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Doctor Who: Planet of Evil (parts three and four)

“Planet of Evil” is definitely in that large segment of Doctor Who that starts strong and peters out. One problem is that the serial’s star is the jungle planet, and it’s largely absent from the second half, with the action set on a very boring and beige spaceship. The other problem, and I do hate picking on an actor, is the character that the unfortunate Prentis Hancock is forced to play. There are military idiots, and then there’s Commander Salamar, who doesn’t even have the decency to be written as losing his grip or even remotely sympathetic. If we felt sorry for a man in over his head, that would be one thing, but Salamar is just an incompetent jerk. Nobody could play the part well. Hancock didn’t have a prayer of making this character work.

Worse, a huge hunk of Salamar’s boneheaded military tough guy act is just there to get himself killed and pad episode four out, because this story just plain runs out of plot. Interestingly, we asked our son in between episodes what he thought, and he actually saw where this was going. There are two anti-matter beings, the big weird one on the jungle planet, and the werewolf creature that Frederick Jaeger’s character is becoming. Our son believed that Jaeger was the more frightening threat, because he was going to turn into a weird video-effects beast: “He’s going to change and be like that creature on the planet!” Thanks to Commander Salamar’s stupidity, he does, giving the story about fourteen more minutes of action.

Our son definitely had fun being frightened by this one. He told us that it was really, really, really scary. “Three scarys?” asked his mother. “No, four,” he replied. “Three isn’t enough!”

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Doctor Who: Planet of Evil (parts one and two)

As we’ve watched the last three stories, I’ve been writing about my own discovery of Doctor Who in 1984, and figuring this thing out without any help. No books, no Wikipedia, no internet, nobody else who knew what it was. “Planet of Evil” featured one of the most amazing-looking monsters that my twelve year-old eyes had ever seen. Months later, the beast broke my heart.

I mentioned that my pal Blake had been stymied from watching Doctor Who by his mother, because it was on too late on Saturday night and they went to church Sunday morning. When she did allow him to watch one, in late April 1984, she immediately changed her mind and sent him to bed when the title of the story came onscreen: “The Robots of Death.” Discouraged, Blake kept living vicariously through me and all of my reports, until he finally found a magazine all about the show.

The previous November, Britain’s Radio Times magazine had published a 20th anniversary special issue. Starlog, a then-popular magazine about sci-fi movies and media, had picked up the special for American distribution, and Blake found a copy in a convenience store that summer. Happily for him, he could show the magazine to his mother, who was persuaded by the photos of odd and/or ridiculous aliens and bug-eyed monsters that this program wasn’t some late-night introduction to Satanism, and allowed him to finally start watching the show.

But on the other hand, it allowed Blake to completely disarm two claims that I made about the show. I’ll come back to the second one when we get about halfway through season fourteen. The first one, though, was my insistence that the anti-matter monster in “Planet of Evil” was the coolest thing anybody had ever seen. The magazine printed a production photo of the creature, for some insane reason, before it got its video treatment:

Blake was perfectly happy to believe me that all of these monsters and beasts and baddies were really cool, especially the Axons and the Cybermen, but he teased me about that bedsheet monster forever. It was a long summer.

(Perhaps worse, he got the magazine a few days before WGTV showed “The Androids of Tara,” which features a very brief appearance by one of the all-time stupid Who monsters, the Taran Wood Beast. He really enjoyed the “episode” [WGTV showed the series as compilation movies], but he kept ragging me about the Wood Beast for weeks as though it was my fault it looked so fake.)

But the other thing that I’m reminded of when watching this story is that it’s the first one that I had seen in the eighties to show the interior of the TARDIS, and reveal that the blue box is bigger on the inside. I honestly don’t recall being surprised by this, oddly.

Anyway, our son spent most of the last hour with his head buried. “Planet of Evil” has a reputation as one of the all-time great scary Who stories. It’s written by Louis Marks and directed by David Maloney. The guest stars include Prentis Hancock and Frederick Jaeger, and Michael Wisher is back again in a small role. The real star, of course, is the jungle planet of Zeta Minor, one of the most successful alien planets ever created in a studio for the BBC. I like this story, but I’ve never loved it. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, I just don’t enjoy watching Prentis Hancock at the best of times, and this script has him in the unbelievably thankless role of a military idiot.

We’ll see what he thinks of the ending of this story in a couple of days. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more military idiocy to come, and a lot less weird alien jungles.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part five)

I don’t know why it amuses me so much in this story when the whole of seventies and eighties Doctor Who is plagued by harsh lighting, reflective surfaces, giant cracks in the studio sets where two big pieces of wood fit together, and “make everything look fake” videotape, but I swear all the stagehands who worked on “Planet of the Daleks” shared the greasiest pizza ever baked in Britain before they set up the Daleks and the props in this story. There are handprints and fingerprints on every visible surface in the Dalek base.

And, as befits a show that looks for some kind of in-story explanation for why the second Doctor looks so much older and grayer in a story made in 1985 than his final adventure back in ’69, somebody once suggested that there are handprints all over the transparent cube that houses the killer bacteria because the humanoid Spiridons left their greasy mitts all over it. My point is that if somebody had wiped the dumb thing down with a cloth before they started taping, nobody would be distracted by the unreality of the visual in the first place, and besides, there are fingerprints all over one Dalek’s eyepiece in one of the closeups, and I don’t think you’re going to convince me that the Daleks are all that likely to let the Spiridons get that up close and personal with them.

In other news, Prentis Hancock’s annoying character gets killed this time, and our son is pretty much at the point where only the lack of explosions are keeping this off his list of favorite stories. He is having an absolute blast with this one. It’s the perfect Who adventure for six year-olds, but he really likes explosions.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part four)

There are many reasons why I try to avoid being negative about an actor when I don’t like the performance. For one, I try to be a positive person these days. For another, I once said something dismissive on Usenet two decades ago about the actor Elijah Wood after he played a creep in an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, and I think I closed that email account after three years of hate mail from offended Elijah Wood fans. But mainly it’s because I’m not quite as intemperate and opinionated a blowhard as I once was, and try to recognize the difference between an actor I may perceive as grating and their performance as a grating character. That’s why the less said about Michael Hawkins’ performance as the general in the previous story, the better.

But this time out, we’ve got Prentis Hancock, whom I have never liked in anything. Mind you, I’ve only actually seen him in four or five things, counting a dozen or so Space: 1999 episodes as “one thing,” but you know what I mean. It’s easy to leave a story like “Planet of the Daleks” wanting to punch him in the mouth, but that might be because no actor could rescue this moron of a character, acting impetuous and idiotic and getting all the heroes in trouble. Is it fair to blame Hancock for the one-dimensional dimwit that Terry Nation wrote? It’s not like he had the opportunity for subtlety, is there?

On the other hand, I like Bernard Horsfall a lot, but his character isn’t done any favors by the gender politics of Terry Nation’s script, either. This time, he successfully lays the guilt on his girlfriend for coming to Spiridon on the second mission, asking her how she could expect him to risk her life on this mission, and didn’t she realize that she’s now put them all in danger because he may be too worried about her to act? “No,” said my wife, seething, “she thought you could act like a professional. Jerk.” How does Horsfall come away from a similarly stupid character with my admiration for his performance while Hancock makes me want to throw things at the screen?

For what it’s worth, Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning remain magical in a production that sees Jo briefly dazed by a falling rock so big that it should have split her skull like a grapefruit, and the sinister eyes of jungle animals represented by colored light bulbs. And the Daleks – they’re the reason we’re here! – have our son absolutely enraptured. This time, two get blown “to kablooey” and another falls down a deep ventilator shaft to be smashed to pieces many hundreds of feet below. I kind of prefer these less indestructible Daleks to the modern kind, even if they do look like they’re made from wood with reflective paint.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part three)

The first time I watched (most of) “Planet of the Daleks,” on PBS around 1987, I wasn’t impressed. I wasn’t impressed when I watched it again after getting a complete copy in 1994 either. But about nine years after that, I watched it with my older son, then about six, and got a new appreciation for it. This is definitely a story to watch with a kid, as we experienced again tonight. The thrill that a child has for Daleks, and the total conviction they have in their cruelty and their power, almost totally overshadows any production problems or scripting silliness.

You can be a curmudgeon on your own; watching this story with a kid is huge fun. Ours was excited, worried, frantic, and, when the ice-volcano erupts and two Daleks are splashed with gallons and gallons of “ice hot lava,” absolutely pleased. We briefly debated whether that shouldn’t be called “ice cold lava” before paying attention to the next bit of running down corridors. Upstairs, now, his nightly playtime before bed has been interrupted several times while Mommy has been threatened with extermination.

Note that I say “almost totally.” Kids can love Daleks all they want, but nothing can save the next Dalek serial that they made, the following year. That thing’s a complete turkey.

Anyway, the reason I’m less familiar with this story than almost all the others from the era that I’ve seen many times is that Lionheart, the company that syndicated Doctor Who in the 1980s, deliberately provided stations with a badly edited version. As I’ve mentioned previously, the BBC wiped many of Jon Pertwee’s color tapes, retaining only black and white film prints for export to countries who hadn’t switched to color yet instead. Lionheart’s package of the 24 Jon Pertwee stories, edited into TV movies, included five black and white movies and nineteen color ones.

However, both “Planet of the Daleks” and “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” from the following season, were idiotically offered as color TV movies with their missing color segments simply cut out. Since part three of this story was missing in color, the narrative of the movie version just jumps from the character telling Bernard Horsfall “Somewhere on this planet there are ten thousand Daleks!” to a scene a few minutes into part four, once everyone has escaped from the Dalek base. Twenty-five minutes just chopped out. I know I’ve said that these six-parters are all about one episode too long, but that’s insane. They should have syndicated it as a complete black and white movie. It was good enough for “The Daemons.”

(Even weirder, I’ve read that Lionheart also offered this in its mostly-original episodic format, only with the credits remade, so the American “part three” was the original “part four,” and so on. Since WGTV only bought the Pertwee adventures as TV movie compilations, we never saw it like that in Atlanta, but I wonder whether this version included the escape from the refrigeration room that was cut out of the TV movie.)

Anyway, the version of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” that they offered was, while still obnoxious, not quite as incoherent since the missing color part was the opening episode, and so it looked like the movie began with the adventure already in progress. I hope we’ll be watching this story in about one month’s time, and I’ll talk more about that when we get there, but it was also one that I skipped copying off air.

There’s a terrific short documentary on the DVD about how they rebuilt this episode and restored the color. It took two separate projects: traditional colorizing done by a firm in Los Angeles, and a really neat project in London that extracted color information – chroma-dots – from a black and white telerecording. It’s absolutely wonderful to finally see this episode just about exactly as it was first taped.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (parts one and two)

“Invisible Daleks!” shouted our son. Yes, indeed.

“Planet of the Daleks” is another story that I’m not actually all that familiar with. I’ve maybe seen it in full only twice. I never recorded it off-air when WGTV played it – I’ll explain why in the next post – and didn’t get a VHS copy until early 1994, a few months after BBC-1 had shown the story in a very nice 30th anniversary surprise. On those rare occasions when Doctor Who had been repeated, it was on BBC-2, not the main channel, but they commissioned a new documentary about the show and gave it a prime time berth for six weeks of garish and very dated glam rock purple and green videotape, leading The Sunday Times to observe that the show didn’t seem to actually time travel very well.

It was a return for both director David Maloney, who hadn’t worked on Who in four years, and writer Terry Nation, who’d been busy with other things for seven. Among them: he’d been on the staff of The Baron, The Avengers, and The Persuaders! while contributing freelance scripts to several other ITC shows. He’d failed to sell a Dalek TV series to any of the American networks, and the BBC passed on a curious and entertaining pilot film with the unfortunate name of The Incredible Robert Baldick.

For what it’s worth, Maloney hired Bernard Horsfall, one of his regular go-to actors. Always nice to see Horsfall at work, even if he’s stuck under a ridiculous blond wig in this story. He also hired Prentis Hancock, and would again when he directed “Planet of Evil” three years later. I can’t claim to enjoy Hancock’s acting quite as much as I do Horsfall’s.

“Planet” is kind of Nation-by-the-numbers, only taped in a remarkable and eye-poppingly busy jungle set and dealing with invisible aliens who have been enslaved by the Daleks on the hostile planet of Spiridon. It’s not a story that aspires to very much more than wowing the under-tens in the audience.

As for our own under-ten, he seems to like this story much, much more than he did “Frontier in Space,” and spent the hour alternately wide-eyed and wondering out loud, or wide-eyed and transfixed. “Ten thousand invisible Daleks! That’s ten thousand times the original problem!”

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Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space (part one)

In January 1970, Doctor Who returned after its longest break ever – six whole months – and it was all in color with a new lead, played by Jon Pertwee. When our son saw the new psychedelic title sequence, he went “Ooooh, color!” Behind the scenes, Derrick Sherwin was still producer, at least briefly, and Terrance Dicks was settling in for five more years as script editor. Nicholas Courtney was back as the Brigadier, now a regular member of the cast. And there’s a new companion in the form of Caroline John as the Cambridge-based scientist Liz Shaw.

The new Doctor spends almost this entire episode in bed. It’s the first act of a four-part serial by Robert Holmes, and our hero is experiencing what we’d later call the after-effects of his regeneration, but at the time, all that was explained was that the Time Lords changed his appearance. His antics are no less silly than what we’d occasionally see from Patrick Troughton; our son giggled as the Doctor grumbled about his missing shoes, and he had a field day when the Doctor made an escape bid from some shiny-faced men under the direction of guest villain Hugh Burden. He makes a getaway in a wheelchair, and our son just adored that.

Our boy didn’t really notice that the strange men have shiny faces. We’ll deduce later that these, along with Burden’s character (called Channing), are the first of the Autons that we’ll meet. The Autons only appeared in two serials in the original run of the show, but they quickly became iconic enemies and were used to relaunch Doctor Who in 2005 and appeared again in the form of some Roman legionnaires in 2010.

A couple of guest actors here would return in slightly larger roles later in the Pertwee years. Talfryn Thomas, who we’ll later see in “The Green Death,” plays the hospital’s porter, and Prentis Hancock, who will appear in “Planet of the Daleks,” is a reporter with a couple of lines. They’re only in this episode; we have several new characters to meet next time.

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