The Green Death
The Time Monster
Love and War
The Blue Angel
The Ancestor Cell
Planet of the Spiders
|Dates||May 4, 1974 -
Jun. 8, 1974
With Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen,
Nicolas Courtney, Richard Franklin, John Levene.
Written by Robert Sloman. Script-edited by Terrance Dicks.
Directed and Produced by Barry Letts.
|Synopsis: In the last adventure of the third Doctor, the stolen crystal from Metabilis 3 (from The Green Death) returns with its horrible legacy close behind.|
A Fitting Farewell by Carl Malmstrom 15/3/97
To paraphrase a famous movie critic, the best thing I can say about Planet of the Spiders is that, in spite of its problems, it works. It even works well. Planet of the Spiders is one of my favorite Doctor Who stories and possibly my favorite story of the Pertwee era. It's imaginative, interesting and has a good blend of humor and sadness; it's also one of the few six-parters (only The Talons of Weng-Chiang also comes to mind) that neither could have nor should have been shortened to four parts.
I always cringe when Doctor Who moves into the realm of pseudoscience, in this case with telepathy and psychokinesis, but I can forgive this story that problem. The spiders are also painfully obvious as puppets (especially the one that takes control of Sarah Jane), but what is Doctor Who without a little kitsch.
However, the rest of the story is a triumph. It reminds us that even the best men have fears and difficulties to overcome, and that even the greatest victories can come with a cost. The special effects are even suprisingly decent for the mid-seventies and the landscapes of Metabelis Three are among the best I've seen in the Pertwee era. The final scene is one of the most poignant in the series, and possibly the best regeneration sequence of any Doctor.
Why is it that so many Doctors do their best work near the end? The War Games, Planet of the Spiders, Logopolis, and The Caves of Androzani all showcase some of the best work done by actors who have played the Doctor. So yes, Planet of the Spiders was a sad but wonderful story, and I don't think Jon Pertwee could have left the series on a better note.
More padding that an overstuffed couch by Michael Hickerson 9/5/98
Over the years, I've tried to come to Planet of the Spiders from a lot of different angles. I've tried to see it as a summation of the Pertwee years, as an elaborate build-up to the Tom Baker years, and once (on the recommendation of a friend) as a metaphor on Buddhism.
But none of these have helped hide that fact that this would be a whole lot better if it had simply been presented as a four part story.
Planet of the Spiders has more padding than story. Indeed, all of episode one serves as padding since there is nothing really there we haven't seen before in The Green Death involving the mysterious blue crystal from Metabilis III. Before you know it, giant spiders have invaded Earth in a monastary, intent on getting the crystal back, and it all goes downhill from there. The good Doctor eventually shows up on Metabilis III just in time to forment a revolution against the six legs.
Unfortunately, the script is so willy-nilly that we never get any time to get interested in any of these plotlines. It's padded in all the wrong places. An extended chase scene takes over half of episode two as does the Doctor being unconsious for most of episode five. By the time we get to Pertwee's re-generation, it's not so much a sense of regret at seeing his Doctor's passing, but a relief that this story is finally over.
But, I'd be remiss in not pointing out that Planet of the Spiders doesn't have some good points. It's got one of my favorite scenes of the Pertwee years, with the Doctor facing the Queen. Her asserting control over him as he shouts, "No, I will not!" and her taunting him with "Is that fear I see in your mind?" are two of the more blood chilling moments of the Pertwee era.
It's just too bad that you have to sit through five episodes of padding to get to one brilliant scene.
A Review by Keith Bennett 13/5/98
I approached viewing this story a bit apprehensively, not having a terribly enthusiastic memory of the last time I watched it. But, in the end, I felt that this completion to Jon Pertwee's outstanding portrayal as the Doctor is quiet an entertaining adventure.
For a start, it's unusual to find the Doctor blaming himself for the whole mess in the first place, thanks to him "stealing' the blue crystal from Metebelis 3, so this novelty is refreshing. And then there's the extensive chase in episode two. If one can forget about pondering on the mystery of why Lupton and his spider-pal didn't just disappear at the beginning of the chase rather than waiting for so long, then this rare indulgence is enjoyable and rather exciting viewing. Tommy, too, is a rare type of character in his simple ways. And he must have made a mint saying "Pretty" to every valuable object he sees and getting it given to him by all sorts of gullable people until that blasted crystal came along and messed up his racket! (One can just imagine him going up to the Queen and saying "pretty" to the Crown Jewels and pocketing a real find.)
The spiders, however, are not terribly convincing invaders of Earth, even if the were enough to upset Mary Whitehouse at the time, and Metebelis' Two-Legs are terribly uninspiring and cliched. Also, all that Buddhist lingo is... well... an acquired taste.... The final scenes of the third Doctor are lovely, though. "Tears, Sarah Jane?" A fitting end to a wonderful Doctor.
In his review of Spearhead From Space, Joseph Nunweek gave the opinion that the Pertwee era declined in quality as it wore on, and I'm in agreement with that, but Planet Of The Spiders is a better completion than might be remembered. 7/10
Death to the Eight-Legs by Guy Thompson 1/12/98
Where to start with this one..... After viewing this story several times and just before writing this review, I still can't decide whether it's any good or not, so I'll examine it episode by episode and see how that works...
Part 1: Sets the scene as might be expected of an introductory episode, but is otherwise pretty redundant in terms of plot. The role of Professor Clegg is pretty unnecessary and would've been omitted in a four-part version. John Kane is good as Tommy, and Mike Yates is given a bit more to do away from his UNIT duties. The spider looks crap at the end.
Part 2: Most famous for its chase scene, (some say "epic", I'd say "about ten minutes long") which starts off sensibly enough on the road, but all gets a bit silly when it takes to the air, and then on to the sea, it's just a relief they didn't decide to chase each other with an egg and spoon, otherwise we'd have been gonig on for ever. The spiders' voices were in very poor judgement, as is Richard Franklin's haircut.
Part 3: Lupton's character is given some minimal background as an over-ambitious salesman (rather a large step up, wanting to take over the galaxy) and we meet the human inhabitants of Metebelis 3 who, for the most part, look like understudies for a low-budget porno (Arak's moustache is highly dubious, although not to the same degree as Nicholas Courtney's in the previous episode) and features possibly the worst acting by an insignificant character in all of Doctor Who (Denis Carey was a major character in the stories in which he appeared, so was the mad dude in The Horns of Nimon) in the form of Arak and Tuar's mother who makes an absolute pigs ear of all seven of her lines. And call me cynical, but I get the merest hint that the spider moving across the floor may have been achieved with CSO.
Part 4: Some more background information is divulged, and there is at least an explanation (if not a terribly good one) as to why there are giant spiders on Metebelis 3, and how they have become dominant over the humans there. The scenes with John Kane as Tommy, are however fascinating to watch and very well acted as the Metebelis crystal unlocks Tommy's mind, and his intelligence begins to expand rapidly.
Part 5: Hmm. The Great One rears her ugly head (or more twitches it, spasmodically) and causes the Doctor to realise his greatest fear (obviously she hasn't seen the end of Part 2 of The Mysterious Planet, which is indeed the only less effective cliffhanger in the series than at the end of this installment, when the director chose to end with Tommy getting shot by possessed meditators, rather than Sarah revealing she is under the control of the Queen Spider... a somewhat odd choice).
Part 6: The story suddenly takes an altogether darker and more chilling tone, the Doctor's scenes with K'anpo are moving in way that most Pertwee-era Who, found difficult, and there is a real sense of dread when the Doctor is finally forced to confront the Great One, similar to the Fourth Doctor's exit in Logopolis. This is such a strong single episode up to the regeneration at the end, that I must recommend the story as a whole on the strength of it. It's not one of Pertwee's best, not as good as say, Spearhead from Space or Inferno, but much better than the fantastically overrated Terror of the Autons or the Peladon stories. And it's light years ahead of The Ghosts of N-Space.
On a final note, what is Robert Sloman's thing about enlarging little creatures, firstly maggots in The Green Death and now...
An Unsatisfactory Exit by Christopher Fare 30/1/99
After five seasons of generally sound stories, it is unfortunate that Jon Pertwee's Doctor bows out with a less than satisfactory effort that perhaps shows the level of ennui that had set in by this point with the production team.
Firstly, the plot. Having the Doctor and Sarah Jane investigating separate events seems like a good idea in principle, but the two plots take forever to come together. This is the major problem with Planet of the Spiders -- the plot itself is tedious and dull, and relies almost totally on the (admittedly impressive) visual menace of the spiders to put across the Buddhist principles at the script's heart. And aren't these laid on with a trowel, especially in Part Six! There's a great deal of fighting, captures, escapes and running about that isn't even entertaining for once. My opinion of this story's plot is summed up by the Doctor: "Oh dear, this is getting monotonous!"
The performances are, um, interesting. Richard Franklin makes a nicely thought out return as Mike Yates, John Dearth's Lupton is a great human villain, John Kane makes Tommy's transformation sympathetic and believable, George Cormack is charming as K'anpo, and the voices of the spiders are chilling. Apart from the two regulars, who are sterling as always, that's about it for good performances in this story.
UNIT are appalling here. The Brigadier has lost all vestiges of his credibility, as evidenced by the scene with Professor Clegg where he states that "I didn't know about ESP until the Doctor told me about it". John Levene is not that good as Benton either. The other inhabitants of the meditation centre and Metebelis 3 are simply dreadful, with the possible exception of Christopher Burgess, who's passable. Someone who is definitely not passable is Jenny Laird as Nesca. This woman makes an art form of saying lines without emotion or conviction, and vies for the title of worst performance ever. And even after a great performance as Linx in The Time Warrior, Kevin Lindsay is all teeth and tweeness as Cho-Je, a terrible way to play a pivotal character.
And yet despite all this, this story still has some good things to offer. I think that's one of the great things about Doctor Who -- no matter how bad one part of a story is, there's always something that makes it better than any other sci-fi show on TV. In this case, the huge chase in Part Two is well produced and highly enjoyable (although watch out for the awful CSO on the Whomobile in flight). And there's always a little magic when we say goodbye to one Doctor and welcome the next; the final scenes are no exception. The story does have good elements, but you really have to wade through a lot of bad ones before you reach them.
Planet of the Spiders should have been a great farewell for a much-loved Doctor, but it really doesn't turn out that way. Instead, we have a tired runaround with some good moments, but not enough to salvage it from being a great disappointment.
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 21/7/99
There are good things and bad, both of which can be applied in varying amounts when it comes to reviewing Planet Of The Spiders. In some ways it can be seen as a celebration of the Pertwee era, while in other ways it can be seen as simply a tale of good versus evil.
As a story that sees one Doctor exit, it is unquestionably disappointing. For a start it is overlong and repetitive, with some terrible acting thrown in for good measure (step forward Jenny Laird). On the plus side, everything that signified the Pertwee era is present and correct (bar the obvious inclusion of Roger Delgado as The Master), including an overlong and protracted chase over air, land and water, the UNIT team (although not used to their full strengths) and some great characterisation.Not forgetting the main villain,in this case The Great One,while not visually too impressive is wonderfully brought to life by Maureen Morris, ably assisted by John Dearth`s Lupton. Best of all however is some character development for Mike Yates, something long overdue.
Unfortunately being a final story for a Doctor, where he should take centre stage, Jon Pertwee doesn`t actually get to do a great deal. He is at his best in the final episode, but this only shows that Planet Of The Spiders is overlong. Overall,this was something different, with its Buddhist themes (which would later be reused in Kinda), and something enjoyable; but not really something worthy of a regeneration story.
Planet of the Chromakey by Joseph Nunweek 8/10/99
Here it is, the last Pertwee story, and the penultimate chapter in the Letts/Dicks/UNIT era of Who. This comes off the worst examined alongside The War Games, Logopolis, and Caves Of Androzani, accused for its crap FX, pa-a-a-a-a-a-ading, and some really poor acting. It does fall into that sad realm of Who when the crew decide to outdo the past and go for something really amazing. When late Pertwee era Who goes for impressive, late Pertwee era Who falls flat on its face. The walking spiders, the final confrontation, and that flying Whomobile! (I can't watch that dreadful piece of CSO of a disappointing Season 11 prop with studio footage and location footage poorly mashed together without cringing) That wouldn't suspend disbelief in 1974, let alone today. The 25 minute long chase could have survived without it. It was padding, yes, but fun land, sea, and air padding that was handled well barring the chromakey.
Anyway, the show did well outside of it. The start, where The Doctor and the Brig suffer through an interminable afternoon of 'talent' is rather amusing, and the show also manages to pick up on two plotlines from the past year, the Metebelis III crystal and Mike Yates, and resolve them nicely. It's too often that an excellent character like Mike is forgotten, and the resolution of his story makes sense.
Characters are a strength throughout the Earth segment of the story, with the Doctor and Sarah performing admirably, and other characters all strong showings. Particularly notable is the performance of John Kane as Tommy. It is touching to see his transformation from manipulated handicap to genius, well handled.
And that superb final part! From the revelation about K'anpo, to the final confrontation between the Doctor and the spider queen (FX trips up, dialogue marches ahead) the whole episode has a thrilling, but excellently downbeat feel about it, leading to a beautiful final scene. Planet Of The Spiders falls at times under its overuse of CSO. It does pad and the off-planet acting is appalling. But it is usually a fitting end to the Third Doctor's era, and it deserves more favour than it receives.
A Review by Paul Heslin 26/10/00
I should start this review by saying that I actually liked Planet of the Spiders. It was undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable stories I've ever seen. Unfourtunatley this does not mean the story is uniformaly excellent - and indeed, some of the aspects of this story are simply wretched.
The story all begins with scenes of Mike Yates exploring the medidation centre. This is a very strange story in the way that Mike is shown. Unlike any other character in Doctor Who Yates is developed into more than just a soldier. It's very sad to see him leave as Richard Franklin gives a good performance. We then move onto some experiments into ESP by the Doctor and Clegg (fairly good performances). The CSO here isn't too bad (the worst is still to come), and the letter from Jo is a nice touch. The Brigadier, however, is treated terribly by the script :
Brigadier : Do you know what ESP is?
Clegg: Yes, Yes I do.
Brigadier (grinning like idiot) : I didn't...till the Doctor explained it to me!
The story then introduces the Meditation Centre Members. Here are some good performances. John Kane is simply excellent in his role as Tommy. John Dearth and Christopher Burgess are also very good as are the rest of the Meditation Members; though Terence Lodge over-acts in some scenes. The whole second half of the 2nd Episode (the infamous "chase") really adds nothing to the story but is still good fun. The action then moves to Metebelis Three.
The acting here is truly appaling and I ended up fast-fowarding through them. Even the sets are rotten. Okay, maybe I'm being a bit harsh. You have to understand that when I got the ol' Terence Dicks novel, at the age of 10, I imagined a few houses under a night sky, full of glowing stars. Suddenly the ground starts shaking and a huge spider (about the size of 'the Great One') enters being carried by a hundred or so slaves. What a let down! While all this rubbish is going on on Met. 3 there are some excellent scenes back on earth. Tommy's transformation stands out as particularly excellent and the scenes of the Meditation Members talking are also very good. The story then moves back to Metebelis Three and the Doctor and Sarah run around and are captured. I have to put in how unimpressed I was by the 'Eight-legs' parliament. The room must have been tiny! Talking of spiders....I thought the spiders looked very good as a whole (barring some rotten SFX). The Queen spider was particularly good and very nicely voiced by Kismet Delgado (wife of the late Roger). One is just about to discard this story as below average when the Great One appears. The voice by Maureen Morris is simply superb and the set actually looks the better because of the CSO. Then we come to the epilogue with the Doc regenerating. Cho-Je appears and tells them that the Doctor will be all right (nice to see Kevin out of his helmet), the Brig. is being his usual (for this story) idiotic self, and Sarah is moaning. Then we come to the regeneration.
The start of a new era......
It's An Overlay That Seperates Colour, Dad by Matthew Harris 28/4/02
Look, dad, Planet Of The Spiders is on. Doctor Who, dad. Rmember that? What's it about? Well, there's this planet, see, and it's got spiders. Big ones. And they rule over the humans. In fact, you could say it was the it's the planet of the sp....what? Get on with what? Oh, the review.
The planet? It's Metebelis III, the famous blue-screen planet of the Acteon Group. That's a reasonably snappy line between Doctor Who fans, dad. You see, the Doctor's always calling it the "blue planet of the Acteon Group", but the entire background is done with CSO, even when the entire background constitutes little more than the sky.
CSO, dad? Colour Seperation Overlay. Like what the weatherpersons use. Yes, dad, they project the planet behind the actors and expect them to muddle along. But not just Metebelis, they use it for everything. When the spiders are walking around as well, for example. No, dad, it won't even make sense in practice. And when the Whomobile's flying. The Whomobile, dad? Best not to ask.
Is it any good? Well, part one's a little unnecessary, and Professor Clegg is totally anonymous. But it gets better as it goes on, and the performances of John Dearth, John Kane and the Spider Voices are, in order, great, neat, and better than necessary. What, dad? I mean that Ysanne Churchman, Kismet Delgado and Maureen Morris could have just shouted as the Spiders, and to an extent that's what they do, but they do their best to instil some personality to the villainous arachnids. Arachnids, dad. You know, spiders.
Anyway, dad, as I was saying, it improves until the last episode is genuinely bleak as you see the plight of the Doctor. Oh, didn't you know, dad? It's Pertwee's last one, you know. No, dad, Tom Baker. No, dad, they just fade out Pertwee and fade in Baker, it's not especially exciting. But the show itself is, though it should have been better. Still, you can't really complain, can you, dad?
The old gives way to the new by Tim Roll-Pickering 16/5/02
And so the Pertwee years come to a close with this story. Planet of the Spiders is something of a new departure for the series, focusing heavily upon ideas of telepathic power, Buddhism and giant spiders. There is much in this story to commend it, but in many other areas it is let down.
The first problem comes from the special effects. CSO is still used for scenes such as the spiders arriving on Earth, the Doctor's car flying or the Doctor entering the cave to find the Great One and the result is that these scenes are left looking weak as a result. Metebelis 3 is an extremely cheap world, populated by hippies and spiders and there is little sense of reality at all in the scenes set here, contrasting poorly with the Doctor's brief earlier visit in The Green Death which benefited immensely from the use of film.
Reflecting the trend of the later Pertwee years, UNIT is used extremely poorly in this story, with the Brigadier primarily providing comic relief. After the events of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Mike Yates is given a chance to redeem himself in this story, which he does well and thus his final appearance shows him once more helping the Doctor. The underlying theme of the story is one of renewal and it is ironic that the story itself is an aberration rather than a new direction for the series, with the real new direction coming in the very last moments.
The plot is relatively simple and this allows for much focussing upon characters and action sequences. However the latter are often poorly handled, either due to a reliance on primitive video effects when a possessed person is blasting someone, or the chase sequence in Part Two that is dragged out far beyond its natural length merely to give the Doctor a chance to play with his latest car, a helicopter and a hovercraft. There is also a lot of excessive dialogue at times that is difficult to follow for the uninitiated and so the whole story does drag at times and would have been better suited as a four-parter.
On the character side, Jon Pertwee gives a very strong performance for his final story, brilliantly supported by Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah and Richard Franklin as Mike Yates. However John Levene is given comparatively little to do as Sergeant Benton (and doesn't even appear in the final part) whilst Nicholas Courttney seems resigned to the Brigadier's role being that of an ignorant buffoon. The only member of the guest cast that stands out in any particular way is John Dearth as Lupton. Dearth gives an exceptionally strong and intense performance, bringing credibility to Lupton as his arrogance increases and eventually destroys him.
The climax of the story is perhaps not as spectacular as it could be and would have come across better if the Doctor had been seen struggling through the explosion to reach the TARDIS and thus going out in a blaze of glory and action. The regeneration scene itself is probably the single most unimaginative ever seen in the series, being achieved by nothing more than a fade from one shot to another.
Direction wise Planet of the Spiders is shot well, helped no doubt by Barry Letts' triple role as co-writer, producer and director. The scenes set on Earth are for the most part confident, but it is the design work on Metebelis 3 that lets the side down along with the story being overlong. As a result it feels like a natural ending to the Pertwee years, rather than leaving the viewer believing that there could have been more mileage without a new lead in the part. Nevertheless the story is a memorable climax. 7/10
Beggars can't be choosers by Mike Jenkins 23/5/02
Let's suppose for the moment that the story is not a welcome relief after the Monster of Peladon fare, a story whose devotion to quality is bested by the remnants of American Sunday night drive-in entertainment. Let's suppose that it wasn't the same masterpiece of pseudo-science that both Snakedance (and more notably, Kinda) would later become. Supposing that those things were true (which they most certainly aren't), Planet of the Spiders should be a welcome relief after The Monster of Peladon for anyone who considers themselves a true Doctor Who fan.
Even the bare elements of action and suitably superb alien voices in
this story cannot be ignored. One of the few Pertwee stories that
maintains suspense throughout it's 6-episode length, I might add. Richard
Franklin returns to Doctor Who with a near faultless performance,
providing some nice interplay between himself and Elizabeth Sladen, who
also seems to have overcome the tragedy of the previous story. All the
human incidentals are well acted. One of the few flaws would be the
physical manifestations of the Spider people but:
A) Doctor Who is notoriously chessy
B) season 11 (esp Invasion of the Dinosaurs) is the chessiest of the chessy
A suitably romantic farewell to what was for the most part a suitably romantic period in the programme's history.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 18/4/03
This is a story I have real mixed feelings about. There are some moments of brilliance, and then there are moments make you cringe and mutter obscenities under your breath.
The original finale for Pertwee would have brought back the Master, if Big Roger Delgado hadn't died, for one last go round, where (according to legend and innuendo) the Master would have sacrificed his life for the Doctor in the finale.
Instead, we have a story about giant spiders with mental powers and a meditation center run by a Time Lord posing as a couple of Tibetan monks. Many Pertwee-wank things are referred to/shown: Drashigs from Carnival of Monsters, the stories about the Hermit, Bessie (and the Whomobile), Venusian Karate, "While there's life there's...", the Blue crystal, Metebelis 3, Jo Grant, UNIT, etc.
The plot is incoherent, with jumps in logic. Why is Lupton allowed authority when the spiders are ignoring him because he doesn't have the crystal? Why does the Doctor need a machine to stave off the effects of the spider blasts, yet Tommy can get slapped around by them and shrug them off? How come it took so long for Lupton and the spider to figure out when to teleport themselves back to the monastery? And many many more.....
On the acting side of things... well, um, most of the cast are on cruise control. Pertwee phones in most of his scenes. Lis Sladen acts more like Jo Grant than Sarah Jane Smith in this one (except for the reporter bits in part one). She's way OTT and whines and cries a lot. The guest cast aren't all that better with either scenery chewing performances, or wood block imitations. However, John Kane is very good in playing both aspects of Tommy. George Cormack shines as Kanpo Rinpoche. Pertwee does manage to come through in his confrontations with the Great One in episodes five and six, along with his scenes in Kanpo. And his final moments in UNIT HQ at the end of the episode are amazing.
And this is what makes me want to watch Planet of the Spiders -- the scenes in part 5 & 6, the scenes where Tommy is healed of his mental retardation -- which is a hint about the Doctor's upcoming regeneration/transformation, if you think about it.
I should mention the chase, since it takes up half an episode. Barry Letts, the producer, directed Planet of the Spiders and allowed the endless chase as a sop/going away present to Pertwee. If you want to make a case about six episode stories being padded out to fill length, the chase is a prime example, especially with how it ends.
So, Planet of the Spiders, in the end, is a sad story with a few moments of brilliance, with lots of nods to the recurring ideas/things that happened during Pertwee's run as the Doctor. I wish I could like it more, and I wish it could have been so much better.
The old man must die by Neil Clarke 24/1/10
In the run-up to the Tenth Doctor's swansong, it seems appropriate to attempt a re-evaluation of one of only three regeneration stories which thematically address the outgoing Doctor's 'death'.
Inevitably, given the series' heightened awareness of its own 'mythos' since its return, the portentousness of David Tennant's finale two-parter is already evident at the time of writing. In the classic series though, it is only really Spiders, Logopolis and Androzani that acknowledge the momentousness of the current incarnation's demise; in The Tenth Planet the First Doctor's deterioration is almost incidental, while though The War Games is epic in scope and feels like the end of an era, there isn't much tragedy to it on a more personal level until the very end. Aside from that, the TVM is, understandably, much more concerned with the Eighth Doctor's rebirth than the Seventh's death, and Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways contains very little sense that 'the moment has been prepared for'.
When I initially saw this story, it epitomised for me the dullest traits of the period - its naffness and dry tone - with sad-sack middle-aged spiritual tourists, nicotine-hued settings, stilted fights, excruciatingly yellowed-up 'Tibetans' and the hokey B-movie premise of enlarged creepy-crawlies. However, this time round, I discovered a bit of a sparkle, and - especially at the beginning - it's actually a fun and entertaining story. Opening on the Doctor and the Brigadier attending a dire variety performance is quite brilliant, and there's lots of great throwaway lines in the first couple of episodes: Benton's 'Doing a bit of hairdressing on the side?'; Nicholas Courtney's fraying patience, which is always enjoyable ('Never mind the dratted coffee!'), and the exchange about the Brigadier's watch is great ('A little too much, perhaps').
I was also surprised by the amount of continuity - not in the fanboy dirty word sense, but in terms of references being used to build a solidity to the Doctor's world in a way more familiar from the new series, with its continued acknowledgement of departed companions and to the events of previous stories. It's nice to be reminded this isn't entirely unprecedented; aside from the mention of Doris which is belatedly acknowledged in Battlefield, we have references to Jo and her travels; the returned crystal from The Green Death; Mike's redemption; Drashigs during the Doctor's ESP experiments; the appearance, in K'anpo, of the hermit from The Time Monster; and even a pre-emptive reference to Harry.
Season eleven's a funny one; there is quite a lot of dissatisfaction with Barry Letts' cartoony approach to the period from season eight on, which to an extent I empathise with, but there's also a perception that by season eleven the show was running on empty. On the contrary, it's a run of stories that, if not all favourites, I'm always pleasantly surprised by (in no small part due to the often-overlooked pairing of the Third Doctor and Sarah, which I'd take over him and the ever-dippy Jo any day). I adore The Time Warrior for its freshness and humour, while Invasion of the Dinosaurs is a strong, enjoyable story, in spite of its reputation. Death to the Daleks is weaker - generic seventies pulp - but even that starts strongly. Having said that, there is The Monster of Peladon...
Anyway, speaking of Sarah - how good does Elisabeth Sladen look in this story?! She's particularly adorable with her bobbed hair. Also, the grey coat she wears with the wool hat is amazing, with its pointy collar and gingham cuffs. As an aside, viewing this at the same time as series three of SJA, it's particularly nice getting to relate Sarah then and now - especially given the use of a Spiders clip in The Mad Woman in the Attic.
As for the other characters, Cho-je is kind of annoying, but K'anpo is cool, played as he is with humour and authority. I also enjoy the contrast of the monks with the genteel country house environment, although it does rather beg the question why two versions of the same Time Lords come to be running a meditation centre for middle class beatniks in the home counties? Perhaps the Fourth Doctor and the Watcher should have opened a massage parlour. But what can I say about their makeup? Or, more to the point, the institutionalised acceptance that casting white actors was somehow preferable to finding those of even broadly the right ethnic background. It's not as if the general standard of the story's performances is so high that you could argue casting according to race might compromise quality (the extras are all completely wooden and under-directed, while Neska is flat-out bad). At least in The Talons of Weng-Chiang John Bennett's epicanthic make-up is a bit more realistic, so you can sort of suspend your disbelief.
Cho-je/K'anpo does, however, form a precedent for non-white Time Lords, and as such is a welcome kick in the teeth for all those people who claim a non-white Doctor wouldn't work. Does no-one see the monstrous irony of racial intolerance when it comes to a character predicated around tolerance and acceptance...? The two (?) characters also form a smart reintroductory crash-course on regeneration (although Cho-je does complicate matters), and it's interesting that the Doctor says he needed to steal the TARDIS because he hasn't K'anpo's power, implying that not every Time Lord needs a time machine to travel around. Back on track, I love hearing the Doctor speak in Tibetan (ditto his Mandarin lines in The Mind of Evil and Weng-Chiang).
As with the racially-challenged casting, Tommy too could be a massive embarrassment from a modern point of view. I imagine he is another black mark against the story for some people, but I think the story is redeemed by the unexpected sensitivity of John Kane's portrayal of the character's transformation. Seeing him holding his own against the spider-possessed meditatists is also a quite brilliant piece of underdog wish-fulfilment. In fact, Lupton is much more of a drag on the production; obviously he's meant to be horrible, but John Dearth is just awful, scuttling about in his oversized tweed jacket and bad shoes. Having said that, his banal bitterness is at least a novel justification for megalomania.
In terms of the production, Metebelis may be a bit rubbishy when we get there, but I appreciate the contrast between the futuristic and contemporary sections, and its bright colours and rustic design are pleasingly unusual. There are a few interesting details too. For example (despite the abundance of dubious CSO), the way the location changes around Sarah when she is transported to Metebelis is quite effective, rather than having her fade out from one set and reappear on another. I also appreciated the acknowledgement of the coincidence of the TARDIS always landing in the right place on a whole planet, which the Doctor explains by saying the TARDIS is responsible for the landings themselves - also explaining why it always lands so conveniently near to trouble (a surprisingly lateral idea, for the period). Again, this sort of thought is more typical of the new series. For example, in its repeated reinforcement of the TARDIS' telepathic translation, which didn't trouble the original series for fourteen years, and then only briefly. Similarly, the use of flashbacks from within the story itself - notably in regard to Tommy - is again more typical of the new series (although it doesn't reach the saturation point of some of the modern series finales).
An odder decision is to draw lines in Pertwee's wrinkles with blue eyebrow pencil, during his first confrontation with the Great One (seriously, check it out; DVD picture quality really isn't going to do that any favours). As for the spiders, they're actually surprisingly good - and movable - at least when not CSO'd. The Great One is pleasingly unhinged too, while her humiliation of the Doctor, moving his body around against his will, cannily degrades him, adding to the sense that the end is nigh, as well as increasing audience sympathy. 'You are not accustomed to feeling fear!'
More prosaically - and this may be an atypical view - I really like the Whomobile! It doesn't have the character of Bessie, but it seems entirely appropriate to the Doctor's third persona. Also, you have to kind of love that Jon Pertwee randomly decided to have a hovercraft-cum-UFO made for himself! ('No, no Brigadier, you'll damage my car!') It makes especial sense when you realise how bonkers this story is (again, something initially obscured for me by its seventies dreariness): we have Tibetan Time Lords holed up in the home counties, prissy-voiced talking spiders; of course there's going to be an extended chase scene with a flying car!
I can't help but feel a self-consciously epic Doctor/Master faceoff might have tanked at this point, so I'm glad about the story's less conventional milieu (a meditation retreat in the country doesn't really set pulses racing as a setting, but I like its novelty). Besides, as I mentioned earlier, the thematic acknowledgement of the Doctor's impending death is a first, and adds gravitas to events. It's also particularly interesting how explicitly he comes to die as penance for his thirst for knowledge, which is an interestingly unflattering perspective, as well as being a relatively complex take on the character, for the period: 'I had to face my fear. That was more important than just going on living.'
The story may not have the visceral kick of, say, Androzani (perhaps the ultimate regeneration story, which also eschewed an epic scale for something more personal), but it is surprisingly quite affecting. I love that the Doctor not only acknowledges 'that all this is basically my fault', but goes back to the Great One's cave despite knowing it'll kill him. I love that self-sacrificial nobility; there really is a feeling that, yes, the Doctor's time is running out (I particularly like the touch that though he manages to recover from being zapped by one of the spiders' minions, he's clearly running out of luck and one way or another he's on the way out).
As for the regeneration, that it happens a few weeks later gives the story a touch more scale (there is also a suggestion in one of Paul Cornell's novels of the Doctor remaining, wracked with pain, in the TARDIS for ten years, which the sadist in me quite likes). The regeneration is madder than I'd ordinarily give such a ubiquitous scene credit for, too, with its floating Tibetan monk, although the CSO (as ever) lets things down, and the regeneration effect itself is disappointingly anticlimactic, but having such a genial Doctor saying, 'Where there's life, there's -' and then dying is a stroke of wonderful, devastating genius. (It helps that Pertwee does a good line in 'death's door' acting.) 'A tear, Sarah Jane?' Considering it's one of the few occasions we're actually seeing our hero die, I found this regeneration surprisingly moving, and it's perhaps appropriate that Tom Baker doesn't get a look in with a zany 'new teeth'-type first line.
Yes, Planet of the Spiders isn't a classic - and Pertwee deserved better - but it highlights how brilliant and unique it is that Doctor Who can have its cake and eat it by effectively killing off its main character, whilst justifiably being able to continue next season... Especially in light of this viewing, I can't help having a bit of a soft spot for it.
Feet of Clay by Mike Morris 23/4/13
In general, even the most diehard Pertwee aficionado will only offer qualified praise or generous excuses for Planet of the Spiders. Fan opinion is always a broad spectrum, but I think this is generally accepted to be a rather limp farewell; overlong, self-indulgent, and stuck with dodgy CSO and lousy puppet spiders.
Watch it in context, though, and a different picture emerges. I recently watched all the Letts era, in sequence, in a matter of months (I've been very negative about it in the past, but I found it a whole lot more fun than I expected). Amongst many surprising discoveries, one was that Planet of the Spiders isn't the cosy, churned-out pap it's so often portrayed as. Rather, it's a story with vaulting ambition that's let down by some basic errors.
Planet of the Spiders is produced, co-written and directed by Letts, with Terrance Dicks now acknowledging that he had relatively little hand in the script. This is a real oddity within the framework of the show, but not at this point: Letts was by far the closest thing the old series ever had to an auteur. He's best-known for helming the show for five seasons, changing it from a programme under threat of cancellation to a permanent BBC fixture; this is true but, if we assume that all the Robert Sloman stories had no small measure of intervention by Letts, it's equally important that he was at the heart of his era's most pivotal stories. Letts directed the stylistic change that happened with Terror of the Autons; co-wrote the era's most iconic story in The Daemons; directed Carnival of Monsters, the Doctor's first post-exile adventure in time and space; co-wrote The Time Monster, an incredibly ambitious misfire; and instigated and co-wrote the most notable of all Doctor Who's "message" stories in The Green Death.
In many ways - his view of the Doctor as a flawed hero, his not-entirely-appalling attitude towards women (the crass sexism of The Time Monster is down to clumsy scripting rather than ill-intent), his understanding of television as a medium and his moral philosophy within Doctor Who - Letts appears far more ahead of his time than his nuts-and-bolts colleague, Terrance Dicks. His direction has a sense of how stories can move, more so then anyone else of the period. If we put The Time Monster down to a terrible day at the office, this suggests that Planet of the Spiders should be terrific.
In fact it's... ah. It's not entirely successful, shall we say. It has lots of good bits, but it also has terrible longeurs and obvious story problems. It mostly fails, even though it's breathtaking when it does succeed. But sitting through endless sequences of Venusian Aikido on one of Doctor Who's worst-realised alien planets makes it easy to dismiss this story as one long, lazy self-indulgence.
Probe beneath the surface, though, and what we have is breathtakingly ambitious and at times groundbreaking. It's let down, sadly, by huge deficiencies in basic storytelling. It's full of wonderful ideas but there's very little holding them together.
This isn't so unusual. The big turkeys of most eras are fill-out-the-episode-count, by-numbers stuff (Underworld, The Kings Demons, Timelash), but the Letts-era flops tend to be ambitious stories which don't quite work (The Monster of Peladon is the obvious exception). Colony In Space wants to be a gritty, awe-inspiring frontier story, but winds up as people with blow-dried hair talking in a quarry. The Time Monster sets out to be an epic and bursts with genuinely intriguing ideas, but then explains every one in mind-numbing detail and they don't really stitch into the main plot anyway. Even The Daemons - which is partially successful on its own terms - basically wraps up its evocative "The Master uses black magic to summon up the Devil, but it's an alien!" plot inside its first two episodes, and then fills out the rest of its running time chucking random set-pieces at the screen.
The synopsis of Planet of the Spiders isn't that of a story that's coasting. If this were made on autopilot, we would have had a nice safe runaround with Daleks in it and the Doctor's recasting added as an afterthought. But this contains ideas of regeneration and self, and incorporates the Doctor's abilities into Time Lord mythology. Dangling through-lines of the last few years all reach their conclusion here: the Metebelis crystals, the defection of Mike Yates and the Doctor's mysterious mentor. It discusses good and evil, and bravely redefines the Doctor's thirst for knowledge as a form of greed. The K'anpo Rinpoche/Cho-Je dualism is a strong enough idea to re-emerge for the Fourth Doctor's swansong.
The villains are spiders, which are implied as manifestations of internal demons; this is about a subtle evil within human beings. Similarly, instead of a regenerated Master or similar surrogate, we get the far more mature character of Lupton, a bitter little man wanting to take over the world out of pique. Make no mistake, the people making this were trying damn hard.
So why does so much of this fall desperately flat? Planet of the Spiders, above all else, is dull. The fight scenes go on forever and don't actually move the plot forward. Over half of episode two is taken up with a chase sequence. The conclusion sees characters we barely know wandering around a two-bit Tibetan retreat, with repeated scenes of them omming to get through a door.
And there's the thing; the Big Ideas are fine, but almost no thought has gone into the supporting elements. The pronouncements of Cho-Je aren't moments of wisdom, they're gnomic aphorisms that don't mean anything much. The unclouding of Tommy's mind, where a stereotyped "simple" bumpkin suddenly starts talking in Received Pronunciation, is unforgivably crass; you can just about make excuses for the Tibetans being played by white actors with silly voices, but this was inexcusable even at the time. Mike Yates' eventual salvation - rooted in his purity of spirit - should be a triumphant character moment, but instead his final scene is an offhand shot of him sitting up and saying "I feel marvellous" like he's just had a nap.
Episode Two's notorious chase sequence - featuring Bessie, the (oh lord) Whomobile, a mini-helicopter, a speedboat and a hovercraft - is a perfect symptom. It's not padding, it's the point of the whole episode. It's an attempt at a thrilling Bond-esque set-piece, but it goes horribly wrong. Bond chases have a narrative and a storytelling point, but the chase sequence in Planet of the Spiders is just... there. There's no jeopardy (because we're not yet sure why the crystal's so important anyway) and there's no narrative (the Doctor plods just behind the villain for fifteen minutes). This needs Lupton carrying a bomb, on his way to blow up UNIT HQ, to work. Instead, at the episode's conclusion, he just teleports himself out of the boat - which means the whole thing didn't even need to happen! Aaarggghh!
It's hard to know what to say about the Metebelis III sequences except "oh dear". Perhaps the most telling comparison is with the nameless village in State of Decay: another sketched-in cartoon of an isolated, primitive village ruled over by powerful masters. Yet at least State of Decay gives some texture to the relationship between the guards and the villagers, and a clear sense of why this culture has slipped back into subsistence farming. In Planet of the Spiders, it's never made clear how this colony lost its grip on technology, and the guards are just generic bad guys with evil grins.
The story's basic construction also fails to come together. At its core, this is a wonderful idea; we saw the Doctor taking the crystal in The Green Death, and this turns out to be the genesis of the entire story that leads up to his death! Brilliant, right?
Well, no. Usually this sort of plot is immensely satisfying; a single event with numerous consequences leads to several storylines, then they all tie back up at the end. Tooth And Claw is a good example of this: at least six plot strands (kung-fu monks, the werewolf, the telescope, the mistletoe, the Kohinoor and Queen Victoria's presence) are revealed to grow organically from a single event (a spaceship crashing in Scotland), and all of them resolve together.
On the other hand, Planet of the Spiders makes less sense the more you look at it. Why do the spiders use the monastery as a bridgehead, rather than somewhere else; is Lupton genuinely harnessing psi-power to open up a time portal, or do the spiders open up the portal themselves and just trick him into acting as a stooge? If he can open a portal through time, exactly how powerful is Lupton? If the crystals are all about clearing the mind of evil, how come the spiders are so nasty? How do the spiders search "all of time and space" for the crystal - and then, why can't they find it hidden in Tommy's shoebox? Why does Yates' basic goodness protect him from the spider's mind-blast, when the ultimate in zen serenity - K'Anpo Rinpoche - succumbs? And why did Professor Clegg see the spiders, anyway? No one else using the crystal ever does.
There are good things here. It's an oft-cited scene but dammit, Pertwee being made to march around in circles by the Great One is as disturbing a thing that's ever appeared in Doctor Who. His final scene is genuinely moving and beautiful. In a series rarely famed for character development, the multiple strands from previous stories are marvellously sophisticated. It's also directed with sensitivity and innovation, even if the CSO is terrible.
But there's the thing. Letts was a brilliant director, just as he was a resourceful producer, and a wonderful ideas man. He just doesn't seem to be much of a screenwriter, in the sense of really honing his ideas into clear stories; and so, what's left is a thing of parts.
The stories that don't work usually tell you more about the era than those that do. A thumbnail of the Pertwee years would be a great central performance and surprisingly sophisticated ideas, sometimes let down by a cosy adherence to formula and crass presentation. That's basically Planet of the Spiders all over. There's a great story in here somewhere, but what makes it to screen certainly isn't it.
All the same, it's a perky little fella and it tries hard. Its worst fault is running before it can walk, which is always endearing. I don't know if I like it, but I certainly can't bring myself to dislike it. Perhaps it's best to plug in a lava lamp, remember "A tear, Sarah Jane?" as a crystalline moment of beauty, and view the rest as a historical oddity. And then... well, let's just leave it at that, shall we?