Primal Fear: Facing Up To The Planet of the Spiders

Doctor Who has been many things in its time: adventure tale, mystery, comedy and tragedy. However, the series has also worked as a fable of sorts; a legend whose tales are grounded in the moral tradition of right vs wrong, good vs evil.

Season 11’s finale, Planet of the Spiders is a prime example of this approach, featuring major characters searching for peace of mind, clarity, and understanding of past mistakes in their lives – positive psychological journeys used in tandem with the negative element of fear.

In this Doctor Who adventure, fear plays a larger part than usual, to the extent that the plot employs a monster that has a long historical association with that most common of human phobias: spiders!

The planet Metebelis 3 had been introduced to viewers in the previous season, acting as elusive destination for the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo Grant (Katy Manning), while a crystal from the planet became part of the solution in The Green Death, the final story of the 1973 season. And so it was on Metebelis 3 that a crashed and failed Earth colony mission existed in a pseudo-medieval society, and in a mix of Who tradition and 1950s sci-fi schtick, these spiders were made into giants by the radiation emitted from the many blue crystals on the planet.

Am I scared of spiders? It’s hard to say. Certainly not all of them. The effect of these monsters is undeniable; they are the bearers of wide spread panic and terror in some for whom they are simply the stuff of nightmares. Regardless of how dated the realisation of them may be to our critical modern “CGI eyes” – the back-clinging Eight-Legs are a terror beyond the level of the toy troll that comes alive and the plastic squirting daffodils in Terror of the Autons earlier in Pertwee’s reign; their scare factor is tripled by the arachnophobia in all of us.

Planet of the Spiders is “the one with the giant spiders”… but there is more to it than that, even if the two key elements of Eastern mysticism and creatures clinging to their victims backs were the ones borrowed for 2008’s Turn Left. Permeating the story is a slightly hackneyed link to Eastern philosophy that seems almost non-essential to the plot until the moment of the Third Doctor’s death. Similarly the story of the colonists on Metebelis feels a little tired and there are few that would disagree that it is hardly a fitting end to one of the most recognisable and successful incarnations of the Doctor.

It is the lead up to the Doctor’s death that makes up for these shortfalls: the Time Lord is bathed in blue light from the cave of the Great One, having defeated her plan to conquer Earth, facing fear as well as The End as his cells are ravaged by the power of the crystals; barely able to move he makes his way ‘home’ – to UNIT HQ.

This journey – one that, according to some accounts (Paul Cornell’s 1992 book Love and War), took the Doctor ten years to complete – leads into one of the saddest deaths of any incarnation of the Doctor, a death that shows that, although our everyday fears can be defeated, sometimes it is not without cost.

Behind the scenes, Planet of the Spiders marked not only the end of Jon Pertwee’s five year run as the Doctor, but also the departure of producer, Barry Letts, and script editor, Terrance Dicks. Each of these three personalities had imposed their personalities on Doctor Who history, thereby making the story a milestone both in front of and behind the cameras. Described as a “Buddhist parable” in Howe, Stammers, and Walkers’ Doctor Who: The Seventies (1994), Barry Letts’ auteurship can be felt in all elements of the resulting production.

As with many Doctor Who scripts of that era, Planet of the Spiders is a replacement script for story planned to be called The Final Game, which would have culminated in a stand off between the Doctor and his arch enemy, the Master. Following the tragic death of actor Roger Delgado the year before, however, this idea was shelved leaving the way for Letts and Robert Sloman to collaborate on a script that Letts would ultimately direct.

To commemorate the years Pertwee played the role of the action man Third Doctor, with his love of cars and eccentric modes of transport, the actor was indulged with an episode-long chase scene. As well as the second and final appearance of the Whomobile, Planet of the Spiders also gave the Third Doctor one last opportunity to employ his Venusian Aikido skills, an element of the character as recognisable as the Second Doctor’s recorder or the Fourth Doctor’s long multi-coloured scarf.

Also memorable for coining the term regeneration, featuring a future Time Lord projection seven years before Logopolis (K’Anpo Rinpoche/Cho-Je) and completing a basic story arc, Planet of the Spiders has proved a key instalment that has clearly influenced the shape of Doctor Who.

(Adapted from an article originally published in 2009.)