, Episode One gets off to a promising start. Sorensen sets the scene with his terse assertion that the planet is alive, and the deaths of the two Morestrans are dramatic and disturbing, as they vanish screaming in agony, only to reappear as quite convincing shriveled corpses. The sense of danger established in these early scenes is maintained throughout, with the Anti-Matter Monster and the Anti-Men well nigh unstoppable; the tension in Episode Four as the marauding advance through the ship and agonized screams are heard over the communications system, whilst the ship plummets back towards Zeta Minor is palpable. However, flaws start to appear in Episode One as the Doctor and Sarah are imprisoned in a room from which they can easily escape; admittedly the script addresses this, and it gives Sarah something to do since it is she who realises that with the failing power the magnetic window locks will have weakened, but it feels very contrived.
I'm in two minds about the Morestran probe ship sets. They are very sparse, and this contrasts sharply with the jungle on Zeta Minor, and this makes a certain amount of sense since it further enhances the planet's alien feel and also military vehicles are not renowned for their décor. On the other hand, these sets are so stark and featureless that they are actually boring to look at, and ironically the comparatively moody lighting in the corridors makes them marginally more interesting than the command area. The Morestran costumes are also pretty awful, which doesn't help the story's visual appeal during the latter two episodes.
In addition to these minor flaws, there are two aspects of 'Planet of Evil' that I originally considered to be weaknesses, but as the story progressed I found that, bizarrely, they actually added to the story. The first is the anti-matter plot line. As Kate Orman has pointed out, anti-matter does not cause people to turn into ape-men, it simply causes huge explosions in collision with matter. Initially, this makes this plot seem like pure technobabble, but then in Episode Two, during a conversation between the Doctor and Sarah, it is pointed out that matter and anti-matter in collision causes a massive release of energy (as seen in 'The Three Doctors'). Suddenly, by addressing this inconsistency, the script makes the anti-matter plotline seem less like technobabble and more like intentional fantasy, and in doing so adds further to otherworldly nature of Zeta Minor, subtly reminding us that this unique planet is a gateway between universes, neither entirely in this universe nor the universe of anti-matter. This also ties in with the Doctor's implication that if the Morestran ship manages to get too far from Zeta Minor with anti-matter on board, there will be a cataclysmic explosion that will threaten the entire universe, suggesting that Zeta Minor exists in a state contrary to the laws of physics.
The second aspect is Salamaar. In my opinion, there is no evidence in Doctor Who that Prentis Hancock can act; he was wooden in 'Planet of the Daleks' and he's wooden here, although it doesn't help that he's playing very similar characters in both stories. Nevertheless, Salamaar the character is rather interesting. He's ludicrously unstable and clearly unfit for command, making reckless decisions and twice intending to execute the Doctor and Sarah simply because it will make his life easier if they are responsible for killing the Morestrans on Zeta Minor. When he eventually accepts the truth, he adopts a death and glory attitude, launching a suicidal and misguided attack on Sorenson that further endangers the surviving crew. Initially, I found it absurd that such an unstable character could become commander of a military expedition, but as the story progressed this too made me think; there are hints that Sorenson's influence back on Morestra will get him whatever he wants, and once these hints of corruption are sown it raises the obvious possibility that Morestra is so corrupt that Salamaar himself reached a high ranking position because of friends in high places. This is further supported by the fact that the much more competent but disruptive Vishinski holds a lower position, raising the possibility that his outspoken nature has harmed his career.
The acting in 'Planet of Evil' is variable. Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen by now play their roles with ease, and the Doctor gets to be suitably impressive here, claiming that he is not without influence and proving able to communicate with the Anti-Matter Monster. Sladen is convincingly frightened at appropriate moments, especially the cliffhanger to Episode Three and during the final attack of the Anti-Men in Episode Four. Frederick Jaeger is superb as Sorensen, playing the tortured scientist with great emotion. Sorensen's initial obsession with his work is so all consuming that he blames the Doctor and Sarah for the deaths of his colleagues and strenuously denies both the Doctor's claims about Zeta Minor and also the transformation that he is undergoing. But Jaeger suggests that Sorenson is also troubled by his conscience, and his quiet confession to the Doctor in Episode four that "My hypothesis was false" has rather a noble ring to it. In story terms, this admission seems to bring him redemption, and the Anti-Matter Monster unexpectedly cures him at the end of the story. Vishinski is also well acted by Ewan Solon, but the other Morestrans are utterly forgettable, with one or two (Ponti being a prime example) being quite bad.
In summary, 'Planet of Evil' is flawed but effective and certainly doesn't deserve its recent poor reputation. In a weaker season it might stand out more, but as it stands it is overshadowed by both 'Terror of the Zygons' and the story that follows
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Positive: even now that Im older it still manages to be somewhat creepy, with a great jungle set and sound effects (still find the peculiar tinkle that accompanies the anti-matter monsters effective). Considering the Dalek voices and many other great sound effects in Doctor Who, Im beginning to think it was one of the BBCs best strengths at the time, and perhaps still is.
Negative: the effects (certainly all the spaceship shots) dont hold up, and take away from the overall effectiveness. In fact, theyre laughable, and could easily be replaced.
Positive: its interesting for being the Doctor Who tribute to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Negative: the whole scientists-shouldnt-meddle-where-they-dont -belong theme is a little tired.
Positive: the acting by the leads/regulars is solid, Frederick Jaeger is excellent at portraying Sorensens clouded mind, and Ewan Solon is good as Vishinski. Id have to say that as a youth, Vishinski pretty much stands out in my mind as a great example of good, listening leadership.
Negative: Prentis Hancock as Salamaar, ouch. To try and be fair, he isnt given much good dialogue.
Positive: the idea of a planet that is something of a lynchpin between universes, containing elements of both, that are not to be disturbed, is a good one. Are the anti-matter creatures on the planet appointed guardians? Are there no matter guardians to stop them from taking matter through into a universe where it doesnt belong? Perhaps this never happens in the anti-matter universe because they have less flawed system, something better than a corrupt power structure and its struggles?
Negative: all the characters know nothing except what the Doctor tells them Salamaar accepts that the Doctor is correct in assuming that the anti-matter is holding the ship back (despite later mistrusting and shooting the Doctor), and later Vishinski simply accepts that Sorensen was infected by something on the planet. Why isnt there a scientist on board, other than Sorensen, who could inform the crew of some of these things? Seems odd to send out a ship with a captain, (oh, sorry controller), a second in command and a bunch of grunts. And the uniforms make them look more like superheroes than military. The weapons are also a little inconsistent Salamaar appears to kill a guard with his pistol, but the Doctor is shot point blank in the head and recovers.
Positive: it was a great and atmospheric set of episodes when I was young.
Negative: its far less creepy, and closer to overly dramatic space opera now that Im older, though to end of a positive note
Positive: it was fun to revisit.
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To be honest, its a bit difficult to introduce Planet Of Evil. Its a very, very strong story but only in very standard ways, as if its formula has been taken from a textbook. I could go on about the great plot and design work while mentioning the occasional flashes of scripting and acting brilliance but, while all true, none of it is exactly unique. Its just a bloomin good story, well suited to being in Doctor Whos best season.
The jungle set on Zeta Minor has its detractors but I think its probably the best set the series ever had: the studio-recorded scenes are bearable (a rarity) while the film-recorded ones are terrific, an absolute triumph of lighting that actually uses shadows effectively rather than being swamped in them unintentionally. The subdued lighting obscures the fine detail making it seem even more realistic, while the addition of small details such as puddles are the icing on the cake. Amazing. Its also helped by a good score: Dudley Simpson had got over his dire electronic phase under Barry Letts and was now producing some good material perfectly suited to the episodes themselves, here aided by Peter Howells augmentations. The studio interiors, by contrast, are extremely plain (season 11 style), and I notice that some of the electronic equipment in fact comes from The Ark In Space. However, Id rather have them plain than have them extremely complicated and suffer as a result (naming no names, but it involves the Doctor strangling his companion).
The set design helps in part to create a brilliantly atmospheric introduction, in which the last survivors of the Morestran expedition are wiped out by some unseen force; the unknown has always been the most dramatic and interesting for me, and here it is only spoiled by actually seeing the victims disappear and reappear again, which doesnt make much sense anyway.
The TARDIS scene, again a rarity in the Philip Hinchcliffe years, showcases the wonderful dynamic of Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker, illustrating why they were the best Doctor / companion duo; Sladens clumsy characterisation that held her back when she first appeared has now settled down, creating an immensely likeable and realistic character. Spotters of these things can see an enormous boom mike shadow on the wall near the beginning of the scene though (seriously, you can make out every detail of it, its terrible). It leads on to them entering the jungle where Sarah first experiences the monster; her acting is brilliant, such as when she says as if my mind left my body in a very quiet and subdued voice, increasing the menace greatly. Im a believer in the power of understatement, and this is a fine example.
The spacecraft, however, comes as a real let down. The spartan sets that just about passed for the scientific base now just look boring, and the costumes are truly terrible: light cotton spacesuits with shoulder pads, open necks and flares. Morestra must be a really culturally backwards society; its the 380th century (or thereabouts) and theyre still living in the 1970s. The common, prosaic names of the characters implies that Morestra may be a former Earth colony, and in fact the crew are portrayed as being more multinational if their names are anything to go by than we usually see with humans (Morelli: Italian; OHara: Irish; De Haan: German, etc.). There is some very crude exposition here as Salamar (played dreadfully by Prentis Hancock, possibly the worst guest actor to have appeared in the programme more than twice) goes through the hierarchy of the ship to help the audience. While Im on the subject Ewen Solon and Frederick Jaeger are the standouts among the guest cast here; suggestions that this is because theyd worked together on The Savages almost a decade earlier always seem a bit tenuous to me, but whatever the reason they are both excellent.
The shrivelled bodies left by the antimatter monster are gruesome in the extreme, even though after a while it becomes obvious that there is only one corpse prop that gets dressed up differently each time. There is a thorough explanation of the cause of death which isnt really necessary as the mode of the killings arent directly relevant to the story; nevertheless its seriously creepy and if Id seen this when I was very young (I didnt, and if Im honest it was probably for the best, I was a sensitive soul as a nipper) it would have provided some serious nightmare material.
Elisabeth Sladens cant breathe acting is absolutely identical to other stories where shes been cut off from oxygen (The Ark In Space, Terror Of The Zygons do you think the production team where subtly hinting at something here? Nah), but shes still brilliant. In fact, shes so superior in her scenes featuring Hancock that I cant shake the feeling she was mocking him. Theres also a nice piece of direction here where the shot of the tool shes holding cuts to a shot of its empty place on a rack, although I notice that there seem to be some focussing problems when there are sudden movements in this episode.
Bakers constant boggle-eyed expression is an exaggeration top his performance that I hadnt thought had kicked in yet; its a shame as its things like that that show why he could have been the best actor to play the role yet wasnt. The cliffhanger to the first episode is brilliant though, as the antimatter monster is revealed for the first time: it shows Hinchcliffes habit of finding out if special effects can be done well beforehand (surely just common sense, but youd be amazed). Also, it utilises the image-loss effect that happens whenever something shiny is CSOd; I always love it when what are normally problems for lesser producers and directors are integrated and used to produce great results. It strikes me as slightly odd though that the Doctor and Sarah leg it off into the jungle to let OHara get thrashed. Haydn Woods death-throes are good though, and some good direction shows the beast looming over him. The Morestran gunshots are more good effects (see how it pays to keep it simple?), although they do appear to hit Sarah as she runs off into the jungle.
The dawn sequence is amazingly atmospheric as the Doctor and Sarah hide from the monster, a scene helped by the Doctor quoting from Shakespeare (Romeo And Juliet III.v.9-10, by the way). Id say that the film-recorded jungle scenes in this story are the best the programme ever did from a purely visual point of view. The oculoid tracker has a silly big eye but other than that it works fine as well, and I love the shots of it weaving through the vegetation.
The idea of the pool between the worlds is great (a sort of macabre version of The Magicians Nephew), but only let down by being in fact described as a pool and its presented as being a simple hole. If theyd had it as that in the first place it may have been better, but Im nitpicking so never mind. Its also slightly patronising and lazy how the psychic Doctor has worked out the problem already so that he can talk us through it upon the presentation of some actual evidence. Sorenson provides a bit of explanation about the antimatter, a bad scene turned into a good one by his wholly ignorant foil, De Haan. Michael Wisher, by contrast, having created the most iconic character ever (after the Doctor, obviously) the previous season is here cast in the utterly thankless role of Morelli, and seems thoroughly bored. Cant say I blame him, really.
The Doctors portentous revelation about the nature of the problem is very well written and performed, although the cataclysm idea lacks development and is only provided so as to deny the Doctor an excuse to high-tail it out of there. Also, how does Sarah know what the compression units sound like? Do they just come as standard?
Before thoughts of little spaceship mechanics indelibly lodge in my head and distract me Ill move on and say that the cartoon starburst effect for the force field is actually quite decent if a little silly, and the cliffhanger provides Hinchcliffe with his one freeze frame per season.
The effects for the antimatter void, yet again, are great through their simplicity. Sorensons transformation, although similarly well visualised, has come out of nowhere and could have done with being established a bit earlier. Like I said though it looks great, and ironically blurring is used effectively to obscure his features (Im not sure what the point of that is as we see him pretty clearly pretty soon, but even so).
Morelli being a Morestran Orthodox is more detail than we normally get with alien races (it smacks of Robert Holmess influence actually), even though the Morestrans like many other races are just humans by another name.
Hancock gets even worse when trying to be intense; hes quite painful to watch and lets down the cliffhanger, which otherwise is dramatic and exciting. Episode four then kicks off on all six cylinders, even though I think its a mistake setting the story so much on the ship rather than the planet. The idea of an alien loose aboard the ship smacks of fun B-movie It! The Terror From Beyond Space (this was four years before Alien, dont forget), making it the third major reference of the story, the others being Forbidden Planet and Robert Louis Stevensons The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. It may not be original particularly, but its good TV all the same.
The Doctors confrontation with Sorenson is another very well written and tense scene, but Hancock gets even worse still which is hard to believe considering he started at the bottom anyway. His death comes as a blessed relief, finishing off the mortality rate (not including nameless cannon-fodder extras, as usual) at a vast 80%. Is it me, or does the special effect of Sorensons duplication look like the video of Queens Bohemian Rhapsody? It does lead to some more great (and scary) effects as the multiple antimen roam the ship.
The resolution isnt the most dramatic ever, but at least it makes sense. Sorenson survives, which is unusually merciful by this storys standards, and leads to a charming resolution in which the ships two survivors are left to fly it on their own (sorry, unnecessary sarcasm. A fair point though, I think, even given that emergency refuelling business).
As far as a final rating goes, Planet Of Evil is a very tricky one to make a decision about. My memory of it was of a clear 5/5, but on re-viewing its a borderline between Very Good and Excellent; it would be the best story of a lot of other seasons but given the overall brilliance of season 13 Im going to grit my teeth and withhold a maximum rating if only to distinguish this story from its peers. Ill probably regret it later, though.
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Not exactly painfully mediocre - but not exactly great either.
This pretty well sums up "Planet of Evil" in my book. It's a solid little Tom Baker tale with an interesting monster, a bit of an overused premise and a lot of fun on a spaceship and jungle set! It serves up a nice adventure but it really doesn't stand out much in anyway. Which, when you think about it, is the case with quite a bit of the Tom Baker era. Yes, he has some of the best stories the series ever saw, but when it's not one of those classic stories, we get some pretty "paint-by-numbers" storytelling going on. Though "Planet Of Evil" exemplifies this idea quite heavilly, I'd still say it's a bit better than a lot of the other more bland Who stories of this era.
The jungle set is, of course, one of the most memorable aspects of this story. I won't go on about it too much because lots of you already have. But it certainly looks gorgeous and shooting it on film makes it look even better. By contrast, the spaceship interior looks like it was cobbled together by multiple other spaceship interiors used over the years on the show. There definitely seems a lot of "Ark In Space" and "The Mutants" stuff in there. Which just gives the story even more of a "been there done that" kind-of-feel. Not only are certain elements of the script re-hashed - but so are certain elements of the set!
Which is the biggest problem this story suffers. The "scientist meddling with powers he shouldn't be meddling with" concept has been so overdone by this point in the show's history that it seems almost laughable that the Doctor is being so dramatic about it all. You'd think he'd be so tired of arguing with stupid scientists by this point that he would just club them over the head - stop whatever project it is they're working on - and head back to the TARDIS by the end of episode two! But, instead, we get the usual runaround where the Doctor pleads endlessly with Sorensen to abandon his research whilst dealing with various plot complications created by other members of the supporting cast. It's all pretty "pantomime", really. Even though the Doctor's quote about a "scientist's ultimate responsibility" is very well-delivered.
By the same token, there are some elements to this story that make it a bit "fresh" too. The use of the TARDIS in this story was quite unusual for this era. Usually, the TARDIS serves as merely a way to get the main characters to the story location. The fact that it's instrumental in saving the day is a bit unusual. Which is a nice touch.
I also enjoyed the way the millitairy team is presented. The concept of a Captain and a Senior Officer is sort of a neat one which kind of makes sense in some ways but would also be a breeding ground for power struggles (which is, inevitably, what happens by episode four!). I also quite liked the burly crewmember whose name presently eludes me. A nice little bit of comic relief in a tale that tried desperately to take itself seriously all the time (even though, as always, we get some pretty laughable-looking effects that become even more laughable because it's all trying to be so dramatically intense).
A third nice strongpoint to this tale is the way we see that the Doctor is "not without influence" because of his status as a Time Lord. It's a neat sort of concept that lends a deeper image of power to his origins. Anyone else falling into that pit just plain dies. But the Doctor, because of who he is, is able to communicate with the anti-matter monster and reach a resolution to the plot. And the actual sequences in the void are very surreal and well-achieved. Another point many of you have made so I won't go into it more than I have to.
Now, we come to the performances of the supporting cast. We have, quite noticeably, the notorious Prentis Hancock back on the scene. Sorry to sound so catty, but who the hell told this guy he could act?! So wooden and yet trying so desperately to be dramatic. It all looks quite dreadful. In harsh contrast, the casting of Sorenson was a great move. He is played to perfection, giving us all the right emotions at all the right times. Watching the actual scenes where Salamar and Sorenson are playing off of each other are almost like having a plate of filet mignon and human fecal matter placed in front of you and being told to eat it!
Ew. That was a gross mental image.
Anyway, moving on to some other performers. I loved Tom Baker's work in this story. This is all way before he went so zany with the part and I really enjoyed just how serious he could be sometimes. Particularly in this story. It's almost as if the removal of the scarf in episode two is symbolic. He recognises that it is a bit of a silly piece of costuming and ditches it so he can get really dramatic for the final two episodes.
And now, another harsh contrast. One that I'm sure a lot of you will take great issue with. I'm sorry folks, but I was never quite sure what was the big fuss about Lis Sladen. Her character with Pertwee, though a bit "choppy" in places, was far more interesting. By the time we get to second season Tom Baker (as we are in this story) she has become such a blatant plot cypher that I really find her to be practically characterless. She's still not quite as dumb as Jo Grant, but boy can she stumble around, get into trouble and then get rescued! Or, on a rare occassion or two, she can actually be able useful and help the Doctor. In Planet of Evil, she displays this mediocrity of character in great abundance. I don't blame the actress too much - moreso the poor scipt-writing. This is frequently the case with the Doctor Who when the protagonist is travelling with just a single female character from the twentieth century. She's used to serve the plot rather than given a lot of interesting nuances to her personality. Only with latter-day examples like Ace and Rose has this problem been solved. Whereas poor old Sarah Jane, to me, seems about as cut-and-paste as the female companion can be in this story.
Wow, it was tough writing that last paragraph knowing how much some of you will be offended by my heresy. But now, let's move on:
My only other big bone of contention with this story is that it really does lose steam in episode three. The tribute to Jeckell and Hyde, though nice in some ways, is blatant padding. A desperate attempt on the writer's behalf to introduce a subplot virtually out of nowhere that will fill the episode and get us to part four. It's a pity the show was so dedicated to evenly-numbered stories during this era. Part three could have easilly been chopped out and we could have been given a nice tight three-parter that might have moved up the callibre of this story quite significantly. Just think of how enjoyable stories like "Happiness Patrol", "Survival" and "Ghost Light" were in the late 80s because they didn't force themselves' to just "put in time" til they got to that fourth episode. Sadly, no such luck here. Instead, the story gets slowed to a bit of a snail's pace until it can be brought back up to steam for a nice climax in the final episode.
Still, overall, I'd rather put this story more in a positive light than a negative one. There are a lot of strongpoints here with a few negative aspects that drag it down a bit. It's a good solid story with a nice sense of adventure to it. Very dramatic and intense and much of that drama is used very effectively. Better than most of the "blandness" some of the Tom Baker era suffered.
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