Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders Review

This review is dedicated to the memory of Elisabeth Sladen (1946-2011)

Planet of the Spiders is part of a story arc in Who. The Doctor's exile to Earth had ended following the events of The Three Doctors. He had tried to reach the planet of Metebelis 3 in Carnival of Monsters and had succeeded in The Green Death, taking a perfect blue crystal back with him. He gave this to Jo as a wedding present at the end of that serial. Now Jo has returned it, as the Amazonian natives she and her husband are working with are spooked by it – and the eight-legged rulers of Metebelis 3 want their crystal back. Meanwhile, Mike Yates – having left UNIT in disgrace (see Invasion of the Dinosaurs, not yet on DVD) – joins a Tibetan meditation centre in the English countryside to find himself and soon finds that all is not what it seemed at first...

The final story of Doctor Who's eleventh season, first broadcast in May-June 1974, Planet of the Spiders may be best known as Jon Pertwee's swansong, but the name that looms largest is that of Barry Letts. Not only was he the producer (himself due to leave after the first Tom Baker story, Robot) he was also the co-writer, though the only writer's name on the credits was that of Robert Sloman. This marks the only time in the show's history when a writer directed their own story. Letts's Buddhist beliefs are also reflected in this serial, not just in the use of a Tibetan monastery in the English countryside, but also in the story's themes. The Doctor is confronted with his own greed for knowledge and has to face the consequences of it.

Although he directed the Second and Fourth Doctors (The Enemy of the World, of which just one episode survives, and The Android Invasion, not yet on DVD, respectively), and was executive producer during John Nathan-Turner's first season and Tom Baker's last, Letts is indelibly linked with Jon Pertwee's period in the title role. He had played The Doctor for five years, a period of some stability. Terrance Dicks had been the script editor throughout (he would leave after Planet of the Spiders too). Jo Grant (Katy Manning) had been the Doctor's companion for three of the five years, and there had been a recurring Moriarty in The Master (Roger Delgado). Also, with the Doctor exiled to Earth from the outset, UNIT, and the characters of Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) and Sergeant Benton (John Levene) had made regular appearances. But change was afoot. Katy Manning had left the show the year before, to be replaced by Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. Roger Delgado had been tragically killed in a road accident. Jon Pertwee, fearing typecasting, had decided to move on, and clearly Letts and Dicks thought that it was time to do likewise. So it's inevitable that Planet of the Spiders has an end-of-era feel to it, though given the show's premise it had changed its leading man before and it does so again. This is the first time the process is referred to as “regeneration”, however.

While Letts was clearly fond of this serial, as well he might have been, there is an air of indulgence to it. Many of the supporting cast will be familiar from earlier appearances in Who stories which Letts directed or to which had writing input. Also, the last third of Episode 2 is taken up by a long chase between the Doctor and Lupton (John Dearth) included as a present to Pertwee, knowing his love of fast vehicles and gadgetry. Ultimately these are six epsodes that could easily be boiled down into four. Apart from Lupton and Tommy (John Kane), who gets a sensitively-depicted IQ rise due to the blue Metebelis crystal, the guest characters – humans and humanoid Metebelis natives alike – are pretty forgettable. On the other hand, the many spiders are well realised, if not always convincingly arachnid (Letts vetoed more realistic models for being too horrific). Their voices, courtesy of Ysanne Churchman (who had provided a very different voice for Alpha Centauri in the two Peladon serials), Kismet Delgado (widow of Roger, cast as a favour by Letts to ease her financial difficulties due to lack of compensation for her husband's death) and Maureen Morris (who got quite carried away in recording her final scene – see the information subtitles for details), are excellent.

Of the regulars, Pertwee is his authoritative self, though if you find the Third Doctor too paternalistic you won't change your opinion here.Sladen shows the spark that distinguished Sarah Jane from the outset, and would do even more so opposite Tom Baker's Doctor. The Brigadier, only in the first, second and last episodes, has had better storylines and suffers from a tendency to be shown up by the scriptwriters. (Check out the early scene where he considers adapting a belly-dancer's moves for soldier training.) That said, Nicholas Courtney gives the character more dignity than the script allows, and is particularly strong in the story's final scenes. Given more character development than usual, Richard Franklin does well as Mike Yates, though his character tends to be sidelined as the story goes on.

For its flaws, I can't be too hard on Planet of the Spiders. Some of this may be nostalgia, as Pertwee was my first Doctor, and this was his departure. (That said, I'm not the only person to regard Tom Baker's first three seasons, produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script edited by Robert Holmes, as one of the show's highest points.) At the time, thanks to the previews in the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special, there was a lot of anticipation for Season Eleven, but at the time for one reason or another, the stories fell short of expectations – and now again, rewatching them as they come out on DVD, they still do. Doctor Who had been reinvented at the turn of the decade, but after five years it was clearly in need of a new direction and fresh blood. Fortunately it would get it.


Planet of the Spiders is released by 2Entertain as two dual-layered discs. Disc One is encoded for Region 2 only, Disc Two for Regions 2 and 4. Both discs have optional audio-descriptive menus.

The serial exists on its original two-inch PAL videotapes, and picture and sound have been restored to the usual standards for the Who DVD range. The location work – of which there is quite a bit, in the first half of the serial – was shot on 16mm film and inevitably looks a little soft and grainy, and the studio work (shot on 625-line video) will never stack up against today's high-definition television, but given the limitations of the source material it's fair to say that this looks as good as it ever could. This is especially so as nowadays we are watching on more unforgiving equipment than we did in 1974. Indeed, many people still had black and white television sets then. As you would expect, the DVD transfer is in the ratio of 4:3 and the soundtrack is mono.

Subtitles are available for the feature and all the extras except the commentary. Also on the disc are the ever-useful information subtitles, this time provided by Nicholas Pegg, which tell you all you need to know about the making of this serial, and more besides.

It's clear that the commentary was not recorded recently, as of the five participants, Barry Letts passed away in 2009 and Nicholas Courtney (who comments on the episodes his character appears in, namely One, Two and Six) and Elisabeth Sladen in 2011, leaving just Terrance Dicks and Richard Franklin still with us as I write this. This gives this track additional poignancy, the feeling of a final meeting of old friends. (Though no doubt there are commentaries in the can featuring Letts, Courtney and Sladen which will feature on future DVD releases.) The rapport is as much the attraction of the best Who commentaries as the information imparted, and that's the case here.

Disc One is completed by a Coming Soon trailer (1:34) or the next release, the Mannequin Mania box set putting together an updated release for Spearhead from Space and a DVD debut for Terror of the Autons.

Disc Two begins with “The Final Curtain” (37:47), this serial's making-of documentary. As the title indicates, it has an end-of-era feel to it. It begins with how the show was reinvented by Letts and Dicks, from one that was losing viewers and possibly due to be cancelled, to become the success that it had become. But after five years, it was time for change. It covers the original plan for this to be a final confrontation with the Master, an idea scrapped when Roger Delgado died. Barry Letts, inevitably, dominates proceedings, but it's nice to see Jon Pertwee, interviewed a year before his own death, on hand to talk about this serial. (Letts refutes Pertwee's claim that he left because he was not given a pay rise.) Richard Franklin Designer Rochelle Selwyn and special effects man Mat Irvine talk about the realisation of the spiders. Also interviewed are Richard Franklin and, giving a fan's perspective, future Who writer and actor Mark Gatiss.

Trivia time: what's the connection between this serial and Terry and June? The answer is John Kane who, as well as being an actor, was also a writer, and a prolific one for the Terry Scott/June Whitfield sitcom. “John Kane Remembers...” (12:46) talks about his experiences in playing Tommy, and his appreciation of the writers in creating such a character. He's a little regretful that for all his work in television over the years, this role is the one people recognise him in the street for.

“Directing Who with Barry Letts” (14:43) is the latest in the occasional series of interviews with Who helmers, and this serial is clearly an appropriate place to spotlight Letts. He speaks about his beginnings as an actor who later took the BBC Director's course. Directing became his first love, though with Who and later the BBC Classic Serials he moved into production. We see clips of some of his directing work both in Who and outside it, including an episode of Z Cars. His first Who directing credit was The Enemy of the World in the Troughton era. Episode One is now lost, but is represented by colour location stills, telesnaps and an off-air soundtrack We also see extracts from the only surviving episode, the third. His five years as producer (and, for one story per season, director) are covered, plus his return to the director's seat for The Android Invasion.

Also part of an ongoing series is “Now and Then” (7:10), comparing the locations from the time of production to them as they are now. This item particularly concentrates on the chase from Episode Two, the filming of which spread over three counties.

Back in the Seventies, the BBC would often show a recent Who story in cut-down omnibus form, often during the holiday season. Planet of the Spiders was one such, shown over Christmas 1974. Many of these omnibus editions no longer exist – though of course, given editing software you could always recreate one – but here is Planet of the Spiders, cut down to 105:18. Some may find it interesting which material was in the forty-three minutes (including each episode's credits sequences) deemed surplus to requirements, but this is for completists only. Also included is a trailer for this omnibus repeat (1:41). “And now on BBC One – The Beatles.”

The extras are completed by a stills gallery (5:46) and the Radio Times listings for the serial's original broadcasts, from back in the days when the word “Colour” and black and white line illustrations were appended to the listing – not forgetting adverts for the Tenth Anniversary Special, yours for the princely sum of 30p. There are no Easter Eggs on this DVD release.

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