Friday, 30 August 2013
Planet of Evil written by Louis Marks and directed by David Maloney
This story in a nutshell: The planet of evil has been raped and plundered and it wants its minerals back…
Succulent Sarah: This is the point where Sarah really gets to make her mark, and she has been perfect companion material up to this point anyway. Lis Sladen going solo with Tom Baker and they drunk with contentment in each others company, saving the world in TV Centre and leaving the real world behind completely. It's gorgeous. Sarah has been at this lark for so long that she takes distress calls, bodies and guns being pointed at her in her stride. She is absolutely crazy heading back through the alien jungle on her own but I love her independence. Sarah is out thinking the Doctor these days so clearly she has to go…this woman is destined to have her own show one day. I love her quiet reaction to Sorenson’s rant, Lis Sladen is so confident at this point. She’s superb. Like Tom Baker we adore her. Watch the quiet relationship of respect that builds between her and Vishinsky with barely a word of dialogue to back it up, it is almost entirely the work of the actors suggesting an intimacy that is not visible in the script.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘From the beginning of time it has existed side by side with the known universe. Each is the antithesis of each other. You call it nothing, a word to cover ignorance.’
‘Fools. They really think they’ll be able to leave with this on board.’
‘You and I are scientists, Professor. We buy our privilege to experiment at the cost of total responsibility.’
The Good Stuff: Approaching the planet, the eerie music, the alien jungle…the opening scenes generate a stifling atmosphere from the word go. The clanking chains, the whistling wind, the slurping, bleeding sounds as Braun is sucked dry by the creature...this gave me pause to look over my shoulder so it must have given some children-terrifying nightmares. The jungle is a living thing; shot on film and lit in reds and purples with a mossy, muddy floor with pools and steam curling in the air and fronds hanging from trees. It is the best alien world they ever created in a studio and true testament to what can be achieved on a diminutive budget, it's freakishly realistic. I love the idea of a story being set so far out in space that Zeta Minor is the last known planet in the universe, it gives the story a real sense of claustrophobia and terror, that anything could be beyond this point. There are lots of interesting places to shoot the split-level flight deck of the Morestran ship. As spaceship designs go it might be a little bland colour wise (but works in sharp contrast to the planet) but Maloney makes full use of it's artistic arrangement to ensure that these scenes still arrest the audience. How nasty is the crusty yellow make up job for the fetid corpses? It leaves your imagination to head in some unpleasant places to work out how such a transformation could have occurred. The sudden zoom in on the inky pit is chokingly scary, Maloney leaving you with no doubt that something vicious and scary is lingering down there. Dudley Simpson’s music is at its height here; he scores the deaths particularly chillingly by having the music die away with them, like a scream that is dying away pitifully. The effect of the strobe light guns lighting up the alien jungle is visually stunning. Either it's Hinchcliffe's handling of the budget or its David Maloney's expertise with the technology but this story is full of effects that wouldn’t work in any other story but work a charm here – the Oculoid Tracker is another example. The prop is placed underneath the camera and we see it from the trackers point of view, a pretty ingenious way of selling the idea in a visually interesting way (and even the noise it makes is gets under your skin). ‘Our solar system is dependent upon a dying sun, I have discovered a new source of energy!’ – Louis Marks always finds interesting things to do in his Doctor Who scripts. The end of the universe is a chilling prospect, the boundary between existence as we know it and a universe that we cannot understand. The planet is claiming back its own, the story creating and playing by its own rules. Sorenson remains such a watchable antagonist throughout, he is totally consumed with his find and slowly losing his mind. Never a villain in the traditional sense of the word but just a rapacious glory hunter who refuses to seek out an alternative source of energy. Frederick Jaeger gives a compelling performance as a man on the edge of insanity, invasive alien fronds wrapping around his mind and consuming him. It's lovely to have a character like wide boy De Haan complaining about having to do some work, it turns him from a faceless grunt into a living breathing person whose death actually means something. Is Sorenson drinking blood? it certainly looks that way as he spills the rusty liquid over his bureau. The ‘clean and tidy’ coffin in space is another surprisingly good effect, miles more accomplished than a similar attempt at this sort of thing in season three's The Ark. Marks tells his story so cleanly that the audience is never kept in the dark, what a wonderful metaphor he deploys when the Doctor tells them that they are coming to the end of their piece of elastic and being drawn back. Go and watch how well De Haan’s death is filmed, never once showing Sorenson’s face and highlighting the shadow up the wall as the creatures sucks the life out of him. It is a perfect representation of why horror is so much more effective when you are given enough detail to frighten but kept in the dark about the specifics - this is the genre playing out on a budget with a director who knows precisely how to make that work to his advantage. The end of part three works because the concept of being trapped inside a coffin floating around in the vacuum of space is haunting. The power games between Vishinsky and Salamar are worked into the script from their first scene, the latter constantly feeling undermined by the level headedness and experience of the former. It comes to a head in the last episode, Salamar finally tipping over into insanity and forcing his subordinate to obey his will and ejecting our heroes into space. Watch out for the overhanging shadow that consumes one of the Morestrans on the flight deck, leaving the audience with no doubt as to his fate. For a scientist the greatest indignity is to lose your mind and submit to primitivism and so Sorenson's attempt to commit suicide when he sees there is no way back from his transformation is perfectly natural and that is the moment the creature takes over completely and saves it's host just in the nick of time. More phenomenal electronic effects are on display as the Salamar deploys the the atomic accelerator and splits Sorenson into thousands of energy creatures, red silhouettes plaguing the ship. After a period of stories to have completely failed to use the TARDIS as anything but a mode of transport to get the regulars to their new destination (and in season twelve even that was abandoned for a while), it is wonderful to spend so much time in the (niftily re-designed) ship again. Maloney gets how to transform a few sets into a genuinely claustrophobic location - clearly he came to the show just one year too late as he would have been an ideal choice to bring one of season five's base under siege stories to life. The antimatter creature proves to be a benevolent foe and as good as its word, offering Sorenson back as a reward for keeping their end of the bargain.
The Bad Stuff: After five minutes of flawlessly realised television the Morestran hoover comes gliding into view. David Maloney has another stubborn and unlikable character to cast and once again he fills it with Prentis Hancock. Check out Hancock's charming turn in The Ribos Operation to see how pleasant he is to watch when he plays against type. What a shame Michael Wisher’s last role in Doctor Who is such an unmemorable one. I’m on the fence about the anti matter creature itself, in some shots it looks as though it has impossibly been spun from red silk and in others it is just a ghostly blob on the screen as though a child has conjured it up in a hurry with red felt tip. Still you win some and you lose some and on the whole the electronic effects deployed are generally in the former category which is better hit rate than most other tales.
Result: Last night I turned off all the lights, lit candles and sat back and let Planet of Evil’s rich, moody atmosphere wash over me. Historically trips to the past are very well realised and outer space stories wind up looking farcical but Zeta Minor is brought to life with such conviction and style it confounds me that every foray into outer space can't be this atmospheric. David Maloney is perfectly suited to stories like this; he captures unseen horrors with real skill and lets the story slowly crawl under your skin, giving Marks' creepy ideas a chance to bed in your mind and fester. Planet of Evil is a quintessential Hinchcliffe story; a horror riff, superbly made, very scary and occasionally insensate for all its perfection. Tom Baker and Lis Sladen are a superb team and so watchable and unencumbered by either UNIT or Harry, the fourth Doctor and Sarah finally get the chance to show that they are made for each other. This is an often forgotten story but there is so much here that works, people write it off as an empty chiller but both visually and conceptually it is much more impressive than that. If we could remove the odd duff effect and Prentis Hancock's overplayed mania it might score even higher but to my mind this is not the season thirteen failure that some figure it to be but an atmospheric chiller that is perfect for long winter nights: 8/10