Peoples impressions of Planet of the Spiders seem largely to be dominated by the chase scene in Episode Two, universally (and perhaps somewhat kindly) described as indulgent. So, I might as well start with that. Theres no two ways about it, the chase is truly absurd I mean, Bessie/mini-copter following Whomobile, then Whomobile following mini-copter, then *hovercraft* following *speedboat*? Its harmless enough, its true - even fun if youve had a drink or two beforehand. But its sheer goofiness *does* damage the obvious work the production team put into the quiet, rather ominous setup in Episode One.
However, if the story as a whole is undeniably uneven, theres still much to like about it. The setup, with its mysterious cult operating out of a country house in rural England, is the stuff of classic Pertwee Who. The Tibetan commune is by turns both appealing and eerie, with Luptons leading of the chants authentically hypnotic and rather frightening. When the action moves to Metebelis Three, it does look a bit cheap, its true, but the planets fakey blue skies have a lovely, very seventies fantasy quality to them. (The look of the planet reminds me a bit of a Boston album cover.) Some Doctor Who fans, even old ones, complain about the studio-bound limitation of the classic series, and yet Ive said before that, to me, the theatricality of these productions adds an enjoyable aesthetic that mere realism cant match.
And the planets Eight Legs-dominated culture is extremely well defined. A knowledge of Barry Lettss interest in Buddhism, and his use of it in the earthbound parts of this story, help us to understand his vision of the spiders as the antithesis of the Buddhists pure Eastern philosophy. The spiders are power-hungry, petty, and obsessed with social rank and by allying with them, Lupton shows himself to be not just a villain, but a bad *Buddhist* (which is probably worse, in Lettss book). The individual spider characters are memorable and distinctive quite a feat, considering theyre identical, expressionless puppets. Of course most of the credit for that must go to the actresses who provide their voices their vocal timbres are all similar enough to suggest the same species, and yet all three capture their different characters remarkably well.
The Two Legs, as many have pointed out, dont work as well, but theyre more functional than embarrassing. They serve mainly to illustrate the horror of the spider regime, and they actually do that quite effectively. One writer has said that the only thing that makes the Daleks scary is how frightened Doctor Whos *characters* are of them, and the same principle applies here when the villagers scramble in fear at the approach of the Queen, we believe in the spiders power, simple as that. Many U.K. fans, including The Discontinuity Guide, have also criticized the production team for its use of regional accents with these humans. I can understand this annoyance, but as an American, I hear *all* accents on Doctor Who as regional, so it didnt trouble me tremendously. I would even go so far as to say that it annoys me how British fans seem perfectly willing to overlook the English accents in French and Italian locations for City of Death, for example, while whining about West-Country ones here. (A much bigger problem is the UNIT haircuts - belief in the militariness of this organization has never been so suspended but thats another story.)
As for the other characters, Tommy is of course a bit of an embarrassment an Of Mice and Men cliché who doesnt really seem to fit all that well into this fictional world but to be fair John Kane plays him with good taste, for the most part. John Dearth sinks his teeth into the ambitious Lupton with much success, and he really sells the scenes with his spider, not an easy task for any actor. And the hapless Professor Clegg is used rather cruelly by the script, but he remains probably the most touching figure of the entire story. (Shades of Pigbin Josh.)
When we come to the good Buddhists, George Cormack is thoroughly charming as KAnpo and yet, the character doesnt quite work. Hes so obviously there just to set up the Doctors regeneration that he never quite engages with the story, or resonates as a full-blooded character of his own. A knowledge of Barry Lettss personal obsession with Buddhism doesnt necessarily help our appreciation of Cho-Je, who seems to be scripted entirely from fortune cookies, and Kevin Lindsays rather twee performance (speaking of accents, just what exactly is *that* supposed to be?) doesnt either. Furthermore, it seems odd that a Time Lord would use a projected regeneration for such banal purposes what does Cho-je actually *do* around the compound anyway? Answer the phone? Catch up on the paperwork?
Sarah and Yates, on the other hand, are rather well used in this story. I know that Mike Yates is one of the less popular Doctor Who companions, and yet I must say that Richard Franklins performance grew on me as I revisited these stories, and I actually quite liked him in this one (flares and all).
Finally, there is the matter of the Doctors regeneration, which is much praised by fans, but which actually seemed a little abrupt to me. To his credit, Jon Pertwee doesnt ham it up in the least, but his ultimate change seems a little rushed, especially coming on the heels of such much big adventure and exposition. But I suppose a fan could read this as a semi-conscious tribute to Third Doctor endings on the whole, which so often had the UNIT family suddenly having a nice laugh about it all. The Pertwee era always had a fundamental safety and innocence to it; in fact, Planet of the Spiders is in many ways representative of the age. Its overstuffed, slightly clunky, a little too loud, a little too long, but pretty watchable nevertheless. Jon Pertwee gets a gadgety chase, a staged fight, and yet somehow keeps his dignity anyway he is the Doctor. And while these things sometimes make his stories seem a bit shallow compared to others, theres much to be said for a pure fun approach to Doctor Who . . . and I suppose anyone who fell in love with the show as a child would admit that this not always such a bad thing.