Doctor Who #378: Planet of the Spiders Part 1

"Then old man must die and the new man will discover to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed!"
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired May 4 1974.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor experiments with a clairvoyant, who dies when he looks into a Metebelis crystal. Meanwhile, Yates and Sarah Jane investigate a meditation center.

REVIEW: It's the last of the Barry Letts finales, so of course it's written to spec by Sloman, and it features whatever Letts is into at the time (here, Buddhism; see Theories). And Letts directs too. Not that there's anything wrong with any of that, though their finales tend to present a very relaxed UNIT, its members (and/or actors) enjoying themselves more than usual. In this case, the Doctor and the Brig go out to see a variety show, which the Brig qualifies as a "waste of time". And while the Doctor's entire story thread can be qualified as just that, it's very much part of this kind of cast celebration. We have the Brigadier enjoying a belly dancer and looking very embarrassed when a psychic reveals the existence of Doris, the Brig's future wife (as we now know). We have a letter from Jo Grant that gives a voice to this one missing member of the family (sorry Liz) that's quite touching really. We have Benton making bad jokes before realizing an impatient Brig is in the room. These character moments are clearly important to Letts, and I would agree. However, the plot seems rather irrelevant. The Doctor goes to the theater to see Clegg, a man he rightly believes to have psychic powers, but we never see the act. They just cut to a meeting with the man at UNIT HQ. So why the theater scenes? And it seems the Doctor has need of him to help with his experiments on expanding the human mind, which is very strange in and of itself. It's like he's the Rani all of a sudden. If Mr. Clegg was at all instrumental in the A-plot, we might not mind, but the man looks too deep into the Metebelis crystal just returned by Jo... and dies! It's a bizarre turn of events that invalidates everything that precedes it! Surely, the Doctor could have been drawn in by Sarah Jane who's investigating a Metebelis-related threat, couldn't he? But we don't know that yet, so maybe I'm playing the hindsight card.

Where IS Sarah Jane Smith? After all, shouldn't SHE be at the theater with the Doctor, and shouldn't SHE be assisting the Doctor in his experiments instead of the Brig? (Must be a slow day at UNIT.) Well, Exxilon and Peladon are all very nice and everything, but she's gone back to working for Metropolitan magazine. It seems the program still has difficulty letting go of its UNIT trappings, and even though the TARDIS works, Sarah has fallen into the role originally devised for her, a non-UNIT finder of trouble that could drag the Doctor into stories without the military and bureaucrats necessarily interfering. She's not a "companion" or even an "assistant" YET, but more like Mickey Smith in the new series. (Check out the Smiths' interaction in School Reunion again and think on that.) But she's not working alone. She's met up with Mike Yates, drummed out of UNIT and now seeking peace in meditation. Except he's come across a strange plot to summon an evil power in the basement of his meditation center, and he's called Sarah. He doesn't seem to think UNIT would take his phone calls. They make a fine team, with some of the gentle teasing we've come to expect from Sarah and the Doctor. Bit of action, clever ruses, fast talking... they do find without a Time Lord present. At least until the spiders arrive.

The characters we meet at the mediation center are a mixed lot. Lupton, the obvious black hat, may be creepier for the odd acting style. Simple-minded Tom, who likely has had his mind emptied by the forces at work, I can't help but think he's some kind of Buddhist parable made flesh. And there's the Tibetan lama Cho-je, whose zen fables seem to be talking about the Doctor, if you want to see foreshadowing there (again, see Theories). I have the mention it, Cho-je is an unfortunate case of a Caucasian actor "blacking up" to play, in this case, an Asian character. It's not so much the make-up as it is the accent, but it's there nonetheless. Recently, I watched The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and I have to examine why the same practice didn't bother me there. It's not so much the comparative quality of each story, but rather that Talons is a genre piece. It's taking all manner of bits and pieces from Victoriana, in particular the concept of the Yellow Menace, and creating a fictional world where the Chinese (and indeed, Victorian Londoners) are caricatures. Talons plays on movies where such make-up and caricature was common. Not so with Cho-je who is meant to be taken straight.

THEORIES: An element we should like to track is the Time Lords' link to Eastern philosophies. In Day of the Daleks, the third Doctor recounted a Buddhist fable as if it had happened to him, and there was that business about returning a sacred bell to a Buddhist temple in The Abominable Snowmen. And while we'll get more of that kind of thing before this story wraps, there's the whole matter of regeneration, which is a form of literal and instantaneous reincarnation. Cho-je's words, above, are very interesting. The old man dies, and the new man realizes he never existed. That's the fourth Doctor about to be born, isn't it? Doctor Who is full of ideas that smack of Eastern philosophy, including the idea preached by Logopolis and School Reunion that the universe is something dreamed up by its inhabitants, an idea that supports the one advanced in the extracanonical books that Gallifrey is a mirror (or dreamer) of the universe, and is key to the stability of the time line, the spread of humanish (actually Time Lordish) species, etc. It's why the Daleks want to invade the place and fashion the universe in their own likeness. As more clues crop up, I'll be sure to mention them under this header.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - As the era comes to a close, the cast and crew can be allowed a few indulgences. We're saying goodbye to these relationships, in a sense, so the plot comes in second. Very far in second.

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