13/06/2011

The Great One? by John Connors

`Planet of the Spiders` is monumental in importance, as big as The Great One is supposed to be and almost as powerful. Amongst the topics it considers are our fears, our greed and our morality. There is betrayal, loyalty and the Doctors own fallibility at its core. You even get two regenerations. And this is 1974! Teatime in 1974 when the world was still beige!!


"Good grief, Lethbridge Stewart, Cyril Shaps reminds me of Lady Gaga" 


This whole final Jon Pertwee season is suffused with darker undertones. It seems as if Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks- knowing both they and their star would be moving on- want to delve deeper into what makes the series tick. So they start with `The Time Warrior`, a story that manages to encompass most of the show’s recurring elements as well as introducing two iconic additions in the form of Sarah and the Sontarans. Then Captain Yates turns traitor. The Daleks lose their lustre. Peladon is revisited with more political resonances. In introducing Sarah Jane Smith, the series has its most adult companion since Ian and Barbara which opens up more dramatic potential. Sure, Miss Smith does her fair amount of screaming and running in impractical shoes but as a foil to an increasingly brittle seeming Doctor she is another adult not just an assistant.

And `Planet` is the most startling concept of all- if it was done now, wed be giving it eleven out of ten. In fact it informs a lot of what Russell T Davies later did you might say he extended and explored this story’s motifs, in particular the Doctors demise. Yet here it is presented in that deceptively simple 1970s style. The third Doctor absorbs his radiation but does not then embark on a trip to see Jo, Liz, Harry and Sgt Osgood. He just comes back to the lab and falls over to the accompaniment of a mere tinkle of a tune. Yet its every bit as heartbreaking in its own way.

The meat of this story is tougher stuff than the show’s followers at the time were surely used to. Our human antagonist is Lupton- a rare type of character for the show, a bitter, washed out could have been, his plans a desperate act.  Unlike, say, Magnus Greel he is from the here and now, his costume the tatty attire of a man who just doesn’t care about such things- compare this with the smartly dressed madman that is Harrison Chase. Its as if Lupton has slipped from another show altogether, a Doomwatch perhaps?  There’s Tommy, a mentally challenged young man – as far as I can recall the only instance of such a character ever in the show then or now? He is the heart of the story- his childlike innocence a contrast to the all knowing Doctor. His own regeneration is actually more moving than the Doctors when you think about it.

There’s the disgraced Mike Yates attempting to find a way forward after his fall from grace. And there’s a gift from an old companion- unusual because in those days we never heard from them again. The gift does not lead to quite such dramatic developments as the “Time Lord Victorious” of recent years, but nonetheless is a symbol of the Doctor’s selfishness because basically he nicked it, the velvet jacketed tea leaf!


Lupton's barbecue was a barrel of laughs.
So it sounds great when you describe it but because it was done in 1974 it takes a lot more effort to cherish it as we should. It is easier from the modern perspective to see the flaws than it is to extract the brilliant bits. It is harder to see the power of the idea than it is to groan at the weaknesses in production. A shame, but true. I’d love to proclaim `Spiders` as one of the best Doctor Who stories ever but it just isn’t even though it contains some of the best moments and characters in Doctor Who ever.

It seems cruel to even highlight it but there’s no escaping this is a four parter stretched into a sixer and the middle bit does sag because of this. In fact there are signs earlier of screen time needing to be filled with unnecessary stuff in the big chase that sprawls over episode 2. The retiring Doctor may not get to visit his old companions but he does get to re-visit old vehicles in a sequence where the participants are clearly driving round in circles. Each time they rounded that corner they probably radioed in to Barry to ask “Is that it, Baz?” to which he’d replied, “Another circuit please, there’s still ten minutes to go!” As for the exasperated policeman, you wonder how he dealt with the civil unrest just round the corner.

Once we get to Metebelis 3, we really are in limbo. Even the biggest fan would fail to get become very excited about scenes where the Doctor is scanning stones. Or care one jot about the one dimensional inhabitants of the place.

On the other hand there is much to love about `Planet`. The main characters hold the attention- especially Lupton and Tommy- and the dialogue is strong for the most part. Spiders are creepy anyway and even if these giant arachnids sometimes struggle to convince, the addition of sharp penetrating female voices gives them an edge. We might wonder what Mrs Letts made of them! Partly because of these strengths, the production values fade from view as if by magic meaning that when we reach The Great One it really does seem enormous and, well, great.

The sequence where the Doctor faces it seems to make Jon Pertwee seem older than he is, his face is pale and he looks terrified. These days we’re used to a wide gamut of emotions from our Doctors but back then Pertwee had been imperious for his reign. His ability to do pretend science, to scold authoritarian figures and be a softer father figure to his companions made him a reassuring presence. Seeing him looking small and weak is a surprise even if you’ve seen this scene before.

The regeneration is the polar opposite of David Tennant’s – both suit their purpose well though you sort of wish they’d made a bit more of the third Doctor’s farewell. Then again, that’s the way they did things then. As a whole `Planet of the Spiders` is not as strong as it’s important position suggests it should be but there are moments were it shines and for these alone it should be cherished.

`Planet of the Spiders` is out on dvd now. Go on, you know you ache for it, you thirst for it.

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