“PLANET OF EVIL” – Season 13, Serial 2, Story 81 – Written by Louis Marks; Directed by David Maloney – With Harry Sullivan now departed, it’s time for the debut of the Doctor and Sarah Jane Show, and they start with a doozy. They land on a planet. And it’s evil. Well, the planet isn’t evil so much as misunderstood as it really hates when people show up and try to steal its precious rocks. Even then, it’s not so much that the planet is evil, it’s just behaving according the laws of physics as it relates to the antimatter universe. See, on this planet way out at the edge of space, there’s a hole in the ground which serves as a doorway between our universe and the antimatter universe. And if you try to take rocks from this Planet of Laws of Physics As It Relates to the Antimatter Universe, a mostly invisible antimatter monster shows up to eat your face. Because That’s What’s Happened To Thieves In The Antimatter Universe Ever Since They Saw Forbidden Planet At The Drive-In.
It’s often surprising to me how quickly a serial reveals itself for what it ultimately turns out to be. Sometimes all it takes is a scene or two and and the mood is established, the story is set up, and the rest of the what follows matches the initial vibe incredibly closely. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but it does in PLANET OF EVIL, an extremely dark and satisfying serial that blends elements of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Fred Wilcox’s 1956 sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet into a claustrophobic monster mystery.
PLANET OF EVIL has been rightly heralded for its gorgeous, spooky sets. The forest that designer Roger Murray-Leach constructed is a thing of frightening beauty, of tight spaces between trees and odd plants, colored in deep purples, blues, maroons, and greys. It gives the world this constant sense of foreboding, and director David Maloney wisely keeps much of the action in the forest shrouded in darkness. It’s one of the very best examples in the entire history of DOCTOR WHO of using a setting to build and maintain a specific mood.
It’s not just the look, either. Murray-Leach contrasts the cluttered forest with the relatively wide open space around the bottomless pit from which the Anti-Matter Creature emerges. It’s a brilliant move to have the “oasis” be the heart of terror, where you get a break from the claustrophobic trees but face a bottomless pit into another universe.
The Doctor and Sarah Jane show up on Zeta Minor when they answer a distress call. The find the shelter of a Morestran geological survey team, but the equipment isn’t working. I love how the Doctor treats Sarah like an adult instead of a child. When he outlines his plan to return to the TARDIS to get some equipment so he can pinpoint their location in the solar system, followed by fixing the computer in the habitat, Sarah offers to go back to the TARDIS to get the spectrometer, and the Doctor says that’s a good idea. He suggests this despite all the spooky scenery outside, and when Sarah doesn’t immediately go, he wants to know what she’s waiting for.
“The key,” she reminds him pointedly.
There’s just so much respect between them that it makes watching them a complete joy. It helps that Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are fantastic actors, of course, but there’s clearly a strong chemistry between them, too. Sarah was a very good Companion for Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, but she’s a great Companion with the Fourth Doctor. Chalk it up to experience, maybe, or better scripts, but the chemistry between a Doctor and his Companions is something that’s up to the actors to develop, as one of the primary ways that connection is realized on the screen is the non-scripted actions between them. Pertwee had this in spades with Katy Manning’s Jo Grant and Baker and Sladen, now in their second full season working together and beginning their existence as a duo with Harry Sullivan’s departure at the end of TERROR OF THE ZYGONS, clearly have it, as well. They have this wonderful way of acting like they’re sharing a joke that the rest of the world isn’t privy to that binds them together.
After Sarah leaves to return to the TARDIS, the Doctor shows he isn’t totally cavalier about things, however. Immediately after she exits, he walks into the next room and finds a dead body and his first concern isn’t the body, but the window to look out at the dark forest he just sent Sarah to traverse.
Next comes the totally predictable arrival of a Morestran military unit that blames the Doctor and Sarah for killing the dead geologists. It’s a classic WHO set-up, of course, but what’s really nice about the way PLANET OF EVIL handles it is that it runs through the entire serial. The Morestrans’ military leader Salamar never wavers from his belief that the Doctor and Sarah are behind all the calamities, and he becomes increasingly desperate to cling to this idea as the serial unfolds. His chief deputy Vishinsky, however, comes around to the Doctor and Sarah’s position relatively early in the serial, though this isn’t a case where he just conveniently goes, “Yep, I believe you, Doctor,” and falls in line with whatever this stranger says.
That difference between Salamar and Vishinsky is one of the strongest parts of PLANET OF EVIL because I never forget that these are real people who have been dropped into an extraordinary circumstance – even without the odd and unexpected appearance of the Doctor and Sarah Jane. It’s incredibly rare that serials don’t work to a point where everyone and everything revolves around the Doctor, but these Morestrans always act like this is their story, and that’s one of the reasons I dig this serial so much. The Morestrans are on this mission to track down Professor Soreson’s geological survey because that team has gone too long with making contact. Sorenson is on Zeta Minor to find a new energy source to re-ignite their homeworld’s sun, so you have these three strong personalities, each with a different endgame, operating in PLANET OF EVIL: Salamar is anti-Doctor, Vishinsky is increasingly pro-Doctor, and Sorenson’s only real concern is getting his rocks back home.
The Anti-Matter Creature plays the antagonist role early in the serial, but much like the creature in Forbidden Planet, it’s largely invisible, so to add a clearer monster in the back-half, Sorenson pulls a Jekyll and Hyde routine thanks to anti-matter. It does feel a bit unnecessary when suddenly there’s a monster roaming the halls killing people because the threat with the Anti-Matter Creature is a good one, but it doesn’t wound the serial’s overall effectiveness.
The Doctor has a great line when he’s trying to win Sorenson over, arguing, “You and I are scientists, Professor, we buy our privilege to experiment at the cost of total responsibility.” To Sorenson’s credit/blame, he’s so focused on saving his own world that he can’t see the present danger in the light of the future victory of saving his world. When he goes all Hyde and then saved, his memory is a bit fuzzy, so the Doctor “reminds” him that he planned to work on a different source of energy to save his world, a plan that the Doctor has, in fact, created. That’s a small but excellent part of PLANET OF EVIL, too, as it demonstrates how sneaky the Fourth Doctor can be, and how that sneakiness reveals a brighter aspect of the Doctor’s nature instead of a darker one, as is usually the play when characters let out these smaller, hidden aspects of their personality.
PLANET OF EVIL is an outstanding serial, and a fitting launch to the Doctor & Sarah Jane Show.