Picking up a distress call from the edge of the known universe,the Doctor and Sarah Jane find themselves on Zeta Minorwhere a geological team has run afoul of some strange goings on…
Tom Baker is the Doctor in Planet of Evil.
X X X X X
Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith – Elisabeth Sladen
Vishinsky – Ewen Solon
Sorenson – Frederick Jaeger
Salamar – Prentis Hancock
Morelli – Michael Wisher
De Haan – Graham Weston
Ponti – Louis Mahoney
Braun – Terence Brook
Baldwin – Tony McEwan
O’Hara – Haydn Wood
Reig – Melvyn Bedford
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe
Writer: Louis Marks
Director: David Maloney
Original Broadcast: 27 September – 18 October 1975
X X X X X
Planet of Evil is a story that borrows heavily from the classic tale of Jekyll and Hyde. There’s some great acting and there’s some horrible acting. There are some silly looking monsters who stalk their victims among some of the best set design every put together in the classic era. Lucky for the viewers, the good outweighs the bad enough to make this a watchable story that some viewers will love and some viewers will find a bit “blah.”
A distress calls brings the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith to Zeta Minor, the last planet in the known universe. Also answering the distress signal is a Morestran probe ship captained by the brash Salamar, ordered to see what has become of a scientific party led by Professor Sorenson who were tasked to study the jungle planet in an effort to solve their planet’s energy needs. Sorenson, the sole survivor of his expedition after a series of mysterious murders, has indeed found the answer – a vein of incredibly efficient crystals whose energy output could equal that of their planet’s sun! But the crystals are not of this universe. Zeta Minor sits on the edge of the known universe and a universe comprised entirely of anti-matter, and the planet will not allow the crystals to be taken from the surface, sending a wave of nearly invisible creatures to kill anyone who tries. But Sorenson will not be denied his chance at scientific success, even if the presence of the crystals is causing him to change into something much more brutish…
Planet of Evil was the first story under Philip Hinchcliffe’s time as producer that wasn’t a carry over from the previous production team. Terror of the Zygons was supposed to be the finale for the twelfth season, but was pushed forward to season thirteen to allow Doctor Who to have an earlier premiere date to counter ITV’s new science fiction show Space: 1999. Hinchcliffe, along with Robert Holmes, have been wanting to take the show in a different direction away from what Hinchcliffe called “the alien in a rubber suit” style of story, wanting stories that were a little more mature while maintaining the show’s science fiction mystique. Bringing about Louis Marks as a writer (Planet of the Giants, Day of the Daleks) and employing Roger Murray-Leach as set designer, the production crew set out to tell a story that incorporated themes from various stories, specifically Holmes’ interest in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and My Hyde and Hinchcliffe’s desire to create a truly alien world that contrasted to the barren, abstract sets often seen on Star Trek.
The high point of Planet of Evil is the set design. It’s simply incredibly flipping gorgeous. There is no location shooting in this serial, with the bulk of the film work being done at Ealing Television Film studios. Murray-Leach and his crew create a world that’s both beautiful and alien. There is absolutely no doubt that this story takes place on a truly distant world, with large trees, drooping vines, and snaking roots all over the floor. While the jungle set did play havoc with the sound booms and ensure dialogue would be added in post-production, the large set did allow director David Maloney, fresh off of Genesis of the Daleks, to set his cameras exactly where he wanted them and allowed the actors to look like they were running through an alien landscape, complete with puddles and hidden nooks. The set was so successful that the BBC Educational Service used as an example of set design excellence for years afterward. This legacy helped sooth the ruffled nerves among the BBC’s prop department, as the various columns and overhead scaffolding that Murray-Leach used to create and hang the various plant life were impossible to convert back to their original form once filming was complete! And I would be remiss in not mentioning the multi-story probe ship. Just adding a set of stairs and a balcony added a sense of proportion that made the ship appear larger on television than it actually was.
The script itself is solid as well though not without its flaws. Not only are their overtones of Forbidden Planet, and by extension Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but Marks heavily borrows from Jekyll and Hyde via Sorensen’s character. Frederick Jaeger (who also played in The Savages and The Invisible Enemy) finds himself fighting the effects of the crystals as their very presence causes him to devolve into a more primitive ape-like state. Bouncing back and forth between the detached researcher more concerned with science and the rambling madman, Jaeger is a fine villain for the story. His final fate is a bit off, however, as Hinchcliffe decided to not employ a “kill em all” ending and had Sorensen freed from the effects of the anti-matter none the worse for wear…save a couple of dead bodies he was directly responsible for, but hey, just jettison them out of the airlock and we’ll call it a day. The other villain of the story is the Captain Queeg-esque Salamar, commander of the probe ship. Played by Prentis Hancock (Spearhead from Space, The Ribos Operation, and in a weird bit of not-quite-irony best known for his turn in Space:1999 as Paul Morrow), Salamar pretty much shouts his way through the part, accusing the Doctor and Sarah Jane of every single bad thing that happens to the ship’s crew and scientific expedition, with his final actions only serving to make things worse. It’s his second-in-command, the older and wiser Vishinsky (Ewen Solon, also from The Savages) who stands out among the ship’s contingent as the bravest and most pragmatic of them. It’s a very nice turn as a military type who knows what he’s doing even if it does involve shooting aliens at the right time.
The rest of the characters don’t really stand out, especially at the second half of this serial involves the crew and Doctor mainly yelling at each other with a few moments of running to break up the screaming. The script attempts some characterization for the doomed crew, such as the poor sap who always complains about having to carry the containers full of crystals, but it doesn’t help that their death scenes are some of the absolutely silliest I’ve seen so far on the show. The victims of the invisible anti-matter creature will scream silently, have a quite lie down, and then fade from view, but eventually their desiccated skeletons will reappear to give the viewers a good scare. As for the creatures themselves, I’ll give props to the special effects department for pulling the outline effects off, but the end result just doesn’t do anything for me. The crew is being attacked by an outline. That’s just not scary. Sorensen’s makeup as the anti-matter creature is well done, as is the glowing red eyes effect as he tries to fight off the change, but the larger threat of the anti-matter aliens just doesn’t hold up.
In terms of acting, the bright spot comes from the fact that this is the first story where Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are a duo, sans Harry Sullivan, and from the very beginning the pair just CLICK. The witty banter and intelligent respect between the two are immediately transparent. This isn’t a case of teacher/student or master/apprentice or even Time Lord/imbecile. It’s obvious that the Doctor sees Sarah Jane as “equal” as he could consider a human to be to his alien nature, and Marks’ script gives Sarah Jane a few moments to show off her own smarts, including something as simple as the power is low and the magnetic locks holding them in place are weak. By this point, Tom Baker has a pretty firm grasp on the alien nature of the Doctor. He alone understands anti-matter and he alone can go talk to the source of anti-matter (giving us what’s rapidly becoming a Fourth Doctor cliché – the silent screaming – as he attempts to communicate with the creature in the pit, with said pit pretty much a cardboard riser with a five foot drop and a mattress), and he’s not going to waste time trying to explain the details. All the crew needs to know is to get the anti-matter off the ship and if they won’t, then they’re idiots. What I’ve enjoyed about Baker’s turn so far is how polite he is even when surrounded by people who want to kill him. It’s makes those moments where he flips the switch and tries to explain just how everyone is in danger so much more potent…but also explains why people never take him seriously until it’s much too late!
Cygnia – Some older episodes of “Doctor Who” just stick with you. And others, well, you just remember bits and pieces, filtered through the warped eyes of childhood. “Planet of Evil” was in the latter for me.
I likened the anti-matter canisters to Evil Sterno as a kid (parents did a LOT of fondue back in the 70’s). I remember the piping on the crew’s uniforms — yet again, a very 70’s thing. I remember Sorenson’s bug-eyed expression and teeth jutting out in a simian fashion when he was EVIL and I remembered the weird neon-esque visual effects of the anti-matter creatures of Zeta Minor. But as for the overall plot and how it was supposed to be “Jekyll & Hyde” in SPACE, not much.
Actually, with all this anti-matter and the Evilness of it, I’m wondering now if this world ever played any part with Omega in any of the other Doctor Who mediums. That might be a neat take…
I enjoyed Planet of Evil, even with its flaws. The script might be a bit off and the monsters do not hold up after over forty years, but the set design, both alien planet and interior ship, is absolutely stunning, and the chemistry between Sarah Jane and the Doctor is already in place. Recommended, with a grain of salt.
– The Doctor: You and I are scientists, Professor. We buy our privilege to experiment at the cost of total responsibility. I absolutely love this line and how Baker pulls it off.
– The third episode cliffhanger is one of the best I’ve seen so far, with an unconscious Doctor and Sarah Jane about to be shot into space by Salamar. I actually yelled out as the cabinet closed with Sarah Jane screaming.
– Those are some very 70’s sci-fi outfits the crew is wearing. All they needed were medallions and chest hair.
– And allow me to indulge in just a bit of “being a male sci-fi fan” here for one moment. Sarah Jane’s outfit. Wow.
Cobi’s Synopsis – Borrowing from both Jekyll and Hyde and Forbidden Planet, Planet of Evil overcomes the weak points in its script with not only the first official pairing of the Doctor and Sarah Jane as a duo, but some absolutely incredible and gorgeous set design.
Next up – Kneel before the might of Sutekh…
Tom Baker is the Doctor in…Pyramids of Mars.