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13x2. Planet of Evil
Writer: Louis Marks
Director: Davis Maloney
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Synopsis: The TARDIS arrives at Zeta Minor, a planet at the boundary of the known universe where a portal between this universe and a universe of antimatter, just as a ship from the planet Morestra arrives to search for a lost expedition. The expedition, led by Professor Sorenson, has been attacked by entities from the other universe due to their attempts to remove antimatter from the planet to power Morestra's dying sun. The Doctor and Sarah must avert a catastrophe while having to deal with further attacks as well as the suspicion of the ship's Controller, Salamar.

Review: The good and bad news is that the serial I was most reminded of while watching "Planet of Evil" is "Inferno." Good because it would be hard to find a better template for a successful Doctor Who story, but bad because it inevitably suffers by comparison.

Beginning with the good, "Planet of Evil" is a conceptual success in the way it imagines the consequences of Sorenson's attempts to harvest antimatter. The creatures from the antimatter universe are never given much of a personality or motivation, manifesting only as barely visible entities who appear only to launch attacks and who seem incapable of and/or disinterested in communication, aside from the Doctor's brief successful attempt towards the end of Episode 2. Another reviewer once said that the earth functioned as a sort of offended fire-god in "Inferno," and these aliens function in a similar manner: they're not individuals so much as angry elementals avenging the breaking of a taboo. I'm not normally a fan of undermotivated villains who exist only to kill people, blow things up, and generally wreak havoc, but in this case, keeping a certain element of mystery about what exactly lies within the antimatter universe actually adds some gravity that would have been lacking if they'd been individualized characters (and again, they're not so much villains as they are forces of nature). And although they're not the scariest thing Doctor Who has ever produced, they do have one genuinely frightening scene towards the end, when Vishinsky and Sarah are trapped at one end of the room and they slowly and deliberately advance towards them. The sense of loss of control, which John Carpenter once (correctly, I think) tagged as the essence of horror, is palpable here: the two of them know that, unless the Doctor is successful, they are about to be killed, even though they don't completely understand why or by whom, and there is absolutely nothing they can do on their own to stop it.

Incidentally, another thing "Planet of Evil" shares in common with "Inferno" is the ability to make a convincing story out of what is, scientifically speaking, complete bunk. Maybe things were different in 1975, but I certainly don't think there's any scientist today who thinks that you would hit an antimatter portal at "the edge of the known universe," that "antimatter" is the same concept as what was once considered "nothing," or that you could just pick some of it up without going out in a pretty spectacular explosion (much less suffer brain damage for it, as is allegedly happening to Sorenson). Paul Clarke suggests in his review over at Outpost Gallifrey (www.gallifreyone.com) that perhaps the script meant to imply that the normal laws of physics don't apply on and around Zeta Minor, given that the issue of an antimatter explosion is actually acknowledged at one point. I suppose it's possible, but that still doesn't explain the portal or the Doctor's strange assertion that "antimatter" and "nothing" were two attempts to understand the same concept. Nothing, in terms of physics, is exactly that: nothing. It has no presence and no properties, because it's . . . well, nothing. Antimatter, on the other hand, has exactly the opposite properties, in terms of electric charge, of matter, but it exists just as much as you or I. (And no, that is not an invitation for someone to e-mail me on the topic of the subjective nature of reality.)

I mentioned when discussing my "Terror of the Zygons" review online that I thought we were seeing a bit of a shift away from the Doctor's moral side (which was most prominent in the Pertwee era) and back towards his intellectual side. Not that the new Doctor is not a moral person, just that Tom Baker and the writers tend to underplay that element of his character and sort of take it for granted, while emphasizing his alien intellect and unusual abilities. That's certainly the case again in "Planet of Evil," as he manages to communicate with someone or something on the other side of the portal in a way that he can't really explain to Sarah, and the gravity and unusual wisdom that Baker conveys as he speaks about the antimatter universe is a large part of what makes the concept believable. This is also manifest in a scene with Sorenson towards the end, where he finally gets through to his fellow scientist with the fact that not only was his theory wrong, but he must now sacrifice himself to save the others by ejecting himself (along with the antimatter in his body) into space. "The hypothesis...was false?" Sorenson asks, his voice conveying a devastating sense of disappointment and suggesting that his scientific failure is more upsetting to him than the prospect of immediately impending death.

The problem with "Planet of Evil," however, is that while it has some good ideas and a few riveting scenes, most of the script just seems to be going through the obligatory motions, and it's here that the "Inferno" comparisons become uncharitable. Unlike "Inferno," "Planet of Evil" doesn't have a very strong supporting cast, nor does it manage to advance the plot through any but the most standard devices of captures and escapes, the Doctor being falsely accused of murder, and minor characters getting killed. Sorenson is the only particularly compelling guest character, and that's mostly because of the aforementioned scene with the Doctor. Vishinksy and Salamar are a reversal of the standard cautious leader/restless young subordinate dynamic, with the elder Vishinsky eventually trying to remove Salamar from command for what amounts to insufficient caution, but other than that they are not particularly memorable. The ending, in which Sorenson falls into the antimatter portal, but then is returned in his pre-antimatter state and unable to remember what happened, also feels a little too easy under the circumstances.

"Planet of Evil" ends up playing as "'Inferno' in Outer Space" in the lesser sense: it returns to themes and devices we've seen before, but it doesn't really do anything new with them other than letting a different Doctor confront them and, well, putting the whole thing in outer space.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

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