Doctor Who complete reviews: Planet Of The Spiders
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Time to say goodbye to the 'Dandy Doc', in this arachnid adventure...
If The Green Death touched on people’s fears about maggots, then Planet Of The Spiders really goes for the jugular with a story about…
Me myself, I actually don’t mind spiders. If there’s a spider scuttling about in the bedroom, I’ll have no qualms about scooping it up and tipping it outside the window. However, there’s loads of people who have a morbid fear of spiders - I guess, it’s the manic scuttling and the fact that they have eight legs rather than two (What do they need all those legs for, anyway? Tap dancing?) Appropriately enough, this fear translates well to the third Doctor’s swansong, in which he has to face his ultimate fear to save the day.
Ha ha! The Doctor’s afraid of spiders. Well, it’s not quite as simple as that, even though The Doctor evidently isn’t too keen on paying a visit to the Great One (that’s a whopping great big spider to you and me). What Spiders does is to make The Doctor assess his own personality flaws. Detractors and even fans of the Dandy Doctor will tell you that his arrogance is almost on a par with Jeremy Clarkson’s. Or that his greed for knowledge knows no boundaries. Or that his hair’s transformed into a great big bouffant crash helmet over the past four and a half years. But Planet Of The Spiders recognises these flaws (well, the first two, anyway) and kills The Doctor off as a result of his ego, which is wildly out of control.
In the first two episodes alone, The Doctor randomly calls on the services of diminutive magician Professor Clegg (Cyril Shaps in worry mode again) to investigate the powers of ESP. As a result, Clegg is killed because of The Doctor’s greed for power. He refuses to listen to Sarah’s story about giant spiders in part two, until he hears the magic S word. And he decides to show off his considerable array of mobile gadgets in a lengthy chase in the same episode.
"In the days before story arcs were all too common, Spiders contains many blasts from the past"
As the story progresses though, we learn that unfolding events of invading, talking spiders are all because of The Doctor’s crafty trip to Metebelis Three in The Green Death. Having snaffled one of the famous blue crystals, it turns out that the one he stole was one of the most important - well, to the loony Great One, at least. Put it this way, if The Doctor had gone to wacky Wales instead of a crazy mystery tour, the spider invasion wouldn’t have happened, and he’d probably have lived for a bit longer too.
With that in mind, Planet Of The Spiders is another brave move on the part of producer Barry Letts. Having already had Mike Yates turn traitor in the dinosaur story, Spiders now shows The Doctor in a less than flattering light. It’s a bold decision to not only point out the character weaknesses of your titular hero, but to kill him off as a result of these is just as daring. And in fact, Planet Of The Spiders, for all its shortcomings, brings the Pertwee era to a hugely successful conclusion.
In the days before story arcs were all too common, Spiders contains many blasts from the past. We have The Brig and Benton. Mike Yates is back, atoning for his sins. There’s even a mention of Jo, who’s sent The Doctor’s wedding present back (couldn’t The Doctor just have bought her a decanter and glasses instead?). And on the production side, many of the stunt men turn out to bid adieu in the chase sequence (Terry Walsh, Stuart Fell, Pat Gorman), as well as all The Doctor’s mobile vehicles including Bessie and the Whomobile (which can now fly).
Admittedly, these work to varying degrees. Sadly, The Brigadier’s left his brain in the fish tank again, failing to understand basic scientific principles, eying up off-screen belly dancers and getting all huffy about his dirty weekend with Doris. It’s not a particularly good showing for The Brig, and although Nicholas Courtney’s performance is still excellent, it’s a crying shame that the shrewd, intelligent man of the seventh season is now a thing of the past.
The return of Mike Yates, though, is by contrast, very well done. Any other story would have just booted a traitor off the show, but Mike (now with silly 70s mullet and David Cassidy clothes) gets a chance to redeem himself. Having tried to find solace in some cool meditation, he finds that he has to call on his old friends after spying something nasty going on in the cellar. Throughout, Mike comes across as genuinely sorry for his actions - it’s interesting that we never see him in the same room as The Brig, although The Doctor is obviously willing to forgive him. In the end though, Mike is shown as a compassionate figure, after he chooses to take a potentially deadly bolt of fire which was meant for Tommy the handyman. As K’anpo says, “His compassion saved him”. Richard Franklin gives one last great performance, which is notably a lot more relaxed than his earlier stories.
"We’d already had an extended chase in Invasion Of The Dinosaurs, but Spiders takes this to ludicrous extremes"
The chase sequence is the most notorious of the above. We’d already had an extended chase in Invasion Of The Dinosaurs, but Spiders takes this to ludicrous extremes. All that happens is that The Doctor and co chase after shambling old fool Lupton in order to get the precious crystal back. This could have been achieved in about five minutes, but in the end, half the part is devoted to this mini-quest. So apart from Bessie and the Whomobile, we get a police car, a gyrocopter, a boat and a hovercraft. It adds zilch to the plot, but I must admit that I find the whole escapade quite enjoyable. It’s generally filmed very well (even with the dingy weather conditions of Spring 1974) with some hand-held camera work for close-ups of the drivers and a real sense of pace - and all topped off with another of Dudley Simpson’s inestimable contributions to the show.
In fact, Planet Of The Spiders can be broken down into a series of separate acts. The first part introduces the mystery in fine style, and is generally brilliant. There’s a real sense of dread, thanks to the inspired direction by Barry Letts. The opening sequence, for example, is very well done, with a long prologue of Lupton’s buddies in a chorus of the Lotus chant (“Om mane padme hum”) and a suspicious Mike spying on what’s going on (and in a neat twist, pre-empting events in the last part by stumbling into a spider’s web). From then on, the mystery deepens with phantom tractors, doomed ESP experiments and the big reveal of the spider in one of the most memorable Pertwee cliffhangers.
Sadly, Lupton is a bit of a forgettable baddie. He’s the everyman gone wrong, having got the boot from a horde of ruthless young business rapscallions (who then proceeded to cause his own business to go bust). It’s a nice idea to have a normal everyday bloke try to get his own back and develop delusions of grandeur in the process. But John Dearth’s acting is rather tired, and he has an annoying habit of rolling his R’s as if he was the lead in some Shakespeare play. How many times does he mention the “Crrrrrrrrrrrrrrrystal” for example? There’s also that unintentionally hilarious scene in part three, in which Lupton’s disembodied floating head hovers above nattering Spiders, looking like a gormless Peeping Tom. There were rumours that Roger Delgado would have made a final appearance as The Master, but Delgado’s untimely death sadly meant that this wasn’t to be. Lupton’s a bit of a poor substitute, I’m afraid.
Following the Chase episode of part two, things do hit a bit of a lull. Unfortunately, we’re off to CSO Hell - or Bad Acting Hell - whatever you want to call it - as events move to Metebelis Three. Regrettably, it looks like a huge portion of the budget was allocated to the chase, since the Metebelis sets are just blue backdrops and a couple of fake looking huts. What’s worse is that the support acting is pretty iffy. Gareth Hunt as Arak is about the best of the bunch, even if he’s saddled with a Village People ’tache. Ralph Arliss, Joanna Monro and Geoffrey Morris are OK but forgettable. And then there’s Jenny Laird as Neska, who’s on a completely different planet altogether. Mumbling and fluffing lines in rapid succession, Laird quickly earns her reputation as one of the worst guest artistes in the history of Who. “No, I shan’t, you shan’t take him,” she bumbles, before running down the steps like a granny who’s left a sponge cake cooking for too long. She’s also given lengthy monologues to say, but Laird just utters these in a bored monotone - quite how she got the part is anybody’s guess.
"The sequence in which The Doctor is taken over by The Great One is one of the most chilling of the Pertwee years"
Even the action is a bit lacking in these parts, and it’s clear that Spiders suffers a bit from being a six-parter. Nothing really happens in part three - The Doctor waits aeons to speak to Lupton, who’s too busy avoiding becoming his spider’s bitch. In part four, much of the slack is taken up by The Doctor asking for some old school satchel which contains a machine to bring him back to life, and then by rather dull infodump monologues which drag on for ages.
And the cliffhangers aren’t exactly stellar. After the brilliant climax of part one, the cliffhangers are as follows: Lupton vanishes on a boat. Stunt Doctor gets knocked out by a camp guard. Sarah moans in a cocoon. Tommy gets a belly full of fire. Whoopy-doo. Such a shame that such an important story couldn’t have had more hooks to bring the viewers back the following week.
Still, at least things hot up in the last two parts as The Doctor gradually realises that he’s in way too deep. In my article on the Defining Characteristics Of The Doctor, I mentioned that he shows the greatest humility of all by recognising his mistakes and killing himself as a result. Even in part five, he recognises that he’s up against a formidable foe, and the sequence in which he is taken over by The Great One is one of the most chilling of the Pertwee years. Absolutely brilliant acting by Pertwee here - the look in his eyes as The Great One tells him that he has every reason to be scared is totally believable, and his body language of the unclenching fists is just as arresting. For the rock solid third Doctor to react with such fear and terror means that the ending’s not going to be happy this time around.
"This story is very much a Buddhist parable, with plenty of sly references throughout"
And in a neat full circle, the ramifications of his actions are brought home to roost by his old guru, who’s now going by the name of K’anpo Rinpoche. We’ve heard The Doctor talk about his old hermit before in The Time Monster, so it’s a really neat trick to introduce him into the show. And even if George Cormack had played Dalios in that story, he gives a fine performance as The Doctor’s teacher, full of wise knowledge, gentle humour and steely determination.
Barry Letts directs this story beautifully. There’s lots of neat editing tricks here, with flashback scenes to convey characters’ thoughts. Tommy remembers Sarah’s information about Lupton in the cellar. The Doctor thinks back to his greatest fear. Not only that, but one or two blips aside, there’s some great acting in the guest cast. John Kane may have written Terry And June episodes, but who cares, when his portrayal of Tommy is totally on the money? It’s thoughtful, sensitive and believable. The scene in which he realises that he can read again and reads through his book with emotional realisation is rather moving. Kevin Lindsay’s Cho-Je is a bit daft and a bit stereotyped, but it’s still a likeable performance. And Maureen Morris is superb as The Great One, using that shrill, piercing voice to lunatic effect. Her final screams after her brain burns out are ear-shattering.
This story is very much a Buddhist parable, with plenty of sly references throughout. “The old man must die, and the new man will discover to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed!” “We are all apt to submit ourselves to domination.” It's very cleverly done, never too in your face, and indeed the third Doctor’s death hinges on the Buddhist philosophies. Having found himself being the cause of the whole problem, The Doctor can only redeem himself by facing his fear and confronting The Great One in the cave of deadly radiation. The Spiders may be defeated, and the Metebelis goons may be free, but it’s at the cost of The Doctor’s third life.
"To add to the bleak realism, there’s no incidental music either. Just Jon Pertwee acting his socks off in a scene that’s probably just as tear-jerking as Jo’s farewell"
The last scenes of The Doctor are very much played for real. It’s one of the few times that The Doctor really is dying. When the TARDIS has materialised, The Doctor staggers out of the doors a shadow of the man that he once was. His face is deathly pale, his speech barely audible. To add to the bleak realism, there’s no incidental music either. Just Jon Pertwee acting his socks off in a scene that’s probably just as tear-jerking as Jo’s farewell. “A tear Sarah Jane? No, don’t cry. While there’s life, there’s…” It’s one of the rare times that The Doctor dies before he can regenerate, so good thing that Cho-Je or K’anpo or whatever he calls himself materialises before a devastated Sarah to kick-start the process.
The regeneration itself has been criticised for being too simple, which just misses the point. This time around, it’s not been about flashy gimmicks or tricks, it’s been a dignified farewell to one of the most important Doctors in the programme’s history. The Doctor who went from resenting his exile to finding a new “home” with the nearest he could call a family. The Doctor who always stood up for the underdog, even in his crabbiest moments. And The Doctor, who in the end, proved to be just as fallible as us humans.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.