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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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Doctor Who: The Monster of Peladon (part six)

Well, that was certainly flawed, but that’s a much better story than its poor reputation suggests. Anybody who thinks it’s actually worse than “Death to the Daleks” is as wrong as it’s possible to be. Our son was laughing and cheering all throughout this episode as the Ice Warriors are routed. He really enjoyed this one, and says that after being a little confused in the middle of the story, he loved the ending. Like “Dinosaurs,” it certainly should have been a four-parter. I’m predisposed to enjoy anything with Ice Warriors, and from a structural standpoint, the story’s biggest problem is treading water until they show up. It does begin and end well.

Another problem is a cosmetic one. Marie mentioned how she was constantly distracted by the weird paint job on Commander Azaxyr’s helmet, and she’s right. It’s meant to suggest the mottled skin of his jaw, but she’s right: it looks like they had a light green plastic helmet and not enough dark green paint to give it a solid coat. Disbelief is never suspended long enough to stop thinking that.

And Peladon itself remains one of the least convincing alien environments in the history of the series. After ten episodes, we never saw any of the court officials that are mentioned, never visited a banquet hall, receiving room, private royal chambers, museums, public hall of worship, or saw any historical artifacts or paintings on the walls, or anything that says “this belongs to the planet” other than the small throne room, a private shrine, and a corridor or two. Most bafflingly, we never see an actual entrance to the citadel that the people of Peladon would actually use under regular conditions. The only way anybody moves from one environment – the castle – to the second one – the tunnels and mines – is through a secret entrance which, in the first story, the king didn’t believe existed.

Bizarrely, the king didn’t know anything about the tunnels, but in this one, we learn there’s a whacking huge hole in the back of the throne room that connects with them! King Peladon never noticed a draft?

Somehow, though, Peladon caught fans’ imagination in a crazy way. I swear, once upon a time, there must have been more fanfic set on Peladon than any other planet in the show. I should know; I wrote one of them myself. I was fourteen or fifteen, it was called “The Attack on Peladon,” and it had the fourth Doctor and Leela in it. I struggled to have the Doctor explain his different face to Alpha Centauri, as did writer Gary Russell, whose professionally-published novel Legacy for Virgin Books’ New Adventures line covered the same Aggedor-Centauri-Ice Warriors footsteps as a hundred amateur stories.

Peladon was the last contribution to the series for writer Brian Hayles, who moved on to other screenwriting jobs after this adventure. One of his best known films is Warlords of Atlantis, which we plan to watch in 2018. And it’s also, strangely, the final appearance of the Ice Warriors for an extremely long time. They won’t trouble the next seven Doctors! They appeared in four serials over seven seasons. That’s tied with the Daleks for second place behind the Master. That’s partially the list-making kid in me coming out, but I mention it to illustrate how odd it was that they vanished from the show, even understanding that the program’s next two producers would turn out to be far less interested in revisiting old enemies than other people in that job. They went from reliably showing up every couple of years to almost totally forgotten.

We were spared a return visit in 1986. “The Trial of a Time Lord” replaced six stories that were in various stages of pre-production. One of these was a misbegotten mess called “Mission to Magnus,” and the Ice Warriors were one of at least three villains in it. The writer novelized his script for Target Books’ The Missing Episodes line in 1990. I only read it once, but wanted to throw it across the room. Another return visit, “Thin Ice,” was in the planning stages when Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989. The Warriors finally returned in 2013’s “Cold War,” and I enjoyed the heck out of that one. They deserved better than a thirty-nine year wait. We had comics and novels to tide us over, and Big Finish have made radio plays of those two cancelled stories along with a half-dozen or more other Ice Warrior adventures, but these guys should have been on TV.

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Doctor Who: The Monster of Peladon (part five)

Television: they used to do things a little differently. The BBC announced Jon Pertwee’s departure the second week of February 1974, about when part five of this story was in production, the day that part five of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” was shown. One week later, 40 year-old Tom Baker was announced as the new Doctor. He’d be in the studio taping his regeneration scene on April 2, and began rehearsals for his debut adventure about a week later. Audiences got their first glimpse of the new Doctor’s face in the closing seconds of Pertwee’s final episode, shown on June 8. Baker’s first story would be held over to the next season. February announcement – June regeneration – December debut.

Fast forward forty-three years. Peter Capaldi announced he was leaving the show on January 30th of this year. Jodie Whittaker was revealed as the next Doctor more than five months later, on July 16. She filmed her half of the regeneration scene three days after that. The episode was shown on December 25th, and we’re not sure when series eleven will start, although there’s talk it will be September of next year. I will miss Capaldi and I am looking forward to Whittaker, but this twenty month process is for the birds.

I hope Whittaker plays the Doctor for a really long time – after all these “three series and a special” Doctors, I want her to beat Tom’s record – but whenever it’s time for the Fourteenth Doctor, whoever’s producing the show and managing the brand and acquiring corporate synergy for BBC/ESPN/Comcast/Warner Brothers/AT&T LLC (a wholly-owned subsidiary of GodCorp/Disney Inc. under license from NetAmazonFlix) should look back at the comparatively simple process of 1974 and conclude “That’s the right way.”

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Doctor Who: The Monster of Peladon (part four)

Most film and TV people have to fake it a little, and make a handful of costumes represent dozens of characters. The problem here is that the BBC had three and a half Ice Warrior costumes. You see that fellow on the right? He’s the Bubblehead Warrior. That head had been sitting in storage since the Ice Warriors’ first appearance seven years previously. Now, you can’t tell the other three actors’ costumes apart, so any of those guys will do for any closeups, but the director keeps bringing the Bubblehead in for closeups in these last three parts. I don’t understand why Lennie Mayne did this. Don’t draw attention to the one that is a) the most distinctive and b) the most obviously crap. That seems like a simple enough plan!

When I read Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’ About Time, I had a good belly laugh over an observation. Commander Azaxyr is stomping around in a helmet with only his square jaw visible, giving lines like “You forget, Doctor, I am your judge,” and “Must I remind you, Ambassador, here on Peladon, I am the law!” He’s like a proto-Judge Dredd! That’s exactly what I thought when I first saw this story on WGTV in 1986 or so, and I dashed off some fan art and mailed it to 2000 AD. I drew the commander, gave him a judge’s badge, and a word balloon that read “Here on Peladon-City One, I am the law!”

Last I checked, I was in the top five for having the most letters printed in 2000 AD, but I don’t have any art credits on the input page. I’m sure the Tharg of the time – probably Steve MacManus? – turned it down because it was a reference to a very obscure character who had been on TV for three weeks some twelve years previously and never repeated in Britain, and not because my art completely stinks. That’s the reason, right, Green Bonce?

This episode ends with the umpteenth swordfight we’ve watched recently. This time, Ralph Watson matches blades with Jon Pertwee, and, painfully obviously, Pertwee’s double Terry Walsh. It’s a good fight, but I felt the need to assure our son that in the real world, people just don’t get into swordfights anywhere near as often as they do on television. My wife added that she took fencing in college and so she’s had a few matches herself. I don’t think that’s quite the same, but maybe we should buy a nice blade for a wall decoration, just in case she needs to take it down and defend our home against fanatic miners, Hellfire Clubbers, or renegade Time Lords.

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Doctor Who: The Monster of Peladon (parts two and three)

I’ve got a theory about why “The Monster of Peladon” isn’t very highly regarded. Most of the six-part Pertwee stories are too long, as I keep saying. But most of them start strong and peter out as they go, unable to keep the momentum and padding parts four and five. But “Monster” has the problem of episodes two and three being the completely unnecessary ones.

The whole story is built up to the surprise reveal of the Ice Warriors at the end of the third part, so we’re going to get three episodes of Alan Bennion being entertaining – at least I remember him being entertaining – as Commander Azaxyr when we resume this story in a couple of days. But we could have been introduced to the refinery and Alpha Centauri phoning home for Federation troops in part one and shoved out alllllll this padding and had one lean, mean, awesome first episode instead.

As for the content of that padding, “Curse” had Geoffrey Toone as a believable obstacle to the protagonists, the high priest Hepesh. His replacement, Ortron, just seems to be an antagonist for no reason beyond putting audience sympathy with the miners. And because he has to be evil and obstinate for fully half the story and repeatedly block the Doctor, who spends most of episode three in Ortron’s dungeon, there’s absolutely no reason not to sympathize with the miners. The queen is so weak that she needs Sarah Jane to explain women’s lib to her – ah, 1974, never change – and as the plot reveals that the miners have moved some stolen Federation technology into position and have the power to destroy the Peladonian citadel, I’m not sure why we shouldn’t all be cheering them on.

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Doctor Who: The Monster of Peladon (part one)

Weird aliens in the throne room? We must be back on Peladon! That’s Vega Nexos in the picture above, a mining engineer from a race of satyrs. Fifty years after the first Peladon adventure, Vega Nexos is working on Peladon with our old pal Alpha Centauri and an Earthman named Eckersley, played by Donald Gee. Vega Nexos is only in three scenes and gets killed before the seven minute mark of episode one, but the character was oddly included on some very popular Doctor Who merchandising in the 1970s, leading thousands of British kids to scratch their heads and wonder what the heck story this guy was in.

“The Monster of Peladon” is nobody’s favorite Pertwee adventure, but it starts well enough. Not content with reassembling costumes and sets from the original Peladon story, this one also brings back writer Brian Hayles and director Lennie Mayne. Mayne cast Rex Robinson, whom he’d used before and would use again in Who, in the role of the leader of the miners, and that’s where this episode’s conflict lies. Interestingly, the miners on Peladon are either a separate race or a separate caste, and are forbidden to enter that giant citadel on the mountain despite doing all the Federation’s dirty work.

So when a “spirit of Aggedor” starts materializing and murdering miners, there’s a revolution brewing. Last time out, the high priest was in league with the alien Arcturus. This time out, there’s a high priest who, just like his predecessor, doesn’t trust anybody and worships old gods, and a monarch, the daughter of the king we met last time, who has faith in the future. This is good, but it could have been better, or at least felt a great deal less like a retread, had their roles been reversed.

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Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks (part four)

Well, that was about as bad as I remembered. Like all of the many Doctor Who stories that fumble, this one has a couple of neat concepts in it. This one should feature the remarkably interesting idea of a living city, but because this is just Who by the numbers, the city is just a location for a deeply boring and slow chase with Daleks somewhere behind them. The “Pop Goes the Weasel” / “Three Blind Mice” music emphasizes just how slow and stodgy this is.

It’s never interesting, and never even fails in an entertaining way. I’m reminded of how “The Claws of Axos” looked and felt so shoddy and rushed. This doesn’t have any of that story’s weird editing decisions or poor acting, but it also doesn’t have that story’s sense of doing something weird, new, and unique. “The Claws of Axos” tried to be different. This just tries to be the same Dalek adventure that they did the previous season.

Mercifully, the Dalek adventure in the next season would try to be something entirely different!

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Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks (part three)

As we suffer through this Christmas turkey, we’d like to say thanks for reading, we hope you’re having a great holiday, and I hope you all found several classic films and TV shows under your tree! More to come later!

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