Wednesday, May 04, 2011

 

DVD Detail: Doctor Who – Planet of the Spiders

Evil giant spiders! Sarah Jane Smith! Ludicrous action sequences! New Age bollocks philosophy! There’s something for everyone in the latest Doctor Who DVD, Planet of the Spiders. First broadcast from the Fourth of May, 1974 this is the climax to Jon Pertwee’s adventures as the Doctor: not so much an epic as a ‘greatest hits’ mash-up; what was great about Pertwee, and not so great. Yet there’s something so awesome about the way this Doctor faces The Last Enemy that I can forgive the story anything. Oh, and there’s a Mr Clegg who’s destroyed by contact with something hard and blue…

If you loved the late Elisabeth Sladen, this is rather a good story for her. Much of the story is looking back across the Pertwee era, both in reflecting on his Doctor’s character and finishing story arcs begun as long before as 1971’s Terror of the Autons (out next week). But in Sarah Jane Smith, Planet of the Spiders looks forward, too. A companion who does her own investigations, rather than relying on the Doctor (or UNIT); trying not to be spoilery, but a series of sub-plots about possession, which is about to become a Big Thing in the series; and the whole thing feels at times rather like it’s Part Zero of Doctor Who – Robot. Plus, she gets a remarkable array of outfits, starting out both light and businesslike, moving through a vile ensemble that (as if prescient of the arguments over her time zone) combines the worst of the ’70s and ’80s with huge lapels but a red and grey colour scheme; and a strikingly iconic red and white striped top – with a particularly memorable accessory.


The Third Doctor and his Last Enemy
 
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That Golden Moment
“Now listen to me. Listen. I haven’t got much time left…”
…Is how the obvious, and terrific, ‘Golden Moment’ opens. But it would be too much of a spoiler to include it in a taster piece like this to get you interested in the DVD. Andrew Skilleter, above, captured the feel of it gorgeously in his cover (above) for the VHS release; and, having known that scene many years before I ever saw the whole story, I’ve loved it since I was a boy. The awesome music might just be composer Dudley Simpson’s finest moment, and for sheer Doctorishness, probably Jon Pertwee’s, too. But if you want to know why it’s such a marvellous scene, click here and scroll down to the end of my article on Doctor Who Magazine’s 200 Golden Moments, or simply watch the climax of Part Six of Planet of the Spiders. Fortunately, there are other scenes that stand out, too.
“I want to see them grovel. I want to see them breaking their hearts. I want to see them eating dirt.”
One of the great things about this story is its range of villains. Of course you’ll be expecting the giant spiders, and they don’t disappoint – well, rarely – as a group of scary, scheming megalomaniacs. But it’s not just fabulous monsters who want to dominate the Universe; there are also villains who are just as memorable for being frighteningly grubby and familiar. The ringleader of these is Lupton, a broken businessman who wants less to rule the world than to get back at the people who bankrupted him. It’s a superb performance that seems altogether real – somehow it’s easier to deal with all that bitterness if it’s about being stuck in a black hole, but it’s quite disturbing if it’s about being sacked. When I was a boy, too, there was a Lipton’s Supermarket in Hazel Grove, and the name was similar enough to make me always associate him with a business that just wasn’t quite big enough to be the big one.

Part-way into Part Three, Lupton – who’s already entered a pact with a giant spider, and who’s established himself from the start as a nasty piece of work in a particularly ’70s way by complaining that Sarah Jane is “Not only a journalist, but a woman journalist!” – explains to what in most stories would merely be his ‘henchman’ just exactly why he’s not going to stop meddling with things he doesn’t understand. He gives the story of his life, from a bright young salesman, to sales director, only to come up against a bigger company: “they deliberately – cold-bloodedly – broke me. I’m still looking for some of the bits.” It’s poisonously well-drawn, seeing himself “taking over that firm… taking over the country – the entire, stinking world…!” There’s no other character for whom the spider on his back’s so plain. His sidekick Barnes’ reaction, too, is utterly believable: weary, sad and underplayed, he wonders, “Perhaps you’ve gone mad – hearing voices, talking to yourself… Perhaps I’ve gone mad, too.” And yet he carries on being drawn into evil because he’s out of his depth and ‘just can’t stop himself’.

Something Else To Look Out For (It’s Barry Letts)

My feelings about Jon Pertwee’s Doctor are complicated, and I can’t pretend that his final year as the Doctor has ever been a favourite of mine; it seems very tired, while the reinvigorated season a year later is one of the best the series has ever had. Yet while Planet of the Spiders meanders a bit, for me it’s the best of that lacklustre season and an appropriate cap to the Third Doctor’s era. Never has a ‘megamix’ been more endearing. The villains are hissable, the monsters are frightening (if occasionally feeble), the Earth-based scenes are as down to Earth as they’ve ever been while the alien ones look cheap and dull, the effects range from striking to strikingly bad, and the Pertwee greatest hits run from ‘ludicrously extended vehicle chases’ to ‘great big long-shot tumbling fight scenes’ then ‘talking in proverbs with wise old man’, and yet somehow it works, perhaps because Pertwee, at the end, confronts his own ego and is movingly fragile. Even his name-dropping for once serves the plot. I’m always disappointed Jo Jones’ cameo is only in the book, though – certainly worth picking up for that, for the Spiders’ feasts, and for Elisabeth Sladen doing a terrific job of reading it on CD.

As much as Pertwee’s finale, this is the culmination of outgoing producer Barry Letts’ work after five years in the top job (he had one more story to go, but very much a handover). And if ever you want to see Barry at work, for good and bad, this is it. He’s not only producer of Planet of the Spiders but the director and uncredited co-writer – the only time in Doctor Who history that one person exercises such complete creative control over a story and, as you might expect, the result has much to admire and much to disagree with. There’s much that’s familiar, from a cameo from Barry’s favourite monsters to references to his previous scripts: John Dearth as Lupton swapping roles after The Green Death, for example, from the disembodied intelligence sharing the main human villain’s mind to the reverse, and a no doubt unintended reversal of his low-point The Time Monster where now it’s the early episodes on Earth that are rather intriguing and the ‘other’ place that’s not much cop, until we get to the big monster deep within the labyrinth of tunnels, which this time is brilliant!

The story has a remarkable narrative and philosophical drive, though I don’t entirely agree with that philosophy and nor, from the extras, did the script editor (who removed a mention of “prayers” for the book) – fortunately, once this story’s over the Doctor ignores the series-defeating ‘moral’ that going out and searching for knowledge is bad, and again becomes a wanderer in time and space. ‘Just be sheep,’ K’Anpo seems to imply, yet we’re told what happens to them on Metebelis Three. Try to ignore any actors pretending to pretend to be “Tibetan,” too. It feels rather odd for Doctor Who to be endorsing a religion, yet this is even more a Buddhist parable than Kinda and Snakedance, each of which resemble it in different ways (while Turn Left’s “There is something on your back” isn’t a patch on here). On top of that specific message, it does seem to suggest that Barry’s approach to Doctor Who might be that any old bollocks is true, and suddenly seems curiously anti-science. And yet, and yet… It’s the first episode that’s the most explicitly New-Agey, and that’s probably the most gripping and successful of the story on its own terms. There are few Doctor Who adventures that open with such endearingly comfortable scenes as the Doctor and the Brigadier out for an evening down the music hall, with terrible puns – at which the Brig has never looked more long-suffering – and a “very fit” dancer, at whom he perks up considerably while the Doctor sags (from the days before he was as straight as every other leading man). Yet to undercut the comfy atmosphere, all this is intercut with strange goings-on to stylish music and rapid close-ups. This time, Barry’s direction seems inspired in parts. That continues through the episode as the mystery deepens and Mike and Sarah Jane drive through flickering sunlight, only to be shocked by a sudden attack (or are they?).

Part Two may go a little over the top in indulging Pertwee with a deliriously Bond-a-like chase across six different vehicles, but it has a joy to it – and inspired a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek trailer on UK Gold, with the lovely Glen Allen’s voiceover (he put the trailer together too, he tells me, and he returns to narrate the compelling ‘Making of’ feature here). The special effects are more of a mix. There are some inspired moments, notably as people teleport between locations – one staggering as if finding his footing, while we move with another rather than see her vanish – and the Great One has a majesty that transcends some of the technical limitations (though while Pertwee’s final moments are poignant, there’s never been a more underwhelming ‘regeneration’ effect). Barry Letts’ unparalleled faith in CSO (now called greenscreen, or probably yellowscreen in this case) comes badly unstuck on Metebelis Three, however, as giant photos do not an alien planet make. Instead, it relies on the actors to inspire conviction – and here, too, something goes horribly wrong halfway through Part Three, with the Earthbound intensity giving way to performances as wooden as their faux-Tibetan-cum-Wild-West huts (the winner: a ‘desperate’ wife whose face and tone give her all the passion of a Cabbage Patch robot). For the famously “blue planet,” the story becomes horribly beige for a couple of saggy episodes in the middle, with even the Doctor reduced to asking for a machine ‘he prepared earlier’ when the plot gets stuck. And it has to be said that Barry also trips up badly by having – in a story where Sarah Jane and the all-female Spiders are the main driving forces – our ‘heroic’ revolutionaries ordering the “womenfolk” to stay behind because women aren’t up to it (“There’s nothing ‘only’ about being a Queen Spider!” chips in my beloved).

The Spiders Eight-Legs Spiders

On the bright side, people’s “Voldemort” reaction every time the Doctor or Sarah Jane say “Spiders” is hugely entertaining, as are the coldly bitchy Spiders themselves. I’ve banged on about the music, tension and majestic madness of the Great One, who still makes my hairs stand on end as she terrifies the Doctor, but her sisters are all fabulous, too. Their Council Chamber may look like a plastic kitchen (and I felt for the designer when she disappointedly explained why in the DVD’s ‘Making of’), but their arrogance and intrigue are gripping. In them, the story’s off-kilter, non-technological approach really shines; they’re so different to the Doctor that you can see why they’re such a potent enemy, and their plan to travel back in time to rule the Earth that their ancestors came from seems less like a contrived time paradox than a different, hostile version of history to the Time Lord’s.

Added to all that, UNIT Captain Mike Yates’ surprisingly interesting story arc concludes; joining the series in Terror of the Autons, though the DVD range is as yet missing the rather important step of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, this mostly gives him an impressive send-off. Starting this of all stories with Mike Yates making a ‘new life’ by striking out on his own away from UNIT to hang about with Sarah Jane and do something vaguely bohemian is a remarkably subtle and clever piece of foreshadowing, even if there’s no particular reason for her to be his friend and confidant (nor Tom Baker’s Doctor, we might say these days). I say “mostly,” as he rather peters out, his role as ‘army friend’ taken by the Brigadier towards the end of the story – though we all love the Brig far more, obviously. One echo of Terror of the Autons that wasn’t to be is the final cliffhanger; sadly, it’s a bit of a mess. Various behind-the-scenes reasons help explain it, but not only is the ‘peril’ an especially forced one (with a character so amazingly resistant to evil Spider-zappage that it’s almost as if the ‘rules’ are changing with every scene), there’s a far better payoff begging to be used if you spot it, a few minutes into Part Six: watch Sarah Jane, and think how Barry could have created a far more satisfying mirror of Terror of the Autons’ first cliffhanger…

And to finish, one of this two-disc set’s host of diverting special features is indeed a trailer for Spearhead From Space and Terror of the Autons, released in a double-pack next week – and a particularly exciting one it is, too. I’ve mentioned the excellent ‘Making of’, The Final Curtain, and there’s an edited ‘feature-length’ version of the story to see from a ’70s repeat: it’s rather jolly, and fascinating to see what’s cut and what wasn’t (the big chase, for example – what’s the Word Up, Brigadier? “Put your hands in the air.” Like you don’t care), with, unusually, each of the episodes shortened by roughly the same amount, and the most jarring cut being most of the first few minutes, reducing the mystery but catapulting you straight into the story. Add a Now and Then feature, a Photo Gallery, splendid text notes (from a Dalek), interviews with one of the actors and with Barry on his directing, and there’s a lot to this release. There’s what promises to be an impressive commentary, too… But I have to admit I’ve not been able to bring myself to listen to it yet. I know that it was recorded a few years ago, and that poor Gareth Hunt – who had a pre-The New Avengers role here, in revolutionary moustache – died just a few days before he was due to join in with it. Well, I look at the billing for the commentary they did record and Nick Courtney and Barry Letts have gone too, now… And the day after this DVD was released, a fortnight ago, Lis Sladen was taken from us, far too young. So I think it’ll take a little while before I’d not have to guard against sniffles listening to it.

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