25 episodes into the Tom Baker years and we finally get to see the fourth Doctor inside the TARDIS (still beating Pertwee’s 39-episode wait, unless you agree it’s the flock-wallpaper desktop theme in The Ambassadors of Death). He plays it like an attentive chef, skipping round the console and peering at different buttons, coaxing the Ship to its destination as if piloting it is more an art than a science. Elsewhere, Baker plays this very oddly – he’s quite relaxed with Sarah Jane, but when he meets the Morestran crew he goes wide eyed, standing in the background boggling a lot which means he’s the centre of attention even when he’s not. Or maybe he’s just seen what Prentis Hancock is doing on the next set.
This opening episode – one of the first to be developed without any involvement from the previous production team – restates Hinchliffe and Holmes’ intent to pit the Doctor against a universe of terrors. It’s another hint that this is the dark side of the Pertwee years in the same way the Troughton years were to Hartnell. The implication here is that the dark corners of the universe are frighteningly alien places: ‘This damn planet… It’s alive,’ says Sorenson, clearly driven half mad by Zeta Minor. There’s a solid effort to make the planet a character: the eerily colourful jungle, which looks like it belongs in the Doctor Who and the Daleks film, eats the haunted survey mission alive. David Maloney’s typically thoughtful direction responds to the ideas in the script with some inventive shots, like the roving camera that tracks towards a dark pit that slurps hungrily. This is all very sombre and effective.
Less effective are the scenes on the Morestran spaceship (which looks like a handheld Hoover), which play like Blake’s 7: ‘It’s beyond Cygnus A,’ Prentis Hancock’s Salamar snaps crossly at Sarah Jane. The point is to make the sterile, artificial environment of the spaceship a contrast to the colourful, organic planet. Sadly this smart design choice seems to have translated to the Morestran crew, who have none of the interesting quirks of Robert Holmes Ark characters.
I quite like this: it’s intriguing, and has some nice horror elements, but some of it does seem a bit routine, even if responding to distress signals isn’t actually something the Doctor has been able to do before. I think it’s partly because it’s not quite as ground-breaking as the production team seem to think – Death to the Daleks had a haunted planet and a blue-suited space crew only a year ago. However, it’s got a good, ominous atmosphere, a mystery, and a novel monster (pinched from Forbidden Planet).
Next episode: Planet of Evil – Part Two