It’s just been one of those weeks. Meetings to go to, errands to run, tasks to be done. So many demands on my time, I didn’t even visit WordPress at all yesterday. Hopefully it will all go back to normal on Monday. I’ve even not had the time to watch much Doctor Who, and so this discussion of “Planet of Fire” is from watching it three nights ago. I hope I remember everything I wanted to say.
As usual, spoilers ho!
“Planet of Fire” is the penultimate Fifth Doctor episode, in which Vislor Turlough and Kamelion depart and Peri Brown joins up. I’m going to start with the shallow statement that this episode has something for everyone, as Peri, who spends much of her time in the TARDIS wearing deep-plunging blouses, is introduced in her bikini, while the Doctor, on this desert planet, spends the entire episode in his dress shirt and suspenders. I never realized before how good those tailored high-waisted trousers can look on a man. Ok, back to the actual intelligent discussion of this episode.
The bulk of the episode is set on a planet called Sarn, inhabited by a tribe of people who worship the fire god Logar, but have odd bits of technology that they revere as gifts from the god. The Doctor, Turlough, and Peri (who Turlough had brought into the TARDIS after saving her from drowning; the Doctor didn’t know she was there) arrive there when the TARDIS is sent there by Kamelion. The Doctor and Turlough get embroiled in the affairs of the tribe, who believe that the prophecies of the volcano erupting and the mysterious “Outsider” arriving as a gift from Logar are coming true, while Kamelion, controlled by and looking like the Master, forces Peri to work against the Doctor. Meanwhile, Turlough is getting far more involved in and concerned about the tribe’s welfare than he normally does, and it turns out that the god Logar and his gifts of technology are the tribe’s misinterpretation of the crash of a spaceship from Turlough’s home planet of Trion, and in fact, the “Chosen One” who directs the tribe is Turlough’s brother. Eventually, the Master’s plan is revealed: he’s been shrunk to about four inches tall due to an accident while working on his TCE (Tissue Compression Eliminator), and came to Sarn because the volcano emits numismaton gas, which will restore him, though it requires the volcano to erupt, which would destroy the tribe.
So, that summary isn’t the most coherent thing in the world, because the episode is far more complex. First, it portrays a religious society and the problems they have with heretics and loss of faith. While Timanov, the head priest, is completely faithful to his god and follows what he believes is the god’s words, the Chosen One, Malkon, questions the god’s apparent orders to execute the unbelievers, and refuses to sentence anyone to death. Meanwhile, there are unbelievers who seek out evidence that the god doesn’t exist and after finding such evidence, have to decide on whether or not to denounce the god, knowing they’d be put to death. Then later, when the “Outsider” appears at the foretold time, they begin to question their own conclusions about the existence of the god.
The arrival of the two Time Lords on the planet also tests their faith. The Master immediately and happily accepts the title of the “Outsider” to make the tribe do what he wants and turn on the Doctor. In contrast, the Doctor refuses to claim that he comes from the god, and in order to save the tribe, explains exactly what’s going on to them, so that they will make the decision to evacuate the planet. In all, it was a very interesting exploration of faith and how it can be twisted and exploited.
I think, though, the best part of the entire episode was Turlough. This was his swan song and his story. He was the one who figured out what was going on – that the spaceship that had crashed was his father’s and the Chosen One was his brother – since he recognized the symbols and the technology he was seeing, and then figured out how to use it to unify the tribe. Malkon, the Chosen One had been shot and was near death, so Turlough, who had the same symbol on his arm as Malkon, stepped up and claimed that he, too, was a Chosen One, then took command of the tribe. He also made the sacrifice to save them: he was a political exile on Trion, and the only way to save them was to call for a rescue ship from there. In doing so, he would be arrested for violating his exile. Luckily for him, general amnesty had been granted and he was free to finally return home.
One last interesting part of this episode was the final interaction between the Doctor and the Master. The four-inch Master finally got the numismaton gas to work and he grew to full size, but he didn’t know that the Doctor had changed the controls, and he became stuck in the flames when the numismaton gas stopped flowing. He begged the Doctor to turn off the flame, first threatening him, then offering him anything, then finally, begging for mercy, before he finally disintegrated. Throughout it all, the Doctor watched him with a stony expression – a very uncharacteristic decision, perhaps spurred by the fact that the Master tried to kill both the Doctor and the whole tribe in his quest for restoration. The other interesting thing about this exchange was the Master’s final words: “Won’t you show mercy to your own -” The sentence is never completed, and I’m sure there have been multitudes of discussions about how it was going to end.
All in all, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking episode, and though I haven’t seen all of the episodes in the Peter Davison’s final season, if this is any indication, I can see why he thought that if he had known how good this season was going to be, he would have stayed on for another year. The only thing I think they did poorly in this episode was the scenes of Peri wandering the desert – very obvious filler. I’m looking forward to seeing more of this season, as much as I am looking forward to seeing more Seventh Doctor.