Planet of the Spiders ****

The one with the giant spiders and the blue crystal from Metebelis 3 – it's Jon Pertwee's final story

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
Planet of the Spiders ****

Season 11 – Story 74

"The old man must die and the new man will discover, to his inexpressible joy, that he has never existed" - Cho-je

Storyline
Mike Yates invites Sarah to investigate unearthly events at a Tibetan retreat in rural England. Led by a power-seeking misfit called Lupton, a group of residents hold a ceremony that calls forth a huge spider. It has arrived from Metebelis 3 to regain a blue crystal - now in the Doctor's possession. The Doctor and Sarah travel to the alien world, where the "Eight Legs" have subjugated a human colony. During an encounter with the gigantic Great One, the Time Lord's body is devastated by Metebelis crystals. He returns to Unit HQ, where - to Sarah and the Brigadier's amazement - he regenerates…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 4 May 1974
Part 2 - Saturday 11 May 1974
Part 3 - Saturday 18 May 1974
Part 4 - Saturday 25 May 1974

Part 5 - Saturday 1 June 1974

Part 6 - Saturday 8 June 1974

Production
Location filming: March 1974 at Tidmarsh Manor and Stratfield Mortimer, Berkshire; Le Marchant Barracks, Devizes, Wiltshire; River Severn, Gloucestershire
Studio recording: March 1974 at TC1 and TC8, April/May 1974 at TC6

Cast
Doctor Who - Jon Pertwee
Sarah Jane Smith - Elisabeth Sladen
Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart - Nicholas Courtney
Mike Yates - Richard Franklin
Sergeant Benton - John Levene
Lupton - John Dearth
Professor Herbert Clegg - Cyril Shaps
Barnes - Christopher Burgess
Moss - Terence Lodge
Land - Carl Forgione
Keaver - Andrew Staines
Cho-je - Kevin Lindsay
Tommy - John Kane
Arak - Gareth Hunt
Sabor - Geoffrey Morris
Neska - Jenny Laird
Rega - Joanna Monro
Tuar - Ralph Arliss
K'anpo Rimpoche - George Cormack
Policeman - Chubby Oates
Soldier - Pat Gorman
Man with boat - Terry Walsh
Hopkins - Michael Pinder
Tramp - Stuart Fell
Guard captains - Walter Randall, Max Faulkner
Lupton's spider - Ysanne Churchman
Queen spider - Kismet Delgado
The Great One - Maureen Morris
Doctor Who - Tom Baker

Crew
Writers - Robert Sloman (& Barry Letts, uncredited on screen)
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Rochelle Selwyn
Script editor - Terrance Dicks
Producer/director - Barry Letts

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
It's the end of days and things are all very cosy at Unit. The Doctor and the Brigadier have time to go to a music hall and indulge in psychometric tests on clairvoyant Professor Clegg. "Doing a bit of hairdressing on the side?" jests Sgt Benton (an ad-lib from John Levene). The soldiers have become little more than comic foils, but in a way they're humanised and more lovable. The Brig has long hair, is embarrassed over an assignation with "Doris" and at long last gains a first name - Alastair. (Terrance Dicks had used it first in January 1974 in his Target novel The Auton Invasion.)

Elisabeth Sladen is comfortable and confident in the role of Sarah Jane Smith, and we also find out whatever happened to Mike Yates. The disgraced Unit captain opens the story sauntering through a cow field. He inveigles Sarah in the monastery strand of the plot and looks, well, let's say rather casual in vermilion slacks and mustard scarf. Take a large dose of Mike's style and persona and a smaller pinch of Lupton's, and perhaps you'd arrive at an approximation of Barry Letts c1974.

Planet of the Spiders is his baby. As producer, director and co-writer, he imbues the third Doctor's finale with the trappings of Buddhism - blatantly in the meditation retreat setting, but more subtly in the path of enlightenment along which the blue crystal takes simpleton Tommy and the egotistical Doctor. For the latter, the path will lead to reincarnation, or regeneration (the term is coined here).

In part one, the Tibetan monk Cho-je foreshadows events with "All things pass away, as you will learn in your meditation. This world of Samsara, this world of appearance, is the world of change." It's rather lovely to discover in part six that Cho-je and Abbot K'anpo are Time Lords, in fact the same Time Lord and the Doctor's childhood guru mentioned back in The Time Monster.

A planned final showdown with the Master was, of course, impossible after the death of Roger Delgado in 1973, but in a nice touch, his widow Kismet voices the Queen of the Eight Legs. In the 21st century, we're used to pyrotechnic regenerations and emotional cast reunions. Today, we'd expect to see Liz Shaw and Jo Grant rejoining the Unit fold to pay their respects. At least, the Doctor gets a bittersweet letter from Jo up the Amazon, returning his crystal, which sets in motion the other plot strand.

So some loose ends are tied up in what approaches a fitting swansong for Jon Pertwee. He plays his final scenes with utmost conviction, but has fun along the way. Letts indulges his star with an extended chase sequence, which engulfs episode two and incorporates Bessie, a gyrocopter, speedboat, hovercraft and the Doctor's flying car, as well as a comedy constable and tramp. Filmed on a dreary day in March, it's blithely gratuitous but was quite fun in 1974.

Despite some unusually feeble cliffhangers, part one's is a Great Doctor Who Moment. In an echo of The Daemons episode four (where Jo and Mike hid in a crypt while the Master conjured up Azal), Sarah and Mike hide in a cobwebbed cellar watching a similar invocation. Tweedy, seedy Lupton and his disaffected creeps chant "Om mani padme hum" and call into being a gigantic spider.

Excellent voice-work for the "Eight Legs" almost compensates for variable effects shots. Most of the animation is lamentable, although the spiders look suitably horrible clinging to people's backs. The Great One in her crystal-encrusted cave is reasonably impressive - even if the Colour Separation Overlay plays havoc with Pert's shocking-white bouffant. And it has to be said the staging of Metebelis 3 is shoddy. The village dwellings could be a set from The Generation Game and the West Country-accented locals (early roles for Gareth Hunt and Ralph Arliss) achieve a uniformly am-dram air.

"A tear, Sarah Jane?" I can now watch Pertwee's closing scene without the slightest pang, but I'm sure I was inconsolable when it first aired on 8 June 1974 - my birthday! Shattered and supine in his Unit lab, the third Doctor whispers his last words: "No, don't cry. While there's life, there's…"

And so, on 2 April 1974, magnificent Jon Pertwee and virtually unknown Tom Baker lay on the floor of TC1, while Barry Letts oversaw a gentle cross-fade - a momentous piece of television. With lump in throat, Nicholas Courtney ad-libbed the final line, "Well… here we go again," but for one nine-year-old (and no doubt many other children around the country) Doctor Who would never be quite the same again.

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RT billings   Parts 1–4    Parts 5–6 and repeat


[Available on BBC DVD]

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