Planet of the Spiders

Written by:
Robert Sloman
Directed by: Barry Letts
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1974
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

The third Doctor's swansong, Planet of the Spiders is the Buddhist parable that sees Jon having to rid himself of all vestiges of ego. With that remit you'd expect this to be a thirty-episode story, but it's actually over in just six.

It's a bit of lightweight and silly story when all said, but one I really happen to enjoy. It's also the perfect encapsulation of the latter Pertwee era, combining all that is good and bad about the period. On the positive side, there's Jon actually acting, an interesting storyline and engaging characters. On the other side, there's padding aplenty, the Brig as a buffoon, horrendous CSO, Jon also lazily going through the motions (Check out the seven instances of PMS in just this first episode) and silly shrieking spiders.

The ingenuity of Robert Sloman's writing has never been doubted by me, and the idea of a fake clairvoyant being a real one is extraordinarily clever. (In actual fact, all four of Robert Sloman's stories were written with an uncredited Barry Letts - including The Dæmons, which went out under a pseudonym). There's some silliness with the long-haired Brigadier and his belly dancing fixations, but the clairvoyant's "I can't keep it up" might get a laugh, and the Doris scene is funny.

Kevin Stoney's "grasshopper" act is pretty obtrusive nowadays, though Yates as shamed insider is a persona I like more than either his army captain or traitor guises. Is he wearing make-up though? The actual thrust of the plot - the crystal from The Green Death - makes it an anorakky story in principle, though the Doctor being his own undoing makes it strangely apt. But ungrateful of Jo to give back her wedding pressie though, eh?

You know, this episode isn't the best acted, directed or even produced. It's not especially smart or clever and is often indulgent. Yet it's got a wide and interesting cast of secondary characters and the plotline kept me wanting to see more, despite the fact that this is, sadly, the fourth time I've seen it. I guess really good Doctor Who is all about stories, and, despite its flaws, I regard this as really good Doctor Who.
* * * * ½

You know, I'm terrified of spiders. Thankfully this doesn't extend to eight-foot plastic ones with silly shrill voices. Then there's people who ask why the spider on Lupton's back doesn't get crushed when he sits down. Ummm… well… er…

Lupton is a great character though, isn't he? What makes him so wonderful is that he's not a cut-out black and white villain (and the story of the part being originally written for the Master is, of course, a myth) but an embittered white collar worker. Other things of note are the amount of boom mike shadows in the UNIT scenes, and the Brigadier calling for "Sullivan". Oh, and Jon gets in a sneaky long-shot PMS.

This is the padded episode, of course. There's lots of silliness with Benton and coffee (amusing though) and, most notably, the chase sequence. A multi-vehicle chase that lasts for over eleven minutes, it's always important to remember that when the era homaged Bond, the current Bond was Roger Moore. And so we get not Connery's cool, but Pertwee looking an idiot in a gyrocopter and a comedy policeman. It's all a massive indulgence (and the CSO on the "flying" car is horrendous) but it's Jon's last story, we can forgive him that, can't we?
* * ½

Episode three, and the production team kindly allow us to join the story again (incidentally, for those nay-sayers who claim that Lupton could have teleported any time, his spider can clearly be heard saying that "I'll get help from Metebelis". So transporting him away like that isn't an easy thing to do, not even for a giant telepathic spider).

I must say I'd forgotten what Lupton was like - I'd remembered him as a cutting and sharp-speaking genius, but he mumbles and hesitates like the second coming of Parkinson. Not a criticism though - he holds an entire scene with a dancing rubber spider on a string and yet it's brilliant television.

This is the episode where Sarah arrives on Metebelis, a planet that, by the most bizarre of coincidences has the same jungle noises as Spiridon. Not only does it contain some terrible CSO skies, but it also contains some of the worst acting from guest stars ever seen in the series. Gareth Hunt, exponent of Cockney rhyming slang, is pitiful, and I won't even mention Jenny Laird. Still entertaining stuff though…
* * *

I still can't get over Jenny Laird, you know. I was tempted not to mention her because everyone always does, but is she the worst actress in the entire history of the programme? I mean, didn't the Who production team do a screen test before they began filming? Anyway, we get a reprise of more dubious stunt doubling (Jon's back was knackered, so how silly would season 12 have got if they'd renewed his contract?) and straight back into the action.

Is there some kind of anti-feminist subtext going on here, with a bunch of mad spiders ranting about sisterhood? If so, their fear of "the female" (Sarah) is a little curious considering she's supposedly a feminist. Anyway, a word about Tommy. I haven't mentioned him up until now, but the presence of a retarded character in Who is not only daring, but also sympathetically played by John Kane. That said, you do feel that Spiders could have benefited with one or two extra drafts, as many of the plot strands go either unresolved or end up nowhere. So it is that Tommy, after having his intelligence increased by the crystal ("You're normal!" says Sarah, with more than a little political incorrectness) ends up being little more than mobile muscle. The same can be more than said for Lupton, a great character who ends up being emasculated by the spiders, then killed.

"What's the point in saying the same thing over and over again?" says one of Lupton's allies who hang around the bedroom dissecting the plot repetitively. Like Jon's later "this is getting monotonous" after another escape/recapture, it's unintentionally (?) ironic. This is a good episode though, even if the acting, as said, but it needs saying often, of the Metebelians is atrocious.
* * *

I do love this story, but could you imagine a Hinchcliffe story where the Doctor was wrapped up in a giant spider's web? It's quaint and charming, but it really is a daffy indulgence. This also sees the third episode of Laird activity, something I could well do without. Jon gets some funny lines here, like "much as I admire your stoic acceptance of the inevitable I would appreciate it if you'd shut up for a moment", but this is the least spectacular of the first five Doctor swansongs. As much as I get a kick out of watching this story, it has to be said that it also clearly illustrates why Jon's era had stayed too long, and was becoming far too flabby to support the series.

But here's what makes episode five rock like a daddy: Jon Pertwee ACTS. A shocker, I know, but one of my favourite scenes of his entire era is the bit where the Great One makes him walk around in a circle. "Is that fear I can feel in your mind?" she taunts, and look in his eyes - it is. You can almost forgive the appalling CSO and Ysanne Churchman's supreme overacting.

As with The Sea Devils, another iconic moment isn't used as a cliffhanger. The revelation that Sarah has a spider on her back is left over until the final part, with Tommy under attack being brought forward to climax episode five.
* * * *

This is a hugely enjoyable resolution, and one in which only the most juvenile would chuckle at Jon's line of "Sarah, what's come over you?" I'm always dismayed when they repeat the Tommy scene from episode five though - incredibly amateurish that.

The scene where Sarah is told about regeneration may seem contrived, but works well enough. Even though the instances of Pertwee Mouth Stroke Syndrome here are a Mutants-equalling seventeen (both record breakers), this isn't the lazy Jon of his mid reign, but an old bugger giving it his best shot as a final bow out. He's not got the greatest range of the Doctors, but, God love him, he meant well.
* * * *

Possibly the best story of season eleven, Planet of the Spiders has as many weaknesses as strengths and yet it's one I love dearly. Stories, ideas and concepts - these are what the core of Doctor Who is about for me. Never mind that it's quite badly made and contains some of the worst performances in the series' history. This is a cracking adventure yarn that transcends its cosy limitations to become something quite special.
* * * *