Tag Archives: Elisabeth Sladen

Terror of the Zygons

7 Jan

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013. See also: Class 4G

_______________________________________________________________

BBCDVD3482 UK Zygons DVD-sc6-1You have to feel sorry for Broton, Warlord of the Zygons. There he is, quietly minding his own business in his cosy home-from-home in the Scottish Highlands, when some seriously antisocial neighbours move in just along the glen: a stinking great oil company, no less. For hundreds of years, Broton and his wee clan have led a peaceful sort of life at the bottom of Loch Ness – entirely self-sufficient thanks their big underwater space cow – and then all of a sudden the neighbourhood goes to pot with this constant banging and clanging and drilling. Broton, as you might imagine, is furious. His family is furious. Even the big underwater space cow is furious. And then comes even worse news for our poor Warlord – there’s been a disaster back where he comes from, and now all his long-lost relatives are coming to stay! It’s terribly fussing. What is he going to do?

What Broton does next is the story of Terror of the Zygons. However, even after four thrill-packed episodes, some key questions go frustratingly unanswered. What the heck has Broton been up to for all those centuries? When did he learn to drive a car? What exactly do Zygons smell of? And how do you milk a Loch Ness Monster? (Actually – we can answer that last one straight away. Carefully.)

While there may be a handful of Doctor Who adventures more widely and wildly adored than this one, there can surely be no finer single episode of Doctor Who than Part One of Terror of the Zygons. It is 24 minutes of perfection, a Platonic Ideal of Doctor Who-ness. You wouldn’t niggle with a single note or nuance of it. The script bubbles with intrigue and fun. The performances are perfectly pitched. The direction – from virtuoso Douglas Camfield – is in a class all its own.

The Brigadier has tugged upon the final, fraying thread of the Doctor’s cosmic leash, and brought him back down to Earth with a bump. Our hero may be delighted to find himself in Scotland, but he’s sorely aggrieved to discover there’s work to be done. Three North Sea oil rigs have been destroyed by an unknown force, and UNIT has been called in to investigate. Our briefing for this crisis – tidily scripted, smartly played – allows each of our lead characters to be absolutely themselves. While Mr Huckle of the Hibernian Oil Company bemoans the loss of millions of pounds, the Brigadier immediately insists that the loss of hundreds of lives is his greater concern. Mention of oil puts the Doctor in a foul mood – trendily fuming about mankind’s reliance on “a mineral slime” – but he snaps straight back to his own good nature when the Brigadier sharply asks of him: “Do you want more men to die?” Sarah, the journalist, is equally true to herself, and sets about interviewing the locals. And Harry, the medic, is off to the infirmary on the hunt for clinical clues. Meanwhile, alien eyes observe our gang’s every move, and alien voices hiss the most wonderful load of old cobblers. “Diastelic reading seven-oh-three,” says one. “Increase the sonic core tone by three remars!” replies another. Everything is so perfectly gorgeous, it makes you want to kiss someone.

The twists of this tale are now so familiar to us – aliens, the Loch Ness Monster – that it’s easy to forget how subtly the story tries to misdirect us at the start. Is this a tale of ghosts and ghouls? Is it even, as the close-up of those brutish eyes and the full moon behind that first collapsing rig might seem to suggest, a tale of werewolves? The first episode tingles with the uncanny as pub landlord Angus McRanald – blessed with ‘second sight’ – tells the story of “a foreigner from the Black Isle” who went missing on Tulloch Moor, or “the Jameson boys”; one of whom disappeared, while his brother was found “two days later… aff his heid! His eyes – his eyes were terrible to see!” It’s pure whimsy, but played and directed with sublime conviction. Elisabeth Sladen is especially good as Sarah here – wide-eyed as she’s slowly drawn in by the ghost story, but then shaking herself out of her reverie with a pragmatic: “Evil spirits don’t destroy oil rigs!”

Doctor Who has always sought to strike a balance between horror and humour. Generally, the scares and the jokes take turns, and that rollercoaster of tone generates the show’s essential manic energy. And at its very best, Doctor Who can seamlessly pitch-bend silly to serious and back again, while standing perfectly still and staring you straight in the eye. “Might as well forget about security in Tulloch,” shouts a flippant Sarah over the sound of Angus’s bagpipes. “The landlord here’s got second sight!” With perfect comic timing, the bagpipes abruptly stop. But then the Doctor, velvet and sepulchral: “You know what he was playing? Flowers of the Forest. A lament for the dead.” The fact that Tom Baker himself wrote that line gives some clue as to how deeply everyone cared about the work they were doing. This kind of grown-up wit smoulders all the way through Terror of the Zygons.

Doctor Who’s greatest episode ends, as it must, with one of Doctor Who’s greatest cliffhangers. It’s another directorial masterpiece: the track-in, the whirl, the crash-zoom and that terrifying, sucking ‘honk’ as a Zygon bears down on Sarah. What an entrance!

zygons_3776It’s entirely self-evident that the Zygons are the most beautifully realized monsters in the history of Doctor Who, but it’s surely worth lingering for a moment to consider why they work so well. They feel so alive: fleshy, bloated and throbbing with alien juices, like something that has really grown, and is still growing. Many monster costumes are ruined by their one-size-fits-all bagginess, but the skin of a Zygon is stretched painfully taut across its ribs and back. And the devil is surely in the detail: the hundreds of ulcerous tubules blistering the shoulders and hips; the natural symmetry of the lines of the bigger, barnacle-like growths that extend four ways from the crown of the head over the backbone and sternum, and along the arms and legs; the thick veins that fill fat fingers. Praise is of course due to costume designer James Acheson, but the real star is surely sculptor John Friedlander, for whom the creatures must have been a labour of love – a love which shows in every grotesque protuberance.

But good looks can only get you so far in this life. The other secret of the Zygons’ success is that Broton, their leader, is gifted with such a deft yet boisterous performance from actor John Woodnutt. He plays the creature in both its natural form and its human disguise as the la-di-da Duke of Forgill, and each is a total delight.

Like all great Doctor Who villains, Duke Broton is absolutely convinced that he’s the hero of his story, and that everyone around has been gathered merely to pay homage to his genius and wit. This essential snootiness and condescension mean that Broton is also – again like all the best Doctor Who villains – quite breathtakingly camp. For a Duke, he really is a proper old queen. As such, he effortlessly passes another key qualifying test for a place in the first division of Doctor Who villainy, and that is this: how easy are they to imagine as a judge on The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent? Broton, Davros, Harrison Chase, Trau Morgus, Mrs Gillyflower… you can immediately picture any of them passing withering comment on a parade of chirping idiots and clumsy hoofers. Harrison Chase would roll his eyes disdainfully and steeple his black-gloved hands. Mrs Gillyflower would rant and rave and reduce ’em to tears. Davros would idly tap his middle finger next to a big red button marked ‘Total destruction’. Morgus would deliver his putdowns to his own private camera, to one side of the judges’ desk. Our Duke of Forgill would purse his lips, smile an insincere smile, and then tell some poor wannabe from Wolverhampton that she’s totally, utterly unhinged, must be, and that he loathes her abomination of a body. And this kind of approach, one dares suggest, is something that Doctor Who might think a little more about today. The best Doctor Who has the best villains, and the modern series could surely trade a few ‘broken spring’ stories for a few more outrageously self-regarding blackguards who pass the X Factor judge test.

p01d6gsyBroton’s finest moment comes when he sets out from the Zygon spaceship to pose as Forgill at the World Energy Conference in London – an attack on which will spearhead his conquest of the Earth. “When phase two is completed, I shall broadcast my demands to the world,” he says – at which point he pops on a bowler hat and merrily spins an umbrella. Now hold on just one second. We know that the Zygons can morph into a copy of a human in their custody, and that clothes somehow come as part of the magic. But the real Duke doesn’t have a bowler hat, so Broton must have packed one specially. Now that is class. For all his contempt for “puny humans”, there’s a definite feeling that Broton finds greater pleasure in being a Scottish Laird than he does in being a Zygon Warlord. He’s quite brilliant at it, especially when deploying stinging sarcasm in the face of the Doctor’s theories about the Loch Ness Monster  (“Aliens? With wireless sets?”). Broton may be stepping up for the conquest of the Earth, but you feel he’d be much happier just busying about Inverness-shire, roamin’ the gloamin’ in his Range Rover, offering people lifts if he likes them, and pretending to get their names wrong if he doesn’t. After all, the Zygons have been stranded on Earth for hundreds of years, and a secret passage leads from their ship under Loch Ness to the Duke’s antique bookcase, so just how many successive incumbents of Forgill Castle has Broton impersonated? “My family has served this country for seven centuries,” says the Duke at the start of our story. Later we discover that this was Broton talking – but might he still be telling the truth, and speaking of himself and his Zygon crew? They’ve been around for about seven centuries too, and, as they all suckle the lactic fluid of their pet Skarasen, might they not be an actual family? So if the Doctor seems somewhat laid back during this adventure, perhaps it’s because he has Duke Broton sussed right from the start. When our faux Forgill drives away from the Fox Inn in Part One, the Doctor looks contemplatively after him. Later, his voice is loaded with sarcasm when he says “Your Grace”. Clearly the Doctor is onto him. But what gave it away? Well, while the Zygons may be adept at changing their shape, how good are they at changing their smell? This Duke of Forgill probably stinks of fish and stale monster milk, but everyone’s simply too polite to mention it.

While Broton is reasonably competent, his other Zygons let the side down by getting almost everything wrong. They’re certainly nowhere near as good at pretending to be humans. They fail to kill our heroes on several occasions, and when Broton leaves them in charge of their ship, barely five minutes pass before the Doctor blows it up. (There’s a hilarious moment when the Doctor activates the Zygon fire alarm and all the Zygons troop out like schoolchildren. Do they have regular drills? Are they trotting off to ‘Muster Point C’? They really are a deliciously gormless bunch.)

But what the other Zygon-humans may lack in brains, they make up for in pure monstrosity. This is one story that certainly lives up to the lurid promise of its title. The Zygon version of Sister Lamont lingers long in the memory of every viewer: blood stickily clotting on her arm, her head cocked and gimlet-eyed, like a carrion bird poised to rip into its prey. “It’s just a scratch,” she says, so softly, before bludgeoning a man with a rock. More terrifying yet is the sequence where Sarah pursues the Zygon version of Harry. Truly, Douglas Camfield’s direction of this story – and of these filmed location scenes in particular – takes the breath away. It’s pure British folk horror: Sarah’s breath frosting as she runs through a wide and bleak landscape of denuded trees and thick ruts of mud. Crows caw behind that wonderful incidental music, as the wistful flutes of Part One gives way to driving strings and urgent clarinet. And then we’re with Zygon-Harry in the barn, as he drives his pitchfork right down the camera lens – straight at us. You’d take an instinctive step back from the TV if you weren’t already sitting down. In his wide shot, Camfield fleetingly establishes thick wooden spikes jagging upward from the floor of the barn. He can’t show the Zygon actually impaled on a stake, but he can suggest it to our subconscious. And then there’s that terrible, primal, echoing ‘moo’ as the creature dies. It’s a moo that sums up Terror of the Zygons in miniature: grotesque, strangely mournful, beautifully judged, and totally unforgettable.

______________________________________________________________

DVD Extras

Not only is this two-disc set a celebration of one of Doctor Who’s greatest adventures, it’s also a tribute to the skill, imagination and astonishing hard work of the Doctor Who Restoration Team and many of their fellow travellers – the people whose talents have made this DVD range a triumph from first to last. There’s something of a party atmosphere to this release; a loud, lusty and well-earned last hurrah. Terror of the Zygons was long planned to be the last complete twentieth-century Doctor Who serial released on DVD. However, the gods of good fortune have heard our prayers and intervened, meaning that that position will instead be claimed – and hopefully only for a short time – by The Enemy of the World. And here’s a thing… The location filming for Episode 1 of The Enemy of the World took place at Climping Beach in West Sussex. And the only other time this location was used by Doctor Who was for Terror of the Zygons. One is left breathless by the glorious, exquisite timing of it all.

For Zygons, sound guru Mark Ayres has contrived – by some staggering witchcraft – to offer us not only an ‘isolated score’ audio track (and what a score!) but also a 5.1 surround mix. How is this even possible? Maybe we shouldn’t ask. Like staring into the burning heart of the TARDIS, the minds of mere mortals are not built to know such ineffable power.

Producer Ed Stradling provides our behind-the-scenes documentaries. This is right and proper, as Stradling has been behind the majority of the most creative films in the range; he set the standard for others to beat way back on the Earthshock DVD, ten bloomin’ years ago. Here, as then, Stradling deploys a fan commentator to join the dots and act as de facto narrator, so we can all wrinkle our noses and say: “Well, what does he know about it?” The so-called ‘experts’ on Earthshock, whoever they were, have long since been lost to history, so here we have TV Historian Simon Farquhar, who peers sullenly out from under his fringe like Princess Di in her interview with Martin Bashir. ‘TV Historian’ sounds like a cool job, but sadly they don’t teach it in every school. What a shame. Instead of an afternoon of PE, the Fridays of childhood would have been greatly enlivened by double Quatermass followed by an energetic half-hour of Applied Dennis Potter.

The production documentary is a laudably thorough affair. Writer Robert Banks Stewart makes for particularly charming company. “I was fascinated by the idea that either the Loch Ness Monster existed, or it didn’t,” he tells us, so he’s clearly a man who likes to keep all bases covered. As the story behind this story unfolds, even a mere photograph of long-dead script editor and all-time No.1 hero Robert Holmes, with a pipe clamped between his teeth like Hemingway or Tolkien, prompts one to list the limbs that might be cheerfully traded for a chance to spend an hour in his company, learning the most secret alchemy of Doctor Who.

The highlight of the ‘extras’ disc is the outstanding Remembering Douglas Camfield, also from Ed Stradling. It’s a robust and fitting tribute to the great man, placing his Doctor Who work in the context of a hugely successful TV career. Camfield’s son Joggs and actress Celia Imrie (a star of Camfield’s 1981 Scottish sci-fi horror serial The Nightmare Man, scripted by Robert Holmes and notably Zygonesque in atmosphere) pay moving tribute to a man who they loved very much, and who clearly loved them greatly in return. Imrie recalls how, while shots were being set up on location, Camfield would play the ocarina – a particularly haunting instrument. So it’s no surprise that the director brought in Geoffrey Burgon to provide his fluting scores for Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Doom, rather than settling for, well… shall we say the more robust charms of Dudley Simpson.

Two gems from the BBC archive capture Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen at their most beautiful. Baker is interviewed, on location for Terror of the Zygons, by the local news programme South Today, and he’s magnificently detached and aloof as the presenter prattles on. He impishly remarks that taking the role of the Doctor means he can no longer enjoy his “bachelor benders” – though he was hardly a stranger to the Colony Room or the Coach and Horses as his years with the show played out. When asked about the episode he’s filming, Baker says that he’s come to this Sussex beach “to make something inventive and agreeable” – which is as charming a mission statement for Doctor Who as any you’ll hear.

Elisabeth Sladen is the host of Merry-Go-Round: The Fuel Fishers – a children’s educational show from 1977, in which we learn how oil rigs work. So evocative of The Sontaran Experiment is her canary yellow raincoat, and so characteristically earnest Sladen’s approach, that it’s almost like a little lost adventure for Sarah Jane Smith. As she flies out across the North Sea by helicopter, Sladen has to react to her own pre-recorded ‘thinks’ track, and we’re reminded of the truth, the fun, and the utter conviction she brought to her performance as Sarah. No one ever believed the magic more.

Joining this curtain call of Doctor Who DVD master craftsmen is Martin Wiggins, who provides a typically majestic set of ‘info text’ subtitles, full of wit, wisdom and whimsy. With Wiggins as our guide, Terror of the Zygons comes to life in all kinds of new ways; not least with the revelation that John Woodnutt would pass the time between takes in the studio by tap-dancing on his mark – in full Broton costume. One prays that the raw studio footage turns up one day.

ian_lis2However, it’s another lost wonder which proves the final great coup of this DVD, and indeed of the whole range, as a long-missing scene of the Doctor, Sarah and Harry arriving in Scotland is restored to us. And how perfectly magical it is to see them together once more, out on location and gathered around their wonderful, tumbledown, potting-shed TARDIS – all so young and handsome and eager for adventure. And it’s surely a perfectly-timed opportunity to admire the manifold skills of the Restoration Team – and colourist Stuart Humphreys – who painstakingly pieced this lost gem together from scattered remnants.

When Terror of the Zygons was first released on VHS videocassette back in 1988, it was edited and chopped down to an omnibus. Now, on DVD, it’s bigger and more beautiful than ever. And if that isn’t a fitting tribute to the dedication, talent and sheer willpower of Doctor Who fans, then I don’t know what is. So let’s celebrate.

After all, it’s our birthday too.

Planet of the Spiders

14 Sep

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

_________________________________________________________________________________

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.

__________________________________________________________________________

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.

%d bloggers like this: