Friday, January 18, 2013

Planet of Evil

Dear Gary—

Planet of Evil is one of those Doctor Who stories that I really like and admire, yet I don’t necessarily care for.
Planet of Evil is refreshing and ambitious. It is pure, hard-core, old-fashioned sci-fi. There is no alien invasion of or threat to Earth. In fact other than Sarah there are no Earthlings to be found. The Doctor and Sarah are so far from Earth, so far from any known galaxy, so far indeed that they are at the very edges of the universe. Neither are there any rubber-suited monsters or age-old foes. Not a Dalek or Cyberman to be seen. Indeed, there is no real, true enemy in Planet of Evil. Despite the Evil of the title, there is no real or true evil.
One could argue that Professor Sorenson’s greed for fame and fortune is bad, but I would not say evil. Neither is the Controller Salamar evil; he is foolish and mad but not evil. And the antimatter creatures are surely not evil.
No, the enemy the Doctor is fighting is the ignorant tampering into things unknown and the inevitable disastrous outcomes of such heedless action.
It has been a long time, if ever, since Doctor Who has tackled such a story.
“It’s tempting to let them go ahead and destroy themselves,” the Doctor says of the foolhardy Morestrans, “The trouble is they wouldn’t be the only ones.”
“It’s tempting to let them go ahead and destroy themselves.” These foolhardy Morestrans are rushing straight into danger. What business is that of the Doctor? What business is that of a non-interfering Time Lord?
“The trouble is they wouldn’t be the only ones.” Ah, that is his business.
I think back to the first Doctor landing on Skaro and leaving the Thals and the Daleks to fight among themselves. What business of it was his? Only when his fluid link was endangered did he get involved. Jump ahead several serials and a miniaturized Doctor and companions risk their own lives to expose and stop a scheme that will cause widespread destruction on Earth.
The evolution of the Doctor’s thinking started in that long ago junkyard with two stowaway/kidnapped school teachers. The further the Doctor has traveled, both in time and distance, from his Time Lord heritage, the further he strays from their policy of non-interference.( Although at times this straying is at the command of the Time Lords ala Genesis of the Daleks.) However interference has its limits. The Doctor does not go looking for trouble, not yet. The Doctor does not relish danger, not yet.
“It’s tempting to let them go ahead and destroy themselves.”
“The trouble is they wouldn’t be the only ones.”
That was a bit of a digression, Gary, that I hadn’t intended; it was tempting to let it go . . .
But I didn’t and now I have to get back on track.
Planet of Evil contains another element that has not been a part of Doctor Who for quite a while, and that is an extended TARDIS scene. And what a scene it is. The Doctor and Sarah have clicked. Playful, bickering, teasing; the Doctor and Sarah have evolved into one of the most classic of Doctor Who Doctor/companion pairings.
As Sarah reminds the Doctor of his promise to get her to London five minutes before leaving Loch Ness, we get this gem of an exchange:
Doctor: “Listen, we’re on the edge of a time-space vortex and you’re talking in minutes.”
Sarah: “Oh, I see. What’s gone wrong this time?”
Doctor: “Nothing, nothing at all. What makes you think something’s gone wrong?”
Sarah: “Because you always get rude when you’re trying to cover up a mistake.”
Doctor: “Nothing of consequence. Slight overshoot, easily rectified.”
The slight overshoot turns out to be thirty thousand years.
Outside of the TARDIS there are more little moments between the two, like the simple touch of Sarah hanging on to the end of the Doctor’s scarf as he leads the way through the jungle. Or when a mysterious mechanical device goes whizzing by their heads: “What was that? An elfin spirit of the forest?” And then the Doctor quoting Shakespeare and mentioning off-handedly that he met him once. Or this tiny exchange:
Sarah: “Do you ever get tired of being pushed around?”
Doctor: “Frequently.”
Small companionable moments scattered about adding that dash of camaraderie that makes us care and keeps us invested in these characters and the story.
And the story is quite good, as I said before, an ambitious sci-fi tale on the edge of the universe. The Morestrans have mined a substance to provide endless energy for their home planet. Trouble is, this mineral is of the antimatter world and if taken out of its world, well the Doctor’s “Was that bang big enough for you Brigadier?” from Terror of the Zygons would take on a whole new meaning.
In order to keep this from happening, the planet’s antimatter creatures have been slowly killing off the members of the Morestran expedition. Invisible at first, we are later treated to one of the better Doctor Who special effects as the glowing red outlines of the creatures become visible. Later, as the Morestrans continue to load the mineral onto their ship and attempt to take off, the antimatter aboard pulls them back towards the planet. At this point we get an added bonus of a Jekyll and Hyde tale, a Professor Sorenson and Mr. Antiman tale if you will.
I do like this story, especially as the mystery unfolds in the superbly conceived jungle surface of the planet. The sinister atmosphere, the grizzly deaths, the shimmering antimatter all provide an excellent backdrop as the Doctor detects then warns then endangers himself to communicate with the antimatter.
The problem I have with Planet of Evil is when the action shifts to the Morestran ship. The story itself is still quite fine, but I find the set to be rather cheap, in stark contrast to the lush jungle we left behind, and the acting of the crew leaves something to be desired. For me it makes the second half of the story rather pedestrian.
Sorenson and Vishinsky handle their roles well enough, but the Controller Salamar becomes inexplicably unhinged and hysterical while the rest of the crew has little to do other than get killed. All the while they are running around in space jumpsuits and booties that undermine their authority.
Salamar in particular is a disappointment. His first appearance indicates he is going to be your typical Doctor Who hard-headed leader who won’t listen to reason. Then he surprises a bit as he rightfully stands firm against Sorenson, reminding him that this is a military expedition and the death of his crew members must be thoroughly investigated. But then he reverts to form, refusing to listen to the Doctor or the more level-headed Vishinsky, and then he quickly devolves into a raving maniac.
The Doctor, of course, never disappoints, and there are several shining moments for him in Planet of Evil. There are two in particular that I want to mention.
The first is when the Doctor dives into the antimatter pool to communicate with the creature. This act of bravery alone is not noteworthy; it is the meaning and intent of the act. Antimatter is not an evil to be exterminated. It is a being to reason with, to understand. “It doesn’t live anywhere . . . it just is,” he says of it. It just is, and the Doctor understands that. He dives into the pool and negotiates. He gives his word as a Time Lord, he later explains, that no antimatter will leave the planet. His word. As a Time Lord. The Doctor is a Time Lord; he is on the run from all that means, but he is still a Time Lord, and that means everything to him. Tom Baker’s Doctor wears the mantle of the Time Lord and is most worthy of that mantle. It is the very fiber of his being, despite his being on the run from it. His word as a Time Lord is a solemn thing and he treats it as such. He does not flaunt or brag. He states it calmly and matter-of-factly, he gave his word as a Time Lord.
The Doctor’s second moment that truly shines is his dealing with Professor Sorenson. While Sorenson is in one of his more sane, Jekyll periods the Doctor tells him, “You and I are scientists, Professor. We buy our privilege to experiment at the cost of total responsibility.” The Professor has snuck some antimatter into his cabin after it had all been ordered ejected from the ship; the Professor has become contaminated himself with the antimatter turning him into Antiman. The Professor has brought probable disaster to the ship and most probably the universe. Now he must pay the cost. He must be responsible. In essence, the Doctor is inciting the Professor to suicide.
This might sound morally repugnant to our human ears. But the Doctor is not human. The Doctor is a Time Lord. As solemn as his word as a Time Lord is this statement, “We buy our privilege to experiment at the cost of total responsibility.”
Sorenson almost succeeds in paying this cost, but his Antiman side takes over at the last minute forcing the Doctor to act. I do find the sight of the Doctor brandishing a firearm a bit unsettling; this is so contrary to all that is the Doctor. However, despite his abhorrence of violence and gunplay, the Doctor has had his history with guns and even has some on board the TARDIS (as Steven discovers in The Gunfighters) and has been known to state, “They are handy little things” (The Sensorites). And at least this time when the Doctor turns the blaster on Sorenson it is only set to stun and is not the glaring anomaly of The Day of the Daleks in which he unthinkingly kills an Ogron.
Antiman Sorenson and the antimatter are offered up to the antimatter pool, and because the Doctor has kept his word Sorenson is released, cleansed of all contamination and thankfully cleansed of the memory of his endless but deadly energy discovery. Instead, the Doctor sets him on to a more benign method—the kinetic force of planetary movement.
An ambitious story with some lush jungle sets, fantastic special effects creatures, and great Doctor/companion moments, but a rather prosaic second half that drags it back, rather like the Morestran ship being dragged back to the planet. A story that I admire and like but don’t necessarily care for.
But now I have jettisoned Planet of Evil and am ready to soar forth out into the Doctor Who universe. Here’s hoping that this finds you, Gary, somewhere out there in that same universe . . .

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