This story takes
place SHORTLY AFTER
THE NOVEL "ISLAND OF
DEATH," AND DIRECTLY
PRIOR TO THE TV STORY
(& BARRY LETTS,
THE FINAL GAME
'PLANET OF THE
SPIDERS' DVD (BBC
IN APRIL 2011.
AT A TIBETAN RETREAT
IN ENGLAND, A GROUP
ARE USING MEDITATION
RITUALS TO TAP INTO
A MYSTERIOUS ALIEN
THEY CREATE A BRIDGE
BETWEEN EARTH AND
WHERE "TWO LEGS" ARE
OPPRESSED BY GIANT
THE CREATURES ARE
NOW THE DOCTOR MUST
RETURN TO METEBELIS
3 TO FACE THE POWER
PLANS TO ENSLAVE ALL
4TH MAY 1974 - 8TH JUNE 1974
When most of us think of Planet of the Spiders, we think of what might have been. The untimely death of Roger Delgado effectively put paid to the production team’s planned Jon Pertwee finale, which would have seen Delgado’s Master lose his life in a Reichenbach Falls-style battle with the Doctor in a way that would suggest, at the last minute, he chose to save the Doctor’s life rather than his own. No replacement story, however enthralling, could ever have lived up to that. Accordingly, Planet of the Spiders took a different tack. It didn’t look to the epic, but to the intimate. Rather than pit the Doctor against monsters the like of which he bests week-in, week-out, Barry Letts and Robert Sloman forced him to confront
his greatest enemy – his own hubris. Not all spiders sit on the back…
Indeed, whilst Planet of the Spiders boasts a number of successful ‘traditional’ elements, what makes it stand out from the pack is its philosophical weight. With his tenure as Who producer nearing its end, here Barry Letts was able to indulge both his artistic ambitions (he co-wrote, produced and directed this serial) and his personal beliefs. The script betrays his fascination with Buddhism, as he uses a Tibetan Meditation Centre as the launch pad for his plot, and Zen ideology as the rocket for it. This manifests itself in all manner of inspired ways throughout the six episodes, but is usually found in the odd startling line of dialogue that will give you far more of a chill than the Eight Legs of the story’s title.
Above: "The Doctor's perfect!" declares Terrance Dicks as The Final Curtain falls
In the DVD’s bonus material, then-script editor Terrance Dicks speaks of his dislike for this conceit. Particularly in the second disc’s forty-minute Final Curtain documentary, he goes into some detail as to why he doesn’t find the third Doctor’s apparently newfound tragic flaw all that convincing and, this being the case, why he didn’t take it upon himself to get out his red pen and amend it. I was a little taken aback at this as I’ve always felt strongly otherwise – the Doctor is not “perfect”, as Uncle Tel opines; if he
were, he wouldn’t be half the character that he is. The
events that unfold in this story are directly attributable
to him having erred: he took a famous blue crystal from
Metebelis 3 and brought it to Earth, setting in motion
a chain of events that he could only halt by paying the
ultimate price. I don’t find this implausible at all; indeed,
I think it’s entirely fitting.
The theme of penitence also embraces erstwhile UNIT
officer Mike Yates, who had been cashiered out of the
service after allying himself with Invasion of the Din-
osaurs’ “Golden Age” terrorists a few stories earlier.
Foreshadowing the kind of compelling character arc
on which contemporary Doctor Who thrives, Planet
of the Spiders offers Yates redemption by having him
alert Sarah Jane Smith (and through her, UNIT) to the
suspicious goings on at the Tibetan Retreat that he’s
been frequenting. In itself, this would have been a nice
coda to the well-intentioned but woefully misguided
actions that cost him Yates career, but the two writers
go one step further and leave the viewer in no doubt as
to Yates’ valour. In one of the serial’s most memorable
scenes, the former Captain dives in front of a bullet to save another man’s life, and the very fact that he was
willing to lay down his life for another saves him.
Another remarkable ingredient in this story is Tommy – a character with pronounced learning difficulties who, through contact with the Metabelis crystal, is furnished with great intelligence and wisdom. In The Final Curtain, new series writer Mark Gatiss talks about what a fantastic character Tommy is, and I couldn’t agree more. There is just something so appealing about a man who suddenly finds that, after having lived for decades as an object of pity and scorn, he is now in a position where he could be like everyone else if he wanted to - but can’t think of anything worse.
However, Planet of the Spiders isn’t all eastern mysticism and morality tales. In bringing the third Doctor’s era to a close, Letts and Sloman were careful to ensure that its sense of fun was reflected in their script. As a result Nicholas Courtney was gifted a number of priceless comic moments that threatened to send-up his character - the infamous scene where he sits watching an exotic dancer, muttering about how he could perhaps “adapt the moves” for his men, stands out in particular, as does his blasé reaction to the Doctor’s regeneration. As the freshly-named Alastair’s dear friend and trusted advisor lies on the floor, his body dying from radiation sickness, the Brigadier is the perfect picture of studied nonchalance. “Here we go again,” he declares, stifling a sigh, the total sum him of his awe vested in a solitary raised eyebrow.
Just as memorably, Pertwee spends
the better part of the second episode
putting a number of unusual vehicles
through their paces in a 007-style
chase sequence. There may be no
narrative reason for it, but there is
something enchanting about the
gadget-crazy third Doctor wasting
half an episode (and probably half
the season’s budget) whizzing about
in hovercrafts, girocopters and even
The Spiders themselves were very impressive by the standards of the day, particularly their voices, which didn’t require any significant updating when Big Finish recently brought them back for their audio productions The Eight Truths and Worldwide Web. Some of the credit for this goes to Kismet Delgado, wife of the later Roger, who voiced one of the Eight Legs.
The regeneration sequence is beautifully handled. I love how the Time Lord K’Anpo is used to explain the concept of regeneration in a way that isn’t too patronising or intrusive. Today we forget that, in the days before home video, many younger viewers would not have been familiar with the changing faces of the Doctor, and would thus have needed a little exposition – exposition that K’Anpo succinctly provides, before vanishing into the ether and allowing the Pertwee Doctor his final, poignant moment with Sarah Jane.
“A tear, Sarah Jane? Don’t cry. Where there’s life…”
One of the greatest things about the Final Curtain documentary is that it incorporates fifteen year-old footage of Pertwee discussing the end of his reign, how very emotional it was, and – with a twinkle in his eye – how he had a late change of heart and said he’d stay if they paid him more (which he says they wouldn’t). Barry Letts is quick to poo-poo this, confirming that the real reason Pertwee decided to leave was the gradual break-up of the UNIT family, which had begun with the death of Delgado and continued with the departure of Katy Manning’s Jo and the ongoing phasing-out of UNIT. With Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks also moving on to new pastures after the end of Season 11, Pertwee reportedly decided that the time was right for him to move on too: Wurzel Gummidge awaited.
The Final Curtain is accompanied by an enlightening interview with actor John Kane, who played Tommy in this serial. Those tempted to just watch the flagship documentary and skip the rest should make an exception here - Kane’s anecdote about travelling to the first day of filming in character, and not being let in, is almost as funny as the Brigadier’s mushrooming hairdo. I also enjoyed the Barry Letts instalment of Directing Who, which looks at each of the Doctor Who serials that Letts directed, including the lost classic The Enemy of the World.
“Not all spiders sit on the back…”
The second disc also includes the omnibus edition of the serial that was originally broadcast in December 1974, but be warned – it really is the programme that was broadcast in 1974, completely unrestored. I’d have preferred it if they’d have re-edited the remastered episodes into an omnibus format, but I suppose for some that would defeat the object.
Finally, the commentary on this DVD is as entertaining and as informative as on the best of them, but it’s also bittersweet given that it features Lis Sladen, Nicholas Courtney and Barry Letts, all of whom we’ve now lost, and one of them just this week. How cruel that the release of a story that saw the UNIT family breaking up has fallen during the week that that family has broken up fully and finally.
Jon Pertwee’s suave and gentlemanly Doctor may have lacked the distinct alien quality that the other Doctors have each possessed in spates, but his spell in the title role saw countless classic serials produced, each abounding with a sense of family and continuity; a sensibility that the series would seek to recover when it finally returned to our screens in 2005. Indeed, the tenth Doctor’s recent swansong, The End of Time, incorporated elements of both Barry Letts and Robert Sloman’s planned and actual third Doctor finales - a fitting testament to an era of the show that was, in every sense, ahead of its time.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008, 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
When is now? Spearhead from Space is set shortly after the Cyberman invasion depicted in The Invasion, which in turn is set four years after The Web of Fear. One school of thought places The Invasion in or around 1975, in line with its Radio Times billing, dialogue in both stories and the production team’s original intention, with the ensuing UNIT stories following shortly afterwards. However, such a placement is at odds with novels such as Who Killed Kennedy, which suggest that the Auton invasion occurred in 1970, when the serial was first broadcast.
The duration of the Doctor’s employment with UNIT has never been determined. We know that, from the Time Lord’s perspective, he was on the organisation’s payroll for the entirety of his third incarnation, but how much time passed for UNIT is another matter entirely. Indeed, as so succinctly demonstrated by Colony in Space’s bookends, the Doctor could disappear off into time and space only to rematerialise a few seconds later. This effectively allows for years’ worth of adventures taking place within a few seconds of UNIT time.
Most people generally infer that around six years passed for UNIT between Spearhead from Space and The Seeds of Doom, broadly in line with how many years had passed for viewers, but this is difficult to reconcile with “classic” UNIT dating, which is predicated upon The Web of Fear taking place in 1971 (as set out above), because Mawdryn Undead made it explicit that the Brigadier retired from active service in 1976.
Assuming that the Brigadier did not retire until late 1976, all the UNIT stories between Spearhead from Space and The Seeds of Doom (in which the Brigadier is last referred to being in active service) must therefore take place within the space of, at best, two calendar years, meaning that this story is set in mid-1976.
However, in order for this theory to even come closing to holding up, we’d have to swallow the premise that the Brigadier did not retire until very late in 1976; the events of Seasons 7 to 13 occurred within two years, despite being broadcast over six; and that Sarah Jane Smith’s throwaway “1980” line in Pyramids of Mars was exactly that – a throwaway line, perhaps even rounding up on her part.
Please see the UNIT Dating Dossier for further information.
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