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11x05. Planet of the Spiders
Writer: Robert Sloman
Director: Barry Letts
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: At a Buddhist monastery in the British countryside, a group of men led by the ambitious Lupton have established a link with the alien spiders of Metebelis III, whose leader, the Great One, is looking for the crystal that the Doctor took from their planet. The Doctor and Sarah travel to Metebelis III, where they meet with a group of humans who have been living under the spiders' oppressive rule following their arrival there in the future. Back on Earth, the Doctor is told by K'Anpo, the abbot of the Buddhist monastery and the Doctor's former teacher, that he must face his fears and take the crystal to the Great One. He does so, barely escaping with his life and regenerating upon his return to Earth.

Review: Both literally and figuratively, "Planet of the Spiders" is all over the place. It's somehow suitably ironic that one of the themes of the story is that of overreaching, because this serial often seems right on the verge of flying off its rails and turning into a "Time Monster"-esque incoherent mess. And yet somehow, despite a premise that is pretty "out there" even for Doctor Who (Buddhist apprentices unwittingly enable alien spider invasion via meditative chanting), some questionable plot mechanics, the most self-indulgent chase scene in the show's history, and the usual demands of any serial involving the Time Lords and regeneration, the creative team manage to hold it all together -- barely.

"Planet of the Spiders" starts out well, introducing us to two storylines that eventually intersect at the end of Episode 1. The Doctor has taken an interest in "Professor Clegg," a popular clairvoyant who claims that he's only a trickster but is in fact the real thing, and he invites him to his laboratory to conduct experiments with the Brigadier observing. Pertwee's Doctor has usually been first and foremost a moral force, and while I don't actually have any problem with that, it's nice to see the character's intellectual side as well. Meanwhile, Mike Yates, trying to find his way in the aftermath of his resignation from UNIT, has gotten involved with a Buddhist community and suspects that something unusual is going on there, and so he enlists Sarah to help him investigate. I'm not sure why Sarah would be particularly receptive -- if it were Jo Grant I could understand, but Sarah didn't even meet Yates until his turn to the dark side in "Invasion of the Dinosaurs." Still, I'm glad that the writers are at least addressing what happened to Yates after his resignation, and this situation is an effective mystery that culminates in the first appearance of the spiders and the disturbance in the Doctor's laboratory. Professor Clegg, who was looking at the Metebelis crystal at the time, is killed, and Lupton, the leader of the Buddhist apprentices whose mind has merged with that of one of the spiders, sets out to retrieve the crystal while Sarah explains what she and Mike Yates saw. Lupton's theft of the crystal touches off the chase scene I referred to earlier, as he and the Doctor each commandeer several different vehicles, only to have the spider enable him to teleport back to the monastery. The obvious logical flaw hardly needs to be pointed out, but the tone is sufficiently light and slightly self-parodic -- not the kind of approach I normally like, but as a final tribute to the gadget-heavy, Bond-esque element of the Pertwee era, it works.

Unfortunately, the story takes a bit of a nosedive when it shifts to Metebelis, where a group of humans from the future are living under the oppression of the spiders, who became more powerful and intelligent due to the powers of the crystals. None of these characters are particularly interesting, nor are the "spider council" scenes very successful at anything other than avoiding a collapse into total absurdity. That's actually not an insignificant achievement -- anything involving talking alien bugs has the potential for camp, and in fact the last time I saw giant spiders was on Mystery Science Theater 3000 -- but it might have been better to go with humanoid villains and just avoid this problem altogether. It also might have been easier to follow, given that the spiders all basically look and talk the same. The conflict between the Queen, the spider who has been in contact with Lupton, and the rest of the council is little more than stock bickering and political maneuvering, but it's even tougher to get invested in it when sometimes we can't even tell who's speaking. The only particularly good scene on Metebelis 3 in this stretch is the Doctor's famous first confrontation with the "Great One," who exercises her power over the Doctor, forcing him to march around in a circle and noting the genuine fear that he feels at this loss of control. The aesthetics of this scene -- the eerie blow glow, the Great One's simulation of Sarah's voice calling for help and then bizarrely singing "Pop Goes the Weasel," and the horrified look on Pertwee's face as the Great One demands the crystal -- are strikingly effective and disorienting, establishing the Great One as a force to be reckoned with.

Things pick back up when the Doctor and Sarah return to Earth and K'Anpo, the abbot of the Buddhist monastery, is revealed as the Doctor's teacher from Gallifrey (first referenced in "The Time Monster"). It is at this point that the theme of overreaching starts to come into focus. Once again, human hubris and narrow-mindedness has caused a lot of trouble, in that Lupton, after losing his job, has allowed his anger to turn into a desire for revenge against the world and is seeking raw power rather than spiritual enlightenment. And, as we will see at the end, the Great One overreaches as well, believing that she can control reality with her thoughts once she has the crystal. But what's most interesting is the idea that the Doctor's own excess is also at the root of the situation; his endless curiosity and thirst for knowledge led him to take the crystal from Metebelis 3 without fully considering the consequences, and had he left it there, the Great One might have destroyed herself early on and the humans would not have still been living under the spiders' oppression. I mentioned earlier that his Doctor has been primarily a moral force, and in "Planet of the Spiders" he demonstrates the depths of his convictions by facing up to a situation where others have suffered from his mistake. This demonstration of duty and selflessness is heightened by the fact that he does truly fear the Great One (not a minor point, especially for this Doctor) and that he knows he'll have to regenerate (or possibly even die) if he's exposed to the crystal rays in her cave.

It is unfortunate that the plot is often so labored in its attempt to convey these themes and set up the most important scenes. The "magic" (for lack of a better word) associated with the crystal and meditation seems to be completely arbitrary. The crystal supposedly enhances the mind, thus the miraculous cure of Tommy's mental disability, the enhancement of the spiders' intelligence, and its use as an anti-hypnotic in "The Green Death." And yet, the Doctor only has it because Jo sent it back from South America, where it was seen as "bad magic," and for some reason Professor Clegg is killed because he's looking into it when Lupton first makes contact with the spiders. Later, the Doctor finds a stone on Metebelis 3 that can deflect the energy rays used by the spiders and their minions, but then Tommy and Yates survive similar attacks due to their respective "innocence" and "compassion" according to K'Anpo. Were these qualities lacking in anyone else who ever got zapped? There's also a puzzling confrontation when the Doctor returns to Metebelis 3 and finds himself surrounded by spiders and spider-controlled humans. He refuses to hand over the crystal, insisting that the Great One asked him to bring it to her himself, and one of the spiders declares, "You have defeated us, Doctor. It is good that you will die!" But surely none of them knew that the positive feedback loop would destroy the spiders, so how has the Doctor "defeated" anyone at this point? And if they *did* know, why would they let him walk out of there like that instead of stopping him or trying to warn the Great One?

I first came to Doctor Who watching Tom Baker serials on PBS when I was only five or six years old, and like many fans I eventually came to consider him my favorite Doctor. And yet, though I look forward to watching and reviewing his era, I find that I'm actually sad to see Jon Pertwee go. Though the creative team never quite recaptured the quality of his very first season, his tenure as the Doctor still marked a shift to a more sophisticated and thematically relevant type of storytelling. The focus on realistic human flaws was what brought out the Third Doctor's strong moral voice, and the "exile arc" and subsequent present-day Earth stories brought the show more into the realm of hard science fiction as opposed to the sometimes-fanciful approach of the 1960s. Pertwee's Doctor was in some ways a more conventional hero than his predecessors, and some found him arrogant and sanctimonious. While that may have been a fair accusation at times, he was still motivated by a humanitarian belief that people (and aliens, for that matter) could and should do better, and that he could dissuade them from lapsing so easily into violence and selfisheness. In that sense, "Planet of the Spiders" is a fitting conclusion to the Pertwee era, taking this aspect of the Third Doctor's character to its logical conclusion and requiring him to acknowledge his own mistakes and ultimately sacrifice himself for others. His enduring optimism and faith in others is nicely captured in his final scene, when he collapses and expends his final breaths telling Sarah not to cry and trailing off with "Where there's life, there's . . ." (the next word was presumably going to be "hope," though it's left unspoken). It's a simple notion, but one that perfectly encapsulates this Doctor's philosophy. And after twenty-four serials and this final act of self-sacrifice, we have no doubt that he means it.

Other notes:

- Though this isn't much of a UNIT story, it would be wrong to give Pertwee his send-off without the UNIT cast around, and all of them have some good moments. Not only does Yates earn his redemption and receive a good final appearance of his own, but we also see Benton dutifully offering to look into the crystal himself because he's more expendable than the Doctor, and the Brigadier has some nice banter with the Doctor in Episode 1 and a fittingly bemused reaction to another regeneration ("Here we go again").

- On a related note, the letter from Jo was not only a clever way to bring the crystal into the story, but it also establishes that she's keeping in touch with the Doctor and her UNIT friends. I commented in my review of "The Green Death" that I'd expect her to do so, and I'm glad the writers worked this in.

- I really don't know what to make of the scene in which the Doctor and Sarah start making corny puns about being eaten by the spiders, so I'll just acknowledge its presence and refrain from further comment.

Administrative note:

- As it happens, I'm finishing this review on the day that the new Doctor Who series débuts in the UK. I may or may not get to see the new episodes any time soon, but as of now, my plan is to hold off from writing any reviews until I finish with the original series either way.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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