Why is it that, more times than not, series finalies are so poor? Seinfeld, MASH, and even the last Russell T. Davies story from the latest incarnation of Doctor Who have been less than satisfactory. Whatever the reason, it's a curse that at least partially afflicts Jon Pertwee's last Doctor Who adventure, The Planet of the Spiders. It has some solid ideas, but the six-episode story runs a bit too long and has a couple of missteps that keeps it from being a great send-off. As it is, the story is fun, but a bit bloating in places.
The Doctor, while researching ESP in humans, discovers a stage magician who really does have psychic powers. Excited by this discovery he invites the man to take part in some tests back at UNIT HQ, and the man seems to have extraordinary powers. While holed up to The Doctor's machines however, a package arrives from Jo Grant (a previous companion). She's off in the Amazon looking for a rare species of mushroom and has had to return a keepsake from the Doctor, a crystal from Metebelis 3. While reading the letter, the psychic magician starts to examine the crystal and with a scream, dies.
At the same time Mike Yates, once a member of UNIT until he had to leave in disgrace, has taken up residency in a Buddhist meditation center where he's discovered some odd events. A small group of practitioners are performing strange ceremonies, and Yates suspects that they're up to something. He contacts Sarah Jane Smith who travels out to meet him, and the pair sneak into one of the secret meetings where they witness the group summon a giant spider. The arachnid kills one member who tries to flee, and then jumps onto the back of the group's leader, the villainous Lupton, and merges with his mind.
It turns out the spider is from Metebelis 3 and has come to Earth in order to find the blue crystal. Using it's powers, the creature is able to sense the shiny rock and Lupton heads off for UNIT HQ where he manages to break in and steal the important artifact. He doesn't make a clean getaway however, and is spotted. What follows is a chase over land, sea and air involving cars, hovercraft, mini-helicopters, and a speedboat.
Managing to evade The Doctor, Lupton arrives back at the meditation center only to have the crystal be stolen from his room by Tommy, a mentally backwards man with the brain of a child. This is very bad for both him and the spider on his back, as they've told the rulers of Metebelis that they have the crystal and are recalled to the home planet. An inquisitive Sarah Jane gets yanked along, and it's up to The Doctor to travel to the distant planet in his TARDIS where he discovers a planet where humans are slaves ruled by giant spiders.
As with many of the six part stories, this one has a lot of padding. The scenes where the Buddhists are chanting seem to go on forever (not to mention the parts where they spout Buddhist philosophy), but that's nothing compared to the extended chase scene in one of the early episodes. It really does nothing to advance the plot, and it's a bit silly too. The Doctor and Lupton find several unique vehicles just sitting around waiting to be used in a chase scene. When is the last time you saw a one-man hovercraft just sitting with the keys in it? What's worse is the resolution to the chase. When The Doctor finally catches up with Lupton he just teleports back to the meditation center. Why didn't he do that to begin with??
I don't like to critique the special effects of Doctor Who too much, after all the show is made on a tight budget and they did the best that they could, but things aren't pretty in this story. Instead of shooting Metebelis 3 on location (a recreation of a medieval farm perhaps, they mainly used process shots done in front of a blue screen, which aren't terribly convincing. The spiders themselves are okay, but they could have done a lot more without adding much cost. The spider's meeting chamber consists of a bunch of tables with web patterns painted on them. What? Why not have the whole room filled with webs and have the spiders sprinkled throughout. That would have been much more eerie and effective.
Even with these flaws the story is enjoyable to watch. The idea of large spider invading Earth is fairly creepy to begin with, and revolt against the spiders on Metebelis 3 was a fun and typical Doctor Who adventure that worked well. It was sort of a mini-story within the larger serial and it served to move the story along. Of course seeing Mike Yates one last time was nice but that's a far second to getting to see Jon Pertwee fall out of the TARDIS mortally wounded. Overall this is a good adventure, but not the great sendoff that Pertwee should have received.
This release is a two-disc affair. The six episode story is on disc one while the second one is reserved for the bulk of the special features.
This show comes with the original mono soundtrack that fits the show just fine. The dynamic range is nothing to write home about, but the dialog is generally crisp and clear and there is no background noise, tape hiss, distortion or dropouts. There are optional subtitles in English.
I was pleased with the full frame color image. The Restoration Team did their usual top-notch job. The colors are nice and the fine detail is good. The blacks are pretty strong too, but there is some detail lost in bright, white areas in a few scenes. It's not a big deal though. This looks very comparable to the other Who releases from this time frame, which means your getting a pretty solid transfer.
This disc has some great extras included, as is the standard for Doctor Who releases. The commentary track includes producer/director/writer Barry Letts, script editor Terrance Dicks, Elisabeth Sladen, Nicholas Courtney and Richard Franklin. It's a fun track to listen to, though a bit bitter-sweet as three of the five participants (Letts, Sladen and Courtney) are no longer with us.
Most of the bonus material is found on disc two. The video features start out with The Final Curtain (37 min) which looks at the filming of Pertwee's last episode. It has a lot of information, and includes an interview with the late Pertwee from 1995. They discuss the reasons why Jon left, as well as the camaraderie on the set and the genesis of the story. Next up is John Kane Remembers (12 min) in which the actor who played Tommy in the serial recounts his time on Doctor Who as well as his other accomplishments. Directing Doctor Who (14 min) is a look back at the career of Barry Letts, and Now and Then (7 min) takes viewers back to the original locations that were used in the show to see what they look like today. Of all of these, only the last one was failed to catch my interest. The rest were fun and very informative.
There's also an 'Omnibus Edition' of Planet of Spiders, an unrestored movie-version of the story with the breaks between episodes edited out. It's an interesting artifact, but nothing more.
In addition there is a pop-up informational text option which is very informative as always. It does give some dry statistics, like how many people viewed each episode, but there are also some interesting notes such as script changes that were made and background information on the supporting characters. The extras are rounded off with storyboard comparison, a trailer for the story, a photo gallery, and the listing from the Radio Times in .pdf format.
While this story does have some flaws and is a little bloated, when all is said and done it's still worth watching. This last Jon Pertwee story does have its moments and would have been strengthened by being just four parts, but even at six there's enough good here to Recommend this disc to fans of The Doctor. Check it out.