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Doctor Who - Planet of the Spiders

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
2 Entertain
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Barry Letts
John Pertwee
Elisabeth Sladen
Nicholas Courtney
Bottom Line: 

 “A man must go inside and face his fears and hopes, his hates and loves, and watch them wither away … the old man must die, and the new man will discover to his inexpressible joy that he never existed.”

The date: 8th June, 1974. The time: approx. 6.00pm: The Doctor – impossibly weak, barely conscious -- has just stumbled out of the TARDIS and collapsed on the floor of his laboratory at UNIT headquarters. Sarah Jane Smith is crying; the Brigadier looks on grimly but with some degree of stoicism, even when a funny little monk fella materialises in the lotus position on the lab bench … And somewhere in time, a four year old boy sits watching every endless second -- inches away from the television screen in his Grandparents’ living room, transfixed, barely daring to breathe at all.

What happens next will remain as vivid to him forty years later as it was at that fateful moment.

For the last few years of his short life, Jon Pertwee had been at the epicentre of a long-running Saturday afternoon TV show that has captured and sparked his imagination more than anything else up till then ever had, playing the dandified, debonair and dashing alien hero called The Doctor … and now it was all about to come to an end. The Doctor was really dying! Of course, this boy (yes, it was me!) was well aware that there had been others before who had gone by the same name: indeed, that they could be considered, according to the programme’s established lore, in some mysterious sense to be that very same person. The previous year there had even been something called “The Three Doctors” in which those other two pretenders has briefly returned to team up with the elegant current holder of the “Doctor” mantle. It was exciting, but somehow I always knew deep down that Jon Pertwee was always really going to be ‘the’ Doctor -- the one true manifestation, more potent and alive to me than any of the others. My Doctor.  

There could be no-one else. And yet, now, they seriously expected me to let him go -- and, after that monk gave the process ‘a little push’, accept instead this frankly weird-looking, curly haired imposter with a funny beak nose as his replacement? No wonder the Brig looked perplexed!

I was watching the final moments of the last episode of “Planet of the Spiders” of course, and it is indeed still one of the defining TV moments of my childhood. Even though I spent most of every episode cowering behind my mum (who obligingly always sat next to me on the sofa as a human bulwark for when things threatened to get too scary -- which they did for roughly twenty minutes out every twenty-five), “Doctor Who” from around this early-’70s period and the first few years of Tom Baker’s tenure, has always provided for me the most potent of my TV watching memories: the inspired unveiling of Commander  Linx the Sontaran in “The Time Warrior”; the very first emergence of the Sea Devils; the sheer disgusting nastiness of the Wirrn infection in “The Ark in Space”; Sarah Jane Smith being attacked by that Cybermat at the end of episode one of “Revenge of the Cybermen”. But still nothing is quite so firmly lodged in my mind as that momentous moment when the once infallible, always elegantly dressed, charmingly professorial white-haired Time Lord was transmogrified, and became the slouchy, unpredictable bohemian wanderer with unfeasibly deep corduroy pockets full of junk and a trailing multi-coloured scarf. Watching this six-part story again today, what is particularly striking to me is just how pointedly and suggestively Barry Letts (producer, director and, with Robert Sloman, un-credited co-writer) and Terrence Dicks (script editor) lay the groundwork for what, retrospectively, came to be one of the most important moments in the series’ history.

Obviously, there had been several big hand-overs to new lead actors before this and there have been many more since, but this was to prove itself to be the most influential of them: It was with this story that the process was finally given a name – ‘regeneration’ --   and this is where it was confirmed that regeneration was a specific ability of Time Lords, rather than just a convenient peculiarity of the Doctors. But more than that, the whole story is leading up to that one important moment when the Doctor has to atone for the vanity that is an intrinsic part of who he is in his third incarnation, by giving up his life to hand back his ‘stolen’ crystal from Metebelis 3. There was real meaning to the Doctor’s eventual fate here, rather than it just being something tacked on at the end of the story.

With Barry Letts so much in the driver’s seat on this one, it was inevitable that a whole lot of Buddhist allegorical what-not was going to work its way into the tale somehow, but even if you’re not wholly sold on the sketchy philosophy and theology that underlies the Doctor’s need to face his fears in order to be freed from the tyranny of the ego etc., the manner in which these ideas manifest themselves are slightly more disturbing and disruptive of the programme’s former shibboleth-like regard for its time travelling hero than anything we’d witnessed in the series before: here the Doctor is something more of a flawed being, stripped of the nonchalance and control he’d always effortlessly manifested in previous stories whatever the dangers to be confronted, whose confidence and self-belief are completely undermined over the course of the six episodes of the story. It starts off being the ultimate Pertwee-fest as the actor gets to bow out having his every whim for outlandish vehicles and gadgets indulged to the max -- with half of episode two infamously taken up with a “Live and Let Die” Bond-like car chase (by Bessie and Whomobile), that also incorporates gyroplane and hovercraft. It’s also Venusian Aikido a-go-go time, with Pertwee striking his best fighting poses frequently and shouting ‘HAI!’ whenever possible (which, in this story, is a lot!). At the end of episode three, we’re even fooled into thinking the terrible moment has come (we wouldn’t necessarily have known that this wasn’t a four-parter and so it might have seemed perfectly likely), when the Doctor is given an apparently fatal blast of the spiders’ crystal energy and collapses on the threshold of the TARDIS.

But then it turns out that he has a special machine (never mentioned before and never heard of ever again), in an old leather bag in the TARDIS, that can revive him and bring him back from death’s door as if nothing has happened … Yes, in the first few episodes at least, it’s business as usual and Pertwee’s Doctor appears to be his old, unassailable self; if anything he’s more elegant and refined and proud than ever, with smoking jacket more velvety, shirt frills somehow more flouncy and hair even bigger than ever.  

But by the end, we’re actually seeing him with tears in his eyes, being spiritually terrified by ‘The Great One’s’ seemingly limitless power, and being forced to march around in circles screaming No … NO! at the top of his lungs, while the monstrous giant female spider gloats in her cave. Then, instead of dying in the process of saving the Universe or a companion or something noble and conventionally heroic, as has become almost standard since, it is instead put as a revelation to him that he is responsible for most of the bad things that have happened because of his “greed for knowledge, for information” (Letts and Slowman’s script also adds “experience”): instead of defeating his enemy he has to surrender his ego to it, and accept the transitory and illusory nature of his being and thus be reborn … as Tom Baker!

Well it’s a much grander reason for change than Colin Baker falling over and regenerating into Sylvester McCoy from a bump on the head!

As I said, we can pass over the allusions to Buddhism in the content; it’s the form this parable takes, and the unique nature of it within the series’s chronology up to that point, which makes it so revolutionary. Letts and Slowman really ram home the idea that this story marks a turning point in our relationship with the show and with these characters by – for the first time – playing up continuity in a way that had never ever been seen before. In the eighties, after John Nathan-Turner became the producer, the show was to become obsessed with continuity to a debilitating degree but here, for the first time, much of the story revolves around the coming together of references and story arcs that had been first sown several series back. This is standard now, in the forty-five minute, thirteen episodes per series format, but it was unheard of back in 1974. The audience is expected to remember who Jo Grant is, why she’s sending the Doctor a blue crystal from the Amazon and its previous significance, the fact that the Doctor went to fetch the crystal from Metebelis 3 back in “The Green Death”, exactly why Captain Mike Yates is now ‘getting his head together’ in the country at a Buddhist retreat after the events of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”, and why images of Drashigs from “Carnival of Monsters” should show up on the Doctor’s psychic detector scanner when he tests the ill-fated professor Glegg’s powers of psychometry by giving him the sonic screwdriver to hold. With all this back-referencing, it is tacitly implied that the whole third Doctor era has been building up to this one shattering event.

With all the emphasis on the Buddhist parable at the heart of the Doctor’s journey, it’s easy to overlook the strikingly weird and uncanny nature of the story itself, and the odd mixture of elements it taps into. It starts with the Doctor conducting experiments on latent psychic powers in humans after discovering Professor Glegg passing himself off as a stage magician in a down at heel variety show when in reality he’s a powerful clairvoyant. For some years during the Pertwee era, “Quatermass” had been a strong influence on the show, with its format and occasionally content echoing that of Nigel Kneale’s 1950s series. There’s a direct lift from “Quatermass and the Pit” early on in “Planet of the Spiders” when the Doctor knocks together a thought reading device to play back the very last thoughts of Professor Glegg -- who has died while gazing into the Metebelis crystal only recently returned by Jo, the Doctor’s former assistant, because of its ‘bad magic’. In “Quatermass” the machine revealed alien creatures from Mars -- a ‘race memory’ of humanity’s origins; here it reveals scurrying giant spiders.

Meanwhile, at a remote country house in darkest ‘Mummerset’, a disparate group of studenty drop-outs and middle-aged polytechnic lecturers, or those types otherwise disillusioned with the rat-race of mid-‘70s society, are chilling out at a Buddhist meditation retreat. A sage-like Kevin Lindsay plays Cho-je, the monk in charge of the gathering, while his master K’anpo (George Cormack) will turn out to have even greater significance for the Doctor right at the end of the adventure. Mike Yates – formerly of UNIT – has joined them, but something rum is going on down in the cellar, where Mike discovers that some of the residents are gathering for secret sessions around the Mandala in the dim cobwebby gloom, and appear to be taking part in a clandestine ritual of some sort.

Already we have a rich mixture of classic 1970s popular culture content: Eastern mysticism was all the rage and became allied with the hippy culture during this period; psychic powers were really in vogue at this point, with Uri Gellar having recently become a media sensation. But all this thoroughly modern and up-to-the-minute baggage is mixed in with the traditionalism of the curiously old-fashioned variety show at which the Doctor and the Brigadier discover Glegg plying his trade, while the English countryside location of the Buddhist centre, ensconced in what looks like an old Edwardian parsonage in the countryside, grounds the activities there very much in the atmosphere and milieu of a classic English ghost story -- like something from the work of M.R. James.

Lupton (John Dearth), the man at the centre of the illicit Buddhist chanting down in the cellar, is an inadequate, downtrodden businessman hoping to discover psychic energy with which he can make himself all-powerful and force those who have provoked him in the past to ‘eat dirt’; but he is also a very similar figure, in fact, to Karswell in the M.R. James story “Casting the Runes”, adapted for film by Jacques Tourneur in 1957’s “Night of the Demon”. The ritual he presides over in the cellar with his impressionable friends, who originally came to this place to ‘find themselves’, has an obvious resemblance to the occult rituals seen in so much classic Gothic flavoured lore from film and literature, so much so that some concerned Buddhists complained that the series was trying to associate their religion with occult practices. The evocative connection between the spiders of Metebelis 3 and Demonic entities cannot be denied: the state of meditation achieved by Lupton and his chanting friends opens a portal that allows one of the female telepathic spider sisters to materialise on the mandala in the cellar and take ‘possession’ of Lupton. These spiders, we learn, were once normal-sized earth spiders that arrived on Metebelis 3 with the first earth colonists. The power of the crystals, which focus and amplify thought, caused them to not only grow bigger but to become intelligent, with the power to communicate telepathically and to control the minds of the human colonists, which they soon enslaved -- using them to farm the animals they use for food while occasionally snacking on the odd human delicacy as well.

The spiders are pure controlling ego in terms of the Buddhist allegory of the story, attaching themselves to the backs of their prey and manipulating and exploiting the subject’s selfishness and greed for their own ends. The Great One – a massive spider the size of a skyscraper – who sits in the cave of crystals feeding off of the energy and who wants the Doctor’s stolen crystal back in order to recreate the pattern of her brain in blue crystal form, thus making her an all-powerful entity, is the ultimate manifestation of Man’s desire to control and shape his surroundings, according to Barry Letts on the accompanying audio commentary. The image of the quivering spider puppets and animatronic creations of Bernard Willkie and Matt Irvine leaping onto the backs of people or scuttling across the floor of the cellar, are at once, supremely creepy and quite ridiculous. But for me, the spiders of Metebelis 3 are one of those Doctor Who monsters whose inherent silliness makes them surreal and uncanny, and therefore scary again. The spiders – representatives of grasping greed and self-obsession – are all female as well; an idea inspired by the fact that Black Widows eat their mates after copulation, but undoubtedly taking on a subconscious misogynistic association too: the Queen spider and her spidery acolytes want the Doctor’s blue crystal in order to gain the ability to be transported back to Earth en masse, where they plan to rule the planet. But one of them also teams up with Lupton in order to overthrow her Queen and take power for herself. Those women, eh?

One of the things that frequently gets criticised in “Planet of the Spiders” is the over-use of CSO to create Metebelis 3 in-studio, and the harsh lighting and unflattering arrangement of the female spiders’ conference room, which has them lined up in a semi-circle on little shelves. In the all-white set under harsh studio lights, they look like static participants on a game show, or, as Terrence Dicks mentions on the commentary track, like items on a shelf in a supermarket – ‘get your spiders here, two-for-one, special offer!’ Intrinsically daft as this is, I’ve always rather loved the utter bizarreness of it. It’s so much more weird and alien than if the designers had gone down the tiresomely obvious route of making the spiders’ lair all dark and cave-like and full of cobwebs. Instead it looks like something you’d see in “The Mighty Boosh”. The same goes for the CSO backdrops of Metebelis 3, created using pictures of Monument Valley and looking like a psychedelic, yellow-fringed (thanks to the CSO) Hawkwind album cover. Of course they don’t look realistic, but then why should alien worlds conform to our notions of realism? The only place the series falls down for me is in the rather hackneyed human tribe inhabitants who are the slaves of the spiders. All of them speak in cod summerset accents for some peculiar reason, and are costumed in an oddball mixture of ancient Mexican tribal chic with hippy sheepskin, with Jason King moustaches in the case of guest star Gareth Hunt! Some of the acting performances are dire, with Jenny Laird (“Black Narcissus”, “Village of the Damned”) not exactly giving the best performance of her career here, while the extras have a habit of giggling in the background during several of the studio shots.

Nevertheless, elsewhere there are many classic moments, particularly between the Brig and the Doctor early on, when Professor Glegg’s mind reading act threatens to reveal some juicy gossip about the Brigadier’s past; and when Tommy (John Kane), the mentally handicapped help at the Buddhist retreat, is transformed by the powers of the crystal into a sensitive soul who reads William Blake. As writer Robert Slowman attests, this does reveal some slightly dodgy attitudes and assumptions about the mentally handicapped, but John Kane’s performance helps bring to light the good intentions behind the idea, and Tommy is one of the great heroic figures of the story, precisely because of his unworldly innocence and egoless acceptance. “Planet of the Spiders” will always be one of Doctor Who’s finest moments for me: flawed yes, but strange, moving, absurd, action-packed and, ultimately hopeful -- as it heralds a new beginning as well as summing up everything good about the previous four years. This is one DVD every Doctor Who fan should be making a beeline to own.  

Disc one includes all the info and production info you could ever want featured in the predictably through text commentary production notes plus a commentary track with Elisabeth Sladen, Nicholas Courtney (on the first two and the last episode), Richard Franklin, producer/director Barry Letts and script editor Terrence Dicks. It’s a light-hearted and entertaining listen with a good mix of anecdote and production detail. This review was written a few days before the devastating news that Elisabeth Sladen has become the third participant taking part in this commentary who is sadly no longer with us. Along with Nicholas Courtney and Barry Letts, she played an incalculable part in making "Doctor Who" the legendary phenomena it is today and like them she will be greatly missed. Hearing Elisabeth and the others reminiscing and laughing over their experience of making this story provides a fitting coda to all the many great moments she has provided for us fans, preserved for ever now on DVD. This final Pertwee story cannot help but have even more poignancy from now on. A tear for Sarah Jane.


Lastly, for even more information than you could ever imagine, text commentary production notes are also included as usual.


The Final Curtain: This documentary looking back at the making of “Planet of the Spiders” focuses on how Jon Pertwee’s swansong as the Doctor also marked a very definite end of an era for the show. In 1970, incoming producer Barry Letts and then-script editor Terrence Dicks had been the creative force behind a complete overhaul of the programme -- possibly the biggest change in format and intrinsic character that the show has ever undergone. Dwindling viewing figures at the end of the sixties had put the series in a precarious position as Patrick Troughton left the role, but with Pertwee as their flamboyant, dandified gentleman version of the now exiled Time Lord, the series quickly established itself once again as one of the BBC’s best loved shows. Along with Pertwee, the Earth-based years also established a semi-regular ‘family’ of recurring cast members; alongside Katy Manning’s glam girl Jo Grant as the Doctor’s cheeky, wide-eyed ‘assistant’, Nicholas Courtney also became a favourite with viewers as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, the impeccably English head of UNIT.  Both John Levine, as Sergeant Benton, and Richard Franklin as Captain Yates, were also dependable regulars and of course, Roger Delgado as the Doctor’s fiendish nemesis The Master could be relied upon to pop up in a variety of sinister guises in story after story. But with first Katy Manning’s departure, then Roger Delgado’s tragic death after a fatal car crash, the family was falling apart, promting Jon Pertwee  to let it be known that the 1974 series would be his last. Producer Barry Letts had also recently decided to move on in order to pursue his passion of directing full-time, and Terrence Dicks felt that he ought to follow him in order to allow a clean sweep when the fourth Doctor took over the following year. This documentary tells us how possibly the most influential and affecting ‘regeneration’ story in the series’ history came about, and how it could have been very different if Roger Delgado had lived long enough to play the Master just one last time. Jon Pertwee ,in footage filmed in 1992, recalls the final days of his tenure, script editor Terrence Dicks and producer, co-writer and director Barry Letts tackle the nitty-gritty concerning the inspiration behind the story with Letts’ Buddhist philosophy, Jon Pertwee’s gadget/vehicle obsession and the desire on the part of Terrence Dicks to exploit arachnophobia all coming together in an uneven mix to produce a flawed but consistently entertaining and, in the end, terribly moving conclusion to this much revered phase in the series’s development. Current series writer, novelist and actor Mark Gatiss is also a valued interviewee here, contributing eloquent and evocative anecdotes from his childhood memories of the adventure, particularly its gut-wrenching final moments. This is definitely one of the better Doctor Who documentaries in the 2 Entertain range.

John Kane Remembers: The character Tommy is one of the most memorable figures in “Planet of the Spiders”. The actor and writer John Kane looks back on his time in the series, and pulls out one of the more outrageous anecdotes we’ve ever heard on these DVDs, involving him testing out his portrayal of the mentally handicapped Tommy on the taxi driver ferrying him to Television Centre on the first day of rehearsals. Kane proves a loquacious and interesting interviewee, with plenty of opinions and anecdotes about his career, which includes being responsible for writing many episodes of the cosy sit-com “Terry & June”.

Directing Who with Barry Letts: Before his sad death in 2009, Barry Letts took part in a great many interview sessions and commentary tracks for the Doctor Who DVD range, and many of them continue to appear two years later. Here, the man best known for his work as a producer on the series, talks about his love of directing, how he got into it through a BBC producers’ course, and why he only directed one story per season while working on “Doctor Who”. His first directing job on the programme was for “The Enemy of the World” during Patrick Troughton’s time as the second Doctor and Letts then takes us on a brief tour of his work as a director, rating “Carnival of Monsters” as one of his triumphs, but also coming clean on a few of the missteps, such as the plot holes that let down “Invasion of the Androids” and the lack of logic to the extended chase sequence in episode two of “Planet of the Spiders”. A fitting tribute to one of the most influential men in the programme’s history.

Now & Then: A look at the locations used for the story narrated by Glen Allen.

Planet of the Spiders Omnibus Edition: Three days after Christmas Day in 1974, the BBC broadcast this edited omnibus edition of “Planet of the Spiders” as the lead-in to Tom Baker’s debut, episode one of “Robot”, which started the next day. Here it is complete with the original BBC Trailer!

Photo Gallery: production, design and publicity shots from the story with sound effects and music cues.

Radio Times Listings: In Adobe PDF format, accessible from your computer.

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