“PLANET OF THE SPIDERS” – Season 11, Serial 5, Story 74 – Written by Robert Sloman and Barry Letts (uncredited); Directed by Barry Letts – It’s the end of the journey for the Third Doctor as he finally makes it to Metebelis 3, only to find that it’s not really a great place to visit. There are spiders in charge and they’re big and nasty and female and they want their blue crystal back that the Doctor took and gave to Jo Grant as a wedding gift. Lucky for the story, Jo has conveniently sent it back. Because The Amazonians Think It’s Creepy. And They Were Right.
What Jon Pertwee does better than any other Doctor is elevate the material he’s given. I find the scripts in this era of the program are rather mundane, formulaic, and predictable, but Pertwee brings such enthusiasm and charm to his performances that he’s able to make the stories better than they are on the page.
Such is the case with PLANET OF THE SPIDERS. The script by Robert Sloman (and reportedly heavily reworked by an uncredited Barry Letts) is rather average and clunky at times (you’d think after 11 full seasons the writers and producers would have figured out how to properly arrange a 6-episode serial), and the fact that we know it’s the final Pertwee serial tinges everything with a very real sense of sadness, but there’s Old Man Pertwee sitting in the middle of it, doing his darnedest to wrest every bit of joy and drama and emotion out of it.
According to the various bonus features on the DVD and the knowledge that’s crept out over the years, SPIDERS was the love child of Barry Letts, who not only reworked the script but sat in the director’s chair. Letts displays some real love for not only Pertwee but the history of the show in SPIDERS. There’s all sorts of Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the serial:
1. We get a mention of departed Companion Jo Grant. It’s so important that Jo gets a mention here (an appearance would have been even better, of course) because it’s the chemistry between Katy Manning and Jon Pertwee that’s really makes the Third Doctor’s run special. She sends a letter and returns the blue crystal the Doctor took from Metebelis 3, saying that the natives in the Amazon where she and her husband are afraid of it. Even though it’s just a letter, it’s so nice to hear Jo’s “voice” again in the program, and you can see that the Doctor, the Brigadier, and Sergeant Benton are touched by her returned presence to UNIT headquarters.
2. The Doctor talks again about the hermit he spent time with back on Gallifrey, which is nice not only for the nod to continuity, but helps to cloak the issue with a bit of nostalgia.
3. Another Time Lord! Who just so happens to be that hermit from Gallifrey! Who also regenerates! And this is the first time we hear the phrase “regeneration!” (And why am I writing like I’m Tom DeFalco!!?!??!?!?!???)
4. The second and last appearance of the Whomobile. And this time, it flies. Take that, Bessie.
5. The return of Mike Yates. After his villainous turn in INVASION OF THE DINOSAURS, Mike is offered a chance at redemption here as he’s uncovered strange goings-on at a Buddhist meditation center.
6. The Brig’s lady friend has a name, and it’s Doris.
7. There’s a shout out to future Companion Harry Sullivan.
Beyond all the little touches and flourishes, there’s a decent story here about a bad guy named Lupton who’s in league with a spider from Metebelis 3. The spiders want to take over the Earth because originally they were Earth spiders who went to Metebelis and got bigger and smarter. They use Lupton, he uses them, there’s some political intrigue among the Council of Spiders. Really, though, the plot is just sort of there to push people back and forth, allowing Mike to go out as a good guy, and the Doctor to have his final moments before shuffling off to his fourth regeneration.
In watching the bonus features on the DVD, they talk about how important it was to prepare kids for the regeneration, and while that does force the story to get a bit clunky at times, it works more than not because it’s all new to Sarah, too.
The serial is at its best when its showing the less-honorable side of the Doctor. K’anpo Rimpoche, the other Time Lord in the episode and the hermit, makes the Doctor realize that he was wrong to take that blue crystal from Metebelis 3 and that he’s ultimately responsible for putting all these events into motion. The Doctor knows that returning to Metebelis means his death, but he still goes, knowing that he K’anpo is right and that he must face the consequences of his actions. The Doctor delivers the crystal back to the Great One, which helps her powers increase so much that she ends up killing herself and all the other spiders.
And the Doctor.
Irradiated past the point of healing, the Doctor stumbles back into the TARDIS, reappearing back at UNIT HQ three weeks later. The Brig and Sarah are in the lab when the Doctor stumbles out, falls down, and turns into Tom Baker.
I have real love and affection for the Jon Pertwee era (including the best classic titles/theme mix) that stems from the characters far more than the stories. There really isn’t very many memorable stories in this run, but there are a whole host of memorable actors and their characters: Pertwee’s Doctor, of course, but also his nemesis, Roger Delgado’s Master, the Companion troika of Caroline John’s Liz Shaw, Katy Manning’s Jo Grant, Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith, and the UNIT boys of Richard Franklin’s Mike Yates, John Levene’s Sergeant Benton, and especially Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart.
More than anything, though, my lasting memory of the Pertwee era is the man himself, giving a mischievous smile to the Brig or Jo or Sarah Jane. It was usually a knowing smile that made the Doctor seem both experienced and boyish.
Thanks for everything, Jon.