Monday, 30 November 2009
"The old man must die"
Review: PLANET OF THE SPIDERS
Written by Robert Sloman, directed by Barry Letts, 1974
In the run-up to the Tenth Doctor’s swansong, it seems appropriate to attempt a re-evaluation of one of only three regeneration stories which thematically address the outgoing Doctor’s ‘death’.
Inevitably, given the series’ heightened awareness of its own ‘mythos’ since its return, the portentousness of David Tennant’s final two-parter is already evident at the time of writing. In the classic series though, it is only really Spiders, Logopolis and Androzani that acknowledge the momentousness of the current incarnation’s demise; in The Tenth Planet the First Doctor’s deterioration is almost incidental, while though The War Games is epic in scope and feels like the end of an era, there isn’t much tragedy to it on a more personal level until the very end. Aside from that, the TVM is, understandably, much more concerned with the Eighth Doctor’s rebirth than the Seventh’s death, and Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways contains very little sense that ‘the moment has been prepared for’.
When I initially saw this story, it epitomised for me the dullest traits of the period – its naffness and dry tone – with sad-sack middle-aged spiritual tourists, nicotine-hued settings, stilted fights, excruciatingly yellowed-up ‘Tibetans,’ and the hokey B-movie premise of enlarged creepy-crawlies. However, this time round, I discovered a bit of a sparkle, and – especially at the beginning – it’s actually a fun and entertaining story. Opening on the Doctor and the Brigadier attending a dire variety performance is quite brilliant, and there’s lots of great throwaway lines in the first couple of episodes: Benton’s "Doing a bit of hairdressing on the side?"; Nicholas Courtney’s fraying patience, which is always enjoyable ("Never mind the dratted coffee!"), and the exchange about the Brigadier’s watch is great ("A little too much, perhaps").
I was also surprised by the amount of continuity – not in the fanboy dirty word sense, but in terms of references being used to build a solidity to the Doctor’s world in a way more familiar from the new series, with its continued acknowledgement of departed companions and to the events of previous stories. It’s nice to be reminded this isn’t entirely unprecedented; aside from the mention of Doris which is belatedly acknowledged in Battlefield, we have references to Jo and her travels; the returned crystal from The Green Death; Mike’s redemption; Drashigs during the Doctor’s ESP experiments; the appearance, in K’anpo, of the hermit from The Time Monster; and even a pre-emptive reference to Harry.
Season eleven’s a funny one; there is quite a lot of dissatisfaction with Barry Letts’ cartoony approach to the period from season eight on, which to an extent I empathise with, but there’s also a perception that by season eleven the show was running on empty. On the contrary, it’s a run of stories that, if not all favourites, I’m always pleasantly surprised by (in no small part due to the often-overlooked pairing of the Third Doctor and Sarah, which I’d take over him and the ever-dippy Jo any day) – I adore The Time Warrior for its freshness and humour, while Invasion of the Dinosaurs is a strong, enjoyable story, in spite of its reputation. Death to the Daleks is weaker – generic seventies pulp – but even that starts strongly. Having said that, there is The Monster of Peladon…
Anyway, speaking of Sarah – how good does Elisabeth Sladen look in this story?! She’s particularly adorable with her bobbed hair. Also, the grey coat she wears with the wool hat is amazing, with its pointy collar and gingham cuffs. As an aside, viewing this at the same time as series three of SJA, it’s particularly nice getting to relate Sarah then and now – especially given the use of a Spiders clip in The Mad Woman in the Attic.
As for the other characters – Cho-je is kind of annoying, but K’anpo is cool, played as he is with humour and authority (I also enjoy the contrast of the monks with the genteel country house environment – although it does rather beg the question why two versions of the same Time Lords come to be running a meditation centre for middle class beatniks in the home counties? Perhaps the Fourth Doctor and the Watcher should have opened a massage parlour). But what can I say about their makeup – or, more to the point, the institutionalised acceptance that casting white actors was somehow preferable to finding those of even broadly the right ethnic background. It’s not as if the general standard of the story’s performances is so high that you could argue casting according to race might compromise quality (the extras are all completely wooden and under-directed, while Neska is flat-out bad). At least in The Talons of Weng-Chiang John Bennett’s epicanthic make-up is a bit more realistic, so you can sort of suspend your disbelief (or is that worse?).
Cho-je/K’anpo does, however, form a precedent for non-white Time Lords, and as such is a welcome kick in the teeth for all those people who claim a non-white Doctor wouldn’t work. Does no-one see the monstrous irony of racial intolerance when it comes to a character predicated around tolerance and acceptance...? The two (?) characters also form a smart reintroductory crash-course on regeneration (although Cho-je does complicate matters), and it’s interesting that the Doctor says he needed to steal the TARDIS because he hasn’t K’anpo’s power, implying that not every Time Lord needs a time machine to travel around. Back on track, I love hearing the Doctor speak in Tibetan (ditto his Mandarin lines in The Mind of Evil and Weng-Chiang).
As with the racially-challenged casting, Tommy too could be a massive embarrassment from a modern point of view – I imagine he is another black mark against the story for some people, but I think the story is redeemed by the unexpected sensitivity of John Kane’s portrayal of the character’s transformation. Seeing him holding his own against the spider-possessed meditatists is also a quite brilliant piece of underdog wish-fulfilment. In fact, Lupton is much more of a drag on the production – obviously he’s meant to be horrible, but John Dearth is just awful, scuttling about in his oversized tweed jacket and bad shoes. Having said that, his banal bitterness is at least a novel justification for megalomania.
In terms of the production, Metebelis may be a bit rubbishy when we get there, but I appreciate the contrast between the futuristic and contemporary sections, and its bright colours and rustic design are pleasingly unusual. There are a few interesting details too, for example (despite the abundance of dubious CSO) the way the location changes around Sarah when she is transported to Metebelis is quite effective, rather than having her fade out from one set and reappear on another. I also appreciated the acknowledgement of the coincidence of the TARDIS always landing in the right place on a whole planet, which the Doctor explains by saying the TARDIS is responsible for the landings themselves – also explaining why it always lands so conveniently near to trouble (a surprisingly lateral idea, for the period). Again, this sort of thought is more typical of the new series – for example in its repeated reinforcement of the TARDIS’ telepathic translation, which didn’t trouble the original series for fourteen years, and then only briefly. Similarly, the use of flashbacks from within the story itself – notably in regard to Tommy – is again more typical of the new series (although it doesn’t reach the saturation point of some of the modern series finales).
An odder decision is to draw lines in Pertwee’s wrinkles with blue eyebrow pencil, during his first confrontation with the Great One (seriously, check it out; DVD picture quality really isn’t going to do that any favours). As for the spiders, they’re actually surprisingly good – and movable – at least when not CSO’d. The Great One is pleasingly unhinged too, while her humiliation of the Doctor, moving his body around against his will, cannily degrades him, adding to the sense that the end is nigh, as well as increasing audience sympathy. ‘You are not accustomed to feeling fear!’
More prosaically – and this may be an atypical view – I really like the Whomobile! It doesn’t have the character of Bessie, but it seems entirely appropriate to the Doctor’s third persona. Also, you have to kind of love that Jon Pertwee randomly decided to have a hovercraft-cum-UFO made for himself! ("No, no Brigadier, you’ll damage my car!") It makes especial sense when you realise how bonkers this story is (again, something initially obscured for me by its seventies dreariness): we have Tibetan Time Lords holed up in the home counties, prissy-voiced talking spiders – of course there’s going to be an extended chase scene with a flying car!
I can’t help but feel a self-consciously epic Doctor/Master faceoff might have tanked at this point, so I’m glad of the story’s less conventional milieu (a meditation retreat in the country doesn’t really set pulses racing as a setting, but I like its novelty). Besides, as I mentioned earlier, the thematic acknowledgement of the Doctor’s impending death is a first, and adds gravitas to events. It’s also particularly interesting how explicitly he comes to die as penance for his thirst for knowledge, which is an interestingly unflattering perspective, as well as being a relatively complex take on the character, for the period: "I had to face my fear. That was more important than just going on living."
The story may not have the visceral kick of, say, Androzani (perhaps the ultimate regeneration story, which also eschewed an epic scale for something more personal), but it is surprisingly quite affecting. I love that the Doctor not only acknowledges "that all this is basically my fault," but goes back to the Great One’s cave despite knowing it’ll kill him. I love that self-sacrificial nobility; there really is a feeling that, yes, the Doctor’s time is running out (I particularly like the touch that though he manages to recover from being zapped by one of the spiders’ minions, he’s clearly running out of luck and one way or another he’s on the way out).
As for the regeneration, that it happens a few weeks later gives the story a touch more scale (there is also a suggestion in one of Paul Cornell’s novels of the Doctor remaining, wracked with pain, in the TARDIS for ten years, which the sadist in me quite likes). The regeneration is madder than I’d ordinarily give such a ubiquitous scene credit for, too, with its floating Tibetan monk, although the CSO (as ever) lets things down, and the regeneration effect itself is disappointingly anticlimactic - but having such a genial Doctor saying, "Where there’s life, there’s –" and then dying is a stroke of wonderful, devastating genius. (It helps that Pertwee does a good line in ‘death’s door’ acting.) "A tear, Sarah Jane?" Considering it’s one of the few occasions we’re actually seeing our hero die, I found this regeneration surprisingly moving, and it’s perhaps appropriate that Tom Baker doesn’t get a look in with a zany ‘new teeth’-type first line.
Yes, Planet of the Spiders isn’t a classic – and Pertwee deserved better – but it highlights how brilliant and unique it is that Doctor Who can have its cake and eat it by effectively killing off its main character, whilst justifiably being able to continue next season… Especially in light of this viewing, I can’t help having a bit of a soft spot for it.