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Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

To be honest, it’s a bit difficult to introduce Planet Of Evil. It’s a very, very strong story but only in very standard ways, as if its formula has been taken from a textbook. I could go on about the great plot and design work while mentioning the occasional flashes of scripting and acting brilliance but, while all true, none of it is exactly unique. It’s just a bloomin’ good story, well suited to being in Doctor Who’s best season.

The jungle set on Zeta Minor has its detractors but I think it’s probably the best set the series ever had: the studio-recorded scenes are bearable (a rarity) while the film-recorded ones are terrific, an absolute triumph of lighting that actually uses shadows effectively rather than being swamped in them unintentionally. The subdued lighting obscures the fine detail making it seem even more realistic, while the addition of small details such as puddles are the icing on the cake. Amazing. It’s also helped by a good score: Dudley Simpson had got over his dire electronic phase under Barry Letts and was now producing some good material perfectly suited to the episodes themselves, here aided by Peter Howell’s augmentations. The studio interiors, by contrast, are extremely plain (season 11 style), and I notice that some of the electronic equipment in fact comes from The Ark In Space. However, I’d rather have them plain than have them extremely complicated and suffer as a result (naming no names, but it involves the Doctor strangling his companion).

The set design helps in part to create a brilliantly atmospheric introduction, in which the last survivors of the Morestran expedition are wiped out by some unseen force; the unknown has always been the most dramatic and interesting for me, and here it is only spoiled by actually seeing the victims disappear and reappear again, which doesn’t make much sense anyway.

The TARDIS scene, again a rarity in the Philip Hinchcliffe years, showcases the wonderful dynamic of Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker, illustrating why they were the best Doctor / companion duo; Sladen’s clumsy characterisation that held her back when she first appeared has now settled down, creating an immensely likeable and realistic character. Spotters of these things can see an enormous boom mike shadow on the wall near the beginning of the scene though (seriously, you can make out every detail of it, it’s terrible). It leads on to them entering the jungle where Sarah first experiences the monster; her acting is brilliant, such as when she says “as if my mind…left my body” in a very quiet and subdued voice, increasing the menace greatly. I’m a believer in the power of understatement, and this is a fine example. 

The spacecraft, however, comes as a real let down. The spartan sets that just about passed for the scientific base now just look boring, and the costumes are truly terrible: light cotton spacesuits with shoulder pads, open necks and flares. Morestra must be a really culturally backwards society; it’s the 380th century (or thereabouts) and they’re still living in the 1970s. The common, prosaic names of the characters implies that Morestra may be a former Earth colony, and in fact the crew are portrayed as being more multinational if their names are anything to go by than we usually see with humans (Morelli: Italian; O’Hara: Irish; De Haan: German, etc.). There is some very crude exposition here as Salamar (played dreadfully by Prentis Hancock, possibly the worst guest actor to have appeared in the programme more than twice) goes through the hierarchy of the ship to help the audience. While I’m on the subject Ewen Solon and Frederick Jaeger are the standouts among the guest cast here; suggestions that this is because they’d worked together on The Savages almost a decade earlier always seem a bit tenuous to me, but whatever the reason they are both excellent.

The shrivelled bodies left by the antimatter monster are gruesome in the extreme, even though after a while it becomes obvious that there is only one corpse prop that gets dressed up differently each time. There is a thorough explanation of the cause of death which isn’t really necessary as the mode of the killings aren’t directly relevant to the story; nevertheless it’s seriously creepy and if I’d seen this when I was very young (I didn’t, and if I’m honest it was probably for the best, I was a sensitive soul as a nipper) it would have provided some serious nightmare material.

Elisabeth Sladen’s “can’t breathe” acting is absolutely identical to other stories where she’s been cut off from oxygen (The Ark In Space, Terror Of The Zygons…do you think the production team where subtly hinting at something here? Nah), but she’s still brilliant. In fact, she’s so superior in her scenes featuring Hancock that I can’t shake the feeling she was mocking him. There’s also a nice piece of direction here where the shot of the tool she’s holding cuts to a shot of its empty place on a rack, although I notice that there seem to be some focussing problems when there are sudden movements in this episode.

Baker’s constant boggle-eyed expression is an exaggeration top his performance that I hadn’t thought had kicked in yet; it’s a shame as it’s things like that that show why he could have been the best actor to play the role yet wasn’t. The cliffhanger to the first episode is brilliant though, as the antimatter monster is revealed for the first time: it shows Hinchcliffe’s habit of finding out if special effects can be done well beforehand (surely just common sense, but you’d be amazed). Also, it utilises the image-loss effect that happens whenever something shiny is CSO’d; I always love it when what are normally problems for lesser producers and directors are integrated and used to produce great results. It strikes me as slightly odd though that the Doctor and Sarah leg it off into the jungle to let O’Hara get thrashed. Haydn Wood’s death-throes are good though, and some good direction shows the beast looming over him. The Morestran gunshots are more good effects (see how it pays to keep it simple?), although they do appear to hit Sarah as she runs off into the jungle.

The dawn sequence is amazingly atmospheric as the Doctor and Sarah hide from the monster, a scene helped by the Doctor quoting from Shakespeare (Romeo And Juliet III.v.9-10, by the way). I’d say that the film-recorded jungle scenes in this story are the best the programme ever did from a purely visual point of view. The oculoid tracker has a silly big eye but other than that it works fine as well, and I love the shots of it weaving through the vegetation.

The idea of the pool between the worlds is great (a sort of macabre version of The Magician’s Nephew), but only let down by being in fact described as a pool and it’s presented as being a simple hole. If they’d had it as that in the first place it may have been better, but I’m nitpicking so never mind. It’s also slightly patronising and lazy how the psychic Doctor has worked out the problem already so that he can talk us through it upon the presentation of some actual evidence. Sorenson provides a bit of explanation about the antimatter, a bad scene turned into a good one by his wholly ignorant foil, De Haan. Michael Wisher, by contrast, having created the most iconic character ever (after the Doctor, obviously) the previous season is here cast in the utterly thankless role of Morelli, and seems thoroughly bored. Can’t say I blame him, really.

The Doctor’s portentous revelation about the nature of the problem is very well written and performed, although the “cataclysm” idea lacks development and is only provided so as to deny the Doctor an excuse to high-tail it out of there. Also, how does Sarah know what the compression units sound like? Do they just come as standard?

Before thoughts of little spaceship mechanics indelibly lodge in my head and distract me I’ll move on and say that the cartoon starburst effect for the force field is actually quite decent if a little silly, and the cliffhanger provides Hinchcliffe with his one freeze frame per season.

The effects for the antimatter void, yet again, are great through their simplicity. Sorenson’s transformation, although similarly well visualised, has come out of nowhere and could have done with being established a bit earlier. Like I said though it looks great, and ironically blurring is used effectively to obscure his features (I’m not sure what the point of that is as we see him pretty clearly pretty soon, but even so).

Morelli being a Morestran Orthodox is more detail than we normally get with alien races (it smacks of Robert Holmes’s influence actually), even though the Morestrans like many other races are just humans by another name.

Hancock gets even worse when trying to be intense; he’s quite painful to watch and lets down the cliffhanger, which otherwise is dramatic and exciting. Episode four then kicks off on all six cylinders, even though I think it’s a mistake setting the story so much on the ship rather than the planet. The idea of an alien loose aboard the ship smacks of fun B-movie It! The Terror From Beyond Space (this was four years before Alien, don’t forget), making it the third major reference of the story, the others being Forbidden Planet and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. It may not be original particularly, but it’s good TV all the same. 

The Doctor’s confrontation with Sorenson is another very well written and tense scene, but Hancock gets even worse still which is hard to believe considering he started at the bottom anyway. His death comes as a blessed relief, finishing off the mortality rate (not including nameless cannon-fodder extras, as usual) at a vast 80%. Is it me, or does the special effect of Sorenson’s duplication look like the video of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’? It does lead to some more great (and scary) effects as the multiple antimen roam the ship.

The resolution isn’t the most dramatic ever, but at least it makes sense. Sorenson survives, which is unusually merciful by this story’s standards, and leads to a charming resolution in which the ship’s two survivors are left to fly it on their own (sorry, unnecessary sarcasm. A fair point though, I think, even given that “emergency refuelling” business).

As far as a final rating goes, Planet Of Evil is a very tricky one to make a decision about. My memory of it was of a clear 5/5, but on re-viewing it’s a borderline between Very Good and Excellent; it would be the best story of a lot of other seasons but given the overall brilliance of season 13 I’m going to grit my teeth and withhold a maximum rating if only to distinguish this story from its peers. I’ll probably regret it later, though.