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 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.)
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.)
Were it not for the intervention of Mike Yates, recently discharged from UNIT for his prehistoric peccadillo, the Doctor and Sarah Jane would have had no idea where to look when the recently returned crystal disappeared before their eyes at UNIT HQ. Yates had previously reached out to Sarah Jane in order to get word to UNIT about strange behavior at the lamasery, where he had gone in an attempt to understand himself and his suddenly unkempt hair. Sure enough, a hidden Sarah Jane saw a group of five people summon a spider upon a mandala depicting the Wheel of Becoming, the Buddhist cycle of birth, death, rebirth, and freedom from the repetition of the same.
When the leader of the meditators, the disgruntled former salesman Lupton, snuck into UNIT HQ while possessed by the summoned spider and mentally snatched the crystal, Sarah Jane was thus able to identify him as he ran off. Or, perhaps, one should say that he ran, drove, flew, swam, and boated off. If Jon Pertwee had asked for a going away present from the producers, they couldn’t have done better to indulge their leading man’s motormania than they did here, with a fully ten-minute long chase sequence involving the Whomobile (driving and flying), Bessie, a gyrocopter, a speedboat, and a hovercraft (land and water modes).
Upon tracking Lupton back to the lamasery, the Doctor and Sarah Jane follow him, separately, via mandalic teleportation and the TARDIS, to Metebelis 3, where they discover that a human colony ship crashed there centuries back (and centuries in the future relative to contemporary Earth). Spiders that had inadvertently stowed away on the spaceship gained mental powers from the crystals, enabling hundred of years of rule over the two-legs. (The story might have turned out rather differently had the sheep the colonists brought along as livestock been exposed instead…)
The enslaved human villagers attempt to assist Sarah and the Doctor, but they are both captured, though not before the Doctor discovers a means of repelling the electro-mental blasts that the eight-legs and their two-legged henchmen wield. At this point, the story adds a huge cast of characters, but Sloman does his best to keep the plot moving despite the sudden appearance of quarreling brothers, a grieving mother, and a sanguine village elder. Though “Planet of the Spiders” stretches to six episodes, it’s a mark of narrative confidence that Sloman doesn’t try to pack the story any fuller, and he wisely keeps the villagers as effectively stereotypes rather than trying to shoehorn in too much added character nuance.
Sarah Jane provides the rescue this time out, though at a cost. Because of dissent in the Council of the Eight-Legs, the Spider Queen must prove her worth against the power-hungry spider who brought Lupton to Metebelis 3. Far from being overwhelmed at the situation, as prior writers this season have cast her, Sarah Jane strikes an ill-conceived deal with the Spider Queen to retrieve the crystal (which was stolen from Lupton on Earth by a lamasery resident who suffered from mental disabilities until being exposed to the crystal’s power) in exchange for her and the Doctor’s freedom, as well as emancipation for the two-legs from their suffering under the eight-legs. But for the plan to work, Sarah Jane must allow the Spider Queen to bond with her.
In a neat bit of plotting, Sarah Jane is able to teleport the Doctor and herself out of the spider city to the TARDIS, much as Lupton was able to teleport from a speedboat to the lamasery during the big chase. The Doctor, recently shaken by an encounter with the Great One in her crystal lair, doesn’t ask any follow-up questions about this newfound power, and as a result, the audience is inclined to take Sarah Jane at her word when she indicates it’s a trick she learned from the Queen, little suspecting that it is done instead with the power of the Queen through her.
The ruse comes to light when Sarah Jane sees the abbot of the lamasery, K’anpo, holding the perfect crystal, leading the Spider Queen to speak through the companion and blast the Doctor with electro-mental power. The Buddhist monk, with the Doctor’s help, uses the crystal to free Sarah Jane from the Queen’s influence, killing the arachnoid monarch in the process. The crystal, it turns out, is not Sloman’s only borrowing from a prior story; K’anpo is a Time Lord himself, a regeneration of the mentor hermit the Doctor spoke fondly of in “The Time Monster,” and his subsequent regeneration after an attack by Lupton’s minions in the lamasery lays the groundwork for the incipient regeneration of the Doctor, as the process of death and rebirth of the Time Lords becomes explicit here for the first time in the series.
While the series has dabbled in Buddhist beliefs and themes before, most notably in “The Abominable Snowmen,” the linkage between Gallifreyan regeneration and the Buddhist concept of souls being reborn resonates clearly here, because the Doctor must confront his fear, leading to his death, in order to balance the karmic scales and progress to his next life. Though Buddhism can hardly be considered a monolithic belief system, general to the religion is a sense that actions in one life determine the nature of the next rebirth; gluttony as a human can see one reborn as a slovenly animal, or even as a “hungry ghost,” ravenous but with a pinprick for a mouth, and so forth.
K’anpo points out to the Doctor that he must face his fear—in this case the loss of control, as the Great One is able to mentally dominate him—in order to right the wrong caused by his greed, his incessant desire for knowledge—represented by having taken the perfect crystal from Metebelis 3 for curiosity’s sake. Only then, the implication goes, will he be able to transition through regeneration to a new self.
A more strictly Buddhist telling would suggest that the Doctor must find a way to stop the cycle of regenerations, much as a core tenant of Buddhist belief is to transcend the continual cycle of rebirth. Here, it’s sufficient for Sloman and the production team that the Doctor undergoes death and rebirth, without suggesting that the next “incarnation” is somehow better than the one that has come before.
To his very real credit, Jon Pertwee imbues the Doctor with an emotion his predecessors were scarcely ever called upon to display: fear. Oh, he still gurns and gives Venusian karate chops in his final story, but he also carries off an emotionally fraught scene with both dignity and sincerity. When the Great One forces him to turn around, the Doctor resists with all his might but is defeated. Seeing him return to the site of his ignominy gives the character more depth than a hundred victories could have.
In the event, returning the perfect crystal to the Great One allows her to complete her giant crystal web, but the Doctor, ever benevolent, notes that the device will destroy her via “positive feedback” rather than allow her to control the universe with her thoughts. The feedback kills the Great One as the Doctor warned, and leads to the destruction of the crystal cave and all the eight-legs as well—but though the Doctor escapes the blast, he suffers catastrophic cellular damage from the concentration of Metebelian crystals in her cave.
Read from a Buddhist standpoint (or at least the “pop” Buddhism of the ’70s that influenced the series), the Doctor entered the cave and surrendered his individuality, his connection to the Wheel of Becoming, by rejecting his fear, and as a result defeated the Great One. The symmetrical act of returning the crystal, of righting the wrong he himself had set into motion, itself proves sufficient to resolve the story, earning him a new rebirth with a clean karmic slate.
The TARDIS delivers him back to UNIT HQ after several weeks lost in the time vortex. Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen are allowed a nice moment together before his transformation; indeed, this is the first time a Doctor has a companion by his side during the process, the First Doctor undergoing it alone and the Second as punishment by the Time Lords. Nicholas Courtney shares the moment as well, though there’s no substantive interchange between them; his real role here is to remind the audience that he’s been through the bewilderment of the change before, having known the Second Doctor and then the Third.
And so the Doctor regenerates. K’anpo appears and blesses the process, giving it a “push” to speed it along while warning the Brigadier and Sarah Jane that he will have a different face and might behave a bit erratically, requiring some care and tending in the initial stages. Ever the comic relief, the Brigadier mutters, “Not again.”
Jon Pertwee’s face dissolves into Tom Baker’s face. The Doctor is dead; long live the Doctor.
(Previous Story: The Monster of Peladon)
Post 76 of the Doctor Who Project