Doctor Who: Planet of Evil Review
“Tune into Doctor Who and you can’t tell the heroes from the villains it’s all so sophisticated...” (Clive James, Observer, 1975).
One of the nice things about Planet of Evil is that it acts as such a convenient summation of the strengths of the Philip Hinchcliffe era. It’s a period in the history of the show which is unrivalled in confidence, flair and sheer balls; willing to explore darker dramatic corners without ever alienating the core audience of kids, all of whom were relishing the chance to hide behind the sofa or, in my house, behind the curtains. In one sense, Hinchcliffe and his script editor Robert Holmes didn’t actually do anything new, they simply took what they saw as the programme’s merits and placed them right at the forefront. While Planet of Evil is not the best story of this period, it’s a very solid and entertaining one.
Continuing the policy of moving away from the Earth-based UNIT format, Planet of Evil is set 30,000 years into the future on a distant planet called Zeta Minor where a scientific team from the planet Morestra have been searching for alternative energy sources. Unfortunately, the team has suffered inexplicable losses having been menaced by some unseen force. The lead scientist Sorenson (Jaeger) is determined to take samples back home, believing that he has made a major breakthrough, but the planet itself is not willing to surrender its precious resources so easily. Gradually, Sorenson begins to change as contact with the planet’s anti-matter starts to bring out his darker side.
Many stories of the period were heavily inspired by literature and classic Hollywood cinema and Planet of Evil is no exception. As everyone involved happily acknowledges, it’s a combination of plot points from Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the 1950s MGM film Forbidden Planet. Sorenson is the dedicated scientist who is, like Jekyll, brought down by his own hubris. The anti-matter monster, initially invisible but subsequently animated in a slightly tasteless fashion, is highly reminiscent of the monster from the Id which taunts Walter Pidgeon in Forbidden Planet. It’s perhaps a shame that the anti-matter - a topic which was much in the news in the early 1970s - doesn’t do anything more interesting to Sorenson than turn him into a primeval savage. It would have been more interesting to see it unleash deep and dark desires which break through the dedicated scientific exterior, in much the way that Hyde liberates the repressed and brutal sexuality of Jekyll - though such things might well have been beyond the pale even for the famously reckless Robert Holmes to approve.
Seasons Twelve to Fourteen are notable for their strong villains - Davros is perhaps the most famous but I would have to add Solon, Styr, Harrison Chase, Magnus Greel and Chancellor Goth. In this tradition, Sorenson is a great role though like Noah in The Ark In Space and Scarman in Pyramids of Mars, he’s more sinned against than sinning. Frederick Jaeger makes the most of the part, creating a character who one instinctively likes and pities. Jaeger is so good in this role that the slice of prime ham he later served up in The Invisible Enemy seems even more bizarre. He puts the rest of the supporting cast in the shade, although Ewen Solon is good value as the world-weary second-in-command of the ship who has to cope with Prentis Hancock’s jejune commanding officer.
Many of the stories of this era are notable for some first-rate design work, triumphing time after time over budget and time restrictions. The first thing which strikes the viewer in Planet of Evil is the jungle setting which has been rightly described as one of Who’s most convincingly alien environments. The planet of Zeta Minor, created at Ealing Studios and partially rebuilt at TV Centre, is a little masterpiece and perhaps the most illustrious feather in designer Roger Murray- Leach’s cap. The only drawback is that the excellence of the alien planet tends to point up the drab look of the Morestran spaceship which is about as visually interesting as the Nerva Beacon from Season Twelve. Fortunately, David Maloney makes the correct decision to use moody lighting, thus keeping things atmospheric in a pre-Alien sort of way. Costumes aren’t particularly distinguished but there’s some really ingenious make-up devices which have sufficient visual impact to overcome their basic cheapness - Sorenson’s anti-man eyes for example. Throughout, David Maloney’s direction is full of unobtrusive flair and when he tries something a bit different - the bizarre meeting between the Doctor and the anti-matter monster in the black world- it comes off well.
Into the middle of this are thrown the Doctor and Sarah. By this time, Tom Baker has got to grips with the character of the Doctor and we’re beginning to see the combination of compassion and ruthless honesty which mark out his best performances in the role. There’s a great moment when he lectures Sorenson on anti-matter and one particularly characteristic line - "You and I are scientists, Professor. We buy our privilege to experiment at the cost of total responsibility." There’s humour here too but it’s very muted and ironic. Oddly enough, although Baker is best known for his deranged sense of comedy, he’s far better at this kind of understated wit. He also copes well with the kind of scientific jargon which used to drive Jon Pertwee up the wall. Elizabeth Sladen works beautifully with Tom, effortlessly managing to combine the elements of the companion role from this period; asking the right questions, marching off on her own in a vaguely bra-burning fashion, and, when necessary, letting out a good old fashioned pre-feminist scream.
Planet of Evil has been the recipient of the magic touch of the Doctor Who Restoration Team, and the results are beautiful. According to their website, the team didn’t find many problems on the visual side but the image is superb, devoid of any dirt or excessive noise and eminently crisp and sharp throughout. The mono soundtrack for this story - which relies heavily on Dudley Simpson’s music and Peter Howell’s sound effects - is also excellent, thanks to some tweaking courtesy of Mark Ayres.
The extras are up to the usual high standard of 2 Entertain’s Doctor Who releases. First up is a commentary track featuring Tom Baker, Elizabeth Sladen, Philip Hinchcliffe and Prentis Hancock. The last named is the least interesting participant, although he does provide some amusement by claiming that the show was originally broadcast on a Saturday morning. Hinchcliffe is fairly quiet but provides some useful background information, filling in capably for the much-missed David Maloney who died last year. As usual, the main entertainment lies in the contributions of the endlessly enthusiastic Liz Sladen and the reliably eccentric Tom Baker whose memory of the story is clearly hazy at best. Tom is such a welcome presence that his absence from the upcoming commentary track for Destiny of the Daleks is regrettable.
There are two documentaries on the disc. The weaker one is Steve Broster’s Planetary Performance which concentrates on the actors. It’s pleasant enough and Tom Baker is highly entertaining but it’s unavoidably hobbled by the fact that both Frederick Jaeger and Ewen Solon are dead, while, of the remaining cast, Louis Mahoney was unavailable. A Darker Side is better and up to Ed Stradling’s usual standards, although I personally think he’s yet to top the quite beautiful Paris In The Springtime from 2005. Philip Hinchcliffe features heavily in this and is his usual interesting self, particularly when teamed with Roger Murray-Leach at Ealing. It’s particularly interesting to see Hinchcliffe at the BBC Written Archives at Caversham Park. We also get comments from Tom Baker, Prentis Hancock and Liz Sladen. David Maloney and Louis Marks, both no longer with us, contribute through archive footage. This piece is an admirably concise and informative documentary that confirms Stradling’s place among the real heroes of these DVD releases.
Incidentally, Easter Egg hunters will be pleased to learn that the object of their search is a rewarding one. It’s an extended piece about Philip Hinchcliffe’s visit to the BBC written archives which is delightfully nostalgic and completely fascinating. In fact, I think I enjoyed this as much as the main documentaries.
Also on the disc is a 48 second piece of studio footage which is all that survives from the recordings of the story. There is the usual photo gallery, the delightfully nostalgic continuities and a cracking trailer for Destiny of the Daleks. Viewers with a DVD-Rom drive can access the original Radio Times listings, although not, on this occasion, an annual from the period - though given how dire the 1975 and 1976 annuals are, this is probably a blessing.
Finally, I want to mention the excellent production subtitles by Richard Molesworth, the extra that I most look forward to on these discs. Molesworth provides a mountain of information both useful and engagingly random and, on this occasion, he spices things up with some mildly bitchy observations about the shortcomings of the story itself. I have one pedantic quibble; he insists on spelling “Robby The Robot” as “Robbie The Robot”.