At the start of Doctor Who’s 23rd season, the show called up its most reliable writer to provide a series opener. As the show had only narrowly avoided cancellation the year before, it needed Robert Holmes to apply a reinvigorating shot in the arm, as he’d done before with Spearhead from Space and The Ark in (also) Space. But the story Holmes provided, The Mysterious Planet, proved to be, in the opinion of most fans, one of his lesser works.
Still, it’s a favourite of mine. Sure, it lacks the high stakes tension of The Caves of Androzani or the laser sharp focus of The Deadly Assassin. But it’s got a bitingly funny script and a world of intrigue to ponder over. In a standard Doctor Who year, this oddly charming tale, minus its trial room trappings, would have been a cheeky mid-season treat, a la Carnival of Monsters or The Sun Makers.
It’s got its problems, of course. Any prosecutor worth their salt would point out that the direction is flat, only occasionally mustering up any energy and never concocting any real suspense. Its design work is uneven, its performances a mixed bunch. But, its defence counsel might counter, it’s full of Holmes’ trademark quotable dialogue and engaging characters. Plus it reengages Holmes with many of his favourite tropes.
Like The Ark in Space, it wonders how humans will survive a future global apocalypse. Like The Sun Makers, it imagines a subterranean world where humans live, frightened of going onto the surface. Like The Krotons it gives us a present but unseen menace holding a society hostage and kidnapping their smartest youths. And it provides a new version of Holmes’ favourite supporting character, the colourful maverick.
It’s a trope with starts with Milo Clancey, runs through Vorg and Garron and ends here with Sabalom Glitz (Tony Selby). All are miscreant versions of the Doctor. They have his charm, his eccentricity and his colourful turn of phrase. But each come from a seedier place than the Doctor, who in case we forget, is a Lord. Clancey is wild frontierman, Vorg is a carnie and Garron’s a galactic con-man. Occupations the Doctor’s altogether too wholesome and scholarly to consider.
Glitz is something quite different from those previous oddballs. He’s been characterised as a dodgy dealer; as Selby puts it on the DVD documentary, an “Arthur Daley in space”. But this slant on Glitz comes more from his two subsequent stories than this introductory tale. Here, he’s articulate and witty. Sardonic even. He’s a mercenary, not the used car salesman he becomes. And although he might become a cuddly geezer slash ally to the Doctor later on, in this story, he’s a ruthless criminal.
His first act on screen is an aborted attempt to murder the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri (Nicola Bryant). He’d cheerfully shoot his way out of the Tribe of the Free’s camp if he could. Most chillingly, he wants to gas Marb Station in order to kill its inhabitants. Just because he’s given a few funny lines doesn’t change that.
In fact, I’d wager that it’s the casting of Selby which led the character down the Arthur Daley in space path, not the other way around. With lines like, “I should like to stand in paterfamilias for your absent father and give you away, my dear, but I always cry at these moments of deep sentiment.” and “whereas yours is a simple case of sociopathy, Dibber, my malaise is much more complex.” it’s not hard to imagine a different take on the character. Think, for instance, of Holmes’ Time Lord messenger in Terror of the Autons as Glitz, all bowler hat and establishment suit. Or an ice-cold businessman like Trau Morgus. Either would be valid takes on Glitz as scripted here. But the wide boy version sticks and by the time he gets to Dragonfire he’s been completely Daley-fied, an altogether less cultured, less witty piece of work.
His unscrupulousness remains constant though, and it’s that which sets him apart from the crusading sixth Doctor. After a season and a bit of being spiky and boorish, we finally get a version of this Doctor we can truly root for; compassionate, heroic and funny. I suspect that Holmes rather liked writing for the sixth Doctor. It’s an incarnation that seems closest to his conception of the Doctor – a slightly superior but affable character, but with an acid tongue. Baker embraces the chance to play the Doctor with this lighter aspect to him, looking for every opportunity to go for the physical gag or the emphasized word. He’s a vibrant, showman of a Doctor but one who cares about this planet, its people and crucially, his companion. His scenes in Part One where he tries to console Peri, distraught about the fate of her world, are the best of his era.
Despite this change towards a more accessible, likeable Doctor though, there’s still a fundamentally problematic approach to his character. He’s basically ineffectual when it comes to solving the story’s big problem. This isn’t uncommon in 1980s Who; look at the climaxes to Earthshock, Terminus, Resurrection of the Daleks and Vengeance on Varos for other examples where the Doctor’s efforts in winning the day are minimal. But here his impotence is underlined twice.
It happens first when the Doctor is in an argument with robotic underground despot Drathro (Roger Brierly). The Doctor is trying to convince Drathro that human life is of more value than that of machines. But Drathro is shown to outmanoeuvre the Doctor’s arguments every time. In the end, in very characteristic style for his sixth incarnation, the Doctor resorts to abuse, accusing the robot of hubris. These are actually a great couple of scenes, highlighting the Doctor’s love of life and humanity. But still, he loses that argument and that diminishes his strength as a character.
The second instance comes at the story’s conclusion. The black light system, upon which Drathro depends, is about to explode and the horned metal beast has decided that everyone should perish with him. The Doctor’s powerless to stop it, so it’s left to Glitz, our cold blooded criminal, to comes up with the solution. He tricks Drathro into leaving his castle, with promises of more black light on his ship. “Strange how low cunning succeeds where intelligent reasoning fails,” sighs the Doctor. Not just strange, Doc, but sad. Because it leaves you trying to contain the inevitable end-of-story explosion and doing little else. The colourful maverick saves the day, and our colourful hero is sidelined.
That’s ultimately why this story wasn’t enough to propel the series to new heights. Not because it isn’t clever or funny or interesting; it’s all those things. (We haven’t even got to Holmes’ use of the trial scenes to annotate the show’s narrative structure). But because even though it gives us a more likeable hero, it’s still undermining him throughout.
LINK TO Partners in Crime: Both are set in London, although separated by millions of years.
NEXT TIME: Will there be strawberry jam for tea? More from Holmes in The Power of Kroll. Kroll! Kroll! Kroll!