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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (part four)

Our pal Matt dropped me a line last week to ask whether our son has arachnophobia. “Not yet!” I replied. As long as they aren’t in his bedroom, he likes creepy-crawlies just fine, so I figured this one wouldn’t bother him too much. There’s an urban legend that some British group that’s incredibly concerned about the rights of television viewers to switch on their sets without having any giant talking telepathic spiders on it got incredibly upset with the BBC about this story, but come off it. The giant maggots from that coal mine in Wales in “The Green Death” looked more like real maggots than these look like real spiders.

If they are in his bedroom, all bets are off. We had ladybugs coming in his room in November and you’d have thought they were Welsh giant maggots.

As with part three, the Earth stuff is fun and charming. There’s this one guy at the meditation center who is one of the most 1974 people you’ve ever seen, second only to Patty Hearst’s then-fiancĂ© Stephen Weed. The way he walks with his shoulders hunched is the funniest thing in the world.

The rest of Lupton’s circle of spider-summoning Buddhists are arguing about what to do in the wake of Lupton’s disappearance. One makes the reasonable suggestion that there’s no reason to think the police would have any interest in this, and so they are in no danger. Then 1974-Dude clubs Mike Yates in the back of the head. “Well, it’s a police matter now,” someone notes.

This is all much more entertaining than watching Gareth Hunt and the guy playing his brother emote at each other in BBC Alien: “Do you think me a coward?” “You speak of treason!” “We must attack now!” etc. There must be some course where BBC writers went to make all the downtrodden masses on planets ruled by despotic thingumajigs sound the same.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (parts two and three)

Conventional wisdom has it that part two of “Planet of the Spiders” is self-indulgent padding, a long chase scene across land, air, and sea that’s just there to give Jon Pertwee a bunch of contraptions to ride in, including his custom car, a “Little Nellie” helicopter, and a one-man hovercraft.

Conventional wisdom has clearly never watched part two of “Planet of the Spiders” with a six year-old. Throw in a comedy policeman who can’t believe everybody speeding past him, a comedy tramp sleeping on a hill, and let Terry Walsh get dunked in the river and you’re in six year-old’s heaven. Then part three ends with Pertwee – and Walsh again, doubling in a couple of shots – going all Venusian karate on a bunch of guards on the planet Metebelis Three. He absolutely loved these episodes. This story is going down in the books as one of his favorites so far.

In fact, he’s so enthralled with the story that he’s wondering what happened to Metebelis One and Metebelis Two. I told him they may be closer to that system’s sun and might not have atmospheres. There’s probably some fanfic, I suppose.

As the action moves into outer space, we picked up a bunch of new characters that nobody likes. The downtrodden population of the planet are played as stereotyped backwoods hillbillies in silly clothes, right down to the violent one and his more sensible brother. The sensible one, at least, is played by Gareth Hunt, who had some great roles in his future. Their mother is played by an actress named Jenny Laird who gives one of the all-time awful Doctor Who performances. (“I shan’t, I shan’t…”) It’s really a shame that the story goes into space, because everything on Earth has been tremendously fun.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (part one)

There’s talk that we’re about to finally get season sets of Doctor Who. People have spotted pre-order placeholders for a Blu-ray of season twelve – Tom Baker’s first season – at Best Buy and at Barnes & Noble, only to have the listing scrubbed as “no longer available” right away. That will be so nice. Having an individual release for every single one of 150+ stories has always been a space-filling, expensive pain in the rear.

After a bunch of Region 1 releases went out of print, I bought a DVD player which could be easily hacked to play anything. Unfortunately, it’s already starting to show signs of future failure, but it more than paid for itself by allowing me to buy all these wonderful in-print Region 2 releases from Amazon UK or other sellers, including the great company Network itself during one of its occasional sales. “Planet of the Spiders” is one of the stories I got a Region 2 disk for, since the Region 1 disks were being offered at more than $100. As of today, there are three Region 1 disks available at Amazon, priced at $279, $586.35, and $703.99.

Of course, something is only ever worth what somebody else is willing to pay, and not what some Crazy Grandma Price Guide demands that something is worth. You would have to find a very, very foolish person to spend $703.99 for “Planet of the Spiders.”

As we’ve looked at some other seventies sci-fi shows like Ark II and Space Academy, we’ve noticed where even programs that had nothing necessarily to do with psychic powers and ESP inevitably went all Tomorrow People from time to time. “Planet of the Spiders” is Doctor Who‘s turn.

Things start with Cyril Shaps playing a stage magician who has, to his own horror, slowly been developing psychokinetic powers. Meanwhile, Mike Yates, formerly UNIT’s captain, has joined a monastery – slash – meditation center in the countryside, where some of the other people looking for a quieter, more spiritual life are having group meetings in the cellar around a prayer rug that glows with a blue light as they focus their energy. John Dearth, who had given the seventies supercomputer BOSS its voice in the previous season, plays the leader of this group, who materialize a huge spider between them at the memorable cliffhanger ending.

As is often the case, this starts very well and will start to run out of steam. It’s a very good first episode… just not $703.99 good!

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What We’re Not Watching: Moonbase 3

We’re not watching Moonbase 3 for the blog, because it is a boring, boring program. Even I couldn’t sit through it without finding something else to do, so a six year-old certainly couldn’t be expected to tackle it. But because it’s an interesting footnote in this period of Doctor Who, and because we’ll be taking a short blog break while we have family in town, I thought I’d write a small post about it.

After four years on Doctor Who, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks were keen to continue working together but knew that they needed to find some new projects. Working a little fiscal magic, they were able to get the first story of Who‘s next season into production at the tail end of the 1973 block. Moonbase 3 was commissioned for a six-part introductory series and was taping almost at the same time as that story. Managing a massive, resource-demanding program like Who alone was a huge undertaking; I can’t imagine doing two series at once. Unfortunately for Letts and Dicks, this series was a ratings flop. They taped it in the summer of 1973, and it was shown in September and October to general disinterest, and the BBC didn’t ask for anymore.

As an ongoing series, Moonbase 3 is full of problems, but the casting is the major one. The leads, left to right in the photo above, are played by Ralph Bates, Fiona Gaunt, Donald Houston and Barry Lowe, and Bates, whom genre fans may recall as the lead in some Hammer horror films from the early seventies, is the only one with any real charisma. They’re outshined in every episode by the guest stars. If you enjoy BBC or ITC dramas from the early seventies, you’ll see all kinds of familiar faces in Moonbase 3, including Anthony Chinn, Michael Gough, Peter Miles, and Michael Wisher. And you’ll wonder why the guest stars aren’t the leads. It’s that lopsided.

But I’m a huge fan of Peter Miles and not even he could save this program by leading it. This is a show about budgets and breakdowns. In going for realism, Letts and Dicks encouraged a format where imagination was sacrificed for the banal. There’s neither any worry nor any curiosity about the future, it’s just a bland place with bland people having arguments about money and weather satellites. Twice, science experiments are conducted by jealous physicists. At no point are any of the five moonbases threatened by Cybermen, or staffed by Gabrielle Drake in a purple wig, or invaded by the Bringers of Wonder, but the one we’re watching is going to have its budget cut in the next fiscal year to put more Eurodollars into a Venus probe. Staffing cuts! Now that’s what I want from science fiction!

So anyway, the show was a flop, losing two-thirds of its audience in a month, and then, in that 1970s BBC way, it didn’t exist anymore. As the corporation so often did, they wiped the tapes and forgot about it. The episodes were lost forever… except for a weird quirk of fate. The BBC got some co-production money from 20th Century Fox, who suggested that they might be able to sell it in America. I’ve read that they were hoping to get it on ABC, but it’s also possible that Fox was looking at PBS stations or even the same first-run syndication market where Fox was selling the Canadian videotape sci-fi show The Starlost that same September. Whatever, there’s been no indication that any station in North America purchased Moonbase 3 in the 1970s, and so it was completely forgotten.

Fast forward to 1993 and something very weird happened. When the Sci-Fi Channel launched, their most interesting program was an anthology called Sci-Fi Series Collection, which ran all sorts of quickly-cancelled flops without enough episodes for a proper Monday through Friday airing, things like Gemini Man, Otherworld, or Planet of the Apes. In many cases, they couldn’t even get all the episodes: four of the 20 installments of Kolchak: The Night Stalker weren’t available to Sci-Fi because Universal offered those as a pair of sausage-link TV movies instead. And the episodes were all edited by a couple of minutes to accommodate segments of interviews with these shows’ creators or stars.

A few months into the run, Moonbase 3 joined the rotation, and it was kind of funny to see how they had the background animation for the interview segments but no actual interviews. Bates and Houston had already passed away by the time this aired, and I suppose the channel didn’t have the budget to go to the UK to interview Gaunt or Lowe… or Letts or Dicks. At the time, some people in British sci-fi teevee fandom were very interested in the Sci-Fi Channel – there were frenzied updates each month in the fanzine DWB about what it was showing – and people in the UK were incredibly surprised to see that the channel had “found” this lost show. Fox had simply never wiped its tapes. It remained available for any station to buy for twenty years – much like those unidentified thirteen episodes of Ace of Wands from DL Taffner – and the show just sat on a shelf in some vault for two decades waiting for a buyer.

Happily, new copies made their way to the BBC promptly, and the show was released on VHS in 1994, and on DVD some years later. It’s a program for completists only, but I am glad that it survives, because everything should!

Photo credit: Archive TV Musings

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (part six)

Getting the bad out of the way, this story features one of the all-time lousy special effects sequences, where Jon Pertwee and John Levene react to an allegedly menacing giant mosquito. But I think the big explosive climax at Global Chemicals, which is awesome, more than makes up for it, and besides, our son was completely thrilled by the big bug and didn’t see anything wrong with it.

Back in 1987 or whenever it was that WGTV started showing the Jon Pertwee serials, I surprised myself by getting a little tearful over Jo’s departure. Doctor Who wasn’t really known, then, for having emotional farewells. These days you can’t spend three episodes in the TARDIS without the universe ending over an overblown Murray Gold orchestral fanfare while somebody drops to their knees when it’s time to stop traveling. I guess since the same production team had just blown right pass Liz Shaw’s departure when the actress Caroline John left, they wanted to do right by Katy Manning.

Jo’s departure is really wonderful. She’s been falling head over heels for the scatterbrained Cliff Jones and happily accepts his fumbled marriage proposal and even though the Doctor knew in his hearts of hearts that she would be flying the coop before he went to Llanfairfach, he’s still devastated that she leaves him. The only time prior to this 1973 story where we saw the Doctor actually hurting that a companion has moved on was back in 1964, when he forced the issue and left his granddaughter Susan behind on future Earth to stay with David Campbell. Jo’s happiness is countered with a shot of the Doctor, sitting sadly by himself in his car. Quietly. Even when the end theme music starts, it does so at a very low volume, not wishing to intrude on the visuals. It’s really, really unlike any other departure in the whole of the series.

Incidentally, there’s a fantastic extra on the DVD called Global Conspiracy? in which Mark Gatiss, in the guise of BBC reporter Terry Scanlon, looks back at the strange goings-on in 1970s Llanfairfach. It’s incredibly funny and full of in-jokes. This “documentary” explains that Jo and Cliff divorced in the 1980s. Happily, this was retconned in a 2010 episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures which notes that the couple are still married and had lots of kids.

Katy Manning didn’t become the star that she should have become after Doctor Who, but she did have a few memorable roles, including the comedy film Eskimo Nell and the one episode of the BBC’s Target that anyone remembers. Before she moved to Australia, she did a celebrated pinup session with a prop Dalek that served much the same function for teen fans in the eighties that Karen Gillan’s appearance in the movie Not Another Happy Ending does these days, I think.

Uniquely, Manning also portrays a second ongoing character in the Doctor Who mythology. Iris Wildthyme is a character in spinoff novels and audio plays who might be a Time Lord and might be the Doctor’s old girlfriend, and, in a postmodern way, is used to suggest that many of the Doctor’s so-called adventures are actually just rewritten versions of her own exploits. Her TARDIS is smaller on the inside, which never fails to make me smile. Iris was created by Paul Magrs, who has written many of her adventures. Manning has played Iris off and on since 2002.

That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but stay tuned! We’ll start watching season eleven later this month!

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (part five)

Our son is quite bemused by BOSS, the room-filling supercomputer. Can you blame him? I can remember that techno-phobia of the time all too well; it took my dad more than a decade to trust a top-loading VCR, so a computer wasn’t going to arrive in my family’s house for many, many years. So this seems really strange and silly to a kid who has been playing puzzle games on his tablet since he was really, really small. How can computers be evil? This isn’t one of the “great ones” for him because the maggots are gross and scary and now he’s worried about Cliff Jones, who’s been infected by a maggot, but at least it has explosions.

Captain Yates gets brainwashed by BOSS in this episode, and his mind freed by the Doctor, using the blue sapphire from Metebelis Three. Interestingly, this develops into important plot points in the next season. The Doctor doesn’t get brainwashed himself; he’s put up with far more advanced mind probes and the like than anything that even the top-of-the-line Earthlings can build. I think that the headset that he’s wearing also shows up in the next season along with the blue crystal and actor John Dearth, who is doing such a good job as the voice of BOSS.

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (part four)

So Yates and Benton are finally back in action in this episode. Yates is undercover as a man from the ministry, and Benton is leading the UNIT troops shooting at the maggots with their thick, “chitinous” armor-plated shells. You’ll note that now that almost all of the guest actors playing villagers have either been killed or have otherwise left the story, there’s room in the budget for Richard Franklin and John Levene!

The big plot development this time is the surprise that the BOSS is a seventies evil supercomputer. This cliffhanger revelation kind of baffled our son. Prior to this, though, he was really enjoying this one. There are explosions and gunfire and monsters, and the Doctor gets to disguise himself as a milkman with a thick mustache and then as a cleaning lady. He didn’t actually recognize him as the milkman, so effective was his costume in the eyes of a six year-old, but he saw right through that second disguise and had a good laugh over it. So there’s two things from the seventies you never see on television these days: room-filling supercomputers with wall-to-wall reel-to-reel tape decks, and dressing as old ladies to get laughs. Well, there’s Monty Python’s last concert film, I suppose.

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (parts two and three)

Getting to the halfway point of this favorite of mine, I picked these two episodes to watch in one evening because if almost all the six-part Doctor Who stories could be edited to five without much incident, a lot of part two of this one could certainly be culled. It’s one of the flaws of the story: the Doctor tries to break into Global Chemicals to steal some cutting equipment that they won’t give freely and fails, and that’s all about six minutes of story that doesn’t go anywhere.

I also think that the Brigadier goes about the confrontation with Stevens in part three entirely the wrong way, wasting more time. He should have warned Stevens that there is something in those mines that could be threatening Global Chemicals. Instead, he makes an enemy of him far too soon. The whole premise of “we might have to close your refinery until we get to the bottom of this” is absolutely guaranteed not to work. Of course, the Brigadier may have remembered how he once tried to convince Peter Miles that they needed to investigate threats to his power station in Wenley Moor and got nothing but grief for it, but Miles’ character was an unhinged nut, and Jerome Willis’s Stevens seems so very reasonable.

And we learn this time that Stevens has a boss, called BOSS, with the silky and sinister voice of John Dearth. Great little double-act, those two.

Last month, we watched a Six Million Dollar Man adventure that was made a couple of years after “The Green Death” and I noticed a fun little similarity. In “Fires of Hell,” there’s a similar situation where a big corporate pollution machine becomes the economic engine driving a remote town and there’s a small group of ecology-minded hippies opposing them. I think it’s interesting that in both stories, the corporation is the villain and our heroes ally themselves with the hippies. There are certainly differences in the two stories – a crooked cop is helping the corporation in Six while there are apparently no police within a hundred miles of Llanfairfach, and it’s not really the corporation in Six but one greedy dude – but it struck a chord of amusement.

I really enjoy the hippies of Wholeweal. I think the writers did a great job making a believable little community from two speaking parts and some busy extras. I love how the Brigadier mostly relaxes and enjoys a supper of toadstool steaks and local wine while the Doctor entertains the dinner party with anecdotes of Venusian shanghorns and perigosto sticks. And of course I love how Jo falls completely in love with Cliff Jones and makes it look so believable and real. Later Doctor Who romances would be far, far less believable than this. Of course, Katy Manning and Stewart Bevan were actually a couple at the time, which probably helped.

I’ve got this far without mentioning the maggots. Because a Christmastime repeat of this story, edited into a two-hour TV movie, got one of the highest ratings that Doctor Who ever received in the UK, something like one in every five people in the country spent the next few decades asking “Man, you remember that Doctor Who with the giant maggots?” They’re not quite as amazing as the somewhat similar Drashigs, because using yellow-screen chromakey to move the puppets across the floor of the Wholeweal studio set isn’t completely successful, but they’re terrific, gross monsters, and has our son, who has memorized every word in his book Everything You Need to Know About Bugs feverishly wondering what this maggots will develop into before the end of the story.

This is a long post, but one last thing to mention: the sets in this story are downright amazing. Many people have written about how great the coal mine tunnels are, and they’re certainly right, but that room on the surface with the elevators and the huge spinning wheel is really something. I was impressed when Jon Pertwee rams a crowbar into the spinning thing to slow it, releasing a shower of sparks and a cloud of smoke. When you remember the “taped as live” nature of BBC television in that decade, it’s even more remarkable. If Pertwee wasn’t holding on tight, that bar could have been thrown into Talfryn Thomas’s head! I can’t imagine the health and safety representatives allowing the star of a television series to do anything like that in the eighties.

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