|You mean not only is this not Metebelis Three, it’s not|
even a planet? And I’m on after Being Human? Crap.
It’s mid-September, 1992. The Shamen are at number one with “Ebeneezer Goode.” At least, in the UK. In the US, somewhat less fortunately, “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men is at number one. As it was for three months that year. Perhaps more importantly, at least for our purposes, in a small town in Western Connecticut, a newly minted ten year old flips through a book he just got from a family friend a week or so after his birthday. By a man he’s never heard of called John Nathan-Turner, about a television show he’s vaguely heard of called Doctor Who, the book is called The Companions. After the friend leaves, and it is no longer rude to do so, he asks his mother what this Doctor Who thing is. She looks around in a drawer, and hands him a VHS tape, which he goes to the basement to watch. The Delia Derbyshire theme, familiar to so many people, plays, and something called Planet of Spiders comes on. And so, in the wrong country, in the wrong decade, but every inch at the right time, I became a Doctor Who fan.
Oh. Um. Hi. I mean, not that I haven’t been obviously skulking about these blog entries for some time now, though I’ve tried not to make a nuisance of myself. But here I am forced to make a somewhat more formal and more permanent entrance. I have talked before about moments in Doctor Who that fans can’t quite see past – the introduction of the Time Lords, or the legendarily (though not actually) bad The Gunfighters. But past that, there’s another horizon that it’s impossible for anyone steeped in Doctor Who to quite see past, and that’s our own growing up with the show. As the slogan emblazoned on countless different t-shirts goes, you never forget your first Doctor.
And mine was Pertwee, with Planet of the Spiders. And I’ve always known this entry would mark a turning point in the blog, not just because it’s an era-divider, but because this is where I enter the story. This is the earliest Doctor Who story that I just cannot talk about or think about without my own childhood memories bleeding into the mix. I mean, he’s not the earliest Doctor I saw as a kid. It’s just that I’d not seen a lot of Hartnell or Troughton prior to starting this project – I believe just The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Rescue, The Romans, The Web Planet, and The Chase for Hartnell. I’d seen about as much Troughton, but it formed a much higher percentage of the existing episodes – Tomb of the Cybermen, The Mind Robber, The Invasion, The Seeds of Death, and The War Games. As a child, I found Hartnell mean and boring, and Troughton delightful. But both were Doctors I came to late, on bought VHS tapes imported and played on a multi-region VCR.
In terms of watching Doctor Who for me, there were three basic phases of the operation. The third is the one I just talked about – my mother would buy tapes as they came out in the UK, and I would watch them on a multi-region VCR. The second, which is the one I’ll talk about the most over the next month or two of entries, was when I was watching primarily American VHS tapes – a more limited selection primarily focused on Hinchcliffe-era Tom Baker stories.
But the first was when I was watching old tapes my parents made of the show from their local PBS station. Recorded in gloriously lo-fi SLP with three or four stories per VHS tape, my parents’ collection consisted of: The two Peter Cushing movies, ten Pertwee stories, two Tom Baker stories, eleven Peter Davison stories, and The Two Doctors. Which is to say, I – and I mean I in the sense of my ten year old new Doctor Who fan self – have been here through the whole Pertwee era, dredging up old and dusty memories.
Of course, large swaths of these tapes were unlabeled, or only partially labeled, so fairly often I would discover a tape with Doctor Who I didn’t know about and eagerly put it in to watch it. And when it was a Pertwee tape, my heart always fell just a bit with disappointment that it wasn’t one of the Doctors I liked more. And this is, perhaps, the thing I’ve danced around a few times in my criticisms of the Pertwee era: I just never liked it much. And even watching and rewatching it all for the blog, there was always that visible sense of childhood disappointment – the sense that this was somehow a substitute for the good stuff.
But more than anything, this disdain from Pertwee was motivated by that first tape. Because that one started with Planet of Spiders, and continued on to Robot and The Ark in Space – my next two stories. And you’ll eventually see, I fell in love with Tom Baker. And so every discovered tape – even from the Davison era – was criticized and dinged for the fact that it wasn’t Tom Baker. (In fact, my parents had failed to tape much Baker at all, as I said – that first tape was all I got until I started buying the US commercial releases.) I knew going into the story that it was one of the regeneration stories – although I didn’t really have a firm handle on the concept beyond “sometimes the lead actor changes,” which is why I wanted to see one – to understand how that apparently key bit of the show worked. And so in a real sense I spent it waiting for the next Doctor, and when he showed up, well, I’ll talk about that on Friday. But the result is that this story is one that is, for me, more the lead-in to the wonders of the Baker era than it is the close-out of the Pertwee era. After all, I had no real sense of what the Pertwee era was when I first saw it, and since then this story has always felt more like a beginning than an end to me.
So if I cannot see past that – and even if I could, I don’t want to – the alternative is to see through it. And so here I am. And with relatively few exceptions, I don’t really drop out of the narrative again. This is the stretch of Doctor Who I grew up with – the stretch I watched from in front of the sofa. (No, really – there was a hideous yellow floral print sofa in the basement where I watched, but I hated it and sat in a dilapidated black armchair in front of it) This is in no way going to become a blog of personal reflections and reviews. But it does mean that, along with utopian politics, alchemical mysticism, the evolution of television as a medium, and everything else, there’s one more strand to this braid. And in the immediate term, that means that this story and the next two form a sort of triptych: my introduction to Doctor Who.
Of course, some broader perspective is needed as well. So for the sake of formality and completeness, Planet of the Spiders aired over six weeks starting on May 4th, 1974. ABBA was at number one with “Waterloo,” their Eurovision winning hit. After two weeks this gives way to the Rubettes, who play out the Pertwee era with “Sugar Baby Love.” Other artists making the top ten include various things I have seriously never heard of: Mud, the Chi-Lites, Peters and Lee, and Showaddywaddy. So hopefully all of that means something to someone, because I have virtually no idea what I just said. (I mean, I know the ABBA song…) While in real news, the Ulster Volunteer Force causes the most single-day casualties of the Troubles with bombings in Dublin and Monaghan, reminding everybody that the IRA aren’t the only jerks with bombs. And India completes a successful nuclear test under the alarmingly inappropriate codename “Smiling Buddha.”
But Raja Ramanna was not the only person in charge of a project with inappropriate invocations of Buddhism that week, because off on television, Barry Letts co-wrote and directed his last hurrah of a Pertwee story, Planet of the Spiders.
It is, of course, a Sloman script, with all the problems that implies. And he and Letts find bold new ways of being rubbish this time around, including half an episode of thumb-twiddling with the Doctor unconscious in case the plot spooked and tried to advance, an entire planet constructed out of bad CSO, and a twelve-minute long car chase purely for the sake of having a car chase… that also involves bad CSO. All of this is true, as is the fact that the story is horrible in its treatment of people with mental disabilities, as bewilderingly sociopathic as ever in its attitudes, and features the other appearance of the goddamned Whomobile. And they, for good measure, after two episodes that are padded absurdly, idiotically shoehorn the entire K’anpo plot into the sixth episode when it should have been the centerpiece of the whole thing. All of this is true, and makes watching the story as excruciating and frustrating as you would expect it to.
But all the same, I can’t pummel this story. We’ve summoned up the d(a)emons of the Pertwee era in quite enough detail. The particulars of this story’s failings are new, but the general pattern isn’t. And look, if nothing else… this is my first Doctor Who story. It is not my favorite. Far from it. But I just don’t want to be the one to run the extended critique on it. Especially because there seems to me a better option – one in which Letts crafts a masterpiece that does more than just provide a grand finale to the Pertwee era, but goes so far as to redeem it.
Typically there are two things said of Planet of the Spiders – that they shoehorn Pertwee’s greatest hits into it, and that it’s a Buddhist parable. Neither is quite true, though both come very close. The logic of it being a Buddhist parable is straightforward – in the first episode, Cho-Je gives a monologue about how “the old man must die and the new man will discover to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed,” and in the sixth episode the Doctor accepts that his greed for knowledge caused all of this and thus that he must face his worst fear in resolving all of it.
Of course, there’s an obvious problem there, which is that the Doctor’s “greed for knowledge” hasn’t really featured in a remotely explicit manner since The Silurians. And it’s tough to call his run through the studio sets of Metebelis 3 in The Green Death a case of him searching for knowledge, at least in any direct sense. If nothing else, he demonstrates considerable familiarity with the planet prior to arriving. In terms of knowledge, he seems to have many (though clearly not all) of the basics of the planet down prior to arriving.
It is tempting to suggest that he went to Metebelis 3 out of wanderlust, but generally speaking, it’s tough to create a compelling argument that Pertwee feels much wanderlust. Since getting the TARDIS back he has gone on exactly two jaunts through time and space, each lasting two destinations before he heads home. Mostly he seems to still be based on Earth.
All of this makes it very difficult to thread the needle and figure out what the Doctor is talking about when he says that his “greed for knowledge” had caused all of this. Which makes it, in turn, difficult to quite pin down what the Buddhist message at the core of all of this might be. Hence my suggestion that the Buddhism is inappropriate – the sense that it’s just that Barry Letts had one last story to put a moral message in, and he picked Buddhism as his moral message this time, then delivered on it with predictable crassness.
Is there an alternative? Well, of course there is, because otherwise I wouldn’t set up a rhetorical question like that, but the real question remains: how does “greed for knowledge” make sense as a flaw of Pertwee’s Doctor? The closest thing to a clue I can find comes in an earlier line that seems at first glance to be a throwaway, and that doesn’t even involve the Doctor, in which the spiders refer to invading the Earth as their “great work.” On the surface, there is nothing much to that, but it is an odd phrasing.
And it’s a phrasing reminiscent of something Letts has done before. There are strong reasons to believe that Letts has at the very least a passing familiarity with Aleister Crowley, who referred to magic as “the great work.” And all four of the Sloman/Letts scripts have, to some extent, dealt with mysticism and magic. Pulling on this thread just a little bit reveals a possible second meaning of “knowledge.” Flickering in the background ever since David Whitaker’s alchemy really started to be at issue in the series is the idea of the Kabbalistic tree of life.
I discussed the idea briefly here, and its effects were dealt with more overtly when I talked about the Qlippothic nature of the original Cybermen, so in my continual quest to never quite thoroughly explain this concept (although those who are interested might appreciate this post from my now-defunct blog The Nintendo Project), let’s deal briefly with the most tortured, complex, and mind-wrenching concept of the Kabbalah: The Abyss.
Essentially, the Kabbalistic tree of life is a map of the way in which the divine and the earthly are in contact. Across the tree exists something called the “lightning path,” named for the zig-zag shape it takes, which marks the path by which the purest form of the divine descends into the material world. Towards the top of this path, however, there is a problem – the bridge that should exist between two of the ten sephiroth that comprise the tree doesn’t exist. Instead there is posited a gap – the Abyss – which represents the inevitable and necessary breakage and gap between the divine and the earthly. And so the three highest sephiroth are, in one sense, fundamentally and necessary separate from the seven lower.
Another name for the Abyss is Da’ath – an eleventh Sephira that is said to have fallen and collapsed inward. Da’ath is where Crowley situates the demon Choronzon, the demon that destroys the ego utterly. The alternative to facing Choronzon and having your ego obliterated is, essentially, to be trapped in the Black Tower, where magicians who have gotten overly committed and bound up to a system of dogma search fruitlessly and endlessly for spiritual completeness. The name Da’ath, incidentally, translates to “Knowledge.”
If we accept that the spiders are explicitly and consciously Crowley analogues, then what happens if we understand the Doctor’s greed for knowledge in these terms? What if we are talking not about the Doctor’s curiosity, but rather about his desire for an organized system of rules that govern the universe – his insistence on holding on to his own ego as he attempts to cross the Abyss?
Several things immediately become clear if this is the case. First of all, there are numerous reasons to think this form of “greed for knowledge” is bad – unlike the previous version, where it wasn’t quite clear what was wrong with the Doctor’s curiosity. Those who want easy explanations of the world are generally the villains in Doctor Who. Most obviously, the mad Blakean excess of The Three Doctors is antithetical to this – the desire to fix the universe into Newtonian certainty – single vision and Newton’s sleep, as Blake puts it – is anathema to the Doctor, and characterizes nothing so much as Urizen, the figure we associated with Omega and the Master.
But there is something more to this. Remember, after all, that our bluntest critique of Letts and Dicks, and by extension of the Pertwee era, is the way in which they are more loyal to slogans than they are to people. What are the deeply flawed politics of the Letts era if not a commitment to broad and universalizing dogma over the actual lived reality of people? This is exactly what was so wretched about the last story, exactly why I already said the Doctor deserves to die. What if, then, Planet of Spiders is the series conceding the point?
If so, the excesses of the greatest hits segment of the story make more sense. Much effort is made to shoehorn as much of the Pertwee era as can be managed into this story. Jo Grant is brought up again, and sends a letter to UNIT HQ. Mike Yates makes his utterly unanticipated return. Obviously the Metebelis crystal is back. On top of that is the determination to work in the major set pieces. Pertwee gets one last big vehicle scene, a last chance to shout Hai!, even one last Pertwee death pose, held long after his last line has been delivered. The story is drenched in its own egotism.
But if we take the end of the story for what it now appears to be, all of this makes sense. The entire Pertwee era must be, in a sense, re-enacted before it can allow itself to die. The Doctor doesn’t just visit the cave of the Great One, he brings all of the trappings of who he is and who he has been for the past five years to the cave. laying down all of himself. In order to face Choronzon and have his ego forever shattered he must first recognize and pick up all of the parts of his ego.
In this regard even the production infelicities seem to aid the story. As I said, Planet of the Spiders displays all of the Pertwee era’s worst instincts at one point or another. But of course it does. That’s the point, and Letts’s story understands this to a degree beyond what even Letts himself seems capable of. This story is in one sense an exorcism – a last summoning of all of the ugly ghosts of the Pertwee era so that they can finally be done away with.
This account also helps explain the odd nature of the Buddhism in the story. Letts, obviously, was a Buddhist, and it is thus difficult to argue that the Buddhist notes in this story are anything less than sincere. But given that Letts actually does know what he’s talking about, the treatment of Buddhism in this story is even stranger. As Tat Wood points out, other than ostensibly being Buddhist, all of the iconography of this story screams seances and spiritualism.
It’s tempting – and it wasn’t until I was halfway through writing the entry that I realized there was actually any alternate reading than this – to assume that Letts is simply pitting Buddhism overtly against Crowley-style Hermeticism, and that he is trying to change the course of the show’s mystic tendencies, leading a rebellion against Whitaker. But upon further reflection, I think Letts is doing something altogether subtler – he’s treating Buddhist techniques as a way of surviving the Abyss and crossing it without getting sucked into the trap of dogma and certitude. Far from opposing Buddhism and Hermeticism, Letts’s strange Gompa avec Crowley is exactly what it appears – a syncretism of the two.
And of course, this does touch the zeitgeist well. Bowie’s last great glam album, Diamond Dogs, came out not two weeks before this story began. “Rebel Rebel,” Bowie’s farewell to the glam era, peaked in the charts during Death to the Daleks. The glam aesthetic that had defined the Pertwee era was passing by. Always ill-suited for a recession, the over the top gaudiness of glam turned bleak rapidly, the distant and detached starmen proving, as we always knew they would, to be egocentric narcissists. In one sense, Pertwee here carries out the course set out for him two seasons earlier – his very own Rock ‘n Roll Suicide.
But in another sense, the sense alluded to in the parable from the first episode about the old man dying and the new man’s joy, Pertwee is here serving as the sacrificial lamb for a cultural shift. The bourgeois egotism of the action man dandy was fine as the last flourishing of psychedelia. But it’s past its time, and some new image must arise.
And so the Doctor faces his fear, and goes to confront the Great One – a terrible monster who can bend his will – who can finally mentally dominate him and make him cry in agony as she forces his broken body to march like a puppet on a string. He stands before her and he dies, begging her to see the error of her ways and to stop from killing herself. This is not the frantic manipulation of Troughton’s Doctor, trying to cajole or trick an enemy into doing what he wants. This is simply a good man trying to prevent a needless death. For the first time, Pertwee’s Doctor looks so very small, and somehow this makes him more of a giant than ever before.
Obviously, I am not the person to do a sentimental farewell to this Doctor, or a last and glorious farewell. But I will say this. Even at age ten, with no knowledge of what the standard tropes of the Pertwee era were, no particular investment in the character, and no sense of what business as usual for Doctor Who even was, there is a sense of mythic power when the Doctor returns to the caves to face the Great One and die. Having already seen him broken and crushed beneath her will – a scene that’s even more shocking if you’re familiar with the Pertwee era and his calm dismissal of mental domination in the past – seeing him return afraid and broken is a moment of true and striking heroism.
And he dies. In agony, this time. More agony even than facing the Qlippothic tendrils of Mondas. His body torn apart by radiation sickness, lost in the time vortex for God knows how long, he dies. The most ignoble and painful death for this most noble of Doctors. This truly is the destruction of his ego – the stripping away of everything he had and was, even his confidence and his strength. He is cast down so that a new man may rise.
And, of course, he does. There is no way to look at Planet of Spiders without acknowledging the first appearance of Tom Baker. Where Troughton’s first appearance was a thing of terror, this seems almost welcome and built to. Part of this is the decision to separate the Doctor’s death from his rebirth with the brief scene in which K’anpo makes a reappearance to start the process. So by the time that Sarah says “Look Brigadier, I think it’s starting” with such enthusiasm, the change becomes something different – the old man has died, and separately the new man has been born. We are allowed the joy at new possibilities.
And watching it now, with an entire childhood of Doctor Who stretching out ahead of us, it is impossible not to get swept up in that enthusiasm and to greet the new man with a sense of utter and complete joy.
This, then, is Letts’s great magic trick. To turn the systematic dismantling of everything he has built into an occasion that, in every sense, feels more like a birth than a death. As I said, I’m biased – I can never look at this story and see anything other than the beginning of a long, strange love affair with a long, strange television show. But then, there is perhaps no other story that works better as the start of that affair than one that is already about the inexpressible joy of the new man’s birth.