Doctor Who complete reviews: Planet Of Evil
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Scary action in a malevolent jungle environment makes this Baker adventure worth a second look...
In the days before Doctor Who guidebooks became as common as the cold, fans did have one or two hefty reading tomes at their disposal. The Making Of Doctor Who was one such indispensable book, not to mention the Programme Guides, and then in the 1980s, there were the big blockbuster books from Peter Haining. Happy days - I remember thinking that I’d never be able to afford the Celebration book, and to a nine-year-old, it was like the Holy Grail. All these years later, though, I’m in possession of a dusty old copy, which also contains a handy quick guide to every TV story up to and including Peter Davison’s second season.
I only mention this because of the Planet Of Evil blurb. Reading it, you could be forgiven that this “deep space horror story” is about as scary as you can get in Doctor Who. I’d certainly enjoyed the book adaptation with that eerie cover homage to Where The Wild Things Are as a kid, and in fact before it submerged on video in 1993, it was one of the stories that I wanted to see the most.
Is it as scary as Haining claimed though? Well, yes and no. In this case, the idea of Planet Of Evil is a chilling one. Taking its roots from Forbidden Planet, The Tempest and more specifically, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Planet Of Evil boasts a strong concept. The idea that a jungle can alternate between good and evil in day and night (guess when it gets bad) is a simple but effective one, and the tension is heightened further when the Morestran rescue team find that they are trapped on a spaceship with this evil power - which now manifests itself in the form of the brilliant but odd Professor Sorenson. Furthermore, the force has the power to drain the life out of its victims, leaving behind nothing but mummy skeleton things. And this being mid-70s Who, Planet Of Evil inevitably kills off most of its characters in this fashion.
"The likes of Baldwin, Morelli and De Haan are really walking plot expositions and no more, even if they try to give De Haan something resembling a personality by making him a moaning old woman who complains about lugging around Sorenson’s canisters"
So that’s the idea, and altogether, Louis Marks’ script is very well written. On the one level, it’s a horror story in space, with a deformed, shuffling creature draining the life out of its hapless victims. On another, it’s a simple tale of good vs evil, with the moral of the story being that you should never get too greedy for your own good. Salamar’s greedy for command. Sorenson’s greedy for the discovery of a supply of energy that could repower a dying sun. Luckily, Sorenson doesn’t remember much about what happened at the end, as The Doctor hastily steers him on to a new, hassle-free way of discovering energy.
In practice though, Planet Of Evil doesn’t quite reach its full scare potential. The main problem is the rather boring characters who are, for the most part, generic spacemen. Sorenson, Salamar and Vishinsky aside, the other characters are just cannon fodder. The likes of Baldwin, Morelli and De Haan are really walking plot expositions and no more, even if they try to give De Haan something resembling a personality by making him a moaning old woman who complains about lugging around Sorenson’s canisters. It also doesn’t help that the death scenes fail on account of them being too hammy or too lame. Here’s the evidence:
- Braun - Looks like he’s settling down for a crafty power nap.
- Baldwin - Does some Marcel Marceau ‘Trapped In A Box’ mime.
- O’Hara - Resembles Mick Jagger on an ant-infested water bed.
- Ponti - Does a high-speed jump into a CSO pool.
- Morelli - Hiccups.
- De Haan - Looks and sounds like a baby soiling itself while confronted with his first scary film. Or a close-up of Gordon Brown’s face.
- Reig - Sounds like a chav taxi driver caught in a long traffic jam.
- Salamar - Felled by a weedy girly slap from Sorenson. The wuss.
The aftermaths in which the above characters’ rotting corpses are found are very effective, but the actual death scenes are among the silliest in Who history. If you ever feel down in the dumps though, take a still picture of De Haan’s gurgling, wide-eyed cowering at Sorenson. It’ll cheer you up no end.
"Presumably if you asked Salamar to make a cup of coffee, he’d end up blowing up the kettle and setting fire to the kitchen"
The acting is generally fair, although one or two performances are wooden. Tony McEwan’s Baldwin is a bit flat, although I’m afraid that it’s Prentis Hancock who takes the booby prize as Salamar. I always used to think that Salamar was called Shalamar, but that’s the naff 80s pop group. And in any case, Salamar couldn’t make anyone feel good in a month of Sundays. He’s a flop-haired, incompetent control freak who evidently got the job of controller through contacts rather than ability. Put Salamar in control of any situation and he blows it completely. He can’t keep prisoners locked up in a dome. He doesn’t know how to keep an angry anti-monster away. And after his paranoid ramblings have made a bad situation worse on the spaceship, he decides to go for full-blown looney tunes and shoots Sorenson with a radiation beam that only makes the professor multiply into duplicate copies. Presumably if you asked Salamar to make a cup of coffee, he’d end up blowing up the kettle and setting fire to the kitchen.
Sadly Hancock’s rather wooden performance means that Salamar sounds like he’s only just learning how to speak for the first time. “To? Earth? You? Said? You? Came? From? Earth?” is just one cringe-inducing line that sounds like a series of separate questions rather than a coherent whole. Props to Hancock for trying (especially with a rather one-dimensional character to work with anyway) but in the end, we’re left with no more than a Flat Controller.
At least Vishinsky and Sorenson are a bit more interesting. It also helps that they’re played by two Savages stalwarts, Ewen Solon and Frederick Jaeger - except that they’re now on opposite sides of the fence from their 1966 roles as Chal and Jano. Vishinsky is very much the anti-matter of Salamar, the calm, rational older man who has inexplicably been overlooked for the post of Controller. Proof positive that ageism still rules in the future. Sorenson, just like the planet of Zeta Minor, alternates between two extremes - the brilliant but detached scientist and a rambling, deranged madman. Right from the first part of the story, we know that something’s up with Sorenson. His nonsensical babble upon first being discovered by Vishinsky’s party demonstrates that somehow he’s been infected or possessed by the force of Zeta Minor. And by part three, when his eyes are all red (this is what too much drink does for you) and Sarah’s experienced that unearthly feeling after he’s shuffled off to kill De Haan, you know that it’s bad news. The fully-fledged make-up job for Sorenson when he’s resorted to the brutish anti-matter monster is quite well done, looking a bit like Captain Caveman in a Shell Suit. Interestingly though, Sorenson actually lives. Normally the baddies in Who are always set for a sticky end, but this time, Sorenson lives to see the error of his ways and to make a fresh new start.
"Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen gel together perfectly, indulging in witty repartee and intelligent discussion throughout"
Even if the characters are a bit hit ‘n’ miss in Planet Of Evil, at least we have the first bona fide example of the fourth Doctor and Sarah alchemy. Sarah hasn’t travelled alone with The Doctor since Planet Of The Spiders and it’s her first time alone with the curly headed one. Luckily, Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen gel together perfectly, indulging in witty repartee and intelligent discussion throughout. It’s very much a grown-up Doctor/Companion team. There’s less of the sense that The Doctor’s educating Sarah, it’s more one of equals. Indeed, Sarah comes up with some plans and ideas of her own, for example when she points out that they can escape through a low power lockable window.
Tom’s on fine form again, and establishing his truly alien persona throughout. While he’s flippantly ignoring Salamar’s pathetic attempts at intimidation, he brings home the gravity of the situation on many occasions. The speech in which he warns Salamar and Vishinsky about the dangers of plundering anti matter is expertly delivered, as is the grave confrontation with the infected Sorenson (“You and I are scientists Professor. We buy our privilege to experiment at the cost of total responsibility”). It’s also a stark new tack to have The Doctor essentially persuade a character to commit suicide. It’s a bold move but it works thanks to both the script and Tom’s totally believable performance.
And generally the production side of Planet Of Evil is not half bad either. The most impressive aspect is the jungle set, superbly crafted by designer Roger Murray Leach. It’s one of the most impressive jungle sets not only on Doctor Who but on the small screen. The Ealing sets take full advantage of this with little pools of water and atmospheric lighting, but even the videotaped interiors work brilliantly too. You actually feel as if you’ve been transported to an alien world, and that takes some doing on the modest budgets that the Who production team had at their fingertips. The spaceship interiors are spartan by comparison, but the two tier set of the main control deck gives a sense of futuristic grandeur.
David Maloney, one or two casting choices aside, also contributes much to the atmosphere of Planet Of Evil. He chooses interesting camera angles and close-ups, such as Sarah’s alien experience in the jungle or the numerous attacks on the luckless crewmembers. There’s something rather disturbing about the way in which O’Hara’s withered corpse plops out of nowhere - it’s simple but perfectly done. The anti matter creature is also well realised - instead of a simple cross fade of the monster onto the action, it’s made alien by shimmering red TOTP video effects, so much so that you half expect the creature to start bopping along to Love Is The Drug by Roxy Music. Dudley Simpson also grows from strength to strength with another in a long line of wonderful scores, throwing in groovy bongos, brassy stings and weird, off-kilter electronic burbling and mixing these to great effect.
Planet Of Evil may not be as scary as Haining claimed in the book, but it’s definitely high on atmosphere and mood. The script’s well written, the direction’s fantastic, the jungle sets still stand up well today, and as a bonus, we get one of the all-time great Doctor/Companion teams solving the problem. Ironically, Space: 1999 did a similar sort of story with Dragon’s Domain (alien creature chews up luckless crewmembers and reduces them to skeletal mummies - oh, and Prentis Hancock’s in both, too) but Planet Of Evil is easily the superior of the two. The ratings at the time in 1975 also proved that more people plumped for the adventures of the toothy, curly haired one, escalating into tens of millions. And if you were a little kid, then Saturday nights were just as exciting 35 years ago as they are today.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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