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1 March 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 425: Planet of Evil, Episode One

Dear diary,

I thought that reaching the end of the Jon Pertwee years meant that I’d gone past that phase of the programme where I simply didn’t know all that much about certain stories. With this season for example, I could have told you some of the plot to Terror of the Zygons, I know a fair amount about Pyramids of Mars, The Android Invasion, and The Brain of Morbius, and while I don’t know a huge amount about The Seeds of Doom, I know it features a trip to a snowcap, and a plant that grows to the size of a country house. I even know how they defeat that story’s alien menace.

But then, amongst all of those, we’ve got Planet of Evil. I can tell you that it’s set in a jungle, and that the Doctor takes off his scarf for a fairly long stretch of the story. That’s it. Truth be told, I’d sort of forgotten that it even existed. Certainly, I had to go back and edit an earlier entry for the Diary where I mentioned not seeing Tom Baker in the TARDIS console room until Pyramids, because I thought that story would be following on directly from Terror of the Zygons! Oh, but that’s good, because I like it when Doctor Who can surprise me, and here it’s done so with an entire four-part serial I’d all but forgotten!

As I say, I know that this story is set in a jungle. And I know that because it’s supposed to be one of the best sets that the series ever had. For years afterwards, it graced the pages (and, I think, the cover) of the BBC’s set design manuals as an example of just how to do the job right. It’s not hard to see why - the jungle set in this story is simply beautiful. This is Season Thirteen’s entirely studio-bound story, but that doesn’t really matter, because we’ve got a set here which I can’t stop looking at - even right into the distance there seems to be something to focus on.

This feels like the moment that I should trot out my frequently used ‘I wish all of Doctor Who had been shot on film’ comment, because there’s a few film sequences with this set which do look stunning. They allow you to get some water onto the floor and give the impression that we’re in a proper swamp (who needs to go out on location to film, when you can make a jungle this convincing in the studio?), but in all honesty, even the video sequences make this set look good - it simply is a brilliant design.

It doesn’t even stop with the jungle. I groaned a little when the entrance to one spaceship was a simple pair of doors, with the rest of the ship off-camera, but then once we see inside Salamar’s control room it’s huge! I always tend to praise sets which use different levels to their advantage (The Seeds of Death is still the one that sticks best in the memory), but here you’re on really different levels. It’s almost like having a big two-story room on the screen, and you don’t often get something this size in Doctor Who. I’d assume that it’s because there’s relatively few sets in the story, but I’m finding it hard to feel - that jungle feels as though it stretches on for miles, and I can’t get any idea on just how big the set really was. You can barely imagine how excited I was when a set of steps is lowered so that they can disembark the ship. It seems like such a little thing, but when you’re watching through in order, you really do notice the little things like this.

And speaking of watching through in order, I think I’m right n saying that this is the first time the Doctor has been actively drawn to an adventure by following a distress signal. It becomes pretty ubiquitous as a plot device as the programme goes on, but I can’t remember it ever really happening before now. I suppose it ties in with the TARDIS now becoming a bit more reliable.

Had the First or Second Doctors picked up a distress call, they would have had a fair amount of difficulty answering it, and the Third Doctor was only set off Earth as a Time Lord missionary for a while, before we started to see him getting better control as time went by. His best bit of piloting is Planet of the Spiders, where he arrives mere feet from his companion - though I suppose the TARDIS had someone familiar to home in on! It feels like we’re entering a period now where the Doctor has more control over where he’s going (even if the ship is still somewhat erratic), and I’m looking forward to seeing how that develops as we move forward.

I suppose it’s another sign of the times - Planet of Evil is the first Philip Hinchcliffe story to go out without any kind of input from Barry Letts. While Zygons opened the season, it was commissioned by Barry. We’re now entering a period of the programme entirely separate from the previous production team, and that’s an exciting prospect after so long…


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