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!

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.

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-fiancé 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.

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.

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!

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!

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.

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.

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.

Doctor Who: The Green Death (part one)

So it’s time for the end of another season of Doctor Who, and another big season finale written by Robert Sloman and Barry Letts. “The Green Death” was directed by Michael E. Briant and I think it’s thunderously entertaining. I really like this story a lot.

Watching the first part in isolation is a really fun experience. This is clearly a case – and a very rare case in the original run of Doctor Who – of a story built entirely around a companion’s departure. Jo Grant lets the Doctor know in the first episode that she does not want to gallivant off into space to have fun anymore when there’s a planet of her own to save. He knows, then, that their traveling days are over, but he thinks that she’ll still be with UNIT and they’ll work together when he comes back to Earth. And as befits a story built around the companion leaving, Katy Manning dominates this story. It’s all about her character and Katy is fantastic. It’s almost a shame that the very next Doctor Who companion would be so many people’s pick for the all-time best, because she overshadows Jo so much; at this point in the series, Jo is actually tied with Barbara as my favorite companion.

Anyway, this story is set in Llanfairfach, a town in south Wales that is suffering from the closure of its coal mine, and where an outfit called Global Chemicals has set up. Global’s director is a fellow named Stevens, played by the awesome Jerome Willis. He’d later play the disagreeably cautious Peele in The Sandbaggers. And it really, seriously looks like Stevens is under the control of the Cybermen. Honestly, this story looks and feels like a sequel to 1968’s “The Invasion.” It isn’t, but watch the scene where Stevens’ mind starts to wander and he loses track of what he was saying. It’s not quite as obvious an “I’m being controlled” performance as, say, Michael Sheard in part one of “Remembrance of the Daleks,” but something’s up. And then he puts on this futuristic-looking headphone set…!

But as much as I enjoy this story, it does have a couple of problems. One of these, which I may return to, is that the story’s heart is definitely in the right place, but its “pollution BAD alternative energy GOOD” tone is incredibly shrill and would be far less dated if it were a little less right-on. Another is a structural problem that leads me to employ the “unflattering cultural stereotypes” tag on this episode.

Since I’m almost totally unfamiliar with Welsh culture, I didn’t see anything as outlandish as, say, all the Scottish stereotyping in the Avengers episode “Castle De’ath,” but it isn’t really a case of employing cliche, it’s setting a story in Wales but telling a story about Englishmen. Tat Wood penned an essay in About Time entitled “Why Didn’t Plaid Cymru Lynch Barry Letts?,” and I don’t know that I would have noticed the problem until I read that. See, the Welsh characters in this story, even though they’re played by Welsh actors like Talfyrn Thomas, are not in control of their destiny. People from London are. Global Chemicals has moved to Llanfairfach to take advantage of the closed mine, and the hippie commune that opposes Global – about which more next time – is similarly made up of people who’ve dropped out and moved to the area because they share the young Professor Jones’s ideals and dreams.

Between these forces, the Welsh people here have no agency. They’re all unemployed, apart from the milkman and a few part-timers who inspect the mine for safety and, as we’ll see, green slime. And this story isn’t about them, even though they’re the ones who feel the immediate impact of what’s going on, as people start coming out of the mine bright green and dead. It’s about Jo first, and about Global Chemicals versus the Wholeweal Community second. That, along with the script making sure that the milkman says “boyo,” is what makes this a little unflattering.

Doctor Who: The Dæmons (part five)

“The Dæmons” is rightly criticized for its ending, but not for the right part of the ending. The problem isn’t the incredibly rushed and ridiculous part where Jo’s offer of self-sacrifice confuses Azal so much that he immediately starts shouting “Does not relate” – if he were a computer in a sixties drama like The Prisoner or Star Trek, he’d say “compute” – and then self-destructs, most of what he says lost in a whirl of keyboards and special sounds and actor Stephen Thorne bellowing.

No, the problem is all the film stuff they did before the studio session. It’s not just Jo retrieving her clothes from the pub when she was forced to change in the church, it’s the whole way everybody in the village just smiles and grins about all these soldiers turning up, their church exploding, and their new vicar being led away at gunpoint, and then decide it’s time for a nice fertility dance around the maypole. I guess it makes a decent enough image for the season finale, but there’s a pretty big church down the road from us, with their playground across the street, and if their building got blown up by a twenty foot tall 100,000 year-old dæmon from space, I bet that the parishioners wouldn’t be in a big rush to start a game of softball.

On the other hand, Nicholas Courtney is just incredibly entertaining in this episode. He steals the show right out from under Roger Delgado – no easy task – with his frustrated, rational, sensible responses to each new problem. And the fight with Bok is really impressive, too. Our son loved the explosions, both hitting Bok with a rocket from a bazooka and the great big one that destroys the church.

I don’t know whether it’s an old wives’ tale or Terrance Dicks pulling our leg, but there’s a great old story that the BBC received several complaints about blowing up that church for the sake of a silly entertainment show. You watch that today and know that it’s a miniature – a darn good one, mind, but still a miniature – and can’t believe that anybody, no matter how lousy the reception was on their antenna in 1971 to make them think the visual was better than it was, could possibly think they’d actually blow up a real church. But then you remember the stories about old ladies beating up Barry Morse with their handbags demanding he leave that nice Dr. Kimble alone, and all the telegrams the US Coast Guard received asking them to rescue Gilligan and the castaways, and you accept that yes, the BBC probably did get some angry phone calls.

We’ll start watching season nine of Doctor Who in September. Stay tuned!