“One is only frightened when there’s hope of rescue. We have no hope left. We are dead, my child.” – Sabor
The Pertwee closes with a sufficiently grandiose story. It does have its excesses—not the least of which is the ridiculously extended chase sequence that involves everything from the Doctor’s old roadster to boats to hovercraft to a gyrocopter to a flying car! All that was obviously to indulge John Pertwee’s extreme interest in gadgets. We get to have a little fun with UNIT and particularly the Brigadier, introducing a bit of naughty spice into his normally staunch character. It is also a nice to have the story open with the surprise of seeing Mike Yates—a clever reintroduction and ultimate redemption of his character. Even Jo gets a brief nod (through the letter she sends to the Doctor) thus adding a bit of long-term past continuity to this last episode for the Third Doctor.
The appearance of the realistic giant spider at the first cliffhanger signals the creepiness of this story. Even though the constant back and forth about the crystal and plans of the competing spiders gets a little old, there’s enough unique in the characterization of the ‘eight legs’—their mental abilities, the creepiness of their union with the ‘two legs’, their total subjugation to the Great One—to keep it quite interesting. When they start appearing in larger numbers around the meditation circle, it’s definitely disturbing.
The society of the ‘two legs’, descendants of colonists on Metebelis 3, are a bit bland as characters. At one point they seem like they are rebels secretly working for freedom; at another they are like dull sheep accepting their fate. Once the Doctor inspires them to rebel by introducing them to the stone they can use in defense, it is truly a shock when it’s revealed their revolution failed and they are all actually under the control of the spiders. Fortunately, the Doctor’s sacrifice at the end corrects this problem, but it’s still a huge disappointment to realize they lost despite their courage.
There are lots of good little ideas throughout the story. Tracking the amazing healing of Tommy’s mind by showing his progress in reading and reasoning is a marvelous device. I wish there’d been time to show him going on to great things. Of course, introducing not only the Doctor’s exiled teacher that he referred to many stories before but also the idea of a Time Lord projecting his future self prior to regeneration is rather revolutionary in our understanding of the Gallifreyans. Getting to see Sarah’s materialization from Earth to Metebelis 3 on the mandala from her perspective is also something very new for the program and quite a startling visual. Even some subtle things, like Mike’s being startled by stumbling into a spider web, a small foreshadowing before we encounter the villains of the story, are just nice little touches.
In the end, the whole point of this story is to lead to the Doctor’s regeneration, but they give it a higher level of pathos by making it not just about the passing of the Third Doctor but a moment of self-sacrifice based on him seeing and correcting faults in himself. It’s very unique how they draw Buddhism, or rather the 70s surge of Western interest in it, into the story and that this ends up paralleling the Doctor’s personal journey. Not only do we learn of the self-discovery that influenced his entire life and choice to leave Gallifrey, but it makes the moment of his passing so much weightier. On the other hand, it’d become a familiar enough event in the program by this point for the Brigadier to be able to joke “Well, here we go again.”
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
When you’re talking about giant spiders that latch on to peoples’ backs, there are many creepy moments to choose from. An insane giant spider screaming in rage and then agony is also a rather intense moment. The intensity of the chanting at the meditation circle is effectively edgy. I also find it rather affecting when the spider begins to twist Lupton’s mind and then sadistically has him beg please for release. It’s almost just as bad when he turns around and has the spider writhing in agony begging for mercy as well.
- A Time Lord projecting his future incarnation
- The Doctor gets “help” to regenerate
I know the spiders are supposed to simply be earth spiders mutated by the crystal but it’s too perfect of a parallel to think that they are not in anyway related to the Time Beetle that hides on Donna’s back in the new series. Perhaps the Metebelis crystals have created strange and powerful insect species throughout history?
When I saw this as a kid, the introduction of the flying Whomobile was cringeworthy and really cut down my opinion of the episode. I was (and still am) also bothered by how entirely dissimilar Metebelis 3 is here compared to the Doctor’s first visit, even if it is supposed to be hundreds of years apart. (Yes, it could be a big planet with many different environments but for the viewers it offers not continuity.)