This review contains spoilers.
11.4 Arachnids In The UK
What had eight limbs, moved in a terrifyingly inhuman fashion and made Doctor Who thescariest it’s been in decades? Stacey Dooley and Kevin Clifton’s Cybermandance on Strictly, of course! Small wonder, then, that Chris Chibnall and the team felt the need to counter that horror by focusing this week’s episode on everyone’s least-favourite bath-buddies, spiders.
Choosing to fixate on a species whose mere depiction can chill the blood of some audience members was a bold move indeed, and while I’m not especially arachnophobic, I did appreciate that the spiders were portrayed with some sensitivity. There’s a lot you can do within the realm of CG animation by adjusting their body type and how they walk to minimise just how unsettling spiders can be to those with an aversion, and it looked like as much care as possible was being taken to ensure that anyone watching could still get to sleep.
On top of that, the eight-legged contingent of this instalment were treated with a feather-touch in the first half of the episode, making way for the familiar bipedal cast as they returned home to discover that it had been a mere half-hour since they found themselves beamed into the vacuum of space. It’s fair to say that much of Jodie Whittaker’s run has been given over to the evolving relationship between Ryan and Graham so far, so with the TARDIS plonked outside Yaz’s flat, it seemed high time for Mandip Gill to enjoy some of the meaty character development that the rest of Team TARDIS – we have a moniker, ladies and gentlemen – have undergone so far.
Unfortunately, Yaz’s insistence on shutting down any meaningful conversation about her new friends and their window to the universe means that we’re still waiting on that front. With her Dad Hakim in full-on Dinner Mode and sister Sonya struggling to glance up from her phone, Yaz is barely through the front door before she’s off again to pick up her Mum from work. We’re given the impression that this flightiness is par for the course in the Khan household, but it’s easy to feel that Yaz’s home life is being paid just enough attention to fill out an entry on a wiki, rather than because it’s anything the writing team really want to tackle this week.
Brief as it is, it’s the moment where Graham – returning from a house that manages to feel both hostile and devastated thanks to some fine cinematography and Bradley Walsh’s big mournful eyes – connects with Ryan that manages to have the most impact. “I didn’t like that he said that.” Ryan’s admittance that his unwanted Grandad is what properfamily means, blood ties notwithstanding, is beautifully understated and very real.
Four episodes in, there’s another character whose relative lack of nuance is starting to chafe against the developing chemistry of her new best friends. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, who by her own admission is “still starting to figure herself out”, is once again her motor-mouthed, high octane self, pinging from prop to prop and rattling off observations about tea, sofas and Amelia Earhart. This cheerful, gobby side of the Doctor is very much part of the character, and it’s a role that Whittaker seems well-suited for.
Likewise, though, it’s previously been all-too-apparent that this manic behaviour is a veneer; a way of distracting the Doctor’s enemies while masking her intelligence and the danger that’s lurking beneath. As yet, those elements of the Doctor’s personality have yet to shine through as brightly as they might have. We’ve had a few glimpses – the “famous naps” speech from The Ghost Monument, and a flicker of exhaustion as the she leans against the TARDIS door in this episode, steeling herself to be alone again – but mostly the Doctor has seemed irritated by her adversaries rather than furious. Here’s hoping that in episodes to come there’s some downtime between running through corridors, where Whittaker can play more with the character of the Doctor, pushing beyond warmed-over mannerisms from previous incumbents to make her own indelible mark.
And speaking of corridors, Arachnids in the UKcertainly does its part to fill this year’s quota of passageway-pelting. Even with the slower moments afforded to Graham’s homecoming and torches cautiously panning across spider-webs, this is a pacey episode. Even so, it feels better-balanced than the three that have come before it, which tended to burn slow and then race to the climax as if they were running out of time.
This sense of urgency is largely due to the ever-present threat of the spiders themselves, though they’re at their best when they’re kept off-camera. When they do appear on-screen they’re functional rather than fearsome, but as has been mentioned, spiders are scary for a lot of people. Given that they’re not the real baddies here, perhaps it’s for the best that they’re a little bit cartoonish.
Cartoonish monsters, then, brings us to the weakest part of tonight’s episode – the mastermind and the nature of the threat they pose. Doctor Whohas tackled alien spiders before, of course, and our expectations are toyed with early on, so that we’re led to think it must be some otherworldly danger. Spiders don’t behave this way, we’re told. Spiders don’t attack humans. Spiders don’t build webs this quickly. Spiders do not simply walk into Mordor, unless they’re Shelob. There’s a tremendous sense of the script attempting to have its cake – despite the Doctor’s repeated insistence that spiders don’t do this-and-that, spiders here clearlydo, and so we’re all left eager to see what malevolent extra-terrestrial force is behind an apparently intelligent invasion plan.
As it turns out, it’s a villainous, human Scooby-Doo refugee who is hiding ACME-grade toxic waste. It’s this chemical concoction that’s making spiders grow gigantic and act out all the horror movie tropes from the past fifty years. It’s hard to remember the last time any piece of media tried to have us believe toxic waste can make anything randomly mutate and grow enormous, but I’m pretty certain Daryl Hannah was involved. It’s B-movie stuff.
As a concept, there’s a lot of fun to be had with an episode where you prime the audience to expect some kind of alien monstrosity and then reveal that, no; it was nasty, greedy humans all along. Chris Chibnall himself has explored the notion before in his Torchwood episode Countrycide. The issue here is that we already got to see how ugly humans can be in last week’s Rosa– but that was real, chilling human cruelty, rather than the kind that gets unmasked after you trap it under a big net in the abandoned fairground.
Chris Noth does his best to portray Robertson, the gun-swinging, employee-firing, wee-scheduling, Trump-aspiring American hotel owner whose various businesses are apparently responsible for buying up dead spiders and dumping them in radioactive goo. It doesn’t matter that this unlikely confluence was absolutely not Robertson’s intention; he’s given so many opportunities to twirl his non-existent moustache during the episode, it’s clear we’re expected to consider him as much a villain as the snarling Sycorax Leader or Max Capricorn.
If Rosawas made more powerful by its refusal to rely on allegory, Arachnids stumbles for precisely the same reasons. Robertson isn’t merely evocative of Donald Trump – he namechecks Trump, he disdains Trump, he wants to be Trump. The last time a president was cited in Doctor Whoit was the tongue-in-cheek reference that Obama was going to unveil a plan to single-handedly save the world economy, and even that drew some ire for being clumsily partisan. I’m not certain there’s any deeper meaning for Robertson here beyond “Donald Trump is BAD, guys”, but whatever your political point of view, this half-baked caricature is not exactly insightful commentary.
Reality comes crashing back down in the last five minutes of the episode. Having come up with a plan to herd the mother spider out of the hotel it’s currently trapped in, the Doctor and company discover that it is in fact… dying, because aerobic respiration doesn’t work once you get beyond a certain size. Robertson decides to shoot the spider anyway, just to cement his role as A Nasty Piece of Work, and while in classic Doctor Whothis would have seen him immediately mauled to death, here he just guffaws his way out of the door, presumably to go down a couple of brewskis with Tim Shaw and Krosko. And thus, the episode ends.
If earlier seasons of Doctor Whohave been uneven, this year seems to have fallen into something of a holding pattern. We’re seeing great development and real care paid to certain characters, but not everyone’s getting to enjoy the same attention. The cinematography is frequently gorgeous, the effects are a cut above what we’ve been used to these last few years, and the chemistry, when it works, really works.
Doctor Who is working. There can be no doubt that this more measured approach, and its refusal to rely on universe-shattering peril every week, is enticing an absent audience back to the screen. As such, it’s hard to be toocross with a show that has such a strong sense of what it wants to be. After all, we’re just four episodes in. Back in 2005, we’d just had farting Slitheen in Downing Street.
Equally, it’s hard to deny that the villains we’ve encountered this October have been shallow, grounded and not particularly memorable. Hopefully there are still threats in store that’ll engage us in the same way Team TARDIS have, so that we end up lauding the show’s decision not to bring back the Daleks and Cybermen rather than lamenting their absence. Either way, we’ll just have to wait and see. Unless of course, by the time you’re reading this, half the nation has already fallen prey to Jacob Rees-Mogg and his army of gigantic vampire earwigs.
Read Pete’s review of the previous episode, Rosa, here.