Never was there a more inappropriate title for a Doctor Who story (OK, maybe The Waking Ally), because the antimatter on Zeta Minor is not evil. It even lets Sorenson go on his merry way despite being the cause of all the trouble, as soon as he has returned what he stole. All the planet wants really is to be left alone, once it has reclaimed its missing stuff. So it’s Planet of Different.
It is very different though. The antimatter monsters behave like ghosts, and the Doctor has to go into a pit to negotiate with the planet. He enters an abyss, an underworld. The term “antimatter” is bandied about all the time but it is really not much different to any other bit of technobabble. Nothing that we see here behaves like antimatter should.
You call it nothing, a word to cover ignorance, then centuries ago scientists invented another word for it. Antimatter, they called it.
But “nothing” is closer to the truth. It is the Unknown. We are far from the world of The Three Doctors, where antimatter is confined to another universe and causes destruction when the two come into contact. This is antimatter existing as a sentient monster on a planet within our universe, which is… well, nothing more than another use of a bit of scientific jargon to explain ghosts, or unspeakable monsters. We are very much in the world of the supernatural here. As usual, this is Doctor Who doing fantasy and pretending not to.
The difference this time round is that the fantasy is crashed into some pure sci-fi with the Morestrans and their spaceship, so we have a genre clash created by sci-fi bumping in to fantasy without the need for the Doctor to provide the sci-fi element. The clash is already happening before he arrives. And Doctor Who unequivocably comes down on the side of the fairy tale.
A common complaint about this story is that all the Zeta Minor stuff is brilliant (and that jungle set is fabulous), but the Morestrans and their spaceship are all rubbish, in the visuals and the acting. That’s true, but this is one story where bad effects and cheap sets work surprisingly well, because the Morestrans are supposed to be the rubbish bit of the story. It is tempting to see them as a Star Trek parody, finding Trek wanting in the world of Doctor Who. You could read that into it, but a much better parallel is the incredibly tedious Space: 1999, a Trek wannabe show that included among its cast Prentis Hancock as another space commander, Paul Morrow. It is tempting to think he has been cast to play a similar character because of his performance in that, although the transmission dates stubbornly refuse to align with that theory. It’s a shame because that would have been neat. But nonetheless he does a thoroughly wooden job as Salamar, who is already a cardboard cutout sci-fi character. It’s a fascinating contrast to the antimatter monsters, because this is the Doctor Who story where pure sci-fi comes up against a true, unspeakable, Lovecraftian monster and is found wanting.
It takes the Doctor to be able to travel between the two genres that are being crashed together, a clear indication of how he is a wanderer in the universe of sci-fi who belongs in the world of faerie, but keeps one foot in each. He enters the realm of the unspeakable “evil”, and finds simply a misunderstanding there. It is a compelling rejection of xenophobia. Like most of the 13th Season, we are visiting a specific work of horror, and superficially this is the weakest of those kinds of stories, but in its execution it is in fact the most interesting and, well… the most Doctor Who. This was the story where Doctor Who did Jekyll and Hyde and came down on the side of Hyde. RP
The view from across the pond:
For as long as I remember, duality fascinated me. I can distinctly remember the video game Archon. Archon was a fantastic chess-like game played on a board filled with creatures of legend. Manticores, goblins, djinn, dragons… they battled to either wipe out one another or hold all 5 power squares. As you played, a number of squares would go from light to dark. If you landed on one of your own color, you had an advantage, so you had to be strategic on the way you played so you would fight you opponent when you had the favor of light (or dark, depending on which side you played). When the two pieces landed together, there would be a battle arena, where combat took place and the better player could still win if they were fast enough on the joystick. Anyway, it was the game that piqued my interest in chess too, another game about light vs. dark. We see that motif throughout our lives, right down to the ancient worship of the solstice. One of my closest friends and I always wish each other a happy Walpurgis Night, since it marks the end of the dark cycle of the year and the beginning of the light. That duality is fascinating. Most things, while they can be looked at many ways, often have 2 distinct qualities, like a coin. Yes, a coin has a side too, but the two distinct qualities are heads/tails. And if we think about it, most of us are different at home, say, than we are in the office. And I wonder how my younger son (14) can survive a full day of school when he’s incapable of keeping his backside in a chair at home. What about when speaking to your significant other as opposed to your manager? Surely there’s a distinct difference?
When I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I was fascinated even more. Dr. Jekyll found a potion that released his repressed darker side. When Dr. Sorensen (which I find oddly similar to Stevenson) begins working on Zeta Minor in Planet of Evil, he also accidentally unleashes a dark side. Let’s first talk about this story. First, I love it. It’s right up there with my absolute favorites of the classic series. One of the things that I truly love in science fiction is when we are taken to someplace that feels truly alien. If we’re honest, most of the time in Doctor Who, we’re taken to a quarry and it feels like… a quarry. Or we find ourselves on earth or a spaceship, neither of which really feel very alien. But Planet of Evil actually pulls off the alien. The jungle world is inhospitable. The research base is small and very isolated. And best of all, the creature is nearly invisible. It makes an almost shamanesque sound as it rattles its way into the area and dissolves its victim. There is no safe haven; no walls will protect the cast. And kudos to Lis Sladen who sells it; when she is terrified… no petrified is the word… she makes us believe that whatever is happening is real and the terror mounts! Then the Doctor finds that pit! It is a black opening like a tear between two worlds; one of matter and one of antimatter. It teeters on the visual edge between pool and hole, but it is eerie. That sense of “other” is so profound, this story skyrockets into one of the best of the series. When the Doctor falls into the pit, with another stunning freeze-frame image, it is absolutely enthralling!
The creature itself begins to take on form as the story progresses, probably to give the audience a chance to see what they were up against. The red outline was effective because, again, it was unusual. If this were done more often, it would have lost something, but the nearest we’ve ever seen to this was with Axos, and then it was used much differently. This was no man in a rubber suit. It was different and alien, to match the landscape. Even onboard the Morestran ship, the creature’s otherworldliness is perfect. And to add one more piece to the visual isolation; when we look out into space from the Morestran ship, there are no stars. This is so isolated, even stars do not shine.
But there is something to think about with this story as much as with Stevenson’s classic. The formula that Jekyll found might be readily available. We call it “alcohol”. It’s why it’s dangerous to drink when at work functions. One minute, you’re all composed talking about business strategy and the next your eyes are glowing like someone jammed cardboard cut-outs in there and you’ve become a hairy ape worthy of the best Hyde impersonations out there. No it’s not a one-swig-instant-change kind of transformation, but it can change us. Suddenly those inhibitions are dropped and we become less repressed. And depending on the extent to which we use it, well, look at this guy after just 2 shots of tequila!
I don’t think this was a commentary on alcoholism by Stevenson and I don’t think Doctor Who was doing one either, but some of the behavior (beyond the glowing eyes and bestial exterior) are very much those of the alcoholic. There’s the denial that Sorensen goes through and the battle to fight against his personal demon. What does make Doctor Who so marvelous is that it’s always been about hope and I do have to say that bringing Sorensen back at the resolution of the story was the right call. Like so much in Doctor Who, it speaks a great deal about redemption and the fact that it’s never too late to do better. (There was an early version of the script that left Sorensen out there in the alternate universe.)
Doctor Who may not have been forging new ground with this story since it borrows so heavily from Stevenson, with a hefty dose of The Forbidden Planet mixed in for good measure, but it does give us a very Doctor Who spin some classic ideas! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Pyramids of Mars