1 February 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 397: Planet of the Spiders, Episode Three

Dear diary,

Fair warning to those of you out there who - like me - aren’t all that fond of spiders. Today, I’ll be examining what made me scared of spiders, and there’s a few anecdotes about them involved. The first five paragraphs of today’s entry are solely confined to the story itself, but after that, I’m a bit ‘off-book’…

It shows how little I know about this story that I didn’t realise the Doctor or Sarah Jane spent any time with the ‘two-legs’ on Metebilis III. I knew that the Doctor wound up on the planet at some point (that image of him stood before the huge Queen Spider is another of those well-known ones, and in case I was in any doubt, it’s replicated on the DVD discs), but I assumed that he just took the TARDIS right to the… spider cave? Centre of the web! (Hah!)

I’m not quite sure how I feel about this strange race of primitives that occupy the surface of the planet, or indeed, what I make of the planet’s surface. The implication from The Green Death and the way the Doctor speaks of it during Carnival of Monsters, I’d always assumed that the rock of the planet was simply blue, thus making it ‘the famous blue planet’. Here, we’re told that it looks blue in the moonlight, but the rest of the time it just looks a bit like a dodgy CSO Utah.

And yet, I am keen on the idea that the spiders are treating humans as a kind of slave race. It’s good to see that they’re used to this kind of relationship with us two-legs, and it informs a lot of the way they act during their exchanges with Lupton back on Earth. I get the impression from a few lines of dialogue about travelling in spaceships the way their ancestors did, that this will be one of those typical 1970s Doctor Who plots, in which they’re the decedents of a human space mission, several generations on. Similar ideas come into play during stories from The Face of Evil to The State of Decay, but in those instances, I’m pretty sure that it’s supposed to come as a surprise to the primitive society, whereas here they’re fully aware of this fact.

Today, we get our first opportunity for a really good look at the eight-legged-enemies in this story. We’ve had a single spider knocking around since the cliffhanger to the first episode, but she’s spent much of her time invisible up to now. Here, we get to see a whole room full of the creatures for the first time. On the one hand, I’m not scared by the sight of it in the way I thought I may have been (I vaguely knew the design of the set from a model in an episode of Blue Peter), but on the other hand, the models are very well done.

I’d say that the problem is how static they all are. During the ‘conference’ scene, in which a floating ‘holographic’ Lupton head converses with the council of spiders, only one of the models is capable of movement, but it’s by far the most effective model in the room. The way it wiggles and moves is very convincing, and - yes - even a little un-nerving. Later, when the spider on Earth is caught in a battle of the wills with her captive mind, the way the model writhes in pain is very effective. And yet, when that same model is required to sit perfectly still a foot or so from a doorway… it’s perhaps the most effective that it’s ever been. I think it’s because I can sympathise with the idea of having to edge my way around a particularly large spider to get out of the room, and I was thinking how much I’d have not wanted to be acting with that prop!

I think I’m going to have to admit… the story has given me a nightmare. I think it’s the first time that this has ever happened to me through Doctor Who. In fairness, it’s not directly related to the story, it was just vaguely spider-related. Last night in bed, for the first time in a few years, I recalled an encounter with a spider that I had when I was very young. Truth be told, I’m almost entirely convinced these days that it wasn’t even a real event in the first place, but rather a nightmare that I had when quite young that has just lived on as a memory in my head.

In this ‘memory’, my parents are away on holiday and I’m staying with my grandparents. Growing up, we lived on this farm out in Norfolk. I lived with mum and dad in the farmhouse, while my grandma and grandpa lived in a converted barn across the yard - literally thirty seconds between the two doors. Mum and nan still live there, although both dad and my grandpas have since passed away. Anyway, I must have been about four or five years old, and I can remember my grandmother taking me over to the farmhouse to get something I needed. Probably a toy or something. I can vaguely recall seeing something unusual as we entered the kitchen, but thinking nothing of it, but then on the way back out of the house, I noticed it clinging to the wall about four feet from the ground - the biggest spider that I’d ever seen.

You see, this is why, over the years, I’ve started to doubt my own recollection of the event, and wonder if it may have all been a nightmare some twenty years ago. Because to this day, I can clearly recall what this spider looked like. I was about ten inches across, and had a body… in the shape of a jelly mold. You know the kind: three-tier, getting smaller towards the top. I can distinctly remember that being the shape of the creature, but it wasn’t until many years later that I realised that - realistically - spiders just don’t come in that shape. Suffice to say, my grandmother has no memory of the event, and you wouldn’t forget a big, jelly-shaped spider in a hurry.

A few years ago, my good friend Nick Mellish and I wrote a book, in which we listened to all of the Eighth Doctor’s audio adventures in order from the beginning. Before staring work on The 50 Year Diary, it was the only Doctor Who marathon I’d ever undertaken. The finale to the Eighth Doctor’s third series of adventures with Lucie Miller is a direct sequel to Planet of the Spiders, and during the audio I shared the above spider memory with Nick. He then admitted that he, too, had a rather horrible memory which left him scared of the creatures:

”When I was around four-years-old, a large, big-legged, fat spider fell off the ceiling in my bedroom, onto my face. I was terrified, screamed, and fled the room. I ran to my parents' bedroom, in tears, and spent the night there. The following day, I was still too scared to return to my bedroom. My Mum told me that it was clearly a nightmare and that spiders don't do things like fall onto people's faces, so she bravely went into my bedroom and pulled back the duvet… to reveal the large, big-legged, fat spider. I can still hear her scream now in my ears; I think it was the first time I'd ever seen one of my parents vulnerable"

With all these various spider fears around, I’ve simply had no real desire to ever check out this story (though ,admittedly, I loved the audio sequel to this story. Well worth checking out!), but I’ve always been vaguely aware of what the spiders look like. I’m not sure when I first saw them, but I know I was testing myself. I was so relieved to find that - in pictures, at least - they looked clearly enough like models that I wouldn’t be scared by them. When the DVD came out, I can remember seeing a few clips posted around here and there (we used to play the new Who releases on a loop in the shop I worked in at the time, so I caught snippets now and then), and while they still didn’t freak me out, I really had no desire to check them out any further.

What really put me off, though was the original design of the Queen Spider. I think there’s only the one image of it floating around out there now, of the model set up in the visual effects department at the BBC, but it terrified me. The only way I can think of to describe it is in the same way I’d described the Mirkwood spiders in the Hobbit concept art - ‘rough’. It looked scary, and a bit ‘butch’ (as as much as a spider can look butch) and it really, really, scared me. It’s probably grown and evolved in my head over the years to the point that I don’t really want to even go and find the image to link to in this entry. Chances are that it’s actually not all that more scary than the ones which have made the final version of the story, but It freaked me out enough at the time, and I could easily see why Barry Letts decided that they needed to be toned down before they could be broadcast..

Oh! And there you go! I’ve just been mentioning to my mother on the phone that I’m watching a Doctor Who story called Planet of the Spiders. She commented that I must be loving it before pointing out that ‘it was your grandmother that made you scared of them’. Now, this isn’t the grandmother I’ve mentioned above, it’s my other grandmother. As mum told me the story, I could actually remember it - every fragment of the tale coming back to me a few seconds before mum recounted it.

I’ll not bore you with all the details, but it boils down to this: Until very recently, my other grandmother lived in an old house which was - for all intents and purposes - right in the middle of the woods. The only house for miles around, and falling down from a lack of repair since its construction several hundred years before. The house was made of flint and other stone, and I can always remember it being cold.

There was only one shower in the house itself, but it was quite a recent addition (I say ‘recent’, it would have been put in about thirty years ago, but this story does take place when I was very young!). Before that, they used to use an old shower in the little outhouses. I never used to like that shower. It was old and rusty, and it was a bit scary, in the way that children’s minds make strange old things like that scary. I can remember my grandmother used to use it as a way of keeping my behaviour good when I went to stay: ‘be a good boy, or you’ll have to use the outside shower tonight…’

One time, my grandmother told me about why they’d decided to get the shower installed inside the house. She told me that the outside one used to draw its water directly from the well (I remember always thinking that this was strange, but the new owners of the house are dismayed to find that there’s no mains water and it all comes from the well - so maybe that was the one bit of the story I should have believed!) and sometimes you’d get bugs come through in the water.

This one day, she went to take a shower, and only a few drips came out. She tried knocking the pipes to remove any blockages, but nothing happened. And then, it started to make a noise as things began to move. She looked up at the shower head… just in time for a shower of tiny spiders to come raining down all over her.

This story used to terrify me as a child. it’s no wonder I’d managed to pretty much block it out! No quirky jelly-shaped arachnids in this nightmare! Anyway, I look forward to going into tomorrow’s episode with this image now firmly re-established in my mind…!

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Ray Bayly