[4 April 2008]
Every once in a while an actor and a role collide and combine to make something truly special. Through some strange chemistry the actor enhances the scripted part, the part enhances the actor, and a filmic icon is formed. Other actors may do a creditable job with the role and the actor may be able to play other roles quite well, but the unique collision is what’s remembered. While this may sometimes be bad news for an actor (just ask Leonard Nemoy or Tim Curry), its always great news for the audience.
This is exactly what happened when Tom Baker began playing Doctor Who. Rarely has a character and an actor meshed so well. Quite a few actors have played the Doctor and done it well, but none came close to Baker’s unique and infectious joy de vive. The time-space continuum is his oyster; he’s got the TARDIS to cruise around in and a pretty girl for company. Life is good and he knows it.
Of course one must get serious when combating deranged scientists that are contaminated with anti-matter, and Daleks are always a bummer. But through it all Baker is smiling at you and its hard not to smile back. An infinite universe must contain a lot of fun, even when it’s trying to kill you. This Doctor has an optimism that’s easy to share.
Only an optimist can happily accept aiming for London and instead winding up 30,000 years in the future on a planet that’s at the edge of the universe. Of course, it’s easy to cope when you have Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) with you. Sarah Jane and the Doctor receive a distress call and soon discover that they are on the Planet of Evil.
The planet of evil is Zeta Minor, which has been bumping off members of a geological survey team long before the Doctor arrives. The sole survivor is an increasingly mad scientist (Frederick Jaeger) who hopes to use the planet’s anti-matter ores to provide energy for his world. Unfortunately, there’s an irate anti-matter being stomping about that is violently opposed to that idea.
Sarah Jane and the Doctor run afoul of a rescue mission whose members suspect the Doctor of murder. The Doctor likes humans a great deal, but this human crew is so inept that even the Doctors optimism is sorely tested. The bodies rapidly pile up and danger comes from the anti-matter being, the rapidly dwindling rescue party, and the mad scientist that they (sort of) rescue.
It’s a good story, certainly better than most of the stuff flung at hapless viewers by the SciFi channel. The set is surprisingly good for a 1970s BBC production. It’s all discolored, oddly shaped jungle and swamp that lends itself very well to the air of suspense. The main technical problem is the remarkably bad doors, which wind up being amusing and contribute to the suspense. The viewer is literally wondering whether the actors will survive using them.
Surviving bad stage carpentry and anti matter beings is one thing, but Daleks are bad news indeed. Destiny of the Daleks, shows Baker at his best. Traveling with Romana, a fellow Time Lord (Lalla Ward) and K-9, his robot dog, the Doctor winds up on Skaro, the home world of the Daleks! The Doctor doesn’t recognize this at first because he hasn’t been there for a few thousand years.
The Daleks are mining a ruined city using captured humans as slave labor. They are seeking Davros (David Gooderson), the mad scientist who created them. They need his help to conquer a particularly stubborn species, the Movellans, who wear silver dreadlocks and rather attractive tights. The Movellans want to capture the Doctor and blow up Skaro. The Daleks want to exterminate him. The humans want to be freed. It’s a high-pressure situation.
Baker responds with complete aplomb. When he’s pinned by a fallen column during an earthquake he sends Romana to get help, then relaxes by reading a book. Davros declares his intentions to conquer the universe and Baker responds by offering him a jelly baby. Computer control of intergalactic war fleets is shown up by a game of rock, scissors, paper. And nobody is better at dealing with a Dalek on the rampage than the Doctor. Every surprise is welcome, even the unpleasant ones. Destiny of the Daleks is one of the best Doctor Who stories around and is a pleasure to watch. The doors work a lot better here, too.
The BBC put a great extra feature on these DVDs, in which a viewer can watch the old special effects or the new computer-generated ones. It proves beyond a doubt that the least important part of a science fiction show is the special effects. The most important part is the willingness of the audience to suspend disbelief, which Baker encourages with ease.
There’s a very good documentary called Terror Nation about Terry Nation, a writer who, among other achievements, created the Daleks. He also wrote Blake’s 7, one of many screenplays. He’s the only writer that got rich writing for Doctor Who. (Douglas Adams hit the jackpot after his Doctor Who days.) Daleks were a hot property and Nation had the copyright. He even had a few in his garage. So anyone wanting to use Daleks had to negotiate with Terry. Since he preferred to negotiate during champagne lunches, the producers were more than happy to do so.
Both the Planet of Evil and Destiny of the Daleks are very good science fiction shows. The whole series is appealing in its humble premise: humans won’t ever improve much, but with a good heart and a bit of courage, we’ll always muddle through. And of course the Doctor is there to lend a hand.