Planet of the Spiders

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(Doctor Who Story No. 74, starring Jon Pertwee)
  • written by Robert Sloman
  • produced and directed by Barry Letts
  • music by Dudley Simpson
  • 6 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: While the Doctor investigates untapped mental powers that lie dormant inside every human being, Mike Yates discovers that some members of the meditation sanctuary he has joined are invoking darker powers during their secret sessions. Why has the Doctor's blue crystal from Metebelis Three suddenly become the center of a web of psychic intrigue? What is the true extent of its powers? The Doctor soon has his hands full trying to free the societies of two planets from the oppression of giant spiders....

DVD Extras (on 2 discs no less) include:

  • Audio commentary by Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), Richard Franklin (Mike Yates), Nicholas Courtney (The Brigadier),
    producer/director Barry Letts, and script editor Terrance Dicks.
  • "The Final Curtain" making-of / era retrospective featurette (38 min.) with Franklin, Letts, Dicks, the late Jon Pertwee (The Doctor),
    designer Rochelle Selwyn, visual effects assistant Mat Irvine, and fan Mark Gatiss.
  • "Directing Who" interview with producer Barry Letts documenting his directing work. (15 min.)
  • Now & Then location featurette (7 min.)
  • Retrospective interview of actor John Kane (Tommy) (13 min.)
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery
  • "Planet of the Spiders" Omnibus Edition (65 minutes, unrestored)
  • Omnibus trailer (2 min.)

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.


Lastly we come to the ambitious, somewhat under-achieving finale for the Pertwee/Letts/Dicks era. It would be easy to start into a long list of its technical and artistic faults, but like "The Evil of the Daleks" (story no. 36) in trying to give the viewers so much, many of its offerings end up hitting the mark, keeping it interesting and even profound on subsequent viewings.


Deviations from Formula

This is Robert Sloman's last script for Doctor Who, and he has a well established formula he usually starts off with. This time, however, he stretches and rearranges it. The Doctor's initial distraction is developed enough to occupy all of Pertwee's episode one screen time and give the Brigadier and Sgt. Benton something to do in the script. Meanwhile it's left up to Mike Yates and Sarah to investigate the main antagonists for the story. The formulaic relationship between these two strands is made clear when Sarah finally has her first scene with the Doctor in episode two, where he is as distracted as ever.

Then commences the usual chase designed to bring the Doctor to the scene of all the action. Episode two's portion of this chase is all the location footage of strange new vehicles that blew the budget on the story. Despite all the movement and stunts in the visuals, the pace is rather slow - no critical story points are made. All you can do is sit back and enjoy the parade of vehicles and muse on the folly of all the energy that the Doctor is wasting, which is something that actually fits philosophically in a regeneration story.

This is a point where a musician can step up to the plate and deliver something unusually bold and memorable, a point where, on the silent copy of this story I was stuck with for a few years, I had dubbed on a lot of fast-paced and lively music. Dudley Simpson's score remains boring during this sequence, continuing to rely on a cheesy synth effect that whines up and down for the Spiders here as all throughout the score, which is pretty irritating and not much more inventive than playing the notes for the last story's ice-wind effect on new instrumentation. One easy, simple remedy might have been to pull out the variation on UNIT's theme backing Liz Shaw's car chase from "The Ambassadors of Death" (story no. 53) - it would have been very thematically appropriate and more supportive of the required mood of the sequence. Or a recurrence of Bessie's theme could have been a good idea. Alas, no such indulgence here.

Interestingly, the surprise reveal of a suite of music cues from Part 2 of this story indicates that the music was built up in layers. Presented on the CD are chiefly the portions played on real orchestral instruments, which are fairly satisfying. The whiny, cheesy synth effects were patched on over top for the TV broadcast version, but thankfully do not appear at all in the CD track. This makes a nice improvement on the music, and increases the repeat-listening value of the CD. Excellent!

A suite of music from "Planet of the Spiders" Part 2
lasting (2:44) was released on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who:
The 50th Anniversary Collection
11-disc version (2014)

More info


Misfocused Main Conflict

If we were strictly following the Sloman formula, the Doctor should now be at the scene of the action ready to tackle the complexities of the characters and issues at hand at the beginning of episode three. In actual fact, the chase has not ended; it has merely changed venues from vehicles to padded dialogue. Sarah, Mike Yates, and Lupton continue to be the central exploring characters, while the Doctor merely does a lame job of trying to keep up with them.

Episode three really does belong to John Dearth's Lupton in particular, as the script focuses in on him single-mindedly. He successfully finishes his action bit, sets some elaborate plans for bluffing and stalling in motion, narrates enough of his backstory to give us the motivation at the heart of his character, transmigrates himself to a new planet, and generally gets far more screen time than anybody else.

By contrast, the Doctor does diddly-squat upon arriving in Cho-Je's mellow wallpaper house. By the time he's figured out what's going on, everyone else has gone to Metebelis Three ahead of him. It's up to Sarah to encounter the villagers of that planet, make first contact, learn of their problems, and try to help. When the Doctor finally shows up, he turns into the Man of Sleep almost immediately and will spend the bulk of episode four unconscious, semi-conscious, and accused of being lazy, while Sarah is left to blubber over him in scene after scene. As I've said before, this should be saved for episode six, because.... Ever hear of the little girl that cried "wolf"...?

Finally the Doctor gets to make his own unique contribution to the overthrowing of oppression: finding an immunity to the Spiders' usual attacks. He sets off on what should be the start of a good stretch of exploration and confrontation, but director Barry Letts couldn't even manage the cheap CSO around the entrance to the Spiders' citadel, and so the story ends up with even less action and exploration. What we are left with is a very bare and very bright collection of straight white walls, as far from my imagination of a cavern of spider tunnels as one can possibly get, and pretty boring at that.

Cheesy bad dialogue dominates his all-too-brief first confrontation with Lupton and anyway is a complete distraction from the issues that set them against each other in the first place. Then the Doctor, Sarah, and Sabor are stuck in the prisoner dynamic again. This sequence earns a few points for having a uniquely arachnid flavour in its entrappings, but it loses points for being used to postpone a good confrontation between the Doctor and the spider council that Lupton is in league with.

Action Undermined

Action proceeds on two fronts: villagers attack the spider citadel on Metebelis Three, while spiders invade Earth to take over Lupton's group and go on a rampage to find the crystal. Once again the Metebelis action is unbearably limited and poor, barely hanging on to the bare necessities of visual literacy just to let the audience know what is happening. Most of the action here and throughout the story is also rendered impotent by the over-use of teleportation, which, in every case, shows Sloman reaching for a different means of allowing a character to perform it. One good thing about the action is that the lightning bolts are a very tangible visual effect, and seem to line up with the footage really well all the time. The sound effect is a bit too high-pitched to carry enough power to suit my tastes, but it still works well enough.

Then there's the first scene in the cave of the Great One. It is so obviously lacking a shot of the Doctor's point of view, as he first talks to the Great One without being able to see her. So what can he see? Barry Letts denies us the POV. Maybe the budget had run out, but there is some lovely footage from an earlier Pertwee story, "The Mutants" (story no. 63), of a vast underground cavern with a tunnel tantalizingly leading off around a corner, complete with lines of energy crackling all around to visually represent the radiation that is destined to do the Doctor in in the end. The shot works perfectly as the Doctor's POV. As I've said before, if you can't complete the visual or musical literacy of a piece with new material, it's advantageous to dig into one's archives creatively.

It's not until the Doctor comes face to face with the Abbot Kan'po Rinpoche that the chase begun in episode two finally comes to its real end, and the Doctor can finally come to true grips with the issues of real importance to the story.


Editing the Final Cliffhanger

Very strange story structures still abound between episode five's lead up to the cliffhanger, and episode six's lengthy re-edited reprise. In some ways, for many reasons including required timings, it has to be a little weird in the end. Then again, look at the noticeably short episode timings in "The Mind Robber" (story no. 45), "The Leisure Hive" (story no. 110), and indeed much of season eighteen, and you may wonder why Barry Letts didn't let a shorter episode go by here or there. I will simply suggest two things that work better for me, even though they may well throw the timings out too far. The scene where Barnes' gang breaks free into the hall and decides how best to chase after the Doctor and get the crystal.... Currently this scene only exists in episode six, but I think it works best in episode five only. Mr. Moss looks kind of silly being disciplined by an intangible voice, as do his partners talking about seeing the magic crystal with their eyes closed, particularly if you've just started to watch episode six cold, and this is your first impression of the adversaries that Jon Pertwee's Doctor will face in his final moments. However, stuck in at the tail end of all of episode five's running about, with the masterful splitscreen shot of spiders disappearing into the gang's backs while they squirm still fresh in a viewer's memory, Mr. Moss's disciplining is far more palatable and flows more smoothly with the narrative.

Second change: Anticipation has been building towards someone getting to talk to the Abbot, and of seeing him for the first time on screen. Let the anticipation continue throughout the episode five cliffhanger. Show Tommy leading the Doctor and Sarah to the Abbot's door and going in, but nothing of the Abbot or his room. Cut to the disciplining of Mr. Moss instead, and focus on Barnes' gang's desire to get there and find the crystal. Then they come running around the corner to the Abbot's door, and find Tommy blocking their way. We the audience know the Doctor and Sarah are in there with the Abbot, but Tommy's blocking our way too, and we don't see anything of what's going on in there. Now the cliffhanger doesn't need to rely solely on the threat of the spidergang zapping Tommy, which has lost most of its potency after watching Tommy already survive unscathed through so many identically realised blasts. Now we have another reason for wanting to see episode six: we KNOW we'll finally get to see the Abbot, just as the Doctor is doing. All of the Abbot's scenes are intact in episode six the way it is, so there's no need of any of them to be in episode five. Episode Six starts wonderfully the way it is, opening with a shot of the Abbot meditating, a repeat of the Doctor, Sarah, and Tommy coming around the corridor, and the Abbot welcoming them in, beginning their conversation.


Returning to a Proper Focus for the Final Episode

Hopefully parts two through five have been a bit of fun, combining typical Doctor Who racing through cheap corridor sets and funny superimposition and CSO effects with Pertwee era triumphs like gadgets and vehicles and Terry Walsh stunt fights, not to mention the typical Pertwee era faults such as padded dialogue, prisoner dynamic delay tactics, a hint of doomsaying, and the one and only Man of Sleep. But both episodes one and six deal more readily and successfully with the heart of this story - an exploration of a few common truths about mental power for episode one (the distraction proves ultimately more interesting than the scene of the main action in this story), and ultimately a hero's solution to the attempted subjugation of the mind.

Pertwee's talk with the Abbot is the first truly fulfilling scene he's had since he left his lab and began the chase, with the possible exception of his finding the stones for the villagers in episode four and learning their backstory. The folly of all that running about is put into its true perspective as well. Pertwee's Doctor is now firmly re-established as the main character of the story, and our main character is gently prodded by his old mentor to examine his own faults and issues, to take the log out of his own eye before attempting to remove the speck in his neighbours'. And philosophically, we see something completely opposite to Malcolm Hulke's ending in "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" (story no. 71): The villains have a truly flawed masterplan, and all one need do to defeat them is to let them carry it out. They do themselves in.

Was the Doctor wrong to have taken the crystal in the first place? Would the spiders have fried themselves far earlier if that one crystal had remained on Metebelis III during the time of their arrival? Well, one good thing has come of the Doctor's actions this story, apart from all the benefits already realised in "The Green Death" (story no. 69). Tommy gets a clear lift up for a better life thanks to the crystal's presence, and that goes a long way to making the Doctor's "Robin-Hood"-like dealings with the crystal worthwhile. I don't know why Sloman later felt that Tommy's character was a mistake. I was never tempted to laugh at him, but rather, thanks to a solid performance from John Kane, I find myself empathizing with him. (Perhaps the music I added to my dubbed version helps too.)


Sacrifice becomes the general thrust of the story's conclusion, and it works far better here than in Sloman's other scripts. Stevens' sacrifice at the end of "The Green Death" was rather an arbitrary contrivance, while Jo's sacrifices in "The Daemons" (story no. 59) and "The Time Monster" (story no. 64) took away from the Doctor's heroics and were themselves annulled. But here, the sacrifice is the Doctor's and his alone. He is successfully isolated for this purpose, and his sacrifice is very real. The Pertwee Doctor truly dies for it, and no matter how many other Doctors the world sees, there will never be another quite like his. For once, this particular Sloman dynamic is used in the right story.

Sarah's got some blubbering to do at the end, and it is finally appropriate. Even with too much recent blubbering working towards eventual audience disbelief, these final scenes still work well, and the drama is spot on. The story's structure, bizarre as it may have been at times, still manages to build up to this moment excellently. Regeneration itself has been explained in this final episode better than in any other spot in Doctor Who, so even completely new viewers are suitably prepped. It even manages to offer an explanation for the rather bizarre regeneration in "Logopolis" (story no. 116), for what is the Watcher if not the fourth Doctor's unconsciously controlled "Cho-Je" projection, who would look like Peter Davison if only he could consciously "wake-up"?


Sure, lots of things could have been better with this story. Sabor might not have let the door swing open far enough open to reveal his son to everyone outside just when he's trying to hide him instead. The spiders might have had a real web-in-cavern set to live in that would better hide the puppet rods used to manipulate them. And perhaps the climactic confrontation could have done with less of a prolonged shrill rant from the Great One, some radiation sparks as good as those in "The Mutants" to show the effect that damages all the Doctor's cells, and some more intercuts in the editing to add personal danger to the final destruction of the mountain, instead of showing the Doctor safely in the TARDIS before the first rock blast. (Remember, Pertwee's Doctor isn't supposed to survive it unscathed!)

But the story's got heart too, and intends to show the Doctor's faults as well as his strengths, bring them into balance, and make you nostalgic for it all. I think it achieves that, and manages to be both dramatically moving and fun. What can I say, but that I'm a fan of the series, and of this story as well. In the end, it's thumbs up from me.



Season Eleven Rankings:

Best Story:

  1. The Time Warrior
  2. The Monster of Peladon
  3. Planet of the Spiders
  4. Invasion of the Dinosaurs
  5. Death to the Daleks

Best Writer:

  1. Robert Holmes
  2. Brian Hayles
  3. Robert Sloman
  4. Malcolm Hulke
  5. Terry Nation

Best Director:

  1. Alan Bromly
  2. Lennie Mayne
  3. Michael Briant
  4. Barry Letts
  5. Paddy Russell

Best Music:

  • "Florana"
  • Death to the Daleks
  • The Monster of Peladon
  • Planet of the Spiders
  • The Time Warrior
  • the rest of Invasion of the Dinosaurs



This story is available on DVD and VHS video.
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