For over 50 years, the Doctor’s adventures have sent generations of children scurrying behind sofas, and for even longer we’ve been scared of spiders too. So this Sunday, when the Time Lord comes up against more spiders, we’re expecting the nation, nay the world, to be cowering in their safe spaces.
The fourth episode of the revamped Doctor Who, starring Jodie Whittaker as the 13th incarnation of the time traveller, is called “Arachnids in the UK”. It sees the Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan finally finding their way back to Yorkshire – and Yaz’s family – only to find something is stirring amidst the eight-legged arachnid population of Sheffield.
A short teaser clip has shown the Doctor being invited back to Yaz’s house for tea, but we also learn that some places in Sheffield are being festooned with cobwebs. And a teaser photograph shows guest star Tanya Fear as lab-coated Jade with a mysterious X-ray of a spider behind her.
What’s occurring? We’ll have to wait until Sunday at 6.55pm to find out exactly what’s going on, but it’s not the first time that Doctor Who has featured spiders as the monsters.
Just three years ago, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor encountered space spiders in the much-derided episode “Kill The Moon“.
Initially thought to be baddies, these spiders were killers because they were acting as disinfectant for the alien that was about to hatch out of the moon. The inhabitants of the moonbase were an infection and had to be covered in cobwebs. Yeah, makes perfect nonsense.
And a few years before that, the sinister Racnoss threatened David Tennant’s Doctor in his first Christmas special, “The Runaway Bride“. Not quite a spider as we know it, this webby fiend was foiled when the Doctor flushed her and her babies down a giant plughole, draining the River Thames in the process.
Thankfully the story is more memorable as being the episode we first meet future companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), who has a tour de force appearance as the bride in question, determined to get back to her magical Christmas wedding.
But delve back further into space and time, and there are episodes from the Classic series where the Doctor came up against more arachnids.
The Tom Baker story “Full Circle“, from his final season, is complex tale about evolution. But when you’re 3 years old, all that matters is the Marshmen, who arrived clad in some of the finest monster costumes ever devised for the show.
Some of the scariest moments in Who come when the monsters come out of the water (see “The Sea Devils” or the cliffhanger to the first part of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” to see what we mean). That’s exactly what happens with the Marshmen. Bed wetting and nightmares ensued.
However, it is Romana who nearly comes a cropper thanks to a nasty spider bite. She is trapped in a cave, K9 has been dismembered by the attacking Marshmen, who then flee when abnormally large spiders hatch out of fruits stored there. One of the spiders jumps up and bites her in the face (think of the Facehugger in Alien), taking over her mind temporarily.
It’s not the only time Tom Baker’s Doctor squares up to spiders, only these other incidents take place in slightly different Whoniverses.
Giant Flying Spiders
In the 1977 Doctor Who annual, famous for its, um, slightly more obscure illustrations that would be more suited to a horror mag than a children’s annual, there’s a terrific (actually rubbish) board game for all ages to try. The Terror Trail is set on the “mysterious planet of Merxes” where a displacement field means Doctor Who space chums Harry and Sarah Jane look nothing like their TV counterparts and the animals have grown to a hundred times their normal size.
Giant flying spiders are some of the monsters they have to face — truly the stuff of nightmares.
On the very next page begins an even more bizarre story, “The Eye Spiders of Pergross“, which starts with Sarah Jane yawning and the Doctor threatening to write a sci-fi yarn, before twirling knobs and ordering his companions to strap in.
Thankfully, he manages to defeat the eye spiders and move swiftly on. If you want to experience the full horror of the 1977 annual, it can be found on the Doctor Who DVD featuring “The Hand of Fear”. Those 70s annuals were many children’s first introduction to psychedelia and clearly written by people who’d barely seen the show, despite it being nearly always on the tellybox.
Sacrifice To the Spider-God
The third time Tom Baker’s Doctor faces off against spiders is in the pages of Doctor Who Monthly in a sublime 1980s comic strip illustrated by Watchmen legend Dave Gibbons and written by Steve Moore.
A group of space explorers land on a primitive planet and think the natives’ sacrifice of their fellow villagers to a giant spider is barbaric. However, the Doctor finds out, far too late, that the sacrifice is anything but: it enables the villagers to evolve, like caterpillars into butterflies, into stunning and beautiful flying creatures. By destroying the spiders, life on the planet will be wiped out.
It’s an excellent tale, that echoes Star Trek’s Prime Directive, and told economically in just eight pages.
Alien Eight Legs
But mention spiders and Doctor Who and the one thing everyone thinks about will be the giant spiders of Metebelis III.
Summoned to earth in a secret Buddhist ritual in the cellar of a monastery, these spiders had a penchant for being called “Eight Legs” and jumping onto people’s backs.
When the Doctor – in his final adventure as Jon Pertwee – travels to Metebelis III, we learn that the spiders are running the planet, with human colonists as their slaves.
Over the course of the adventure, the Doctor is cocooned and placed in the spiders’ larder, before ending up brown bread after visiting The Great One – a spider the size of a house.
Thankfully, this being Doctor Who, he soon turns into Tom Baker, ready to tackle a giant robot – but that’s, quite literally, another story.
As is Sunday’s “Arachnids in the UK”. Who’s checked behind their sofas for cobwebs?