CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: Planet of the Spiders / DVD Review

Planet of the Spiders
May to June 1974

"Is that fear I can feel in your mind? You are not accustomed to fear, are you Doctor? You are very wise to be afraid of me"

On a quiet summer's day in 1974 everything changed for a certain generation of young Doctor Who fans. As Mark Gatiss succinctly summarises in the documentary that accompanies this story, we watched with a sense of tragic inevitability as the face that we'd grown up with was replaced with that of a complete stranger. There is definitely a period in every fan's life when that one change matters most of all. Yes, we've seen them come and go but there's always one regeneration (and Planet of the Spiders was the first time we'd heard it called that) never to be forgotten.

As the fella with the 'teeth and curls' materialised on the floor of UNIT HQ that early summer evening, I felt, along with millions of other 11 year olds I'm sure, that one very special journey had ended and, filled with trepidation, was aware that a new one was about to begin. To put not too fine a point on it, it mattered because it was a signal that some part of your childhood was over and, like you, the series itself had changed and matured.

This change coincided with that period of awkwardness, coupled with the onset of puberty, where you're neither child nor adult but you're trying your best to deal with emotions in a grown up way. This coincidence is noted by John Williams so eloquently over at Tachyon TV where the story's "emphasis on adult themes, points the way to the relative sophistication of the Hinchcliffe era" and the regeneration here is a quiet, still moment that's light years from the volcanic razzamatazz of later sequences and succeeds in underlining the Doctor's close relationship with his Earth based 'family' of the period.

It's this feeling that ensures this six parter will always be cherished despite its glaring deficiencies and indulgences. Watching this again recently, I could even forgive the Live and Let Die Bond pastiche in episode two. Afterall, in an overall running time of 150 minutes, it's only an 11 minute sequence of Pertwee inspired self-parody and lunacy as well as his own salute to the little team of stunt men that were such a part of the era - Pat Gorman, Terry Walsh and Stuart Fell. So what if Lupton and his spider could have whisked themselves off and avoided a jamboree of gyroplanes, the frankly ultra-camp Whomobile, a hovercraft chase and comedy policemen more concerned with speed limits than seeing a glittery flying saucer on wheels mowing down pensioners on country lanes?

It's a last moment of childishness in an otherwise quite sophisticated parable about growing up, facing your fear, controlling your ego that's so thoroughly symbolised in the sub-plots about Tommy (and helped immeasurably by a brilliant performance from John Kane), the twin figures of Cho-je and K'anpo and, of course, the major story arc of the Doctor's curiosity getting the better of him. The synthesis of immaturity and maturity is perfectly summarised by Cho-je in the story with "The old man must die, and the new man will discover to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed."

In a way, the theme of the Doctor facing his own ego is perhaps, as Paul Cornell suggests, a consequence of the Third Doctor's own arrogance and paternalism and they are some of the traits, along with the character's conservatism, that the era has been criticised for. Cornell rightly points out that the death of the innocent Professor Clegg doesn't exactly advance the Doctor's cause. It seems fitting that the story deals with these issues and I disagree with Terence Dicks's view, in The Final Curtain, that the Doctor should not be shown as so flawed a character. That would make for a very dull hero. 
... paying the price for his own acquisitive nature
Layered in with all the Zen/Tibetan Buddhism and its philosophical focus on cycles of rebirth is the heavier symbolism of those female spiders. In an era where the show was acknowledging, in its own quaint ways, the impact of feminism on working women's lives with, for example, the introduction of journalist Sarah Jane Smith, Planet of the Spiders posits an intriguing courtship between male characters like Lupton, hungry for power, or Barnes, seeking some sort of peace, and the 'sisters' of Metebelis Three.

On the disc's commentary, Letts indicates that his use of female spiders in the story was partly because he was intrigued by the fact that the female of the species devour their mates shortly after copulation. Planet of the Spiders is pretty much that idea writ large, with images of huge spiders leaping onto the backs of male characters containing a disturbing, violently sexual charge. These symbols of female energy can again be seen as constructive and destructive, part of the cycle of birth and death, of transformation that is at the heart of the story as much as the circular symbolism of the web and the mandala that represent completeness.

The ultimate expression of the all devouring female is, of course, the Great One and her pleasure in not only consuming her mate the Doctor, here facing the fear of his own mortality and also paying the price for his own acquisitive nature, but also possessing the symbol of power, the penis-like blue crystal. When the Doctor enters the cave, his body blasted by deadly radiation, the crystal is seen to penetrate the web of power built by this huge spider and creates "a positive feedback loop" or as Valeria Finucci would have it, in her own examination of female spider symbolism in The Manly Masquerade, the Great One "in a stated need of reaching orgasm creates in man a fear of dismemberment, castration, poisoning." The blue phallus is contested over by as many male characters where Lupton sees it as the reward for the years of bitterness and resentment he has endured in his rejection by capitalist society and then through its influence Tommy passes from childhood into adulthood.

The latter, simply by dint of Kane's great performance, sensitively handles a young man with learning difficulties struggling with the spider on his own back, a struggle that culminates in his own regeneration. This depiction of a mentally disabled man may be frowned upon now by the PC brigade, as Dicks and Letts observe on the commentary, but it's still an affecting portrayal even though writer Robert Sloman also had his own reservations about the inclusion of the character. It's one made all the more symbolic when Tommy reads 'The Tiger' from Blake's Songs of Experience to himself in the library and it beautifully echoes the story's theme of understanding, through experience, that you contain within you terrible things (your own ego or spider) that you must be free to control lest it control you.

Bound in with these themes is an unprecedented amount of continuity, both in story and in the repertory of actors that Letts employs, again providing a sense of psychological depth to the Doctor's fate here as well as the feeling of a last salute to the era. The young Doctor and his mentor who lived behind his house, first mentioned in The Time Monster, are reunited here; the blue crystal, Jo Grant and Metebelis Three link back to Carnival of Monsters (there are even clips from the story as Professor Clegg submits to the Doctor's Quatermass and the Pit inspired IRIS machine) and Jo's departure to the Amazon in The Green Death, and we discover the fate of Mike Yates since his fall from grace in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Along with the regular stunt team, the likes of George Cormack, Terence Lodge, Kevin Lindsay, Cyril Shaps, Walter Randall and Ysanne Churchman also return to Who acting duties. 
... Tibet-in-outer space
The one thing that doesn't really work are the Metebelis sequences. They unfortunately are the downside of Letts being on-trend with the story's depiction of the new religions and human potential movements of the 1970s. The late 1960s and 1970s were when many Westerners, particularly young people, were turning to the 'hippy trail' and the East for spiritual enlightenment, and when travel to India and Nepal was for the first time relatively easy and inexpensive for people in Europe and the USA.

The meditation centre itself is a fairly accurate view of the successful founding of Tibetan Buddhist temples and similar centres in England and Scotland that took place in the same period. As the wonderful production notes by Nicholas Pegg point out, David Bowie spent some time at the Scottish centre, Kagyu Samye Ling, and met Chimi Rimpoche who was partly the inspiration for K'anpo in the story. However, by 1974, it really was clear that the hedonism of the 1960s was over and, while much of the so called 'hippy chic' had by then been absorbed into mainstream culture, the human inhabitants of Metebelis simply reflect it in a rather exaggerated form with costume designer L. Rowland-Warne's over-sized flares, cheesecloth and afghan jackets. This is matched by Tibetan inspired set design for the village, the effectiveness of which is then hampered by stark overlighting and Letts's insistence of pushing his much favoured CSO beyond its limits.

The results look bright and cheap and it is interesting to note that set designer Rochelle Selwyn, in The Final Curtain, was not altogether happy with the lighting, particularly for the interiors of the spider's citadel. This is a shame as some of the visual effects for the spiders still just about pass muster, particularly the animatronic versions of the creatures. It is only when puppets are manipulated in front of yellow CSO, the Whomobile is seen to 'fly' and static backgrounds are composited into studio based sequences, that Letts's ambitions extend beyond their actual reach.

The depiction of Metebelis's human counter-culture (the 'Village People' as Pegg mocks in his production notes), where humans are the slaves and a meal ticket for the spiders, perhaps tries to express further the need for freedom from the violence, unrest and exploitation that the UK had descended into in the mid-1970s, one where a journalist like Sarah Jane Smith could slough off the spider on her back by willing herself to be free. Rather an optimistic view on the part of the story and somewhat burdened by 'hippy' cliche when just around the corner the spiders' own 'greed is good' egoism would be writ large post-1979.

The Metebelis scenes wouldn't be so bad but for some peculiar reason Gareth Hunt, as Arak, and Ralph Arliss, as Tuar, decide to go for West Country accents, ironic given Sarah's description of the meditation centre where the story kicks off as "a lamasery in darkest mummerset." Arliss, oddly enough, resembles the character of Kickalong that he would play in Nigel Kneale's own exploration of new age cults in 1979's Quatermass. In this Tibet-in-outer space setting poor Jenny Laird, as Tuar's mother, is the major acting casualty and though it's clear from her CV she has plenty of experience, hers is a terribly wooden performance that has nowhere to hide  
... the victim of his own ego
It is the Earth based settings, particularly at the meditation centre, that really work. The environs of the house are well realised and often lit with great sensitivity (even if Rochelle Selwyn complains about it being too dark in the cellar to see her elaborate cobweb work) and this matches the script's much more sophisticated handling of the characters, particularly those of Mike Yates (perhaps Richard Franklin's best ever Who performance), Sarah, Lupton (John Dearth fully exploring the character's motivations in a passionate performance) and Tommy.

Characters feel and act more naturalistically in this moodier environment and the reliance on viewers familiarity with the long-term plot and character developments, or what we would now call 'arcs', also benefits the drama. However, when we look at Planet of the Spiders now, and despite the warm glow of childhood nostalgia that it offers, it's tendency is to go through the motions that are emblematic of its era. In maturing the series for five years, here Letts was also preparing for it to move on it seems, he and his team having done pretty much all they could do with it. Overall, Season Eleven always felt very much like a Pertwee/Letts era swansong.

A symbolically rich soup, Planet of the Spiders is a fitting coda to the Pertwee era despite its length (six episodes was hard to sustain even then), the hectic juggling of production blocks that may have contributed to its ramshackle structure (episode five and six took a fair amount of reworking as you'll discover and major trims affected the first and second episodes) and a rather uneven tone. This tone originates in the producer's indulgence in his leading actor, his own Buddhist beliefs and an unswerving faith in the CGI of its day, CSO, to realise effects and design set pieces. There is much to enjoy here and Pertwee's performance is appropriately in proportion to the way the Third Doctor is seen as the victim of his own ego and he's supported by a UNIT 'family' where Benton and the Brigadier are more or less used as comedy foils and it is left to Yates and Sarah to provide the audience identification figures.

Special Features
Commentary with actors Elisabeth Sladen, Nicholas Courtney and Richard Franklin, producer / director Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks. Nostalgic, witty and quite moving when it gets to the final episode and they discuss Pertwee's departure.
The Final Curtain - five years after its re-invention in colour and its rise to massive popularity, it was time for Doctor Who's charismatic lead actor Jon Pertwee to move on... and with him the production team that had guided the show throughout that period.

This documentary looks at the background to the Third Doctor's swansong. With actors Jon Pertwee and Richard Franklin, producer / director Barry Letts, script editor Terrance Dicks, designer Rochelle Selwyn, visual effects assistant Mat Irvine and actor and author Mark Gatiss. Narrated by Glen Allen. Good, solid exploration of the development of the story, including the aborted 'The Final Game' script, plus a look at set design, the creation of the legendary Boris the spider and the reasons behind Pertwee's departure. Gatiss's childhood recollections of the story are spot on. 
John Kane Remembers... - actor John Kane memorably played the gentle, slow-witted Tommy, reborn through the power of the Metebelis crystal. An accomplished writer and series creator, Kane now lives in France, from where he looks back on his memories of the story. A lovely interview where he discusses his role in the story and working with the Doctor Who team with great recall.
Directing Who with Barry Letts
- Barry Letts is perhaps most famous as producer of Doctor Who, but he was also responsible for directing some of the show's best-loved stories. Barry looks back on his career as a director in this documentary.    
Now & Then
- the latest instalment in the ongoing series takes a trip back to some of the locations used during production of the story. 
'Planet of the Spiders' Omnibus Edition
- the full-length omnibus edit of the story, presented here totally unrestored. Relive Christmas 1974! Pop in your Robot DVD straight after.    
Omnibus Trailer     
Photo Gallery - production, design and publicity photos from the story.    
Radio Times Listings in PDF format.
Coming Soon - a trailer for the Mannequin Mania box set.   
Programme subtitles and subtitle Production Notes
Production notes on this release with great detail, insight and humour from Nicholas Pegg.

Planet of the Spiders
BBC 1974
2 | entertain / Released 18 April 2011 / BBCDVD3448 / Two disc DVD set / Duration: 360 mins / Cert: PG

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Comments
6 Responses to “CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: Planet of the Spiders / DVD Review”
  1. Incisive and literate as ever. I don't think Doctor Who was alone in not processing the long-term impact of the 1973 oil crisis on popular culture; the realisation of the clubs and drug scene in the 1977 Target episode 'Big Elephant' seemed to me to be rooted in the earlier part of the decade, and Katy Manning even wears what looks like a threadbare version of her 'Green Death' outfit. However, I do think it's noticeable, over the next three years, that Barry Letts has been succeeded by someone twenty years younger.

  2. FRANK says:

    Absolutely. By 1974 everything had changed but the West seemed determined to hold on to the promises of the 1960s. A lot of television of the period is still rooted in so called 'permissiveness' when in fact a harsher conservatism was already waiting in the wings.

    There are loads of dramas and comedies that think they are reflecting the times when in fact they are trotting out perceptions of a previous decade.

    When Hinchcliffe takes over there is a distinct hardening of attitudes in the show and his decision to move away from Earth-based stories and the UNIT structure is partly a way of avoiding the series becoming rooted in the past.

  3. Great review Frank! And thanks for the mention.

  4. FRANK says:

    A pleasure as always, John!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Literate my eye!!! Absolute gushing nonsense from a total ninny....

  6. C'mon, tell me what you really thought and stop hiding behind that anonymity!

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