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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (part six)

Let’s get the unfortunate facet of this story out of the way: I’ve never been able to suspend disbelief in The Great One. The super-giant spider remarkably looks even more fake than the regular-giant ones. They’re fine when they don’t move; in fact, when they’re perched on people’s backs, they’re a little creepy. But The Great One badly, badly needed to be filmed rather than videotaped. That would have improved this critically important visual so much.

So no, I’m not going to pretend “Planet of the Spiders” is an unappreciated classic, certainly not with all the woeful acting and design on the alien planet, but it’s a lot better than I credited it. We enjoyed the heck out of this story. There’s a real sense of urgency and desperation that is almost entirely lacking in Pertwee’s final season. It’s a fabulously entertaining set of episodes, and all the actors who aren’t playing alien villagers are just great. I really liked John Dearth just completely losing his composure and yelling at the spiders.

This serial notably marks the first time that the program actually refers to that bit of casting change where a different actor plays the Doctor as “regeneration.” Interestingly, the changeover from Hartnell to Troughton was first explained as a rejuvenation that the TARDIS managed, and the next one, when Troughton became Pertwee, was something that the Time Lords did to him when they exiled him to Earth. Part six of this story is the first time that it’s stated that regeneration is what happens when a Time Lord’s body gets too old or damaged to continue living, making regeneration itself an interesting retcon. There are some more rules, and a very fascinating retcon that didn’t take, to come as the show goes on.

We learn a little about regeneration through the explanation of the Abbot K’anpo Rimpoche, another Time Lord who lives on Earth, and who is assisted by a projection of his next incarnation, a man who goes by the name Cho-Je. K’anpo/Cho-Je are never seen in the series again, which is kind of strange when you consider the Doctor’s great fondness for him; K’anpo is the old hermit who lived on the mountain that the Doctor visited when he was a child. The next Doctor is far too unsentimental to renew contact, but you’ve got to figure some of the later versions would have stopped by that meditation center for tea whenever they were on Earth.

Actually, what if during the sixties, when the twelfth was lecturing at that college in Bristol and Professor Chronotis was at St. Cedd’s in Cambridge… nah. There’s probably fanfic, though.

Anyway, some big goodbyes to note with this story. This is script editor Terrance Dicks’ last serial on the production team, though his work with Doctor Who as a freelancer would carry on for many years. It’s also the last appearance for Richard Franklin as Mike Yates, who sadly doesn’t get anything of a farewell scene after four years as a co-star. Franklin has mainly worked as a stage actor after Who, but he has occasionally turned up in small parts here and there, notably in an episode of Blake’s 7 and as an Imperial engineer in Rogue One.

And of course it’s goodbye to Jon Pertwee. He lost a lot of enthusiasm when Roger Delgado died and Katy Manning moved on; the pending departures of Franklin, Dicks, and, after the next story, producer Barry Letts left him very sad and he decided that only a very large pay increase would keep him around. He told the anecdote about the BBC Head of Drama Shaun Sutton turning down his demand about a million times, only for Letts to repeatedly come behind him with a harrumph to clarify that actors simply didn’t approach the Head of Drama that way.

Pertwee was often very open about his dissatisfaction in not landing leading roles for the rest of his career. He’d spent many years as a popular comedian on radio and in films before starring in Who for half a decade, and in the rest of the seventies he was often seen hosting the Thames game show Whodunnit before taking on the role of Worzel Gummidge in the children’s TV classic. However, casting directors seemed to see him in that “jack of all trades” school and he never got many of the meaty guest star parts where really good character actors excel. He also did lots of voice acting and was one of two Doctors to appear as guest stars in Young Indiana Jones. He returned to the part in 1983’s “The Five Doctors” and, a decade later, in a pair of radio plays written by Barry Letts. He was seen as the show’s elder statesman for all the 30th anniversary celebrations, which saw “Planet of the Daleks” repeated on BBC1.

Jon Pertwee passed away in May of 1996, but we’ve got a couple of his earlier performances coming up on the blog very soon. And while we’re taking a short break from Doctor Who for now, we will resume with Tom Baker’s first season in just a few weeks, so stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (part five)

This is another story that’s turning out to be much better than its reputation, and much better than I remembered it, which is nice. Yes, all the two-legs on Metebelis Three are beyond awful, but everything else is very exciting and really well directed.

It’s also sinking in just how much of this story happens in its last episode. The next twenty-five minutes are going to be packed.

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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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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part six)

I realize that in a serial packed with downright poor special effects, this is like Woody Allen pointing out the lighting choices in porn, but that Triceratops is too big.

Anyway, our son really enjoyed this story, while still wishing that there was some more dinosaur action than what we got. It’s the sort of story you either have to watch when you’re very small and can’t really tell a poor effect from a good one, or old enough to look past them as best you can and appreciate the location work and the acting. Storywise, the Pertwee era formula of five serials a season – two in four parts and three in six – once again got in the way. Cut two episodes from this, and one each from the other two six-parters, and they’d all improve and they could have spent four episodes on a sixth serial. But we have what we have, and this is in the end a very charming adventure with some really good moments despite its many problems.

This seems to write out Richard Franklin’s character of Captain Yates, who, the Brigadier tells us, will be sent on extended sick leave before getting the chance to quietly resign, but he’ll actually be back in a different capacity before long. The guest stars that I most enjoyed – John Bennett, Martin Jarvis, and Peter Miles – will also return in memorable parts in the future, and director Paddy Russell will also be back for two very good stories with Tom Baker.

Strangely, the farewell with this serial is to writer Malcolm Hulke, who had contributed so many good adventures but apparently was tired of working in television and used an argument with the producers to explain his exit. Part one of this story had a slightly modified title: just “Invasion” part one, not “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” Hulke, who passed away three years later, was said to have been outraged by this, though what Barry Letts apparently intended was to keep the appearance of the dinosaurs a surprise.

That said, there’s an annoying claim in places like Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’ About Time series that Letts was being foolish to try and keep the appearance of the dinosaurs at the cliffhanger of part one a surprise, when a pterodactyl and a Tyrannosaurus both show up earlier in part one. They missed the point: when you don’t know what has invaded, as indeed our son didn’t, then the revelation of these monsters at key points in part one is thrilling! It gives huge surprises to the young audience again and again, not only at the cliffhanger.

Some writers who look back at Who from the comfort of middle-aged cynicism sometimes forget that not everybody who absorbs the series does so with the crutches of the Radio Times or blogs or Wikipedia or forums or academic essays. They should watch more of it with a kid. It’s even more fun this way. You can even (mostly) overlook the special effects catastrophes.

Let’s see if my words come back to haunt me when we start the next adventure, because I don’t believe any amount of goodwill from a kid can salvage it.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (parts four and five)

Could we just take a moment to enjoy the Doctor’s wonderful new car? It was made for Jon Pertwee by a famous car designer, Pete Farries, in 1973, and was called “the Alien.” In-continuity, fans refer to it as the Whomobile, though the producer sensibly never allowed that name to be spoken onscreen. Pertwee owned the car for about a decade and occasionally made personal appearances in it. One of the car’s subsequent owners lent it back so it could appear in the 1993 documentary Thirty Years in the TARDIS.

Conventional wisdom has it that parts four and five are very, very slow and full of padding. I think I have to agree with this, especially with all of part four’s slow and quiet creeping about hidden bases, but I was impressed with the on-location chase material in episode five. With the caveat that it’s all that mostly unnecessary running around that mid-serial Doctor Who always seems to give us, it’s shot incredibly well. This isn’t the workmanlike direction of a Paul Bernard or a Michael E. Briant; Paddy Russell is excellent. Her work in the studio is really good, too, but the location stuff is easily on the same level as the (rightly) celebrated Douglas Camfield.

Our son’s really enjoying this one, despite very limited dinosaur business in these two parts. He got a real kick out of the jeep chase in part five. My favorite part is when Sergeant Benton instantly and sadly accepts the Doctor’s claim that Captain Yates has betrayed them, and says that the Doctor had better get on with overpowering him so that he can escape. I love how Benton completely and absolutely trusts the Doctor. Our hero may think of the Brigadier as one of his best friends, but the loyal sergeant never needs any evidence to know that the Doctor is always right.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part three)

I’m sure that you good readers are over the age of six, and consequently unable to see the beast in the photo above as anything other than a deeply unconvincing puppet. But if you’re six, the scene where the Tyrannosaur wakes up and smashes its way out of the hangar is really amazingly convincing. Our kid was back behind the sofa for the first time in a while, holding my hand and worried out of his mind for Sarah, who was locked inside with it. This provided all the “rampage” that our son required last night, although it was a bit more frightening than he was expecting!

Apart from one bizarrely dunderheaded move – shooting flash photos of the dinosaur in a darkened hangar through a pane of glass isn’t going to result in very good photos, Journalist Girl – isn’t Sarah just awesome in this? She’s not just coming up with alternate theories, she’s checking with scientists at Oxford and the editor of Nature to give them weight. And with one man representing the British government, he’s the man to tackle when she has another theory about where whomever is behind this is getting their energy.

The minister turns out to be Traitor # 2 – it isn’t a surprise at all – but the cliffhanger is one of my all-time favorites. The minister and the two scientists lock Sarah in a room where she’s hypnotized. She wakes up with a nice denim-clad hippie welcoming her to consciousness. She’s been dressed in denim as well, and he reminds her that they’re on a spaceship on the way to their new home. They left Earth three months ago! Plot twists don’t get better. Imagine having to wonder for a week what would happen next.

At this point, we’re 25 minutes away from a memorable conclusion, because this would have made such a good four-parter. Unfortunately, we’ve still got 75 minutes to go. Maybe a fast new car will speed things up? We’ll find out after a short break!

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