Monday, 25 May 2015

Planet of the Spiders

'Came to the end of Jon Pertwee last night,' I told my boyfriend over breakfast.

'Emotional?' he asked, obviously fascinated.

To my surprise, and his disappointment, answering this simple question required the summarising of the whole six-episode story, skipping the car chase but going back to talk about The Green Death and also some of Doctor Who's previous seasons. It turned out it wasn't a straightforward answer, however easy it is to say, 'Yes, it's very sad when he dies at the end.'

That's because a huge effort is made in this story to build upon the preceding stories, in a way we hadn't seen since the first years of William Hartnell. It's not a very solid construction – more like Wile E. Coyote laying railway track as he rides off the cliff – but it does make a sort of sense, born of Barry Letts' deep Buddhist conviction, which suffuses this era. In this story we see quite explicitly that it's time for the Doctor to change: not because of his health or his luck, but his absolute self. What might be called his soul.

It's something that I've been feeling for several stories now, at least partly because the production team did such a good job in their first couple of seasons, when the Doctor was still chafing at the bonds of his exile and never stopped going on about the injustice of his incarceration on Earth. Every other story, when he sees his chance, he's ready to run out on Earth and return to his life as a cosmic hobo, albeit one dressed by Pierre Cardin.

And then he gets his freedom back and – stays on Earth! Still fossicking around the same old laboratory, now fussing with his car instead of his time machine. Has he opted to settle down with Lethbridge-Stewart for the foreseeable? Has he lost even the curiosity to foresee the future?

His exile by the Time Lords seems to have had a conditioning effect. He's become as non-interventionist and incurious as they. Once upon a time he was happier to call himself a citizen of the universe ('And a gentleman, to boot!') but now he identifies himself more strongly than ever with their Lordliness and ideology. In The Time Warrior, he disses them gently as 'galactic ticket inspectors' but essentially he's doing their job: clamping Linx's space-ship and, in the next story, issuing the British government's time travellers with an on-the-spot penalty (getting eaten by T-Rex).

Of course, he's in denial about all this. He tries persuading Jo to join him on the open road, but she's having none of it. She wants a mission and a relationship and every other linear thing the trans-temporal life is an escape from. He takes Sarah-Jane away for a weekend on Florana, a mini-break to Peladon, but he always comes home to his claret and sandwiches, and presumably a gentleman's hairdressers with whom he has regular, eccentric conversations. Spiders shows him on a night out at the Tarminster Civic Centre. Having finished his space car, he's taken up a new project to distract himself with.

To distract himself from that feeling of terror which we see – in a comedy sequence, of all things – on his visit to Metebelis Three in The Green Death. A fear of the unknown that he represses, because he knows that's not who he is. A fear which he ultimately, alone as he was that morning in Oxley Woods, goes to face.

I think it's true to say that this is a story about the end of the Doctor's life, while The War Games (which I watched about a year ago) is a serial. Just as Doctor in 1969 and earlier is a show, every instalment a new splash of spectacle, and Jon Pertwee's era is a series. A tremendous amount of care and attention has gone into devising this show, and oddly enough it necessitates this rather melancholy last season.

Death to the Daleks, and the end of the Exxilons too; the sourness of the Golden Age and the defection of Mike Yates and Jo Grant's wedding gift sent back in a Jiffy bag. Even Aggedor gets shot in the head. The Master seems to have vanished without a trace. The Buddhist philosophy asks its disciples to consider impermanence, and so does the last series of Jon Pertwee.

'And,' I told my boyfriend, 'the whole last story is about how the "old man must die, and the new man discovers to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed." And when they meet the Abbot of the meditation centre, he turns out to be the Doctor's old teacher from when he was a boy...'

'This is beginning to sound like a dream you had,' Jon replied, in bafflement rather than derision.

And it's absolutely true. All the mystery and wonder of Planet of Spiders comes from its complete illogicality. Coincidence piles on coincidence, without even the daring to call it 'serendipity'. The story begins with answers that are never answered: what's Lupton doing with his followers down in that cellar, if he doesn't know about contacting the Spiders, and why have the Spiders picked him as their agent anyway?

It ends with questions, too: why did the Abbot set up that meditation centre, and where does he go at the end of the story? What exactly is the Doctor's great fear, and what would happen if 'facing it' also entailed the rise of the Great One to dominate the universe with her ungodly will? How exactly do you teleport from Earth to Metebelis Three just by stepping on a bit of carpet? Why not do it all the time, if you can?

To a great extent, Doctor Who can never quite escape the fact that it's a 'show'. Lurid, sensational, ephemeral, daft. A showman and his assistant playing their part against a shimmering screen, with a puppet dancing on the table. How's it done? What's that? What will happen next?

But it also acts a bit like a mandala: a picture of the universe, in microcosm. (Funny that the Third Doctor's era began with a modern counterpart to this image, the Earth photographed from space.) This is one of the Doctor's lives, in microcosm, from Cyril Shaps to Kevin Lindsay, Drashigs to the Doctor's tutor. The transcendentalist figure of the Doctor makes as good a figure for contemplation as any, a place from which to consider the self and try to get beyond it.

And at the end of the story, we roll up the magic carpet or rub out the mandala drawn in the sand, and consider everything afresh...

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