Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders
(6 episodes, s11e21-e26, 1974)
I don’t like spiders. I’ll try not to let that color my commentary.
Mike Yates, who we haven’t seen since his betrayal of UNIT and the Doctor, is recuperating at a Buddhist meditation center led by a man named K’anpo and his assistant, Cho Je. He finds a secret group in the basement that may be up to no good, so he calls Sarah Jane and they investigate matters. On the way back to the center, Sarah Jane is convinced of the fascinating tale when they get run off the road by an imaginary tractor. The leader of the secret group, Mr. Lupton, meets the cinematic standard of a villain since he physically abuses and bullies Tom, a man with a mental disability.
The Doctor is at a comedy show of some sort with the Brigadier. He’s there to see a psychic, Professor Herbert Clegg, who he invites to UNIT. Clegg is a very powerful clairvoyant, and he submits to some experiments to determine his full strength. One, for example, summons experiences from the sonic screwdriver and displays them on a monitor. During this evaluation, a package arrives from Jo Grant containing the crystal from Metebilis III, which is an odd way to re-gift a wedding present. Professor Clegg has a violent psychic reaction to the crystal, resulting in a fatal fear-induced heart attack. Simultaneously, Lupton’s group summons an intelligent and powerful spider from another dimension, and that spider merges with Lupton’s body. Sarah Jane and Yates witness this event, and she returns to UNIT and relays the tale to the Doctor.
The Doctor gazes into the crystal, sees the hermit who lived behind his childhood home, and relays the story to the Brigadier. Meanwhile, Lupton is driven by the spider to seek the crystal at UNIT HQ. He forces his way in and steals the crystal, which prompts an extensive chase. Lupton steals the Whomobile, so Sgt. Benton, Sarah Jane, and the Brigadier follow in Bessie, while the Doctor provides air support in a small, one-man helicopter. After the whole group breaks some local speed laws, a police officer joins the chase in a moment of levity. After they all stop at an airport, Lupton steals the helicopter, and the Doctor and Sarah Jane continue pursuit in the Whomobile, which (conveniently) can now fly. The ground chase gives way to a water chase involving a hovercraft and a speedboat, which results in a several rather obvious reveals of the Jon Pertwee’s stunt double. When the Doctor finally catches up to the speedboat, Lupton has vanished.
Take a moment and catch your breath.
Lupton apparates back to the retreat and is seen by Tommy, who only has eyes for the crystal and covets it for his collection of “pretties.” As the Doctor and Sarah Jane track Lupton back to the retreat, the Lupton-Spider calls home to the spider community on Metebilis III and conspires to take over Earth. The spider attempts to coerce Lupton through telepathic pain, but Lupton levels up and reverses the effect on the spider. Meanwhile, Tommy steals the crystal and hides it in his cupboard under the stairs.
I found the fact that he lives under the stairs to be quite interesting. It’s part of the Madwoman in the Attic trope, where the socially undesirable member of the house is locked away from public view to save face. In some cases, this person ends up being the hero of the story of a fulcrum to pivot the plot and enable the hero to save the day. Three of my favorite examples are Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, Scorpius in Farscape, and Harry Potter in the franchise of the same name.
Tommy takes Sarah Jane to look at the crystal, but Sarah Jane overhears Lupton and follows him to the basement. She asks Tommy to relay her plans to Yates and watches Lupton apparate to Metebilis III. She inadvertently follows him and gets captured by a group of humans who are subjects to the queen spider and her society of Eight Legs. The queen just happens to visit the village and Sarah Jane is discovered. The Doctor gives chase in the TARDIS and arrives just as the queen discovers Sarah Jane. The Doctor gets into a fight with the queen’s human guards, and is eventually incapacitated and left for dead as the queen and her retinue depart. During the fracas, Sarah Jane hides in the crowd.
Back on Earth, Tommy gets into an altercation with Lupton’s comrades. He returns to his cupboard and gazes into the crystal, which heals his brain. On Metebilis III, Lupton realizes that he is a only a cog in the overall Eight Leg machine designed to overthrow the queen. Sarah Jane retrieves a machine from the TARDIS to help heal the Doctor, but she is captured by the Eight Legs. One of the indentured humans uses the machine to help the Doctor as Sarah Jane learns the history of Metebilis III from a fellow captive named Sabor. The humans are descendants of a crashed spaceship, and the Eight Legs are spiders that were on the ship and were mutated by the crystals.
The Doctor investigates different types of stones around the human village and finds one that negates the energy attacks of the Eight Legs followers. He infiltrates the spider fortress and is captured, but escapes using techniques learned from Harry Houdini. As the Doctor makes his way to the lair of the Great One, the supreme spider, the queen takes Sarah Jane and confides in her that the queen wants peace with humanity. Sarah Jane agrees to get the crystal if the humans are all released.
The Doctor reaches the lair of the Great One, but she warns him not to go any further due to intense radiation. She wants the crystal, the last perfect crystal of power, but the Doctor doesn’t yield. The Great One telepathically forces the Doctor to march about like a tin soldier (to music very reminiscent of the march of the Cybermen), before releasing him so he can retrieve the crystal. He escapes with Sarah Jane, who has apparently learned how to apparate from the queen, and they return to Earth.
Lupton’s followers open the gateway to the spiders, who transport to Earth. The spiders attack Cho Je and Yate, and then possess the followers. They then attack the Doctor and Sarah Jane, who are saved by Tommy before being taken to K’anpo. During their discussion, K’anpo is very impressed with the Doctor’s knowledge of Tibetan customs, and the Doctor feels that K’anpo is familiar to him.
In the interim, the spiders track the crystal to Tommy, and they fire on him with their Force lightning energy beams. At this point, it’s painfully obvious how much padding this serial has. The recaps in each episode are pretty long, but the last one is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back with significant re-editing to reveal things that would have spoiled the cliffhanger. I’m sure it was different back in 1974 when the break between episodes was a whole week, but when they’re watched back-to-back, the extensive recaps become painful. Regardless, this whole serial could be cut down into three or four episodes instead of six.
Anyway, the spiders track the crystal to Tommy because Tommy delivered it to K’anpo. At this point, we find out that Sarah Jane is under the control of the queen, who has tricked her to retrieve the crystal. K’anpo and the Doctor free her with the crystal, and the queen dies as she apparates back to Metebilis III. In a twist, K’anpo is revealed as the hermit from the Doctor’s childhood. He is a Time Lord as well, but chose not to follow the path of others like the Doctor, having regenerated and left Gallifrey to live in Tibet. Cho Je is merely a projection of K’anpo’s mind.
Here we are with some important mythology points: We learn the name for regeneration, as well as getting another reference to the Doctor stealing the TARDIS and running from Gallifrey.
The Doctor communes with K’anpo and realizes that he must take the crystal to the Great One. His greed for knowledge and his theft of the crystal set all of this in motion, and only he can stop it by facing his fears.
Outside, Tommy is resisting the spider lightning, so Lupton’s followers channel power from the spider council on Metebilis III and use it to attack Tommy. He resists the first blast, and Yates dives in to take the second. The followers burst into K’anpo’s chambers just as the hermit tells the Doctor how to apparate. The followers shoot K’anpo before running for the basement, but the Doctor is too quick for them. He returns to Metebilis III, but is betrayed by the villagers who are under the influence of the spider council. The Doctor easily convinces the council that he will return the crystal to the Great One alone, and they allow him to leave. Afterward, the Eight Legs kill Lupton for his insolence.
Back on Earth, Yates and Tommy have (conveniently) survived, the former being protected by his compassion, and the latter by his innocence. Given that the same blasts force K’anpo to regenerate into Cho Je, I think that Yates and Tommy should have died. It certainly would have given Yates a bit of redemption after his betrayal.
The Doctor enters the lair of the Great One, who desires the perfect crystal to complete a telepathic weapon that will saturate the universe with her mind. She takes the crystal and puts it in place, but the device overloads and destroys her and the Eight Legs civilization. The Doctor escapes, but is weakened from the large dose of radiation he absorbed.
Three weeks later, the Doctor is still missing. As the Brigadier and Sarah Jane discuss the Doctor’s absence, the TARDIS materializes. The Doctor falls out of the TARDIS, just as he did when he first arrived, after being lost in the time vortex. He has received a fatal dose of radiation and is dying. He says his goodbyes to Sarah Jane, and then regenerates.
Tucked into his farewells is the phrase “Where there’s life, there is hope,” which comes from the Roman play Heauton Timorumenos, but also has roots all over mythology. It’s a universal theme, and very relevant to the character of the Doctor, a being who brings hope everywhere he goes spanning lifetime after lifetime.
Overall, I had a hard time with this story. If it were presented on its own, I’d score it as a 2. It’s far too spread out and padded, especially in the recaps, but it gains some salvation in the ties into the franchise’s mythology, especially for reaching into our hero’s childhood once again. Adding a point for those ties and another for the regeneration handicap, and this one comes to a total of 4, but I still think that it’s a pretty bad way for the Third Doctor to end his era.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
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17 thoughts on “Timestamp #74: Planet of the Spiders”
I have to say that I wasn’t to impressed with this one the first time that I saw it either, but I actually re-evaluated it higher when I rewatched it a couple of years ago. I actually do like the idea that it was the Doctor’s own greed that caused his downfall. It fits in so well with the Buddhist themes that Barry Letts introduced into the series, and also fits in with the moral grayness of the Pertwee era.
Incidentally, my family’s official motto is “Dum spiro spero”, which is a derivation of “where there’s life, there’s hope” so I always like hearing that line.
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