07/10/2020

Season 13@45 - Planet of Evil

I remember finding this the least impressive story of the season when I first saw it but back then I suppose I wanted it to have more monsters than it does. It just seemed very talky especially at first. Oddly re-watching now I prefer the first half to the second as it contains some interesting ideas whereas parts 3 and 4 seem to become more of a standard base (or in this case spaceship) under siege.  Less outwardly showy than it’s season counterparts, `Planet of Evil` takes its cues from both Forbidden Planet and Jekyll and Hyde. It shows just how effectively Messrs Hinchcliffe and Holmes- here with writer Louis Marks- were able to filter and splice elements of classic stories into something fresh.

 


It is helped enormously by Roger Murray-Leach’s terrific jungle set which is probably the best alien environment the series ever built. Often the unconvincing planet set can be a distraction in TV sci-fi, here you’d be half believing them if they told you it was a location shoot on the actual Zeta Minor! Not just that but David Maloney’s cameras really get down into this vivid place which has been designed to have undulations, pools and dangling fronds. In tandem with some excellent sound design work rattling away in the background the episode one sequences on the surface impress and of course it helps when they’re shot on film. Most impressive of all is when the Occuloid Tracker is launched and the sheer scope of the sets allows it to hover well above the jungle giving the viewer overhead footage that you never see on the series.

There is also a decent enough transfer to the studio version which is not quite as jarring as when they used to cut from film location to video studio. There’s interesting design too in the Morestran ship which consists of narrow corridors, stairs and an oddly unnecessary platform on the command deck. While undoubtedly a boon for director David Maloney the dual layered control room doesn’t always serve the actors that well with a lot of running up and down the stairs. Having the entrance underneath suggests Morestran designers are less interested in the practical- at one point poor Prentis Hancock almost bumps into the underside of the staircase! Mind you the Morestran army seems to demand guards stand to attention with hands on hips! One point off though for the quarantine room which is sealed off…except for a whopping great big space at one end!

It’s 37,166 on the Morestran calendar and in a lengthy establishing sequence we see members of an expedition at the edge of the known Universe looking for alternative fuel sources being picked off by an invisible enemy. Thankfully it’s not a giant prawn but a visually striking Anti matter creature. For some reason we don’t see it attacking initially, that reveal is saved for the cliffhanger when the Doctor and Sarah face it.

The rescue mission’s grumpy commander Salamar immediately assumes the Doctor is the murderer. The narrative pits Salamar as military man against the scientific reason of both Sorenson and the Doctor. Only Prentis Hancock, fresh from a season on Moonbase Alpha, could play this role which he does with steely relish. There are clashes between Salamar and his deputy Vishinsky as the situation grows beyond their control. I like the dynamic here with the older more experienced Vishinsky (played with a calmness by Ewen Solon) gradually showing he’s better in a crisis than the younger, impulsive Salamar. I do feel the story might have benefitted from more interaction with Sorenson later on though.  The duality that exists in Sorensen is perhaps not explored quite enough as by the time he starts to transform and kill crew members he is largely apart from the others. Frederick Jaeger is excellent as he enjoys being the self -opinionated scientist who is nonetheless on a very important mission. The script seems to give Salamar too much authority simply to enable the plot to move on; surely even he would understand the urgency of Sorenson’s mission as it is to save their entire planet!  It must be a blow to the Sorenson’s ego at the end when the Doctor comes up with a much better solution. 

The other crew members remain somewhat generic though De Haan gets a few lines in a scene where he moans about the grinding repetition of his job going back and forth –“they could pay me for staying where I am!” he quips. I’d hoped he might survive and prove to be a hero at the end but like a lot of his fellow soldiers he doesn’t though by then Graham Weston has made the most of his supporting role. One of the things that distinguished the series when it came back in 2005 was the attention the writing gave to supporting characters often with only a handful of lines. You remember them whereas here only De Haan gets this attention.

The interaction between the Doctor and Sarah is tremendously intuitive and Lis Sladen did say this was her favourite story to film. Much as I liked Harry, his departure frees up the other two. That being said, Sarah does seem unusually knowledgeable and resourceful in part 1 managing to find her way back to the Tardis after her walk to the spaceship was fairly disorientating for her and also knowing exactly the tool the Doctor wants.  This does show how varied the writing could be for a companion even within the same story and by part 4 she has reverted to being the archetypal companion in peril. Is Sarah actually responsible for Ponti’s demise? Her struggling seems to cause him to topple over the side of the abyss though her character never seems to even notice this. The Doctor is in authoritarian mode this time with very little of the levity we might expect from Tom Baker. He even gets to punch out Salamar in a very un- Doctor like manner! He is mostly solemn and serious save for a few quips (plus Oates’ famous last words) and it suits this story. You’d think though that the Doctor would remember he had the crystal samples in that tin before the ship takes off.



We do find another example of somewhat dubious Seventies practice when Michael Wisher vocalises an Indian sounding operative over a tannoy. This would probably go unnoticed had the actor’s voice not been so distinctive. I suppose you can criticise this but also applaud the fact that the cast includes a non- white character, a rarity back then. All of which does raise the question of why the story bothers to identify the crew as Morestran when, apart from the exotic nomenclature, they behave just like humans. Or are they meant to be descendants of humans?

The visualisation of the Anti Matter monster itself is shown in red negative effect (a favourite of Top of the Pops), undoubtedly more effective than had it just been the man in a costume norm. The fact that it seems to have a slavering mouth helps sell the illusion as do the gruesome husks left behind. When Sorenson becomes `Anti Man`, the production manages to add some horrific elements into these scenes utilising shadows of the creature on walls as well as the effective glowing eyes. The final look is like a tidied up Primord and rather more convincingly animalistic than the 1970 monsters managed to be. Stalking the confined corridors of the Morestren ship it is just as frightening a ` monster` as any of the better known aliens from this period. I’m not sure why waving the crystal matter that helped develop the Anti Man at them will ward them off but by this stage the story has become more of a chase and run affair losing some of the more off kilter moments we saw earlier.

The Anti Man duplicates that turn up in part 4 seem like an afterthought- just what is that device Salamar fires normally used for anyway? Overall there are some questions that pop up. How could the abyss that leads to the anti matter universe be sitting inside a cave in the Universe of matter? If the Doctor makes promises to whatever is down there, are we saying the planet is alive? How do anti- matter crystals manage to sit perfectly well outside the anti-matter universe?

So is Zeta Minor `evil`? There is talk of the planet having a consciousness –“It knows”- and initially the Doctor suggests the unknown creature doesn’t live anyway- “It just is” he intones. Yet later on we are presented with the idea of a place where the matter and anti matter universe meet. Perhaps this interface can seem like a consciousness to people who encounter it? Explanations are not really offered as we are not party to the Doctor’s apparent dialogue with whatever is down the abyss. The visuals in this scene are excellently surreal but perhaps an opportunity was missed to add a dialogue of some sort? I did think that perhaps it was more of a mental communication? On the other hand the fact we never really know does leave a little puzzle for viewers to consider.

You tend to find with stories like `Planet of Evil` that though their reputation is low to middling watching them again can be more interesting than sitting through the over familiar classics of any era. It has its flaws alright but remains a strong enough entry in what is a very strong season.

The mysterious Mike…There was actually a man in the Anti Matter monster costume with the negative effect added later. He was an uncredited Mike Lee Lane whose IMDB entry seems rather brief and all within 1974-5. On the basis that you can find out anything these days I tried to discover more about him but there’s not much. He also worked on The Tomorrow People, Public Eye and Shadows. He did double for Frederick Jaeger in scenes where the infected Sorenson was in the shadows. He seems to be the strong silent type, perhaps a stuntman who did a bit of acting?  In the Public Eye episode `Hard Times` he plays Harry described as “maintaining a sinister silence” on the Public Eye fan site. And that’s it really. Google soon moves on to Nathan Lane and Mike Leigh!

The view from 1975- DWAS Yearbook review of this story... 



 

 

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