“Not Just a Journalist But a Woman Journalist!” [Review: Planet of the Spiders]

Crossposted from Doctor Her

“Planet of the Spiders” (1974)
Season 11: Production Code ZZZ

Written by: Robert Sloman & (uncredited) Barry Letts
Directed by: Barry Letts
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks

THE DOCTOR: Jon Pertwee & (uncredited) Tom Baker
SARAH JANE SMITH: Elisabeth Sladen
SGT. BENTON: John Levene
MIKE YATES: Richard Franklin
LUPTON: John Dearth

I once tried to convince Raeli to cosplay this outfit for a party - she had the stripy top but refused to add the spider!

I didn’t mean to rewatch Planet of the Spiders this weekend, but when your seven-year-old daughter voluntarily suggests a touch of Jon Pertwee, you don’t turn her down!

This final story of the Third Doctor’s run is one of my absolute favourites, and has been since… wow. Probably since I was about the age my daughter Raeli is now. It’s a complete love letter to Jon Pertwee and the UNIT Years, with callbacks to previous stories. We even get a letter and a parcel from Jo Grant, a year after she left the show – a very rare example of a companion getting a chance to ‘call in’ after making her farewell, even if we don’t hear Katy Manning’s actual voice. We also get some cute character moments from each of the UNIT regulars, including Benton being adorably domestic, and the Brigadier unexpectedly (against his will!) revealing a snippet of his romantic history with a young lady called Doris.

I’ve been surprised in recent years to hear quite scathing criticisms of this story, especially the indulgent but completely awesome many-vehicles chase sequence, and the not-so-great acting among the Metebelis Three colonists. None of which bothers me at all, because I was raised with an Ignoring the Bad Bits lens through which to view classic Doctor Who stories. If you don’t have one, bet you wish you did. I try never to use this power for evil.

Well, no. There’s an unquestionably legitimate criticism of this story, that the Tibetan characters are played by white actors, and it’s not one I’ve seen mentioned much, which is interesting considering that Talons of Weng Chiang has copped a lot more – perfectly appropriate – flak for the same issue. Maybe I just missed the discussion – or maybe the issue is raised more commonly with Weng-Chiang because it’s considered one of the best evah stories, while Planet of the Spiders has fewer fans who love it enough to get all cranky and defensive. I’m just going to put it out there that it’s very problematic that this happens throughout the history of Doctor Who, and probably worth looking at more deeply. I’ve been fascinated by some of the interviews with Waris Hussain (the first director to work on Doctor Who, who made Marco Polo as well as An Unearthly Child) coming out of Gallifrey One and in the recent DWM, and does discuss the issue, which was a common aspect of TV casting in the 60’s and 70’s.

So yeah, it’s important to acknowledge that when you love old TV shows or movies, there are times when they will make you wince, or feel sad, or embarrassed for the human race. They’re time capsules, and not everything they reveal to us is hilarious and adorable. But if you’re going to nitpick about the bad acting and the chase scenes, I will totally go LALALALALA DID YOU SEE SARAH JANE’S AWESOME JACKET LALALALA. Because I really, really love this story. Even Gareth Hunt’s moustache.

First time I rewatched this as an adult, the revelation that Gambit from the New Avengers was Arak and his moustache BLEW MY MIND.

Who am I kidding? Especially Gareth Hunt’s moustache.

From a feminist standpoint, there’s a lot to talk about in Planet of the Spiders. It’s one of my favourite Sarah Jane Smith stories, because like The Time Warrior and Robot, it shows her actually getting on with her job as a journalist, and balancing that with her role as the Doctor’s friend.

I say friend rather than companion because while she has flitted to a few alien planets with the Doctor, and engaged in a bit of UNIT action there on Earth, Sarah still very much has her feet on the ground, and a life of her own. She’s not employed by UNIT, and as we see later in Robot, is not above using her connection with them to suit her own needs, rather than always being part of the Doctor’s story. This will change, but it hasn’t yet.

Indeed, we don’t see Sarah and the Doctor interact for the whole first episode. Her adventure is with disgraced former UNIT lieutenant Mike Yates, and if you read this as her being the sidekick to his male action hero, then Sarah Jane would laugh at you. Mike has invited her along to help him investigate a mystery at a monastic retreat in the hopes that she’ll be his unofficial line to UNIT, and maybe he does see her as his sidekick, but he’d never admit that out loud. Sarah takes on the adventure as her own with great gusto, and isn’t above reporting on it for her newspaper at the same time.

Mike is lucky to be allowed to stick around as her sidekick. When he reveals his plan for them to drive away and travel back sneakily on foot, Sarah is either genuinely admiring that he’s capable of such a sophisticated plan after years working for UNIT, or is making fun of him when she shakes her head and says: “The fiendish cunning of the man.”

Possibly both.

It looks very much like a typical old school male-centric Doctor Who story at first, with Sarah as the only active female character among a sea of monks, stressed former businessmen and UNIT soldiers, not to mention the Doctor himself, but then the spiders turn up.

Passing the Bechdel Test? Only the arachnids.

There is no way this story would pass the Bechdel Test without the spiders. Come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure it DOES pass the Bechdel Test, as I forgot to check, and thinking back, there are very few scenes with the spiders talking to each other that don’t also include Lupton, or the Doctor, as subjects or participants. Certainly the two human women in the colonist’s village are all about the menfolk.

But the spiders steal the show. The voice acting is very effective (I’m annoyed that I can’t find anywhere which actress played which spider, especially as one of them was Kismet Delgado, widow of the recently departed Roger Delgado, the original Master), and I’m personally invested in the props as characters, too. Sure, they mostly sit there and twitch, but they do it with style and witty banter. The entire plot revolves around a matriarchal dictatorship that doesn’t feature glamorous babes in sexy outfits, which is a pretty rare thing in science fiction on screen.

Curiosity sent the journalist to Metebelis Three.

Sure, Sarah Jane gets possessed, as happens quite often in her run – but by a female character, and not just any female character, but the Queen of the Spiders. Also, Sarah falling victim to this trick is balanced out by the fact that we see huge numbers of male characters possessed by, enslaved by or forced to work for the spiders: basically everyone in the monastery except the Abbott, and all the named male characters on Metebelis Three. Even Lupton and his spider, who think they are all that, cannot outplay the Queen.

I can’t help thinking how awesome it is that Planet of the Spiders is mostly about female characters successfully manipulate men, without any reference to sex or the female body. Because they’re spiders. This is one of those fantastic things that science fiction CAN do that almost no other genre can, but it hardly ever comes to the feminist party.

It’s rare for a six parter in Doctor Who to actually fill that length of a story without feeling like a four parter and two parter mashed together, but this one works by offering up many twists and turns, and some of the best Pertwee era cliffhangers, the most surprising of which is when Sarah ends up accidentally transported to the alien planet, and the Doctor has to go after her. This leads to one of the many fan-pleasing moments of the show, in which Yates actually calls the Doctor on how unlikely it is that, even if he reaches the planet he’s aiming for in the TARDIS, that he can find Sarah easily. Because, you know. Planets are big. It’s a rare acknowledgement of that element of the show that always seemed like it was hand wavy and lazy (that is, that the Doctor always coincidentally lands on the one spot on the planet where interesting things are happening) all the way up to Neil Gaiman’s recent story “The Doctor’s Wife,” which makes explicit something often hinted at in the show’s history.

In this case, the Doctor does admit that he leaves the landing up to the TARDIS – she knows what she’s doing.

“You speak about her almost as if she’s alive.”
“Yes, I do, don’t I?”

"What do you mean, you have the cutest outfits? My ruffled shirt matches my flying car!"

This story is an action extravaganza for Jon Pertwee – as is evident from the aforementioned chase scene in episode two, in which he pursues Lupton and the stolen crystal relentlessly, using both of the Doctor’s cars (Bessie and the silver Whomobile) as well as a gyrocopter, speed boat and hovercraft. It’s a pretty swish sequence for its time, even if the seams show occasionally in the Chroma Key, and it’s clear that Pertwee is loving the hell out of the whole shebang.

Later, on Metebelis Three, the Doctor gets to play with all his action fake Venusian karate moves too, and even start a rebellion against the spiders using nothing but a handful of pebbles. But the story isn’t just about his adventuring spirit. Indeed, the male heroic tradition is undercut at least twice when his attempts to rescue Sarah results in immediate disaster, and he spends a good chunk of the story apparently dead or comatose. This gives Sarah a chance to work through a more substantial emotional reaction to what was to happen for real, later on. It’s also kind of nice that they’re letting the Doctor have flaws, rather than building him up in this final story as some kind of paragon. After all, the culmination of the story is, in fact, that he has been pushing his luck.

"Remind me, whose turn is it to do the rescuing?"

I particularly like the bit where Sarah is wrapped in a web by the spiders, having to put up with her gloomy fellow prisoner, and is delighted to see the Doctor (of course!) arrive to rescue her – only to have him reveal with mild embarrassment that, in fact, he’s under arrest too. Her eye-rolling response is classic!

For all the vim and vigour of his final story, I think my favourite Third Doctor scenes are the quiet ones: himself wrapped in the spider cocoon in prison, trying to remember the name of Harry Houdini so he can successfully namedrop, and especially the scene in which he talks wistfully about his old teacher and childhood home, an anecdote which seems to be yet another in-character casual reference to all that gorgeous backstory, but turns out to be hugely relevant to the plot and the final reveal.

Meanwhile, Elisabeth Sladen is also showcasing how great her character is, starting out with Sarah Jane’s entertaining Secret Seven Go Spying double act with Mike Yates, her impatience at the Doctor never listening to her properly, her FABULOUS outfits (seriously, cosplayers, so many beautiful clothes in this one story), and her ability to convey genuine fear one minute, snarky humour the next, and then a touch of evil just for the sake of it. She actually shoots the Doctor with her hand!

Of all Sarah Janes’s great moments in the episode, though, my favourite is when is dragged off from the prison to see the spiders. The Doctor asks if she can delay them (!) and she says with great oomph: “Don’t worry, I’ll give them all indigestion!”

"I can keep it, right? Spoils of Doctoring."

Planet of the Spiders is a fun ride, and a great example of this particular era of Doctor Who, from the writer who also brought us the classic UNIT family stories The Daemons and The Green Death. Jon Pertwee’s dashing Doctor knowingly goes to his fate at the hands of the Great One, the biggest and baddest lady spider of them all, and is genuinely cowed by her. Considering that he is such a patriarchal figure, possibly more so than any of the other Doctors apart from Hartnell, it’s kind of interesting to see that his death is not only due to his pride and arrogance (and for taking something he shouldn’t have from an alien planet) but at the hands of a female monster. Sure, he takes her with him by using her own arrogance against her, but it’s still quite an event!

Is that fear I see in your eyes, Doctor? You are not accustomed to feeling frightened, are you?

The final regeneration (first time the word is used and the concept is properly explained!) scene is touching and sweet. Once again it’s Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane who is carrying the emotional weight of the scene, with the Brigadier there merely to roll his eyes and make the phone calls. The end of an era, and one that’s been sent off in style. Time for the new team to take over…


I liked the bit where they sang Om Manny Padme Hum.

"Is that a tear, Sarah Jane?"

2 replies on ““Not Just a Journalist But a Woman Journalist!” [Review: Planet of the Spiders]”

  1. I want to watch this now. 🙁

  2. Helen says:

    One of my favourite classic stories too although I’ll always be sorry that Jon Pertwee left the series then. He was my favourite class Who Doctor.

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