Friday, June 29, 2012

Random Who Report: Planet of the Spiders (1974)

DVD cover and Amazon link

The Doctors' final stories tended to be ambitious undertakings, and Pertwee's definitely follows in that tradition. "Planet of the Spiders" is not only the last of the third Doctor's adventures and a semi-sequel to "The Green Death" from a season ago, but also a trippy Buddhist allegory about death and rebirth. It has a lot on its plate and is kinda disjointed as a result, but pulls itself together at the end to provide a fitting send-off for the actor who had, up to that point, played the character of the Doctor longer than anyone else.

The Doctor receives a surprise in the post, with Jo Grant and her husband returning the blue jewel from Metebelis III he gave them, saying it's scaring the natives in the Amazon. True enough, the jewel has weird psychic properties, killing a local clairvoyant and attracting the attention of the giant mutant spiders who came to inhabit Metebelis III after the Doctor left. The leader of the spiders wants the crystal for herself (all the spiders are female and don't ask me how that works), and they've gotten in touch with rogue members of an otherwise-peaceful Buddhist retreat where Sarah Jane (Lis Sladen) is investigating. One of the spiders merges with the unscrupulous meditator Lupton (John Dearth), adding her powers to his in an attempt to capture the gem for the spider queen. Various chases and betrayals ensue as the Doctor tries to keep the gem he stole from falling into the wrong hands, even if he must do so at the cost of his own life.

Inevitably, since this is a six parter there is padding. Pertwee presumably had to get in one last car chase, so there's a long pursuit of Lupton which takes place on land, air, and sea, incorporating hovercraft, a helicopter, and the Doctor's own flying "Whomobile". However, there's nearly enough story here to justify the running time, and the story's major problem is less one of padding and more one of structure. There's a lot of switching back and forth between parallel stories that, for the first couple of episodes, don't seem to actually have much to do with each other, and while we as viewers trust that this is going somewhere it doesn't mean it couldn't do so more efficiently and effectively.

The allegorical elements of the story count for a lot, though. In some ways, writer Robert Sloman and director/uncredited writer Barry Letts were preaching the Zen gospel, or at least letting people in Seventies Britain know that the Zen Buddhist practice was nothing to fear. The story is rooted in the Doctor's past act of greed, which requires him to confront his own ego and fear and to face death so as to become a new man. It's a nice twist on the regeneration concept, enhanced by making one of the retreat's elders a Time Lord himself (and hence knowing a thing or two about the cycle of rebirth.)

What's interesting about this whole story is that it turn's one of the Doctor's great strengths against himself. The Doctor's greed, which led to him stealing the jewel, is greed for knowledge. His curiosity and desire to learn have normally been virtues- he's an intellectual hero, one who champions thinking and discovering. But of course Buddhism is, to some extent, about finding a way to step outside the self and reject even those trappings we consider "good". Hence the Doctor not only sees the downside of his pursuit in the crystal, but also in Lupton and the spiders' desire for knowledge and mental power.  To question the fundamental assumptions of a series is a good way to close out an era of it, and the final episode really does an amazing job of driving the allegory home without being preachy.

"Planet of the Spiders" closes out the Pertwee era well, but there are a lot of rough bits along the way. It's worth seeing for the historical significance alone, and if you're patient enough to put up with the occasional slow or unclear patch, and a bunch of fakey spider puppets, the end is a very good reward.  There's a lot going on, and in the end, most of it works.

Written by Robert Sloman
Produced and Directed by Barry Letts

Grade: B

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