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Planet of the Spiders

Reviewed by Graham Howard

'You are not accustomed to feeling frightened, are you Doctor? You are very wise to be afraid of me!'

I confess I was astonished to learn, via the Internet, that there are fans who consider Season 11 in general, and Planet of the Spiders in particular to be inferior to previous Pertwee offerings. While I would grudgingly concede there is some foundation to some of their criticisms, I've always felt Planet of the Spiders to be, for the most part, a competently devised and fond farewell to Pertwee's Doctor. For instance, I thought it a nice touch that the blue crystal, 'stolen' from Metebelis 3 by the Doctor in The Green Death, and given to Jo Grant as a wedding present, becomes the central focus of the story and the Third Doctor's ultimate downfall. And even the way Pertwee's penchant for fast and unusual vehicles is shamelessly indulged in episode two!

The attempted acquisition and use of supernormal mental powers is a prominent theme in Planet of the Spiders, and it is an important motivating factor for both Lupton and the spiders behind their pursuit of greater personal power. For Lupton and the others at the meditation centre, these mind powers appear under the guise of Tibetan mysticism and its associated mind techniques, while the spiders of Metebelis 3 gain their powers from exposure to the planet's blue crystals. Perhaps surprisingly, the link between the misuse of Tibetan mind techniques and the spiders' own mind powers sit together reasonably comfortably. Of note, the concept of extraordinary mental powers is 'introduced' to the viewer via Professor Clegg, in much the same way as K'Anpo reintroduced viewers to the concept of regeneration (surprisingly the first use of the word 'regeneration' in the programme). Planet of the Spiders also explores the (related) theme of human possession by an outside force or entity. Surely one of the programme's most chilling moments is the materialisation of the Queen spider on Sarah's back, as she struggles to be free of the Queen's control...

In terms of guest characters there are only a few that stand out. There is John Dearth's embittered and power hungry Lupton of course, but the surprising scene stealer is really John Kane's backward Tommy, who is a character the viewer really feels for and cares about in a way that is rare in Doctor Who. It would be difficult not to be dismayed at the prospect of Tommy's threatened demise in episode five's cliff-hanger! Special mention must also be made of the Great One, who has some wonderful lines, and whose scenes with the Doctor appropriately convey a sense of finality.

Planet of the Spiders is probably at its weakest when the action shifts to Metebelis 3, specifically the human colonist village. The sets are clearly sets, and while most of the actors give it their best, the whole thing just seems to lack conviction. And some of the acting is just plain embarrassing ('No I shan't, you shan't take him, Sabor my husband, my love, why did you do it? Why, why, why? I shan't let them take you, I shan't, I shan't!' etc.).

The dual time setting between Metebelis 3 and Earth is a crucial component of the plot because it explains the spiders' origins, and their interest in Earth. But because of the routine manner in which the spiders' time travel capabilities (including the ability to communicate across time and space) are presented, it is often easy for the viewer to forget that there is a time difference. We are led to conclude that the spiders' powers make such feats relatively easy to perform, whereas with a little more explanation and justification, the time difference could have seemed less of a contrivance.

On its original transmission, I remember the final regeneration scene to have been genuinely moving ('A tear, Sarah Jane?'), and while the passing of the years may have dulled its impact, it still manages to evoke a slight tweak of nostalgic sadness.

This item appeared in TSV 49 (November 1996).

Index nodes: Planet of the Spiders