Tony Fyler is Anti-Man.
Having dispatched the Zygons and saved the world, the Doctor and Sarah-Jane decide to ‘take the quick way’ to UNIT HQ in London – by Tardis – leaving the Brigadier and Harry Sullivan to take the slow path by road.
So when the Tardis ends up 30,000 years in the future and answering a distress call from the last planet in the known universe, it’s fair to say it’s a bit of a detour.
So begins Planet of Evil, which is sort of what happens when you put Forbidden Planet and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in a large hadron collider and smash those crazy kids together at just below the speed of light.
On Zeta Minor, the mysterious planet, Professor Sorenson, an energy scientist with a bit of a god complex, is now all alone. All the rest of his team are dead, having been dessicated by an invisible something that has gone through their camp and their ship, turning them into freeze-dried primates. Sorenson alone seems entirely unharmed, and is delighted to be able to announce, when the rescue ship comes from the Morestran military to pick up his team, that he’s succeeded – he’s found a power source to give his world unlimited energy. It’ll be the crowning achievement of a hundred generations, given that the Morestran sun is in decline.
Because, y’know, things are that simple.
What unfolds is a fairly standard parable of hubris – the scientist hungry for personal glory through his research pays an increasing price for his arrogance as he degenerates, having messed around with the anti-matter that is Zeta Minor’s special little secret, into a state of hairy, savage primitivism and starts killing and eating the military crew. Meanwhile the crew try to get the proverbial hell out of Dodge, only to find that by trying to carry anti-matter off the planet, they’re pretty much grounded, destined to be stuck on Zeta Minor indefinitely – or at least until the invisible something comes to suck out all their life force.
As a parable of hubris and also, on some levels, a parable against just taking what you find in what might be someone else’s backyard (anti-imperialism, much?), Planet of Evil works very well – there are verrrry few survivors, although in what was actually quite a late rewrite, Sorenson, the cause of it all, manages to live another day having paid the ritualistic storytelling fee of attempting to do the right thing - and ultimately, it survives with its messages intact. In some ways, it’s the flipside of Terror of the Zygons – the Zygons only chose to colonise Earth because their own planet had gone, and were led in the endeavor by their chief scientist. Similarly, the Morestrans are driven to find a solution to their sun’s energy crisis, and their chief scientist decides to take that solution from someone else’s planet. Does it work as well as the Zygon story? Does it stand up as well after forty years? No, it’s one of the two weaker stories in Season 13, but it should be noted that the weaker stories of Season 13 still stand waaaaay above some of the stronger stories of later seasons.
There’s a certain faintly tedious inevitability about the way in which Sorenson’s transformation into ‘Anti-Man’ is achieved and filmed, which harks back to stage portrayals of Dr Jekyll turning into My Hyde, the ingenious cut-away being the TV equivalent of falling behind a convenient sofa to stick on the Hyde-face. And there’s a degree of unintentional hilarity to be gleaned from the Morestran military expedition’s outfits, which are a kind of padded pyjama-set that puts them in the Swiss Guard category of elite fighting forces, the kind of people who would rock up in a new part of space only to find all the natives laughing their appendages off. But it’s important to remember that Underworld, this is not – there’s some superb design work involved in Planet of Evil, both in terms of the forest of Zeta Minor, which looks more realistically nasty and swampy than most planets in 51 years of the show’s history, and in terms of the Morestran spacecraft, which is built on several levels, allowing it to be a more interesting space in which the drama can unfold – a technique still used today; remember the UNIT plane in Death In Heaven?
So while it’s true that Planet of Evil doesn’t perhaps achieve absolute classic status, like its season-mates Terror of the Zygons, Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius and The Seeds of Doom, it never falls prey to those potential pitfalls of 70s Who – it never looks visually dull or particularly dated, the pace is kept romping along despite only one or two standout Tom Baker scenes and despite facing only a small handful of actual dilemmas, and it never fails to deliver its underlying themes, without ever tipping over into preaching. Planet of Evil is still, forty years on, a remarkably swift-flying way to spend two enjoyable hours with the Doctor and Sarah-Jane, while touching on scientific responsibility, individual hubris and the wrongness of simply storming in somewhere and taking what you want – an additional lesson that’s as relevant today as a satire of fighting wars for oil - *cough, cough* we mean freedom, obviously - as it was when it was made as a post-imperialist apology. Plus, you get all these parables delivered by invisible anti-matter monsters!
Only in Doctor Who. Only, in fact, in Planet of Evil. Stick it in your player today and take another look.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk