Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Serial 81: The Planet of Evil

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companions: Sarah Jane

Written by: Louis Marks
Directed by: David Maloney

Editor's Note: Hey, guys! I have the week off to prepare(?) for next week's entry. Which (knowing me and what kinda story it is) will be a gargantuan entry. So this week Cassandra's stepping in to talk about a different planet. Only this one belongs to an adjective. Not arachnids.

Background & Significance: "Planet of Evil" aired towards the beginning of Season Thirteen of Doctor Who, the second of Tom Baker's seven seasons, as well as the second season of the show being overseen by the almighty Hinchcliffe and Holmes. We've been around long enough that you should know how we feel about this guys. And these first three seasons of Tom Baker. =)

Season Thirteen is an interesting season because everys tory in it is an homage in one way or another to a very famous sci-fi/horror classic. "Zygons" is essentially Invasion of the Body Snatchers. "Pyramids of Mars" is a send up to mummy movies. "Android Invasion" is Body Snatchers again. "Brain of Morbius" is Frankenstein, "Seeds of Doom" is The Thing and Day of the Triffids, and "Planet of Evil" is Forbidden Planet as well as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The thing about this season, though, is that it takes the tropes and homages the works, but in a way that if you're not familiar with what they're homaging it doesn't take away from the storytelling at all. And I really enjoy that. I've never seen Forbidden Planet, but I'm still able to enjoy this, as well as pick up what they were going for. It's a very clever way of taking classics and spinning them in such a way to suit Doctor Who, which is one of the reasons I really love this season (except "Android Invasion" of course).

"Planet of Evil is also written and directed by names with whom we're pretty familiar. Louis Marks had previously penned "Planet of the Giants" and "Day of the Daleks" (which is also great), and would go on to write "Masque of Mandragora," which is a pretty great track record, if I do say so myself. And David Maloney, of course, directed such awesomeness as "The Mind Robber," "War Games," "Genesis of the Daleks," "The Deadly Assassin," and "The Talons of Weng-Chiang." So don't mess.

This is also the first adventure with The Doctor and Sarah Jane without Harry, who decided to stay on Earth at the end of "Terror of the Zygons." Prepare for awesome.

Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1:

This is such a strange story.

I remember not really thinking much of it the first time I watched it, which seems to be a running theme when it comes to me watching Classic Who, and I think it’s just a testament to the ultimate rewatchability of a lot of these stories because there’s just so much to get out of them.  Unless they suck.  Then it’s like pulling teeth.

But “Planet of Evil” doesn’t suck, not by a long shot.  At least, the first part doesn’t.  I think a lot of this story and especially this first part owes a lot to the direction, lighting, and production design of this.  It’s so perfect.  And apparently the BBC agreed, since the set ended up being photographed and used as an example of excellence in set design by the BBC Educational Service, which is fantastic.

I mean, just look at that.  I know intuitively that they’re filming in a studio in England, but at the same time, it’s really really really hard to tell, which is just so impressive.  A lot of thought, time, and effort was put into making that jungle set look awesome, so tip of the hat to designer Roger Murray-Leach for being great at his job.

The lighting, too, is just… it’s perfect.  I can’t think of another word for it.  Watching this whole first part, the jungle is just… ominous, everything’s cast in heavy, heavy shadow, there’s dark reds and purples and blues, just a continuous sense of deep twilight that lends a definite otherworldliness to the surface of the planet.  Everything onscreen just contributes to this sense of pervading darkness and doom, and it at the same time prepares us and amps up the tension; because we know something bad is going to happen, we just know it, and honestly, with this planet looking the way it does, that something bad could pretty much happen at any time.

Even the waterbug-looking spaceship fits in nicely with this, I think.  The spaceship set is a bit generic, and their uniforms are ridiculous (seriously, what is with that fluffy white piping all over that shit), but once the spaceship lands on the planet’s surface, everything really changes, doesn’t it?  The crew of the ship have the upper hand when they’re still in orbit, but by landing, they really throw that advantage away and the rest of the story deals with that.  The planet brings everyone to the same level, which I think is interesting.  Not sure if that made any sense, but whatever, you get what I mean.

Another thing that really sets the tone of this story is opening with a shot of the planet in question, and then immediately we see grave markers for several people.  Jesus.  Talk about a stark image.  Everything about this first part is just really quite strong, I’m so impressed.  The direction is wonderful (I mean, it’s David Maloney, and we know he’s fantastic), and I’ve gushed about the set design and aesthetic feel already, but what about the script?

The thing I really notice is there’s quite a bit of exposition in this, which I understand, and they try to handle it gracefully, but it just seems a little clunky for me.  If I’m able to pick out that what you’re saying is blatantly exposition, that’s not super great.  Aside from that though, I really don’t have a problem with the script in this.  The crew is a little genericish and stuffy (seriously, does everyone have a stick up their ass?  But they’re military types, so maybe that’s why), but I expect that they’ll be fleshed out a little better in the subsequent parts.  The Controller is, at least, pretty menacing and makes a decent villain character at this point in the story.  Professor Sorenson is pretty batty, and very off-putting, which I like, because that just adds to the tension and feel of this story.  So the writing’s good, as is the characterization.

But I think the best part of this (aside from the planet sets and lighting because, woof, I just can’t get enough of that shit) is The Doctor and Sarah Jane.

It’s been so long since I’ve seen a Fourth Doctor/Sarah Jane story, and it’s just so delightful to watch them here.  They’re so fantastic together, the chemistry and charm pops right off the screen and slaps me in the face with emotions because I adore this companion/Doctor team so much.  I’m not Tom Baker’s biggest fan, but this is really building up to the best part of his run as the Doctor, as far as I’m concerned, and Sarah Jane is in my top 5 companions of all time, so, that’ll tell you something about how I feel about these two.  Watching this really just makes my heart ache, because oh my god, Elisabeth Sladen, you flawless human being.  It’s such a crime that she’s gone.

But yes.  I love the way they interact with each other, there’s a little bit of banter, but it all comes from their clear affection for each other.  I love the way the Doctor is being his usual batty self, examining the planet, telling Sarah to hurry up, going off on his own, but then he comes back for her after he sees she hasn’t been following.  I love how independent Sarah Jane is, volunteering to go and get the tool the Doctor needs to measure the star; and I know that they just needed a way to separate the Doctor from his companion, because that’s what every Doctor Who story does, but it just feels so genuine to the character and not forced at all, in my opinion.  And when the Doctor’s been investigating, and finds the dead body in the base, the first thing he says is “Sarah” because he’s concerned about her safety in going off alone.  And again, after they’re reunited in the makeshift holding cell in the base, Sarah Jane is just so sly the way she points out they can escape, and they just get along so easily.  It’s just a treat to watch.

Anyway, that’s enough fangirling for now, let’s continue on.

Part 2:

The thing I like about this story so far is that all of the things necessary to move the plot forward and make it interesting/sustain this story over four episodes feel organic to the story instead of super formulaic and “oh, this needs to happen now, well shit, let’s just throw it in and see what happens lol.”  I pointed out the bit in the last episode where the Doctor and Sarah are separated for a spell, and how that needed to happen to push the episode along, but it felt natural to the character and emphasizes Sarah Jane’s independence and adventurous nature.  The same thing happens in this part, and it feels almost meta in the way that they address that Sarah Jane and the Doctor could totally just pimp out of there and go somewhere else, because they’ve just been locked up alone with the TARDIS, but the Doctor has a reason to stay and intervene in what’s going on here, which has been subtly alluded to and revealed little by little all throughout the episode so far (which is fantastic, by the way, this structure and storytelling is super strong).

And what is the reason the Doctor and Sarah Jane have to stay and save these idiots from destroying themselves?  Because they’ll destroy the entire universe in the process.  Which is a pretty compelling reason for the Doctor to stay and help.  That, and boy, do the stakes go through the fucking roof after that point.

I just like how visibly pissed off the Doctor is at these people when he goes to negotiate with the antimatter monster.  Like he has absolutely no patience for these fuckwads who are screwing up the balance of nature and threatening the existence of the universe.  Not only is it in character with Baker’s portrayal of the Doctor, but I just think it fits the Doctor overall.  The most recent example that comes to mind is the Eleventh Doctor in “The Beast Below” from series five, how once he figures out what’s been happening on the ship, he loses his shit and doesn’t want to talk to anyone because, ugh, these humans fucking everything up again, leaving the Doctor to fix their mistakes.  The same thing is really played well in this story too, I think.

The more I think about it, and the more I watch this, “Planet of Evil” just really makes me love Tom Baker.  I mean, I loved Tom Baker before, but I think this really emphasizes and highlights why I love him so much.  He’s aloof and alien and angry when he has to be, but with Sarah Jane, he’s affectionate and charming, quoting Shakespeare and teasing her and what not.  It’s just a great portrayal and a great performance, and I’m really enjoying it this time around.  Maybe I was taking Tom Baker for granted for a while before seeing this again, I don’t know.  (Also there’s just something so right about The Doctor quoting Shakespeare offhand, it makes me incredibly happy in ways few other things do.)

I really like how interesting and engaging this story is so far, and just getting the slow drip of information throughout so we’re able to better understand the situation here.  Marks does a much better job at the expositiony stuff in this part, and everything new we learn really just contributes to comprehending the story that much more.  We learn more about Professor Sorenson and what brought his expedition team to the planet in the first place.  We learn more about what the fuck the invisible monster is, and why this planet seems to be PMSing all over the place.  And it’s all done elegantly, really.  I just really admire this episode.

Though it’s hilarious to me how everyone over-acts getting eaten by the anti-matter monster, it’s so precious.

I also really like how the tech off the spaceship meshes quite well and adds to the spooky nature of the planet.  I’m referring mainly to that creepy ocular tracker, which is just a tiny hovercraft with a giant eye that stalks you.  And I like how, even on the whitewashed ship, we still get a sense of the planet’s ambiance because of the surveillance feed and how it’s this purple color, just like the rest of the planet.  That’s a nice touch, and ties everything together, I think.

This story is also incredibly relevant as well.  Professor Sorenson and his team come to Zeta Minor (the planet) to look for a new source of energy for their home world.  Which is a seemingly innocuous mission, but then in this episode he goes on to say that the lives lost on the mission pale in comparison to the energy source that he’s found.  In other words, he (and others like him, because there are always others) are willing to sacrifice pretty much anything to get their hands on some energy.  And then what happens?  The Doctor falls into the pit of nothing, seemingly consumed by the monster and ostensibly never to be seen again.  But according to the professor, no cost is too great.  Which I find disturbingly topical to some of the policies of lawmakers who’ve been elected to office nowadays.  Here comes Doctor Who, ready to drop some science on you guys from the 1970s, as usual.

That’s seriously a fuck of a cliffhanger, though, am I right?

Part 3

So this story has really good cliffhangers.

I talked a little about the end of part 2, about how we actually witness the Doctor falling into the abyss, and we deal with that further in this part (which is fantastic).  What makes a good cliffhanger to me is not threat, but follow-through.  It’s a much different matter if someone’s waving a gun around, threatening and menacing the Doctor and his companions; it’s another matter altogether when we see someone pull the trigger, when we see the gun actually go off.  That’s follow-through.  And this story does follow-through quite well, if I do say so myself.

We see the Doctor fall, and we deal with that.  Yes, he gets out of it, but it’s more thrilling watching him in this other antimatter universe, struggling to get out, than just faking a fall or something.  The same thing happens at the end of this part; we get The Controller threatening to jettison Sarah Jane and the Doctor into space, there’s a struggle, and then the lever is actually pulled. (AFTER THE DOCTOR HAS TAKEN A SHOT TO THE FACE.)  I love shit like that.  It adds a real sense of urgency and stakes to the end of the episode instead of just a lame fake-out.  Gimme the good stuff.

Plus it just leads to a more interesting episode.  If the cliffhanger is wrapped up super quickly, like 2 seconds after the beginning of the episode, what was the point?  That’s just stupid. I tune into TV to watch characters deal with new situations.  Wrapping something up like a big end of episode cliffy right off the bat is just lazy and not compelling.

Which is why I like this episode.  We deal with the supposed death of the Doctor.  Sarah Jane runs out to go see for herself. Vishinsky is sympathetic, and goes out to help her after he sees that the Doctor’s still alive, which sends Vishinsky on his way to eventually opposing the Controller by the end of the episode.  The Doctor makes use of the antimatter crystals he lifted from the canisters earlier.  We get a better understanding of how urgent this entire situation is.  It’s just good stuff.

Plus, him falling through the void is trippy as balls, and I love a good trippy sequence in Doctor Who, especially under a capable director like Maloney. 

And Maloney is just so good.  He does horror really well.  I think the transition between the horror elements on the planet, to the horror elements on the spaceship is handled well, and some of the shots in the stairwell are just so claustrophobic and gorgeous.  I just love it.

I find it interesting that there’s a very marked shift between the two halves of this story.  There’s the first half, where we deal with all the shit that’s happening on the planet’s surface, and the scary that goes along with that.  And then the second half is all about escaping the planet, and Professor Sorenson’s transformation into some crazy antimatter creature.  (I’m sorry, but I refuse to call him Anti-man, it just makes me laugh.  Sounds like a superhero or something.)

It’s really unsettling just watching everything fall to shit on this spaceship.  Professor Sorenson means well, I suppose, but ugh.  I can’t stand him.  Which might be the point, but I don’t know.  He’s just so wrapped up and self-possessed by getting the anti-matter crystals back to their planet so they can be exploited for energy, and then he turns into this crazy ass werewolf/Mr. Hyde thing.  Which I don’t really question, and I like, because it fits in with the horror homages this season was going for, but what the fuck is in that thermos that smokes and looks toxic that he drinks to control the monster?  What even. o.o

But yes, aside from that hang up, I really am enjoying this.  The writing comes to mind again, I really noticed the crewman banter when they’re instructed to remove the Professor’s canisters from the holding area, it was just so charming and realistic.  (Probably Holmes script editing, but whatever.)

I just… yeah. This is good. Everything about it.  It just builds and builds in a logical way that makes sense, and it’s really fun and entertaining to watch it play out.

Let’s see how the end holds up.

Part 4

Okay, so I have some problems with this last part.  Namely, Salamar/The Controller.  I guess I can see the slight descent into madness, but having him just completely lose his shit in this last part and then go on a suicide mission to take Sorenson out is an odd choice and I don’t really buy it.  Which is a shame, because they were doing so well. 

My other problem that’s not really a problem is Sorenson coming out of all this alive.  Maybe he just annoyed me to the point that I wished swift death upon him, but eh.  It feels like a cheat that he made it out okay when nearly everyone else did not.

Also the follow up/resolution to the cliffhanger was not as awesome as I wanted it to be, but I suppose that if you jettison the Doctor and Sarah Jane into space, it’d be kinda hard to bring them back.  So I’ll let that slide.  But still. It is comical how slow that ejector system is.  For real.

Those are my only issues with this story though.  I mean, it’s a great horror romp with some creepy creepy moments.  So I’m definitely willing to forgive them the faults.  After all, not every story can be “Caves.”

In this part especially, I’m again struck by the sheer wonderfulness of some of these shots.  Maloney, you are a magician.  The shot with the looming shadow over the guy in the control room (WHO IS HE TALKING TO???) before he gets ate by Professor Sorenson.  The shot showing all the hatchways in the corridor closing one after the other.  The awesome mirror shot with the Doctor snooping in Sorenson’s room and Sorenson walking in and finding him.  So good.  I can’t handle it.

And I guess it’s cute the way they end it, but I’m not super satisfied with it.  I mean, something like 20 people just died.  I think if Sorenson had stayed dead, it would have lent the ending a much more somber note, which is what I think it needed.  I’m all for happy endings, but there’s a time and a place.  Plus, bittersweet endings are the best.  They kick you right in the heart.  Sure, you can be happy the Doctor and Sarah got out of there alive and saved the universe, but at what cost?  I just think it was the wrong move to ignore that, is all.

Final Thoughts?: I really, really enjoy this story.  Much more than I thought I would.  I wasn’t super pumped about blogging this one, but, once again, I was proved wrong.  That really is a running theme with me and these blogs, isn’t it?

But what’s not to love?  Tom Baker and Sarah Jane, a Doctor/companion pairing for the ages.  A great writer and a fucking awesome director.  A great concept, lots of good sci-fi horror as only Hinchcliffe and Holmes could deliver.  It’s not perfect, but then again, a lot of good things aren’t perfect.

And I think "Planet of Evil" really does stand out despite its faults. It really gets buried in this season; surrounded by "Zygons" and "Pyramids of Mars," it's really easy to see why.  But I really think this story deserves more credit and recognition, because it really is quite strong. Thumbs way up.

Next Time!: Third Doctor! Sarah Jane! The Brig! Benton and Mike "James Bond" Yates! Intense Buddhist overtones! Giant spiders! Peasant rebellions! And an epic 15 minute chase sequence! Join Matt as he takes on Pertwee's send off "Planet of the Spiders"! Coming Next Tuesday!

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