DVD
Doctor Who
Planet of Evil

Starring: Tom Baker
BBC DVD
RRP: 19.99
BBCDVD1814
Certificate: PG
Available 15 October 2007


The Doctor receives a distress call from far in the future, on Zeta Minor the furthest planet out in the universe. The TARDIS arrives on Zeta Minor in the Morestran year 37,166, to discover a Morestran geological expedition has fallen prey to an unknown entity controlled by antimatter. The only living being is Professor Sorenson, and he is not all that he seems to be...

Planet of Evil often gets overlooked by fandom, purely because it had the misfortune to be produced within the glorious Season 13, where it was understandably overshadowed by such towering classics as Terror of the Zygons, Pyramids of Mars and The Seeds of Doom.

It’s actually my least favourite story of the season, but that in itself is not a criticism, it’s simply an indicator of the consistently superb quality of Season 13 within which Planet of Evil is perhaps unfortunately sandwiched. I’ve just watched the story for the first time in several years and found it all to be thoroughly enjoyable stuff, but it never quite reaches the bona fide classic status achieved by nearly all of it’s season stablemates.

Curiously for a science fiction television series, Planet of Evil seems at odds with the rest of the season purely because of its heavy SF trappings. By 1975, under the helm of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, Doctor Who had evolved into a deliciously gothic show, tapping into the Hammer Film genre with hugely successful results which saw the series reach one of its all-time peaks in quality and popularity.

But whilst the rest of the season dabbled in the teatime horror of killer Egyptian mummies, giant man-devouring plants and evil brains kept alive in jars, Planet of Evil goes against the grain with a solid SF story complete with bickering men in big chunky spacesuits, under threat from a slightly dodgy special effect which haunts the jungle-like surface of the planet Zeta Minor.

The story borrows heavily from sources as diverse as Forbidden Planet and, perhaps more significantly, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

A Morestran rescue ship lands on Zeta Minor to uncover the mystery of what exactly happened to the crew of an earlier scientific expedition. The sole surviving member of that expedition, Professor Sorenson, is eventually tracked down, but then the crew of the rescue ship begin to fall victim to gruesome murder. The finger of suspicion naturally points to the newly-arrived Doctor and Sarah-Jane, despite the presence of a giant creature composed of anti-matter roaming the jungle, and Professor Sorenson’s new-found tendency to transform into a killer Werewolf.

The fourth Doctor and Sarah are travelling alone here for the first time, after Harry Sullivan’s rather abrupt departure at the end of the previous story. I still think that Harry was a terrific character who was dropped from the show way too soon. But, in fairness, you barely notice his absence here, as the natural chemistry between Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen is so beautifully tight that you almost forget that somebody is missing.

It’s interesting to note that although this is Tom Baker’s seventh story as the Doctor, this is actually the very first time that we see him in the TARDIS interior, having spent most of his first season travelling by Time Ring, Transmat, or Magical Time Lord Intervention. It’s also nice to see that the TARDIS itself plays a crucial part in proceedings instead of simply being used as a handy location hopper.

The supporting cast are made up of rather a mixed bag. Space 1999’s Prentis Hancock hams up his role as Salamar, the ruthless and insecure commander of the rescue ship (one of four equally dreadful appearances he would inflict upon Who in the '70s).

Contrasting sharply with this is Frederick Jaeger’s subtle and quite brilliant performance as the increasingly deranged Professor Sorenson. Despite the character’s recklessly obsessive nature and fragile state of mind, Jaeger still manages to turn him into quite an endearing character, rising elegantly above the bog-standard ‘mad professor’ role that frequently inhabit so many other stories of this ilk.

However, the real centrepiece of Planet of Evil is Roger Murray-Leach’s stunningly designed jungle set. Yes, it’s entirely studio-bound, is made on a very limited budget, and some of the weird and wonderful plants are clearly a bit rubbery.

But it’s still an evocative feat of design, and serves as an intensely atmospheric and eerie backdrop to the drama. In fact, an extensive photograph collection of this set would later be used by the BBC Educational Service as a classic example of quality design, although the Beeb would snub Philip Hinchcliffe’s suggestion that Murray-Leach’s work be put forward for an award.

As Hinchcliffe himself wryly notes in one of the accompanying documentaries, the wildly imaginative and innovative design of a fantasy series would generally be overlooked when it came to BAFTA nominations, in favour of formulaic period drama.

The realisation of the anti-matter creature proves to be a mild disappointment, although the production team should at least be commended for trying something quite new and different in its approach to this wholly alien threat. A man dressed up in a silly furry costume would clearly not have cut the mustard here, so instead we get a rather basic special effect depicting the creature as a semi-transparent red blob, but it’s so obviously superimposed over the main action that it’s very difficult to be at all engaged by it.

Personally, I think the story would have been better served had the creature not been seen at all, and then perhaps more could have been made of the menacing threat from the raging planet itself. A couple of wind machines and a few growling effects would have been preferable to the blinking red shapes that we ended up with, and would probably have done more justice to the creeping atmosphere conjured up by the wonderful set.

It’s still a great story though, and had it been produced in nearly any other season, would have attracted much more acclaim from fandom. Its simple downfall is that it’s not the Hinchcliffe era at it’s very best, and was served up at a time when some of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever were being produced side by side.

The DVD presents two new documentaries; A Darker Side explores the origins and making of the story, whilst Planetary Performance examines the production from the actors’ point of view. Both of these are so similar in style that they may as well have been spliced together to form one cohesive documentary, but they are still very welcome in separate chunks.

Philip Hinchcliffe pores over the original design plans and old memos and letters from the production, as well as reminiscing with Roger Murray-Leach outside Ealing Studios where the stunning set was built over 30 years ago.

There’s some very special interview material with the legendary director David Maloney, a rare appearance from writer Louis Marks, and the ever-reliable quips from Tom Baker himself.

Tom also turns up on the entertaining commentary, along with Philip Hinchcliffe, Elisabeth Sladen and Prentis Hancock, and there’s a lovely 48-second studio clip in which we can see Tom and Liz pretend to be frightened by something that’s not there, if you’re into that kind of thing.

A pretty good package then, and well worth dipping into, but maybe it shouldn’t be right at the very top of your Season 13 shopping list.

Danny Salter

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