Monday, September 28, 2015

"Planet of Evil"

Aired Sept 27 - Oct 18, 1975

4 Episodes

Story 81

Written by: Louis Marks

Directed by: David Maloney



Synopsis

Arriving on the planet Zeta Minor, on the edge of the known universe, the Doctor and Sarah find themselves investigating a distress call sent by a Morestran geological expedition. Exploring the forbidding jungle environment, they discover that the geological team has been nearly wiped out by an unseen killer, with only team leader Professor Sorenson left alive.

A Morestran military mission has also responded the the distress signal, and the team commander, Salamar, immediately suspects the Doctor of being behind the attacks. However, the Doctor soon discovers that the true killer is a monstrous creature from a universe of antimatter, crossing into our universe from a portal on Zeat Minor, site of a natural weak point. The creature is retaliating for Sorenson having taken antimatter minerals from near the portal.


The Doctor attempts to convince the Morestrans that the samples are what is drawing the creature to attack, but Sorenson is blinded by ambition, and sees his samples as the best chance to solve Morestrans increasingly dire energy issues.

As the Morestrans attempt to leave Zeta Minor, they find the ship canont escape the gravitational pull of the planet and is soon begin drawn back on a collision course. Though the Doctor does convince them of the need to dispose of the antimatter on board, Sorenson has become infected by antimatter and eventually transforms into an antimatter hybrid creature that drains the life-force from the crew. Salamar attempts to destroy Sorenson with radiation, but the attempt only causes the creature to replicate into many forms, and the ships is soon overrun.

The Doctor manages to locate the original Sorenson creature, and takes him back to Zeta Minor in the TARDIS, throwing both the professor and the samples into the portal. The antimatter force is satisfied, and returns Sorenson unharmed. The Morestrans are allowed to go on their way, the Doctor having given Sorenson a new, less deadly idea to solve their planet's energy crisis.

The Doctor and Sarah are free to go as well, and they return to the TARDIS to resume their travels.


Analysis

Planet of Evil is the first story devised under Hinchcliffe/Holmes from start to finish, and therefore can be seen as the first pure representation of what they wanted their vision of Doctor Who to be, much as Terror of the Autons can be viewed the same way for the Letts/Dicks team. One of the ways Hinchcliffe differed from his predecessor is in how involved Hinchcliffe was in the development of story ideas. So the story goes, writer Louis Marks was commissioned to write this story, but developed it with significant input from Hinchcliffe and Holmes, who clearly used the sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, and Stevenson's The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde as the story's starting point. 

Already, Hinchcliffe and Holmes were certain that they wanted to draw from strong literary and cinematic inspirations to tap into powerful archetypes and tropes that resonated instantly with viewers. This production team gets accused of relying too often on pastiche or homage, and Planet of Evil is where that trend truly begins. Whether or not you appreciate this is a matter of taste, but from an objective point of view, using familiar archetypes does have the advantage of giving you a shortcut in world-building, allowing the story to get into the plot more quickly. I'm not sure this particular story is the best example of their approach, since the story doesn't move beyond the influences it wears so nakedly. It really is simply a mix of Jekyll and Hyde and Forbidden Planet, and not much beyond that, and that remains its biggest drawback. 

It does have a few things going for it, story-wise, that work very well. I like the way the production team approaches monsters during this era. In any earlier Doctor Who serial, the anti-matter creature would have been a thing in a rubber suit. But the decision is instead made, following Forbidden Planet's lead, to make the initial creature a more vague, formless, nebulous thing, which is more effective and scary. But that creature is not the only "monster" of the piece, as Sorenson's "Anti-Man" is also a threat (with a truly dumb name, and realized in perhaps not the most effective way). Lastly, it's also implied that the planet, or rather the antimatter universe, is also a threat. But is it directing events consciously? Is the creature separate from the  antimatter universe, a being that lives there? Is the universe itself sentient? And how does Anti-Man fit in? Is that part of its plan? Is it a random element? There's too much left unexplained, or rather, too much happening period. If Sorenson had simply gone mad, obsessed with hanging on to his samples at all costs, and if the creature remained the single threat throughout, then I think things would have been clearer.

I can see that the production team wants the nature of the antimatter universe to be ambiguous, and I can appreciate that. If you look at, say, The Dæmons, one of the problems I have with it are its attempts to rationalize the patently supernatural don't make any sense. But Holmes and Marks feel no pressure to given a hard scientific explanation. This is beyond our science, and we can simply have faith that the Doctor knows what he's doing, and therefore forget about trying to poke holes in the logic.

Once again, the production values are the most notable thing about the story. David Maloney returns to direct, and as always he delivers a well-paced, cohesive and solidly entertaining effort. Roger Murray-Leach again triumphs in his design, the jungle set shot on film remains perhaps the finest single set in the entire history of the series, even perhaps including since the series returned in 2005. Under Hinchcliffe and Holmes, who have clearly given some clear aesthetic directives to their collaborators, atmosphere and tone are now an important part of the production. It's a tad uneven in this sroty, though, as the success of the jungle set means there's little money left over for the spaceship or the costumes of the crew, both of which are bland and frankly silly-looking. But the Morestrans, by and large, are supposed to be silly, so it nearly comes off.

All in all, Planet of Evil isn't going to win any awards, and the Hinchcliffe/Holmes approach still hasn't worked out all of their kinks, but there's a tremendous amount of style on display, and skill, and it remains a fun if slight experience.

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