For millions of people all over the world, Tom Baker is the iconic image of Doctor Who. With the scarf, the jacket, and the ‘fro, he’s what most folks picture in their heads when they think of the Doctor. The show’s fans, of course, know that Baker is one of 10 actors to date to play the character, as well as a few others who’ve done so unofficially.
BBC Media has recently brought another of Baker’s classic adventures onto DVD. In this one, it’s a visit to deep space—and farther—with an exotic alien planet to explore, a monster to battle, and lessons about not disturbing the fragile balance of nature to be learned.
The Doctor (Tom Baker, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) is a Time Lord, journeying across all of time and space. With his traveling companion, 1970s-era investigative reporter Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen, The Sarah Jane Adventures), the Doctor explores the unknown, helps others, and tries—often unsuccessfully—to keep himself out of trouble.
In Dr. Who: Planet of Evil, the Doctor and Sarah Jane receive a distress call from Zeta Minor, the planet farthest out in the universe, farther away from anything else. There, a scientist believes he has discovered a miraculous new power source. Unfortunately, an unknown force keeps killing off everyone on the planet, leaving their withered corpses behind. The Doctor eventually discovers that there is more than this power source than meets the eye, and the murders are just the first step to what could mean the unraveling of reality itself.
First, let’s get the stats out of the way. “Planet of Evil” was Doctor Who’s 81st episode. It first aired as a four-part serial starting on Sept. 27, 1975, and was later repeated as a feature-length, two-hour episode. It was the second episode of the show’s 13th season, which was the second season for Baker’s seven-year run.
On this disc, producers reveal that the story of “Planet of Evil” came from a number of inspirations. One wanted to craft a story that was a throwback to classic gothic literature, citing Robert Lewis Stephenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde specifically. Another, after working on several Earth-bound episodes, wanted to take the characters to a far-off world, hoping to create an alien adventure in the style of Forbidden Planet specifically. All these elements came together not only in the script, but in the look of the episode, which is certainly one of the most visually striking of the Baker era.
From the start, viewers are placed onto the planet surface, a strange jungle world, with misshapen and oddly-colored plants strewn all over the landscape. We’re a long way from the stereotypical Doctor Who rock quarries here. The planetscape looks hot and muggy, with wet ground and steamy mists spurting about in the air. It’s also dark and shadowy, with some areas lit only in grim red lights. Once inside the scientists’ futuristic spaceship, most of the sets have two levels, connected to one another by stairs and ladders, so the camera is either looking up or down at the characters as they run for their lives and try to save the universe. Little touches like this help you forget that you’re watching a show with a budget of about four pence.
This is still Doctor Who, so there’s a ton of cheesiness on screen. As usual, this show and the phrase “fashion victims” go hand in hand. The oh-so-futuristic outfits are borderline laughable—blue jumpsuits with low necks and white fluffy shoulder bands. It’s true that sometimes, the actors are a little too earnest, especially during their death scenes, when they really go into “hilarious overacting” mode. Still, Baker is charming as always, and he and Sladen had great chemistry, so that makes up for a lot.
A couple of neat sets don’t make for a great viewing by themselves, though. Fortunately, the Doctor Who writers really pushed themselves to make the story more than what it seems. Most sci-fi TV writers would be content to make this the usual “monster of the week” format, but instead, these writers go the extra mile. The planet isn’t just gloomy; it’s a pathway to another universe. There’s a monster, yes, but one of the scientists also undergoes a separate monstrous transformation, and the characters never know where the next threat will come from. This keeps the plot moving along nicely. But even beyond the monster tension, the creators think even bigger with the lengths that the Doctor goes to communicate with the monster. I won’t spoil it, but it’s one of those great “out there” concepts that we only get from Doctor Who. All we’re really looking at is Tom Baker with some funny lights shining on his face, but the idea of what’s happening is so big and epic, that you can’t help but get caught up in it.
Fans will certainly enjoy the police box-sized amount of extras on this disc. There’s a commentary with Baker, Sladen, and others that’s full of nostalgic memories from the set. A text commentary adds more hard facts, with details about the various actors and comparisons between the original script and what’s happening on screen. From there, two featurettes look back at the creation of the episode, with more attention paid on how the elaborate planet set was created in a small space with little money. Then there’s raw footage of the actors on the set, and a collection of various promotional materials, including TV spots and some DVD-ROM Radio Times listings. The digital transfer on the disc is mostly good; probably as good as the episode can look. Some scenes were caught on film, and they have a softer, grainier look, while scenes shot on tape are more crisp and clear, if a little flat, color-wise. The mono sound does its job, with no harsh defects, and the classic theme song sounds as good as always.
Doctor Who is a drug. Once you develop a liking for it, you want more. More! MORE!!! For fans, Doctor Who: Planet of Evil should easily scratch that itch.