Monday, 19 August 2013

Planet of the Spiders written by Robert Sloman (with Barry Letts) and directed by Barry Letts

This story in a nutshell: Aracnophobics beware! The Giant Spiders of Metebelies Three are on Earth! The Doctor has to face his fears because that is far more important than just going on living…

Good Grief: Without criticizing Patrick Troughton, it has to be acknowledged that Jon Pertwee took a dying show (the BBC were half convinced to axe the thing and it was only because they couldn't think of anything better that they gave Doctor Who another shot in colour) and turned it into a ratings success. Troughton's last batch of episodes were lucky to reach five million and could fall as low as three whereas in Pertwee's final two season it was regularly soaring to the heights of ten or eleven million - they are numbers that you simply cannot argue with. And whilst much of the reason can be attributed to Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks' approach to the show, the leading man is always one of the biggest draws to any television show and Pertwee deserves his portion of the victory as well. Not the most obvious choice to play the Doctor and surprising the audience by choosing to play the role entirely straight, Pertwee offered an intelligent, arrogant man of action who dashed through his stories like a moral compass, holding the sonic screwdriver in one hand and with his other arm around his pretty assistant. It has become popular to knock his Doctor (and era) in recent years but there must have been a reason so many warmed to his interpretation of the character (although it has to be said that his successor was even more popular, numbers wise, building on his success). Planet of the Spiders proves to be an appropriate final showing for the third Doctor, a story where he gets to show off all those sides of his character that made him so unique. There are cuddly scenes with the Brigadier, more serious moments in the UNIT lab, a whole episode devoted to his love of fast vehicles, plenty of opportunities to glitter (TM Tom Baker) in the face monsters, an opportunity to re-visit his childhood and even some lovely development at the climax where he comes to acknowledge his arrogance and face his fears. Barry Letts (and Robert Sloman) ensure that as the third Doctor bats his butterfly wings one last time we get to see all the facets and colours. He’s fun and playful, a man of action, beautifully serious at times and violently takes on his opponents. With a mixture of Earthbound  action and alien landscapes, it sums up his era rather nicely too. The Doctor plays along with the Professor for a while before surprising him with the truth that he knows he is a powerful clairvoyant – the Doctor is every bit the performer as much as Clegg. Only Benton’s coffee can rouse the Doctor from his trance. He spent some of the finest days of his life with the Hermit from Gallifrey, learning to see into his mind and look at the universe afresh. There has always been tangible chemistry between Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen but just watch the scene in episode two where he doesn’t listen to anything she is saying then makes her repeat it again when she says something that finally catches his attention. There is far more the sense of two equals working together with Sarah Jane, like it was with Liz Shaw. You have to admire the vanity of the man as he stops the Brigadier from shooting at Lupton because he might damage his car. If his role as the Doctor was something of a mid life for Pertwee then he gets one dramatic final flourish in episode two where he gets to play James Bond in high speed vehicles across a variety of landscapes. He talks about the TARDIS as though she were alive and always leaves the actual spot that they land up to her. The Doctor and Sarah share some very funny black humour later in the story, whimsy through adversity as they find themselves in the Spiders' larder. I was laughing my head of at the Doctor wiggling his way free of the webbing crying ‘Harry Hackenschmidt!’ - he could sure be a facetious fella at times! The Doctor is not used to losing control and being humiliated and frightened in the way the Great One pulls at him with invisible puppet strings. The Doctor accepts that it was his greed for knowledge that set all this off, stealing the crystal in the first place. Interestingly Barry Letts was very much of the opinion that the Doctor should be made to repay for his arrogance and greed (his Buddhist philosophy emerging) whereas Terrance Dicks disagreed strongly but did not oppose the producer. I am inclined to agree with the former, it warms my heart to think that the Doctor would acknowledge and repent for his failings before his death. His reunion with his mentor is very poignant because the Doctor shows rare reverence for a character and we discover that the disciplines of the Time Lords were not for the Doctor and that was why he stole the TARDIS. I’m so glad that the third Doctor got such a brave exit – he was always one to walk into danger and here he faces his fear even at the cost of his own life. He is missing for three weeks after confronting the Great One as the cells in his body degenerate and the TARDIS brings him home, which tellingly is Earth, UNIT Headquarters. Pertwee is astonishingly gentle and devastating in his last scene, proof of what a superb actor he is right up to the last moment and the silent close up on his ghostly face when he dies always reduces me to tears. He had me in rapt attention right up to his last breath.

My Sarah Jane: I thought it would be hard to watch this story after the news of Elisabeth Sladen’s death. That night I had guests and had to hold myself together with smiles until they had left but as soon as the door was shut I collapsed in the hall and burst into tears and couldn't stop.If that makes me sound like a big wuss then I am unconcerned, this was the first time that grief has touched my life in this way. Where somebody whose career I followed and admired had been snatched away without warning.  Look back on my previous reviews – I have always considered Sarah Jane the finest Doctor Who companion and Lis Sladen’s commitment to the character and the show has always impressed above and beyond any other actor that has appeared in Doctor Who. It was a devastating blow to lose the Doctor’s best friend; it felt like a little bit of my childhood had died. But when I stuck Planet of the Spiders on I didn’t find myself choking back tears but as enthralled as ever by her superb performance – I laughed at Sarah poking fun at the Buddhism, loved her awesome interaction with the Doctor, screamed as the spider appeared on her back and she showed real fear and finally the tears came as she wept over the Doctor’s death. We shouldn't selfishly groan about what we wont see from Elisabeth in the future but bask in the work she has done over the years in bringing such a marvelous character to life. I intend to do just that – I will always love Sarah Jane and I shall continue to enjoy her unique contribution to the Doctor Who universe. The commentaries on these DVDs are a wonderful bonus because we can still spend many hours in Elisabeth’s company and listen to her unique take on the show that brought her so much popularity. Sarah is still after a good story and cannot resist Mike Yates’ summons to the monastery in deepest marmoset, although you get the strong impression that she feels something for the man as well after the incident with the Golden Age bunch. There is something personal, almost flirtatious about their banter and I think she would have been drawn to the monastery whether there was a story there or not. She’s still a career girl, working for Metropolitan magazine and it’s a shame that we lost that once she was whisked off into time and space by the fourth Doctor (with the odd acknowledgement - Terror of the Zygons). She is respectful to a point but can only keep a poker face for so long when discussing the activities of the Buddhist monastery (‘like contemplating their belly buttons?’). Sarah emphasizes with Tommy, she doesn’t patronise him and as such he is drawn to her. Like so many she is clearly not keen on spiders (I'm one of those weirdos who thinks they are rather cute). I love how real Sarah feels, discussing fabulous planets and aliens like talking about fish and chips and the Liverpool docks. She's already had a moment to pause and consider the danger of travelling with the Doctor when she thought he was dead in The Monster of Peladon and we get a glimpse of her future grief when he lies unconscious outside the TARDIS on Metebelies Three. They saved the greatest 'Good grief!' for last, the spine tingling sight of the spider clinging onto Sarah's back.  I love how she smells his coat to remind herself of him three weeks after he has gone to his death, suggesting an intimacy and warmth between them and a longing for his return. Her tears at his death make this easily the most affecting regeneration, it genuinely feels as though the Doctor has died and his companion cannot cope with the loss.

Chap With Wings: Another tragic loss to Doctor Who making the commentary on this story an especially valuable one. It’s a shame that we couldn't have had more of the Brig in the third Doctor’s last story (compared to say Robot where he is a strong presence throughout) but as a joyous indictment of the Brig's relationship with the Doctor relationship and the way it has grown we get to witness the two of them socialising together in the first episode. Of course the Brig likes a bit of the old exotic dancing, the dirty get! There’s a very revealing moment that the Brigadier seems to want to skip over – a moment of intimacy in Brighton with a young lady called Doris who would go on to be a very important person in his life.Watch out for his typically stalwart expression when the Whomobile takes to the skies.

Camp Captain: It's most unlike Doctor to look back to previous adventures and capitalise on them so to have Mike Yates come back after his betrayal of the Doctor and the Brigadier in Invasion of the Dinosaurs is an unusual moment of development and allows for some redemption of the character. After his devastated reaction to Jo's engagement to Cliff, it is possible that it was losing her that was the turning point for his character so it is rather lovely that he would try and re-define himself as an individual who shouldn't be afraid of his feelings in this story. Mike is trying to find himself in a Tibetan Monastery after his discharge from UNIT. Sarah comments on the fiendish cunning of the man hiding away and spying on the spooky goings on in the cellar. Trust an ex-UNIT operative to sniff out the one monastery in England to be conjuring evil giant Spiders. His compassion protects him when he is attacked by the Spiders, but then he always was something of a sensitive soul. Whilst the character was set up originally to have a bit of a fling with Jo Grant, his relationship with Sarah is far more flirtatious and you could see how if the wonderful Ian Marter wasn’t available that Sarah and Mike could have gone off into space with the Doctor. After their interaction in this story I can see how this could have been made to work for the benefit of the series.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘When everything is new, can anything be a surprise?’
‘Bow down before me planets! Bow down stars!’
‘A tear, Sarah Jane? No don’t cry. While there’s life, there’s hope.’

The Good Stuff: Cobwebs strewn and giant spiders jumping on peoples backs – it's about time somebody drew on one of the most prevalent phobias and how appropriate to end the Pertwee years with such a memorable monster from an era that gave us mannequins, gargoyles and maggots. Cyril Shaps is one of those actors that exudes amiability and whatever guise he turns up in (even whiny Viner from Tomb of the Cybermen, but especially the Archemandrite in The Androids of Tara) I cannot help but be drawn to him on screen. Here he plays a showman with a real talent for ESP, trying to hide the gift that has cursed him in plain sight. The Doctor's assertion that all human beings have Clegg's capabilities given the right genetic switch being thrown is intriguing and certainly worthy of further exploration (The Tomorrow People had a good stab at that). There is a real contemporary seventies atmosphere to the first episode that we haven't seen a great deal of in season eleven whilst we have been having fun in the Middle Ages, Exxilon and Peladon. Shots of Sarah leaping from a train station and into a tasty red sports car could have come from any contemporary drama of the time. Who ever knew that chanting could be quite as creepy as this? Revealing once again that the Pertwee era was the most serialised of all the classic periods; here we catch up with Mike after his breakdown, find out a little about Jo's adventures up the Amazon and witness a reunion between the Doctor and his mentor. It is appropriate that Planet of the Spiders wraps up all of these threads, the plotting again following up on the Buddhist themes of cleaning out the clutter before the new man breaths life. You can actually hear Katy Manning reading the letter aloud it captures Jo's voice so well and Pertwee dictates wistfully, clearly still missing his friend. Topping off a nourishing first episode, excitement abounds as UNIT HQ descends into psychic chaos, the Professor screams his last and a giant spider appears in the monastery, quivering on its eight legs. I've heard complaints about the silky Spider voices and whilst they can be shrill on the odd occasion (and that weird chorus of 'hmms' they make when giving their assent is just bizarre), I find the voice work of Ysanne Churchman and Kismet Delgado some of the best in the series. What is it with the Doctor's friends agreeing to sacrifice themselves for the Doctor? It's Benton's turn this time around, the lovable old grunt. The idea of a final confrontation between the Doctor and the Master to top of this era is an intoxicating one but tragic events scuppered those plans and so Letts had to fall back on the idea of giving the Doctor a new foe for this story in the form of Lupton. In many ways he is a far more sinister character than the Master (who had become a little cuddly by the time of Frontier in Space), a failed man who seeks power over others to make himself feel more important. John Dearth gives a fantastically feral, sweaty, violent and nasty, just-this-side-of-psychotic performance, a desperate man is always uncomfortable to watch and this is a guy who is past his prime but doesn't know it yet. From the outset it is clear he has got a nasty surprise coming to him and given his previous complications in life it is unfortunate that he should choose such a self destructive path. Everybody piling into Bessie to chase the Whomobile should be tacky but I was cheering with joy - if you can't be a little silly and self congratulatory in your swansong then when can you? Hooray for the comedy copper (he, Stuart Fell's tramp and Pigbin Josh from The Claws of Axos should have set up their own rural sitcom) who is utterly bemused by all the space vehicles that keep racing by him in the English countryside. I wont deny that the chase is indulgent (how could I not - it's over twenty minutes long!) but Letts directs excitingly and it is full of comedy touches that make the absence of a narrative for an episode speed by enjoyably enough. The twitching, breathing spider court is a memorable set up. I wondered how this story would hold up to some of my non fan arachnophobic friends and showed them a couple of scenes but they couldn't get past the shot of the Spider rearing up to attack Sarah and then leaping on her back! Who knows what pandemonium would have occurred had they gone with the original, breathing Spiders. Pertwee gets to indulge in a spectacular fight with three guards – Hiya! Judo Chop! Sorry, forgive me. Whilst there is an element of the theatre (there is no way you will be convinced that Metebelies Three is anything but a staged planet) about them, the night time scenes are evocatively lit (both in the shadowy house and the moonlit exterior) and the funereal bell tolling pre-empts the tragedy to come. Thank goodness I didn't show my mates the Queen Spider - she has horrid shiny eyes and twitching mandibles - it really is a grisly piece of design work. There was perhaps too much subtlety going on with the Tommy thread when I first watched this story and I found it quite boring but through adult eyes I can know see how the Buddhist themes are re-affirmed through him. John Kane’s performance as he reads the child’s book with ease is affecting, a mixture of relief and awe that comprehending the symbols on the page is so effortless. You can count on Terrance Dicks to ensure that the set up of the Spiders on Metebelies Three is going to be back up by an appropriate back story - the colonists came to the planet and the Spiders came scuttling out of the spaceship into the crystal caves and grown out of all proportion, physically and intellectually. There's one moment when the humans in the cellar are surrounded by numerous Spiders, surely the worst nightmare for a large proportion of the audience. The exchange: ‘Tommy you’re just like everybody else’ ‘I sincerely hope not’ is loaded with meaning– after being an outsider all his life Tommy is now in the position to fit in and he cannot imagine anything worse. I cannot think of anybody finer than George McCormack to play K'anpo, he radiates warmth, wisdom and good humour. In his hands, the wise old mentor that the Doctor has waxed lyrical about lives up to his reputation. The Doctor’s mentor knows that they are both soon to regenerate and it is fascinating to see them interpreted in different ways, one is played as a delightful rebirth and the other a tragic murder. Visually the Great One is one of the more formidable foes that the Doctor has encountered but when you add that hysterical, vehement voice she become more than worthy of the rare honour of being a Doctor Who villain that manages to kill the main man. How could this possibly be the final Pertwee story without an almighty explosion and Barry Letts goes all out blowing up a mountain. I love how K’anpo gives the regeneration a little push, gently easing the Doctor on his way.

The Bad Stuff: Oh dear, the Whomobile taking to the skies is exactly the sort of effects disaster that Michael Grade leaps upon when trying to formulate a prosecution against the show. Similarly the effects shot of Sarah transporting is one of the most important of the story (it is a shocking moment, but the realisation is shocking too). How Jenny Laird has an acting award named after her baffles given her performance in Planet of the Spiders, she is hilariously awful (‘I shant let them take you! I shant! I shant!’) and this is precisely the sort of thing that Barry Letts is normally very good at weeding out so I'm not sure what went wrong here. Those are some of the least aesthetically pleasing corridors on Metebelies Three and the Spiders larder feels as though it could do wth more cobwebs or menace or anything...although it is hilarious that they have gone to the lengths of spinning webbed cushions for their victims! Why writers give critics openings with lines like 'this is monotonous!' is a mystery. What is up with episode five's cliffhanger oddly re-edited and five minutes into episode six?

The Shallow Bit: I kind of find Ralph Arliss really attractive – even dressed up like a hippy. Which possibly makes me nuts.

Result: Arachnophobics beware! Metebelians flee! The Spiders are attacking! Often unfairly criticised for a couple of dodgy effects, Planet of the Spiders is a fine celebration of the Pertwee era and a memorable tale for the actor who brought the show a new direction and success to go out on. Rather than concentrating on its few faults (like so many Who fans have an obsession with doing) let's discuss its many strengths. The cast is genuinely impressive (something that bolsters all of the Letts directed stories) with Cyril Shaps, John Dearth and George McCormack all rocking in some well written and characterised roles (especially Lupton, a genuinely nasty piece of work). There is plenty of well directed action, terrific development for the Doctor, Sarah and Mike and memorable scares with the twitching, giant Spiders that have a habit of leaping on their victims backs. The first episode is one of the strongest of the era and the last episode takes the Doctor on the most important journey of his life so far, climaxing on a final scene that will melt your heart as the Doctor tries to comfort Sarah as he dies before her. The Metebelies sequences are quite theatrical but nowhere near as bad as people pretend they are and pretty nicely realised on the whole (only a few CSO shots appall but the design and lighting is very strong) and the power games with the Spiders are great fun, and their voices are particularly effective. There is about an episodes worth of padding, which is unfortunate and some of the acting choices of the Metebelies actors (Jenny Laird is clearly in a world of her own) are unusual. There are so many lovely, characterful touches throughout (Mike’s redemption, Jo’s letter, the return of the Doctor’s mentor, Sarah’s grief smelling the Doctor’s coat) it generates more than enough relevance to make this a worthy swansong to a memorable Doctor. With three of its main cast and the director now no longer with us it stands a fine example of their incredible work: 8/10


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

The story is like one long sugar rush, I bloody love it!

dark said...

I watched this one last night with my dad, and I agree with both You Jo and Audrey on this, I absolutely love! this story. Maybe it's that seeing it when I was thirteen was so chilling, my then favourite doctorr going out on a high. The moment when the great one pulls him around is one of the scariest in Doctor who for me, right up there with the master pushing Tenant around in a wheel chair while laughing, though if anything rather worse sinse Pertwee is such a dignified, unruffled old chap.
Indeed, I have to say this is one of my favourite doctor exit moments, just because the great one is so awesome, built up as a villain who is never seen, and someone who the doctor can't even approach without death, plus the idea that she defeats herself is also very karmic.
I personally love the spider voices, they're as distinctive as the Daleks in their own way, and I love how alien their power games are, I'll be interested to see if next time I listen to the 8th doctor audios whether the spiders live up to their reappearence.
What I particularly like about Lupton and the spiders is it would've been far too easy to go down the "they are my allies, ---- wait we had a deal! noooooo!" route, but that's not the route we're taken down, indeed Lupton's power games between him, the spider council, the queen and his spider are really rather ascinating in terms of who gains power when.

I absolutely agree everyone of the regular cast is firing on all cylinders here, in an age of e-mail and skype calls it's really nice to see a letter properly written from a character and to have the Doctor read words that so obviously came from joe grant is quite sweet. I do agree though, a bit more of the brig might have been nice especially given his rocky relationship with the third doctor, also, Tommy was always a character I liked, especially with how he's not treated as either commic relief or as some sort of special idiot savant.

I don't know why people cryticise the chroma key planet, sinse to be honest chroma key bought us knightmare (one of my most wonderful childhood experiences), so what's wrong here? Indeed my only major cryticism of metebelies 3 is that while it has one of the most completely scary dominated societies ever, (really the scene where the brothers are wanting to kill Sarah is just plane nasty), there's a lot of really seriously duff characterization and acting and not just from Jenny Laird, indeed other than Sabor, and at some moments Raiga I can't really remember any of these characters. That being said, Sabor, for all he's a light presence is a rather nice one, I love the way the 3rd doctor gently mocks his fatalism.

My only issue with Sarah in this story is she does feel a little damselesque in parts, though whether this is the trope of the times I don't know, sinse in fairness she does do some pretty serious investigating albeit she doesn't transition to metebelies well, though the "I knew you'd come!" followed by her sudden realization that the doctor is actually captive too is pretty funny and I love her "Don't worryb doctor I'll try to give them indigestion" after their gallow humour previously :D.

Still! one of my all time favourites, particularly seeing the ever confident pertwee so discommoded (I don't think we see the Doctor this affected again until Davison, though I could be wrong sinse there are 4th doctor stories I still haven't seen).

David Pirtle said...

There's so much here that defined what was great about Pertwee's era that it's hard for me not to like it, despite the fact that Metabilis 3 is just rubbish, and I don't just mean the costumes or special effects.