Planet of Evil was always a story that captivated me as a youngster.
It wasn’t because I’d seen it and loved it, because it wasn’t out on video, nor had it been on UK Gold yet. No, what captivated me about it was the cover of the Target Novelization.
For many years, the Target books – or if I’m being honest about it, their covers – were all I had to go on with certain stories. I started to actually read them in my teens, but before that I’d just look at the cover and think ‘That story looks good!’. And because Planet of Evil was only available in my local library and was in a big bulky hardback edition, it made it seem more exotic.
The story has quite an emotive name for a child to get into, and the picture of someone who looks nothing like Frederick Jaeger on the front made it look more like it was a horror movie than a Dr Who story.
Then eventually I watched the story and the mystique died…
Doctor Who – Planet of Evil Review: What’s This One About
A military expedition has travelled to the ‘edge of the universe’ to pick up a scientific research team, of which there is only one survivor left.
But they can’t take off again because Zeta Minor is the bridge between the known universe and that of anti-matter, and the remaining scientist is trying to take anti-matter off the planet with him, which is a no-no.
And because of the mystical properties of the anti-matter it turns him into a sort of werewolf.
Or to put it another way…
In a season of the show that focuses on Gothic horror, this is the one about Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde with a werewolf thrown in for good measure.
You’re probably thinking at this point that I’m going to spend the next 1,500 words tearing this story apart, but that really isn’t the case.
I don’t consider the Planet of Evil to be particularly bad, but I don’t consider it to be much good either.
To me, it’s Dr Who By The Numbers.
You’ve got the jungle planet, the military expedition, the bit where people initially think the Doctor is the one behind all the nastiness going on, the inevitable power struggle between the commander of the ship and his next in command (although in fairness you’ve got it in reverse this time), the bit where Sarah thinks the Doctor is dead, the bog standard incidental music and…erm…Michael Wisher.
It’s all there.
But to give it credit, some of the stuff it does well, it does very well.
The jungle does look good, and because it’s shot on film it succeeds in looking more alien than normal, rather than appearing as though someone has thrown some shrubbery onto a set at Television Centre.
And the way they do the deaths is effective as well. I imagine that kids would have been pretty scared by the skeletal remains within the men’s suspiciously low-cut uniforms after each death, as well as by the lighting and direction as the Werewolf Jaeger starts killing off the crew on board the ship.
And to be fair to it as well it’s got a reasonably good guest cast – something that the Hinchcliffe era is doing pretty well so far. Yes, Prentis Hancock is a pantomime overactor, and Michael Wisher is here once again (he even managed to get a second – and highly racist – ‘voice only’ role after he gets killed off), but other than that it’s strong.
But really, if you were to ask me to sum up my overriding thoughts about this story; to sum up the the things about it that left a lasting impression on me, I’d say this…
Half way through episode 3, it struck me that Ewen Solon’s Vishinsky character just can’t stop saying ‘Salamar’.
If you have a conversation with a friend or work colleague, how often do you say their name while talking to them?
Do you say to your friend Bob, “I’m off to make some food, and I’ll be back to watch the TV with you in a few minutes”, or do you say “I’m off to make some food, Bob, and I’ll be back to watch the TV with you in a few minutes, Bob”.
You’re more likely to say the former. But Vishinsky isn’t.
So watch Planet of Evil and see how often he says ‘Salamar’. And he doesn’t just say it, he adds real substance to it. It’s not ‘Salamar’, it’s ‘Salamar!!!’
Believe me, you’ll notice it.
2. There’s Something Just Not Quite Right About The Doctor
Apart from acting the part with a little more seriousness than normal (which is not something to be critical of Tom Baker for, to be fair), the Doctor just doesn’t seem right here.
It struck me from early on that his costume looked odd. He’s dressed like someone trying to dress up like the Doctor, but not quite having the proper clothes for the outfit.
His coat is too small and he’s wearing a ridiculous frilly neck scarf/tie type thing that he either hasn’t ever worn before or just isn’t on display as much.
And then it struck me…
Half way through the second episode he took his scarf off, and that completely ruined the balance of his costume.
It’s a small thing but it became mildly unsettling.
3. The Villain Didn’t Die At The End
Despite the Anti-Matter Sorenson (aka Werewolf Jaeger) looking nowhere near as fearsome as the Target novelization cover made out, the thing about the character that really struck me was that he didn’t die at the end.
It’s quite a departure for the show to do that.
Normally, you’d expect this story to end with the Sorenson falling into the void on the planet and that just being that for him. But he ended up cured of his ills and returned safely to the ship.
I liked that because it was different, and different is good.
Although, within the confines of the story I can’t imagine the crew of the Morestron space ship being too happy travelling back to their home planet with a guy who – possessed or not – killed more than half of their work-mates.
But you take the rough with the smooth I suppose.
- Odd coincide alert: Despite the story being filmed nine years earlier by a different director, both Frederick Jaeger and Ewen Solon appeared in The Savages together, as Jano and Chal respectively. Sadly though, Peter Purves wasn’t hired for this one.
- Why would Vishinsky not be in charge of the expedition considering he’s older, wiser and considerably more sane than his young superior?
- The effect of the anti matter monster on Zeta Minor is really good…no wait, it’s shit. I know it’s probably a decent effect for the era but it looks awful now.
- There’s a scene in episode 4 where it appears as though Sorenson is off to kill himself to stop himself changing into his Mr Hyde alter ego. That’s actually quite an adult thing to be in a Dr Who story. Yes, we see death in the show on a weekly basis, but someone willing to take their own life in a less than heroic manner? Well it just seems a bit ‘heavier’ doesn’t it?
- Tom Baker can’t pronounce the word ‘kinetic’.
- Notable extras or small speaking parts in this story include Russell from the War Games, the Doctor from the Fawlty Towers episode The Germans (who incidentally also played ‘Old Billy’ in the brilliant Who story ‘Blink’), a guy who looks like a young Rob Shearman, and another guy who oddly looks like Oliver Reed in Gladiator.
- Position in the Dr Who Magazine Mighty 200 – 84. One above Masque of Mandragora. Once again, I despair at my fellow Who fans.
Doctor Who – Planet of Evil Review: Final Thoughts
Planet of Evil is unremarkable, as evidenced by the fact this review is half the size of ones like Genesis of the Daleks and Revenge of the Cybermen.
On the plus side, it means it’s not particularly bad, but on the other hand it’s not that good either.
Out-with the mundanity and irrelevance of the Sontaran Experiment, I’d say this is probably the weakest story of the Tom Baker era up to this point. It’s fair to say that the latter half of the story (which is oddly the more memorable half) is just men in ridiculously low-cut tops shouting at each other.
Now that’s not what I call a classic story.
The one that follows this though…