Doctor Who #408: Planet of Evil Part 1

"Just suddenly felt so odd, as though my mind left my body."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Sep.27 1975.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS lands on Zeta Minor, a jungle planet where a lost expedition is dealing with an invisible killer.

REVIEW: Invisible monsters attacking a humanoid crew on a jungle planet? What is this, a Terry Nation script? But no, this Louis Marks script, while it shares some elements with Planet of the Daleks (among others), fits squarely into Robert Holmes' Gothic horror seasons. Zeta Minor, the eponymous "planet of evil", takes the place of Darkest Africa or the Upper Reaches of the Amazon, in a story about a lost expedition going mad in a dark, mysterious forest. Whatever danger lurks in the form of a half-visible monster, there are also ominous shots of a black pool, and expedition members writhing in agony as invisible forces desiccate their bodies (they pull a vanishing act first, which is confusing since you don't immediately recognize their husks later). The jungle is quite beautiful on film, filled with dark shadows, bubbling water and strange vegetation. On video, only the latter survives of course. Zeta Minor is the "last planet of the known universe", implying it is at the very limit of where fuel can take you, but it's still a strange notion given how big space between galaxies already is. Again, we might blame this on a Nation-like understanding of the words solar system, galaxy and universe (i.e. no understanding at all), but this is also part of the Gothic, a place remote and mysterious, at the edge of a map where "There Be Monsters".

If the atmosphere wins us over in that strange place, the same can't be said of scenes aboard a ship come to check on the expedition. We've seen this white industrial look before even if the story seems to take place well beyond Pertwee's Earth Empire, the year 37,166 according to a tomb marker. Some have tried to claim the date is Morestran and not Terran, but even the Doctor claims to have overshot present-day London by 30,000 years. But all those millennia give humanity more than enough time to fracture to the point where people with Earth names like Sorensen call themselves the Morestran Empire and talk of "Earthers" as outside themselves. If there's one thing the Whoniverse has taught us, it's to avoid judging the date by the level of technology or civilization. These things have an ebb and flow to them. If the arriving Morestrans are a little tedious, it's that they're all business and essentially joyless, and obviously, they're going to accuse the Doctor and Sarah of murder. We're not entirely in uncharted territory like the characters are.

Glad to report, however, that despite the alien setting, Sarah Jane is Sarah Jane. Season 12 was problematic at best in the handling of her character, the independent career woman turned to hysterics by the merest hint of "otherness", but in Planet of Evil, she's proactive, can gauge the Doctor's moods, often realizes things before he does (that there are humanoids on the planet, that the low power means magnetic seals will be weakened), and is largely competent (if, arguably, too competent - her knowledge of the Doctor's tools, for example). With the Doctor somewhat restrained, it puts the two stars on an even level. The Doctor has never been so equal to a companion.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - It's hard to call this story original at this point, but it does feature a dark and moody setting and the full restoration of Sarah Jane Smith's character.

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