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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Doctor Who Rewind - Planet Of The Spiders

With six months of solid Pertwee in the can, myself and my small trusty companion donned our capes and frilly shirts one last time in order to bid farewell to the third Doctor with mixed emotions.

This last story manages to tie up a few lose ends from earlier in the 11th series very nicely and with long time producer Barry Letts writing under the name of Robert Sloman, a theme heavily influenced by Buddhism (one of his passions) gives us a very thoughtful affair about what it means to live a good life.

Being someone who had a real fear of Spiders as a child (and still do) I have vague memories of watching this back in 1974 as a five year old and being scared to death. In fact this story may well have been the source of my phobia.

Captain Mike Yates's story arc from Invasion Of The Dinosaurs is firstly addressed in episode one. Having allowed himself to be compromised by nasty baddies previously, he was discharged from UNIT. Here we see him attending a Buddhist meditation centre in order to find new meaning in his life. What he finds though is some odd goings on in the basement by a group of middle aged men chanting incantations in order to invoke some kind of higher power. They are led by power crazed ego maniac Lupton.

The Doctor, experimenting with psychic ability, is trying to tap into the mind of Professor Clegg at Unit HQ, this backfires when his subject has a heart attack after having a vision of giant spiders (yes, the Doctor indirectly causes his death! Shock horror). This happens when the Prof comes into contact with the blue Metebelis Three crystal from a few stories back, and which he lovingly gave to Joe Grant when she left on her trip to the amazon after getting married. She sends it back with a note that it is causing her a spot of trouble.

At the same time Yates and Sarah Jane witness Lupton's group making contact with a rather large eight legged creature with materialises in the basement. The spider leaps onto Lupton's back and takes control of his mind, issuing commands to him through a voice in his head.

Sarah Jane relates these events to the Doctor and he connects the death of the professor with them.

Most of episode two of the story is taken up with a tour de force Pertwee / Lupton multi vehicle chase. This being his last fling as the flamboyant action thrill seeking Doctor, Pertwee had probably requested they give him a big send off. So we get Lupton trying to steal the crystal and the Doctor giving chase. First it's the Who mobile verses Bessy then we swap to a one man helicopter and plane before finally, a speedboat and hovercraft. It just keeps on coming at you, improbable as it seems. And best of all, Pertwee being the speed freak that he was, is mostly in control of the said vehicles on screen.

There are some fantastic ideas in this story around transformation. One of them involving a character called Tommy, a handyman from the retreat with learning difficulties. In the first half of the story we see him in his child like persona collecting trinkets in a box under the stairs. Nobody really thinks anymore of him than a harmless spare part, but after he comes into contact with the crystal he gains the ability to read and articulate himself. It's a wonderful alternative to seeing the traits the crystal has magnified in others, such as the greed of Lupton. Poor Tommy wants nothing more than to be understood and excepted and that's what he gets.

Of course we also have the Planet of the Spiders itself, Metebelis Three, looking slightly less menacing than when we saw it at the start if The Green Death. And the spiders themselves? Despite this being the 1970's, the actual design and FX to bring them to life are more than effective enough to instil fear into any arachnophobe. Even Pertwee himself looks scared to death when he faces the giant queen.

But in the end, what we have here is a story of the consequences of the Doctor trying to redeem himself. At the retreat, the Doctor encounters an old friend, a fellow time lord and his old teacher from Galifrey, now occupying the body of a Tibetan lama called K'canpo.

K'canpo tells the Doctor that he must return what he has taken, the Crystal. When he took it, he himself started the chain of events that would eventually lead to his downfall and regeneration (and it's in this story that the process of change the Doctor undertakes is referred to as regeneration for the first time).

When the crystal is returned to the queen, it generates a force so strong it kills both her and the other spiders, and leaves the Doctor so weak he can barely make it back to the TARDIS.

After three weeks he returns to unit HQ and staggers out. With a little help from the spirit of his old mentor (who had transmuted at the retreat) the regeneration process kicks in and we see the face of Tom Baker appear.

What Pertwee was given in this story was a chance to throw everything he could at the role he had defined for four years. Of a all the classic Doctors, he was the only one who could mix suave and debonair with die hard thrills and action. There was less of the unpredictability and alien like qualities of other incarnations. But with his Doctor, you felt safe and protected. He was cool and calculated, and never got himself into a flap, despite being in life threatening scrapes.

Initially I was not looking forward to this era of the Rewind. I had gotten it into my head that many of the stories would be tiresome, boring and would plod along at a snails pace. And while there are some bad ones among Pertwee's tenure, the majority hold there own, and benefit highly from his bravado, well scripted stories and wonderful casting.

Having very limited memories of this era of DW, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and I feel sure that my childhood self would have loved it too had I been slightly older at the time it went out.

When Sarah Jane pleads through tears, "Don't die doctor", it's hard not to get choked up. And if it wasn't for the fact that I knew what was coming next, I might've been as distraught. As it is, I have been looking forward to the next stage in this journey since the start.

Yes, Tom is coming!

Next time on Doctor Who Rewind, a Robot with a conscience.


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