Sarah Jane Smith is investigating strange goings-on at a meditation centre in rural England; spooky alien spiders are controlling the minds of human beings in a fiendish plot to take over the world; and the Doctor is wearing a bowtie, because bowties are cool. Doctor Who, 2011? No, Doctor Who, 1974; and specifically, the final story in Jon Pertwee’s tenure as a Time Lord, Planet Of The Spiders.
The story itself is a six-part leviathan, in more dire need of trimming than Nicholas Courtney’s oversized bouffant. Barry Letts’ Buddhist beliefs are given about twenty pages too much precedence in the script, while – as if in some terribly misguided attempt to balance out the tedium – almost an entire episode is given over to a legendary chase sequence involving Bessie, a gyrocopter, the Whomobile, a police car, a hovercraft and… sorry, we fell asleep about halfway through. Despite its lofty action aspirations, it has all the tension and excitement of a game of lawn bowls.
That isn’t the end of the dreariness, either. The sequences on Metebelis (all of which appear to have been filmed in front of the cover of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ album) are overlong, poorly acted by what appears to be a West Country am-dram company and very, very boring. The titular spiders, although quite unnerving when they’re twitching or leaping onto people’s backs, look like they’ve been made out of papier-mâché and dipped into Marmite. When they’re sat on a Formica kitchen worktop, bickering, they’re utterly unthreatening. The small, web-bound arachnid that freaks out Mike Yates at the very beginning is about a million times scarier than the Queen or any of her squabbling sisters.
Then, almost three hours later, the whole sorry mess of abysmal CSO and more padding than Terrance Dicks’ dinner suit suddenly comes good for Jon Pertwee’s final moments as the Doctor. The TARDIS brings him ‘home’ to UNIT Headquarters and he collapses out of the door, having been lost in the time vortex after his encounter with the Great One (a giant Welsh spider living in a cave made of tinsel). Looking tired, ill and about a million years old, the Doctor explains that facing his fear was more important than going on living. It’s genuinely moving stuff, and when you get to ‘A tear, Sarah Jane…?’ it’s difficult not to find yourself reaching for the box of tissues as well.
Planet Of The Spiders may be the ultimate example of how bloated, boring and brimming with backslapping the Pertwee era became, but the early years of the 1970s contained some of the finest stories in Doctor Who’s history. It’s the passing of the age of Inferno and Terror Of The Autons that we’re mourning here and the setting of the sun upon the Time Lord alongside whom we experienced these adventures.
The story itself is unforgivably poor, but it contains the final moments of the Doctor who gave us Venusian Aikido, incorrigible celebrity name-dropping and that facial expression which was patronising, encouraging, disappointed and reassuring all at the same time. It has to be watched at least once.
Extras: As has become standard with the classic Who DVD releases, there are a multitude of extras and – with a story that is, let’s be fair, as lacklustre as Planet Of The Spiders – they need to be pretty impressive. Happily, they (mostly) are.
A short piece, ‘Directing Who With…’, comprises a series of interviews with Barry Letts about his work at the BBC, while John Kane looks back on his time as Tommy and says ‘Clever Lupton!’ in an item entitled ‘John Kane Remembers…’, which mostly he does. There’s also an un-restored om, om, om-omnibus (groan) edition of Planet Of The Spiders and a trailer for the same, which cunningly reveals how dreadfully tedious the story actually is. You can safely skip both of these and move onto the ever-fascinating ‘Now And Then’, in which the story’s original locations are revisited 35 years on.
However, the main feature of interest is a documentary focussing on the end of the Pertwee years, ‘Final Curtain’, featuring new interviews with Terrance Dicks, Richard Franklin, Mark Gatiss, and best of all the late, great Barry Letts, whose contributions were recorded before his death in 2009. Amongst many other fascinating recollections, he debunks the myth (perpetuated in archive footage by Pertwee himself) that the star of the show asked for more money to stay on as the Doctor after 1974 and was told by BBC Head of Serials Shaun Sutton that such a thing was impossible. According to Letts, the story itself is impossible: ‘It was all nonsense; he went because the family was breaking up.’ This charming item, an epitaph for the third age of Doctor Who history, is almost worth the price of the DVD in itself.
Released on DVD on Monday 18th April 2011 by 2entertain.
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