Civilizations of Pure Thought (Planet of Evil)


It's September 27, 1975. Rod Stewart sails on at number one. He sinks, and David Essex arrives to demand, "Hold Me Close." Pop music may be a fickle mistress, but the people of the United Kingdom obey and keep him at number one for the next three weeks. Art Garfunkel, Showaddywaddy, Leo Sayer, The Four Seasons, and ABBA all also chart.

In real news, The Spaghetti House siege, in which Marxist black nationalists hold up an Italian restaurant and end up staying for six days, takes place in London, an event that is mostly just a sensationalist news story to fill the space between episode one and two of Planet of Evil, but at least has an entertaining name and no fatalities. The Thrilla in Manilla happens, as does a bombing outside Green Park Tube Station, and the first episode of Saturday Night Live.

On television, for the first time since The Faceless Ones, the Doctor Who we're talking about is actually intersecting with the point in the calendar I'm writing from. With The Faceless Ones, that was dead on - the final episode of that story aired on May 13th, which is also the day that entry posted on. Here it's off by a day - the final episode aired on October 18th. Personally, since this is the last entry written in a six day stretch starting with The Sontaran Experiment, I'm writing from an unseasonably warm Sunday, October 9, 2011 in suburban Connecticut, having watched the final two episodes of this last night.

In the Pertwee era, Doctor Who intruded into its audience's lives by using the familiar as its setting - unfolding dramas in real places, and creating allegories for current events. But the central turn of the Hinchcliffe era, as we've said, is that the Doctor fights ideas now. To use a word rendered meaningless by vague use in something approaching its literal sense, Doctor Who has taken a very cerebral turn. It's not telling stories about the world around the viewer anymore. Instead it's telling stories about the world inside the viewer.

And so instead of allegories and allusions to the real world, it embeds itself in the viewer's world according to an altogether subtler logic. The move to an autumn/winter schedule for Doctor Who moves it into darker and colder evenings. Planet of Evil went out just as the sun was setting in most of England, and later in the season stories will start going out firmly after dark. But the change involved here is about far more than light levels.

Living in New England, the last week or two has been marked by that sensation  of cold the moment you set outside. Not the frigid and despairing cold of winter, although that is worth discussing in its own right, but an altogether more pleasant cold. It is a cold that causes the body to draw inward, to huddle inside of itself slightly. One becomes more aware of one's self, of the crunching of leaves underfoot and the swirl of scents and spices that seem to waft continuously through the air. The trees are just peaking, though to be honest, they are nothing impressive to anyone who has lived through twenty or more of these. It has been a rainy and nasty fall, and that in turn made the trees drop leaves early, turning to nothing more interesting than a ruddy yellow before they fall. But this is no matter. A visually beautiful fall is a luxury, but is not necessary. One does not live in New England for the good falls. One lives here for all of them.

Or at least, I do. I won't lie. This is my favorite season, and I'm delighted that one of my favorite eras of Doctor Who is falling into it. Because they are astonishingly well suited to each other. See, the real pleasure of fall is that sense of drawing inwards. It is a fundamental aspect of the season - the sense of harvest. To harvest means to gather and bring in - to take the outside world into yourself. Autumn is inherently a time of introspection. The autumnal world is one that makes you aware of how you occupy space, of how you move about through it. The cold brings the edge of one's interior life into sharp relief. This is also, then, a time for fear. Awareness of the boundaries of the self makes the idea that there are things that cross those boundaries, or powerful things outside of those boundaries, altogether clearer.

The most explicit thing that becomes visible in this map of the world is change and death, which are in fall both inexorably linked and breathtakingly gorgeous. It is winter, of course, that is the true and stark contemplation of death. Only the frigid blast of a chill that must be protected against to survive - the extended act of living adjacent to something that will quite literally kill you if you don't take some action - can quite qualify as an extended contemplation of death. But fall has its own relationship with it, existing not, as winter does, within the land of the dead, but alongside it, peering into it. And from its exterior perspective (and for that matter, from within it in the winter) it is beautiful. Which makes fall the natural place for a celebration of horror. When else in the year could Halloween possibly fall? Beautiful death is  the paradox inherent in any enjoyment of horror.

And so Doctor Who, in this period, becomes autumnal. It is the first time that Doctor Who has been so tightly tuned to its transmission dates. In the Hartnell and Troughton eras, the show was always on, and in the Pertwee era it ran as a straight shot at the start of every year, tied more to the logic of the television event than to a larger seasonal logic. But here Doctor Who is intensely autumnal, sticking closely to horror tone that mesh so naturally into the cold and the dark, and, equally importantly, to the introspective realm of ideas.

Planet of Evil is not one of the highlights of the Hinchcliffe era. Since the era has so many very bright highlights - fully seven of its sixteen stories, not always completely deservingly, make the top 20 list in the most recent comprehensive Doctor Who Magazine poll - it is easy to hold the other nine to a standard that no other era of Doctor Who is really judged by. This is not entirely fair. The faults in Planet of Evil are genuine and obvious. Prentis Hancock is abominable as Salamar, the attention given to the absolutely amazing jungle set for the first two episodes clearly left Roger Murray-Leach short-handed and short-funded when it came to the Morestran spaceship that is the major setting of the last two, and, most damningly, the script never quite works up the confidence to really sell its most interesting ideas for what they are.

But look, this is Doctor Who. One lousy actor and the fact that only one of the two major sets was an example of the absolute best work that the BBC can do just doesn't constitute a meaningful critique of a story. Which leaves us with the complaint that the script doesn't quite sell its best ideas. And it's true, it doesn't. But what all of this ignores is the fact that this story is failing to quite sell a concept that is jaw-dropping and unprecedented in its ambition.

As with much of Doctor Who from this point on, Planet of Evil is another story that goes beyond "we put the Doctor in genre X" and into using the TARDIS as an excuse to mix genres that have no business going together. This is, as I said last time, a relatively new innovation in Doctor Who. There are precursors throughout the Pertwee era, but it's only in 1975 that the series gets to where the baseline approach is to have the TARDIS arrive somewhere that is already fusing two genres as opposed to the TARDIS bringing one genre to meet another. In this case, the two genres are a stark and almost Lovecraftian horror and a Terry Nation-style space adventure.

The contact point between these two genres is the antimatter planet/monster. And here we get to the first really fantastic thing this story does. The antimatter monster, and really all of the antimatter plotting, exists in a very strange space between the two genres. The story is full of technobabble explanations of what the antimatter elements do and how they work. This puts those elements firmly in the realm of the science fiction. But in terms of what we see on screen, the antimatter monsters are pure ghost story constructs. They never explain themselves, lurk silently and intangibly at the edges of the story, and in every practical regard are indistinguishable from ghosts except in that they glow red more than most ghosts.

That tension is a beautiful thing, because it elevates the monster to a place that, in terms of monsters, only the Daleks have previously occupied: the realm of things that can actively manipulate and deform the narrative. The monster is wrong in a fundamental sense. It doesn't belong in the story it's in. Instead, it's part of another story that's butting up against the story we're seeing, and, more to the point, that's terribly upset at the story we're seeing and wants that story to just go away and leave it alone. This isn't a story about a bunch of space men being attacked by an antimatter monster, it's a story about a space adventure story getting attacked by a horrifying monster from beyond the realm of what space adventures are supposed to encounter.

That's why so much is made of the idea that Zeta Minor is at the edge of two universes. This story explicitly takes place in a liminal space between two genres. But that is, of course, where the TARDIS has always been. That's its basic concept - a portal that joins two mutually incompatible places together. So by positioning Zeta Minor as a liminal space in this regard, it gets elevated to something of comparable power in the narrative to the TARDIS itself. No one-off monster has ever managed that, and off the top of my head the only one-off character who has amassed that sort of narrative power is Salamander, who has something of a special reason why he can distort the narrative like that. Which, to be fair, is probably about where a concept as ambitious as a planet that is apparently sentient and actively hostile should be.

So what we should really look at is how the Doctor's interactions with the antimatter and the Morestrans' interactions with it differ. The Morestrans are, simply put, meant to be bad at this. They're at the absolute edge of their genre, and aren't even particularly remarkable examples of their genre. We do not get the sense that this is one of the great military vessels of the Morestran fleet. These are mediocre space adventurers who are far past the point where mediocre space adventurers should be. And so they mostly blunder around and get slaughtered, because this story is fundamentally about the way in which their genre and narrative is overwhelmed by contact with the Other. Indeed, the point is that they are in over their heads and in a place where they're just not meant to be. The Doctor, for the second time in a row, treats people looking for energy sources as something that just tediously gets in his way, barely concealing his disdain for Sorenson's goals and clearly wishing the Morestrans would just get out of his way and let him deal with the real threat. That's what the Morestrans get recast from space adventurers to: people who are just in the way of this adventure.

The Doctor, on the other hand, is altogether more capable when interacting with the antimatter creatures. That does not, however, mean that he does so lightly. Quite the contrary, the Doctor seems genuinely troubled and disturbed by the experience of entering and exiting the antimatter universe. But his fear seems much closer to a sort of religious awe. He is not comfortable doing it, but it is something he is capable of. This is a more remarkable thing than it appears. The story is clearly taking a hard turn into overtly Lovecraftian territory with its forbidden universe of unspeakable horrors lurking at the fringes of our experience. But the Doctor is, alone among the major characters, given leave to ferry back and forth between the two worlds. He is both a character who interacts with and is threatened by the Morestrans and who can talk to the Lovecraftian horror. Not just face it down and win, but talk to, reason with, and negotiate with.

All of this means that there's a particularly big moment that is swallowed at the end of the story. The Doctor, having brought Sorenson back to Zeta Minor and caused him to fall into the antimatter universe, then proceeds to walk around Zeta Minor for a bit before using the TARDIS to get back to the Morestran ship. As he returns to the TARDIS, he discovers Sorenson, alive and well, lying by the pit, and reacts with complete surprise. This raises the question, though - if he was not in fact waiting for Sorenson to get done in the antimatter universe and come back, why did the Doctor spend a bunch of time schlepping around Zeta Minor with no obvious goal?

The most obvious answer is that there was some communication he still wanted to engage in - that he was, in some sense, not done with antimatter. This is interesting. Antimatter, after all, is treated as both alien and scary. And it's notable that when we first see the Doctor in the next story, he's standing morosely by the console acting more brooding and moody, and even briefly mistakes Sarah for Victoria, a companion he's not traveled with in ages. The sense is that the events of Planet of Evil have in some sense genuinely disturbed him, exposing him to things starker and more alienating than he's used to. It is, in other words, almost as if, in his final moments on Zeta Minor, he encounters something that shakes him in a very fundamental way.

It's fairly easy to identify the biggest problem with the story, then. The Morestrans are ultimately too undersold - made to seem so incapable of dealing with the actual threat in this story that they're pointless. If the Morestrans, and particularly Salamar, had been played as an at least above average set of generic space adventurers, the sense that Zeta Minor is a place people are simply not meant to go would have come through more impressively. Instead they seem pathetic, and the audience is left never quite feeling the full effect of the concept.

But let's stop here for a moment. We're talking about a story that confronts the Doctor with something that is terrifying and big in a way that his threats rarely are. A story that goes beyond just creating a monster and instead creates the idea of something utterly alien and foreign - a Lovecraftian horror that amounts to the very nature of the forbidden. And a story that does interesting things crashing genres together. Our complaints amount to the acting being a bit weak, the script not quite realizing what its best ideas are, and the fact that only one of the two sets was an award-worthy piece of design.

This is the new baseline for the series: intelligent, challenging ideas executed such that multiple parts of the production are genuinely worthy of praise. And a sense of genuine and thoughtful horror that is utterly perfect for the time the story airs. That's way more than most shows, including Doctor Who for much of the preceding twelve years, offer at the best of times. To offer that at the middle of the road times is incredible.

Let it get dark, turn the lights out, and sit down with a cup of tea and Planet of Evil. It's not the best evening of Doctor Who you can have, but it's still something special.


zapruder313 9 years, 3 months ago

Another brilliant post. Your comments about the tone of the series synchronising with the new seasonal timeslot are absolutely spot on, and, as so often with this blog, articulate something that I had always felt but never really put into words.

Since the first story I can definitely remember seeing on broadcast was "The Face of Evil", my initial and defining impression of Doctor Who was that it was "the sort of thing that should be on telly as the nights draw in and it is getting dark when you walk home from school".

To me, the programme was always an essential part of the Autumn/Halloween/dark nights/cold mornings season that I loved, and it had never really occurred to me that it hadn't always been that way for the previous Doctors. Definitely, I still have a sense that it *should* be that way. To fans of my generation, Doctor Who belongs to dark evenings with the curtains drawn as much as ghost stories belong to Christmas. It just doesn't *work* if it is light outside when the theme tune kicks in!

Mark Gatiss says somewhere that watching television in the 70s had the atmosphere of a seance, and he is right: watching television was an Event, involving drawn curtains, hushed voices, darkened rooms, awaiting a voice or a message from Elsewhere. This was especially true of Doctor Who (and Sapphire and Steel, too), and contributed in a major way to the thoroughly enjoyable sense of "horror" of the programme. Half the work of scaring the audience was done before the credits even rolled. We had already willed ourselves into a head space where we wanted to be frightened. "Autumnal" Doctor Who was part of the same cultural experience as the battered paperbacks volumes of "The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories" read by torchlight under the covers.

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7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194 9 years, 3 months ago

"This raises the question, thug"

I am offended! You have no justification for calling me a thug.

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AD169 9 years, 3 months ago

I suppose you give the writers more credit than I did when I recently viewed this. The Doctor's "schlepping around Zeta" seemed merely a plot device. His later mistaking Sarah for Victoria just seemed like a quick explanation for her outfit, which would avoid raising any eyebrows in the time period they next arrive in.

Still, I always smile when a past companion is mentioned (the older, the better). It's a simple form of "fanwank", but it's still appreciated. Especially in an era without reruns (save for, ironically, Victoria's debut story), it shows the writer's appreciation or at least awareness of the show's history.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 3 months ago

I've never claimed to be identifying authorial intent here - I certainly don't think the various writers of Doctor Who were consciously structuring a 50+ year long quasi-sentient metafiction that provided a running commentary and artistic reaction to contemporary ideas of utopianism. Well. Except maybe David Whitaker.

It's also not primarily the mistaking of Sarah that throws me - although that is something that it's tough to imagine past Doctors doing much. It's the sheer degree of the Doctor's aloofness in that scene. In less than two years Robert Holmes has gone from the Time Lords being "galactic ticket inspectors" to "I'm a Time Lord... I walk in Eternity." It's a massive shift in the character. Regardless of whether the scene is just to justify Sladen's wardrobe, it's transformative.

But more on that Wednesday.

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elvwood 9 years, 3 months ago

Beautifully put. This is one of my favourite seasons, and I quite agree that PoE is an amazingly good serial to be one of the lesser stories of the season! The atmosphere of Zeta Minor is palpable, and it's only in comparison to this that the Morestran ship scenes look so bad; they wouldn't have been out of place (or outclassed) in much of Troughton's era, Hancock included. Still, the planet part stands out so far that I tend to forget how much of the story takes place on the ship.

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Gnaeus 9 years, 3 months ago

I have a soft spot for this one, I must admit. It's not a masterwork, but it's solid.

Also, you make some good points here. I do have a couple to pose, though, of my own: First, that there is a critique of Star Trek going on here (or at least, Bob Holmes is satirising it in his usual, twisted way). Whether or not this fits, I have no idea.

Secondly, is there some significance to the antimatter creature being in (what appears to be, from memory) a pit? You ask why the Doctor is so terrified/awed. I wonder if the point is that this is an abyss - or better - the Abyss which Neitzsche warns against staring into?

Third: the Doctor's role here is essentially pontifical: the mediator between two realms. Is there an implication that he has one foot in the monstrous?

Also, Hallowe'en falls when it does because it's the vigil of All Saints in the Western Christian calendar :P . (And no, I don't think Pope Gregory III was thinking of obscure pagan Irish festivals which first arise in the written record 300 years after his death, when he set that date .:) )

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Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 3 months ago

While it is certainly the case that All Hallows Eve does fall the day before All Hallows Day, I don't think that's sufficient to explain the tone of the holiday. :)

Yes, you're absolutely right to observe the abyssal nature of the threat. Also the continued establishment of the basic groundwork for the eventual "I'm what monsters have nightmares about" turn in the Doctor's character.

That said, I'm a little hesitant to turn any critique of spacefaring adventure into a critique of Star Trek. Yes, Planet of Evil is in a fundamental sense a rebuke of the "Star Trek" way of handling things, but in this case the Star Trek way is really just a distilling of decades of American pulp sci-fi into a weekly procedural. And I think Planet of Evil is responding more to the entire heritage that Star Trek is something of a logical endpoint of than it is to Trek in particular.

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SK 9 years, 3 months ago

Indeed, the more obvious reference, rather than Star Trek, to a spaceship full of square-jawed explorer types meeting flickery outlined monsters, is that film they made when they took all the songs out of that rock and roll musical Shakespeare wrote and called it Forbidden Planet.

The building up of the Time Lords from galactic ticket inspectors to mythic liminal figures might possibly be to make the undercutting of them in their next appearance that much more amusing...

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7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194 9 years, 3 months ago

And the chief villain (well, antagonist anyway) in Forbidden Planet was named ... Morbius.

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