Blue Remembered Hills
Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders on DVD
Jon Pertwee’s final season may not be very popular nowadays, but to be young at the time was very heaven. For a start, you couldn’t get away from the programme in those days. Only two episodes into The Time Warrior, and the BBC showed the omnibus repeat of The Green Death. Just to mix things up a bit more they later stuck an unscheduled repeat of The Sea Devils right in the middle of the first run of Planet of the Spiders. This particular perfect storm of Who was the moment that my infant brain was fatefully reprogrammed and a lifetime of sad fandom set in stone. As if that wasn’t enough, at the end of the year the Tom Baker era was prefaced with an omnibus (about which more later) of Planet of the Spiders itself on daytime BBC1 the day after Boxing Day. These were heady days, which is why I retain a real soft spot for Pertwee’s final bow, while recognising that this puts me in the minority.
I can’t argue that the story is perfect. Few but the deeply partial or clinically insane would maintain that the Metebelis 3 scenes are a success, or that the acting across the story is a model of consistency, or even that the chase sequence that takes up most of episode two rivals Bullitt or The French Connection for hi-octane, adrenaline-charged thrills and spills. But there is so much more to Planet of the Spiders than these high profile and much discussed areas of failure. It’s a pivotal story in the history of Doctor Who, not just because it introduces the concept of regeneration, but also because it includes the first proper go at a story arc (as we understand it now), and also, with its emphasis on adult themes, points the way to the relative sophistication of the Hinchcliffe era. For my money, the only regeneration story that beats Planet of the Spiders is The Caves of Androzani, and that’s because it takes almost the opposite approach. In the latter, the regeneration is purely contingent and happens as a by-product of the Doctor’s curiosity. Planet of the Spiders is entirely about the regeneration, and is a very adult look at mortality that makes The End of Time look shrill in comparison.
As well as being the story of the Doctor’s unavoidable appointment with death, Planet of the Spiders is also Lupton’s story. His preoccupations and motives are so intense and adult, that I’m struggling to think of a character less suited to a children’s television programme. His scene at the start of episode three where he bitterly excoriates his business rivals is more like something out of The Brothers or Man at the Top than teatime viewing. John Dearth’s performance (he’s the dictionary definition of both haggard and bitter) is terrific not least because Lupton is written in such an odd way. On the face of it he’s just a managing director past his best with ideas above his station, but later on we see him controlling ‘his’ spider by the sheer force of his will which leads one to wonder just how far he could go. His apocalyptic rage and blindness to fatal danger at the climax of the story is entirely in character, but is also an obvious contrast to the Doctor who is clear-eyed and knowing as he goes to his death.
Lupton is an odd enough element in the story, but the Buddhism takes it into a whole new world of madness. Effectively much of Planet of the Spiders, the climactic story of a show with a massive audience of children, features middle-aged men hanging around in cellars or having conversations with monks about the true nature of self. Leaving aside the fact that “finding yourself” and going to retreats were highly trendy concepts at the time, it’s again extremely strange to have them centre stage in a show of this type. Some people consider this the worst kind of self-indulgence from Barry Letts, and see it as equivalent to Jon Pertwee’s big car chase, and they certainly have a point. But time lends a distance to these things, and what I find appealing now is really a wider point about the way television was made back in the 1970s and 1980s. Creative people were allowed to express their particular obsessions using the framework of whatever shows and formats to which they had access, including the most mainstream and popular. Experimental ideas were not confined to Play for Today. This does not mean they were all at the same level, or that all these experiments were successful, but in hindsight this quirky approach gives the shows a rich oddness that makes them all the better. More importantly, when I watched Planet of the Spiders as a five-year old I had no problems with Buddhism at all. They could have had Cho-Je chanting and drinking tea in a cellar for 25 minutes as long as a giant spider made an appearance from time to time.
For better or worse, Planet of the Spiders also shows a deliberate reliance on continuity, not just of the sci-fi box-ticking kind, but it carries the expectation that viewers will have seen previous episodes. The reappearance of Mike Yates, the letter from Jo Jones, the appearance of K’anpo following the reference in The Time Monster, and, of course, the blue crystal of Metebelis 3 all lent weight to the feeling that the era was drawing to a close and the story is all the more powerful because of that. It’s also helped by the fact that Pertwee, after a season of coasting, rises to the occasion and gives one of his best performances. By all accounts Pertwee was extremely emotional when the climactic scenes were recorded and it certainly resulted in the most moving regeneration sequence of all, not least because the Doctor actually dies surrounded by his friends. The sight of Sarah closing the Doctor’s lifeless eyes is still a queasy moment, and for me sums up the peculiar and striking nature of Planet of the Spiders. Surely nothing this odd should be easily dismissed as a failure despite its many faults.
Planet of the Spiders was a nightmare to make what with horrible problems with CSO, massive overruns in the studio and terrible problems with cutting. This of course adds a whole new level of fascination for committed fans. You’d think that would make the production notes on this release even more of a problem to write, but fortunately Nicholas Pegg has produced an exemplary guide to the story and his notes are right up there with Martin Wiggins’s brilliant effort on The War Games. It’s like reading a well-structured article rather than a fragmentary series of notes, and while no detail is too small, and no bit of production block minutiae ignored, Pegg also has a strong sense of humour that prevents the whole exercise getting bogged down. The one downside is that because of him I now own a copy of Ingeborg Pertwee’s steamy novel Together, but at least I’ll be starting my counselling sessions soon.
The commentary booth must have been packed for this one, as it features Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks, Nicholas Courtney, Richard Franklin and Elisabeth Sladen. It’s a fitting accompaniment as it includes many Pertwee era commentary classics, but the prize goes to Dicks who manages to mention Pertwee’s bouffant within the first five minutes of episode one. Surely that’s a record? But joking aside it’s nice to hear Sladen alongside the others again, and Letts obviously relishes explaining his thinking behind a story that meant so much to him. The participants description of the behind-the-scenes atmosphere as the story closes is almost as poignant as the regeneration scene itself
The release has a good range of extras led by three documentaries from Ed Stradling alongside a Now and Then and some continuity. The Final Curtain looks at the making of Planet of the Spiders with particular reference to Pertwee’s departure. It features contributions from the main protagonists and makes good use of a 1995 interview with Jon Pertwee. I won’t go into the details (although they’re quite well known) but the Pertwee interview comes in especially useful when the circumstances of his departure are debated, and it’s interesting to see just how firm Letts is on the issue, going on to say that Pertwee’s version “is just nonsense”. As well as the expected – the background to the abortive script The Final Game is covered and Matt Irvine talks about Boris – we also get to hear Terrance Dicks on Buddhism and his disagreements with Letts about the Doctor’s character, and some set design insights from Rochelle Selwyn. The viewers’ angle is covered by Mark Gatiss and his reminiscences add just the right amount of informed nostalgia to the proceedings. Other people may differ, but I enjoyed Gatiss’s contribution mainly because his view on the story is so similar to mine, and his acute memories of the domestic setting in which he watched the regeneration really struck a chord. This is a good-humoured documentary that has just the right balance between dry background information and conveying the emotional impact of the story.
The bonhomie continues with John Kane Remembers, in which the actor forever known as Tommy reminisces about his time working on Doctor Who. Kane comes across as a very affable chap with a startlingly good memory, and despite being something of a polymath (long-term RSC actor, playwright, chief Terry and June scribe) he has absolutely no problem with the fact that he is still only remembered for being Tommy. He tells some great stories about Who, and has some insightful comments about the main people involved in Planet of the Spiders. One particular morsel (told very discreetly) concerns a member of the cast who was taken on by Letts despite having a drink problem. No name is given but a process of elimination suggests that Lupton had more than just a spider on his back.
Directing Who with Barry Letts is the self-explanatory title of Stradling’s final piece. Letts’s pre-Who career is probably the most interesting part of the film but there are some new (to me) insights into the making of Enemy of the World and Letts is very candid about why he feels it didn’t work out. All of the Who stories directed by Letts are covered, and the funniest moment of the set occurs when it’s revealed that Letts is still fretting a little over the fact that the Tom Baker android in The Android Invasion fights Styggron at the climax when he should still have been deactivated. If that was the only thing wrong with The Android Invasion then we could all rest easy.
Despite all these goodies my favourite extra has to be the omnibus version of Planet of the Spiders originally shown on December 27th 1974 which was, as I mentioned earlier, shown the day before Tom Baker’s debut in Robot. It may appear irrational to be so keen on an omnibus edition after Who fans spent so many years lobbying desperately for episodic video releases but for most of us who grew up in the 1970s these movie-length stories meant an awful lot. This was mainly because they were nearly always shown on Bank Holidays and special occasions like Christmas and the combination of a school holiday, a family occasion and a full 90 minutes plus of uninterrupted Who made a deep impact. These versions reinforced the memories of the original transmitted episodes, and for me it was the omnibus repeats of The Sea Devils, The Green Death and Planet of the Spiders that altered my brain for good. So it’s great to see at least one example made available on DVD, and if you have no nostalgic feelings for them then at the very least you now have the option of watching a shorter version of the main story.
As I’ve made clear I think that Planet of the Spiders is an important, diverting and pleasingly deranged story, and it’s great to have a DVD release that lives up to it. There’s no getting around the Metebelis 3 colonists, and there is no CGI replacement for Jenny Laird, but when those bits are on just read the production notes and I promise that you’ll still have a good time.
Planet of the Spiders is released on Monday 18th April in the UK and on May 10th in the USA.