The TARDIS returns to Sheffield, where eight-legged monsters and a pun-tastic title lie in wait. Was the episode (Johnny) rotten, or a spidey-sensation?
Let’s take stock on where we’re at in Series 11 so far. Introduction to the new Doctor and companions? Check. First visit to an alien planet? Check. First adventure into the past? Check. After three weeks of extraordinary sights, Chris Chibnall decides to bring the TARDIS back down to Earth with a thud. Aside from the eye-popping impressive time vortex at the start, Arachnids in the UK is a surprisingly grounded Doctor Who story. Yaz, Ryan, and Graham are finally home again and their detour with the Doctor is over. After all, they’ve done and all they’ve seen, the reality is about to bite. In more ways than one.
Chris Chibnall is back on writing duties for the third time in four weeks (alright, fourth if you count last week’s co-writer credit). As such, a lot of what worked – and what didn’t – about the previous few episodes is back in full force. But rather than focus on another alien menace, this week’s threat is (appropriately) far more down to Earth. The story hones in on one of mankind’s most basic fears – and if you weren’t arachnophobic before watching this episode, you might well be now…
The Web-Crawling Terror
It comes as no surprise then that Arachnids is Series 11’s trademark ‘scary’ episode. Dark lighting. Lingering shots of creepy-looking cobwebs. Long, narrow corridors that are perfect for running down. It’s Doctor Who at its most basic. The setup is simple, and made effective thanks to the impressively-realised CGI spiders. They’re not entirely perfect, but they look real enough – and terrifying enough! – to leave many viewers cowering behind the sofa. Perfect viewing for Halloween. And yet, for all of their fear factor, you can’t help but feel the faults in the story. While it’s refreshing to have a plausible Earthbound threat, the episode’s impact will be far from long-lasting. And the manner in which the spiders are dispatched is as tangled and messy as a real spider’s web. (More on that later.)
That’s not to say Arachnids is completely flawed. It is rather a fun, entertaining romp, peppered with beautiful and touching little moments throughout. (Most pressingly: will Yaz and Ryan get together? Or will Yaz and the Doctor get together?!). In particular, the opening scene of the Doctor (seemingly) saying goodbye to Yaz, Ryan, and Graham is wonderfully acted, almost heartbreaking in its awkwardness. The closing scene of them all returning to the TARDIS is a brilliant contrast: triumphant, yet determined. In between, we get some much-needed development for Yaz, who feels like a far better rounded character now. Ryan’s backstory unravels further when a letter from his father arrives. And there’s also the superbly shot (and emotionally acted) scenes with Graham and his dearly-departed Grace. Through these smaller and more intimate moments, our characters all come to realise what they want from their lives. It’s clear now what it is they’re running from, and what it is they’re running to.
Monsters of Men
But those are all just that: small and intimate moments. What about this week’s bigger picture? Well, as with the other stories in Series 11, Arachnids is another episode where characters take priority over plot. A few conveniences (including a scientist neighbour, a spider in the loft, and a newly-hired/fired mother) are all that’s really needed to get our heroes to the centre of this narrative’s web. We then spend the majority of the episode running around a creepy hotel as our leads and a few supporting actors try to figure out how to stop the spiders. There are twists and explanations, but these are fairly by-the-numbers. Credit to the guest cast though, they all put in a decent, solid performance. Shobna Gulati is exactly what you’d expect as Yaz’s mum Najia, while Tanya Fear gets to deliver most of the exposition as bespectacled boffin Dr Jade McIntyre.
Chris Noth’s Robertson is definitely the most memorable supporting character – albeit for both the right and the wrong reasons. He’s a thoroughly unlikable business tycoon, intent on preserving his bank balance and reputation over any sense of morals. And in that sense, he most certainly succeeds as the human ‘villain’ of the piece. And a glaring Donald Trump facsimile. Not only is the incumbent US President invoked by his character, he’s even given a name-check.
Similarly, the Doctor’s anti-gun philosophy is handled (again) quite unsubtly. Robertson’s “mercy killing” of the giant spider is portrayed as a horrifying act – and rightly so. But the Doctor’s alternative – trapping all the spiders in a panic room to suffocate or starve to death – is hardly a humane solution either. In the end, Robertson just walks away and we never get any proper ramifications for his character or a solution to the remaining spiders in Sheffield. The whole thing feels somewhat unfinished.
In the grand scheme of the series though, these are just incy-wincy issues. Sure, this week’s episode lacked the striking quality of Rosa, but Arachnids had enough scares and charm to make for a perfectly enjoyable episode. And we still had Jodie Whittaker’s captivating, manic Doctor to help paper over the cracks with the help of her physic-paper. As far as we’re concerned, this was her most confident and nuanced outing in the role to date. Long may she remain in the role.
If there is one thing Arachnids in the UK excelled at, it was being a ‘coming down to Earth’ story – literally and figuratively. After so many changes to adapt to, this week everything finally clicked back into place. The show has carved out a new style, tone, and direction now. Going forward, we know what we can expect from this new era. Similarly, the cast and crew have clearly gelled and are beginning to work like a well-oiled machine. As Team TARDIS fly off in search of new adventures, balance is once again restored to the Whoniverse.
Now, only if we weren’t already almost halfway through the season…!