Warts & All: Eight Legs Good, Two Legs Bad
Quote: A tear, Sarah Jane? No, don’t cry. While there’s life there’s…
Review: Another Robert Sloman six-part season finale could be a Time Monster, could be a Green Death. It’s a lottery. Spiders comes up much closer to the latter, thankfully. In some respects, it’s almost like Dinosaurs – a terrific story let down by production limitations. As monsters go, the eponymous spiders (titularantulas?) are a doozy. The stuff of common nightmares, right up there with Green Death’s M-words. And while they’re not always well-realised – with the best will in the world, I can tell string from strands of web – they are for the most part not bad where it matters. They spend quite a bit of time invisible, which always helps, making like Heinlein’s Puppeteers on people’s backs.
Lis Sladen plays her part too in the spiders’ effectiveness, channelling all our primal fears and injecting it into her performance. Her conviction sells you on a mechanical spider or a rubber dangly one or a spider on a stick sat on a cushion. Doesn’t matter, her fear’s real, so of course the spiders are too. The Great One herself is pretty fantastic and there’s something particularly chilling in seeing Pertwee’s Doctor reduced to a puppet in her thrall, gave me the chills. Voiced supremely (by Maureen Morris, I believe), this is an enemy truly worthy of a Doctor’s swan song. She is destroyed too easily, of course, victim of her own megalomania, but the Doctor forced to confront his own greatest fear mitigates the simplicity. There’s a genuine sense of the high price being paid by the Doctor. Love it.
What lets proceedings down more than its monsters are the two-legs on Metebelis (mind how you pronounce that). The studiobound terrain is limiting, but better actors might have assisted with the suspension of disbelief. Interior sets in the spider city are just as basic, with the council chamber being just a couple of benches. You have to wonder where all the budget went? Oh, right. Yeah, on that chase episode. A whole episode of shameless, indulgent padding for Pertwee to clock up the miles on every kind of vehicle he hadn’t driven yet. For all the fast-paced motion, it moves things along not a jot and I really should grumble bitterly about that, but – but – d’you know what? I found it fun. It’s varied, pretty well staged, gyrocopters and speedboats and hovercraft and Bessie, and the Whomobile turns flying saucer and there’s a comedy policeman in a panda car. What’s not to like? Well, it’s all sort of wasted effort because it all ends with the fugitive teleporting away, so maybe I would have worked in some plot mechanics that prevented that somehow.
I also would’ve rejigged the episode 5 ending, since of the two dramatic cliffhangers they could have chosen, they opted for the less interesting one. Surely, the reveal of Sarah’s possession by the Queen would have been the one to go with, not the members of the Extra-Curricular Meditation Club attacking Tommy at the door. Of the attendees at the retreat, (aside from Yates), Tommy and Lupton are the only ones of note. Lupton is a strange sort – like an accountant with a power complex. He’s well-played by John Dearth (who voiced BOSS so excellently in Green Death – fair enough as they use the same set of BOSS headphones on poor doomed Cyril Shapps in Episode 1), but he’s odd villain material, given that he is the main enemy for a large stretch of the story.
Tommy, well, it’s an endearing portrayal by the actor, until he softens his accent when he’s suddenly smart. As though a West Country accent is somehow connected with being simple of mind. Hmmph! In truth, I did wince a little at Cho-Je, one of those racially inappropriate castings of the time, but Kevin Lindsay (that can’t be the same guy as played Linx!) wins me over despite that and George Cormack as K’Anpo is fine, sage, enigmatic, just as you’d imagine that old hermit the Doctor’s talked about from time to time throughout his era. It’s an affecting moment when we get to meet this figure at last – and a good touch that the Doctor doesn’t initially recognise his old friend and mentor. And of course his death and transformation into Cho-Je (who is a sort of regeneration in waiting, like the Fourth Doctor’s Watcher in Logopolis) prepares us for the end.
I say prepares us and I’ve seen it plenty of times before and I know what’s coming, but damnit, on this current journey through the whole series, Pertwee’s departure definitely brings a tear to the eye. It’s a fitting end. Understated but emotional and but for the floating monk giving the process a boost and the change into the strange looking bloke with the big eyes, it is played like an actual death scene.
Generally then, a flawed and often cheap-looking gem but like the blue crystal of Metebelis 3 I find myself drawn in and fascinated by the light within.