After the drama of Air Lock, The Exploding Planet is about the mechanics of rescuing Steven, repairing the Rill spacecraft, and escaping the planet before it explodes. Maaga and the Drahvins barely feature, and having pushed the Rills too far they are revealed as being the ineffectual threat they always were – unable to pose a genuine risk or even to help themselves. Co-operation and friendship have trumped deviousness and coercion.
As Steven and Vicki wait for the Doctor to complete repairs to the Rill spacecraft, they pass the final night on the doomed planet. This is reasonably effective – as is Maaga’s final desperate attempt to escape. But the really interesting part is the moral dimension of the adventure – beyond ‘eye of the beholder’ clichés, it gets to the heart of the journey the Doctor has been on since An Unearthly Child, and almost feels like a reiteration of the theme of the Verity Lambert ‘era’.
At the start of the series, the Doctor was perhaps a little like Maaga – suspicious, threatening, more interested in self-preservation than in friendship or companionship. But that’s manifestly no longer the case. Questioning their motives, Steven gives the Rills an ethical dilemma – would they let the Doctor leave in the TARDIS if he’s unable to repair their ship. The Rills emphatically say they would. ‘Everything [The Doctor] has shown he stands for is what we believe in,’ they say. The Doctor is no longer the mysterious, selfish old man who first encountered Ian and Barbara. He’s become a hero.
Later, the Doctor tells the Rills:
Importance lies in the character and to what use you put this intelligence. We respect you as we respect all life.
That’s a far cry from his words at the start of The Daleks, and this exchange with Ian:
The Doctor: They’re intelligent, anyway. Very intelligent.
Ian: Yes, but how do they use their intelligence? What form does it take?
The Doctor: Oh, as if that matters.
By the end of The Daleks, the Doctor is challenging them, ‘Can’t you use your brains for right?’ And here, right at the end of Verity Lambert’s producership, we have a Doctor who has learned it’s not enough simply to travel, observe and not interfere. What’s important is to put the things you have learned to good use, to step in and to help where you can. There’s probably no other stretch of the series where the Doctor goes through such profound character development.
There’s still one more Doctor-less Lambert episode to come, which shows what happens when the Doctor doesn’t turn up (everyone dies). But The Exploding Planet is her last word on the Doctor. A man who’s become a hero, and who uses his brains for right. Whatever form he takes in the future, I’m pretty sure every fundamental of his character is now in place.
Next episode: Mission to the Unknown
The Exploding Planet no longer exists. Not in any of its regenerations. This review is courtesy of the excellent BBC Radio Collection CD