Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

Classic Who: The Monster of Peladon, Planet of the Spiders

Right - now that Life is all up to date and I have some free time, I can continue with my Who reviews. I return here to the sequential viewing of Sarah Jane's stories with the Third Doctor which I started last month.

Third Doctor: The Monster of Peladon
On seeing that The Monster of Peladon was next on my watching list, my first act was to procure a copy of The Curse of Peladon from two seasons earlier, since it seemed pretty obvious that I should watch that first. Before I could do so, though, swisstone suggested that it might actually be more interesting to watch Monster unswayed by the influence of Curse - and I decided to take him up on the idea. From a plot point of view, it's really not a problem, because although the Doctor has been to Peladon before, Sarah Jane hasn't, so viewers who missed the previous story can be brought up to speed very naturalistically through dialogue between the two of them. So I didn't feel like I was missing any necessary background information at all.

The opening scene, with lightning cracking over a cliff-top citadel, promises Gothic horror, and I suppose there are some leanings in that direction, what with the Renaissance-style royal court and the big scary monster which appears to materialise in gloomy underground caverns. But the series still isn't quite ready for full-blown Gothic, and really this (like Invasion of the Dinosaurs) is another charmingly Political Pertwee-era story. This time we have disgruntled striking miners: something most of us think of as being associated mainly with the '80s, but which had actually kicked off early in 1972. Three, of course, sympathises with the miners, trying to intercede between them and the ruling aristocracy and in one scene even sitting with them around their brazier.

This patricians vs. plebeians plot, though, soon becomes secondary to more complicated machinations regarding Peladon's relationship with the Galactic Federation (for which, of course, read EEC), prompting the arrival of Ice Warrior troops as various spies and agents seek to gain control of the planet's supply of trisilicate. The story is a six-parter, so there's plenty of room for all these layers to unfold, and in fact I felt that pace and tension were maintained pretty well over the course of it. Coming from the Tom Baker era (where most stories are four-parters), I'd grown wary of longer stories, as they rarely seemed to work terribly well in that period. But perhaps at this time the writers and producers were better-attuned to their capabilities. Meanwhile, for those of us getting confused by the various double-agents emerging from the woodwork, the Ice Warrior leader provides a handy summary of the various competing parties and their claims at the beginning of episode four - something I was grateful for watching it over only a few days, and which must have been downright essential for the original audience trying to follow the plot over several weeks.

Talking of the Ice Warriors, if you'd asked me whether I'd seen a story with them in it before, I'd have said 'No', but I still found their voices highly recognisable the minute they appeared. Maybe I've just seen them in compilation clips of 'Who's Greatest Monsters' vel sim.? I was also highly amused by how much the Ice Warrior leader looked like Darth Vader, with his helmet, his cloak, his hissy breathing and his insistence on total obedience - and this a comfortable three years before Star Wars came out. It's hard to find a picture which really captures this, as The Monster of Peladon is not terribly well-served for online screencaps, but this is the best I could do:

Other characters seemed interesting and well-delineated, although there was some distinctly second-rate acting amongst the Peladonian guards (in their amusingly-short Roman-style tunics) and miners. I especially liked Eckersley, who turns out to be one of the double-agents - that sort of surprising revelation about people's motives is always fun, because it prompts you to look back over their previous actions, and reinterpret them in the light of the new information. The only character who really annoyed me was the ambassador from Alpha Centauri, whose silly voice and costume rather pricked my suspension of disbelief amongst a cast of otherwise much more plausible characters (y'know, insofar as Ice Warriors from Mars are ever going to be plausible). But I guess that character was at least partly supposed to be comically incompetent, and we also did get to see it lying helplessly on its back like a turtle at one point, which helped a lot.

The real reason I'm here, though, is of course Sarah Jane Smith, and she continues to serve up the goods in fine style. I smiled at her self-referential complaint about finding herself in "another rotten gloomy old tunnel" in the first episode (even though I think her character has only really encountered them in the previous story), and felt pleased for her that it pre-dates Romana I's similar jibe in The Armageddon Factor by a whole five seasons. I also "Awwed" when Three caught her as they were both thrown into Aggedor's pit, and was interested to note that this story sees her handling a gun for the first time - something picked up on later in Pyramids of Mars.

Probably her most iconic scene in this story, though, is her conversation with the Peladonian Queen, who is little more than a puppet dominated by her male chancellor, Ortron. Three knows this is Sarah's field, and leaves the two of them to have a little chat about 'women's lib'. It's a nice example of the writers recognising the strengths of Sarah Jane's character, and the sort of things that they can do with her - and it also finally explains all the icons of her which I've seen around the place with the wonderful line, "There's nothing only about being a girl" on them. From a twenty-first century perspective, some small criticisms could be made - such as the fact that Sarah's words feel slightly devalued by the fact that the conversation only happens in the first place because it is 'set up' by a man (the Doctor), or the fact that the issue is forgotten soon afterwards, and the impact of the scene on the Queen's subsequent behaviour is pretty minimal. But we've only got to the point where I can make such criticisms thanks to the people who thought it was important to include such scenes in works of drama in the first place - so, big points for effort.

Meanwhile, I continue to warm to Three. I felt that his logically-minded Doctor worked well in a story which was largely about negotiation and competing interests, and I absolutely loved the haunting and compelling alien chant which he sang while hypnotising Aggedor. I was also interested to note not one but two scenes in this story in which Sarah Jane believes that he has been killed. The second time in particular, her reaction is very strong: she slumps hopelessly over a monitor-desk, and weeps for him. It's an effective way of underlining the closeness of the relationship which has developed between them, and of course also useful emotional build-up for his eventual regeneration at the end of the next story and her reaction to it. Three's fight scenes still come across to me as annoyingly stagey, though, and I was surprised at the end of the story to see him quite happily setting Aggedor on Eckersley - and act which results in both of their deaths. This is the kind of behaviour I associate with the early First Doctor stories, and thought had been left behind by now.

Overall, I'd say a solid though not outstanding story, which contributes very nicely to the Three / SJS arc and doesn't fall down particularly heavily on any fronts.

Third Doctor: Planet of the Spiders
And so it's on to Pertwee's final story. It's another six-parter, but this time the plot feels decidedly thinly-spread. There's practically a whole episode devoted to a really tedious chase sequence, seemingly conceived by the production team as an exercise in cramming as many silly vehicles as they could lay hold of onto the screen: Bessie, the Whomobile (which even flies this time), a heli-plane, a speedboat and a hovercraft zooming across the fields. Maybe ten-year-old boys find this exciting, and it's only fair to concede that ten-year-old boys were always meant to be a major constituent in Who's audience. But I'm afraid it puts me right off. Meanwhile, another dead give-away for script deficiency is the length of the start-of-episode recaps - two minutes or more in most cases, which adds up to nearly half an episode of not-being-able-to-think-of-anything-to-do over the whole story.

Pity, because it's not a bad story - it just really, really needed to be cut down to a four-parter. Like Logopolis for Four, it was very clearly designed as a self-conscious conclusion to the Third Doctor era - not just the story in which the Third Doctor happens to regenerate. We have a backwards namecheck for Three's longest-serving companion, Jo Grant (as well as a forwards namecheck for Harry Sullivan, who doesn't actually appear on screen yet, but is spoken to on the phone), a resolution to Yates' betrayal of UNIT in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and a stronger-than-usual focus on the Doctor's history and character - e.g. meeting the hermit who was his guru as a young man on Gallifrey, and seeing the bravery with which he faces his fears and returns the blue crystal to Metebelis at the end of the story. The actual regeneration has of course been prepared for to some extent by the Doctor's two near-death moments in Monster, another similar one earlier in the story when he gets zapped at the end of the third episode, and (importantly) the regeneration of the Time Lord hermit (K'Anpo Rinpoche) shortly before the Doctor's. After five years of Jon Pertwee, there must have been a sizeable proportion of the viewing audience who had no idea that the Doctor could do this, so establishing the concept in advance seemed to me a good way to help ensure that everyone could take in the impact of what was happening when it finally did, rather than being too busy wondering what the hell was going on.

Sarah Jane's reaction is touching, especially when the dying Doctor teases her for having a tear in her eye (just as in Monster). But actually, I was more interested in her reaction a little earlier in the story, when she revisits UNIT HQ three weeks after the Doctor has left for Metebelis III to return the crystal, and finds that there has still been no sign of his return. Here, she has come to believe that he is dead, but cannot let go of his memory, moping around the room where his TARDIS used to stand, and even smelling his coat. I've frequently heard it said that the way she was portrayed in School Reunion, never quite able to forget the Doctor or to find any man who could compare to him, is inconsistent with the independence of her character in the Classic series. But whilst it's true that she leaves with a brave face at the end of The Hand of Fear, School Reunion suggests that this is because she really believes at that point that the Doctor will come back for her, and that she only becomes upset about what's happened later, when she gradually concludes that he has died. This is perfectly in keeping with what we see in Planet of the Spiders, where that is exactly what she thinks, so I'm no longer troubled by any inconsistencies between her Classic and new portrayals in that respect at all.

Meanwhile, following on from Monster, I noticed another trope which later appeared in Star Wars - people shooting blue lightning-arcs from their fingers. You've really got to wonder what George Lucas was watching in the early '70s. There was also a very definite debt to Quatermass and the Pit (which certainly was an influence on Who in this period), when the Doctor projected Professor Clegg's thoughts onto a monitor after he has been gazing into the Metebelis crystal. I can also now very much see why so many people saw links between Sarah and the spider which leaps onto her back and possesses her in this story, and Donna and her beetle in Turn Left. Finally, I was impressed by the sympathetic portrayal of Tommy, a resident at the Tibetan Buddhist retreat who clearly has some kind of learning difficulty. Particularly pointed was his exchange with a well-meaning-but-rather-tactless Sarah Jane after gazing into the Metebelis crystal has miraculously turned him into a genius:
Sarah Jane: "Tommy, you're normal! You're just like everybody else!"
Tommy: "I sincerely hope not!"

And with that, I have seen all of Sarah Jane's mainstream Doctor Who stories, including The Five Doctors and Dimensions in Time (though in those cases not within the lifespan of this journal, so I shall be revisiting them in these pages at some point). There's a fair number of audio adventures still out there for me, not to mention her K-9 and Company appearance (now on my Lovefilm wishlist), and a bizarre straight-to-video outing I've only just found out about called Downtime from the mid-'90s. But as regards the central core of stories which feature interaction between her and the Doctor, I am fully up to speed now. With her warmth, her sparkle, her independence and yet also her sense of wide-eyed innocence, she remains definitively my favourite Doctor Who companion by a long chalk - though it's been great to see so many of the same qualities re-appearing in Donna more recently. Three cheers, then, for The Sarah Jane Adventures, and the new series of it which is coming in the autumn.

Tags: cult tv, disabilities, doctor who, feminism, reviews, sarah jane, star wars, three

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