I begin tangentially with a fact: I love regeneration stories. I didn’t fully appreciate the first one I saw (The Caves of Androzani) at the time, but I didn’t grasp the significance of the Doctor renewing himself. Probably though, it was Logopolis that fully converted me to enjoying regeneration stories. I think it is for the simple reason that Tom Baker is my Doctor – to borrow the lovely expression used by Matt Smith: “The first face this face saw.” The whole of that episode is brooding, melancholy and dramatic, building to the climax of the Fourth Doctor falling to his death – to regenerate. Stirring stuff!
So from that point on, I made a point of wanting to watch as many regeneration stories as I could (as an aside, I also thoroughly enjoy newly regenerated stories – though more inspired by Spearhead from Space than by Robot!) – I think aside of Caves of Androzani, the next one I had the chance to enjoy was The Tenth Planet. Arguably I had watched the end of The Trial of a Timelord and also The TV Movie – but these aren’t really regeneration stories within the definition of the act! So then that left two – The War Games and Planet of the Spiders.
So I was suitably delighted when youtube kindly made Planet of the Spiders available to stream, several years before the DVD was released. As I recall, my friend foolishly mentioned the fact one evening, and I stayed awake until 2am to watch Jon Pertwee’s final adventure. Most unfortunately, my delight did not last very long.
To revisit a theme I have mentioned – expectations shape how I enjoy Doctor Who stories. With dire fan warnings (not least from my dad) I should have been prepared for disappointment – but I think as with Paradise Towers I tried to persuade myself it wasn’t going to be as bad as the naysayers were foretelling. Up until the end of Episode One, you might just get away with it, provided you skate over such cringeworthy moments as the Brigadier enjoying an (off camera) belly dancer. The setting is mysterious, and there is suitable intrigue at the reintroduction of Mike Yates, last spotted threatening to shoot his former U.N.I.T. colleagues in Invasion of the Dinosaurs.
But from there it all goes downhill somewhat. As a four parter this might have worked quite well – everyone’s frightened of spiders, so there’s the fear factor. The concept of mental energy being magnified by the blue crystal of Metebelis III makes for a plausible threat, as does the notion of a human colony living in servitude to the spiders. But the execution is rather more ghastly than the execution the spiders themselves threaten during the story. To begin with, there is acting that would make a primary school nativity play look Oscar winning standard. The sets of Metebelis III are so obviously studio based that one almost has to resist the urge to join in with the pantomime and shout “He’s behind you!” And there begs the huge question – was it really so necessary to indulge Jon Pertwee in his final story by giving an entire episode to a heavily protracted car-chase?
But the greatest tragedy is that Pertwee deserved better, and had Roger Delgado lived, would have received better. The intention was always that the last serial of Season 11 would feature a story where the Master and the Doctor would face each other in a final conflict, appropriately called ‘The Final Game.’ The Master would appear to give up his life to save the Doctor, and Jon Pertwee would go out with a bow. When one considers John Simm’s performance in The End of Time and the story Steve Moffat told in the Sherlock episode The Final Game, one ends up feeling that Planet of the Spiders is a poor substitute for the story we could have enjoyed.
But as Delagdo’s untimely death meant we would never enjoy that story, can we still appreciate Planet of the Spiders? In some ways yes. If you disengage your credulity, ignore the excessive padding and the atrocious acting in places, there is plenty to enjoy. Lis Sladen is excellent as Sarah-Jane Smith, the redemption of Mike Yates’ character is very well handled, as is the sensitive handling of Tommy, a character who has a learning disability that is healed by the power of the blue crystal. In fact, the whole thing would be more enjoyable but for the fact it is not abundantly clear why the Doctor had to go back to Metebelis III, or what caused his regeneration inducing injuries – it’s just as dissatisfying as Colin Baker regenerating because the Rani shot down his TARDIS.
Of all the regeneration stories, I think Planet of the Spider deserves its mantle as the worst. It also is deservedly the worst Jon Pertwee story – although a pretender to that claim is not so vary far ahead …