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The Planet of Evil

Review By Paul Bowler

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When the TARDIS emerges from the time vortex 30,000 years in the future, the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) respond to a distress signal from the planet Zeta Minor, where a Morestran geological expedition led by Professor Sorenson (Frederick Jaeger) has come under attack by unknown forces. The Doctor and Sarah arrive and explore the strange alien jungle as a military rescue vessel from Morestra also lands on the planet, it appears that Sorenson is the only survivor from the doomed expedition, and after the TARDIS is transported to the Morestran ship the Doctor and Sarah are caught and blamed for the demise of Sorenson’s team.

The Planet of Evil (1975) marks the first solo outing for Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen as the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith following Harry Sullivan’s (Ian Marter) decision to remain on Earth after they’d defeated the Zygons. It is clear from the moment we join them inside the TARDIS that Sarah’s relationship with the 4th Doctor is far more light-hearted than with his previous incarnation. The Doctor treats Sarah more as an equal partner in their adventures, she’s independent, resourceful, and he trusts her implicitly to be there for him when he needs her the most. Its marvellous to see Sarah teasing the Doctor about his ability to control the TARDIS at the start of the story, her practical thinking enables the Doctor to continue his work while she returns to the TARDIS for him to fetch some equipment to pinpoint Zeta Minor’s position in space, and she even braves the jungle to rescue the Doctor after he miraculously survives falling into the blackness of antimatter pit.

It is from this black pit, where the delicate balance between two universes has been disturbed by the Morestran expedition to find a new renewable power source for their people, that Sorenson’s experiments to refine the antimatter crystals around the edge of the pit have incurred the wrath of the terrifying antimatter creature that dwells within its inky depths. The Planet of Evil is also our first clear example of how Season Thirteen was beginning to encapsulate the new direction that script editor Robert Holmes and producer Philip Hinchcliffe had envisaged for the series. The shimmering red antimatter creature seen in The Planet of Evil is no doubt inspired by the Sci-Fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956), writer Louis Marks clever script plays to the strengths of this premise, and with the adaptation of many more classic themes from Sci-Fi & Horror Films, these transposed elements of Gothic Horror would go on to become one of the defining factors of the Hinchliffe and Holmes era of Doctor Who.

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The incredible jungle sets created for The Planet of Evil by Robert Murray-Leach at Ealing are truly remarkable. Never before had such a diverse alien environment been created for Doctor Who, portions of the set are even flooded to create a small stream. These filmed inserts as incredibly atmospheric, particularly in the first and second episodes as the expedition team succumbs to the transparent antimatter monster, and then later as the Doctor and Sarah explore the forbidding depths of the alien jungle. Zeta Minor seems to alter drastically in the hours of darkness, becoming even more oppressive and menacing, as the antimatter creature sweeps through the jungle like a crackling portent of doom. The alien vegetation is like nothing we have ever seen before, the slimy looking trees and dangling creepers have a putrid quality about them, almost as if Zeta Minor has become a corrupted reflection of the dark forces contained within the antimatter pit itself.

After the Morestran ship comes under attack by the antimatter creature the Doctor realizes that Sorenson’s work has potentially damaged the very fabric of the universe, unleashing primal forces beyond anything he has encountered before. He takes a small sample of Sorenson’s refined antimatter crystals with him in a tin, hoping it will protect him from the creature, which proves a wise move as the phantom-like monster rises from the pit and overwhelms him – sending the Doctor tumbling into the abyss as Sarah and the Morestran crew watch in horror as the images are relayed by their mobile oculiod scanner.

Its unclear quite what the Doctor experiences in the bizarre realm the antimatter creature seem to inhabit between the two universes, but his stature as a Time Lord seems enough to grant him an audience with this entity, enabling him to convince it to leave the ship alone so long as all of Sorenson’s antimatter samples are returned to the pit. While the ships captain, the indecisive Salamar (Prentis Hancock), argues with his more experienced first officer, Vishinskey (Ewen Solon), Sarah manages to slip away to see if she can help the Doctor. She arrives back at the pit and is relieved when the Doctor finally emerges from its sable depths, and with Vishinskey’s help, they return to the ship as it prepares to leave the planet.

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The interiors of the Morestran spaceship provide a marked contrast to the alien jungle of Zeta Minor, with its sparsely furnished rooms and corridors, director David Maloney still succeeds in creating a palpable sense of dread as the ship begins to be pulled back towards the planet – especially when a savage creature begins to prey on the crew when the vessel is plunged into darkness. While the Morestran blindly follow every order Salamar issues, even standing their ground to defend the ship as the antimatter creature slaughters them, it falls to Vishinskey to ultimately provide the voice of reason. He quickly realizes that the Doctor and Sara are not responsible for the unexplained deaths. He openly defies Salamar on a number of occasions, demanding that he follows the Doctor’s advice to link the force field to the atomic accelerator to save the crew from the antimatter monster, and even leads a team to help Sarah retrieve the Doctor’s unconscious body from the pit before the ship departs.

Although his experience makes him a natural leader, Vishinskey’s many years of service has obviously left him battled hardened and chillingly efficient. When he oversees the funeral of a crewmember the first officer calmly explains to Sarah that while they may have to play the last rites, they don’t have to listen to them, before ejecting his fallen comrade into the silent void of deep space – to drift forever on a sea of perpetual darkness. Sarah may find the whole process deeply unsettling but Vishinskey reminds her that it is simply clean and efficient. He is from a future where the natural resources have begun to run out, possibly even a veteran of many conflicts, and is a prime example of how alien even our humanity might become one day in the face of such an ecological apocalypse.

It is perhaps ironic then, when Vishinskey saves the Doctor and Sarah from suffering a similar fate when Salamar tries to eject them into space – blaming them for all the deaths on board the ship. The Doctor has already deduced that Professor Sorenson has become monstrously hybridised by his experiments, causing him to mutate into a bestial creature that feeds on life energies to sustain it. Until now the Professor has been able to stabilize his condition with drugs, but when his supply is lost Sorenson is unable to stop himself from transforming into a grotesque anti-man and feeding on the life force of the Morestran crewmembers – draining them until all that is lefts is a withered husk.

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This uncanny take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde (1886) may not offer quite such a startling metamorphosis, but it highlights the savage nature of the primal forces at work on Zeta Minor, and mirrors them in Sorenson’s gradual transformation into a salivating mockery of humanity. He has become consumed by his work, so obsessed with his goal to find a new energy source that he ignored the obvious risks to himself and his team, and the cost is his having to watch his own intellect slowly crumbling away as he gazes in horror at the molten fire that now burns inside his own eyes.

Tom Baker gives one of his finest performances as the Doctor in The Planet of Evil. Here we see how even the Doctor is weary of tampering with the forces Sorenson has unwittingly unleashed on Zeta Minor. When the Doctor confronts Sorenson in his cabin about the consequences of his actions, he reminds him that as scientists their privilege to experiment comes as the cost of total responsibility. The Professor tries to commit suicide by ejecting himself into space, but he is unable to control his bestial side, and transforms back into his savage self again.

With the ship being dragged back to the planet, Vishinskey assumes command of the vessel, but in a desperate bid to prove his worth Salamar takes the atomic accelerator and uses it to attack Sorenson in the ships hold. By using the accelerator on Sorenson in his unstable state Salamar not only signs his own death warrant, but also causes the professors body to divide and multiply, unleashing an army of rampaging antimatter creatures that attack the crew. In a last ditch attempt to advert disaster the Doctor leaves Sarah and Vishinskey in the relative safety of the command deck to find Sorenson. He uses a pistol to stun the rabid creature that Sorenson has become, before dragging him inside the TARDIS and returning to Zeta Minor.

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Once the TARDIS materialises on the planet Sorenson breaks free of his bonds and attacks the Doctor. They race out of the TARDIS where they fight on the edge of the antimatter creature’s domain, but Sorenson loses his balance and tumbles helplessly into the bottomless pit. The Doctor throws the rest of Sorenson’s antimatter samples into the black void, honouring his side of the bargain with the antimatter monster, and when Sorenson is released unharmed the pair of them escape in the TARDIS as the creature slowly begins to rise  from the pit.

The Planet of Evil is one of the best adventures from the 4th Doctor’s era. Tom Baker’s incredible persona imbues this incarnation with an indomitable charisma, effortlessly contemplating the fragile boundaries between the known universes one moment, then casually telling Sarah Jane how he met Shakespeare as they search the jungle, finally offering Sorenson the astonishing concept of harnessing the kinetic energy of planets in a discreetly mumbled afterthought before he departs with Sarah in the TARDIS for their next adventure. As the TARDIS spins away into space we look to the future, and are left marvelling at the wonderful adventure still to come.

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