An attempt to find a new energy source for an imperilled humanity goes awry in Planet of Evil, a 1975 Doctor Who serial. Featuring a justly lauded, amazing jungle set and conscious odes to Forbidden Planet and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, its portrayal of antimatter aliens makes it one of the most effectively Lovecraftian serials and its themes, about the folly of pride and resentment, are well presented.
Professor Sorenson (Frederick Jaeger) thinks he’s figured out a way to use antimatter, harvested from a particular planet, to address the fuel woes of interstellar civilisation. He repeatedly tells the Doctor (Tom Baker), Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen), and anyone else who might raise an objection, that he’s spent his whole life working on this. Which I think is great because it suggests, on some level, that he knows what he’s doing is wrong and he’s pleading with society to give him a pass because he’s staked all of his effort and self-image on this gamble.
When the evidence becomes undeniable in the form of implacable, invisible creatures and Sorenson’s own transformation into a hairy brute, it really must be a horribly painful truth to confront. His regression from man of reason to dumb beast is a perfect reflection of a mind compulsively running away from reason. It’s in recognition of this that the Doctor nobly gives Sorenson the opportunity to undo the damage he’s done in the end, and so, thematically, it makes sense for him to be saved.
On the other hand, you have Salamar (Prentis Hancock), captain of the ship that comes to rescue Sorenson’s team, who can’t shut up about how he’s in command and takes it personally whenever anyone questions his orders. His second in command, Vishinsky (Ewen Solon), is much older and clearly more competent but he never complains about whatever career path led him to playing second fiddle to a petty megalomaniac like Salamar. He simply gives the order not to kill the Doctor or Sarah Jane or chooses caution over rash action in other cases and lets Salamar huff and puff.
I love the jungle. Sometimes the lighting makes it look like a great sci-fi pulp novel cover. I also love how the gateway between the matter and anti-matter realm is a completely pitch dark pool.
We never learn much about the anti-matter aliens or why they’re so protective of their resources and this makes them all the more effectively frightening.
By complete coincidence, I saw on the BFI web site that Louis Mahoney, who plays a crewmember on the ship, passed away recently. He also appeared in Frontier in Space and “Blink”. Apparently he was an anti-racist activist who complained about the lack of roles for black actors in Britain. In his case, it may simply have been because he wasn’t a very good actor—but it’s hard to tell Sorenson he’s failed at his life’s work and in that case it’s necessary because lives are at stake. I can see why people may have just politely nodded and applauded Mahoney. And hell, maybe he did make a positive impact for black actors who really deserved it.