Companion: Sarah Jane Smith
Written by: Robert Sloman (and Barry Letts)
Directed by: Barry Letts
Background & Significance: So the first thing I'm obligated to say is that "The Planet of the Spiders" is a regeneration story. Yes. It's the final story starring Jon Pertwee as The Doctor and in the end of this story he regenerates into Tome Baker. But more than anything what it does is bring to a close what is, arguably, the longest single-vision run on Doctor Who.
Between Jon Pertwee, Barry Letts, and Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who held a consistent feel throughout the five years of Pertwee. They were based on UNIT, lots of alien invasions, and kept a constant feel of adventures with Pertwee as the leading man of action. With Dicks leaving the show to return to freelance writing at the end of this story, Pertwee moving on to bigger and better things, and with Letts departing after Tom Baker's first story, "Robot", this story becomes not just the end of Pertwee, but for the end of this era of five years of mostly solid stories. And because one of the things I notice about creative types as they go on and hone their craft is that they only seem to niche closer and closer to what they want, this is the most Pertweeian, Dicksian, Lettsian story they ever did.
Because of the way television used to work, Doctor Who was structured very episodically, with each story being a one-and-done serial spread across several episodes. There weren't ongoing plot lines or mysteries. There weren't long story threads to build towards and wrap up, no "Bad Wolf" hints to seed throughout the season with promises of paying off in some big explosive finale. Hell, even the concepts of big explosive finales was barely something the show was starting to play with. All these elements would eventually grow more and more prevalent as you push Doctor Who towards something more and more modern (the 7th Doctor/Ace stuff is the most ready example because, quite frankly, it's the most modern of Doctor Who in every sense of the word), but "Planet of the Spiders" definitely defies that to give us a crazy cathartic trek that seems to capture everything great and weak about the Pertwee era.
Frontier in Space". The plan, originally, was to bring him back for Pertwee's finale, which would feature a Doctor/Master team-up/adventure in which The Master sacrifices himself to save The Doctor and we find out that The Master is the id to The Doctor's ego and that they are, in fact, the same person just divided into two halves. And, okay. I'm not exactly okay with that. Granted, I'm not a huge fan of Freud, but I'm really kinda glad that they didn't end up with that as the definitive word on The Master. I mean, why does that need to be who The Master is? Why does he need to be tied to The Doctor like that forever? Why can't it just be enough that he's an evil Time Lord from The Doctor's past?
Before they could do this, though, Master-actor Roger Delgado died in a car crash in Turkey before they could move on this Master finale and writers Robert Sloman and Barry Letts chucked out what they had and re-wrote an entirely story entirely, focusing on a new villain with different themes and this whole "Id/Ego Master/Doctor" thing is lost to a parallel universe and we don't have to deal with an absurd level of Freudian over-explaining of continuity. And while Delgado was a huge loss, I must admit I'm glad because knowing me and my views on Freud I woulda hated that and (quite frankly) it would have severely weakened the character of The Master.
But alas, "The Planet of the Spiders" is the end of Pertwee and it's a hell of an ending. Not as good as "War Games," but certainly one of the best final stories a team could ask for.
So let's get to it!
And yet here we are. And right off the bat we’re in the middle of a story that feels like the beginning of an ending. And I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the fact that we start with a deceptively simply country scene, with Mike Yates wandering through some road somewhere and with some cows hanging around. And then we have The Doctor and The Brigadier attending a magic show of some sort. Or maybe it’s the way we’re pulled into the story slowly, with the focus up front being deceptively tight and then blossoming out and out and out as the story increases in scope until it’s nothing short of a gripping epic.
Or maybe it’s my own particular baggage. I find myself paying more attention to the opening shots of endings because there’s such a built-in something or another in them. Maybe it’s because I’m interested in seeing the way the end of something begins. And it’s really just the first ten pages or so as they set up all the dominoes that are going to topple over as the story goes on. For Doctor Who and an ending story that’s six parts long, you’re gonna be looking at this first part and seeing what they incorporate. Incorporated here is a lot of little pieces coming together. There’s the reappearance of Jo in the form of the package sent to UNIT HQ. And there’s the return of the crystal The Doctor had given to her, the one that he had stolen from Metebelis 3. There’s psychic impressions of the Drashigs from The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, calling back one of the best action setpiece moments of the entire era.
But what’s interesting is the way in which this is a Doctor Who story that is trying to do new things and pushing the story of Doctor Who in new and varied directions. We get the continued saga of Mike Yates who has been discharged from UNIT and has now gone rogue as some sort of freelance investigator guy. We get the mysterious goings on of the Buddhist house getaway place and whatever magicks they’re conjuring up with their rhythmic chanting. And we also get some lovely reveal about where The Brigadier’s watch came from. Sure, it’s vaguely a Jack’s Tattoos moment, or could be, but Letts and Sloman use it to bring up a various facet of The Brigadier’s personality or backstory that we previously have not been privy to.
Good thing, too. There’s giant spiders about.
Okay. Here’s the thing about this chase scene. Yes. It’s a time waster. Yes. It doesn’t accomplish anything. Yes. The spider coulda teleported Lupton outta there way before we even got to the cliffhanger. Yes. The police officer is completely superfluous and unnecessary and he accomplishes absolutely nothing. Yes. The shortcut doesn’t make sense. Yes. I have no idea how Lupton managed to run halfway across a landing strip, hop in a gyrocopter, slap on the helmet (do bad guys care about helmets?), fire up the copter, and fire up the engine and get the chopper blades moving all without the police officer, Benton, Sarah Jane, The Doctor, or The Brigadier taking any sort of notice. Yes. Tons of it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
There’s a thing about the Pertwee era that makes it… special to me. It’s by no means my favorite era, but it's up there. I have to point out that in terms of sheer funitude you can’t get much better than the Pertwee era. In no other era is it more obvious that the cares of the creative types behind the curtain are interested in nothing more than entertaining you for twenty four minutes at a time. It’s always trying to make you laugh, to make you feel, to make you have a really good time. And that’s all this is. It’s designed to be delightful and exciting and charming. And you know what? They have the room to do it. They have six episodes to burn through. Why not throw away a twelfth of this story to a chase sequence that’s pretty thrilling and wildly entertaining?
I love it. I don’t care. I just don’t. You can tell me you don’t like it and that’s great. But there’s plenty of people who love the Douglas Adams season and plenty of people who like “The Mutants”. We like different things. And if this is the story that Pertwee’s going to go out on and the story that Barry Letts is going to go out on why not go out in the blaze of glory that covers all the great stuff about the era? The Pertwee era had tons of these moments and exciting bits and chase sequences and James Bond madness. The Whomobile? That’s completely insane and doesn’t make a lick of sense, but to complain is to miss the point. The Whomobile is cool. Who cares?
The Three Doctors”, but it’s unsettling to see Lupton just stroll in and attacking everyone he comes across.
Again, we’re just getting started.
As the entire era was script edited by Terrance Dicks, it’s worth mentioning that Dicks’s villains are almost always unequivocably black and white. Sloman highlights this in one scene in the monastery where Lupton talks about his influences and where he came from and says that he’s a genius awesome salesman person who was outsted from his firm, found himself out on the street, and sought refuge at this Buddhist retreat in the country. Here, he sought to regroup. But also power. And from here he will take over his old firm, the country, and then the world! Mwahaha.
And then we get a nice quip from his assistant, who says “I came here just to look for peace of mind.”
It’s deliciously comedic and deeply sardonic. It’s a critique of the notion that every single story has to be universe shatteringly massive and everything needs to be about time collapsing or Earth falling to the Daleks or The Master preparing to go out on a universe conquering mission to establish a six trillion year reign. I mean, why the hell did a guy go to a rural Buddhist meditation center in an effort to take over the world? It’s just… it’s crazy and insane. And if you’re going to go anywhere, why Buddhism? I mean, people go to Buddhism because they want to center themselves and because they’re casting off the burdens of society. It’s just… it’s the most insanely insane thing I think I’ve ever seen.
And this is where the story kinda frays for people. Once the story hits Metebilis 3 it becomes wheel-spinny and padded in the way only Pertwee stories ever are. I’m not sure if that’s accurate yet, though. Yes, not much is accomplished on Metebilis 3 in this episode. But it’s hardly a bad time, methinks. To the contrary, it’s well-constructed to the point that it’s impossibly disorienting. All of a sudden we’re slammed onto this entirely alien planet where we don’t know the rules or the mythology or anything. We get it in places. But we’re just trying to keep up at this point. And to be honest, that’s a good place to be. It’s better to have an audience engaged and attempting to make sense of what’s happening than have them bored out of their minds or predicting where the story’s going.
Amidst all this is more great Pertwee. Watching Sarah Jane get lost is one of the most thrilling and exciting CSO transitions I’ve seen on the show. Likewise watching Pertwee kick some ass on Metebilis 3 is really great stuff and a wonderful last hurrah for Venusian Akido.
No, instead, it gives Sarah Jane the opportunity to be awesome and get captured and offered up as steak to the Eight Legs. So it’s… you know… Pertwee as usual.
But that’s okay, because if we’re going to send out, why not go out with all the tropes? I mean, that’s what I’ve been saying. And yeah, the episode ends with The Doctor and Sarah both in Eight Legs custody so it’s basically exactly what you’d expect from a Pertwee story, but not in a bad way. There’s plenty of moments that really work, such as the Sarah Jane turns around and comes face to face with Lupton, which is a great creep out moment that paints him in a very sinister light, but in the best of ways.
What’s interesting in this story is the Eight Legs. The Eight Legs, if you haven’t guessed, are the eponymous spiders of the story, the bad guy monsters if you will. And honestly, they’re an element of the story that never fails to disappoint me. For one, the title “Planet of the Spiders” is an absolutely drop dead sexy title. It feels impossibly ominous before you even get into the idea that this is the Third Doctor’s regeneration story. “Spiders” as a word is impossibly specific and sounds like a final destination and it turns seemingly innocuous creatures (most spiders are harmless and just want to kill icky insects) into terrifying bad guys. I mean, do you want to go up against spiders that big? I know I don’t.
If there’s one way the spiders are lacking, it’s in their mythology. If it were me, the spiders would have been brought to Metebilis 3 by the TARDIS back in "The Green Death” and would have wandered out while The Doctor was undergoing that madness. This is my wish because of what happens in subsequent parts. Instead Sloman writes that they were brought over by the human colonists and escaped from the spaceship after it landed on the planet. The spiders moved into the caves and were changed by the blue crystals, which turned them giant and gave them power over the Two Legs (as they called humans). It’s a choice that pretends to build texture into the world, but I don’t see why the spiders either couldn’t have always been on Metebilis 3 to begin with, or you have them be a product of The Doctor’s journey, making him partly responsible for everything that’s happened. Thematically, mine is better.
We also get an interesting development with the crystal, in which previously undiscussed character Tommy has his mind opened by the crystal and it seemingly cures him of his (poorly choiced) mental retardation. Before he was a poorly represented disenfranchised individual, and now he’s reading William Blake. What I like about this is the way the story represents the concept and then explains it later. We see the crystal affect Tommy’s mind, and then we see its effects, and then we get an explanation about what the crystal does later and how that enhanced the spiders. It’s not even shoehorned either, because it’s used to describe the spiders, but it also reflects back on what we saw with Tommy just a few minutes earlier.
It’s good story telling that doesn’t rely on hand holding is what I’m saying. So… that.
To be honest, this is the way the story should play it. If you’re going to pad a story somewhere, it’s best in the middle where it’s mostly forgettable. Best leave the audience with some rousing adventures and fast paced towards the end. Why? Because my god. Here I am in episode five and I’m wondering why the hell I ever even doubted this story. Sure, it’s been a good time, but there’s very little to discuss in episode four. No. This has everything. A Queen Spider plot, the threat of the Great One, and a mini Spider invasion.
Some of this is down to Tommy’s heroic moment of badassery. Tommy is the character who we cared about because he was… shall we say disenfranchised. And here he is at the end of this episode: a man full of promise and understanding and inner peace. It’s a Han Solo moment except without being earned. Tommy didn’t really “earn” his intelligence. He was plot contrivanced into it, with the only reason for him getting this gift is because of his childlike wonderment and good heart. So it’s not really… earned, I don’t think. But it is that moment where the story component you had previously disregarded because it was disregardable comes back and turns into a key lynchpin moment of the story in a truly satisfying way.
And then there’s the question of Sarah Jane and how… weird that whole thing is. It’s weird that Sarah Jane wound up back in the web room after she had that discussion of the Queen. It’s also strange how eager and rushy she is with everything else. To the untrained eye she’s just bubbly Sarah Jane, but… she isn’t is she? She can’t be? I mean, not to spoil, but it’s true that she’s a little bit off and not everything seems wonderful. And it’s weird how the Queen was the last person to talk to her. And the Queen… I’m not entirely sure we should trust her, what do you think?
One of the things that strikes me about regeneration stories is how they bring out the best in every single actor who’s playing The Doctor. More than not, the final story for a particular Doctor (when they know it’s a regeneration) is really a banner story for that actor. “The War Games” is easily Troughton’s best story. No one argues about Davison and “Caves”. And here we have Pertwee giving the best performance of his era in the one scene between him and The Great One. Truly, it is outstanding to watch. It’s baffling to see The Doctor tricked so completely, especially this Doctor. Between Pertwee and Tom Baker, you had almost twelve years of The Doctor as impossibly infallible.
The 3rd Doctor was always an outsider, a rebel, a fighter. He was stuck at UNIT during this incarnation and while he was there he never became a full military man. He was never a cog in the machine. He always worked with them but with his own flair of Time Lordiness. This is the guy who broke military protocol to save the Silurians and disobeyed direct orders in order to stop Project Golden Age. He was always his own man. Even the one moment it seems like he went out and teamed with the bad guy he was always on the side of the right. He’s a champion of justice in the world. To use alignment rules: he was Lawful Neutral.
And Pertwee nails it. He does with that exactly what he needs to. He is scared. Scared beyond anything you could possibly imagine. It’s beyond anything you could possibly conceptualize this Doctor being. He’s always in command. He’s always in charge. Unflappable. I mean have you seen his suits? And have you seen the way he eats because, quite simply, he doesn’t give a frak? I mean, that’s his thing, and now they have stripped him of his most defining characteristic. It’s a complete violation of The Doctor in every sense of the word.
Leaving us here is genius. It’s the final hurrah of the Pertwee era and what we have coming next is his final blaze of glory. All he needs is a pep talk, which he hurriedly gets while under the gun from The Great One, in the same room as the Queen Spider, and with four other spiders firing psychokinetic blasts just on the other side of the door. Come on, Doctor. Hurry, hurry. And yet please do not. I am not ready to say good bye to you yet.
And yet we must. Here we go.
Jon Pertwee is one of those Doctors who never really stands out to me as “one of the best Doctors ever.” And yeah. That statement is not really that fair at all. I’m of the opinion that there has been no bad Doctors in the history of the show. We’re talking officially sanctioned Doctors, I mean. So the eleven who have been The Doctor have all been excellent in their own particular way. It just becomes picking out which one speaks to you most. And most of the reason I love Pertwee is because of his swagger and his confidence and his demure. It’s clear that Pertwee only ever really played himself when he played The Doctor. Hell, he even admitted as much. And love of the 3rd Doctor is really all about whether or not you connect with Pertwee as a person because his Doctor is essentially him.
It’s because you’re basically watching Jon Pertwee enact his own death.
Now that’s dour, but look at it. That’s what we’re watching. And I have to applaud any older actor who really goes for the dramatic realism of their character going through a traumatic process involving their old age because it’s a real acceptance of mortality for a character who might not be so far from it either. It’s no mistake that Pertwee looks impossibly old in this story, and seeing him embrace that age and really go for it is really off-putting. It’s like watching John Spencer have a massive heart attack in West Wing’s “The Birnam Wood”, especially given that Spencer died of a heart attack less than fourteen months after the airing of that episode.
And Pertwee really kills the scene. There’s a reason the scene has made me cry every single time I watch it. It’s hard to watch, and it’s hard to watch Sarah Jane deal with the fact that The Doctor is regenerating (or dying, really. She’s never been through this before). And it’s hard to watch The Doctor ask K’Anpo Rimpoche if this is the only way it can go down and K’Anpo tells him it is so. It’s powerful to watching him stand up, swallow his pride and his fear, and demand that K’Anpo give him the crystal so he can get going. It’s just… it’s his “and I’m not going to let you stop me now moment” but much more internalized and less bombastic.
Yet for all this scope, the story feels remarkably contained and personal. Perhaps it’s because we know The Doctor is going to win, or because it’s really about The Doctor facing off against a true glutton of knowledge. It really does feel intensely personal despite everything. Hell, even the way The Doctor goes into the TARDIS once he’s defeated The Great One and how he’s stuck in the time vortex but the TARDIS brings him back to UNIT HQ is kinda… insane. I know that it’s probably just some time displacement that makes him come back to UNIT some three weeks after the fact, but in my interpretation of events, he was spinning out of control for an indeterminate amount of time before being dragged back to Earth.
And even though it’s crushing to watch this Doctor start to regenerate, there’s an inherent victory in it. He’s pleased with himself. He did good work. And The Brigadier’s classic “Here we go again” is a wonderful reminder that we’re about to go into some Tom Baker and that wonderfulness.
It helps. And a wonderful promise for where the show is going next.
No, it's a wonderful send off and one of the best send offs for any era of Doctor Who. It helps that this story has just about everything you could possibly want from a Pertwee story (the only thing that's missing is The Master and given how that could have turned out I must admit that's probably a good thing) and it really is a cracking good tale, rife with Buddhist ideals and concepts and wonderful set pieces and a fantastic, iconic villain that makes for an excellent, creepy adversary for a final Doctor tale.
One of the things that I'm not quite sure this story sells with is the notion that The Doctor is greedy for knowledge. To borrow a phrase, it's akin to watching "Planet of Fire" and seeing a massive payoff for things that weren't set off. The Doctor, in a lot of ways, is always seeking to better himself, to learn about different cultures and different places and times and history, so in that it works. But at the same time, I'm not entirely sure it works with Pertwee's Doctor. No. Pertwee's Doctor was always too aloof and self-assured to fall victim to the things that this story's attempting to indict him for, and no amount of telling with convince me that The 3rd Doctor's ultimate downfall was a rampaging quest for knowledge and theft of some sacred texts. The blue crystal was an innocent steal. How was he to know?
Because then what we're left with in this story is the fact that The Doctor has vastly underestimated his enemy and that is his undoing. How many times have we seen this Doctor make a mistake? How many times has he slipped up and admitted he was wrong? It's here that we see him recklessly running into situations and getting in way over his head. He should have made less assumptions and taken the lesson in humility, especially given the terms of his previous regeneration. Cast down to Earth and confined there in exile? That's pretty damn humbling if you ask me. I mean, wasn't that the whole point of his exile? To tell him that The Doctor was getting restless and to punish him for it?
Next Time!: 6th Doctor! Owl slugs! Strangling! A dilemma! Twins! And a whole massive cluster fuck of bad decisions! We always follow up a regeneration story with a post regeneration and like it or not, we're gonna talk about "The Twin Dilemma"! Coming Next Tuesday!