In my review of 'The Monster of Peladon', I stated that after that exercise in tedium, things did not improve for Pertwee's final story. In fact, I found that on this occasion I enjoyed 'Planet of the Spiders' more than on previous viewings, and it is certainly an improvement on its immediate predecessor. Nevertheless, although it has enjoyable aspects, it still falls down on many levels and is horrendously padded.
First of all the plot is stretched rather thin. Everyone chases around after the crystal for five episodes, then the Doctor surrenders it in Episode Six and everything blows up. Unlike Malcolm Hulke's six part stories, the padding on display here is not of sufficient quality to carry this wafer-thin plot, resulting in blatant filler. The most obvious example is of course the notoriously indulgent chase sequence in Episode Two, in which the Doctor and UNIT pursue a fleeing Lupton, only for him to teleport to safety after ten minutes of self-indulgent vehicle swapping. As many people have noted, he might just as well have teleported back to the monastery immediately, and as The Discontinuity Guide points out, the spider on his back should have been squashed whenever Lupton sits in a vehicle. A further example of dull padding is in Episode Four, in which the Doctor spends over half of the episode virtually unconscious until a gimmick from the TARDIS cures him. By the end of Episode Five, the plot has become so badly stretched out to fill the episode allocation that the cliffhanger involves a threat to a supporting character.
Fortunately, some of the guest cast manage to make 'Planet of the Spiders' reasonably interesting. John Dearth makes for an interesting villain, due to decent motivation; a former salesman who has fallen on hard times, Lupton is motivated by a desire for revenge, from which his urge for power originates. Dearth puts in an excellent performance as the world-weary Lupton, and the script allows for an interesting twist in the shape of his relationship with his eight-legged ally. It would have been all too easy for Lupton to be in thrall to the spider, but instead when the spider mentally attacks him, he turns the tables on it and delivers a similar attack in return. This results in a genuine alliance between the two for a time, as Lupton seeks power on Earth and the spider seeks power on Metebelis Three. Unfortunately, by Episode Four, the writers seem to have lost interest in Lupton or simply don't know what else to do with him; he stands around arguing impotently for two episodes, until his spider ally gets tired of him and the spiders kill him. Bit of a waste, really. The other villains, the spiders themselves, are surprisingly effective, especially when clinging to backs, and their voices are chillingly effective. We also get inter-spider politics as "Lupton's" spider vies with the Queen for power, which adds to the plot somewhat. Most effective of all is the Great One, an utterly insane vast spider sitting at the heart of the crystal mountain that proves to be a match for the Doctor. The scene in which she forces the Doctor to march in a circle is strikingly effective.
The other guest cast members worthy of note are Cyril Shaps, Kevin Lindsay, George Cormack, and John Kane. Shaps' ill-fated Professor Clegg works well as a tortured soul nursing a terrifying secret and his tragic death caused inadvertently by the Doctor's hunger for knowledge precursors K'anpo's lecture to the Doctor in Episode Six; all of the events depicted are indirectly his fault, due to his "theft" of the crystal; had he never removed it from Metebelis Three, the Great One would have completed her web long ago and destroyed herself then, thus sparing generations of humans on Metebelis Three from the spiders' tyranny. Cormack is excellent as K'anpo, conveying an air of gentle wisdom throughout his scenes. His gentle urging of the Doctor to sacrifice his third life for the sake of all is rather effective and of course resolves the plot, since otherwise the Doctor would have continued trying to stop the spiders from gaining the crystal. Lindsay's performance is also excellent in Episodes Five and Six, as he challenges the group in the cellar before his true nature is revealed and he becomes K'anpo. Unfortunately, he's rather less effective in earlier episodes, as he does little but spout Buddhist sayings constantly, which quickly becomes irritating. Finally, John Kane is very good as the slow Tommy, whose gradual transformation by the crystal is the one example of good padding in 'Planet of the Spiders'. He still doesn't merit a cliffhanger though.
Unfortunately, 'Planet of the Spiders' is marred by rather less impressive supporting characters and guest cast in addition to those mentioned above. Lupton's cronies are all acted well enough, but are utterly forgettable and more filler. A particularly blatant example is when Yates is knocked out before getting his chance to suggest that they join forces, thus turning one scene into two, since he has to regain consciousness. The characters on Metebelis Three are far worse; they are apathetic at best and their costumes make them resemble a cross between hippies and porn stars (it's the moustaches, of course). They also have West Country accents, for reasons known only to Barry Letts. It doesn't help that several of them, including Gareth Hunt, are rather wooden, on top of which Jenny Laird's Neska is dreadfully acted. Production wise, the story is variable. As noted, the spiders look OK, but the costumes on Metebelis Three are terrible. Barry Letts gives in to his tendency to make too much use of CSO, as a result of which Metebelis Three looks diabolical, and there are annoying minor details which bother, me for example the spiders' surprisingly generous decision to provide nice comfy pillows for the humans cocooned in their larder.
This being the last story of the Pertwee era, UNIT is rolled out for a bit of a reunion. This is at best indulgent, since both the Brigadier and Benton get nothing useful to do. Admittedly however, I do like the first scene between the Doctor and the Brigadier as they watch the show featuring Professor Clegg. The Brigadier's admiration for a belly dancer's muscular control is quite amusing and the scene is a pleasant reminder of the strength of the friendship that has developed between the Doctor and the Brigadier. After this however, the Brigadier reverts back to the status of a buffoon, bringing back unpleasant memories of 'The Three Doctors'. Using a one intelligent military leader as a means of explaining things to the audience is a mistake when it makes it painfully obvious that said military leader fails to understand the blindingly obvious. On the other hand, his presence at the Doctor's regeneration is more welcome, nicely rounding off the era that he helped to launch. Mind you, would a Brigadier really have such long hair? Benton gets even less to do, although his rather noble offer to look into the crystal for the Doctor since he is expendable and the Doctor isn't nicely demonstrates the high regard he has for UNIT's scientific advisor. More annoyingly for me personally, the mini-UNIT reunion results in the unwelcome return of Mike Yates. I've made no secret of my dislike for both Yates' character and Franklin's performance, but as I noted previously, 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' benefited both and it made a fine departure for the character. His return here is seemingly born out of a desire to redeem the character, but as I stated when I reviewed 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs', I'm uncomfortable that a man who was nearly a party to genocide is so easily forgiven by the Doctor. He adds almost nothing to the story here and his return is as pointless and indulgent as the chase sequence.
Finally, there are the two regulars. Liz Sladen puts in a great performance as Sarah, especially when possessed by the Queen and when surrendering herself in Episode Three to protect Arak. Sarah works very well here, and gets some nice moments, including her scenes with Tommy (she is both kind and tolerant to the childlike Tommy for example, whereas Yates is not, and it beautifully highlights her compassionate side). Her distress over the Doctor's seeming death at the end of Episode Six demonstrates just how close they have become during Season Eleven, and she clearly pushed to her limit by the time Cho-je cheerfully materialises in the Doctor's lab. However, 'Planet of the Spiders' is Jon Pertwee's story. Putting in one last enthusiastic performance after his return to autopilot in 'The Monster of Peladon', Pertwee is at his best here. His obvious guilt over Clegg's death is well conveyed; his quiet, indeed awed, respect for K'anpo is tangible; and his scenes with the Great One are excellent. When the huge spider forces him to march in circle, Pertwee makes the Doctor seem genuinely afraid, which is a crucial aspect of the story. His final sacrifice is entirely fitting, as this most sanctimonious of the Doctors to date accepts the responsibility for his actions and ends the threat posed by the spiders at the cost of his own life. His regeneration scene is marvellous, as he tells Sarah "while there's life there's hope " before expiring.
Watching Doctor Who in order from the start for the first time, I've been rather disappointed that after the highly consistent quality of the black and white stories, the Pertwee era represents, for me, the first weak era in the show's history. After the magnificent Season Seven, the percentage of poor stories increases once Letts and Dicks take over and whilst there are many fine Pertwee stories, there are no consistently fine Seasons from Season Eight onwards. Luckily however things soon improve considerably, as Jon Pertwee regenerates into Tom Baker and one of the series' finest producer/script-editor teams makes the show its own
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Peoples impressions of Planet of the Spiders seem largely to be dominated by the chase scene in Episode Two, universally (and perhaps somewhat kindly) described as indulgent. So, I might as well start with that. Theres no two ways about it, the chase is truly absurd I mean, Bessie/mini-copter following Whomobile, then Whomobile following mini-copter, then *hovercraft* following *speedboat*? Its harmless enough, its true - even fun if youve had a drink or two beforehand. But its sheer goofiness *does* damage the obvious work the production team put into the quiet, rather ominous setup in Episode One.
However, if the story as a whole is undeniably uneven, theres still much to like about it. The setup, with its mysterious cult operating out of a country house in rural England, is the stuff of classic Pertwee Who. The Tibetan commune is by turns both appealing and eerie, with Luptons leading of the chants authentically hypnotic and rather frightening. When the action moves to Metebelis Three, it does look a bit cheap, its true, but the planets fakey blue skies have a lovely, very seventies fantasy quality to them. (The look of the planet reminds me a bit of a Boston album cover.) Some Doctor Who fans, even old ones, complain about the studio-bound limitation of the classic series, and yet Ive said before that, to me, the theatricality of these productions adds an enjoyable aesthetic that mere realism cant match.
And the planets Eight Legs-dominated culture is extremely well defined. A knowledge of Barry Lettss interest in Buddhism, and his use of it in the earthbound parts of this story, help us to understand his vision of the spiders as the antithesis of the Buddhists pure Eastern philosophy. The spiders are power-hungry, petty, and obsessed with social rank and by allying with them, Lupton shows himself to be not just a villain, but a bad *Buddhist* (which is probably worse, in Lettss book). The individual spider characters are memorable and distinctive quite a feat, considering theyre identical, expressionless puppets. Of course most of the credit for that must go to the actresses who provide their voices their vocal timbres are all similar enough to suggest the same species, and yet all three capture their different characters remarkably well.
The Two Legs, as many have pointed out, dont work as well, but theyre more functional than embarrassing. They serve mainly to illustrate the horror of the spider regime, and they actually do that quite effectively. One writer has said that the only thing that makes the Daleks scary is how frightened Doctor Whos *characters* are of them, and the same principle applies here when the villagers scramble in fear at the approach of the Queen, we believe in the spiders power, simple as that. Many U.K. fans, including The Discontinuity Guide, have also criticized the production team for its use of regional accents with these humans. I can understand this annoyance, but as an American, I hear *all* accents on Doctor Who as regional, so it didnt trouble me tremendously. I would even go so far as to say that it annoys me how British fans seem perfectly willing to overlook the English accents in French and Italian locations for City of Death, for example, while whining about West-Country ones here. (A much bigger problem is the UNIT haircuts - belief in the militariness of this organization has never been so suspended but thats another story.)
As for the other characters, Tommy is of course a bit of an embarrassment an Of Mice and Men cliché who doesnt really seem to fit all that well into this fictional world but to be fair John Kane plays him with good taste, for the most part. John Dearth sinks his teeth into the ambitious Lupton with much success, and he really sells the scenes with his spider, not an easy task for any actor. And the hapless Professor Clegg is used rather cruelly by the script, but he remains probably the most touching figure of the entire story. (Shades of Pigbin Josh.)
When we come to the good Buddhists, George Cormack is thoroughly charming as KAnpo and yet, the character doesnt quite work. Hes so obviously there just to set up the Doctors regeneration that he never quite engages with the story, or resonates as a full-blooded character of his own. A knowledge of Barry Lettss personal obsession with Buddhism doesnt necessarily help our appreciation of Cho-Je, who seems to be scripted entirely from fortune cookies, and Kevin Lindsays rather twee performance (speaking of accents, just what exactly is *that* supposed to be?) doesnt either. Furthermore, it seems odd that a Time Lord would use a projected regeneration for such banal purposes what does Cho-je actually *do* around the compound anyway? Answer the phone? Catch up on the paperwork?
Sarah and Yates, on the other hand, are rather well used in this story. I know that Mike Yates is one of the less popular Doctor Who companions, and yet I must say that Richard Franklins performance grew on me as I revisited these stories, and I actually quite liked him in this one (flares and all).
Finally, there is the matter of the Doctors regeneration, which is much praised by fans, but which actually seemed a little abrupt to me. To his credit, Jon Pertwee doesnt ham it up in the least, but his ultimate change seems a little rushed, especially coming on the heels of such much big adventure and exposition. But I suppose a fan could read this as a semi-conscious tribute to Third Doctor endings on the whole, which so often had the UNIT family suddenly having a nice laugh about it all. The Pertwee era always had a fundamental safety and innocence to it; in fact, Planet of the Spiders is in many ways representative of the age. Its overstuffed, slightly clunky, a little too loud, a little too long, but pretty watchable nevertheless. Jon Pertwee gets a gadgety chase, a staged fight, and yet somehow keeps his dignity anyway he is the Doctor. And while these things sometimes make his stories seem a bit shallow compared to others, theres much to be said for a pure fun approach to Doctor Who . . . and I suppose anyone who fell in love with the show as a child would admit that this not always such a bad thing.
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There are several elements to this story that not only make it great - but even make it a bit beautiful:
The first and most obvious one is the character of Tommy. Although we're never told why a person with special needs is allowed to roam freely about a monastery (and, from an extremely budhist point-of-view, it's almost sort of nice that it's never explained), his involvement in this story is crucial to its noteworthiness. As a viewer, I grew attached to Tommy in ways that I never have before in a Doctor Who story and, for that matter, never have since. I like him quite a bit already even before the Blue Crystal changes him, but as I journey with him after the change I, pretty well, fall in love with his character. So that when he finally dives in the way of the blast of mental energy in the basement, my fear for his safety caused me to produce an audible yelp. Amusingly enough, others who have watched this story with me had a similar reaction to that moment. Which just goes to show, really.
Another really downright fantastic element of this story is K'anpo/Cho-je. At last, we meet this mysterious mentor of the Doctor's. Even though we only ever heard of him for the first time a season or two ago - we were immediately fascinated with him. And it's almost a bit sad that he does get referenced one or two more times in the series, but we never do actually see him again. Still, the meeting they have near the end of the story is completely worth stopping the whole plot for. It's a magnificiently scripted and performed scene. And the ultra-cool regeneration that follows as K'anpo morphs into Cho-je almost "steals the the thunder" of the Doctor's regeneration.
Almost, but not quite.
The strongest, most powerful, element of this story is the demise of the Third Doctor. Written in a way that is still quite grandiose (after all, Pertwee did carry the role for five years and deserved a noteworthy swansong) without being quite so intentional about it as "Logopolis" was. The grandness, in fact, is executed in what I feel is the "right" kind of way: through some really strong characterisation. The Doctor, because of the nature of his character, is frequently a "constant" in his stories. With little or no real sense of growth to him. But the journey he takes in this tale leaves him a changed man by its conclusion. And not just in a literal sense. And though there have been other stories where the Doctor had brief "snippets" of character growth (ie: the little moment in "Ressurection of the Daleks" after Tegan leaves where he feels he "must mend his ways") - this story really makes the Doctor's character growth its most pivotal point. And this is what really causes the whole story to shine. So that, as he collapses to the floor of the UNIT lab and bids his adieu - I am truly touched by his departure. It is, in my opinion, some of the most compelling drama of the Pertwee era. Thus making it the best note for the lead actor to leave on.
As has been discussed in other reviews, Planet Of Spiders has some very "clunky" moments to it too. If there's any evidence that the show was getting too dominated by Pertwee's personality, it's the chase scene. Purely a twenty-minute throwaway that becomes difficult to watch after seven minutes or so. It does almost seem like they're just completely indulging Pertwee's love of strange vehicles. But it does have, at least, some fun little comical moments to it involving the police officer and the sleeping bum. And even the Whomobile flying is kind of a neat twist. Even as fake as it may have looked. So, as bothersome as the chase sequence might have been, in some ways, it's still not as bad as all that.
I'm probably more bothered by the apparent "woodeness" of the cast of villagers on Metebellis Three. Wow, there's just some really bad acting going on in some of those scenes. Most cringeworthy of them all is the woman who played the mother. I'm sure she was cast because she was related to the right person. No one could have been impressed with her as an actress! The fact that she really painfully flubs one of her lines just makes matters worse. Easilly, one of the worst performances ever done in a Who-story - and there have been some bad ones over the years! But, if given the choice of going back in time and being able to alter only one facet of this story - it would be the re-casting of this character before it would be taking out of the chase scene.
There are probably a few more weaknesses to this story but the strengths, I feel, definitely outweigh them to the point of making them painfully irrelevant, for the most part. The story shows some very strong continuity with the way it wraps up a few important ongoing threads that have been weaving through the series. One of particular noteworthiness was the final progression of Mike Yates. Ever since "Green Death", the series seemed to be doing some interesting things to him. Which I felt was a great move. Compared to the Brig and Benton, Mike was painfully bland in most of his stories. To take him through the journey they did was a nice touch.
Another really nice touch was the fact that, although the story celebrates many of the quintessential aspects of Pertwee's era, it also strays from it in other vital ways. Thus giving the whole thing a bit of a "Caves Of Androzani" kind of feel. Like that story, things happen in Planet of Spiders that don't normally happen in the Third Doctor's tenure. And that aspect, in itself, makes the story all the more enjoyable. Particularly to someone who found much of this era just a tad too formulaic for his liking.
So, the final verdict is that the story does have its fair share of flaws. But it also "transcends" (you can't help but use that word in a story about Budhism) a lot of the restrictions the series imposed upon itself at the time. And that, more than anything, is what makes Pertwee's farewell both memorable and even a bit beautiful. A very deftly-crafted sentimentalism that could have been easily messed up in less-capable hands.
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