If you read my review of The Mutants, you’ll know that my viewing habit for Dr Who is to put on a DVD when I go to bed and watch as much as I can before I fall asleep. In that review I said that the Mutants was a cure for insomnia because it took me well over a week to get through the six episodes.
Well you might notice that this review comes only a day after I wrote the one for the Monster of Peladon, and so you may think that I loved the Planet of the Spiders so much that it kept my attention to the point where I watched it in a couple of nights.
And you’d be absolutely…wrong!!
My review of Planet of the Spiders is up so quick because I dislike it so much that I couldn’t face watching it over the course of a week. I just had to get it over with as soon as I could. So over the past couple of mornings I’ve grimaced and got through it. And my opinion of it going in didn’t change.
And here’s why…
Doctor Who – Planet of the Spiders Review: What’s This One About
The Doctor Who production team write a love letter to themselves in the form of a ‘Jobs For The Boys’ outing about Barry Letts’ favourite thing – Buddhism – to see Jon Pertwee off into the sunset.
Oh…you wanted the plot?
Well it’s about a recently made redundant sales manager who teams up with some giant spiders to take over the universe. Or is it a parable about change? Or is it about the Doctor’s greed?
Thoughts – What I Like About Planet of the Spiders
I’m going to get what I did like about it out of the way first. To be brief I liked
- Cyril Shaps as Professor Herbert Clegg in Episode One
- Episode Six
I don’t need to explain why I like Cyril Shaps. Everyone likes Cyril Shaps; he’s brilliant.
But I liked Episode Six ahead of all the other episodes because it finally got to the point. The Doctor confronts The Great One who manages to look quite impressive in amongst all the other spider puppets (which I’ll get to) and is voiced with aplomb by Maureen Morris.
It’s a good scene that manages to send off Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in a suitable way. If you think of all the other ‘classic’ Doctor demises, you’ve got
- Becomes ill and dies unrelated to the plot
- Made to change his appearances against his will
- Falls to his death from a great height
- Becomes ill and dies related to the plot
- Bumps his head
- Dies in surgery
And in this case you have ‘Faces his fears and returns to the Metabilis 3 knowing it will kill him’.
Certainly it’s the most grandly heroic of ends for our hero in the ‘Classic Serial’.
The other thing I liked about was that the writing prepared the younger viewer for what was to come. For many at the time, Jon Pertwee was the only Doctor they knew, and so by explaining and demonstrating the concept of regeneration
before it happened, it was done reasonably well. The only better example of this is at the end of The Parting of the Ways.
Of course, my good feeling towards the story ends there as they couldn’t even get the regeneration bit right.
What I Didn’t Like – The Regeneration
Ok, so what didn’t I like?
Well let’s start at the end. The regeneration was probably the least impressive regeneration they’ve ever done. They prompt it so well and then…well it was just a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot change between Pertwee and Baker lying on the ground. How underwhelming is that? It looked pathetic.
You can’t say that it was a victim of its time because it wasn’t. The truth of the matter is the very best regeneration effect remains the one from the Tenth Planet; years earlier.
Central to my dislike of Planet of the Spiders is John Dearth, who plays the main villain, Lupton.
My dislike for him comes from two directions.
Firstly the character and his motivation are just stupid. He’s a sales manager who has been made redundant and decides to take his revenge by joining a Buddhist meditation retreat, from which he believes he can take over that company, if not the world. Eh? Excuse me? What? How?
We join the story at a point where he and his equally trendy mates have managed to use the Jewel of the Lotus prayer and a mandola to summon up group illusions of tractors on roads as they try to murder Mike Yates & Sarah, and it’s just assumed that that is possible. Then the same prayer manages to create a bridge between planets for the spiders to make their way to Earth. Oh, and Lupton is able to shoot lightning bolts from his fingers and transport himself across the
country just through the power of thought.
And none of it is explained.
And what’s worse than the crapness of Lupton’s character and the lack of sense in the scripting is that John Dearth is a horrible actor. Not a bad actor in the same vein as Rick James or Terry Walsh, but a horrible actor in that his style is just unwatchable as far as I’m concerned.
I find him as being unable to speak his lines properly. Every line comes out in amongst a series of uncomfortable groaning sounds that makes him sound like a recovering stroke victim. He looks and acts deeply uncomfortable on-screen, squirming about like he has something to hide. I just can’t stand him. He and his storyline ruin the whole thing.
But wait…there’s more…
A big part of this story is the character of Tommy, who is just an incredibly crass and politically incorrect representation of someone with serious learning difficulties.
From watching Tommy we can grasp the following about the way the writer and production team consider people like him to be…
- They are obsessed with shiny things
- They are kleptomaniacs
- They have silly voices that would settle down a bit if they have a bit more intelligence
- They are violent when even remotely riled
- Being thick also makes them immune to whatever it was that the people with the spiders on their backs shot through their fingers
- They are treated like children by our heroes and are dismissed as completely irrelevant unless people have time to ‘aww’ and ‘aaah’ at them.
I don’t think you could get away with doing the character of Tommy these days. It’s quite unbelievable.
The Idiot Brig and his Coffee Making Pal
I also don’t like the way the Brigadier has turned into a smiling cretin. Just watch that scene in the Doctor’s Lab with the Doctor and Cyril Shaps. Take a look at the Brigadier here and compare it to – say – The Invasion or the Spearhead from Space. This man – a man who is in charge of a covert operation that may as well be called Earth Defence Force – has turned into a gormless idiot.
That series of lines about how he didn’t know about ESP until the Doctor told him this morning – said with the goofy grin of a simpleton – was embarrassing. It was embarrassing for us as the viewer, it was embarrassing for Nicholas Courtney
the actor and it was embarrassing for the character of the Brigadier.
I suppose the real one to blame is Courtney himself because he didn’t have to say his lines like that, and he’s usually very good. In fact, now that I think about it, I want you to compare that line to his show-stealing performance in Inferno. The man clearly no longer gives a toss, and that is made worse by the fact that he hasn’t even bothered to get his hair cut properly to suit the role.
Meanwhile, UNIT as a whole appears to have turned into the Brigadier and his personal coffee-making secretary, Sgt. Benton pottering about and having a laugh.
But their performances are reflective of the entire cast and crew of this one.
The Jolly Boys Outing
The story annoys me as well because it’s so blatantly a love letter from Barry Letts to himself. He brings in all his mates from The Barry Letts Repertory Company and gives them good roles (even though some of them were miscast, such as hiring a white guy called Kevin to play a Tibetan Monk-come-Time Lord with a racist accent), he writes a story about his own chosen religious beliefs and he adds in set pieces like a 12 minute chase sequence just because Jon Pertwee ‘likes his vehicles’.
The entire second half of episode two is a chase sequence. Nothing of note or worth to the viewer happens. No plot, barely any dialogue, just Pertwee and Dearth riding vehicles. And the whole thing was pointless in the end because when the Doctor finally catches up with him, Lupton just teleports himself away. Why not just do that earlier and save us all 12 minutes of that shite?
But those sequences get added in because – as I said earlier – Pertwee loved a bit of action and was seen as the ‘Action Doctor’. And yet if you watch it, almost every single piece of action the Doctor is involved in actually has Terry Walsh stepping in for Pertwee, presumably because of Pertwee’s bad back. So whether it’s fight scenes, escaping from the webbing the spiders had trapped himself in or even taking a small tumble from the TARDIS door to the floor, Pertwee really has nothing to do with it. So why write for him that way? You didn’t see the writers in the 60s writing fight sequences that William Hartnell was unable to perform, did you?
No, I’m not finished yet.
The structure of the writing in this one is also poor. I’ve often criticised cliffhangers in the Pertwee era for engineering things so that after 22 minutes of TV the Doctor gets put in an incongruously life-threatening situation, while praising the
ones that are a bit different. But the cliffhanger at the end of episode 4 is probably the limpest one I’ve ever seen. It’s just a stop in proceedings. Not even a hint of drama or a ‘Oooh, what might happen next week’ type deal. Nothing.
And then Episode 5 is so badly structured that – in lieu of there being a good point to stop the episode – they just pick a scene 6 minutes into Episode 6 out of sequence and put that in as it’s cliffhanger because it sort of worked.
Nearly every episode runs short and so there’s a massive reprise scene at the start of every new one. It’s just sloppy.
The Jenny Laird Award For The Worst Individual Piece of Acting In the History of Television
Now I think almost all of the scenes on Metabilis 3 are dreadful. To start with the CSO looks dreadful, but the acting of the natives is also poor. They all wear cheap costumes, have stupid hair and speak in Bristolian accents because apparently that is the all-purpose ‘country boy’ accent according to the BBC in the 1970s.
In amongst all these dodgy actors and silly accents is one significant low point.
The mother of the tribe leaders is a pathetic actress. You know when I said earlier that John Dearth was a horrible actor rather than being a bad one in the traditional sense? Well this woman – Jenny Laird – is a bad one in that traditional sense. A very bad one.
Her delivery of the line “No I shan’t…You shan’t take him. Sabor my husband, my love. Why did you do it? Why? Why? I shan’t let them take you. I shan’t I shan’t” really has to be seen to be believed. Not only does she get the words wrong at the start of the line, but she’s trying to act it like it’s a Shakespeare play and just failing miserably.
And you know what makes it worse? She’s a RADA trained actress and actually had an award named after her – The Jenny Laird Award – which was for ‘Outstanding Acting In a Thankless Role’. That just renders both RADA and acting awards meaningless as far as I’m concerned.
- Mike Yates gets a fairly low-key exit. But at least he gets a chance to set his campness free for the world to see on the way out…
- One thing you can say about Pertwee in almost all of his stories is that he’s sharply dressed…but even that aspect of this story is a let-down. Pertwee’s outfit looks ill-fitting and badly put together. He also has ridiculous hair. Terrence
Dicks says in every DVD documentary and commentary appearance that you can tell how far into the Pertwee era we are by the bouffancy of Jon’s hair. But it’s not that bad in Monster of Peladon compared to here.
- Having K’ampo regenerate into Cho-je made little sense. How come there wasn’t a bloke hanging around with William Hartnell during the Smugglers then, if that’s how regeneration works? They try to do the same thing on Logopolis too, but again it didn’t make sense.
- I mentioned earlier on that Letts basically hired a load of people who had been in the show before during his tenure. They include Kevin Lindsay (Lynx from the Time Warrior), John Dearth (the voice of BOSS in the Green Death), George Cormack (Dalios in the Time Monster), Terrence Lodhe (Orum in the Carnival of Monsters – and he was shit in that too), Andrew Staines (Goodge in the Terror of the Autons), Christopher Burgess (Philips in…yes…the Terror of the Autons), Cyril Shaps (Lennox in Ambassadors of Death), Walter Randall (Slocom in Inferno), Max Faulkner (who had appeared in small speaking roles in almost every story of the season) and of course Dr Who Extra Extraordinaire, Pat Gorman
- And one actor who hasn’t appeared before now will become better known 15 years later playing the part of Nimrod in Ghost Light (and oh boy, I can’t wait to review that…). Can you spot him?
- While I’m being very critical of this story as a whole, I won’t criticise the Spiders themselves too much. They are well voiced and though they look absolutely terrible (except for the Great One because of how it looked on scale), you can’t expect miracles in the pre-CGI era for stuff like that.
- And I do like the writing of the ‘All Praise To The Great One’ stuff. Certainly that’s permeated my sub-conscious so that whenever anyone says The Great One in other contexts, I immediately think ‘All Praise To The Great One’.
- One thing that’s also permeated by sub-conscious in a negative way is that I have a passionate dislike for the Jewel of the Lotus prayer. When they did it in a Yoga class I was in a few months ago it ruined the whole experience. So fuck you John Dearth, fuck you.
Doctor Who – Planet of the Spiders Review: Final Thoughts
So there you go, it’s a story I just don’t like.
There’s so much wrong with it, from poor performances, bad characterisation, nepotism and a bad overall structure that it’s difficult to say anything good about it.
My problem is that despite it being terrible, and a story I take no pleasure from watching, I still can’t say it’s the worst story of the Pertwee era.
But it’s the most disappointing because it is a story very much written on auto-pilot, and that is something that almost this entire season of the show can be accused of.
The Time Warrior was a very good story, but everything else was just a lazy rehash of what had come before. It would have been better if the Pertwee – and indeed the Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks – era ended the season before. By a long way this was his weakest season.
However, to try to end on a positive note, the Doctor did get a good send-off in Episode Six, so there’s always that…