Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Planet of Evil

The Doctor: Here on Zeta Minor is the boundary between existence as you know it and the other universe which you just don't understand. From the beginning of time it has existed side by side with the known universe. Each is the antithesis of the other. You call it "nothing", a word to cover ignorance. And centuries ago scientists invented another word for it. "Antimatter", they called it. And you, by coming here, have crossed the boundary into that other universe to plunder it. Dangerous.

Zeta Minor - the "last planet in the known universe."  Literally the edge of all existence, so completely on the edge that another entire universe crosses just into it.  The concept alone is astounding.  The great legacy of Planet of Evil is designer Roger Murray-Leach's creation of the jungle on the edge of the universe.  It's only enhanced by the direction of the great David Maloney, crafting a vivid, almost suffocating atmosphere of dread and dark wonder.

And then, for the other half of the story, we get a bland, spare plywood spaceship interior.  Not that it's a bad set; it's as good as any spacecraft interior in Classic Who.  But after the elaborate masterpiece of the jungle, a bunch of blank walls with a few nice decorations here and there seem kinda dull and cheap.

Which sort of gets to the real problem of Planet of Evil.  The concepts behind it; the performances of Tom Baker, Lis Sladen, and Frederick Jaeger; the atmosphere; and many individual scenes are superb.  But the supporting characters with a single exception are relentlessly dull and the plot never quite fully engages its fantastic ideas, making it somehow half-brilliant and half-boring.

And by doing so, it makes absolute rubbish of the star ratings system I insist on using.  It's an issue with reviews in general, boiling down quality to a single symbol.  And yet I cling to it as a closing word, my final conclusion about how I liked it and would recommend it.  In a simple way, it has a meaning.

But the problem is, I'm going to give the same rating to this as I'll ultimately give to Attack of the Cybermen, which has none of the qualities Planet of Evil exhibits.  I simply think Attack is, as Season 22 goes, fairly watchable and energetic, with a couple enjoyable performances and a fairly quick pace.  But it's an incredibly stupid, barely coherent mess of pointless violence, while Planet of Evil is an intelligent, thematically rich adventure dripping in atmosphere and ideas.  There's no real comparison between the two.  But ultimately, they both get shuffled in an "okay overall" category.  Which is a really weird concept I'll have to return to next time when I try to justify giving Android Invasion a better rating.

But the fact remains that for a story with as much to recommend as Planet of Evil, large swaths of it are pretty boring.  The supporting characters are so dull and their actors so uninteresting (excepting Jaeger, who does an effective variation on a sympathetic mad scientist) that it's hard to get drawn into the story.  And these characters are fairly incompetent, to boot, which reduces what could have been a terrific monster to something pretty routine.  It's stunning seeing the remarkably effective video effects create an antimatter monster and fascinating to consider it, but when it does nothing more than defeat a bunch of idiots on a spaceship, it largely defeats the purpose, sucking the power out of some pretty amazing concepts.

And then it goes one further by churning these ideas through all the usual Doctor Who cliches.  Everyone assumes the Doctor is the murderer, then refuses to listen to him once he proves his innocence.  The story reduces itself to a series of escapes and recaptures, and while I don't object to throwing a couple of these in for excitement's sake, here it feels like it's sidetracking us from the good stuff.

What saves it is the Doctor/Sarah relationship.  And as Planet of Evil proves more than any other story, the charm and emotion of that relationship was almost entirely due to Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen, who are such wonderful actors and exhibit such warmth and affection that all it takes is a moderate competence in scripting them for their moments to shine.  Near the end of episode one, there's a scene where they discuss how to escape; it's a pretty straightforward scene that does the favor of giving Sarah the idea for how to escape.  But Baker and Sladen play it with such mirth that rather than just a quick little bit of excitement, it becomes a genuine delight.

And individually, they enliven their scenes as well.  Baker yet again plays the Doctor with his unique cocktail of powerful presence and mocking humor.  He shows only brief hints of emotion as the Doctor that give the impression of someone completely alien yet still fully emotional.  Everything he does seems of superior intelligence and importance, even if it really isn't.

Sarah mostly just has to sit around doing nothing, but Sladen puts so much into these scenes that they still work for the character.  She continues to find new and ever more effective ways to be under an alien influence and to seem both frightened and brave.  She's just wonderful.

And between them, Baker and Sladen make it watchable.  Without their chemistry and charisma, it would be an awful waste of good ideas and a cool set.  As it is, it's a pretty decent waste of good ideas and a cool set highlighted by two wonderful stars.  It's a tribute to the power of great casting and chemistry.

But it really is too bad they didn't quite pull off the antimatter monster and universe collision ideas, because that's some seriously mindblowing stuff there.


* * ½

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