Doctor Who Project: Planet of Evil

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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.

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Doctor Who Project: Terror of the Zygons

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That, Doctor, is a kilt.

If ever a story could explain the demise of Doctor Who‘s UNIT era, Robert Banks Stewart’s “Terror of the Zygons” (Story Production Code 4F) fits the bill. This, the penultimate UNIT story, shows just how out of sync the militarism and regimentation of the Brigadier’s bunch has fallen from the frenetic energy and mordant sarcasm of the Fourth Doctor. Where UNIT’s deployment of mortars and bazookas and lots of lads shooting rifles not quite straight added to the visual excitement of the Second and Third Doctor’s adventures, here they just get in the way of the Fourth Doctor’s investigation of the Loch Ness Monster.

Benton's back

Indeed, it’s odd that most Third Doctor UNIT stories did not suffer greatly from the presence of Lethbridge-Stewart, Benton, and Yates, given that regeneration’s incredible disdain for military solutions; the Fourth Doctor, by contrast, shows no great compunction about blowing the beasties up and would seem a better fit in theory. The friction comes much more from stylistic approaches, as well as a tendency towards four episode stories in Tom Baker’s era. In “Terror of the Zygons,” Stewart’s plot spends scant enough time on the shapeshifting Zygons who have hidden in Loch Ness for hundreds of years; the inevitable padding that comes with the Brig telling Benton to call someone on the radio which then fades to location shots of UNIT troops milling about a forest just eats up valuable screen time. One can almost hear the audience groaning for the action to shift back to the Doctor. And, of course, nothing UNIT does actually changes the direction of the plot in the least.

Right from the start, the Doctor shows his irascibility at the Brigadier for summoning him back to Earth for so trifling a matter as the destruction of a few oil platforms off the Scottish coast. Only the siren song of a mystery can get this Doctor interested, and finding tooth prints of an enormous beast in the rig wreckage does the trick. Stewart does a nice job of not mentioning Loch Ness until deep into the second episode, allowing viewers to piece together the appearance of a long-necked prehistoric creature with the Scottish moorland setting before finally springing the connection.

Scarf swap

Doctor Who is often associated with this trick of using an unexplained real-world phenomenon as a plot device, elucidating the incident in the course of advancing the narrative—aliens are almost always responsible—but in truth, this technique dropped off after the first few seasons, the last instance coming in Season Five’s “The Abominable Snowmen.” In this case, the mystery might have been better left unexplained, for the Zygons use the Loch Ness monster as…a milk cow.
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Doctor Who Project: Revenge of the Cybermen

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Well, we can’t just sit here glittering, can we?

They brought the Cybermen back for this? After lying fallow for almost seven years, the silver streaks return with a thud in Gerry Davis’ “Revenge of the Cybermen” (Story Production Code 4D). Gone is the sense of unstoppable menace from their last appearance, in Season Six’s “The Invasion,” much less the existential body horror of the original Cybermen that Davis helped Kit Pedler develop back in “The Tenth Planet.” The story on offer here suffers from the same diffused focus as Davis’ last story, the visually impressive yet narratively cluttered “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” which introduced his seminal contribution to Cyberman lore, the Cybermat. A key component of this story, it is cute, cuddly, and oh so carnivorous.

Beware of the Cybermat

Following directly on from “Genesis of the Daleks,” this story sees the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry appear back on Space Station Nerva, the Season Twelve leitmotif. Only the current version of Nerva contains quite a few more dead bodies than the one they left way back at the end of “The Ark in Space.” The Doctor surmises from the technology on display that they have arrived thousands of years before their last visit, when the station was used as a cryogenic ark to safeguard humanity against solar flares. They await the arrival of the TARDIS, which is travelling through time (yet remaining static in space) to meet up with them after their Time Lord-imposed sojourn on Skaro. In the interim, they explore the now-familiar hallways, discovering that there are only three humans left from whatever fate befell the space station.

No running down this hallway.

In short order, the viewer learns that one of the survivors, Keller, has orchestrated the deaths as part of an overly-elaborate plan to lure the Cybermen to Nerva Beacon, built to warn passing spacecraft about the presence of Voga, a rogue planetoid captured by Jupiter’s gravity fifty years prior. The bait for the Cybermen turns out to be Voga itself, a planet whose copious gold reserves turned the tide of the Cyberwars some generations in the past. As the Doctor helpfully points out, the non-corrodible metal coats the breathing apparatus of Cybermen, suffocating them, and the combined forces of humanity and the Vogans used “glitter guns” to end the conflict. In the long years since, the Vogans have hidden deep within their wandering planet, in fear of the remnants of the Cyber Fleet.

One faction of Vogans, encountered by Keller during his exploration of the planet, wants to end that threat, so in exchange for gold (of course), Keller somehow contacts the ages-lost Cybermen offering the location of their arch nemesis. The Cybermen (again, somehow) send him a Cybermat with instructions to kill all but four people on the beacon. Meanwhile, the Vogan faction builds a rocket that they will use to destroy Nerva once the last remaining Cybermen are on board. And why do the Cybermen want four humans left alive? Because Cybermen don’t do manual labor, apparently—they want the humans to carry the Cyberbombs (yes, really), complete with trapped explosive harnesses, to the heart of Voga to blow it up.

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Doctor Who Project: Genesis of the Daleks

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You are mistaken. It is a Mark III Travel Machine.

After starring in nine stories over eleven seasons, the Daleks had worn their narrative carpet a little threadbare. It’s hard keep your reputation as the supreme intergalactic conquerers when you’re invariably defeated time and again by a do-gooder with a blue box and a pocket full of trinkets; and harder still to remain interesting when your vocabulary doesn’t stretch much beyond “exterminate” and its various cognates. Efforts were made in the Pertwee era to imbue the Daleks with some degree of nuance and personality, giving them a thin range of emotions stretching from pride through to fear, but in the end, they remained much as the First Doctor found them in 1963.

Dalek on the prowl

To polish up the pepperpots for a new generation, Terry Nation’s “Genesis of the Daleks” (Story Production Code 4E) sends the Fourth Doctor, Sarah, and Harry back in time, before the events of “The Daleks,” to the moment of the Daleks’ creation. While the show has revisited plots and villains before, this story marks the first instance of Doctor Who really mining its own history as the basis for a story, as well as representing one of the show’s few actual uses of the time travel conceit as something other than an easy means of changing the stage setting. Does one dare change the future by altering the past?

The latest in Time Lord fashion

The Time Lords snatch our beleaguered time travellers straight out of the transmat beam to Space Station Nerva, not even giving them a chance to change clothes after the last story before sending them back in time to Skaro, sans TARDIS. The Doctor’s mission, should he choose to accept it, is nothing less than the prevention of the Dalek threat before it has a chance to develop. Though they leave the means up to the Doctor, the Time Lords make clear that they will countenance any actions he might take in pursuit of this end. A far cry, indeed, from the Time Lords who banished the Second Doctor for his continued interference in the affairs of the universe, though charitably one can assume that his excoriation of their indifference to evil helped soften their resolve.

The Doctor sees wisdom in the idea of intervening in the Daleks’ creation, possibly by nudging their development towards less aggressive tendencies or by learning some weakness in their essential nature that will allow future generations to defeat them. And yet, in the end, the more intricate and less violent options fall by the wayside, leaving the Doctor with the simple choice: touch two wires together to blow up a nursery of tiny Daleks or allow them to take over the galaxy…

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Doctor Who Project: The Sontaran Experiment

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According to my data, you should not exist.

The pug-headed Sontarans aren’t the only ones tinkering in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Sontaran Experiment” (Story Production Code 4B). This brisk story marks the first time since the sophomore season that Doctor Who has aired a two-episode tale, and surprisingly, the abbreviated format works to some effect. It’s also the very first story to be shot entirely on location, with no studio scenes of any sort. And, alas, it’s the fifty-second story (give or take) to relegate the female companion to being captured and/or screaming a lot. The more things change…

The Sontaran's Experiments!

Baker and Martin skip over quite a bit of exposition, getting our time travellers directly into the action. No sooner have they arrived on a theoretically abandoned Earth, via transmat from Space Station Nerva—continuing where “The Ark in Space” left off—than they all split up. The Doctor sends Sarah and Harry away to let him concentrate on fixing the transmat beacons for Nerva, then Harry falls into a pit, then Sarah tries to find the Doctor for help, but he has been captured, then Harry finds a way out of the pit, then Sarah is herself captured at the pit trying to rescue Harry on her own. (Whew.) And that’s just the first twenty-five minutes. In the Troughton era, that would have taken three episodes.

Granted, there’s not much story on offer. As is tradition, “The Sontaran Experiment” still keeps the titular menace off-screen until the very end of the first episode, and the total elapsed time between the real menace of the Sontaran threat being revealed and the Doctor foiling it measures no more than seven minutes. Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor works well within these narrative constraints. His manic mien matches the madcap pace, and as a result, his incessant japes in the face of danger and his emotional non-sequiturs feel more natural, at least to the extent that is possible. As opposed to Tom Baker’s first two stories, where everyone and everything around him seemed to be moving in slow motion, here the entire mise en scène works in concert with his frenetic strengths.

Don't mind me down here!

Along the way, we learn that the far-flung human colonies mentioned in the prior story have survived, and indeed thrived, in the centuries since solar flares devastated Earth, spreading out to create an empire. That empire faces invasion from the Sontaran Empire, who, to the Doctor’s estimation, deem human space as a strategic resource in their eternal war against the Rutan. Baker and Martin’s create the illusion of depth with a subtly sketched skien of details, many of which rely on explicit knowledge of the prior story. Indeed, even the revelation of the Sontaran, Field Major Styre, at the end of the first episode hinges, for its emotional impact, on knowledge of the initial Sontaran story, “The Time Warrior,” as Sarah utters the name of the Sontaran she and Jon Pertwee’s Doctor encountered, Linx.
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Doctor Who Project: The Ark in Space

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It might be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favorite species.

After his debut story, tacked as it was onto the end of the Season Eleven recording cycle, Tom Baker’s run as the Fourth Doctor starts in earnest with new script editor Robert Holmes’ “The Ark in Space” (Story Production Code 4C). Holmes and new producer Philip Hinchcliffe seemingly have carte blanche to send the Doctor, finally freed from his Earthly exile, off in new directions, and with the first story of the Season Twelve production bloc, they take us…right back to the Second Doctor and a “base under siege” story that Troughton could have played (and often did) in his sleep.

Oh, hello.

To be fair, there’s quite a bit new and flashy on offer here, but it becomes clear that, narratively speaking, Holmes and Hinchcliffe are hanging fresh tinsel on an old tree. In short order, the Doctor and companions accidentally arrive in an isolated locale (here, an apparently abandoned space station in Earth orbit sometime in the future), discover some trouble or other, get blamed for said trouble, then help fend off the real threat. If the formula feels fresh in “The Ark in Space,” it’s only because the Third Doctor had but a single story early on (“Inferno“) that even came close to this model over five seasons, and that one at least involved alternate dimensions.

It’s unlikely any but the most dedicated fans of Doctor Who noticed the pattern at the time, though, because the plot here remains resolutely beside the point. While Terrance Dicks threw Baker a debutante ball in “Robot,” a controlled, almost formal introduction in a comfortable setting, Holmes provides Baker with, well, a full-blown fiesta: far from demure, the Fourth Doctor bursts on the scene in all his alien glory in “The Ark in Space,” upending any lingering sense that there might be even the slightest connection between this Doctor and his forebears.

Almost as significantly, “The Ark in Space” suggests a return to small-cast (and lower budget) stories set in far-off, fantastical locales of which we actually see very little—eight sets total feature in this story, none on location and most dressed in what can only be called futuristic off-white—with a commensurate reliance on prop makers to visually convey the strangeness of the setting and on the writer to imbue the few characters with enough texture, or at least technobabble, to make the world seem fuller than it really is. Robert Holmes does well enough to hold up his end of the bargain, deftly sketching a chilling projection of a technocratic human future through well-chosen details; the prop department, on the other hand, just spray paints some bubble wrap with green paint and calls it a day.

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