Doctor Who S11 E4: “Arachnids in the UK” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for the episode

Doctor Who is usually thought of as a science fiction series, and sometimes as a family or even (incorrectly) a children’s programme, but at heart it’s actually an anthology show capable of covering any and indeed every genre in existence from week to week. I’ve said before that my personal preference is when the show sets out to be scary in a good old “watch while hiding from behind the sofa” fashion – Yetis in the Underground, mannequins coming to life in shop windows, and the glorious Gothic horror period when Tom Baker faced mummies, werewolves, vampires, a Frankenstein’s monster and the Loch Ness Monster. So on that basis you’re probably expecting me to declare the latest episode “Arachnids in the UK” as being far and away the best episode of season 11 to date, right?

Yeah. Well. Okay, you got me. That’s exactly what I do think.

Painfully punning title aside, this was the perfect episode to air in Halloween week. It even starts at a spooky empty hotel, with a cheeky visual reference to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining from new-to-Who director Sallie Aprahamian before we get to the scene of a clandestine meeting in which people in suits are talking about a situation getting out of control. And that’s even before supersized spiders start to show up all over Sheffield.

Now, I’m not a particular arachnophobe – I can deal with the eight legged critters just fine in real life. But Aprahamian uses them sparingly here and shoots them very effectively so that I confess every time one (or more) of them showed up on screen looking like a furry facehugger from Alien, it sent a definite delightful shiver down my spine. Until they got as big as a car, that is, at which point they lost their inherent arthropod creepiness and just became a generic CGI monster. However that was quite late on, and by then the episode had done its work.

Not that writer Chris Chibnall was throwing out his principals for a mere ‘monster of the week’ episode, because there was much more going on under the surface (literally) in this episode. A sub-plot highlighted the environmental damage caused by a rapacious multinational corporation intent only on exploiting every opportunity to maximise profit. There’s even a satisfying satire about narcissistic billionaires with presidential ambitions but no ethical conscience in the form of Jack Robertson, played by Law and Order, The Good Wife and Sex and the City star Chris Noth. In contrast to many imported guest actors, Noth turns in a surprisingly pitch perfect performance that pivots from disturbingly dangerous intensity to comedy cowardice just the right side of going over the top, making him ideal for an episode of Doctor Who.

My liking for this episode is possibly influenced by the fact that it bears a very close resemblance to one of my all-time favourite classic Who serials from the early 1970s. Not, however, as you might expect “Planet of the Spiders” which was Jon Pertwee’s swansong in the role (but with budget-impaired model monsters that weren’t remotely creepy). Rather it’s a story from a year earlier, “The Green Death” which was also about a large conglomerate that took over a decommissioned coal mine (in Wales on that occasion) and used it to dump industrial sludge which ended up growing large maggots that eventually broke through the surface and gestated into even larger flies. It’s so strikingly similar that it’s hard to believe that it’s not an intentional riff on Chibnall’s part given that he’s a student of Doctor Who lore. Either way, I’m sure that Barry Letts would be proud.

“Arachnids in the UK” is old fashioned in another way, in that it decides to split its large cast of regulars up to an extent that has been strikingly rare so far this season. It means that Yas (Mandip Gill) finally gets some proper screen time and character development as we get to meet her family – father, mother and annoying little sister – and get a slice of domestic bickering life that’s been missing since the early days of Russell T Davies featured the Tyler and the Jones families as recurring characters. Yas’ mum Najia (Shobna Gulati) has a particularly important role to play in this week’s story, and there’s a lot of delightful back-and-forth banter between the regulars and the guest characters which is great fun, producing more quotable lines than I would even know where to begin citing.

The story of Ryan (Tosin Cole) also continues to play out, slightly reduced this week but he does get more of the comedy beats as compensation (such as a scene stealing moment in back of shot where he’s enjoying himself by making shadow animals in a laboratory). Meanwhile Graham (Bradley Walsh) once again demonstrates how good a dramatic actor he can be – as if we needed any more convincing by now, surely – in scenes where he returns home to the house he shared with his recently deceased wife Grace (Sharon D Clarke), who once again has a significant presence in the story and a clear impact in the development of the series’ overarching storyline.

That’s because one of the big question marks that’s been hanging over things is how to keep this large Team Tardis together. In the old days, companions stayed with the Doctor because he couldn’t pilot the Tardis properly and therefore couldn’t return them to their own time and place. The minute he got back to contemporary London in 1965, Ian and Barbara were quick to bail out and get back to their lives; in the early 1980s the Fifth Doctor was always trying and failing to get air hostess Tegan back to Heathrow in time for her flight. Other characters have stayed with the Doctor because they have no choice as their families are dead, their worlds destroyed or inaccessible.

But since the 2005 reboot the Doctor has had almost pinpoint accuracy in his control of the Tardis. It allows him to pop in and out of his companions lives, confident of being able to drop Rose off at her mum’s for a cup of tea and to get the laundry done while she’s there. This meant there had to be other reasons for the companions to stay put: they had to want the exciting life of adventure and exploration on offer as Donna did, or as with Rose and Martha be enamoured with the Doctor himself on an emotional level. There had been no indication from Ryan, Yas or Graham (the latter especially truculent and risk-averse) that they wanted this life or such a relationship with this new Doctor after they had been accidentally whisked away without warning at the end of “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”, leaving the question of why they wouldn’t likewise check out the minute the Tardis got them back to 21st Century Sheffield.

So this story was about as much as confirming the Doctor, Ryan, Yas and Graham as a proper team as it was about eight legged freaks. We get to see and understand how Yas loves her family and yet finds them suffocating and restrictive at the same time, and she’s the first person where the penny visibly drops about what she wants to do with her future. Ryan had always seemed the easiest of the three to persuade to sign on – a letter from his absentee dad brings things into focus for him this week – but the idea that Graham would want this life seemed hard to square away. This episode managed it, to the extent that the final scene where the quartet are holding the dematerialisation lever like the Four Musketeers swearing ‘all for one, one for all’ didn’t feel forced or artificial, but natural and surprisingly moving.

It’s another example of how Chibnall writes a satisfying story even if it means sacrificing some of the more picky, pedantic plot points that always consumed Steven Moffat. For example, it hides in plain sight the blatant coincidence of the scientist who invented the spider supersizing formula living two doors down from the Khans, and Najia just happening to be the manager of the spooky hotel where the spiders have made their nest. And whatever happened to that spider left trapped in the neighbouring flat anyway? Are we to assume that a brief burst of Ryan’s atrocious taste in music (sorry – I’m old) is enough to summon every mutant arachnid in the city to the hotel’s safe room where they can be contained? And how does everyone get out of the hotel at the end after having previously been completely trapped there by superstrong (and supercreepy) cobwebs?

It’s best not to think too long about such details, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter all that much. It’s probably going to be the approach the show takes under its new showrunner – and it’s not really all that different from how Davies used to do things, either. With Moffat it was rather different, because his stories were always so intricate it was impossible to tell if he’d actually messed something up or if we just weren’t clever enough to follow his plots but that everything would probably make sense if we rewatched episodes half a dozen times.

However, there is perhaps a more serious issue regarding the Doctor’s moral stance so far this season. Jodie Whittaker’s Time Lord is very strident about not using weapons or force to resolve the situation, which means in this episode she forbids Robertson to use guns on the spiders. Instead she traps them in a sealed room where presumably they will starve to death, which is … better? She also seems to believe it’s right to allow the largest spider of all to die an agonising death suffocating from the effects of its obscenely increased body mass rather than quickly putting it out of its suffering, which is left to the villain of the piece to do. There had been similar inconsistencies in “The Ghost Monument” where the Doctor forbade anyone to shoot the sentry robots but was happy to blast them with a potentially catastrophic electromagnetic pulse, and later to burn up the rag-like Remnants without a second thought.

Such dilemmas have always been at the heart of the character – although actually, the Doctor thought nothing of picking up a gun and dispatching someone trying to kill him if the situation called for it in the show’s early years. But Doctor Who has become increasingly committed to pro-active anti-violence, with guns a particular no-no in the hands of ‘good’ characters since the reboot in 2005. It’s sometimes hard to balance that admirable sentiment with making a satisfying action-adventure show for a modern audience in which gunfights and explosions are de rigueur and to be expected. And so the Doctor has to have it both ways wherever possible: at the moment, the 13th Doctor is very passionately talking the talk but then having to do what’s necessary a few minutes later. The join is perhaps even more obvious and jarring than it used to be, but it’s hard to be too critical when the show is trying its best to present such an laudable message of doing the right thing, the right way, for the right reasons.

Ultimately it didn’t affect my enjoyment of “Arachnids in the UK”, which felt like the first ‘proper’ episode of the 13th Doctor’s residency after the required set-up of the first two stories and the important civil rights detour of last week’s “Rosa”. At the same time, this story also came across as the last part of a quadrilogy bringing things full circle – ending up where the story began (in Sheffield) but with certain matters now resolved. The four characters are now established as a real team which is finally ready, willing and eager to venture forth into new adventures without carrying some of the baggage it inevitably started out with.

It all augurs very well, and while I started off by saying “Arachnids in the UK” was my favourite story of season 11 so far, I would be surprised if that was still the case by the end of the full ten-episode run. It seems the best is very much still yet to come.

Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sunday evenings at 7.00pm, and is afterwards available on BBC iPlayer for viewers in the UK. A home media release on DVD and Blu-ray is expected early in 2019.

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