“The old man must die,” says ersatz Buhddist monk Cho-je in Pertwee farewell tale Planet of the Spiders, “and the new man will discover to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed.” He’s explaining meditation to go-getter journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), though soon enough she’ll actually be witnessing an old man being made new before her eyes. This is a story which draws parallels between the rejuvenation of the soul and regeneration of the body.
In fact, it’s the story that named the process where one Doctor transforms into another as ‘regeneration’ and in many ways, it’s the story that invents our modern understanding of the concept, as to what a Time Lord does on the point of death. The Doctor’s previous change was forced upon him as a punitive measure. And his first, back in The Tenth Planet, was a mysterious, explanation-light event. Although it’s hinted that the Doctor changed to avoid dying, it’s never overtly stated. It could easily be read as a refreshing of his body’s batteries, rather than a ‘get out of death free card’.
But if his first change was a renewal, and the second a punishment, this one is a genuine revivification. This is the first story where we see the Doctor, for all intents and purposes, die and then come back to life. When the seventh Doctor dies on the streets of San Francisco, his regeneration recalls this one. You have to die first to be reborn.
It’s also a form of natural justice.The War Games presented regeneration as a literal punishment for the Doctor and Spiders presents it as a metaphorical one, punishing him for the crime of theft (to whit, one large blue crystal) with a secondary charge of hubris. This idea gets repeated in future stories too; The End of Time suggests the Tenth Doctor’s (second) regeneration is payback for his manipulation of history in The Waters of Mars. And The Caves of Androzani suggests the Fifth Doctor’s death is the result of his recklessness, in delivering his companion Peri into danger.
But for a story which has given us so solid a basis for future regenerations, the actual event itself is treated fairly perfunctorily in Planet of the Spiders. It lasts only a few short seconds, a rudimentary roll-back-and-mix affair. After so much lead up to it, the change is done away with very quickly. That’s because as much as this story is thematically ‘about’ regeneration, it’s more practically about Jon Pertwee.
Regular readers of this blog (bless you all) will have noticed how Pertwee heavy it is. This is just one of those quirks of random selection; we’ve now looked at 19 out of 25 Pertwee stories. I’ll happily confess this is not my favourite era of the show, so while the nature of this blog is that I’ll get around to every story, had I been self selecting, I suspect a fair amount of Perts would be left until later.
Lots of Pertwee watching though, has given me a new appreciation of the bouffant one’s virtues. I’m talking Pertwee himself, rather than the Third Doctor, which I still find a significant deviation from my understanding of the character. He’s easier to like in his early stories, when he’s less patrician and condescending than once he’s settled in. But once he’s at home, with his UNIT lab to preside over, his pretty girl to boss around, his Brigadier to insult and the regular opportunities for mild violence, I find him too smug for words.
Jon Pertwee, though, I think is terrific. As a performer, you can see him so easily command attention. He’s present, in that actorly sense of the word, in every scene; whereas Tom Baker would every so often walk through a scene not engaging with what was going on around him, Pertwee’s listening and reacting all the time. Troughton used to almost sneak into a scene, and almost skirt around the camera’s gaze. Not Jon; the camera loves Pertwee and he loves it. A extrovert’s dream. I would have loved to have seen him live, and witnessed that bravado up close.
When former producer Derrick Sherwin cast Pertwee, he expected him to bring more of his entertainment background to the role of the Doctor. There was talk of him singing ballads and playing guitar. And in fact bits of this idea still sneak through; occasionally he pulls out a magic trick, puts on a funny voice or dresses up in drag. These, for me, are when the Third Doctor’s at his best, when he’s allowed to be a bit silly. A bit more showman, a little less action man, thanks.
Writer/Producer/Director Barry Letts saw this as a story about the Doctor atoning for his greed. Script editor Terrance Dicks has since observed that this sounded more like Pertwee than the Doctor. And that’s the key to this story really. Spiders is designed to be a farewell for Pertwee, rather than for his Doctor.
After all, it’s a story which has a whole episode given over to Pertwee driving lots of vehicles, including his own car. The guest cast is cherry picked from previous Pertwee stories. The entire UNIT family return, with a message from Katy Manning, like an absentee guest on This is Your Life. There are numerous ‘moments of charm’. And of course, he looks Pertastic in sombre dark velvet and snowy cumulonimbus hair. This story’s an exercise in making him look good and feel comfortable, as he leaves a series he loves.
Everything else – the 1970s mysticism, the treacherous bad guy, the oppressed villagers, the invasion of the giant spiders from space – feels like window dressing. Impressive window dressing, sure, but not the main game. The main game is that the old man must die, so let’s make him as comfortable as we can in his last days. It’s the least we can do.
As ever, my random Who generator likes to spit out stories in awkward order. Last time it was The Ark (LINK: human descendants being oppressed by creepy crawly aliens) and next time it’s The Ark in Space. Our two arks separated! It would have been nice to compare them.
But funnily enough, Spiders to The Ark in Space is but a short hop, so there’s plenty to compare between those two as well. So NEXT TIME… I’ll be talking about all three. Let’s give that helmic regulator quite a twist.
And one further note… that’s our second full season – Season 11 -complete. View the full list of randomed stories here.