Monday, March 09, 2020

13.2 Planet of Evil

The Doctor and Sarah are strapped onto slabs in a morgue. Salamar, the deranged space captain pushes a button, and they slide off into space.

The story has gone to some trouble to set this up. Earlier in the episode, crewmen Morelli was gruesomely killed by one of the red glowing anti-matter ghosts that has infested the space ship. He was given a decent, if perfunctory, funeral. His body was placed on one of the mortuary conveyor belts; a tape recording of the last rites ("Morestran Orthodox") was played, and his body slid out into space. So we know what the conveyor belt is for and what is going to happen when the button is pressed.

Quite why Captain Salamar is going to all this trouble is not clear. Even if he sincerely believes that the Doctor and Sarah are killing off his crew, he hasn't bothered with anything like a court martial or a trial, so why we would he follow the protocols of an execution? (I could never figure out why pirates made captives walk the plank rather than just chucking them overboard.) It is, however, a stonking excuse for a cliffhanger; morbid and sadistic, putting our heroes in mortal danger at the end of Episode 3, but giving them a sporting chance of escaping at the beginning of episode 4.

It is like one of those elaborate death traps that villains used to leave Adam West in on alternate Saturdays. No, no, no: you can't leave Blast Off Basil like that! 


Planet of Evil is different from Terror of the Zygons. If you half close your eyes and squint, you could almost mistake it for science fiction. 

I sometimes talk about "conceptual" fiction, particularly when trying to justify a liking for badly written sci fi. It can certainly be enjoyable to have big ideas presented to us, even if the story in which those big ideas turn up is very weak indeed. But in truth, an idea has to be very big indeed to justify a bad story; or else the bad story has to be so overflowing with big ideas that it makes you dizzy. If you are Philip K. Dick or Clifford D. Simak you might be able to pull it off. If you are Louis Marx, not so much. 

But still: Planet of Evil has got ideas in it, in a way that Terror of the Zygons really didn't. The Zygons and the Loch Ness Monster were plot devices. No-one was remotely interested in how a semi-organic spaceship was meant to work; or what it would feel like if respected members of your community kept turning out to be big orange space aliens. The spaceship, the dinosaur, and the shape changers were only there to provide a pretext for the Doctor and Sarah to get captured and escape over and over again. The Anti-Matter Universe and the Anti-Matter Ghost, on the other hand, are what Planet of Evil is about. The idea of their being such a monster is supposed to be exciting and interesting enough to carry the story. There's certainly no other reason to be interested in it.

People sometimes compare Planet of Evil with Forbidden Planet. And certainly it is about a mad or maddish scientist who is the sole survivor of a previous expedition; and certainly it is about the military expedition which comes to rescue him; and certainly everyone is menaced by an incorporeal entity; and certainly they both have the word "planet" in the title. On the other hand, Professor Sorenson shows no sign of having a beautiful daughter or a robot companion. And the core psychological dynamic from the movie -- that the monster is a projection of the scientist's psyche -- is entirely absent in the Doctor Who version. The Planet is simply Evil and very much not a part of Sorenson's Id. 

Doctor Who villains are very often jumped up tax-men and civil servants; would-be fascists or school-yard bullies. Rarely do we get this kind of antagonist: one who is simply evil; simply alien; simply Other. 

We are supposedly on the very last planet in the universe. But it looks like every other planet the Doctor has ever visited. As a matter of fact, it looks very much like Skaro; a dense alien jungle full of trees and creepers. For those of us with long memories, Sarah's trek back to the TARDIS to retrieve the "spectromix" recalls Susan's race across the petrified forest to get the anti-radiation gloves.

It may be thirty thousand years in the future; but the science base looks very like a Portakabin, and Prof Sorenson's room looks like a study bedroom in a provincial university. The crew of the rescue ship from Morestran look like every other spaceman we have ever encountered. With their tunics and their futuristic shoulder pads, they could perfectly well be mistaken for Thals. None of them is called Tarrant. 

When we say that Zeta Major looks like an alien jungle; we mean, of course, that it looks like a BBC mock up of an alien jungle. Terror of the Zygons was filmed in Sussex and in London and in a quarry; Planet of Evil is completely studio-bound. But that artificiality tends to work in the story's favour. We know from the very beginning that what we are watching is a play; so we accept it as such. The stage set represents the jungle, rather well. We aren't inclined to say "it's only a back drop" any more than we would say that Danger Mouse is "only a drawing" or Virgil Tracey is "only a puppet." 

In Episode 2, the Doctor is chased through the jungle by a remote-controlled spy-drone. It is perfectly clear that the drone is "only" a model: it is obviously being moved across a back-projection of Tom Baker running through the jungle set, and rarely leaves the bottom left hand corner of the screen. But it never draws attention to its own ridiculousness. It conveys what it needs to convey and we accept it as such. Technically it isn't that much better than the Skarasen; but our imagination accepts a model drone moving in front of a back-projected jungle more easily than it accepts a glove puppet dinosaur moving across a London street scene. 

This is a science fiction story which is completely uninterested in science. It appears that if you travel a sufficient distance, the universe has a literal edge; and that if you travel beyond that point -- which you can do, but shouldn't -- you end up in a different universe. Space is like a flat earth you could theoretically sail over the edge of. But on the planet Zeta Minor there is a great big pit; and in that pit lives a monster made and that monster comes from the Anti-Matter universe and is made of Anti-Matter. So the other universe is more like a parallel world, entered through a dimensional portal. But what Sorenson is taking from the planet are lumps of crystal which contain sufficient energy to reboot the Sun and solve the energy crisis. This is much more like anti-matter in a classic scientific or science fictional sense: a limitless, but very dangerous, source of energy. The edge of space; a parallel universe; dilithium crystals: the term "anti-matter" does for all three.

Of course, Doctor Who is a show that can't always remember that "galaxies", "solar systems" and "constellations" are three different things. So the writer could just be throwing vaguely sciencey terms at us with no particular interest in what they mean. But the ambiguity seems to be a part of the poetics of the story. "From the beginning of time, the other universe has existed side by side with the known universe" explains the Doctor. "Each is the antithesis of the other. You call it nothing, a word to cover ignorance, then centuries ago scientists invented another word for it. Antimatter, they called it". 

Anti-matter crystals are scientifically dangerous. They might blow up. But they are also taboo: one of those pesky secrets that man was not meant to know. The creature from the pit will not let the scientists leave with his crystals. It drags the ship back to the planet's surface when they try to go home. It starts to kill the human interlopers -- rather gruesomely by Doctor Who standards; draining their moisture and leaving them as pre-decayed corpses. 

This plot doesn't leave much space for anything very interesting to happen. The Anti-Matter ghost manifests and scares everyone; Sorenson ingests anti-matter and turns into a monster; crew members get freeze-dried. There is none of the revelation and escalation which characterized Ark in Space, and none of the B movie sugar coating which helps Terror of the Zygons slip down easily.  

The rescue spaceship is unfortunately commanded by Inspector Javert. When the Doctor and Sarah arrive, they are found standing over the bodies of one of the dead crewmen. The Captain spends the rest of the story convinced that they are responsible for all the deaths. There is no suggestion that the Anti-Matter is making the captain unhinged; the Morestrans are apparently in the habit of putting out-and-out psychopaths in charge of their ships. Whenever the story flags, Salamar orders the Doctor and Sarah to be arrested, imprisoned or executed. 

Tom Baker is still playing "the serious Doctor" and "the Shakespearean Doctor". He quotes Hamlet at Sarah and claims to have known the Bard personally. He has not yet fallen into silliness and clowning; he takes his hat and his scarf off  allowing him to look less crazy and more Bohemian and boyish and heroic. 

At the end of episode 2 he falls into the pit where the monster lives. Or rather; we see him begin to fall; and then the picture freezes. Some cliffhanger shows used to use freeze-frame a lot, but it was quite rare in Doctor Who. I don't know why it is used here. Are we being allowed to hope that the Doctor might somehow learn to fly before episode 3? Or is the moment he cross the threshold into the other universe best left to our imaginations?

Sarah spends several minutes at the beginning of the next episode assuming that the Doctor is dead and feeling quite put-out about it; but after a few scenes he bounds back in. We never see him fall down the hole and we never see him climb out of it. There is a cryptic exchange with Sarah 

"What happened?"

"It's difficult to explain." 

"Well try. What did you do? Enter another universe and have a chat with it?" 

"I communicated." 

"I communicated". The mythical heart of the story takes place off stage. The Doctor makes a promise to the anti-matter creature; and he keeps it. He returns the anti-matter crystals to the pit. A foolish scientist has stolen the forbidden fruit and been punished; a wise scientist makes a promise to return it; and the monster's rage is placated.

"You and I are scientists" says the Doctor "We buy our right to experiment at the cost of total responsibility." 

Tom Baker's Doctor is a different being from Jon Pertwee's. He's an alien; but more than an alien, he's a middle point between the familiar and the wholly Other: a person who can talk to the forces of darkness on their own terms. A kind of space deity. There is going to be a lot more of this as the season progresses.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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Oliver Townshend said...

As much as I enjoyed it, I could never get over the acting of the Salamar character. Deliberate? One of those actors who thought that since it was Who he should overact, or just the demands of the plot?

Not great Who, but not bad.

Nice review.

NickPheas said...

That one really terrified me as a kid.

It occurs to me that the special effects of the Forbidden Planet monster and the antimatter ghosts was pretty much the same.

JAn said...

"I could never figure out why pirates made captives walk the plank rather than just chucking them overboard."

I believe this chap may have it:

'The fear of death is more to be dreaded than death itself.'
--Publilius Syrus. Roman Writer (~100 BC)