It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for, when the Doctor stole the blue crystal from Metebelis III at the start of The Green Death, and then gave it to Jo in an attempt to think of a wedding present nobody else would give her. But it turns out that originality was not what Jo was looking for in a wedding present and would rather have had a toaster, so she has sent the crystal back. Planet of the Spiders is a conclusion to the Pertwee era that draws on the past, and not just because of the crystal. Mike is back, and he gets in one final attempt to be a love interest for a companion, just like he was with Jo at the start. Sarah flirts with him: ‘the fiendish cunning of the man!’ Later, Mike gets his own back: ‘a shameless display of feminine wiles!’ Although he does not feature much, the Brigadier is back as well. He is little more than a comedy character nowadays, enjoying a bit of belly dancing while the Doctor is investigating a magician who is hiding his genuine psychic powers behind a stage magician act. Finally, the Doctor goes out the way he started, falling out of the TARDIS and collapsing, and his deep connection with Earth that has developed since he was exiled is made clear by his comment that “the TARDIS brought me home”.
Our usual Pertwee season finale writing team is behind this: Barry Letts and Robert Sloman. They make use of Buddhism as the basis for the story, both figuratively and literally. To take the literal first, the bad guys are twisting the religion for their own purposes, making use of the mantra “om mane padme hum”. Some people at the time were not too happy about this, but Letts defended the decision because the story is about the misuse of Buddhism. That’s fair enough, and there is an obvious parallel to be made with the first Letts/Sloman season finale: The Daemons. This functions in a similar way, with a misuse of Christianity. The difference is that when the Master is chanting in the crypt, the writers shied away from using any Christian words, and instead had him summoning Azal with Mary had a Little Lamb read backwards. Perhaps that is an important distinction.
That’s the literal, but how about the symbolic? Most obviously, regeneration is defined in terms of reincarnation, which makes sense, and it is brilliantly foreshadowed by the rebirth of Tommy. Then we get all that stuff about the Doctor being punished for greed, and here’s where things get a bit fuzzy:
Yes, my greed for knowledge, for information. He’s saying that all this is basically my fault. If I hadn’t taken the crystal in the first place.
It’s clear how this has come about. The writers want to follow through with their ideas, but they are shoehorning them in at this point. What greed for knowledge has the Doctor displayed? A five-minute trip to Metebelis a year ago? Of all the Doctors, Pertwee is our most stay-on-Earth one, even after he achieves his freedom from exile, so he is hardly guilty of some kind of negligent wanderlust in order to experience new things and acquire knowledge. Is eating one slice of chocolate cake, a year ago, something that can be described as a greed for chocolate? And what few people seem to notice about this is that whether or not you can rationalise some kind of “greed for knowledge” for the Doctor, what on Earth is wrong with that anyway? Why did the writers think it was appropriate to preach a thirst for knowledge as a bad thing? Because if that’s a sin then I’m happy to be guilty as charged (ditto on the chocolate).
But the problem for the Doctor is nothing to do with that. The problem is that he nicked something. So we have a completely broken fable here. The only way to make a logical story out of this would be to make it about the consequences of theft, the non-existence of the victimless crime. It would still be a bit rubbish, but at least it would make sense, although it wouldn’t fit with the slightly bizarre impulse to make Pertwee’s final stand all about Buddhism. There is no problem with having a message to get across in a Doctor Who story, and there have been lots of great examples of that, but the writers need to always have a clear order of priorities that goes (1) good story, (2) message. Get those back to front, and the narrative logic will inevitably collapse.
The other big problem with the Letts/Sloman writing team, in evidence across all of their finales, is that they often struggle to write convincing dialogue. This manifests itself most when they are writing for characters who are not contemporary humans. Sadly, we can also extend this observation to characters who are not contemporary white English humans. This is one of the reasons why The Daemons is their best effort, because they avoid those two thorny categories: aliens and foreigners. Just as we had a hatchet job on the boyo Welsh in The Green Death, here we get yet another example in Doctor Who of a story that has far worse yellowface than The Celestial Toymaker, but everyone forgives it because it’s a story they like and not, you know, The Celestial Toymaker. This time, we really do have somebody putting on the full Asian Engrish.
Then, when the action moves to Metebelis III, we encounter some unlucky actors playing the native people and grappling with virtually unreadable lines of dialogue. Here we have probably our worst ever acting performance in any Doctor Who story: Jenny Laird as Neska. She has to be seen (and heard) to be believed.
No, I shan’t. You shan’t take him! Sabor, my husband, my love! Why did you do it? Why? Why?
But the blame can’t entirely be laid at the door of the actress. Other than the one-word stuff, she has not one single line of dialogue that would ever emerge naturally from the lips of a real person. Look at this:
Wait. Arak, wait. My husband has been taken from me, must I lose my sons as well? I’ve carried you to the fields at my breast, I’ve dried your eyes, I’ve laughed with you through the short years of your boyhood. Now you’re a man. Must you leave me alone to mourn?
I think an Oscar-winning actress would struggle to do much with that. The natives are all walking clichés, complete with our obligatory sexist hero:
REGA: I must come with you.
ARAK: No, Rega. This is man’s work.
Luckily, all the scenes set on Earth are vastly better, and the story that contains the worst ever acting performance in Doctor Who also contains a very strong contender for the best: John Kane as Tommy. He is largely not helped by the writers, and has some incredibly difficult material to deal with, having to go on a journey from mental illness to what Sarah calls “normal”. It could have been a discriminatory train wreck, but Kane is simply magnificent. How appropriate that Tommy’s last words before he is healed by the crystal are ‘we say our prayers’. What follows is such a brilliantly acted, poignant moment that it sends shivers down the spine, with Tommy’s breathless reading of the children’s book and then The Tyger, and from that point onwards Tommy is an unlikely hero. Presumably the writers failed to notice that they undermined the “greed for knowledge” parable with Tommy. He can read the words of William Blake’s poem but doesn’t understand their meaning. His thirst for knowledge, greedily grabbing as many books as he can carry, cannot possibly be interpreted as a bad thing.
Everyone mentions the chase sequence, so I won’t try anyone’s patience by saying anything more than it is a huge amount of fun. My only objection is the end of the sequence, with a resolution that could just have easily occurred right at the start and makes the whole thing pointless. But it was a nice treat for Pertwee and I would rather have 12 minutes of this than 12 minutes of badly written dialogue on Metebelis III.
As for the spiders, the idea of them clinging onto people’s backs is so creepy that it was reused in Turn Left. It doesn’t pay to think too hard about it, because we run up against problems such as what happens to the spider when Lupton is sat in the vehicles? Presumably it is in a ‘state of flux’ as per the beetle in Turn Left, but if that is the case why does he lie down on his front in the next episode? But the spiders are a great choice of villain to trigger a regeneration. I first saw this as a child, 20 years after it was first broadcast, and the Great One in her cave seemed like the most exciting, frightening and convincing thing ever. The Doctor expressing his fear helps to sell the moment, because it’s something that so rarely happens, and was unprecedented at this point, and as for the voice work…
Bow down before me planets…
Before we find out what this strange looking new fellow who is wearing too much stage makeup is going to be like, it’s worth just reflecting on the Pertwee era. Despite being Earthbound for much of the run, we have had just as much variety as before, perhaps even more so, but with the added bonus of a strong family feel to the show. Perhaps the best word to describe it all in the end is “cosy”. The Third Doctor himself has been difficult to warm to at times, but Jon Pertwee has been magnificent, and continued to be magnificent during the 80s and 90s. Despite achieving even greater levels of success with Worzel, he remained loyal to Doctor Who, always happy to return to the character when asked. He was a great ambassador for the show. Jon Pertwee. A true hero. RP
The view from across the pond:
During the summer, my house is a veritable carnival of monsters with the sheer volume of bug life that makes it into my home. Mosquitos, stinkbugs, ladybugs, moths, ants, bees, beetles, earwigs, silverfish, millipedes and in the years I’ve been there, even the occasional mouse. It can be quite irksome, but I’ll take care of them all without a thought. But like the Third Doctor, there is one creature that I want nothing to do with and often call for help when I see them. That creature is … a spider! They are my nemesis and I typically need a long, blunt instrument to attack them. In fact, the only movie that ever caused me to have a nightmare was Arachnophobia. Those eight-legged freaks are truly the stuff of nightmares. I’ve always said I wanted to make contact with an alien species, but my fear is that when their UFO door opens, giant spiders would walk out! Anyway, you get the idea…
Doctor Who is often at its best when working with a high fear factor. The scarier the monster, the better. Being scary is what makes Doctor Who fun. From those early Cybermen, the Autons, so much of Baker’s early era… scary equals fun. That’s got a lot to do with it being on the other side of the TV. We can be thrilled from the safety and comfort of our homes. When I heard the Third Doctor’s final story was Planet of the Spiders, I assumed the fear factor would be off the charts. I know these creatures can invade my home anytime they want to. This time, the fear would be real! But what I failed to take into account at the time was that this was 1970’s Doctor Who and a six part story. That meant the budget might not be there for the spiders to look that great and the length meant there needed to be filler.
So it’s only fair that I give credit where due: the spiders looked fantastic. They were actually damned frightening looking. Thankfully they did not move quite the way a spider did. It was pretty apparent they were on wheels of some sort, but I was grateful for that. I often wondered how I’d do in Lupton’s position: a giant spider appears and wants a chin-wag to discuss world domination. Do I entertain it? Ask for special compensation as ruler of say, Australia, or do I simply pass out? With any luck, I land on the arachnid and kill it but then there’s the whole clean-up afterward. But it has got to be said, that the spiders in this story truly looked amazing.
Sadly, the length meant a lot of padding and while I love the Whomobile, the chase scene is out of place. When watching Halloween, for instance, one doesn’t expect the Mission: Impossible theme to kick in and produce a huge chase sequence but that’s what happened here. It probably did not jar the audience of the time as much as it would in a movie, because your viewing experience is broken out over 6 weeks, but when viewed as a single story, that effect changes, and you do get jolted out of the horror and into an action movie. Don’t misunderstand, I loved seeing the Whomobile fly, and feel it was a tragic loss that we never see this vehicle again but that sequence was grossly out of place. And I get it: they needed to fill 6 parts and there wasn’t enough Spider to do that. The scenes with the “two legs” are weak too. I hate when Doctor Who, or any science fiction show for that matter, introduce the viewer to spacefaring humans who have gone back to basics when landing on another world. So the entire plot on Metebellis III with the humans could barely hold my attention. And Pertwee’s “Captain Cook-ing” as he regales us with his stories of meeting Harry Houdini just can’t be dragged on long enough.
On the other hand, meeting the hermit that the Doctor spoke of back with Jo Grant was a nice touch. I don’t buy the idea that all Time Lords retire to Earth, but then how many old folk retire to Florida? And the old hermit was a great character; it’s a shame we never see him again either. He’s probably driving the Whomobile around the streets of Tibet. (Or Venice, if you believe there are streets there, like in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen! Although I suppose with a flying car, that wouldn’t really matter, would it?) But speaking of Tibet, one thing Doctor Who has shown us is that the chant “om mani padme hum” is a bad thing to say. First, we get the Great Intelligence, and now we get Spiders! (Lead by The Great One, so maybe it translates into something like “Oh universe, bring me something great” and the universe supplies the irony!) The crystal also warrants mentioning: it’s beautiful. The idea that it could help focus and hone a person’s mind was inspired. That opening sequence with the images Dr. Clegg sees is a great prelude and works well as a teaser. It should be noted, however, that the Doctor causes the man to have a heart attack and die of fright because of his experiments! Still, I would love to find a crystal that looks even slightly like it. When I’ve been to the Crystal caves in Bermuda, I was convinced I’d find one, but alas, I did not. Maybe it’s for the best.
Now we come to the most significant part of the story. The Doctor defeats the spiders (sorry, the Eight Legs), but they are actually not the cause of his death. To be precise, they may be a catalyst, but they don’t actually do anything short of try to become more than they were. It’s the radiation that bombards the Doctor that actually kills him. He arrives on earth where the Brigadier and Sarah Jane say a heartfelt goodbye. Sarah Jane cries, to the Doctor’s sorrow, and he mutters his last words, “While there’s life, there’s…”, and he’s gone. There’s no music at this point. The direction is brilliant and subtle; it’s a somber moment. And then Cho Je shows up and “gives the process a little push…”
It is one of the most heartfelt regenerations of the original series. We’ve only exceeded this one with the resurrection of the series having some brutally heart-wrenching goodbyes from Tennant, Smith and Capaldi, but in the classic series, none compared to this one. Pertwee’s stories were often long and tired, but in the end, he goes out a hero. His final moments reminded us beyond a shadow of doubt that he was the Doctor. ML
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