Sunday, April 19, 2015

Planet of Evil - "Perhaps my receivers are better than yours ... My manners certainly are."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Planet of Evil - Details

Season 13, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #81) | Previous - Next | Index

I wouldn't say the planet's really evil, it just doesn't want its anti-matter plundered. Wisely, it turns out. But, despite the title's inaccuracy and generic nature, we're on to something promisingly spooky with the wonderfully realized jungle of Zeta Minor, and a genuinely suspenseful opening episode. By the end of the fourth episode, things have largely petered out and the wonder's worn off, but this one capably fills the slot between two classics by being surprisingly good at a few things while not entirely squandering the big lead it gets out to.

With his singular talent for putting his finger on the pulse of a story that might appear to have gone tits up to the less capable analyst, Dr. Sandifer draws our attention to how brilliantly Hinchcliffe, Holmes, and writer Louis Marks have crashed a (dangerously tedious) Terry Nation story into a Lovecraftian horror story and given the Doctor the harrowing task of negotiating a settlement. Viewed through this lens, the crummy spaceship sets and outfits of the Morestrans aren't exactly redeemed, but they at least make a certain sort of sense in contrast to Roger Murray-Leaches' jungle sets. Nobody's calling "Planet of Evil" a classic, and it's entirely understandable to be bored of it before it winds down, but if you were wondering why it's engaging in a way it may not appear to have any right to be, I believe Dr. Sandifer has capably illuminated why that is.

The heavy lifting, as usual, done before I started, I'll fall back to one of my old stand-bys: singing the praises of Tom Baker and Lis Sladen. The two appear to be entirely comfortable with one another doing yeoman's work on a script that sells everyone a bit short. Still, their charisma, separately and together, gives us a reason to pay attention the stuff outside of the scenery and the dodgy plotting.

There's one scene in the first episode I'm nervous praising Baker, but am going to stick my neck out for anyways. Sarah's been captured already and the Doctor has just been as well. The military, Vishinsky and Salasar, are questioning the (mad) scientist Sorenstrom while the Doctor hangs out behind them. Instead of watching them though, he's staring at something we can't see as if it's the most fascinating, or perhaps dangerous, thing he's ever encountered. What is it? What's so important that he seems to be a thousand miles away from the discussion happening under his nose, which may involve him being interrogated by Salasar, a man who give every indication he enjoys interrogating people as more than a conversational exercise.

We don't know. There wasn't anything there in the story. Is Baker playing the Doctor as having an epiphany, figuring out the big picture from the clues he's seen to this point?  Or, was he a hungry actor who saw the sandwiches arriving for lunch break?  Or, was he being vain, deliberately showing up the writer and his fellow actors by attempting to steal a scene he didn't feel like he had enough to do in?  Whatever it is he's doing, I couldn't take my eyes off him.

What might have been an utterly forgettable scene was riveting because I couldn't figure out what the hell the Doctor was doing. What Tom Baker was doing. And, because the two are so entwined, it didn't take me out of the narrative. I was still watching Doctor Who, but in retrospect I don't know if that was some sort of preternatural instinct on Baker's part, knowing he could act as if he was in an entirely different scene, one he was improvising in his head on the spot, or a lucky accident that his being distracted didn't ruin what was happening around him. There is no other actor, in no other role, that I think could pull this sort of thing, whatever it was, off.

In short, I'd rather watch Tom Baker crave a sandwich, or be distracted by something shiny, and wonder what what's going on behind those wide eyes than just about anyone else do anything else on the screen.


Quick Asides:

  • Hey, there's Louis Mahoney again! 
  • In "The Shakespeare Code," does Ten remember that he's met Shakespeare before? Four name drops him in this one, commenting what a terrible actor he was. 
  • I re-watched "Planet of Evil" on April 19th, despite having already started getting ready to watch "Four to Doomsday" because I was reminded that April 19, 2011, was the day we lost Lis Sladen and I wanted to watch a story of hers that I hadn't seen in a while. Fully aware of the fact I've indulged in shameless Lis Sladen hagiography several times already, and will wax rhapsodic in singing her praises again before this project is done, I'll practice restraint here and merely repeat that we lost her too soon. Watching her in this story, and being interviewed in the DVD extras, was a small act of remembrance, a way of saying she will never be forgotten.   

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