Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Doctor Who S13 Ep81: Planet Of Evil

"What was it?"
-Sarah Jane-
"I'm not sure yet. But I've got a very unpleasant theory."
-The Doctor's classic response as only Tom Baker could deliver it-
"I don't think Tom and I ever got it more perfect than in Planet Of Evil. It just escalated into a very warm feeling working with Tom."
-Elisabeth Sladen on her ongoing working relationship with Tom Baker [Doctor Who Magazine #440, p.52]-

You have to love those Doctor Who titles. It's a bit like Fire In Space from the classic Battlestar Galactica. There's a fire and it's in space. There is a planet and it is evil. See Spot run. Run Spot run. It's relatively black and white.

Here we go, into the creative minds of Doctor Who, Season Thirteen, Episode 81, Planet Of Evil. Let me say that again with a little more emphasis and enthusiasm. This is Planet Of Eeeeevil. There we are.

PART ONE: The year is roughly 37,166. And the production and set design is stupendous for these shoestring years. Combined with the scoring there is indeed a mood and atmosphere to Planet Of Evil that is indeed exceptional giving the latest Doctor Who serial a genuine science fiction vibe in the purest sense. There is a real sense of isolation and exploration about a colony on a far distant planet called Zeta Minor that echoes the kind of isolation found in fan favorite The Ark In Space. These are classic science fiction tropes of survival for the sometimes forgotten and disconnected.

Certainly more recent films take these concepts and explore them from Prometheus (2012) back to Alien (1979), Pitch Black (2000) and even The Last Days On Mars (2013) to any number of programs and films that continue to mesmerize on how the human condition responds to such hostile alien environments and foreign conditions. The implementation of actual film is intercut with video, but the film segments are gloriously creepy and resonate powerfully offering a real sense of dislocation on a far flung planet. The look and feel of the set pieces reminds one of the kind of detail and effort that went into Ishiro Honda's Matango (Attack Of The Mushroom People) (1963). The film gives a motion picture caliber quality to the Doctor Who proceedings. In fact, the limitations on lighting or the effort not to light the faces of the principals gives Planet Of Evil an appropriately dark and sinister feel. The use of actual film throughout an entire Doctor Who serial would have been something to see in its entirety back in the 1970s.

Designer Roger Murray-Leach (The Ark In Space, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang) works miracles on a small budget of just 3,700 quid (be sure to watch the documentary A Darker Side for more details).

But will Planet Of Evil hold up beyond the exceptional efforts on the visual front? Can Louis Marks script deliver? These scripts certainly did in the 1970s.

An invisible alien force is taking the lives of those working on Zeta Minor. Receiving a distress call the Doctor and Sarah Jane respond landing the wondrous Tardis on Zeta Minor. The banter between the beloved Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen is becoming as comfortably hand in glove as ever. There is a natural flow to their exchanges and Sladen gives as good as she gets as Sarah Jane continuing to fortify what made their dynamic one of the finest partnerships in Doctor Who history.

And if Planet Of Evil almost reached the caliber and quality established by then neighboring television program and competitor Space:1999, it's made all the more funny with the guest role supplied for Prentis Hancock as Salamar, a member of a Morestran military search party. Hancock, who played Paul Morrow on Space:1999, appears on Planet Of Evil in a solid supporting role sans moustache shaved for the more severe performance here.

One notable scene in Part One spoke volumes regarding the late Elisabeth Sladen. Sarah Jane heads off alone to fetch the spectrometer from the Tardis. We are very much aware that as much as she is a female in a foreign land and as much a girly-girl she is no shrinking violet on Doctor Who. Her natural instincts as a reporter always jump to the fore. She is adventurous, spunky and fearless. It's a reminder of what kind of companion Sarah Jane was and the kind of role model she was for girls in the 1970s in a major supporting role certainly sharing billing with the Doctor. Personally, there is no way in hell I would go traipsing off into the jungles of the Planet Of Evil alone. Hell no. She's a stronger person than me. What does she have to be afraid of? Well, there is more than ample evidence around her to be very afraid. Dead bodies for one. A makeshift graveyard for the dead for two. Yes, lots of death and evil would keep me close to the Doctor's side and possibly out of that alien jungle to boot.

The cliffhanger sees the Forbidden Planet-like outline of a monster approaching the Doctor and Sarah following their escape from the Morestrans who have held them captive on their ship. Forbidden Planet. Planet Of Evil. We constantly see the homage of Doctor Who to science fiction classics under the direction and oversight of Phillip Hinchcliffe.

PART TWO: Sadly the more the story progresses the more we realize the Morestrans should be called the Morons. This is where the writing sometimes fails when scripting could be much smarter back in the day. The military expedition group is not terribly bright and they are equally terrible shots with a ray gun. Later in the segment even the Doctor loses his temper with the Morestrans. "Don't you learn anything. You're tampering with the balance of nature on this planet in ways you don't understand. Do you have any idea what you're up against on this planet?" The Doctor makes it clear that the Planet Of Evil is the antithesis of matter - anti-matter itself. Like those stranded aboard the Galileo in Star Trek: The Original Series, Galileo Seven, or the countless creatures that attacked those aboard the Jupiter II on Lost In Space, the Morestran crew is attacked by a monster of "pure energy." I can hear Information Society playing What's ON Your Mind? and sampling Spock in my head as we speak. The stupidity continues as Salamar sends men to their deaths to fight an unwinnable battle against the creature. "You're tampering with hideously dangerous forces," says the Doctor. The segment ends with the evil pit, a pit that reminds us of the Sleestak pit in Land Of The Lost, which Doctor Who does not predate. They were either fond of that pit or creators in the 1970s enjoyed dangerous pits in general. Who didn't love Atari's Pitfall! (1982). In the end our dear hero, the Doctor, falls helplessly into the pit in another death-defying cliffhanging finale.

PART THREE: After a bit of head-tripping and a mind-altering sequence whereby the Doctor twirls inside the pit in bit of psychedelic-like madness he re-surfaces from the anti-matter vortex into the arms of Sarah Jane. Wow. How is that possible? Those crazy cliffhangers hardly ever amounted to much at all, but damn they were humdingers as kids that left us on the edge of our seats.

It's interesting that the quarantined police box that is the Tardis is rarely of any interest while in quarantine by the Doctor's captors. How could there be no interest in that bloody phone box? I mean it's a British phone box on an alien planet. That is worth checking out. Professor Sorenson is affected by the anti-matter and is on the loose a la monster-on-the-loose Alien or similar to events that occur in the wonderful Force Of Life (1975) on Space:1999. The professor for all intents and purposes has become "The Anti-Man." Fortunately for Space:1999 Force Of Life is a far more affecting and effective piece of sci-fi with a far superior script (Johnny Byrne) coupled with high production value though it does not predate Doctor Who. But it's no contest really. There are even nods to and echoes of Star Trek: The Original Series Where No Man Has Gone Before (1966). One by one men die and the Doctor continues to point out how wrong Salamar and the Morestrans continue to be in understanding the planet below following their launch in an escape jet. With anti-matter aboard the ship they continue to be pulled back to the planet of eeeeeeevil. The segment ends with Sarah Jane and the Doctor moments away from being jettisoned out an airlock of the Morestran vessel and propelled to their deaths.

PART FOUR: So the timely death of another Morestran saves the Doctor and Sarah Jane from their imminent demise. Salamar four segments/parts into the story still can't believe the Doctor and Sarah Jane are anything but combatants proving to be the biggest dullard in the bunch and he was commander until his command was usurped here. Inevitably Salamar meets his fate as does Sorenson with a conversion to the kind of pure energy that transformed actor Ian McShane's character in Force of Life. These lethal forms of energy even made their way into the big ideas behind Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). These are always high concepts in science fiction but the execution of those stories is critical. Sorenson breaks off into a number of Anti-Men monsters. Ingeniously the Doctor takes the Tardis back to the planet of eeeeeevil and returns the Anti-Man below saving the ship and those that remain as well as Sorenson. It's interesting to see how much the Doctor clumsily flops about in these adventures with that scarf yet remains the coolest being in the entire universe. As kids, we certainly always thought so. Nevertheless for someone who demonstrated moments of awkward, yes, the Doctor was surprisingly awesome.

Classic Doctor Who has its shortcomings and countless imperfections, but one thing it does have that the new series doesn't is genuinely scary and creepy atmosphere partly due to the stone cold truth of budget limitations. There is something terribly unsettling about analogue or low tech effects and a feeling of being right there in the room with it all. State of the art production has a tendency to push you away from the experience or at least elevate its production to a place that seems fantastic in an unbelievable way. Those new Doctor Who episodes can sometimes take you too far away. Classic Doctor Who feels like you could walk down the street and come across these evils and be completely screwed. You know that swamp that sits by your house. The classic Who has all of the atmosphere in spades.

Unfortunately, Planet Of Evil is all fire and brimstone. It's heavy on atmospherics and mood but generally light on substance or matter, not anti-matter, for that matter. If only a bit more scripting heft was in play to match the incredible production efforts and wonderful scoring by Dudley Simpson. Damn all of the latter is very good. Like those Zygon suits, Planet Of Evil looks amazing for its time and budget but is generally light on compelling anti-quark material. It ultimately fails to engage in the manner great science fiction stories should, but it's good for a visit in the Tardis I suppose. Writer Louis Marks (Planet of Giants, The Masque Of Mandragora) probably doesn't hit all the marks with a generally good idea(s). He applies the concept of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson to Planet Of Evil and that theme works to an extent if not entirely successful.

As Phillip Hinchcliffe suggested about Planet Of Evil and the making of Doctor Who in the 1970s, it's often the "speed of the narrative" that sometimes hurts the finished product.  Otherwise, the direction by David Maloney (Genesis Of The Daleks, The Deadly Assassin, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang), the production, the performances and the scoring is essentially quite artful and satisfying. Narrative speed and better narrative would be the key.

Also worth noting for me personally is that youthful, intangible feeling that is absent from watching these classics. Through the unfortunate loss of innocence and age these stories lose a bit of their luster. As kids there was a sense that we lived these adventures along with our hero and heroine. We completely bought into the fantasy of it all and filled in the gaps with our vivid imaginations.

I recall quite clearly a sense of real concern for Sarah Jane, a damsel in distress in the 1970s, being all alone in that jungle or any number of circumstances from these early adventures. She always acquitted herself just fine, but I was always relieved to see the Doctor rejoin her company on their adventures and felt she was a little safer for it. I never cared much for seeing either of them all alone. I remember worrying for their well-being as a kid. Of course, I was particularly concerned when it came to Sarah. And, as it was, it was perfectly acceptable back then to fear for that girl in trouble. With Doctor Who, like Romeo Void once sang sang in 1984, that girl in trouble, well, it was always a temporary thing. Still, politics and culture have certainly changed much of how these things should be viewed in the past many decades. Anyway, it was just one of those memories that came flooding back to me while viewing Planet Of Evil once again recollecting through these new but older more discerning eyes.

Gosh, there certainly are pros and cons to these ever-changing eyes. Planet Of Evil is a perfect example of how things can change.

Planet Of Evil: C+. Writer: Louis Marks. Director: David Maloney. Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe.


El Vox said...

I may have enjoyed Planet of Evil a tad more than you, but it's funny, I can be nit-picky when watching Dr. Who. The classic Who, I feel for most stories, runs too long and would probably work better if edited down some. The thing one has to remember is that they were made for weekly TV. So when you watch them all at once, the stories drag some and feel a bit bloated. Probably if we were to watch them in weekly segments they'd appear much better.

With the newer Dr. Who, I think the forty-five minute run time goes by a bit to quickly so they feel a bit rushed so that they can end them on time--except for the multi-part ones. It's all a matter or's a conundrum for sure...

But back to PoE--I enjoy those eps. where they create these new worlds of set design in the studio and they do a great job of that among other things. Good job on relating it to Matango, etc. Good review as always. Keep on truckin'. :)

SFF said...

Cheers my man.

I loved your point about run time and how these installments were episodic in the day. I agree. That combined with those young little eyes made it far more palatable and exciting.

And those NEW Who episodes (and I haven't seen enough Capaldi to judge there) just get a bit too flashy for my taste. When the new show strikes a balance and minimizes effects that is when it seems to strike perfection.