Planet of the Spiders

I’ve seen two hugely climactic season finales this weekend, and enjoyed them both very much indeed. This one was much more of a mixed bag than the other, but it works incredibly well as a fitting end of an era. It was like the whole of Pertwee’s tenure was condensed into six episodes, with Dicks and Letts giving “their” Doctor one last hurrah before seeing him off and ultimately handing over the reins themselves.

Like most good stories this decade so far, it was firmly rooted with the now partially estranged UNIT family, with Benton and Brig the mum and dad holding everything together, while golden child Jo writes home about her travels and black sheep Mike thinks about what he’s done. There’s real links between the events of The Green Death, Invasion of the Dinosaurs and this, which makes everything seem all the more significant – when changes occur in these people’s lives, we see the consequences.

But as well as a little bit of UNIT, every other type of Pertwee story was also included: investigating a creepy supernatural cult; getting involved in a power struggle between colonists and alien natives; dealing with mind control, hypnosis and magic energy beams; repeatedly getting captured and escaping in order to fill a six-parter; and of course a massive multi-vehicle chase sequence across land, air and sea.

This was blatantly included purely for Pertwee’s benefit, and why not? It was part of a sense of fun spread throughout the early parts of the serial, such as the pissing about with the fake-not-fake clairvoyant, and the frequent back-references to the Third Doctor’s greatest hits. The scenes on Metebelis III are not quite on par with the rest of the episode – the two-legs aren’t interesting enough for us to care about them, and the spiders aren’t distinct enough from one another for their in-fighting to make much sense.

But the bits in the monastery were often superior, especially when they involved Tommy. What a lovely, compassionate character, even if some of the patronising attitudes towards him are so very 70s. Meanwhile, the redemption of Mike Yates was a good move – going back to see what happens next after a character’s story is seemingly concluded seems like a very New Who thing, and I totally buy him retreating to the countryside and becoming a bit of a hippy. It’s nice to think that he knows he’s done wrong, and that he’ll carry on investigating danger and having adventures in his spare time.

The redemption theme was very much in play towards the end, with The Doctor having to pay the ultimate price to atone for his greed. To be fair, I don’t think nicking a shiny crystal that a spider needs to take over the universe is quite punishable by regeneration, but the scenes in the final episode with K’anpo are so good that you don’t care if it’s all a bit OTT. Finally we meet a Time Lord who isn’t a complete shit. Is K’anpo the same guy as the hermit up the mountain, I wonder?

All of which leads up to a truly terrific regeneration scene, which manages to be both emotional and comedic, thanks to Sarah Jane and the Brigadier’s differing reactions to the situation. I feel like I’ve hardly mentioned Sarah Jane since she started, and that’s probably because she’s so good that it feels like excellence is par for the course. Just assume she’s kicking arse each and every episode.

So that’s it for the Third Doctor. I don’t feel the same sense of loss as I did when Troughton left, but that’s not to say that Pertwee wasn’t a magnificent Doctor. He was always charming and enthralling, but I think that after five seasons, a bit of change is probably for the best. He’s been a little out of sorts since losing Jo, and it seems harder for him to hit the same heights when he’s sparring against lesser evils than The Master.

Overall, Planet of the Spiders serves as the perfect swansong for this entire Pertwee/UNIT/Letts/Dicks era, while also promising much for the next phase. I know it’s all due to the hindsight of knowing how good the next Doctor is, but I couldn’t help but grin with anticipation at the sight of those curly locks…

RATING: 10

And as it’s the end of the season…

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 8.2

  • Seasons/Series watched: 11 of 35
  • Stories watched: 74 of 259
  • Individual episodes watched: 381 of 825

And unfortunately, despite how keen I am to see the hair and teeth in action, I’m going to temporarily pause it there. I’ve just had my longest uninterrupted run of exactly one episode a day for seventy straight days, but I’ve got so many work and social commitments coming up that I can’t keep up this pace without either falling behind on the blogs, or dying. It’s annoying, but at least I’m making it last longer.

So rather than squeezing an episode in here and there, this feels like a good place to take a small break until my schedule clears, which should be within a fortnight. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine by bookmarking or subscribing, so that you know when I’m back.

The Monster of Peladon

Ever since my extremely positive reaction to The Curse of Peladon, I was aware that the sequel is widely considered to be a poor relation of the original. In fact, while I was still watching it a few months ago, a friend asked “is that the good one or the shit one?” But when it comes to the more unpopular serials from the classic era, my opinion rarely seems to match that of the average fan, and this is no exception.

It was reminiscent of the twist in the middle of The Ark, with The Doctor returning to a civilisation that he’s saved, only to find that everything’s much worse than when he left it. I’m always a fan of that particular time travel trope, and with the reused sets and costumes, it felt like we were straight back into the thick of it, with very little messing around. The characters were very similar, but a generation on – the well-meaning but ineffectual monarch, with the bloodthirsty evil priest as their counsel.

Alpha Centauri was also a welcome returnee, although I found him slightly more annoying this time round – it’s partly the voice, but also his knack of getting himself into trouble too often, and then instantly blabbing about The Doctor’s plans. The majority of the guest cast were superb, though – I really took to Gebek, and Eckersley made a great villain, despite his slightly silly name. But the real stars of the show were obviously the Ice Warriors.

So effective was their use as peacemakers in Curse that I genuinely had no idea which side they’d be on when they turned up this time round. In the end, I’m glad they’ve defaulted to their evil ways – they’re proper vicious bullies here, the ruthless bastards we were promised way back in their first appearance. They completely change the story as soon as they turn up, causing the miners and the nobles to forget their differences and join forces against the common enemy. It’s the kind of impact from a mid-story arrival that you’d normally associate with the Daleks or The Master – I didn’t know the Ice Warriors had it in them.

On top of all that, it’s a story with a real heart, and plenty of touching moments during the various times that Sarah thought The Doctor was dead. The way things have panned out since the start of this season, I’m not completely on board with Three/Sarah Jane as a pairing – he’s often condescending and slightly mean to her, and it’s done without much real affection – but Elisabeth Sladen is still absolutely shining through regardless. I’m looking forward to seeing her team up with Mad Uncle Tom, which is only a week away.

I really am failing to see why anyone could be particularly opposed to this story. There were a handful of dodgy moments – like the climactic fight at the end of Part 4, between Ettis and some random bloke in a grey wig – but nothing major. But really, I was always going to be on board with a story that contains a huge pro-feminism speech in the middle, and a parable of 1970s miners’ strikes that sympathises almost entirely with the working masses, and shows the Tory analogues as relentlessly evil. This show is force for good, and so are the people behind the scenes.

Oh, and there was plenty of foreshadowing going on here too – Letts and Dicks are masters of the art. I’ve not seen Planet of the Spiders in full, but I have seen the regeneration scene, so the echoes of the Third Doctor’s last words were not lost on me. Here’s hoping it’s a great send off for a great Doctor.

RATING: 9

Death to the Daleks

Yes, Daleks again. It feels like they’ve only just been in it – obviously there’d have been a nearly a year between this and the last one for the audience at the time, but for me, that was the shortest gap I’ve had between two Dalek stories. I can’t say I was straining at the leash to see them again, but I was intrigued by the unusual title, and the fact that it was Terry Nation on writing duties once more.

And when The Doctor was exploring a petrified landscape, where nothing has grown for years, I thought, yep, that’s definitely Terry Nation. But to be fair, this story did try something new with the Daleks for the first time in years, with them being powerless and thus unable to kill. The uneasy truce with The Doctor and the humans gave us an interesting dynamic, and their improvised machine gun add-ons were pretty cool, as was the Dalek who committed suicide because he’d fucked everything up.

Unfortunately, you can kind of tell that the Daleks were tacked on to boost interest – as reliably excellent as they are, there’s no real need for them to be here, as this story has plenty of other things going on. I wouldn’t have minded if all the stuff with the Exxilons and the Parrinium and the magic city had sustained a four-parter by themselves. That said, the Daleks did improve all of the other elements – breaking up the attempted sacrifice wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun if it had been anyone else barging in.

The Exxilons themselves were pretty decent, if unspectacular, but I did like the chirpy little one who joined our heroes. The humans, on the other hand, were ill-defined and largely forgettable. Most of them were interchangeable other than the sneaky turncoaty one, whose actions were never truly bad enough to be that interesting – he made the traditional heroic sacrifice to redeem himself, but a written apology would probably have sufficed. And it was a shame that Rimmer’s Dad didn’t survive for very long, because he’s Rimmer’s Dad.

Tonally, the serial as a whole was all over the shop. Part One was dark, atmospheric and nerve-wracking. Sarah Jane goes through a genuinely traumatic experience, and Elisabeth Sladen plays it brilliantly. The foreboding grimness continues through the sacrifice scenes and tunnel escape, but at the same time you’ve got comedy oom-pah music whenever the Daleks are on screen, and it all culminates in The Doctor doing a load of silly logic puzzles.

Yes, it all goes a bit Tomby at the end, with the intelligence tests to gain access to the heart of the city. It’s entertaining enough, especially the Daleks not being able to solve the floor puzzle and electing to shoot the shit out of it instead, but it turns out that this was a complete waste of time. Another set of Daleks were simultaneously blowing up the beacon, which restored the power immediately. The Doctor would have been better served helping the humans to get their ship ready, and ultimately he destroyed a beautiful ancient city for no good reason whatsoever. Nice job.

Overall though, an entertaining if slightly inconsequential four episodes. This time, I am really looking forward to the Daleks coming back, because next time they’re bringing their dad along…

RATING: 8

Invasion of the Dinosaurs

You know how I’ll always champion the use of special effects in early Who, regardless of whether or not they quite work, because of the fabulous innovation and imagination on display? Well, it’s a lot harder to forgive the faults when the effects are so integral to the plot, and when they’re this woeful.

There were a handful of decent sequences, such as the T-Rex bursting out of the aircraft hangar, and… no, that’s the only example I can think of. The textures were too rubbery, the motion too restricted and the least said about the floppy pterodactyls the better. The fight between the T-Rex and the brontosaurus at the start of Part Six should have been brilliant, but was just too comical. I wasn’t sure if they were fighting or kissing.

All of which is a shame, because there’s a fantastic story at the heart of this. The dinosaurs are a complete red herring; the meat is in the unraveling mystery of who’s behind it and why. The plot is full of twists and turns, and you can kind of see most of them coming, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. Especially since one of them is truly shocking, in that it goes against character conventions in a brilliant way.

I’ve always thought Yates was a slimy little shit, so him turning double agent made perfect sense, especially given the duplicity he displayed in The Green Death. What’s shocking is that the Doctor has been completely and utterly betrayed by someone he should be able to trust. I’m not going to get into a debate about who counts as a companion and who doesn’t, but this is certainly the first time that a recurring goodie has turned out to be a baddie. Sure, The Brigadier’s done some dodgy shit in his time, but there’s no coming back from pulling a gun on your own men. The UNIT family now has a black sheep, and it can never be quite as cosy again. The show is beginning the process of leaving it behind.

Elsewhere, all the other traitors were great too, as were the rest of the guest cast. General Finch was clearly a bastard from the start, but I was genuinely fooled by Grover at one point. Also, that grey-bearded chap from the fake spaceship totally looks like Jeremy Corbyn. Typical BBC bias to portray him as a big old communist, aggressively brainwashing people to conform to his left-wing peace-loving ways. Never mind the Thatcher stuff in the 80s, it was incredibly prescient of them to satirise a Prime Minister 46 years in advance.

Another huge positive is Sarah Jane, who’s already showing exactly why she was the one companion from the classic era to be brought back all those years later. Ultimately though, this is a story that feels like it’s a couple of episodes too long. I was gripped and intrigued by the plot, but at the same time wishing it would develop just that little bit faster. I don’t always feel that way with six-parters, but I am glad that this is the last season where four-parters aren’t the norm.

Oh, and the Whomobile is rubbish. Bring back Bessie immediately.

RATING: 7

The Time Warrior

First of all, NEW TITLES! I very much approve, even if Jon Pertwee looks rather bored in his photo at the beginning. The effects look great, and I like the chunky, bold new font – it immediately feels much more recent than the previous style. I’ve never been mad keen on the diamond logo, and it’s replacing my all time favourite, but it does look much better than I imagined when coupled with the slit-scan effect.

This was very much a story of many firsts – a new title sequence, a new name for The Doctor’s home planet, and most importantly a new companion. It was an interesting variant on the usual introduction to have the newbie meet The Doctor and mistakenly identify him as the villain of the piece. Her coming round to his side was a way to establish her intelligence and ability to get to the bottom of a story. She’s not quite as loveable as Jo just yet, but it’s a strong start nonetheless, and you can see an instant chemistry between the lovely Lis Sladen and Pertwee.

The new villain was very decent too. I’m only really familiar with the Sontarans from the new series, and due to the shitness of their two-parter, I haven’t previously taken them seriously as a threat. This is a much better introduction; establishing the same core traits of their warlike ways and contempt for anything that can’t better their cause, but in a way that’s actually entertaining.

The flipside of this is that I love the comedic side of the Sontarans in New Who, and while Linx had his moments, he just reminded me of a less funny version of Strax. Not that that’s the fault of this serial of course, but it didn’t help that I found Irongron a bit too shouty to be an effective villain. He didn’t seem like a real person, which is sometimes fine in an alien or futuristic setting, but not in an Earth-bound historical.

And that was often a problem with the serial in general – we’re back in a real historical setting for the first time since the black and white days, but it feels like it’s been done in a really half-arsed way. The historicals of old were always nuanced and sympathetic in their portrayal of the olden days, whereas this was done in broad brush strokes, which made it hard to empathise with anyone. Sarah Jane was right – it was like being in a re-enactment rather than being in the past. Even Dot Cotton was putting on a posh voice.

All of the above left me feeling slightly disconnected from what I was watching, despite the obvious strengths of the main cast and Linx. Perhaps it would have been better if the subplot with Irongron’s attempts to expand his empire hadn’t been so prominent – I wanted more time-travelling Sontaran hijinks instead. As it is, a slightly disappointing start to the series, but that’s outweighed by the huge promise of the new companion. It was smart to end the last episode with The Doctor and Sarah Jane just stepping into the TARDIS – they’re such a natural pairing that it would seem a formality for him to officially invite her. She just belongs there.

RATING: 7