Thursday, April 21, 2011

Planets of Doom

DOCTOR WHO - PLANET OF EVIL (1975)
DOCTOR WHO - THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS (1976)
DOCTOR WHO - THE SEEDS OF DOOM (1976)

The Doctor and Sarah are engulfed by the PLANET OF EVIL.

PRODUCER Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes used many classic horror/science fiction motifs as a springboard for their stories on DOCTOR WHO, creating a greater appreciation of alien concepts and otherworldly environments. PLANET OF EVIL sees The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) arrive on Zeta Minor - a planet "at the very edge of the known universe" - where they discover that a Morestran geological expedition has fallen prey to an unseen killer and only the leader, Professor Sorenson (Frederick Jaeger), remains alive. A military mission from Morestra has also arrived to investigate - at first suspecting the Doctor and Sarah of responsibility - but the culprit is revealed to be a creature from a universe of antimatter, retaliating for the removal by Sorenson of some samples from around a pit that acts as an interface between the two universes.

PLANET OF EVIL is an effective fusing of FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), brought to life by a robust performance from Jaeger and Roger Murray-Leach's extraordinary jungle set, a vividly successful illustration of Hinchcliffe's desires to create more believable elseworldsNot only do we have Sorenson as a transforming character, Zeta Minor itself is a living contradiction, as is the unscientific (but suitably dramatic) plot mechanism of matter versus anti-matter. Television sci-fi writers have had a long love affair with anti-matter, which they have used to illustrate that well-known dictum do not tamper. Thankfully, there are usually safety valves between the two states (as in STAR TREK - THE ALTERNATIVE FACTOR (1967)), or a lonely sentinel warning against matter-mixing (SPACE: 1999 - MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1975)).

THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS features a monster so absurdly weird it challenges Japanese kaiju. Morbius’ brain is eventually encased inside a fish-tank with eye-stalks, on a patchwork body with one arm being a giant lobster claw.

Originally written by Terrance Dicks, THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS was extensively re-written in his absence by Holmes to up the horror quotient and remove the technically challenging notion of a scavenger robot. By Dicks’ chagrined request, the show is given the pseudonymous writing credit "Robin Bland". The final version is a messy mix of Frankenstein (1818) and She (1886) set on Karn, a home world for both The Sisterhood – whose sacred flame produces the elixir of life – and Solon (Philip Madoc) – a mad scientist who is putting together a body for the still-living brain of an executed Time Lord. When the Doctor (Baker) and Sarah (Sladen) arrive, The Sisterhood think they have been sent to steal the last drops of elixir produced by a dying flame, and Solon is after the Doctor’s head to complete his work (though it is left unclear why the scientist doesn’t just use the Doctor’s body rather than the unwieldy mutant he has created).

The ritualistic Sisterhood are laughable with their endless arm-waving, yet the serial’s most ridiculous moment comes when the Doctor solves their extinguishing life-force (“the impossible dream of a thousand alchemists, dripping like tea from an urn”) by removing some soot. Thankfully the scenes with Solon and his Igoresque assistant Condo (Colin Fay) are wonderful galactic Hammer Horror, and the moment where Condo is repeatedly shot predictably caused Mary Whitehouse to stir, claiming the story “contained some of the sickest and most horrific material seen on children’s television.” The graphic nature is indeed memorable, but the lasting talking point is the climactic mind-bending contest between Morbius and the Doctor, mainly because it seemed to contradict WHO lore by indicating that there had been eight previous incarnations before William Hartnell (although an equally viable explanation would have been the faces that appear – which include Hinchcliffe and Holmes in stock costume – where actually Morbius’ former selves).

In THE SEEDS OF DOOM, the humanoid Krynoid suit was recycled from a surviving costume from THE CLAWS OF AXOS, and sprayed green.

Robert Banks Stewart's script for THE SEEDS OF DOOM liberally draws on THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), and The Day of the Triffids (1951) for its source material. Two alien seed pods are found buried in the Antarctic permafrost and the Doctor (Baker) realises that they are Krynoids; "I suppose you could call it a galactic weed," begins the Time Lord, "though its deadlier than any weed you know. On most planets the animals eat the vegetation. On planets where the Krynoid gets established, the vegetation eats the animals." After an act of sabotage, one of the pods is delivered to eccentric plant collector Harrison Chase (Tony Beckley) at his English mansion, where assistant Keeler (Mark Jones) is infected. Keeler - whose transformation is accelerated by Chase feeding him raw meat - goes on a rampage, rapidly growing to gigantic proportions before being destroyed by the RAF.

THE SEEDS OF DOOM is a strange Doctor Who because it could be played out without the characters of the Doctor and Sarah (Sladen). Though behind Douglas Camfield's action-orientated direction, the show is easily one of the consistently entertaining Who six-parters. Baker and Sladen often lapse into self-parody, but Beckley is chilling as Chase, portraying a level of Masteresque authority and habit even down to wearing black leather gloves, and it is fun to see John Challis playing a "heavy" like Scorby, far from his future in Peckham for ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES (1981 - 2003). The model work holds up very well, and the various stages of Krynoid transformation are handled with aplomb, but the serial suffers from an antiseptic handling of UNIT and a perplexing final scene; after the TARDIS materialises at the South Pole, Sarah states that the Doctor "...forgot to reprogram the co-ordinates," yet our dynamic duo initially landed at the Antarctic base by helicopter.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Elisabeth Sladen (1/2/1946 - 19/4/2011).