Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 395: Planet of the Spiders, Episode One
Throughout the course of The 50 Year Diary, I’ve been keeping a track of various loose ‘Story Arcs’. There’s quite a few of them in hindsight - The Doctor mellowing from the character seen in An Unearthly Child to the man we know now, the evolution of the Sonic Screwdriver, the Doctor being on the run from his people before getting recaptured, and later his attempts to escape his exile before being set free after the events of The Three Doctors. What we’re seeing in this story, though, is Doctor Who’s first real attempt to resolved an arc, by drawing together various elements from across the last few years.
Obviously, we’ve got another return for UNIT in the form of the Brigadier and Sergeant Benton. Mike Yates has called up with something possibly worth them following up, and reference is made to him leaving the Taskforce and seeking some kind of new life for himself. Jo’s involved by sending back the Metebilis crystal last seen a year ago in The Green Death, and there’s even a reference to the fact that they’ve not found their toadstool yet during their travels in South America.
Even the cast is a throwback to Pertwee stories of old. Aside from Cyril Shaps, who shows up to play the shot-lived role of Professor Clegg (having previously appeared in The Ambassadors of Death), there’s also John Dearth (The voice of BOSS during The Green Death), Christopher Burgess (Terror of the Autons), Terence Lodge (Carnival of Monsters), Andrew Staines (who’s appeared in both of those last two stories, Terror of the Autons and Carnival of Monsters), and Kevin Lindsay (The Time Warrior). Those are just the names from this single episode, but there’s a few more connections to other tales before the episode is out, including Pat Gorman, Terry Walsh, Stuart Fell, George Cormack, Walter Randall, Max Faulkner, Ysanne Churchman, and - even though she herself had never been in Doctor Who before - Roger Delgado’s widow, Kismet Delgado. The thole thing is a great big Third Doctor fest.
I’ve always avoided watching this story before now (even when I bought the DVD, it went on the shelf with only a few of the extras being watched), mostly because of the title alone. I’m not all that fond of spiders, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m completely arachnophobic, and I can handle spiders (little ones, just), I’m not that keen on the idea of a whole story dedicated to a race of giant spiders. I’m glad that’s put me off for so long, though, because this story seems to very much be the end of the Third Doctor’s era. It’s a proper summing up and sending off from what I can tell, and I’m glad that my first experience of this tale comes having just watched all of Pertwee’s other adventures before it.
It’s very much being set up to prepare us for the regeneration, and some of the Buddhist ideas seem very fitting for the idea of the Doctor being reborn. It has to be said that one line in particular seems perfectly in tune with a regeneration story; ‘The old man must die, and the new man will discover to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed…’
And I’m already hooked into the story. I love the idea that Mike finds himself caught up in these events and that’s what brings the rest of the group in, and I really love that his way of making contact is to suggest it as a story to girl reporter Sarah. We’re a season on from her debut now, but her job is still being brought up and made important to the plot, and that’s rather nice. I know it gets mentioned a bit in Robot, but after that as far as I can recall it’s mostly forgotten about, so it’s good to see it being given a final stand here before Barry Letts bows out from the programme shortly.
The setting that Mike brings her to - a large country house - feels like just the type of location that’s right for a 1970s Doctor Who story, and there’s something genuinely creepy about the chanting that echoes down the halls. The set design is particularly nice, too, and a great example of how well the BBC do with something like this. I love the detail of the cobwebs lining almost every surface in the basement, and it works as something of a signpost towards what’s coming through from the meditation.
There’s also a lot of fun to be had with the episode. Sarah and Mike spark off each other nicely, each teasing the other when they do something particularly clever or manipulative. The highlight has to be the Doctor and the Brigadier off to see the shows at a gentleman’s club. I love the way the Brig’s attention perks up when they announce the ‘Exotic Turkish Delight of the East’, and his enthusiastic applause for the performance later on. Nick Courtney is a real source for humour throughout this episode, really, and his reaction to the story of his watch is great fun, too.