Doctor Who Project: Planet of the Spiders

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Never mind the dratted coffee. What about the spiders?

Though much of Doctor Who‘s eleventh season feels somewhat rote, ticking off the boxes and moving the plots along, never let it be said that the production team skimps on finales. For the Third Doctor’s final story, “Planet of the Spiders” (Story Production Code ZZZ), Robert Sloman, who scripted, in whole or in part, three prior season-ending stories (“The Daemons,” “The Time Monster,” and “The Green Death“) ably assumes the writing duties. While the Doctor’s co-stars here mostly take the form of dodgy arachnoid puppets (and their human puppets), Sloman nevertheless delivers another character-driven piece, focusing on meditation, the Doctor’s greed, and the, ah, transmigration of souls.

The Wheel of Becoming. And also spiders.

The titular arachnoids have conquered the titular planet via exposure to the mind-enhancing Metebelian crystals first introduced in Sloman’s last tale. Though tempting to suggest that the spider’s planet, Metebelis 3 (mentioned as far back as “Carnival of Monsters“), and the blue crystals found there were deliberately planted as plot seeds a year prior, more likely the crystal served as a convenient hook for the story on offer here. (Indeed, the implication that the Doctor was aware of the crystals’ ability to amplify intelligence and thus chose to give one to Jo Grant as a wedding present does not bear contemplation.)

The one last perfect crystal of power

By elaborate narrative happenstance, Jo sends the crystal back from the Amazon, where she and Professor Jones are mushroom hunting, to the Doctor at the very moment that the Metebelian spiders, far in the future, have found a gateway through time and space to contemporary Earth that has been opened by power-hungry novice meditators in a Tibetan lamasery recently opened near UNIT HQ. It’s just one of those coincidences. The Great One, eldest and most powerful of the eight-legs (as they prefer to be called), requires the perfect crystal to complete a powerful crystalline web-circuit that will give her the ability to shape the universe. In his confrontation with the Great One, the Doctor must confront fear, as well as the knowledge that he has brought all of this upon the universe—and upon himself.

(Fair warning: pictures of animatronic spiders, plus a non-animatronic hovercraft, after the break.)
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Doctor Who Project: The Monster of Peladon

Doctor Who Project: The Monster of Peladon
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Didn’t I tell you about my first visit to Peladon?

While monsters and villains have often made encore showings on Doctor Who, the series’ first return to a particular planet—well, one not named Earth or Skaro, at any rate—only comes in Brian Hayles’ “The Monster of Peladon” (Story Production Code YYY), reprising his “The Curse of Peladon” from Season Nine. Hayles took more than just a setting, though; he also carried over the essential plot of his earlier tale, right down to an alien scheme co-opting old Aggedor, the god-beast worshipped by the Peladonians, to acquire the feudal society’s minerals.

Behold, Aggedor!

The original story stands out mostly for Hayles’ ingenious decision to recast his fearsome Ice Warriors as upstanding, honor-bound members of the galactic Federation, causing much consternation on the part of the Third Doctor, who has all his frankly shoddy detective work undone by their sudden bout of pacifism. Here, the Martian menaces aren’t on hand to help vouch for the Doctor after he re-appears on Peladon some fifty years after his first visit. Luckily for the Doctor, who once again is accused of rank blasphemy for entering the Temple of Aggedor (using the same secret tunnels and doors from five decades prior), the lovable mono-eyed green hexapod Alpha Centauri does show up just in time to recognize his old friend.

Vega Nexos, Alpha Centauri, and Earth-y Eckersley

Along with Alpha Centauri (who hails from, um, Alpha Centauri) are the Earth engineer Eckersley and the Vegan mining specialist Vega Nexos, all overseeing the exploitation of Peladon’s precious trisilicate deposits; the mineral, used extensively in Federation technology, must be procured in great quantities to assist the Federation’s war effort against the fearsome foes of Galaxy Five (not to be confused with those from Galaxy Four). The constant, and deadly, reappearance of the “spirit” of Aggedor riles up the miners, who, no better treated now than fifty years prior, rebel against Federation influence.

Where before the young king of Peladon fought against the influence of his High Priest, who was being tricked by a Federation envoy into driving away the Federation—the better to allow the envoy’s own planet, Arcturus, to claim Peladon’s rock-bound riches—here, the young queen of Peladon fights against the influence of her Chancellor, who is being tricked by a Federation envoy into attacking the rebelling miners—the better to allow the envoy to traitorously sell the trisilicate to Galaxy Five.

But just to spice things up ever so slightly (and to fill out six long episodes), the traitor this time turns out to be…oh, you’ve probably already guessed.

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Doctor Who Project: Death to the Daleks

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Tell me, have you ever tried Venusian hopscotch?

This time, the Dalek story title wheel lands on an alliteration, but at a stretch, it’s possible that Terry Nation’s “Death to the Daleks” (Story Production Code XXX) actually could apply to the story itself, since the dozen or so Daleks in the story do perish at the end. Alas, as with most things Dalek in the early 1970s, the title, and the story, aim for the grandiose and provide the pedestrian.

Surprise, Daleks!

In keeping with one of Nation’s favored themes, a terrible plague threatens the outer colonies of almost all species. Only one planet, Exxilon, inhabited by a Stone Age civilization, possesses the cure in quantities sufficient to save the millions who suffer from the disease. Both the humans of the Marine Space Corps and the Daleks (of, um, the Daleks) want this miracle substance, parrinium, and would gladly fight each for it, if only their spaceships and energy weapons worked once they neared Exxilon.

For even the TARDIS succumbs to the energy-draining powers of the “forbidden city” of the Exxilons’ ancestors, who were old when the universe was young. Their city, imbued with a form of bio-technological sentience, was meant to be their crowning achievement, but in standard science fiction fashion, it realized they were an impediment to its efficient functioning and killed off most of them. The remnants worship the city, reduced to chanting and incense-heavy sacrificial ceremonies in its name.

The main course awaits her fate

Terry Nation must hold some grudge against the TARDIS, as for the second story of his in a row, the TARDIS runs out of a vital component (here energy, previously oxygen) and remains useless to the Doctor. Even in “The Daleks” back in 1963, he sees fit to render the blue box hors de combat, with the Doctor pocketing the fluid link to force everyone to investigate Skaro to find a replacement. The notion of the inviolable TARDIS never quite took with Nation, it seems, and he uses whatever plot device he can to get the Doctor out of its safe confines. At least the Doctor has an oil lamp handy with which to guide his way out of the blacked-out TARDIS, as one does…

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Doctor Who Project: Invasion of the Dinosaurs

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Planet? Spaceship? What are you talking about?

Doctor Who has never been accused of subtlety, but Malcolm Hulke’s “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (Story Production Code WWW) manages the closest thing: misdirection. From all the evidence on display, one expects the six episode story to be what it says on the tin, a tale of dinosaurs rampaging across London. Taking a page from Robert Sloman’s book, though, Hulke brings us an extended diatribe on pollution, zealotry, and nostalgia. Plus, yes, dinosaurs. So many dinosaurs.

An empty city

At the start of the story, the scenes of deserted London streets summon some of the series’ most striking visual moments to date: Daleks crossing the Thames with Big Ben in the background, Cybermen marching in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral, and Autons smashing forth from a high street window. Here, director Paddy Russell paints an eerie, desolate setting with a few deft strokes. But then, she has to add the prehistoric stars to the mix.

UNIT vs the dinosaurs

For a variety of reasons, the dinosaurs never actually appear threatening. In part, the combination of puppetry and green screen/CSO effects, though executed with great audacity, doesn’t work to great effect. Soldiers fire their weapons away from the beasties superimposed behind them, and the puppets jerk back and forth, particularly the Tyrannosaurs Rex model. Even when the seams aren’t showing, the Doctor insists to all who listen that they are (mostly) pea-brained vegetarians anyway and not to be feared. By the final episode, where the Doctor and the Brigadier drive a jeep under a Brontosaurus, the effects begin to come together, but at that point, the saurians have been relegated to plot nuisances.

Rare amongst Doctor Who stories, the true villains in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” take up most of the character list, such that everyone seems in on the conspiracy: a Minister of Parliament, a British Army general, a mad scientist, and…Captain Mike Yates?
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Doctor Who Project: The Time Warrior

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I’ve never heard so much gobbledygook in my life, but I suspect you know what you’re talking about.

To usher in Season Eleven of Doctor Who, series regular Robert Holmes introduces another of his larger-than-life characters, in this case Linx, the titular character from “The Time Warrior” (Series Production Code UUU). But the title proves rather incongruous, for though Commander Linx, the squat Sontaran commander, has managed to transport scientists from the twentieth century back to medieval times, he does so for no reason other than to repair his damaged spaceship, so that he can return to the eternal war between the Sontarans and the Rutans.

Meet Commander Linx

However, this time-shifting ability of the Sontarans serves merely as an excuse for the show to play historical dress-up once more, with everyone getting in on the medieval act, from Jon Pertwee clomping around in a suit of armor to new companion Elisabeth Sladen showing off both a Maid Marian outfit and a Robin Hood outfit. Assuming one discounts the jaunt to ancient Atlantis in “The Time Monster” and the limited 1920s ship scenes in “Carnival of Monsters,” “The Time Warrior” marks the first visit to an historical Earth setting since the Second Doctor’s swan song in “The War Games” some four years prior—and even that wasn’t really on Earth.

Guess who!

It’s a comfortable setting for the series, despite the long absence of pseudo-historical stories from the screen, and it shows. The BBC knows how to costume for that time period like no other production team, and they can dress a castle set with far more believable detail than they can, it must be said, outfit a spaceship. Too, there’s more than a bit of the feeling from “The Time Meddler” about this story, with an interloper from beyond the stars interfering with the natural progression of human history through the introduction of modern weaponry. It just feels like home.

But where the Meddling Monk wanted to alter history for his own, somewhat fuzzily rationalized ends, Commander Linx simply wants to get home, so he can get back to all the killing. And if he needs to arm a local bandit from the Middle Ages with long rifles and a killer robot, well, so be it…
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Doctor Who Project: The Green Death

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In a funny way, he reminds me of a sort of younger you.

Sometimes in Doctor Who, the monsters and their villanous plans represent the main event, no matter how assiduously the actors pursue their craft. In Robert Sloman’s “The Green Death” (Story Production Code TTT), the malevolent miscreants (giant maggots and a crazed computer, in this case) and their associated hijinks are very much put to shame by the power of the actual story, that of the Doctor realizing he is losing a companion, and the strength with which Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning carry off the six episode farewell.

In happier times

And it’s just as well the Doctor’s impending heartbreak sustains “The Green Death,” since the ostensible story itself makes no sense at all. In quick summation: a corporation secretly run by a megalomaniacal, self-aware computer has discovered a process to extract more gasoline from petroleum, but the byproduct, which is being pumped into an abandoned Welsh coal mine, causes ordinary maggots to turn into giant versions whose bite causes all human cells to decay (and turn a bioluminescent green), to say nothing of the giant flying creatures into which they eventually metamorphose.

Maggots of the giant variety

Yet the maggots, it turns out, have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the computer’s plan; they’re simply an unforeseen side-effect of a refining process so powerful (and profitable) that the U.K. Prime Minister orders UNIT to help the corporation, Global Chemicals, hide evidence of the creepy-crawlies by destroying the mine entrances. Perhaps years of Yeti and other invasions have made giant insect infestations sufficiently run-of-the-mill that no one notices or much cares anymore.

Time for Top of the Pops?

The crazed computer’s real goal is to turn all humans on the planet into efficient robotized creatures using a form of mind control inflicted via souped-up stereo headphones, a revelation that comes pretty much out of nowhere after several episodes being devoted almost entirely to the mine and its unwelcome inhabitants. It’s another story altogether shoehorned into what could have been a strong, tightly-focused commentary on the lengths humanity is willing to go for cheap, abundant energy—throw another gallon in the tank, and never mind the maggots.

Luckily, we get to see Jo fall in love over several episodes, and in truth, that makes all the parlous plotting and half-baked stories worthwhile.

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