End of an Era

Review of Planet of the Spiders (#74)

DVD Release Date: 10 May 11
Original Air Date: 04 May - 08 Jun 1974
Doctor/Companion:   Three, Sarah Jane Smith, with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart
Stars:  Jon Pertwee, Elisabeth Sladen, with Nicholas Courtney
Preceding StoryThe Monster of Peladon (Three, Sarah Jane)
Succeeding StoryRobot (Four, Sarah Jane, the Brigadier)

The last story I reviewed was all about firsts.  This one's rather the opposite, as Three's swan song. I'd heard lots about it for that reason, and even seen the final regeneration scene a couple of times on YouTube (it's so much better in context). I'm really pleased finally to have the opportunity to see the whole thing. I suspect that if I'd been soaking in it at the time (you know... if I'd been a Brit, and old enough to watch tellie), it would've been even more of a thrill to watch.

As it is, I can kind of watch it from two perspectives:  Historic Story (HS) and Standard Fare (SF). As HS, it's got lots of portent, what with the whole Cho-je/K'anpo/Doctor dynamic that only comes to a head in the last episode or two; it's nice seeing a little more of the Doctor's personal history. There are also little nods all over the place to the entire Pertwee era - from the Metebelius crystal coming back to UNIT from Jo (who's off galavanting in the jungle) to the redemption of Mike Yates (former Capt. with UNIT, who turned traitor in a previous story) to the fabulous Sgt. Benton almost blithely offering to risk his life in the Doctor's stead ("Wouldn't it be better for me to have a go first? I mean, I'm expendable and you're not.").

Then there's the SF way of looking at it - in other words, how is it as a regular Who story? Well, there are the giant spiders that jump on people's back, disappear from sight and control them (which makes me realize what a rip-off (RTD would probably prefer "homage") the Ten/Donna story Turn Left was). As a side effect, the "two legs" so controlled can shoot from their hands a sort of blue lightning that puts me a bit in mind of the climactic opening of The Impossible Astronaut (though I can't imagine there's really a spider wearing an Apollo spacesuit...). The effects are, of course, really poor by today's standards (and, based on some of the extras, perhaps not all they hoped for at the time, either), but it fits in with other SF of the era. Still, the Great One will creep out anyone with arachnophobia just as surely as Aragog.

Another part that struck me odd was the Big Chase Scene in Episode 2. I don't think I've ever seen a weirder (or more pointless) chase. The Doctor, some UNIT chaps including the Brig and Sarah Jane, and eventually even a policeman pursue the bad guy du jour over land, water, and air. Bessie, the Whomobile (my first exposure - I was not impressed), a police car, a gyroplane, and a hovercraft all take part at one point or another (often three or four vehicles at once). Clearly, this was just an excuse for Pertwee (Three) to have fun driving things that go fast. I could have happily done without the whole thing.

On the other hand, there were a few philosophical moments, too. If you want to look for it, you can make a Gethsemane analogy for the moment when the Doctor realizes he has to go take the crystal to the Great One. More to my taste, though, there's a moment that will come back in its own glorious way decades later in the current series. The Doctor is explaining to Yates how he's just going to have to take the TARDIS to Metebelius and go after Sarah Jane (who's just been mystically transported there). He knows he can get there because the coordinates have been hardwired in.
"Yes, but... but Doctor, a planet's a big place."
"Yes, well, I always leave the actual landing to the TARDIS herself. She's no fool, you know."
"You speak as if she were alive."
"Yes. Yes, I do, don't I."

That's the essence of Three - sure of himself, a little cocky, but nevertheless a "wonderful chap" who could be counted on. No wonder it took many fans a long time to come to appreciate the gangly weirdness of Four.

DVD Extras (highlights)
Commentary Track
I couldn't resist the nostalgia of the commentary track. Granted, having just watched the whole story, I wasn't ready to watch more than one episode's worth of commentary, but given that this was Third Doctor Jon Pertwee's last hurrah and the commentators included two other recently-deceased favorites (Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane) and Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier)), I had to sample it. Others sharing their recollections include Barry Letts (producer/director/co-writer), Terrance Dicks (script editor) and Richard Franklin (Mike Yates). This particular group made for good camaraderie and reminiscences, highlighting little details that would have been meaningful to Pertwee.

The Final Curtain
The "making of" documentary for this story involves some of the same players as the commentary:  Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks, and Richard Franklin. Also appearing are Pertwee himself (from a 1995 interview) and Mark Gatiss (known to neowhovians as the writer of episodes like The Unquiet Dead and Victory of the Daleks, and the actor to play Lazarus). Along with the usual tidbits about production, there is considerable time spent exploring the motivations behind Pertwee's departure. We're also made privy to the "strong element of nostalgia" running through the story, including a list of the guest cast that had worked previously with Pertwee (e.g., Kevin Lindsay as Cho-je, who had previously played the Sontaran Linx in The Time Warrior).

John Kane Remembers
One of the most charming characters (in many a Who story) is Tommy. Actor John Kane brought the character to life, and in this piece recalls his first day on the job, time with Jon Pertwee, watching the filming of the regeneration, and the general industry connections he had (both before and since) with others involved in Spiders. His final comment especially made me smile.

You can't not watch a regeneration story. It's too important to the history of the show. This one has just about everything but the kitchen sink as a last hurrah. Even without all that, though, it's still pretty good Standard Fare. Just watch out for that weird-looking guy at the end; he could never be as good a Doctor as Three... right?

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