Thursday, 13 June 2013

Doctor Who - The Regeneration Boxset: Planet of the Spiders review

Serial ZZZ, otherwise known as the regeneration story that wasn’t supposed to happen at all. The finale to Season Eleven was originally going to write out Roger Delgado, not Jon Pertwee. Potted history: Delgado died in a car crash, Katy Manning had left to pursue other career opportunities, and Jon Pertwee, missing both his colleagues, decided to leave as well (it helped that the BBC turned down his suggestion of a sizable salary increase). The story's context was about change on every level; both Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were leaving their posts as well, the new production team wouldn’t keep the UNIT-scientific-advisor paraphernalia for long, and the on-going storylines of the last five years were largely brought to a close here (with the important exception of Sarah Jane, but that’s another story).

Thanks to the BBC Website for this image:

Everyone knows the basic outlines of the story (and you can always look on the Doctor Who Reference Guide if you don't); Mike Yates and Sarah Jane investigate a monastery where the acolytes really are in touch with worlds beyond, while Jo mails the Doctor back the blue crystal that was her wedding present in "The Green Death," which is being sought after by giant spiders from Metebelis Three, the place where the Doctor originally got the crystal. Our plot Macguffin turns out to be capable of focusing thought so powerfully that the huge evil spiders who seek it would be able to use it to take over the universe, blah blah blah...if only they can find it. Along the way we have the fanciest vehicle chase in the Pertwee era (as a special treat for the star for five year's good work), villains plotting to misuse Buddhist time travel for their own ends, and a revolution that the Doctor has to kickstart against the evil spiders if he's going to save Sarah and escape Metebelis Three...and that's before we even get to the crux of the story; the huge spider Great One will stop at nothing to achieve ultimate power via that crystal. The Doctor has to give it to her.

So of course, we start this final ode to an era with Mike Yates looking at some cows. Perhaps there so we can have one last fond look at Darkest Mummerset. Barry Letts then wrenches us into as different a situation as possible, with the Doctor and Brigadier staring listlessly at the entertainers of a working man’s club well behind the times. Meantime he's directing it so tamely that we don’t even see any of it on screen (leaving us to wonder what on earth a belly dancer could have been doing that the Brigadier thinks should be adapted for military manoeuvres). There’s no story reason why we couldn’t have just started with Clegg’s entrance into the lab...which is where we go into the toe-curling Brighton seaside anecdote with the Brigadier's watch that sounds like the start of a blue joke. Miniskirts we’ve seen, gooey-eyed puppy love for Jo, yes, but now we’ve crossed the border from kitsch to something both more plausible and more embarrassing. Lethbridge-Stewart has been getting more and more silly as of late (to be honest, Benton has better lines here than his superior officer, barring the adlibbed addition at the end), so it’s a bit of a jolt in tone. Still, Nicholas Courtney does his best to keep our sympathies with his character, and this is the story when we’re finally told our crusty Brigadier’s first name.

There is a sense of inevitable change in the air. There’s plenty of discourse in fandom about the “cosy UNIT family” (and you’d think that with the Master around, someone would have added the word “nuclear” at some point), but the very fact of the regeneration rather overshadows the fact that we’ve already come to the practical end of this era and the stories that can be told in this register. Watch the two Pertwee opening sequences back-to-back; we’ve gone from 60s psychedelic to 70s camp (and yet the same sequence suddenly makes perfect sense when you have Tom Baker’s face instead of a full-body pan over animated Pertwee). For all that people consider Sarah Jane the best companion ever, if Elizabeth Sladen had left at the end of Season Eleven she’d have been regarded as the other bookend to the much more exciting Jo.

Which would have been a pity; her on-and-off approach of going out and doing her own thing for most of the story is a much better expression of feminism than some of the women’s rights dialogue she was saddled with earlier this season (even “The Ambassadors of Death” didn’t start with Liz Shaw starting off after the aliens herself; Davies liked this setup so much he got the frission down pat in “Partners in Crime”). Too bad it’s undermined by the spider possession business, but even the Doctor falls victim to that and she’s the only character who shakes off the spider of her own accord.

And there’s Yates, of course. The events of “The Green Death” seem to have left him with the need for something to believe in some positive good rather than militaresque defense for defense's sake, as per his last appearance, and yet he feels impelled to question the first real alternative he investigates. It’s a truism that Barry Letts put Buddhist tropes on the show, and oversaw the one period of the programme that featured a strong military presence (not his idea, but that of the outgoing producers), but the sheer oddness of that combination isn’t often considered. Mike’s characterisation did a lot of the work in demonstrating this storytelling shift the last two years, so it’s only sensible that this is his final appearance as well. Given Cho-Je's theory about his compassion, it seems fairly clear that he's not going back to UNIT whatever else happens...

There should be more to say on Tommy than there is, considering that he gets a subplot and a cliffhanger to himself, but the name tells you all you need to know. His subplot is borrowed wholesale from the Who rock opera by the same name (and lest you think that the Production Team might have possibly overlooked it, Jon Pertwee had performed in the 1973 stage version. As the Doctor, of course.). Tommy’s trajectory has to be toned down to suit a family show and made less cynical and more hopeful, and there’s a nasty undertone about what the definition of “normal” and mental health constitute. Still, the moment when Sarah has it in her power to end the story right in Episode Three and doesn’t because she isn’t paying attention to the plot token Tommy is waving in her face – and never ever recognises what she’s done – is well handled and not belaboured. (It’s also amusing to ponder what difference there is between Jo and Tommy if he had the crystal for about a day and she for months on end, as to why she isn’t a genius, but perhaps that would explain the self-assured globe-trotter who pops up in the Sarah Jane Adventures).

Robert Sloman, aware of Barry Letts’ liking for Eastern mysticism and Buddhism in particular, attempted to pen a story that would handle some of these concepts. In practice this translated into plundering vocabulary and concepts from Buddhism so that people talk about regeneration literally and use meditation for time travel. Which isn’t hugely different from how Doctor Who uses other religions and ideologies (pagans in “The Daemons,” Christianity in lots of Hartnell historicals), but it is ironic that the story text proper tells us that using religion just for the ends it will net you may be hazardous to your health. Luton and all his compatriots die precisely from having misused the mandala and chant for their own ends, as the horrified Cho-Je points out (thought experiment: a version of Luton played by Delgado would have done much to justify the episode two chase and made more sense of his large amount of screen time. Keep this in mind next time you watch it.). This also serves as a convenient get-out for K’anpo’s apparent indifference to his abbey guests using his teachings for their own ends; it’s a neatly moral universe where evil brings destruction upon itself, but what usually goes in Doctor Who as an unstated trope becomes literalised here for both humans and spiders. Barry Letts had helped Sloman write the story, but also wanted to cast all his favourite actors; as should be obvious, neither Kevin Lindsay or George Cormack were remotely Tibetan. Even considering that they’re playing a Time Lord, this could have been thought through a little’s worth remembering that the race-fail in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” didn’t take place in a vacuum.

Final note; it’s interesting that in a story where the Doctor is kinda-sorta responsible for getting a man killed, runs over another in a vehicle chase, beats up lots of people in best approved Terry Walsh fashion, and essentially abandons a trapped prisoner to his fate, the reasons for his regeneration are given as the result of his “lust for knowledge” and “need to face his fear”. Between doing naughty things, feeling guilty about doing naughty things, and engaging in the Pertwee Death Pose the Doctor doesn't have much time to calm down and actually do his normal exploration and inquiry this story; the story would be perfectly functional without any people on Metebelis Three at all, just a lot shorter, and the societal development and revolution is even more cursory than in most Third Doctor stories. And yet while you’re watching, the emotional logic is plausible enough that you don’t ask why the Doctor doesn’t just chuck the crystal at the Great One and make a run for it. This is Pertwee’s time to go, and the final UNIT scene is judged quite beautifully. "Planet of the Spiders" works beautifully on this boxset of regeneration stories just on its own terms, but it's even better and more poignant in the context of the time when it was made. One to be savoured, preferably over the course of six Saturday night teatimes if you can...

The Regeneration Boxset is due for release 24th June 2013, and is available to order from the BBC shop now.


Kelly Hoyt said...

So is it all the doctors in one show

Kevin Fisher said...

This was a good end for Pertwee's Doctor. He tried to run from his fate but had to face it. "I needed to face my fear...better than to just go on living." Far better than Tennant's temper tantrum, screaming and yelling at Wilf and simpering "I don't want to go!" RTD apparently forgot the lesson of Planet of the Spiders.