The Mysterious PlanetBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Ewen Campion-Clarke

No one knows what a Black Light Explosion could do - there's never been one! "There will be soon."

Ah, a lovely story. The Doctor decides to check out the planet of Ravalox which is eerily similar to Earth, but upon arrival Peri finds the landscape a bit too familiar for comfort. And she's right: Ravalox is Earth, devastated by a fireball 500 years previously, the regenerated world is deserted bar a handful of survivors lorded over by Drathro the Immortal. But all good things come to an end and enthusiastic entrepreneurs Glitz and Dibber have unintentionally triggered doomsday.

Robert Holmes wrote this story while seriously ill and with a bunch of stuffed shirts calling themselves BBC executives breathing down his neck. If I could write something this good under such circumstances, I'd be irrideemably smug. Maybe it's just the return to 25-minute episodes but this is the first story of the Sixth Doctor era where the plot doesn't feel upside down and inside out. OK, it's clearly rooted in Holmes other works: The Krotons (a hidden robotic god demanding the two cleverest youths join him in hiding); The Space Pirates (Glitz is the latest in a long line of Milo Clancy characters); The Ark in Space (humanity surviving the burning of Earth); The Deadly Assassin (a black monolith heralding the end of the entire universe); The Ribos Operation (a con job involving a planet of primatives). Give the guy a break - Rob Shearman rewrites the same story every Big Finish he does, you don't come down on him like a ton of bricks, do you?

Holmes treats the Sixth Doctor like he did the Fifth - ignore everything and write for Tom Baker. This is no slur on Colin; Holmes only wrote for Tom Baker. Look at Carnival of Monsters or The Space Pirates - how easy to have Tom Baker appear in them. It's just one of those things I suppose. But how did I miss the scene where the Doctor offers Humker and Tandrell jelly babies? Or when he calls for Sarah-Jane? And anyone stupid enough to say the Sixth Doctor was 'evil' or 'lost his principals', I refer you to the scene he breathlessly tells Peri they are charging into mortal danger: when Peri ridicules this decision, he stares at her in horror and says, "Peri, I can't just let people die if there's a chance of saving them!" before storming off.

Yep, that's the Doctor all right. Willing to risk it all to save a bunch of people he hardly knows and, like in The Caves of Androzani, they're all callous bastards. No. Look again. Glitz is usually shown as light comic relief, and watching the last three episodes of this story, you can hardly blame them. But look at episode one. This cheeky space-Arthur Daley plans to shoot the Doctor and Peri in the back of their heads for nothing more than sadistic pleasure, at the time regailing Dibber with tales of trying to kill the countless psychiatrists that tried to help him. Glitz is a bleeding psychopath! Maybe it was the rewrites that reduced him to the comic foil he becomes by part four, but he's still a hard case - cheerfully planning to wipe out 500 innocent people by gassing them like badgers, he may rarely get a chance to use his guns but if he did there's no doubt Katryca would be the first to die.

The rest of the cast aren't particularly nice. Drathro's the villain, but Merdeen is supposed to be a hero - though this hero is quite happy to cull the Doctor and dozens of others if he thinks he's being watched. Just because he sees its unecessary doesn't excuse he fact he does it. Grell's worse, not even seeing any problem with murdering friends and family. Katryca... well, she's just a nutter and its good that Joan Sims shows that off. Katryca's written as a wily old woman - as long as she's half-asleep staring into a fire. Beyond that, she goes crazy, makes speeces, and enjoys burning people in Wicker Men, only without the Wicker. The fact that Broken Tooth and the others let her push them around shows they aren't up to much either. The only remotely nice character is Balazar, who winds the Doctor up so much he calls him 'a pallid little swot' to his face, and also organizes fatal stonings.

There are a few problems with this story, I admit. For a start, the fact its working title is The Mysterious Planet. Odd how the mystery is solved five minutes into the first episode. It's Earth! Then, in the third. It's definitely Earth! Surely this should be a Planet of the Apes-style final episode revelation? And why is Peri so instantly tuned into the fact she's wandering around the United Kingdom and speak of it with nostalgia? She's not from there. Was Holmes thinking the campion might be English and recognize it? And Glitz seems well up on human culture for someone who's Andromedan (he knows of marriage, funerals, stamp collecting, charity workers and the Latin phrase Pater Familias). If Earth was destroyed two million years after the 1980s, why was Marble Arch station unchanged? Why do the train guards wear torch helmets when there's plenty of light to see? Why does Drathro only realize there is a village AFTER the L1 has left there? And if Drathro has studied human behaviour for 500 years... why's he so appallingly bad at it? (That may be the point, so I'll let it go.)

But on the whole, it's fine. The Doctor and Peri are the best of friends, with the former worried around the latter enough to delay his exploration and the latter willing to run into a shootout to rescue the former. The humor level is turned up and... I like it. OK, some of it's not sophisticated ('I did it.''I think you'll find that I did it.''I did it.''I DID IT!!'), but I laughed anyway. The Doctor deliberately getting people's names wrong, carrying a teddy bear, Glitz and Dibber discussing their childhoods, Balazar getting a face full of green slime... I laughed. It's feel good stuff. And after the relentless, plotless grittiness of Revelation of the Daleks, a breath of fresh air - this is a story where all the characters get a purpose before dying horribly. In Season 22, Humker and Tandrell would have been brutally shot down (stop cheering!) but here they escape, they reach the outside world... and they are so amazed by it they stop arguing, totally absorbed by it. Katryca learns fatally not to push it and that shouting she's in charge won't impress anyone. For all Drathro's talk of logic, he falls for Glitz's ploy hook, line and sinker. Balazar goes from annoying nerd to... well, he's still an annoying nerd but he'll never stone someone to death again. And Dibber continually proves he's smarter (and fitter) than his boss. It's a happy ending.

And that's Rob Holmes' genius. How the hell does he make these happy endings after such implicitely grim storyline? When I recently watched The Sun Makers with the eyes of a grown-up, I found it utterly terrifying. All of humanity was screwed by the Usaurians and then worked and taxes to death for centuries. The Doctor stops it in one afternoon, but what about the years and years of hopeless horror that Cordo and his ancestors suffered? Not only does this story show all human civilization burnt off the face of the Earth, the five hundred survivors are kept at that number by routine cullings. For five hundred years. Five hundred years. But somehow, even knowing that, it still feels right that the Doctor and Peri walk away from it exchanging witty insults. I wonder how Warriors of the Deep would have ended if Holmes had had a hand in it - it sure wouldn't have concluded with the Doctor croaking there should have been another way.

But it isn't just levity. The Doctor's passionate speech to Drathro is exactly the sort of stuff he should have had right in the beginning - he speaks of life with such awe as if even discussing it is not his place. No bombastic shouting or sulks, and it is a revelation to see the Sixth Doctor face an enemy he cannot sweettalk or defeat. As Glitz says, "Don't knock low cunning,". Seeing the Doctor only win the day by being defeated by a bunch of wandering cooks is a nice throwback to the Peter Davison days as well.The Mysterious Planet is a great story, and bar Peri's hairstyle, I think fandom would have engineered its replacement of Timelash without a second thought. It is only when I look at the story as Doctor Who's last, desperate bid to win the ratings war do I think it's in any way lacking. Where's the returning monster, the new villain, the companion departure, the event that stops a story being a disposable one? Where's the thing that makes you desperate to see what happens next? As a Doctor Who story, it's great, but as a television gambit, this is as far from target as its possible to get.

FILTER: - Television - Sixth Doctor - Series 23