Friday, June 15, 2012

Phantom Who: Planet of the Spiders

Welcome to Phantom Who, a new feature designed to go along with the Earth Station Who podcast, which I co-host. There I am known as “Dave” because “Phantom Troublemaker” takes up too much room on the stationary. Every other week there will be a new podcast discussing all things Doctor Who, with a central discussion about a particular story.
For the first year we are covering regeneration stories. Starting with An Unearthly Child and wrapping up the current regenerations with The Eleventh Hour, we’ll be covering the first and last stories of each of the first eleven Doctors.
The Doctor spent a good bit of time recovering from a forced regeneration at the hands of the Time Lords. He was exiled to Earth in his TARDIS, but wasn’t going anywhere because the dematerialization circuit had been removed. Those darn Time Lords and their penalties for renegadism.
While the Doctor was recovering in the hospital, then taking a shower, then stealing cloaks, jackets, hats, and cars; there was an invasion going on. Creepy plastic people were doing creepy things all over the world. Naturally the Doctor stopped them.
Once it was all said and done, he agreed to stay on with UNIT as Scientific Advisor and help Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuart defend the world from threats both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial. All the while, though, the renegade Time Lord kept working on repairing his TARDIS. Eventually he helped his fellow Gallifreyans out of a bind and they let him fix his craft. The very first thing he did was bop off to Metebelis 3 and swipe a certain blue crystal…

The story opens in some kind of weird retreat where former UNIT operative Mike Yates is investigating… well, weirdness. Our man Yates has been through an awful lot in the past several months. First he was kidnapped and brainwashed by a bunch of nutjob eco-terrorists, then he joined a movement to send Earth back in time to the age of the dinosaurs to start over again (as one does), then he redeemed himself but stayed apart from UNIT.
Now Yates is operating on his own.
He’s checking out this guy Lupton that looks like a used car salesman and his little group of buddies. Yates might not be affiliated with UNIT anymore, but he does still have a good friend who just so happens to be a reporter – Sarah Jane Smith. Ms. Smith arrives in time to accompany Yates down to the basement of the retreat and witness one of the most horrifying things I have ever seen in my life.
Lupton and his band of lackeys are all sitting in a circle performing what is quite frankly one of the most hilarious chants I have ever heard. With each verse the group intones, one of them bangs a gong. My copy of Planet of the Spiders is perhaps less than legitimate, so some of the audio was not only bad but slightly overpowering. What I am saying here is that the gong just about made my ears bleed.
So the group keeps on chanting, getting more intense as they go on, and eventually a giant spider starts to materialize in the middle of the circle. Instead of going, “Oh my gosh it’s a giant spider STOP CHANTING” , these lunatics just keep going while it fully appears, skitters around, jumps on Lupton, dissolves into his back, and then psychically tells him from within his own brain that he needs to start looking for some blue crystal.
This scene was one of the most upsetting things I have ever seen in my life that didn’t involve a brown alien hiding in a closet. I seriously considered turning Planet of the Spiders off at this point and opting out of this week’s Earth Station Who. But I knew there were people counting on me, so I soldiered on.
Yates and Sarah Jane are rightfully concerned about what they have just seen. They decide that Sarah Jane needs to go and fetch the Doctor while Yates stays behind to keep an eye on the insane spider cult.
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stuart are watching a psychic named Professor Clegg perform mid-level tricks. For some crazy reason they invite him back to UNIT headquarters where the Doctor informs Clegg that he knows the man is, in fact, a powerful psychic and that he is performing these simple tricks as a cover. Clegg admits to this and the Doctor rewards him by strapping him into a chair with the blue crystal from Metebelis 3, which shows him a bunch of giant spiders and gives him a heart attack. I don’t think the Doctor did it on purpose, but Doctor Three is pretty wily, so you never know.
Sarah Jane shows up after that and tells the Doctor her giant spider story and he’s all like, “Wow – we just killed this guy with visions of giant spi… um, I mean, we should go check it out!”
Lupton has shown up outside of UNIT headquarters – presumably with the guidance of the… okay, I just can’t sit here all night and think about the fact that a giant spider is residing inside of Lupton’s body and communicating with him psychically. So we’re just going to say Lupton has a Special Friend.
Lupton has shown up outside of UNIT headquarters – presumably with the guidance of his Special Friend. He brutally zaps all three of the guards UNIT has on base with Sith lightning – presumably courtesy of his Special Friend – and steals the blue crystal from Metebelis 3, which the Doctor and the Brig have just left laying around because why would you want to secure something that projects images of Special Friends and gives people heart attacks?
One of the victims of Lupton’s lightning (great band name) manages to raise the alarm and the Doctor and UNIT’s remaining forces take off in pursuit of the larcenous Lupton.
What follows is the greatest vehicular pursuit scene ever committed to film.
Lupton steals the Whomobile and the Doctor follows in a gyrocopter. From there - you know what? Just watch:

Magnificent. I mean, if it's still there and YouTube didn't yank it.
Despite the Doctor’s wide range of available vehicles Lupton manages to get away.
The Doctor and Sarah Jane go to the retreat to see how their buddy Yates is faring. He’s still hanging in there but has no further Special Friend activity to report. Speaking of friends, the Doctor and company make some new ones in the form of Cho Je and Tommy. Cho Je is a weird white dude who acts like he is Asian and speaks in proverbs. He’s second in command at the retreat and has nothing to do with the creepy spider cult, so he’s pretty much okay. Tommy is basically Lenny from Of Mice and Men, the famous movie with Gary Sinise. I think they adapted that into a book, too.
Lupton is upstairs taking a nap and leaves his blue crystal just laying around. Maybe that’s one of the mystical properties of the crystal – it inspires its owner to be careless with it. Tommy swipes the crystal and slowly becomes smarter. Lupton wakes up and is transported to Metebelis 3. Sarah Jane – who is often more adventurous than she is smart – hops undetected through the portal after Lupton.
For whatever reason Lupton is long gone when Sarah Jane arrives on the faraway planet, but she does meet up with a bunch of miserable locals. They’re miserable with good reason, though. The planet is ruled by spiders, which the locals call Eight Legs. It’s horrible and unthinkable and quite frankly I don’t know why the suicide rate on Metebelis 3 wouldn’t be through the roof. For some reason or other the human inhabitants hide Sarah Jane from their gross masters.
The Doctor shows up in the TARDIS and meets up with one of the human Metebelans, who explains how that planet got so gosh-darned awful. Way back in the day, a bunch of colonists from Earth crashed on Metebelis 3. These are the humans. Unfortunately, they had a crap exterminator and their craft had spiders. The blue crystals on Metebelis 3 caused the spiders to grow in both size and intellect, so they enslaved the humans and became rulers. I don’t know why the humans didn’t grow in size and intellect, but whatever. Maybe they did. Maybe the original colonists were moronic little people.
Side Note: No matter how much anybody offers to pay you, or how much fame they promise, or how much prestige seems to be involved; do not ever, ever, under any circumstances agree to be a colonist. Nothing good ever happens to Earth colonists. Not in movies, not on TV, not in books; certainly not on Doctor Who. Every single wretched, subjugated, primitive bunch of losers who are being used as doormats by some disgusting alien species used to be colonists from Earth. Don’t do it.
The Doctor hangs out with the Metebelans for a bit before the Eight Legs show up and he gets blasted for being dressed too nicely. This was actually a pretty good tease, as I’m sure viewers watching this for the first time might think this is the end of Mr. Pertwee’s run and the start of Mr. Baker’s. The human Metebelans are about to throw the Time Lord out with the trash when Sarah Jane runs outside and tells them he’s her friend. They drag the Doctor into one of their houses where he sleeps for a while so other plot stuff can happen.
Over on the Eight Legs’ side of Metebelis 3 Lupton is getting in over his head. It turns out his Special Friend is a bit of a rabble rouser and is plotting against the current Queen of the Eight Legs. Also, there is a mysterious Great One somewhere on the planet that all of the Eight Legs hold in pretty high regard. All of the Eight Legs want Lupton’s blue crystal and he does his best to hide the fact that he no longer has it, but he is a terrible liar. The Queen tells him had better go and find it or they’re going to do something to him that is even worse than having a giant Special Friend inhabiting his body. I can’t imagine.
Now that all of that is out of the way the Doctor can wake up again, which he does by way of sitting bolt upright and saying, “Wakey, wakey; eggs and bacey!”. This might be my favorite moment in Doctor Who ever. Unfortunately Sarah Jane managed to get herself captured while the Doctor was napping, so he sets off for Eight Leg City (or whatever) to rescue her. Naturally he is captured. The Eight Legs roll him up in what looks like a sleeping bag made of old man beard but is clearly supposed to be spider webs. They stick him in a cell with Sarah Jane and a guy who looks like he could have provided the beard. He wasn’t comical at all, but for some reason he reminded me of the crazy old man chained up in the dungeon from that movie I can’t remember right now.
The Doctor spends about five minutes fascinated by the cell and the sleeping bags before he gets bored and uses his sonic screwdriver to escape. I often wonder if the Doctor intentionally lets himself gets captured. Maybe he is a jail cell enthusiast.
Anyway, the Doctor escapes and as he leaves the cell turns around and looks at Sarah Jane like he just remembered she was there.
Oh, yeah… um, just sit tight. I’ll be back… sometime.”
It’s probably for the best that he left her in what basically amounts to the Eight Legs’ kitchen, as he is off to see the Great One. If you haven’t guessed, the Great One is a spider the size of a freaking house. The Doctor finds her deep within some caves that are just chock full of blue crystals. She tells him that she needs the one he stole and he points out that you couldn’t swing a dead cat on Metebelis 3 without hitting a whole bunch of blue crystals. The Great One gets all irritated and tells the Doctor that his blue crystal is THE Blue Crystal and it will give her super Eight Leg powers so she can conquer the universe or something. The Doctor has serious problems with people who want to conquer the universe and tells the massive arachnid no way.
The next scene manages to be extremely silly, very disturbing, and hugely effective all at the same time. The Great One uses her psychic powers to take control of the Doctor’s body and make him march in a circle while she laughs like a lunatic. It’s silly because Jon Pertwee might just chew a little bit of scenery and the Great One looks like the big, fake spider it is. It’s disturbing because we rarely see the Doctor lose any real control and certainly don’t see him entirely helpless in such a way (and also because it’s a giant spider doing it). It’s effective because it shows not only that the Doctor can be harmed in the worst way he can imagine, but also that maybe he has grown a bit too long in the tooth in this incarnation and isn’t quite as spry as he once was.
The Doctor is terribly upset by this and takes off, presumably to follow the Great One’s orders to fetch the Blue Crystal. He stops by Eight Leg City to pick up Sarah Jane and they take the first TARDIS back to Earth.
Once there, they meet up with Yates and Tommy and have Cho Je take them to the man in charge of the retreat place. It turns out he’s a Time Lord. In fact, he used to live on a hill behind the Doctor’s house and was something of a mentor and inspiration to him. He left Gallifrey under different circumstances than the Doctor and regenerated to live on Earth.
While all of this is going on, Tommy is outside guarding the door. Lupton’s goons show up – now each with a Special Friend – and demand that he let them in. Tommy is the bravest of the brave and won’t budge, so they blast him with Sith lightning. Tommy writhes in pain and…
Totally recovers! Lupton’s men rush him and he totally whoops them. I think he even chokeslammed one of them.
Back in the room, we see that Tommy gave the Blue Crystal to the Doctor’s mentor. As soon as this is revealed Sarah Jane goes all nuts and starts talking in a spider voice, demanding that they give her the Blue Crystal. Instead, the Doctor grabs the Crystal and uses it to release his companion from the Eight Leg Queen’s control.
By this time Lupton’s goons have overpowered Tommy and they burst into the room and blast Yates and the Doctor’s mentor. The Doctor uses the crystal to free them from the control of the Special Friends and they just sort of wander off.
Yates and Tommy both turn out to be okay. The Doctor’s mentor – who is visibly failing – says that Tommy survived due to his innocence and Yates’ compassion allowed him to live through the lightning blast. The mentor, on the other hand, has to regenerate. He explains that Cho Je is merely a projection of his own mind and then morphs into him. This bothered me because I liked the old guy and found Cho Je really irritating. Whatever.
The newly regenerated mentor helps the Doctor realize that his arrogance and thieving ways (which they describe as “thirst for knowledge” so as not to make him sound like too much of a jerk) caused all of these problems and that he must face his fear and return the Blue Crystal to the Great One.
The Doctor tells Sarah Jane and Yates goodbye and says he may not see them again, but that this is the only way. He gets in the TARDIS and returns to the caves of Metebelis 3.
Once inside, the Great One explains to the Doctor that the web she sits in is an extension of her own mind and that once he places the Blue Crystal in the center she will have infinite psychic power. The Doctor warns her against this, once again proving himself to be the ultimate humanitarian. He always gives the villains a chance to stop before it’s too late. But the Great One orders him to place the Blue Crystal in the web.
The Great One experiences a brief moment of universal awareness before the Blue Crystal overloads her psychic web, destroying her and killing the rest of the Eight Legs. The Doctor is hit by the resulting blast of radiation and barely manages to make it back to the TARDIS.
Back on Earth in UNIT headquarters, the Brigadier and Sarah Jane Smith are discussing the Doctor when a familiar wheezing sound fades in. The TARDIS appears in the corner of the laboratory and the Doctor stumbles out, clearly ailing.
I got lost in the Time Vortex… the TARDIS brought me home…”
And then the Time Lord fell to the floor. The Brigadier looks on as a weeping Sarah Jane cradles the Doctor’s head. She looks up at the Brig and says he is dead, but then Cho Je appears, floating above the floor. He tells them the Doctor is just mostly dead and that it is time for him to regenerate. The Brigadier says, “Not again,” which was hilarious and not just a little insensitive. And then, right before everybody’s eyes, the Doctor’s face morphed into a newer, younger visage.
-Despite all the time and effort they spent developing Mike Yates, this was his last appearance on Doctor Who until The Five Doctors. I like Yates a lot and would have been happy to get more of him.
-It occurred to me while writing about this story that out of all the Doctors, Doctor Three is the one that we have the best representation of how long he actually lasted story-wise. Since he did not have access to the TARDIS’ time/space travel functions it means there is significantly less possibility for adventures we have not witnessed. With any of the other Doctors there is almost no limit to the number of adventures that could take place between the televised stories. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor only had access to a functioning TARDIS for a short time and we witnessed most of that time period. I wonder how this has been worked with in the novels and comics and whatnot.
-This is the first time the process of Time Lord regeneration was explained. The Doctor’s mentor says that once a Time Lord’s body becomes too old or fragile they can generate a new one.
-Pertwee's death scene was fantastic - Elizabeth Sladen's performance was great and sold it in a way that no amount of acting from Pertwee could have.

Come back next time for Robot, which is the next story in the series and the first full story for Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor! I’ve seen it a couple of times before, but I’m excited to revisit it with a critic’s eye. Tom Baker is My Doctor, so it’s going to be interesting to see just how impartially I can judge what I remember being some pretty shoddy special effects at the end. 


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