Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Planet of the Spiders

 Chapter The Fourth, the first (and last) of the Pert.

Washed-up salesman C. Lupton, bent on power, dabbles in Buddhist ceremonies at a meditation centre, opening a route to Earth for some giant psy-powered arachnids from Metebelis Three. They seek a blue crystal the Doctor once stole from that planet to aid them in their domination of the universe. The Doctor has to face up to his fear of bad green-screen and ends up regenerating due to radioactive 'fringing'. 

This was the longest story for the blog so far, so I watched the DVD an episode or two per day over about a week, with different members of the family joining me at different times. The idea was to give everyone a break, but my two eldest, after watching the final episodes, begged to see the ones they'd missed.

No plot holes were spotted as such, but my better half was incensed that Mike Yates got off scott free after the events of Invasion of the Dinosaurs. I can see her point: he was part of a conspiracy to wipe out almost every human being in existence; being sentenced to a couple of weeks in a hippy retreat doesn't cut it.

First-time round:
The VHS came out early in 1991 on the same day as City of Death - my first time seeing either of them, and - excitement alert - Spiders was the first double pack video case; prior to this, for longer stories, you got two single boxes Sellotaped together. From memory, I bought both stories on their first day of release at Volume One in Worthing (the very same place that nearly spoilt the TV Movie for me five years later), and raced home to put them on, probably at a time I was supposed to be at sixth form college learning something. I can't remember which of the two I watched first, but I imagine I agonised about it.

I thought I knew Planet of the Spiders. Before I even pressed 'Play' I had my clever-clever summing up line ready ("Eight legs = good, Two legs = bad, Six episodes = two too long"). Then, I started watching. Admittedly this was spread out a bit, but still compressed compared to how the serial was originally shown. I was waiting for the moment where it dragged or came to a standstill or went pear-shaped. And I'm still waiting. Yes, the chase in episode 2 is a bit silly, but it does sum up the Jon Pertwee era nicely (i.e. it's got a comedy tramp and a helicopter in it) and when we finally get to Metebelis Three, it's a bit cramped and drab; but these are quibbles, and neither section was as bad in reality as it was in my preconceptions.

The rest is absolutely cracking stuff: episode 1 draws together themes and plots from the last few years expertly, with just the right amount of knowing humour, and then throws the viewer into this final exciting stretch to tie it all up. The regulars are all served well by the script, and give their best. Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier is on particularly sparkling form, eyeing up belly-dancers and getting bashful about his activities in Brighton hotels. Jon Pertwee avoids the arrogant and irritating lapses he could sometimes be guilty of in this period; he doesn't patronise his companion or any member of the mostly superb guest cast.

Of those, highest glory goes to John Kane as Tommy; there's still (perhaps deliberately as misdirection) a hint of standard-issue Pertwee comedy yokel early on, but ultimately the writing and performance go far beyond that, and create with sensitivity something rare for 20th Century Doctor Who: a true emotional centre to the narrative. One can't help but care for Tommy and what he goes through more than anyone in, say,  Arc of Infinity. His line "Tommy's learning to read, my Mum bought me a book" gets me every time.

A Buddhist theme works for a regeneration story much better than the Christian imagery of the TV Movie, with the Doctor literally being reincarnated as a new man after coming to terms with his bad karma. It also gives the story a unique visual identity, and intriguing actions and motivations for its villains. John Dearth is excellent, as are all the Spider voice artists. The scene where Lupton turns the tables on his spider, confounding our expectations, is another highlight.

As a Russell T Davies fan, it's perhaps not surprising that I enjoy this; the Barry Letts / Terrance Dicks years are the prototype for RTD's new Who. No other era in the 20th century had season finales that built on plot and character arcs, but it's all here, and young Russell was clearly watching back then and taking notes. I'm consequently led to musing idly whether K'anpo/Cho-Je was called back to Gallifrey to fight in the time war. Big Finish have probably covered it. (K'anpo/Cho-Je is an awfully clumsy way to have to refer to the character; given that he was the Doctor's teacher he should have been called The Professor or The Lecturer, or something similarly aligned to the naming convention of Time Lord academic rankings.)

I'm not saying there aren't flaws: Sarah's involvement in the plot hinges on meditation being hip enough for her to write about in Metropolitan magazine, but it's 1973 (or even 1980) and really TM's popularity had peaked in 1967 around when John Lennon and George Harrison did The Frost Programme. The cliffhangers are mostly awful - they went to great lengths in editing to keep the ending of episode 5 intact, but it's pretty humdrum, and there must have been the option to end on the much more dramatic reveal that Sarah is under the control of the Queen Spider. There are quite a lot of opportunities to play spot the unconvincing stand-in for Pertwee. And an ending with the Doctor having to react alone to a big green-screen (probably actually yellow, but you know what I mean) never works, even with New series resources (cf. The Satan Pit and The Rings of Akhaten).

Another regeneration story with a big chase scene; and some more tasteful use of people's deeply held beliefs as set dressing for camp sci-fi nonsense.

Deeper Thoughts:
Does the Doctor really have a greed for knowledge? I don't have extensive awareness of Buddhism, I'm only going on what is in this story, so forgive me if I offend. While it works for Planet of the Spiders, in general it seems a lousy credo for Doctor Who. From what is presented to us, the Doctor must accept that his greed for knowledge, so called, has directly instigated the events of the story, and so he must sacrifice himself to put things right. It's neatly done, as the Doctor returns the original crystal that he 'stole', and in so doing defeats the big bad and closes the circle. Meanwhile Tommy is the only person who seems impervious to the spider zapping, because his "innocence [is] his shield".

I'm not convinced, though, that the Doctor has a greed for knowledge. Greed suggests excess, and can there be such a thing? The Doctor may have been overzealous taking the crystal in the first place, but it subsequently helped many people, and was instrumental in saving the day a couple of times. Even the death of Professor Clegg was not just research for its own sake, but part of an experiment aimed at helping him and others with latent psychic powers (poor Clegg, destroyed after communing with blue power - there's a lesson there somewhere).

And taken to it's logical conclusion, the story seems to promote something deeply anti-intellectual; according to this philosophy, Tommy would have better off as he was - a pure innocent. This goes against the grain of the programme's original educational remit and its development as a story of exploration, engagement and - unavoidably - picking sides. Staying true to the season 11 finale, season 12 would have found Tom Baker doing nothing but meditating alongside Mike Yates and The Lecturer, the Giant Robot would have nuked Earth after only 4 episodes, and that would have been terrible... imagine a season of Doctor Who only lasting four episodes. Even in the darkest of days we got 14.

In Summary:
After some meditation, I realise it transcends its reputation.

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