With the long overdue DVD release of 1974’s Planet Of The Spiders, Jon Pertwee’s classic Third Doctor finally shuffles off to his dandified dressing up box in the sky and brings the curtain down on an era of the show that had revitalised its fortunes and secured its long-term future.
Whenthe Doctor had last regenerated, back in 1969, the show had been in something of a crisis. The ratings were collapsing, the entire regular cast was about to leave and would soon be followed, one story later, by the entire production team. In fact, it’s widely believed that if the show’s seventh season (the first to feature Pertwee as the Doctor) hadn’t already been commissioned, the poor viewing figures for Patrick Troughton’s final year in the role may well have spelled the end for the show.
Luckily, Pertwee’s all-colour maiden season was a hit on transmission, and under the wise stewardship of new producer, Barry Letts and his erstwhile script editor, Terrance Dicks, the show returned the Time Lord to a level of pre-eminence that he hadn’t experienced since the heady days of Dalekmania back in the mid-60s.
However, following the untimely death of Roger Delgado (the truly iconic, original incarnation of the Master) alongside the departure of popular companion, Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning), Pertwee decided that it was time to move on.
But Pertwee wasn’t the only regular who felt it was time to leave, as both Letts and Dicks, after five years at the helm, had come to the conclusion that the show needed new creative captains to ensure its success continued.
Therefore, in much the same way as 2009’s The End Of Time saw David Tennant, Julie Gardner and Russell T Davies depart the show en masse, Planet Of The Spiders finds Pertwee, Dicks and Letts doing much the same. Sadly, also like The End Of Time, it isn’t quite the roaring success one would hope for.
From the start, Planet Of The Spiders has a definite ‘greatest hits’ feel about it. You can’t watch this story and not see various strands and riffs from such classic Pertwee adventures as The Green Death, The Daemons, and Invasion Of The Dinosaurs echoing within this show. But it’s an echo that seems dull this time out, as if familiarity hasn’t so much bred contempt as a kind of cosy inertia.
And yet, it all begins so promisingly, with an absolutely stonking first episode that nicely cuts between a Buddhist retreat in the Home Counties run by the mysterious Tibetan monk, Cho-Je (Kevin Lindsay), and the Doctor’s experiments into ESP back at UNIT HQ.
Cleverly tying these two seemingly disparate strands together is the use of disgraced ex-UNIT soldier, Mike Yates (Richard Franklin), who contacts the ever redoubtable Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) to help him investigate the mysterious goings on inside the retreat. Add to this the sudden reappearance of the mysterious blue Metebelis crystal (which the Doctor gave to Jo Grant as a wedding present in The Green Death), and you have all the ingredients of an elegantly constructed, potentially classic story. So, what goes wrong?
To be blunt, self-indulgence is the problem, and Planet Of The Spiders’ guiding principle as a story seems to be simply ‘why not?’ It’s almost as if Letts (and co-writer Robert Sloman) sat down and said, “Ok, we had killer maggots in The Green Death, so why not have evil spiders in this story? Also, we’ve made reference in The Time Monster to an old Gallifreyan hermit who taught the Doctor all he knew, so why not have him show up here? Oh, and we’ve mentioned Metebelis 3 throughout the past three years of the show, but never seen it, so why not go there this last time?”
Now, all of these are perfectly fine ideas in and of themselves, but in one story? Especially when that story is already torn between being a somewhat lyrical parable about the Buddhist concept of death, renewal and reincarnation and an excuse to indulge Pertwee’s passion for motor sports.
Not helping matters is the, frankly, poor realisation of Metabelis 3. After years of hearing the Doctor rhapsodise about its beauty, it’s something of a comedown to discover that Metabelis 3 essentially looks like a Haven holiday home populated by a bunch of medieval re-enactors. But that misfire pales next to the villains of the piece, the eponymous spiders, who are basically just lumps of inanimate rubber that sit motionless on plinths and wail like Anne Widdecombe through a vocoder!
However, despite these obvious misfires, there are many parts of Planet Of The Spiders that do work and work very well. All of the material inside the Buddhist meditation centre is very good, with Cho-Je a beguiling figure throughout, John Dearth suitably creepy as the villainous Lupton, while John Kane quietly steals the show with a subtle and humane performance as the mentally handicapped dogsbody, Tommy, who is ‘renewed’ by the power of the Metebelis crystal.
The same plaudits can also be aimed at the recently departed Nicholas Courtney, who is pitch perfect as ever as the beloved Brigadier. Even though he’s only in half the episodes, Courtney has several brilliant moments of sublime dry humour and it’s he, quite rightly, who delivers the immortal “Here we go again” line when the fateful regeneration finally occurs.
Also faring well is Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, who is spiky, flirty and feisty in her investigative journalist mode. It’s interesting watching Sarah Jane in these early earthbound adventures and seeing quite how much her modern spin-off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures, is a love letter to this era of Who and the work of Letts and Dicks.
But, really, when all’s said and done, this story is a showcase for Jon Pertwee’s beloved incarnation of the Doctor in all his (sometimes dubious) glory.
Whether he’s racing Bessie through country lanes, gently patronising the Brigadier or defending himself from attacking natives with his Venusian Aikido, Pertwee’s Doctor is consistently,well, the Doctor. And in that sense, Planet Of The Spiders is the perfect story for Pertwee to go out on, as it gives his most vibrant of Doctors both ludicrous feats of derring-do to overcome and several ‘moments of charm’ within which to sparkle. And sparkle he does. Although I have a feeling his replacement, who makes a brief non-speaking cameo at the end of the story, might just sparkle brighter than them all.
The extras for this two-disc release are both numerous and enjoyable. First off is the de rigeur commentary track, which features contributions from producer/director, Barry Letts, and script editor, Terrance Dicks, alongside actors Elisabeth Sladen, Nicholas Courtney and Richard Franklin. Like all Pertwee era releases, it’s a warm, funny and genuinely entertaining listen. And yes, Terrance Dicks makes his standard once-a-commentary observation about the size of Jon Pertwee’s bouffant yet again!
The main documentary on this release is The Final Curtain. A very well put together round-up and overview of both the making of this story and the winding down of the Letts/Dicks era in general, it features contributions from the Letts, Dicks and Pertwee-era aficionado (and new series writer), Mark Gatiss. It’s a loving, but not fawning piece, which manages to straddle the line between nostalgia and critical overview quite nicely.
Of particular interest is the discussion about the proposed original idea for this final story, which was to have featured the final battle between the Doctor and the Master, but was, sadly, scuppered by the death of Roger Delgado.
No less interesting, albeit shorter in duration, is Directing Doctor Who with Barry Letts. This short piece covers Barry Letts’ contribution to the show solely as a director. Starting with his work on the Pat Troughton story, The Enemy Of The World, and ending with his contribution on Tom Baker’s, The Android Invasion, it’s a nice piece which illustrates just how important Letts’ multiple talents were to the show’s success.
Less interesting, but still entertaining, John Kane Remembers finds cast member John Kane, a renowned actor and writer in his own right, looking back on his time as a member of the cast of this final Pertwee era adventure.
Alongside these featurettes we also get an un-restored omnibus edit of Planet Of The Spiders (which ably illustrates just how good a job the Doctor Who Restoration team do on these releases), as well as various trailers, photo galleries and the usual assorted listings and production photos.
Episodes:Discs: Doctor Who: Planet Of The Spiders will be released on April 18th and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.
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