Planet of the Spiders

14 Sep

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2011

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For Doctor Who, the ‘season finale’ seems a new idea – an American import that came packaged with the ‘story arcs’ we admired back when our own playground was closed and we were left peering through the fence at Buffy Summers, Fox Mulder and the like. Today, arcs and finales are fundamental to Doctor Who. It’s impossible to imagine a season ever again ending on just-another-adventure. And finales are not just about spectacle. A good finale requires more than merely ramping up the threat and blowing the budget. It also has to be intimate and intricate. Perhaps a timeline-crossing jaunt back through the season; or companions present and past flying the TARDIS together; a dying Doctor taking a lap of honour around his who era, adding a grace note to his defining friendships. A good finale is a reward for our loyalty, for our having paid special attention. And we lap it up. It’s Doctor Who giving us a cuddle and whispering thanks for being there.

But it’s not such a new idea, or an import, as Planet of the Spiders proves. The way this story weaves together the warp and weft of an whole era is a beautiful thing. Our departing Doctor, Jon Pertwee, has never looked more glitteringly gorgeous. He’s resplendent in blue from hair to heel, a vision in velvet: 50% Austin Powers, 50% Bea Arthur, 100% cool. Plucky journalist Sarah Jane Smith is chasing down a mystery, just as she should be; poised to tap out a story for Percy the moment she finds a nice pub and a glass of chardonnay. The Brigadier is sweeter than ever, and scores a couple of wonderfully heartwarming moments; the way he leans forward to watch Scheheradzade (that Turkish Delight of the East), and our first hint at his romantic life with mention of Doris – so grateful for services rendered – which allows Nicholas Courtney to play the most expert ‘Ha-rumph!’ in all of Doctor Who. Even Sergeant Benton gets to do one of his little jokes. As a comedian, he’ll make a great used-car salesman that boy. There’s hot coffee in the Doctor’s lab, a final historical name-drop, a last run out in the silly cars and a couple of bouts of aikido. And then a mountain blows up. Perfect.

But it’s not mere respect for the present that makes Planet of the Spiders special, it’s the celebration of the past. There’s Mike Yates – former UNIT Captain turned dinosaur-hugging traitor – who, in seeking redemption, finds one end of our storyline for us. Then there’s Jo Grant, beloved former companion, here in spirit. She took a jiffy bag up the Amazon with her (always well prepared, that girl) and has sent a letter addressed to all her old friends. It’s the first time in Doctor Who we ever hear from a companion after their departure – these days, that’s a whole industry in itself – and Jo’s good wishes are so sweetly comprehensive, it’s a surprise she doesn’t sign off: “…and I hope your next crazy scheme is going well, you silly old Master! Weather here lovely.” Wrapped in Jo’s note is a blue crystal; a pretty plot convenience from an earlier adventure that we had no reason to expect to see again. The crystal is from Metebelis Three, the famous joke planet of the Actaeon galaxy. This was the world the Doctor most wanted to visit when his exile ended and he slipped the surly bonds of Earth, but could never seem to reach, much to Jo’s amusement. He eventually found it alone and, in another joke, the planet he claimed beautiful turned out to be comedically antisocial. And here, for this Doctor’s final voyage, Metebelis Three has the last laugh. This symbol for freedom and reckless adventuring will ultimately prove the death of him.

But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to Mike Yates, who has uncovered sinister goings-on at a Buddhist retreat. He explains why he’s there with a bit of sweetly 1970s dialogue: “Everyone’s going on about meditation – of once sort or another – so I thought I’d have a crack at it.” It sound like a presenter’s link from a particularly right-on edition of Blue Peter. Down in the cellar, a gang of whey-faced middle-aged men – of the type you never see on television any more, only on dating websites – chant a Buddhist prayer, calling upon other-worldly powers. Mike brings Sarah to watch, just as our lugubrious bachelors conjure a whacking great spider with a body the size of your head. It springs onto the back of their leader – Lupton, the most sickly-looking of the bunch – and disappears. Altogether, it’s a glorious and uniquely Doctor Who sequence that age cannot wither.

Lupton is a fascinating character, although discussion has traditionally focused on who he isn’t, rather than who he is. He’s not the Master. The death of actor Roger Delgado in 1973 denied us a last battle between this Doctor and his BEF (Best Enemy Forever), so Planet of the Spiders has long been judged a compromise. But that’s unfair – there’s plenty that’s special about Lupton. His motivation is unique in Doctor Who. He wants revenge for the ultimate bad day at work, and will smash the Universe to get it. But are his enemies real or imagined? Bitter at being sidelined from his old company – for whom, as a salesman, he gave 25 years of his life – by “the finance boys”, he paints himself the victim. “Everything I tried to set up on my own,” he tells us, “they deliberately, cold-bloodedly, broke me.” But did those ‘boys’ even spare Lupton another thought, one wonders. Is this just the sound of boiling paranoia? He came to the meditation centre looking for “power”, although why he thought me might find it in such a peaceful place is a mystery. He intends, with his spider’s help, to “take over that company – the country – the world” but it’s clear it’s the first of those that matters most. The world is mere bonus. “I want to see them grovel, I want to see them eating dirt” he spits. John Dearth gives a superb performance as Lupton, twitchy and unsettling. His jacket, two sizes too big for him, suggests a man physically shrinking, eaten away by his own bile. Oddly, the script keeps him and the Doctor apart for all but a few moments, almost as if they can’t quite function in the same programme. Perhaps Lupton’s too real for Doctor Who.

Things are less challenging elsewhere, as we find Doctor Who’s traditional mix of wit, wild thrills and sudden, agonising death. This week, the Doctor has decided – in the manner of an old TV Comic plot – that he’s interested in clairvoyance and telekinesis. To help him, he’s plugged one Herbert Clegg into a television set. Clegg is the Derren Brown of his day, but with bone fide paranormal powers. He can float a tea tray across the UNIT lab, and with a little practice could probably do the whole Spoonful of Sugar sequence from Mary Poppins. Rather marvellously, Clegg can also summon footage from old Doctor Who adventures merely by fondling an appropriate prop. Ian Levine would never let him out of the house. Unfortunately for Clegg, it’s at this point Jo’s blue crystal arrives, which gives him first a vision of spiders and then a massive myocardial infarction. It’s a tragedy, and one is left questioning the Doctor’s next move. He declares Clegg dead within a second of the man’s heart stopping, and even tells the Brigadier not to call for a medic. He goes on to show no remorse for the fate of poor Herbert, who he practically begged to take part in his experiment. One presumes that Benton drags the corpse away and the whole thing is hushed up. But what is this? Manslaughter at the very least? No wonder cosmic karma is hurtling toward this Doctor like an express train. Clegg won’t be the last man to die in that room today.

So while the Doctor is seeing spiders on his television of doom, Sarah is finding them in the meditation centre. It’s an unbelivable coincidence of course, something that Doctor Who generally tries a little harder to avoid. But here the producer is clearly cutting the director some slack, who in turn has allowed the writer to make a few compromises. The fact that all three are the same man, Barry Letts, might explain the generosity. It’s the only time in Doctor Who history that this happens, and rather than producing a kind of auteur vision, we see why these are usually kept as separate jobs. Storytelling priorities are missed in the pursuit of spectacle. The key plot point – that spiders from Metebelis Three want the crystal – is simply guessed by Sarah and then accepted as fact, where really it’s a huge leap given the evidence at hand. But look! A hovercraft and a tiny helicopter!

The chase in Episode Two, after Lupton has nicked off with the crystal, is too long and too silly. By land, by air, by water, it’s Doctor’s day at the Wacky Races, and your reviewer would grant it every indulgence – for sheer novelty value alone – if only it was ever made clear what was at stake. But it’s just pell-mell into the wilderness until… it stops. There’s no race against time, no countdown, no peril, no twists. And Lupton just winks away to safety at the end. It’s frustrating and not a little insulting to our intelligence. Your reviewer watched this episode with his kindly, aged mother (she was visiting, her son had a deadline, hilarity ensued) and she yelled abuse at the screen. Appalling language it was.

In Episode Three, Planet of the Spiders begins to wobble, and continues to wobble until half way through Episode Six.  After all that rushing about, the Doctor’s wonderfully prosaic response is to visit Lupton at the meditation centre, where he politely asks for an appointment and then is kept waiting for nearly 20 minutes. Lupton cunningly outwits the Doctor by staying in his bedroom, though one presumes he’s poised to race off on one of the monastery’s two pogo sticks at any moment. But before you can shout “Sarah! Get off that mandela!” Lupton and Sarah are whisked away through time and space, to that famous brown planet in the Actaeon galaxy, to meet the Metebelis Academy of Dramatic Art.

One mustn’t be too mean. No no. (Sabor my husband my love no.) But really, is there a less convincing alien community in Doctor Who? It’s a perfect storm of underwriting, poor casting and a director with his eye on his special effects rather than the poor actors milling about these charmless scenes. And it’s a funny old place, Metebelis Three. The women seem to be from Chelsea, the men from Cheddar. When Sarah hears the story of the Spiders from Sabor (my husband my love no), it sounds like Joe Grundy describing prize marrows on The Archers. “An’ they got lah-gurr and lah-gurr!” Every single inhabitant of this planet is roundly out-acted by a spider puppet on a cushion.

The Spiders are at their best when interacting with humans – even these ones – and their worst when taking to each other. Then, they strain our ability to believe; especially if one’s eye wanders to the feebly wafting back benches of the spider parliament. Doctor Who writer Gareth Roberts once said that his father had a term for scenes like this: “squabbling rubber”. It’s when two men in monster costumes (or in this case, two puppets) are left taking together, and any sense of reality slowly but surely dissolves. It’s Monoids One and Two, Styggron and Chedaki, and here, Lupton’s spider and her Queen, twitching furiously at each other. It’s a peculiar trick of perspective. A human character’s response is needed to sell a monster to us, and if we don’t get that then very soon – try as we might not to – we’ll notice that we’re looking at two wobbling wire armatures covered in paint brush bristles. The most convincing and frightening spider scenes in this story are when the best actors sell them to us: when Lupton is mentally tortured by his; when the Doctor meets the Great One; and when Sarah finds the Queen on her back – while simultaneously posing for one of the Top 10 Doctor Who photographs of all time.

Planet of the Spiders is, essentially, six episodes of stalling, of delaying the inevitable. The thing the Doctor is trying to prevent – the Great One getting her crystal – is exactly what must happen in the end. Ultimately it’s what everyone wants, so we just have to busy ourselves until the moment comes. As spider-based storylines go, it makes Incy-Wincy’s exploration of the water spout seem like a bold experiment in non-linear narrative. There are some charming diversions – handyman Tommy’s journey from Ladybird to Tyger, for example, and the Doctor’s discovery that the Lama of the monastery is an old Time Lord friend – but the energy of the piece does ebb for a long while. “Is there any point in saying the same thing over and over again?” groans one of the human conspirators in Episode Four. “Oh dear, this is getting monotonous,” observes the Doctor later. Among all this, the character of Lupton is sadly squandered and lost, which is a great shame.

The end, when it comes, comes in a rush, perhaps to stop us thinking about it too much. The Doctor – motivated by Buddhist sentiment – must face his fears, and give up his life in a confrontation with the Great One. On the documentary with this DVD, script editor Terrance Dicks simply doesn’t buy the idea that the Doctor’s greed – for knowledge that is – can be his downfall. “Greed doesn’t sound like the Doctor,” argues Terrance. “It sounds like Jon. But not the Doctor.” One can see his point. If the Doctor is to be punished for anything this week, it’s should be his arrogance. The body of a old man lies testament to that in the UNIT morgue. Somehow, the story doesn’t quite get to the heart of why this Doctor’s end must come today, and you’re left feeling this parable of fate and rebirth could have been bedded into earlier episodes with more care.

I’m not old enough to have enjoyed Planet of the Spiders on transmission. My first regeneration was Logopolis, and then Androzani confirmed that these were big, showy events; all flashbacks and special effects. These days, the Doctor goes off like a sack of fireworks. So, when I first saw this story, in my teens, the simple roll-back-and-mix from Pertwee to Baker was a disappointment, a damp squib. But that’s a child’s view. Now I see it for what it really: the most sophisticated and moving regeneration of them all. The Doctor doesn’t fall to the ground and immediately begin to change. We’re denied that instant comfort. Here, for the only time, we see him die in front of his friends. Sarah gently closes his eyelids over his sightless eyes. Minutes earlier, fearing him lost, she had taken the Doctor’s old cape from the hatstand and sniffed it. It’s an oddly intimate moment for Doctor Who, but anyone who has lost a loved one will recognise the truth of it. It’s a bravely harrowing end to the programme’s most warm-hearted of eras.

Planet of the Spiders sends the Third Doctor off in style; buried like a Pharoah with all the symbols of his glorious reign. This is a story with much lingering power, and has a greater influence of modern Doctor Who than any other. Russell T Davies was 11 years old when he saw this. Steven Moffat was 13. How could it not have had a life-changing impact? A man is the sum of his memories, a Doctor Who fan even more so. Here, the themes that dominate recent Doctor Who – the importance of family and friends, the tragedy of loss, of self-sacrifice – are writ large in a season finale that’s as affecting as any of them.

Doctor Who continues to excel today not only through being made with passion and with skill, but because the people who make it were inspired by the very best.

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DVD EXTRAS

A second disc delivers a lovely, thoughtful collection of bonus material. Superb ‘info text’ can be enjoyed alongside a wonderfully warm and upbeat commentary – with the former on hand to gently correct some misfiring memories on the latter. Richard Franklin (Mike Yates) has certainly come prepared, and talks over his colleagues – Letts, Dicks, Sladen, Courtney – whenever he spots his cue. It’s great material. Upon sight of a cup of coffee, he comments: “I love that food is brought into Doctor Who in quite a few episodes. We had sandwiches in Terror of the Autons, I think.” The info text reveals a truly wonderful piece of trivia about Franklin and actress Jenny Laird; no no my husband my love, it’s one of the best facts ever, and it’s more fun to leave you to discover it for yourself.

A Now and Then location guide and a Directing Who mini-feature are pleasant enough distractions, and an edited version of Spiders from its 1974 repeat – with its soft, gritty, unrestored picture – reminds us why the praises of the Doctor Who Restoration Team must be sung long and loud. John Kane Remembers is an interview with the actor who played Tommy – and John Kane remembers a lot. He recalls being particularly impressed by Lis Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith). “She’s one of those actresses with tremendous intensity,” he says – something that anyone who’s met her will confirm. “He sense of the reality of it is so strong. It’s something I’ve only seen again once, in Helen Mirren.” That’s some compliment.

The main documentary is comprehensive and well-structured, with the most thought-provoking part being discussion of that ‘lost’ last Pertwee, The Final Game – its title fusing two Sherlock Holmes themes to suggest the ultimate Reichenbach showdown between the Doctor and the Master. Frankly, this reviewer doesn’t feel he’s missed out. The Master may have been intended to be the Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes, but history has proved him to be more the Wile E Coyote to the Doctor’s Road Runner; somehow escaping alive from every hoist petard, and never learning his lesson. Roger Delgado’s death was a tragedy, of course, but the world won’t suffer from having one less Master story in it.

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3 Responses to “Planet of the Spiders”

  1. Matt Badham September 14, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    Another ace review. Cheers…

  2. Ben November 19, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

    It’s the other way around, mate. Sladen was subservient to Pertwee and more independent with Baker. She said so herself.

  3. nick payne December 14, 2011 at 10:50 pm #

    Six years old when i saw this and is my first real memory or doctor who. The spiders terrified me and the regeneration was amazing. I did not know it was going to happen. Never seen it since.

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