Verity Lambert’s final Doctor Who episode is really strange. For various contractual reasons, she had to deliver an episode without any of the regular cast being available. This is the result: a story where the TARDIS never appears, the Doctor doesn’t turn up to save the day, and the Daleks triumph.
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.
This is easily the best episode of the serial so far. Possibly that’s because it’s the only one still to exist, and we can therefore see Derek Martinus’ direction makes the most of the rather stretched material – for example, in Maaga’s straight-to-camera speech; the gruesome flashback to the first contact between Rills and Drahvins, and the cross-fades as Steven’s air runs out. However, there’s also a bit more substance to this episode than the last two weeks.
The main point of this episode is to highlight the differences between the Drahvins and the Rills. The Doctor and Steven think that the Drahvin spaceship is old fashioned, and the Drahvins aren’t very intelligent (an impression reinforced by the particularly gullible Drahvin guarding Steven later in the episode). The Doctor also points out that the metal of the Drahvin spacecraft is ‘Very common… Old trash’.
The third season opens with a short TARDIS scene that neatly suggests that some time has passed for the Doctor, Vicki and Steven as well as for the audience. They all seem quite comfortable in each others’ company, and Vicki is even cutting Steven’s hair. While they initially think they might have landed somewhere peaceful where Steven can go for a swim, they’re quickly disabused of that notion by the arrival of a conical robot.
I love how bossy Vicki is, telling Steven not to just sit there but to help her look for a secret passage. She combines intelligence (usually on the same page as the Doctor – for example, when they’re operating the Space-Time Visualiser), adventurousness, feistiness and a healthy disrespect for authority. In short, all the hallmarks that are usually associated with lazy press stories about “the new companion”. Every decent future companion follows the template of Vicki. And Maureen O’Brien is absolutely brilliant too.