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3 February 2014

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

Day 399: Planet of the Spiders, Episode Five

Dear diary,

Sometimes, when you’ve spent so long watching Doctor Who, you think you’ve got it all figured out. I’ve watched an episode a day for the last 399 days, so I’ve seen my fair share of cliffhangers, and I know how they work. Peter Davison and Janet Fielding often talk about ‘cliffhanger acting’ when you reach the final sixty seconds of an episode, and so I’ve become used to seeing this in action throughout the last year or so. Now it’s become more fun to try and pinpoint where the cliffhanger is going to fall as early as you can before it occurs. Sometimes, this is easy. Other times, they throw in a rather ordinary-looking tiled floor and if I’d not known it was coming I’d have been left utterly confused.

Today, though, ah today was easy. Of course the cliffhanger is going to be the revelation that Sarah Jane has been possessed by the Queen Spider. It’s one of those images that you just know of when you’re a fan of the classic series - that shot of Sarah in the house, raising her arm and firing some blue energy from it. Truth be told, I’ve been waiting all story for her to get possessed, and I didn’t think that it was going to come quite this late into events. But now, Lis Sladen is acting slightly out of character. She’s struck a deal with the Queen which allows her and the Doctor to escape really easily, and then she’s that bit too eager to get away and find the crystal. The tension’s ramping up, the final few seconds are approaching… Here comes the cliffhanger… Sarah Jane is under the control of… Oh.

So 399 days in, you can still be wrong-footed. That’s half the fun. I’d already got a vague idea of what I wanted to talk about today, and it really does hinge on the fact that Sarah is currently operating under spider control. I thought that the cliffhanger would be that wonderful shot of her shooting out the energy, and then the credits would roll while I typed away into the night. We can’t all be perfect, but since she’s so clearly under the Queen’s power, and because tomorrow probably has a number of other things that I’ll want to talk about, I’m going to stick to my planned discussion topic for the day: the return of the Metebilis Spiders for The Sarah Jane Adventures.

You see, the more that I think about it while watching this story, the more I really wish that they had returned to launch an attack against Bannerman Road while Sarah Jane was in residence. A few summers ago, I met Gary Russell in Cardiff Bay to have a long chat about Sarah Jane and his relationship with both the character and Lis Sladen over the years. I was conducting interviews for a planned Sarah Jane Adventures fanzine, although the project eventually stalled. During our chat, he mentioned that they’d planned at one point to bring the spiders back during the programme’s fourth season, but that it just hadn’t worked out.

I was fascinated. I’d never even considered the idea of the spiders coming back to haunt her (having never seen this story, they weren’t high on my list for a potential revisit). A few days later, Panini released the third volume of their Sarah Jane Companion magazine, which contained breakdowns of several stories that were planned for the series but which never made it off the ground. I can still remember sitting on the train back from Cardiff, opening up the magazine and staring down at the image of a giant spider menacing Sarah Jane! Adrian Salmon’s artwork has always been a favourite, and his drawing of a spider in Bannerman Road’s basement actually does freak me out a little.

The special presents a few different versions of the spiders’ return, in story outlines from Gary Russell, and then Gareth Roberts & Clayton Hickman. Both outlines share elements, such as Sarah Jane stealing crystals and equipment from the Pharos Institute and preparing a machine which will enlarge near-by spiders. In one version of the draft, the whole reason that Sarah Jane came to Bannerman Road was because the spiders guided her there without her even realising it. Despite several versions of the story being planned, the idea was eventually dropped when the team decided that it wasn’t right.

During our chat, Gary told me “There was no way to make that story work with the spiders, and I was so relieved! I’d been so convinced that I had failed on every level, that I couldn’t do this story that Russell wanted, but I was over-the-moon that someone like Gareth could say ‘No, it just doesn’t work.’ But then they went off and wrote Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith to replace it, which is such a brilliant story.”

At the time, having not seen Planet of the Spiders, I suggested to Gary that they were more the Third Doctor’s monsters than they were Sarah Jane’s. Having actually seen the early stages of her possession by the Queen, I think I’m starting to doubt myself on that point, but all the same, Gary explained: “Spiders are good, though. They’re really good for kids. Scare kids with spiders - it’s always a good idea! It was an early discussion, a very early discussion, when we were planning Series Four, and ‘Giant Spiders’ was the first thing that went up on the board.”

Later in our conversation Gary described planned references to the Mandragora Helix in Secrets of the Stars as being “A really good line for all of us [fans],” though he told me that “If you put that into the second series of Sarah Jane, you’re telling your six-year-old audience that they’re missing something by not seeing a programme made thirty years before they were born. It’s not just like slapping a big, visual monster in. But we didn’t sit there all ‘let’s bring the Wirrn back!’ - just no! Spiders were genuinely the only thing that we came up with. Because they’re spiders, you could have all these continuity references to Metebilis III, because it didn’t need explaining to the kids - there’s a bloody big giant spider! That’s all they need!”

Although the story outlines sound great (and that team would have made them look fantastic!), I think that I can see why they chose not to go with the creatures. In the magazine, Russell T Davies explains that he was cautious of diminishing the spider’s effects - “Those things killed the Third Doctor! Even he couldn’t defeat them, he had to let the Great One destroy herself. So to take creatures that powerful and yet have them defeated in good old Ealing…” It has to be said that I can see his point. There’s a scene in today’s episode where the Great One - unseen off stage, simply as a voice that echoes through the cavern - mentally forces the Doctor to walk around in a circle. Oh, sure, when you write that down it sounds a bit silly, but as a moment in the story it’s actually terrifying. While we’re used to seeing the Doctor lose at some point during a story before he pulls it all back together again, we don’t often see him so totally helpless, fighting against a force which he just can’t resist. Forget the giant spiders - this is the scariest thing in this story.

In all, as much as I’d have loved to see them make a return having finally seen this story, I think I’m in agreement with the ides that it just wouldn’t have been right to reduce them to a spin-off. Plus, from a slightly more wimpish position, can you imagine how well they could have done the spiders for a modern episode? I don’t know if they’d have gone with practical models or CGI (On the one hand, The Sarah Jane Adventures’  budget wouldn’t stretch to CGI on that scale, but surely they must have some 3D spider models in the computer somewhere?), but either way, I have a feeling that they’d be more off-putting than the ones in the original tale!

 

izzi United States
4/2/2020 5:16:04 AM #

Hello, just wanted to mention, I loved this blog post.

Chuck Levitch United States
4/7/2020 6:26:43 PM #

It was helpful. Keep on posting!

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