Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (UK - DVD R2)
Good grief! The Wilson Bros reverse the polarity of the neutron flow for this one...
Doctor Who had seemingly been in crisis – when producer Barry Letts was brought into the show, the ratings were – by his own admission – “so low they had dropped off the graph”; the show had gone through this cycle before with both William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. The gamble of having Jon Pertwee’s Doctor exiled on Earth had paid off initially, but public interested waned and when Letts was in the producer’s chair, The Doctor’s exile ended and he was free to roam time and space.
Pertwee’s final season, season 11, was certainly something of a mixed-bag, with good stories such as The Time Warrior (which saw the introduction of the Sontarons) and Death To The Daleks (arguably the only decent Dalek story of the Third Doctor era) interwoven with stinkers like Invasion of the Dinosaurs (an interesting idea torpedoed by over-length, laughable effects and a superfluous sub-plot about pseudo-Scientologist nutters) and The Monster of Peladon (the perfect example how reusing props and costumes to save a few quid isn’t necessarily a good idea). The final story for Jon Pertwee's Doctor would be pitched somewhere inbetween the great and the downright awful...
Planet of the Spiders sees disgraced former UNIT captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) trying to penetrate a dark, mysterious circle, stumbling upon sinister goings-on of a cult behind the closed doors of a spiritual retreat. Discretely recruiting Sarah-Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) to help him expose the truth behind the seemingly normal Buddhist retreat at which he’s has been recuperating, just as event begin to escalate.
Fairly soon, it dawns upon The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) that the crystal he appropriated from the planet of Metabelis III is being targeted by the spiders (referred to locally as the Eight-Legs) that inhabit that planet, using the cultists and the gem as a inter-dimensional passageway between worlds. With events becoming evermore critical, The Doctor eventually realises that he might have to take on the arch Eight-Legs herself, The Great One, and make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the universe...
Planet of the Spiders had the production code ZZZ, and there are few Doctor Who serials more deserving of that particular code, as it is a six-parter snooze-a-thon, something that could have easily been told in four-parts and would have been far more entertaining. Structurally, it is similar to The Time Monster, with a fair bit of it taking place on present-day Earth and then switching to somewhere else entirely for most of the second half. The first half of the story is more interesting, as the use of location footage, rather than a dull, studio-bound alien world, has more of a sense of excitement about it, rather than use of Colour Separation Overkill... sorry, Overlay.
Planet of the Spiders features the dullest regeneration to date on Doctor Who (Colin Baker’s one may have been a fudge-job because of his understandable reluctance to participate in it, but at least they attempted something innovative) – just having Tom Baker lying in exactly the same position and then quickly dissolving between the two is remarkably unimaginative. We should point out that some fans have posted their own enhanced versions of this regeneration and that some of the results are most impressive.
Barry Letts’ Buddhist beliefs take centre-stage in this story, with the whole thing centring around the strange goings-on that the disgraced former Captain Yates discovers at a Buddhist retreat in the West Country. What is a little puzzling is that it seems to show such Buddhist groups as being the centre for something sinister, as the one seen here is depicted as a cult. Even when the leader of such cults, which hide behind legitimate established religions to conceal their own agendas, are depicted as rogue lunatics or just plain evil, they can still do a fair amount of damage to the religion they have been hiding behind. Letts was one of those directors who didn't like to stay in up in the gallery, as he liked to be on the studio floor when things whenever possible, but you have to wonder if he was directing part of this story whilst standing on a soapbox. Speaking of which, there is a scene where The Doctor tells Sarah-Jane about some more of his pivotal moments as a young person, and says that when he looked in to the crystal, he saw the face of his old teacher - it's quite likely that in a past incarnation, he bore a remarkable resemblance to Barry Letts...
What is also quite a major strike against this story is the decision to cast an occidental actor as an oriental character. The same thing would be done a few years later in the otherwise wonderful The Talons of Weng Chiang, but this would be fairly more successful that what was in Planet of the Spiders. Actor Kevin Lindsay had previously played Sontaron Linx in The Time Warrior (and would also appear as Styre in The Sontaron Experiment shortly before his premature death in 1975), and here he plays Cho Je, a Buddhist monk who is hiding a great secret. Lindsay is a good actor, but all of the make-up and acting prowess in the world can do little to disguise the fact that he clearly ISN'T Asian and that he's only a couple of rungs up on what we like to call (inspired by the infamous Benny Hill character) the "Sirry Pirrock" scale. At the time, there was seemingly a scarcity of Asian actors working in the UK, but there must have been at least one who was competent enough to portray Cho Je and give him the necessary gravitas that was lacking due to having a white actor playing the role.
There's no getting around it - Planet of the Spiders is a bloated, over-padded story, which was pretty much in keeping with many of the stories from Pertwee's tenure. Though the main motivation to have longer stories was due to budgetary constraints (i.e. longer stories would mean fewer stories in a season and less new props and costumes to shell out on), much of episode two of this story sees Jon Pertwee embark on a chase that practically runs for the whole of the episode and has him pursue his quarry on land, water and air. This stuff must have cost a packet to stage and was only granted as a thank-you to Pertwee, as it was his final story and he had a love of various forms of motorised transport, including Bessie, a gyrocopter, the Whomobile and a speedboat. With the ante continually being upped by the various vehicles, you expect a Yellow Submarine to break up through the concrete road and join in the pursuit. The Whomobile has all the grace of movement on the road as a Thundersley Invacar, and sports a circular aerial which looks uncannily like the antenna on an old portable TV we used to have, right down to the block at the bottom containing a connector, but it‘s still a pretty cool beast, even when used just for the sake of it. OK, so the whole chase is gratuitous and doesn't serve the story in any way whatsoever, but you have to hand it to Pertwee for taking a much greater part in events than many other of the other actors who have played The Doctor would have agreed to. What is seen in this episode is almost pornography for petrol-heads, who will doubtlessly be having a quick two-stroke whilst watching it...
The cliff-hanger to episode four is one of the weakest that we can recall in Doctor Who history (well, apart from a certain one in Dragonfire), with The Doctor entering the chamber where Sarah-Jane is being held prisoner, raising her hopes of rescue, only to have them dashed when she realises that her would-be rescuer is himself captive; this works on paper and would have made for a good, maybe even great, episode closer but the previous scene had clearly showed that The Doctor had been outnumbered by adversaries and that no amount of Venusian Aikido would have gotten him out of it. This could have been remedied by cutting slightly early and making it not so obvious that it was a hopeless situation, particularly Pertwee's line that acknowledges defeat. Such retro-editing doesn't help matters and that ineffective cliffhanger will always remain so, and must be judged accordingly.
Pertwee seems more relaxed in this story; perhaps it was because he knew that he was about to leave the show and was less proprietorial about the role, seeing as he was about to hand it over to a little-known Liverpudlian actor. Out of all of the actors to play the role, none seemed to be more possessive of the part than Pertwee and certainly showed on-screen - lets' not forget that Pertwee released the single "I Am The Doctor", though there are probably quite a few people still trying forget this. A warmth and a sense of charm (maybe he was able to persuade Barry Letts to write some in for him) seems to emanate from Pertwee that feels more genuine and less "actorly" than in much of the other stories during his time on Doctor Who. It also goes without saying that this story sees Pertwee's barnet at it's most bouffant. Certainly one of our favourite Pertwee moments comes on his first scene, where he and Courtney are sitting though an awful, low-grade comedian at a club, with an excellent air of indignation practically hurled at such club entertainers of the seventies.
The late Nicholas Courtney is also very good in this and seeing him and Pertwee playing their characters in a social setting is lovely, with the two of them having a rapport that is also absent from previous stories; the relationship they have is not too dissimilar to that of Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant at the start of the Trial of a Time Lord season, where time has moved on and they are friends, rather than Doctor and companion. The rapport between Courtney and Pertwee is wonderful during the scenes in episode one where they are in the theatre waiting for the psychic to appear on stage. Tom Baker may have been the superior actor, but Pertwee paired up much better with Courtney, as the Third Doctor and the Brig were brittle in personality and always trying to push each other's buttons. Naturally, Courtney is still required to do his blustery shtick in this story, but he does it so well that you'd miss it if he didn't do it. Speaking of Mr C - isn't the Brig's hair a bit too shaggy for an military officer in this one? More on that below, but it's nice to hear the name “Doris” casually mentioned, as this particular acquaintance would later turn up in the Sylvester McCoy story Battlefield as the Brig's good lady wife. With The Doctor about to regenerate, there is a moment when the Brig exclaims "good grief!", which is Pertwee's second most popular phrase after "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" - maybe The Doctor had a premonition that he was about to move onto his next incarnation and mentally bequeathed one of this catchphrases to The Brig.
Elisabeth Sladen also gets a chance to shine in Planet of the Spiders, whilst wearing what could be viewed as one of her signature garments (the Andy Pandy outfit from The Hand of Fear would be THE definitive costume), the stripy top that looks good with a spider on the back of it; whilst we’re talking about appearances, Sarah-Jane Smith has thankfully allowed her hair to grow out a bit, losing the "I'm a card-carrying, right-on, bra-burning feminist" look that she had when she first signed on. Sladen seems to be more of the investigative journalist in the first couple of episodes, being invited to snoop around the retreat to good effect. The on-screen chemistry that she shares with Richard Franklin is most pleasing, as they seem to bounce off each other very nicely and makes it all the more convincing that Yates is trying to redeem himself for that whole betraying UNIT incident a few stories back.
This was Richard Franklin's last "proper" appearance in Doctor Who; though he would turn up again for a cameo in The Five Doctors, Yates was merely an illusion to trick The Doctor and even though he took part in the Children In Need story Dimensions In Time, most Doctor Who fans would probably prefer to pretend that it never happened. Franklin's Yates in this story is a different animal to his previous portrayal; the noble officer from the UNIT family is long-gone and he is no longer the traitor he turned out to be in Invasion of the Dinosaurs - the Yates here is more level-headed, but still something of a broken man who is seemingly searching for redemption.
Of the guest cast, John Kane really shines as Tommy, who starts out as a kind of prototype Benny, but rather than being a handyman at the Crossroads motel, he is a handyman (of sorts) at the Buddhist retreat. Unlike Benny, he doesn't vanish after climbing a ladder, but he is exposed to the mysterious powers of the Metabelis III crystal and before you can say The Lawnmower Man, he finds his intelligence vastly increased. A combination of great writing and an enchanting performance from Kane (who's method acting got him into a bit of an embarrassing situation - see the special features for more about this), that make the character one of the most overtly sympathetic in Doctor Who history. The scene where Tommy begins to properly appreciate literature and the change in his response to such things is simply wonderful. The only issue we have is that the usage to which his new-found abilities are put toward the end of the story just aren't played up enough - he has the ability to be immune to the blue lightning/lasers that the spider-affected members of the retreat fire at him (they decide to chant in unison to get more power - they were probably looking for more "ohms"); ultimately, it feels as though Barry Letts (or co-author Robert Sloman) watched a late-night screening of the Edward D Wood film, Bride of the Monster and saw Bela Lugosi turn into a bullet-proof atomic superman and thought "hmm, that gives me an idea..."
John Dearth is suitably slimy as would-be super-villain Lupton, who happens to be just another in the long, sad line of megalomaniacal characters who crave power so badly that they are prepared to ally themselves with any old passing ruthless race in order to use them as muscle to get what they desire (not to mention thinking that they can hoodwink them once their objectives have been reached); Lupton joins Mavic Chen, Tobias Vaughn and many others in that league of misguided madmen, with Dearth playing the character for all it's worth, though during the last couple of episodes when Lupton sees himself trying to bargain with the Eight-Legs (as the spiders are known on Metabelis III), he looks as though he has had a few and seems as though he is about to put his arm around one of the spiders and say "you're my bestest mate, you are".
Gareth Hunt puts in a good performance as Arak, showing more depth that you would expect from a man who frequently played glib or smug characters (or making a certain hand gesture in those eighties coffee ads that many thought was an appropriate description for Hunt himself), but here is outfitted with a West Country accent - as are all of the human inhabitants of Metabelis III - and he makes a good fist of trying to act seriously whilst sporting facial hair and shaggy mop which answers that eternal question of “How do you turn Gambit from The New Avengers into Jason King?“
Something that is touched upon in the first episode is the idea that having psychic abilities is not so much a blessing, but more of a curse. One has to wonder if Barry Letts (or co-writer Robert Sloman) had a gay subtext in mind when writing the script, as it seems to play out in a similar manner to that of the Bryan Singer directed X-Men films, where having mutant powers was a thinly-veiled metaphor for being gay. The clairvoyant Professor Herbert Clegg (Cyril Shaps) trumpets his psychic abilities professionally, but when questioned privately by The Doctor and the Brigadier, he insists that his abilities aren't real, but eventually cracks and confirms - almost with a sense of shame - that he has extraordinarily strong psychic powers. If Letts or Sloman actually had this in mind when writing, then it was an exceptionally bold move for a family show, especially given the era in which it was filmed, when homosexuality had been decriminalised, but homophobia and social stigma attached to it were still rife.
If we were to delve even deeper into metaphorical waters, then one could interpret the concept of the spider on the back as being representative of a penis; something that talks to you and only the person it is attached to can hear it and constantly tells you to do things against your will and you almost invariably obey it's orders despite how much your conscious mind objects. To journey even further into the ridiculous, the crystal can be viewed as a vagina, being something that the spiders pursue in a determined, relentless manner and will grant the successful questor greater knowledge and understanding. Perhaps this analogy says more about us than anything else, but we thought we'd throw it in anyway. If you wish to be critical of the having spiders as adversaries, then this notion is rather subjective, as although fear of the eight-legged monsters is common, arachnophobia is not a universal phenomenon. At the risk of sounding flippant, along with the Menoptra, this is possibly the only adversary for The Doctor and his companions which could easily be killed by the careful application of a can of Raid.
When viewing this story with the benefit of hindsight, there is a sense of it being the end of an era, not just with the departure of Jon Pertwee, but also because this was the beginning of the end of the UNIT family, as it would be gradually be moved into the background by incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe before going out with a whimper in The Android Invasion. The UNIT family played a significant part in the success of the Pertwee era, and even when The Doctor had been given his freedom to roam the galaxy once more, there were still stories that brought him back to his favourite blue-green planet to help UNIT defeat some menacing unearthly force.
It would have been nice to have had the option to view Planet of the Spiders with some CGI footage; the prospect of having some of the arachnids replaced with computer-generated ones was a most pleasing one, but sadly this isn't possible here. The spider shots are pretty inconsistent, with some of the more static shots being pretty good, even if they look like the puppet ants from The Young Ones ( "Did you know that humans can actually build bridges?"), and have the appearance of being nailed to the platforms on which they are standing, and look like they are desperately trying to free themselves from their impalement. Some of the shots where the spiders move via CSO are pretty toe-curling, as the legs are continually winking in and out of existence in an orange blur, which distract from the storytelling, or at least shatter any kind of suspension of disbelief that had been created.
There is the odd nod to events of the day, with the a few references to popular culture cleverly worked into the dialogue, with the most notable being when Pertwee asks the psychic Professor Clegg if he feels up to bending a few spoons, obviously a nod to Uri Geller and his famed ability to bend spoons as the world marvelled. This reflection of the times extends to a primary plot element, as the concept of gurus and Asian spirituality was all the rage during the sixites and early seventies, but given a typically Doctor Who twist by meditation being used as a conduit for invading forces.
As touched upon a couple of times above, many of the cast sport hairstyles which come as a bit of a shock when going back to watch Pertwee’s final bow as The Doctor, and how just the title character himself. Richard Franklin has a shaggier mop than before, Elizabeth Sladen still has her overgrown flapper “do” which was tamed during her time with Tom Baker, and Nick Courtney possesses curiously long hair for an man of his rank, and give the time Planet of the Spiders was made, he was seriously in danger of beating himself up.
Trivia fans will note the mentioning of future companion Harry Sullivan, which served as an interesting way of easing in a new character by establishing him (albeit in a very minor way) before the new actor to play The Doctor slips into the role.
OK, we're going to be a little controversial here and say that we're a little disappointed with how Planet of the Spiders looks on DVD. We accept that there are limitations as far as what the Doctor Who Restoration Team had to work with (and it's almost certain that the original film elements for the location work no longer exist), but other stories from the same era have looked better than this once the RT had worked their magic on them.
Much of the studio footage was shot in dark locations, so the video footage was going to be grainy anyway, but there just seems to be something preventing it from shining as magnificently as, say, The Mutants on DVD. There has certainly been restoration work carried out - you just have to look at the omnibus version of Planet of the Spiders to see how it looked before it was spruced up - and the upswing in quality is noticeable, but this is one of the few times where we have been a little disappointed with the results of the Restoration Team's efforts.
Nothing to complain about, as usual - the mono Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is perfectly fine, with Dudley Simpson's music score being particularly pleasing to the ears.
Audio Commentary: Producer/Director Barry Letts, Script Editor Terrance Dicks, along with actors Nicholas Courtney, Elisabeth Sladen and Richard Franklin all join in the good-natured fun for this commentary, which is poignant not only because Barry Letts is no longer with us, but more so because Nick Courtney left the party very recently. We recall reading that actor Gareth Hunt was supposed to participate in this audio commentary, but was apparently taken ill just before the recording was due to take place and sadly passed away shortly afterwards.
Terrence Dicks expounds upon the use of the “Rule of Three” in dramatic writing, this time employed for when The Doctor is scanning the stones he intends to use. He also spits out the term “arc” when referring to the change of a character over the course of a story, Dicks clearly not too happy to embrace new terminology. “It’s a good job he [Tommy] picked William Blake, who’s out of copyright…” when watching the character’s transformation from idiot to intellectual, which illustrates the whole tone of the track which makes you most welcome - Dicks is a real character and always wonderful to listen to; he really should be treasured and appreciated whilst he's still around.
Dear old Barry Letts informs that as bad as the “Comedians” style comic was at the beginning of the story, they originally had an intentionally terrible ventriloquist in the proceedings, but was so awful that they couldn’t use any of it. The scrapping of a monkey-ventriloquist is a tragedy in any language or culture, in our opinion, and a strike against the powers-that-be on the show at the time.
Certain motivations in the screenplay are picked apart by those watching, with one sequence almost drawing exasperation from all concerned, that being when Lupton puts the crystal in a place where it can be easily stolen. The reaction runs like this:
Franklin: “Don’t put it over there, you daft h'apoth, somebody’ll nick it.”
Dicks: “A shade careless to put it by an open window…”
Dicks: ”…and then turn your back on it for long periods”.
Sladen: [/i]”Open window… you know something’s going to happen. Especially when it‘s a long-shot!”[/i]
They couldn’t do a commentary for Planet of the Spiders without mentioning a few of the bones Pertwee was thrown, which most others would read as “indulgences”, including the obvious use of the vehicles in the second episode and the instances where Venusian Aikido gets the Dandy Doctor out of a scrape. Speaking of all things dandy, as mentioned above, Planet of the Spiders is a great showcase for some very dated haircuts, and this doesn’t slip by the participants here, as when the four cultists join forces against Tommy, Sladen points out that it‘s: “…a line-up of seventies haircuts again.”
The only minor criticism about this offering is that there are maybe a few too many participants, which results in some of the more dominant people present to talk over those who like to be quietly witty. No names on this one, but you can probably work out who’s who. It’s entertaining stuff, topped off by a couple of mentions about how Planet of the Spiders was intended as a “thank-you-and-goodnight” performance from Rodger Delgado as The Master which, according to Letts, involved his demise by “exploding in the middle of a supernova”.
The Final Curtain: This is a pretty comprehensive - not to mention deliriously enjoyable - 37 minute look at the making of Planet of the Spiders, featuring contributions from Producer Barry Letts, Script Editor Terrance Dicks, Effects Designer Matt Irvine, Designer Rochelle Selwyn, New-Who Writer/Actor Mark Gatiss, Actor Richard Franklin and - most surprisingly, Jon Pertwee himself, who appears in an interview recorded the year before he died. This is a breezy, but very informative look at the Third Doctor's final story, explaining the genesis of the script (especially how it was originally supposed to be a final showdown between The Doctor and his old nemesis, The Master, but fate stepped in and Roger Delgado's tragic death put the mockers on it); this documentary also examines Pertwee's reasons for leaving the show and most would agree with his reasons, especially the gradual break-up of the on-screen troupe (Delgado's death, Katy Manning's leaving and the downplaying of the UNIT family), along with the fear of typecasting, but it was the request for more money being turned down that was probably the final straw (no Worzel Gummidge reference intended). Pertwee's participation is bittersweet, as seeing an older Pertwee for a moment almost makes you think that he isn't dead and that he is actively participating in this documentary - it genuinely comes as a bit of a jolt when you first see him; he imparts some amusing and informative anecdotes, matching some of the tales told by others in this documentary.
Dicks has a couple of chuckles at Barry Letts' spiritual beliefs, along with the always-welcome Matt Irvine, who speaks of some of the problems associated with mechanical spiders. The warmest and most vivid contributions come from Gatiss, who is always great to listen to, as he was a Doctor Who fan who grew up to be involved with the show in various ways - his experiences watching Planet of the Spiders and the Third Doctor era in general make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Designer Selwyn speaks of her despair at how awful the lighting was for the Metabelis III sets, complaining that they were lit like a light entertainment show, rather than a drama series - was John Nathan-Turner skulking around the studio during the filming of this story...? Nick Courtney and Lis Sladen are conspicuous by their absence and whilst it would have been nice to see them speaking of their feelings concerning the end of the era, they are both on the audio commentary for this story. The Final Curtain is a wonderful way to close the Pertwee era, and whilst a documentary containing an overview of Jon Pertwee's Doctor Who career would have been nice, this is a great way to spend 37 minutes of your life. Fittingly, Jon Pertwee gets the last word, giving an amusing response when asked about his successor...
John Kane Remembers Planet Of The Spiders: The actor who played the televisual precursor to Benny from Crossroads reminisces about his role in Jon Pertwee's final story. He's a pretty genial guy who seems to have a pretty good recollection of his time on Planet of the Spiders and recounts in great detail the embarrassing incident on the first day of recording at Television Centre, where he stayed in character as Tommy and fooled the taxi driver taking him there that he was going to meet Doctor Who and had to keep this illusion up to the security guard on the gate, who was somewhat disgruntled when he revealed himself to be in character. What really was the most startling revelation in this interview was that Kane conceived and developed a sitcom in the seventies, which was kicked around a bit and was written with Roy Kinnear in mind to play the lead; the thing eventually surfaced in the early eighties and turned out to be that most bland and inoffensive of sappy, cosy, middle-class comedies, Terry and June! It's a pity that Kinnear didn't get the gig, as he would have been able to steer the thing in a more interesting direction than the way it turned out. Even though Terry and June probably ended up rather different to how Kane envisioned it, there are still some who would wish to see the actor who played Tommy imprisoned in a giant wicker Volvo and then see it set alight as the first golden rays of the dawn appear over the horizon.
Directing Who With Barry Letts: This 14 minute featurette consists of the late Mr Letts speaking of his time as a director (and obviously crossing over into the producing area, as they happened to intertwine on several occasions), including how he got started after trying for several years to be enrolled into the Beeb's directing course and the televisual directorship map that led him to a certain popular science-fiction series. Letts is a good speaker with a relaxed voice that is easy on the ear, yet is able to convey urgency or drama when required (this was probably due to him being an actor before he went behind the camera) and Letts rattles off a number of interesting stories during this pleasing whistle-stop tour of his directorship on Doctor Who, including the fact that was unhappy that the only surviving episode of his Who directorial debut, The Enemy of the World, just happens to be a dull and padded episode in an otherwise exciting and action-packed story.
[/i]Now & Then - The Locations Of Planet Of The Spiders: This is another in the occasional series that takes a look at how the locations seen in [i]Doctor Who appear in the present day, contrasted by clips from the stories themselves. This fairly short (seven minutes) featurette is presented in a jaunty, bouncy style and is great fun to watch as the places where Planet of the Spiders was filmed are revisited; most of the locations haven't changed much, particularly those seen in the extended chase sequence, many of which look pretty much identical to the way they looked nearly four decades ago.
Trailer: Included for your delectation is a preview of the omnibus version of Planet of the Spiders that was broadcast the day after Boxing Day, 1974. It plays more as a collection of scenes to whet the appetite, rather than what most people these days would call a "conventional" trailer. It's still nice to have it included, though.
Om-Mani-Padme-Hum-nibus Version: To have included the trailer and NOT have thrown the in the thing that it was advertising wouldn't have been the done thing. So, for your viewing pleasure - and also for those of us who continually moan that six-part stories would play better in a more abbreviated form - we have the shortened version of Planet of the Spiders that played over the Christmas period in 1974 whilst Doctor Who was off the air. Let's face it - most four-plus part Doctor Who stories would benefit from some judicious pruning here and there - there are those who think that the original six-part Genesis of the Daleks is a bit of a drag, but see the truncated version that eventually surfaced as the real masterpiece.
The omnibus edition has around 45 minutes excised from the original running time (with around seven minutes removed from the first episode alone), and jumps straight into the action, removing the scenes of The Doctor and The Brig at the music hall. The end result is pacier than the six-part version, but purists will complain that it misses out the sort of character moments that Doctor Who is known and loved for; for a story that drags considerably, the edits generally work in the omnibus version's favour and also removes the ghastly cliffhanger from the end of episode four, showing The Doctor being confronted by two guards and when it cuts back to him next, he's cocooned alongside Sarah-Jane - it really works!
This version of Planet of the Spiders is unrestored and looks considerably rougher than the episodic version; there is a noticeable softness to the image that almost makes you feel as though you are watching a VHS copy of this story (we used to own the VHS Planet of the Spiders and viewing this shorter version, it really seemed like a trip down Memory Lane); there is also a fair amount of damage to the copy, with drop-outs on the studio sequences and print damage on the filmed material. Despite these minor gripes, it's great to get the chance for Doctor Who fans like us - who were too damned young to see the omnibus version of Planet of the Spiders at the time it was broadcast (we were only one year old at the time) - to be able to see the thing. Great stuff!
Photo Gallery: Clocking in at over five minutes, this is a compilation of images from Jon Pertwee's final story, all set to the strains of Dudley Simpson's music score and Dick Mills' special sounds. As with some of the more recent photo galleries, there has been a bit of movement added to give the images a bit more vitality and make them less of a chore for the casual viewer to watch - purists may be a little miffed that they aren't getting to see the full images, but the little bit of panning and zooming that has been applied here makes for a more satisfying and entertaining experience. There are a nice selection of colour and monochrome pictures, combining publicity stills, candid snaps and production photographs - it is worth pointing out that there are no images that show that Jon Pertwee is going to regenerate, presumably because the production didn't want anything to leak out to the press and the fans. We can also confirm that arguably the most famous image from Planet of the Spiders, the shot of Lis Sladen trying to look over her shoulder when the spider is on her back is included here - there would have been a mini-riot if it hadn't have been.
Info Track: It’s time to unload the sack of superlatives once again, in the same way Ron Jeremy was guaranteed to empty his every time. Rather than just being reliably excellent, nor a another text-book example of how an information track should be done, but with Planet of the Spiders such a significant story in the run of the show, we are given one which rates among their very best.
Right off the bat we are given fascinating information with the benefit of a knowing wink, where it’s revealed that the opening scenes of Mike Yates investigating around the grounds were shot at dusk because the originally scripted manoeuvres in the dark, and efforts to keep the disgraced UNIT officer were thwarted by Doctor Who’s old nemeses, lack of lighting equipment.
Even at the time, it was a poorly kept secret that The Doctor’s days of looking like a tall light bulb were numbered, and every knew that a change of actor was going to take place at the end of the final episode, but there was more to it than that. It adds so much more when the track informs of just how much Barry Letts was keen to utilise Buddhism once again, as he did with Interstitial Time in The Time Monster, going deeper than just having K’ampo Rimpoche around to represent the faith. A cornerstone of Buddhism, the destruction of the ego when the mind is overtaken in the pursuit of greed, is interwoven and used as a foreshadowing of the impending regeneration, with The Great One representing ego and The Doctor’s quest into the Blue Mountain (his own self) thusly destroying said ego.
With many humour tales to balance out the proceedings, our favourite has to be the telling of how the combination of using a medical brace, having to use hair-curlers and wearing long-johns out on location at a military base almost gave the resident Sergeant-Major a coronary when he stumbled upon Pertwee lounging around in lingerie, rollers and a girdle. With such a sight, Pertwee would have been much more suited for a Navy Lark.
We have praised the work lovingly lavished on the Doctor Who fact-tracks, giving credit where is richly deserved, but there is a good chance that the one for Planet of the Spiders might be the crowning achievement. It is not merely throwaway information, but in indispensable look at the story and the myriad of variations it took before becoming the final product. At key points, changes are noted and cross-referenced between the differing drafts of the script, changes made during filming and alterations in the Target novelisation. Whilst dullards might read such exhaustive minutia as being anal, this just isn’t the case. To put it succinctly, the Info Track for Planet of the Spiders enriches the whole experience, expanding on story elements only mentioned briefly and broadening appreciation of Pertwee’s final regular outing as The Doctor in a way which stands proudly alongside Tolkien’s appendices for his own work. Just excellent.
Coming Soon: Well, it's more Third Doctor madness - Planet of the Spiders saw the departure of the Bouffanted-One, but the Mannequin Mania box sees his introduction, as it contains Spearhead From Space and Terror of the Autons; the trailer's great and both stories are fabulous fun, particularly as Terror sees the introduction of the wonderful Roger Delgado who is usually referred to as The Master. You might even say that it's plastic fantastic! Oh, Christ - did we really just type that...?
PDF Materials: Pop this into your PC and you will be able to access the Radio Times listings for all six episodes of Planet of the Spiders, complete with rather nice illustrations to accompany the listings and gratuitous plug for the Doctor Who Radio Times Special (which was REALLY nice and we wish they could reprint the thing).
Planet of the Spiders may have it's faults, but even the over-long story and near-pornographic chase in episode two can't put you off the engaging performances (especially from Jon Pertwee) and the surprising amount of depth there is to the story. For those of you who aren't exactly thrilled at sitting through this six-part story, there's always the omnibus version to watch.
The bonus materials really ARE something to treasure - especially The Final Curtain, with the late Pertwee's contribution - and all-in-all, this package for the Third Doctor's final story is a great one...
"All praise to the Great One!"
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 18th April 2011
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Now & Then, Photo Gallery, Coming Soon Trailer, PDF Materials
Easter Egg: No
Director: Barry Letts
Cast: Jon Pertwee, Elisabeth Sladen, Nicholas Courtney, Mike Gambit
Length: 150 minutes