Saturday, 6 February 2010

Planet of the Spiders

Planet of the Spiders 1:

I’ve always had a fondness for stories where the first episode appears to present two totally unrelated storylines (like, say, Carnival). So this episode is nominally already onto a winner for me. OK, it slightly stretches credulity when you have two connected groups stumbling into the same situation, but then whole episodes of Who stretch credulity so that should hardly be viewed as a major issue, surely?

Unusually, the episode ends with the precise link between the two left unclear. Which is possibly a mistake, as the connection would have a sort of coup de theatre flourish quality that would give added impact to the finale. But nonetheless it still works quite well as a hook.

Otherwise, this is a fairly odd episode. There’s really very little movement of plot from about five minutes in. Once Yates knows Lupton’s up to know good and we know Cyril Shaps is a proper psychic, there’s really very little left for the episode to do, given where it ends. But it does go along quite pleasantly because, as I usually like, the time is used up by going into character stuff. Sloman/Letts are, unsurprisingly, always very good at characterization of the regulars, with the Brig and Benton being particularly entertaining in this part (albeit with the former when he’s not being treated as if he’s a cretin). Yates’ new incarnation is another intriguing take on the character. And the villains are already quite interestingly ordinary. I’m not entirely sure about Tommy. It’s a sensitively done performance, but it’s always a bit hard to make this sort of character anything other than a walking cliché. Nonetheless, it’s hard to dislike the character. It’s a bit of a shame that the (for obvious reasons) respectful treatment of Buddhism is slightly over-shadowed by Kevin Stoney in make-up, but it is nonetheless quite an intriguing world to see in a Who story. It takes the story to a slightly more metaphorical level somehow, a slightly deeper level.

So, a good first episode. Intriguing, and whilst slow and lacking in any real incident, it keeps you involved and is gently amusing.

Planet of the Spiders 2:

There are some episodes you dread reviewing. Planet of the Spiders 2 is one such episode. Notorious for having half its running time devoted to an extended chase sequence, it doesn’t exactly give you much to talk about.

Let’s look at the first half… well, first. There’s a good bit of a gallop to it, seemingly to get through the set up for the chase as quickly as possible. The two stories of episode one are linked together swiftly and efficiently, and the Spiders are very quickly established as an intriguing concept. There are a few nice touches of humour and we begin to get a sense of where the story is going. Lupton is already establishing himself as a rather beguilingly low-key villain. It feels an odd choice for a Doctor’s finale, given that he’s used to fighting more grandiose threats, but he’s all the more interesting for that.

So the second half – well, the commonly held view is that the chase is just pointless running around and padding. And the obvious comment to add to that is: ‘well, it’s a chase. What do you expect?’

Chases are fun. They just are. And I can’t think of a single time when they actually advance the plot. No chase in the history of storytelling couldn’t be cut. Chases are all about delaying the next plot development, not a plot development in themselves. And yet if you consider a rule of storytelling to be that every scene has to change something or advance something, every scene has to be going somewhere… they defy that rule.

Chases are about building tension and suspense. And it therefore helps if they take time. It’s no coincidence that this is the most memorable chase sequence in the history of Who, purely for being longest (unless you want to count stories like DMP and, er, The Chase). It’s better than the TVM one and is all about playing fun variations on a theme – if a smile doesn’t cross your face when a hovercraft pulls up next to the speedboat and there might as well be an on-screen caption telling you precisely what’s going to happen next, then you’ve no soul.

OK, so its definitely got a disappointing finale that appears to make the whole need for Lupton’s attempted escape utterly pointless, but it’s far more interesting than him being captured and it’s timed perfectly. Beyond all that, it’s an entertaining twelve minutes or so. Yes, an odd episode, but an enjoyable one for all that.

Planet of the Spiders 3:

And it was all going so well.

One of the frustrating things about Planet of the Spiders is that there’s so much that’s right with it. But then there’s a lot that’s appalling.

Incredibly quickly after Eckersley, we once again get the joy of the mundane villain (this time joining up with massively powerful alien, admittedly). Lupton’s backstory in this episode, as a disgruntled and now power hungry salesman screwed over by accountants is utterly wonderful on every level. It’s all so wonderfully odd and idiosyncratic (aided by John Dearth’s slightly strange performance – he never seems totally with it to me). People who complain that his cohorts are nondescript are missing the point – they’re supposed to be. These aren’t super-villains, they’re very dull men who are trying to escape their boring natures. Lupton’s spider pretty much explicitly points this up with her continual withering asides about Barnes.

Furthermore, there’s beautiful use of dramatic irony here with everyone ignoring Tommy despite him holding the key to everything. This is definitely part of the overall allegory of the story, with everyone too wrapped up in their own affairs to listen to the simplest, most honest voice. And there are some lovely moments of direction and scripting – the realisation of Sarah’s transportation (taking it from her viewpoint rather than her more traditional and expected slow vanishing) is extremely striking.

So it is rather a shame that this episode takes this, up til now, quirky and unusual tale into the land of generic sci-fi cliché. I’m never really a fan of criticising a story for its effects or costumes… but the sudden lurch into cheap ‘oh my god, we’ve run out of money’ landscape and the jolting contrast with the crisp classiness of K’anpo’s centre and the earlier episodes marks this out as an episode where the reach exceeds the grasp. We’ve gone from the complex and original character of Lupton to a group of walking stereotypes. Hell, even the Spiders seem as generic as can be. It’s a real shame that a story starting out as genuinely quite interesting is resorting to sci-fi cliché to fill in the running time. And Gareth Hunt.

Planet of the Spiders 4:

Any six part story where characters say, in the same episode, ‘this is getting monotonous’ and words to the effect of ‘what’s the point of saying the same thing over and over’ is surely offering a hostage to fortune. So it’s surely odd that repetition and monotony isn’t really a problem with this episode (apart from the blatant filler of Barnes and his cronies standing around failing to do anything) and it’s more that it doesn’t really seem to have any ideas of where to take it.

Actually, that’s probably not really true either. This is a story which clearly knows how it wants to end and where it’s going. It just hasn’t got a clue of how to spend the time whilst getting there. It’s hard not to see it as something of a jumbled mess, and the lack of a strong drive is emphasised with the structure of the individual episodes. There’s a commonly documented series of mess-ups over half this story where material is shuffled and cliffhangers created and this only really reminds you how little is going on.

This episode ends up basically being about three things. The first is padding. By the end of the episode only a couple of things appear to have changed – one we’ll get to in a moment, but the other is the Doctor’s discovery of stones that protect from Spider-blasts. It remains to be seen how much this affects the over-all story, but at the moment it’s underwhelming. Beyond that, the end of this episode (with Sarah and the Doctor captured) is essentially where the previous episode ended. Sarah’s whole ‘hiding under a shawl’ bit and the ‘Doctor in a coma’ routine are just prevarication whilst they wait to be captured again.

The second thing is exposition. This is the episode where we get the explanation of who the Spiders are. It’s all right, if a little pulpy, and it’s made more entertaining by switching between two different tellings.

The third thing is the enlightenment of Tommy, far and away the only properly interesting thing to happen in this episode, almost single-handedly redeeming it. John Kane’s portrayal of the realization, his excitement building as his voice drops away reading a Jack and Jill book is beautifully done. It would be a very good scene in a regular episode, here it’s an easy stand-out. Shame the rest of it doesn’t match it, then.

Planet of the Spiders 5

One of the things that’s becoming gradually clear about this story is that it’s rather throwing away some of it’s bigger assets.

Take Lupton for example. As I’ve said before, he’s an engagingly different and small villain for the show, the neutered former salesman looking for power. So it’s something of a shame that the script doesn’t really know what to do with him. From the moment he arrives on Metebelis 3, he’s pretty much neutered again, simply hanging round a throne room chatting to a bunch of puppets, and trying to get away with having been a bit rubbish. It remains unclear as to why the spiders bother keeping him around, unless his one just needs a lift somewhere once in a while. Like a Superhero threequel, this story is now over-dosing on villains to the degree that it loses track of where the focus should be, and none of them really seem all that threatening anymore. It’s like one of my least favourite Columbo episodes - the UK one, if anyone knows it, where the killers commit their crime by accident and are winging it as clueless idiots, and as a result never really feel like much of a match. Here it’s hard to believe that the petty squabbling spiders, making up plans on the hoof and more concerned with getting one over on each other than any overall scheme, are any real threat. Whilst I know that I’ve been raving about the entertaining banality of Lupton and his cronies, to then team them up with a bunch of equally pathetic super-beings does seem to lose the point.

This does, however, mean that the introduction of the all-powerful Great One comes as a breath of fresh air, albeit one that really makes you realise how pointless her minions are. The scenes with the Doctor under her temporary thrall are the first that really make you feel that this is a story worth sending a Doctor off in. Shame that they really don’t seem to have much connection to the very generic sci-fi gubbins they’re nominally attached to.

In deed, the other thing the Great One throws into view is that there doesn’t really appear to be any idea of what the central thrust of this story actually is. It’s like the title came first. The human revolution on Metebelis suggests that this flat sub-plot is over and done with now, but it was clearly only there to pad the story out.

Still, there’s some good Doctor and Sarah stuff in this episode, so it ain’t all bad. But it mainly is.

Planet of the Spiders 6:

I always find reviews of final episodes difficult. It’s like I’m subconsciously done with the story by that point. Ridiculous, obviously, but once I’ve completed the story, I don’t feel the same immediate urge to write the review as when writing means I’m allowed to watch what happens next. So, as is traditional, I’m coming to write this a little after the fact.

And I’m finding it hard to remember much about it. And that’s got to be odd for the big dramatic finale of a Doctor’s life, hasn’t it? And it’s rather indicative of why the story doesn’t entirely work.

That’s not to say this is a bad episode. A lot of the story is tied off neatly, but a lot of it demonstrates wasted potential.

Whilst the story is nominally that of the Doctor facing his own fear and arrogance, accepting spiritual renewal… well, am I the only one who doesn’t find it that convincing?

It’s all very well K’anpo lecturing the Doctor on how his greed for knowledge led to him taking the crystal… but for my money, that doesn’t entirely square with he actually did. It’s not like he knew it was the perfect crystal that was going to be required in the future, and it’s not like wanting knowledge is a massively awful thing. If the Doctor died because he was reminded how he could be a cock to Jo Grant, then the metaphor might stand a bit stronger. But what happens is the equivalent of us being killed because we took a pebble from a beach.

The realisation of the Great One is also a disappointment, to me at least. Not because the puppet isn’t great – it isn’t, but neither is it actually all that bad – but because giant all powerful spider has potential – and then she doesn’t go anywhere, and is a bit of a loony who doesn’t realise her grand scheme will kill her as well.

After mentioning how Lupton is wasted last episode – and he’s killed off here for no reason either - it’s fairly clear here that Tommy is as well. His ‘enlightenment’ is nicely handled, but ultimately pointless in plot terms (other than it seemingly granting him super-powers for no obvious reason). The reveal about the human’s not having succeeded in their rebellion is a neat reversal of expectation, but it does rather underline the problem.

This story is entirely about good ideas that aren’t really used to their full potential. The themes are strong and solid, but ultimately not done all that well. The approach is good, it’s the final realisation that is flawed.

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