Monday, August 3, 2015

"Planet of the Spiders"

Aired May 4 - June 8, 1974

6 Episodes

Story 74

Written by: Robert Sloman

Directed by: Barry Letts


Attempting to find peace at a Buddhist meditation retreat, Mike Yates' suspicions are aroused by the conspiratorial behaviour of some of his fellow students. He invites Sarah Jane to visit and assist him in his investigations. The Doctor, meanwhile, while conducting an experiment into ESP, discovers a interstellar threat when he uses in the experiment the blue crystal he took from Metebelis III that Jo has returned to him, which causes horrible consequences.
At the retreat, Sarah and Mike uncover that a group of men, led by the ambitious Lupton, are attempting to use mediation to make contact with, and forge an alliance with, alien spiders for Metebelis III. The spiders have been sent out to recover the crystal that the Doctor unwittingly stole from the planet. 

While Mike stays behind to continue his investigation, the Doctor and Sarah journey to Metebelis III and aid the human population, which has been subjugated by the Spiders, in an attempt to overthrow their masters. Believing their attempt to have been successful, they return to Earth where the Doctor discovers that K'Anpo, the abbot of the meditation centre, is in fact his old Time Lord mentor. K'Anpo informs the Doctor that he needs to return the crystal to Metebelis, an d face up to his role in having started this crisis through his greed for knowledge. 

The Doctor does so, only to find the rebellion has failed and that he must face the Great One, a gigantic spider worshipped by the other Spiders as a god. The Great One requires the crystal for her plan to increase her mental powers to omnipotence through its insertion into the crystal lattice in her cave. The Doctor attempts to convince her that her plan will not succeed, and that the power will destroy her, but  she ignores his warning. He relinquishes the crystal, and the feedback kills her and the other Spiders. But the Doctor's body has been bombarded by the radiation in the cave, and he weakly makes his way to the TARDIS.

Back on Earth, the conspirators attempt to destroy K'Anpo, who is saved by Yates putting his body between their energy blasts and the abbot. K'Anpo sacrifices his life force to heal mike, and regenerates. 

Weeks later, the Doctor manages to return in the TARDIS, whereupon he stumbles out and collapses in front of Sarah and the Brigadier. Before their eyes, and with help from K'Anpo, the Doctor regenerates into his fourth form. 

Stunned, the Brigadier says, "Well, here we go again."


I'll always have some nostalgia for Planet of the Spiders. It was one of the first Doctor Who videocassettes I ever bought, along with Robot, and so I used to watch them back to back on a rainy afternoon. I did it so often, in fact, that the soundtrack got kind of screwed up, and somehow there was a kid of reverse echo in which I could quietly hear in the background the audio from other scenes. It was spooky, of instance, to dimly hear "ohm mani padme oom" in the background during all the Metabelis III scenes, for instance.

Still, even with all my warm nostalgic feelings, when looked at objectively, Planet of the Spiders doesn't work all that well. The issues stem from two things, it's at least two episodes too long, and it's got a few self-indulgent moments. The fault of both of which sits squarely on the shoulders of the writers, Robert Sloman and an uncredited Barry Letts.

The self-indulgent part is most evident by the infamous chase scene in Part Two, which takes up nearly half the episode and serves no narrative purpose. It's the very definition of a runaround, and it's structured as a series of unexciting pursuits in ever-escalating exotic vehicles. It's clearly a sop to motor-loving Jon Pertwee, and there's nothing wrong with that. I don't mind half and episode begin a chase. I mind it just being unimaginatively dumped on screen, with no stakes or tension. It's silly, Letts doesn't give the direction any feeling of kinetic excitement, and the fact that the Doctor's quarry just teleports away at the end renders the whole thing unnecessary. 

But the larger problem is the padding of the story. The first part of the story, taking place at the Buddhist retreat, is spooky and atmospheric and well-done. But once the action moves to Metebelis III things go downhill alarmingly fast. The aforementioned chase ate up a huge amount of the serial's budget, and therefore we get an alien world that is blandly designed and relies too much on CSO that isn't up to the task. The cast of villagers are all pretty much terrible, not that they are given great dialogue or interesting things to do, really, but the performances are all pretty awful, which is unusual for Doctor Who. If the serial had been four parts and simply focused on the retreat and the Spiders, and left out the villagers and their rebellion, the result would have been much stronger.

However, it's hard to hate Planet of the Spiders, for when it does succeed, it does brilliantly. The underpinnings of  the story, namely that the Doctor's own actions and flaws have caused  the crisis, and that he must face those flaws and fears in order to end the threat of the Spiders, is fantastic. The Third Doctor had been one of, if not the, most arrogant and authoritative Doctors, so to see him realize that the danger was the result of his actions, his "greed for knowledge" is a nice touch. Similarly, it's genuinely unnerving to see this Doctor in particular actually afraid of the Great One and her power. Seeing him being marched around like a wind-up soldier is unsettling. To make the true point of the story an examination of the Doctor's weaknesses and the Doctor's acceptance of this, is a novel approach for the show to this point, and it gives the serial a heft that helps it tremendously.

It's a story of firsts in other ways, too. This is the story that really crystallizes the regeneration concept, first by calling it regeneration for the first time. But where the first Doctor changed as a form of rejuvenation, and the Second as a form of punishment, this time it is due to the Doctor facing an impossible threat and sacrificing himself to overcome it. It's made clear here that the Doctor is actually dying, and that's obviously much more dramatically satisfying, and it's the depiction that will become the norm moving forward. It is this story that solidified, in both the minds of the viewer and the production teams, the reasons and archetypes of a regeneration story.

Also, this one of the first stories to really engage with a sense of continuity. For most of its history, beyond monsters returning to menace the Doctor, the series hadn't cared overmuch about past continuity. But Planet of the Spiders is packed with it. We have Jo's letter to the Doctor, and her return of the crystal the Doctor stole and gave her in The Green Death. We get a resolution to the story Mike Yates, after this betrayal in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. And most of all, the entirety of the story relies on the personality of the Third Doctor, which carries far less impact than if we hadn't spent five years watching his stories. 

Finally, there's the tremendous performances of both Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen. Sladen never had the same chemistry with Pertwee as Katy Manning, and the brevity of their time together meant that they never got a chance to develop their relationship all that much, but Sladen was a great actress, and in their final scenes she gives it her all, delivering a moving performance that stands in for all the viewers sad to see their Doctor go. 

It's a funny thing about Pertwee. He stepped into the role as a cabaret performer, best known for silly voices on the radio and whimsical songs. He saw Doctor Who as his chance to prove himself as dramatic actor. And when you look at his performance here, it's astonishing how far he came. There's great subtlety and nuance and delicacy to his performance throughout. I think that this season saw him giving performances that were only intermittently committed, relying to often on nonchalance. But he is brilliant in the final outing of his era, and his performance in the final scene is part of what makes it one of the most emotional scenes of the classic series.

For all its considerable flaws and hokiness, the heart at the centre of Planet of the Spiders gives it an impact that is undeniable.

1 comment:

  1. This was the first regeneration story I ever saw, so I too have fond memories of it, even if it does suffer from extra padding. But Pertwee is fantastic in it, agreed!