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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
t’s been said that your first Doctor is your favorite, and that’s certainly true in my case. No matter how much I bask in the conviction of David Tennant, admire the intensity of Christopher Eccleston, or enjoy the straightforwardness of Peter Davison, Tom Baker will always be my Doctor. For American fans, similar feelings are often associated with their first “Doctor Who” story. Classic “Who” is so hit-or-miss that if the first show you tuned in was a weak offering, you may have never tuned in again. Late one summer evening back in 1984, “Planet of Evil” was on my local PBS station and after spending 90 minutes with Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen on Zeta Minor, I was hooked.
The Doctor (Baker) and Sarah Jane (Sladen) answer a distress call from Zeta Minor, a planet on the edge of the known universe. A scientific expedition from the Morestran Empire has been there for some time, but they’ve been slowly picked off, one by one. The only survivor is the team’s fanatical leader, Professor Sorenson (Frederick Jaeger), and he’s not in the best frame of mind. Coinciding with the arrival of the Doctor and Sarah is a military rescue team from Morestra, led by the hotheaded Salamar (Prentis Hancock) and his patient second in command Vishinsky (Ewen Solon). Before long, Salamar is convinced that the Doctor and Sarah are behind the murders, and he decides the best course of action would be to simply leave Zeta Minor altogether (though not before giving the time travelers all manner of obnoxious hell). But something on the planet won’t let them leave, and Sorenson’s behavior - as well as his appearance - is becoming increasingly erratic.
“Planet of Evil” was the second story of the show’s 13th season, and arguably the tale that marked the start of two seasons of the strongest consecutive run of stories in the classic series. It was a sound jumping off point for producer Philip Hinchcliffe’s mission to take the Doctor into more unsettling areas by putting spins on gothic horror and sci-fi classics; this one’s a mixture of “Jekyll and Hyde” and “Forbidden Planet.” Often overshadowed by much of the material that followed it, a big part of its strength is in its man vs. nature simplicity: Humans arrive on a planet, muck around with forces outside their understanding, and the Doctor cleans up their mess.
While it may be lean on plot, it excels in two areas. The first is the convincing performances. Tom Baker in particular is at the top of his game. It’s still early in his run and he totally believes in his character and the universe he’s playing in, as opposed to some of his stuff further down the road, which he often treated as a joke (in some cases perhaps with good reason). The three major guest leads also rise to the occasion, with Jaeger being the standout as a man corrupted by his devotion to science. Unfortunately Lis Sladen isn’t given a whole lot to do except look cute - which she always does quite well. The second area of triumph is the out-of-this-world design of the alien jungle on Zeta Minor. As good as Baker is, the set is the real star of the show, and anytime anyone brings up the old “wobbly set” joke about classic “Who,” I wonder if they’ve ever seen “Planet of Evil.” It’s a shame the new series hasn’t built an alien environment as impressive as what was accomplished here with almost no money.
I’ve clearly got biased enthusiasm for “Planet of Evil,” and certainly I’m not 100 percent objective - though I’ll be the first to admit the Morestran military uniforms are an obvious low point. If it also holds nostalgia for you, then you know where I’m coming from. If, on the other hand, you’re someone checking out classic “Who” because of the new series, your mileage may vary. Yet if you want to see something that very likely transfixed and scared the hell out of the four-year old David Tennant, this is your poison.
Special Features: The commentary track with Baker, Sladen, Hinchcliffe and Hancock is unfortunately somewhat stale (admittedly, my expectations may have been high). Baker used to be loads of fun on these, but it seems like he’s tiring of the ritual (or maybe his mind was just elsewhere that day). The 25-minute doc “A Darker Side” is a decent enough making-of piece, with special attention paid to the creation of Roger Murray-Leach’s exquisite set. “Planetary Performance” is a 13-minute piece from the actors’ perspective. A deleted scene, BBC continuity announcements, a photo gallery and an Easter Egg round out the disc along with the usual production notes option, Radio Times listings and a coming soon ad for the “Beneath the Surface” box set which will be released this summer.