Doctor Who Project: Planet of Evil

It’s fifteen degrees to night.

It’s for the best that Doctor Who story titles aren’t subject to truth-in-advertising laws, because Louis Marks’ “Planet of Evil” (Story Production Code 4H) would otherwise find itself hauled before the magistrate. The planet in question, Zeta Minor, “the last planet of the known universe,” does house a portal to an anti-matter dimension, whence an energy creature that kills a good score of humans over the course of four episodes originates, but there’s no actual malice or ill-intent involved. If anything, the anti-matter monster fights for good, or at least for survival, because removing any anti-matter from Zeta Minor will result in a cataclysmic explosion, destroying the universe. Like, the whole thing.

Please drop all anti-matter you might be carrying.

“Planet of Moral Utilitarianism” doesn’t make for a very pithy title, however, so “Planet of Evil” will have to suffice. The set dressing and direction do go to great lengths to create a moody, dark, and claustrophobic environment on the planet, helping to foster a sense of tension and horror reminiscent of the battlefield scenes in “Genesis of the Daleks” and the mine scenes in “The Green Death.” In order to keep the monster hidden until the obligatory revelation at the end of the first episode, though, the hapless human miners and guards killed by the creature must fall to the ground wrestling with an invisible foe; the inevitable campy gurning somewhat undercuts the desired effect of terror and malevolence.

Stop hitting yourself!

Once revealed, the anti-matter creature’s design proves to be both effective and well-conceived, the glowing red lines matting brilliantly against both the humid jungle and the later beige-and-white interior scenes. It’s hard to imagine that this is the same show that gave us the woeful animatronic Loch Ness Monster just one story prior.

The humans, from the planet Morestra, seek to harness the power of anti-matter crystals found on the planet to provide their civilization with limitless energy to replace that of their dying star. Apparently, by the year 37,166 (as dated by one of the plentiful gravestones scattered in the encampment), humanity still hasn’t figured out its energy problems; even the spaceship sent to rescue the mineralogical survey team headed by Professor Sorensen (Frederick Jaeger) has just enough fuel to reach the far-flung planet and return, leaving little in reserve should, say, an anti-matter creature decide to prevent the ship from taking off again.

Attempting to escape Zeta Minor

The Doctor and Sarah, somewhat off-course on their intended short hop from the Scottish Highlands to London, arrive in the temporal-spatial vicinity of a distress call sent by one of the miners. The TARDIS homes in on the signal, and the Doctor feels compelled to investigate, with the result that he and Sarah are poking at a desiccated body when the Morestran space patrol shows up. As is typical, they are blamed for the multitude of deaths, and over the course of the first three episodes, every time they escape from the Morestrans, they stumble upon another victim of the energy creature and are blamed for that death, too.

Our time travellers find themselves subject to much ill-treatment in this one, including one nearly-successful attempt at summary execution by being tossed into space, so much so that Sarah asks, “Do you ever get tired of being pushed around?” The Doctor has reached his limit, it seems, responding, “Frequently,” and not much later, he punches someone out.

Not quite Venusian Karate

It’s obvious that our good Doctor isn’t a very efficient pugilist, as he doesn’t incapacitate the Morestran Controller, Salamar, for long—indeed, only long enough for the Doctor to discover yet another body—but the very fact of the Doctor striking someone comes as a shock. Louis Marks had the Third Doctor similarly indulge in uncharacteristic violence in his last story, “Day of the Daleks,” with Pertwee’s Doctor taking careful aim at and then vaporizing an Ogron a good fifty feet away.

Marks suffers from Nation-fluenza, it seems, with the Doctor really just another character in the story; his prior story likewise saw the Doctor playing a co-equal role (at best) to a plucky band of time-travelling anti-Dalek guerrillas. Here, the command structure intrigues between the older and wiser Vishinsky (Ewan Solon) and the headstrong Salmar (Prentis Hancock) occupy far more time than any banter between the Brig and Benton ever did.

The fancy t-shirt indicates rank

Still, the Doctor does provide the resolution to the story in both concept and execution in a way that highlights his essential alienness, which is fast becoming the Fourth Doctor’s signature trait. In short, the Doctor jumps into the portal between the matter and anti-matter universes, and after a very long sequence of Tom Baker spinning around against a black backdrop, he manages to communicate with the energy creature. He promises the creature that no anti-matter will leave Zeta Minor, and the creature agrees to stop attacking the Morestrans in return.

Around and around

But through the connivance of Sorensen, himself contaminated with anti-matter, a store of it remains on the ship when it lifts off, causing the creature to pull the ship back towards Zeta Minor, slowly at first but then with enough speed to crash the ship on the planet. With a suitable deadline ticking, the Doctor gets to work, managing to haul Sorensen—by now split into multiple versions of the anti-matter creature thanks to Salmar attacking him with neutron radiation—into the TARDIS. A quick and highly accurate trip to the dimensional portal sees the Doctor throw Sorensen, after a struggle, into the portal, ostensibly to his death. Indeed, though one could argue that Sorensen was off balance when he fell into the portal, the Doctor’s intention was to return the anti-matter inextricably linked with Sorensen’s being back to the anti-matter universe. The Doctor’s shock at finding Sorensen returned, uncontaminated and alive, moments later speaks to the fact that the Doctor expected Sorensen to be on a one-way trip.

This issue of utilitarianism, of the greater good outweighing the individual good, has long flitted about the background of Doctor Who, suggested but seldom quite brought out in the open as it is in “Planet of Evil.” Certainly, the Doctor has been willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good, but rarely does the Doctor willingly sacrifice someone else, or at least an individual—when it comes to unnamed extras, soldiers and colonists and villagers and so forth, the Doctor bemoans their loss (usually) but sees it as necessary to stopping the Daleks, the Master, or who/whatever the foe is that week.

Sorensen as the anti-man

But only once before, in “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” does the Doctor allow an individual to be sacrificed for the greater good without some keen plan for saving him/her in the next episode. Even there, though, that person’s ancestor appears (in the form of Dodo, alas) at the end of the story, suggesting that she survived somehow after all. Here, Sorensen likewise returns at the end, preventing the Doctor from having to confront not just “failing to save” Sorensen but actively sending him to his supposed death to save everyone else. The series will eventually reach a stage where it wrestles more earnestly—indeed, honestly—with these issues of life and death, but for now, it’s a step further than the Doctor has ever gone before. That fact alone rescues “Planet of Evil” from being a run-of-the-mill monsters-and-corridors story.

The TARDIS interior makes a welcome return, the doors having been firmly sealed since Season Eleven, but it’s not entirely spectacular after all this time. One can kindly suggest that the Season Thirteen production block spent all its money on the elaborate sets for this story, but the control room looks sparse even by the Third Doctor’s standards, consisting of a console that has seen better days, a wan rotor set slightly off-center in an indifferently constructed perspex cylinder, and the traditional circle decorations on the walls. One can hardly blame the Doctor for wanting to get out of it into a mist-covered jungle filled with invisible anti-matter creatures.

Sarah is less than impressed

Finally freed from Harry’s presence, Sarah Jane gets more script attention, though Marks doesn’t provide Elisabeth Sladen with much to do regardless. She does suggest the means of escaping from the Morestrans initially, and she’s never reduced to simply hiding, working actively with Vishinsky to barricade the bridge against a veritable army of anti-matter creatures near the end of the story. The Doctor doesn’t involve her in any of his plans, though that’s as much a function of those plans—namely, jumping in a seemingly endless pit and conversing with a creature that has already tried to eat them—as it is any disregard for her worth on his part. With Marks building up so many of his own characters, it’s not surprising, though still disappointing, that Sarah Jane doesn’t feature very prominently in this story.

Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith

As for the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker seems revitalized in the role. The compressed production schedule of Seasons Twelve and Thirteen didn’t provide much down time between recording blocks, but the three weeks off seem to have invigorated him. (This story was shot after the next story, “Pyramids of Mars,” which was the first of the Season Thirteen block; the first story of Season Thirteen, “Terror of the Zygons,” was shot at the end of the Season Twelve block, with a three week break between blocks. Got it?)

At the very least, Baker has a much firmer idea of who he wants the character to be; even with Hinchcliffe and Holmes providing a semblance of continuity to the scripts, for a multi-writer show like Doctor Who, the actor eventually takes at least partial ownership of the character, and that seems to be the case here. There’s none of the hesitation in the character one saw in “Robot,” fewer of the non-sequiturs and logical leaps from “The Ark in Space.” The Fourth Doctor has been established now, and though there’s still some wobble here and there, this story’s pugilism in particular, we know what we’re getting when that broad grin begins to spread across the screen.

Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor

Issues of title aside, “Planet of Evil” provides a brisk enough story that plays to the Fourth Doctor’s strengths. His “influence” with the anti-matter creature would have seemed strange coming from Hartnell or Troughton, and Pertwee might well have tried a scientific approach to the problem. At this point, one expects Baker’s Doctor to simply jump into the endless pit and see what happens, and that’s exactly what he does. The Fourth Doctor himself moves plots along by virtue of his character traits, almost as if he, like the audience, has little patience any more for convoluted explanations and long-winded solutions.

(Previous Story: Terror of the Zygons)

(Next Story: Pyramids of Mars)

Post 84 of the Doctor Who Project

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