For those familiar only with so-called NewWho the tendency to make regeneration stories a celebration of their respective Doctor’s era may be seen as a given, but for the classic run of the series this was not the case. Except once: Planet of the Spiders.
The Third Doctor has been around for five seasons, the optimum amount in my opinion, but now it’s time for him to go. This being the Third Doctor there was only one possible way to go out and that’s with a bang! For the first time the regeneration story needed to be a celebration of the Doctor that was leaving. As such writers Robert Sloman and Barry Letts saw fit to use it to look back over the previous five seasons and tie together various disparate plot threads left dangling. We’ve got shout-outs to Jo Grant, a brief return for the recently disgraced Mike Yates, the blue Metebelis Crystal, even the Doctor’s hermit mentor alluded to in The Time Monster makes an appearance in a major role and through him the Buddhist ideology of director/producer/co-writer Barry Letts manages to get a look in, fittingly so since The Jon Pertwee Years had strong environmental themes throughout.
That’s not to say that Planet of the Spiders gets too full of itself in delivering Jon Pertwee a fitting sendoff because for the most part this is still your typical Doctor Who story. If you want something to send kids behind the sofa then the sight of a huge spider attached to Sarah Jane Smith’s back (sorry Donna, she beat you to it!) will do it. It’s normal to be afraid of spiders and this story goes right for the jugular with that idea! The spiders, or the Eight Legs to use their name of choice, are a typical Pertwee monster of an ordinary thing turned monstrous by external forces, in this case radiation. They’re scary enough in principle, a load of giant spiders that have enslaved humanity with their psychic abilities, but the problem that affects them is the effects used to bring them to life.
These effects are horrendous! Seriously, they are some of the worst you can ever hope to see in anything ever made! We’re not quite on par with Invasion of the Dinosaurs nor are we looking at Warriors of the Deep here but we’re on the next step up. Worse is to come when the Doctor goes into the cave where their leader, The Great One, resides. The effects here are horrible too – you should be afraid for the Doctor going in there, and to Jon Pertwee’s eternal credit he is convincing in these scenes, but the effects will have you laughing rather than screaming!
Wait a moment, the Doctor’s afraid of spiders now? The man who has seen off Daleks and Drashigs and Daemons, Sontarans and Silurians and Sea Devils, the Master and mutants and maggots, the man who has seen entire worlds burn and universes end, is afraid of spiders? Okay then, I can accept that.
Jon Pertwee goes all-out in this story to impress us and show us what we’ll be missing. Planet of the Spiders really is like a Greatest Hits Album for the Third Doctor as he gets to show off his Venusian Aikido, he cements his status as the scientific know-it-all, has a long and exciting car chase in the Whomobile (which is even able to fly now, because Pertwee) and when the final scenes come and he regenerates he has shown us everything that defines his Doctor as the scientist, the adrenaline junky and above all else the hero, ensuring that we will miss him.
Planet of the Spiders even acknowledges this Doctor’s flaws, and that’s just as well since he has many. His arrogance is up there with Jeremy Clarkson’s and his greed for knowledge knows no bounds – it is ultimately a combination of these two that finish him off. We have a scene where his desire to investigate psychic powers sees a man die! Later on when Sarah tries to tell him about the giant spiders she’s just seen he refuses to believe her, at first. We even discover that the spiders are only invading Earth in the first place because of the Doctor’s earlier trip to Metebelis Three in The Green Death when he stole an important crystal. To show the Doctor in such an unflattering light, in his final story no less, is a brave move but when you have an actor as capable as Jon Pertwee and a producer as capable as Barry Letts then it works well.
Barry Letts’s fingerprints are all over this story as he lets his Buddhist worldview slip into it with all the subtlety of a thunderstorm on a sunny day. Such quotes as “the old man must die and the new man will discover, to his inexpressible joy, that he has never existed” show him as a capable enough writer to let his ideology shape a story without hurting it, in this case using the concept of reincarnation to foreshadow the regeneration to come. If Letts lets (Haha!) his worldview influence what he makes then so be it, I have no issue with him doing that, but there is no excuse for the yellow-facing of some of the actors; even though it’s the early 1970s and we should expect it that doesn’t make it okay. At least we’re not on par with the otherwise-flawless The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
And then there’s the regeneration itself. It has been criticised in some quarters for being too quick and too simple, and I get that complaint. The effect is yet another rubbish one consisting of just a quick swoosh over Jon Pertwee’s face as Tom Baker’s appears, but that misses the point. This isn’t about being flashy or gimmicky or cheap tricks, this is a short and sweet dignified farewell to the man who had saved Doctor Who when its popularity was languishing, and went on to make it bigger than ever. This is the Doctor choosing to call Earth his “home” and coming back to spend his final moments with the closest people he has to a family: Sarah and the Brig.
All three actors do some of their best work here. Liz Sladen’s Sarah and Nick Courtney’s Brig both sell the sorrow that comes with the Doctor’s death in different ways. Sladen goes all out with sadness and tears, while Courtney once again deploys his signature neutral face that he does so well, but we viewers, having got to know the Brig over the last five season, can tell that he’s upset at the death of his friend. Courtney isn’t allowed many top quality Brig moments in this story but when he’s present his performance is subtle, understated and one of his very best.
But the star is Jon Pertwee. With his face deathly pale and his voice quiet he, as per usual, acts everyone else off the screen. He doesn’t go for overwrought emotion or a big grand speech about his life or anything like that. Instead he just goes to his two closest friends in the world and tries his hardest to comfort them.
“A tear, Sarah Jane? No. Don’t cry. While there’s life there’s…”And then he goes completely quiet and totally still. This is one of those few times that the Doctor is dead before he regenerates. But then Jon Pertwee’s face swiftly vanishes to make room for Tom Baker. The switch-over is quick and fast, just like the outgoing Doctor always was. The viewer is left only with one thought: Who on Earth is Tom Baker? But I say that’s wrong. Who on Earth was Jon Pertwee, Who in N-Space is Tom Baker!
“Well then… here we go again!”When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.