Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 4 – Arachnids in the UK

“Big spider problem in this city right now, Yaz. Glad to be home?”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

After last week’s affecting historical, Doctor Who was back on more familiar territory this episode with its own take on classic giant spider B-movies like Tarantula. Arachnids in the UK (the title presumably a dreadful pun on the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK) was a pretty undemanding 50 minutes of television, with a fair few plot holes and some underdeveloped guest characters. But you can’t deny it delivered on the giant spider front.

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And, thankfully, on the characterisation of Yaz, finally. I’d had my reservations from the start about having this many regular characters; it tends to give at least one of them fairly short shrift in terms of character. Until recently, Yaz was the one who drew the short straw, while Ryan and Graham worked through their relationship and their shared grief over Grace.

Last week saw Yaz get a glimmer of development, with the start of hints at romance between her and Ryan, but it still wasn’t much. This ep, however slender its overall story may have been, finally addressed this deficiency, giving Mandip Gill some good material to work with at last. It always gives a character some context when you introduce their family; Ryan, Graham and Grace already were a family, but Yaz didn’t have that anchor until now.

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The family were nicely realised, and obviously dominated by  the scene stealing Shobna Gulati as Najia, who got the lion’s share of the guest character action. The show has good form since its revival in portraying the companions’ mothers, and I hope we see more of Najia just as we did  with Jackie, Francine and Sylvia.

The other major guest character was of course businessman/ Presidential hopeful / thinly veiled expy of Donald Trump, Jack Robertson, played by yer actual Hollywood star Chris Noth of Law and Order and Sex and the City fame. Noth’s a charismatic guy (and quite a casting coup for a UK show), but he didn’t really have to work very hard here. Robertson was very much a stock, hissable villain; a corrupt businessman working his way up to becoming a corrupt politician. Maybe Chris Chibnall was working so hard on the characterisation of the regulars he didn’t take any time to flesh out the guest characters as much.

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Still, it did raise yet again the vexed question of the Whoniverse’s relation to the real world, as Trump himself was mentioned, meaning he’s presumably US President in the show as well. Given that we already saw Barack Obama in The End of Time, presumably President-Elect Winters, killed by the Toclafane in Last of the Time Lords was the only difference from the real world Presidents. Then again, with time and/or the universe having been reset several times in the Moffat era, who knows how much any previous stories really happened any more?

Chibnall has said there won’t be any plot arcs this season, but with the repeated mentions of the Stenza and now Jack Robertson seemingly off to become the new President, I wonder if that’s true. If Robertson does return, hopefully he’ll get a bit more of a character next time.

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But of course the point of Arachnids in the UK wasn’t the human baddie, it was those spiders. These were mostly pretty well-realised, and certainly worlds better than the unconvincing beasties the show’s offered in previous epics like Planet of the Spiders or Full Circle. I’m not particularly arachnophobic, so any potential for terror in big spiders is a lot lower for me than many of my friends; but I bet if you are arachnophobic then this ep may have given you the willies.

The science was, of course, very shaky (and justified with repeated cries of “but spiders don’t do this!”), but then real science has never been one of the show’s strong points so it’s hard to object to that. And I have to give it a plus point for grasping something all those 50s B-movies never did – there’s a limit to how big an invertebrate can grow and still be able to breathe. Without lungs, they rely on the diffusion of oxygen molecules across membranes, but diffusion will only carry oxygen so far, which is why there is a limit to the real size of insects, spiders etc. Mind you, it’s still a stretch to say a spider could get as big as that one did before having that kind of problem!

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It was with that spider – and the earlier ones too – that Jodie Whittaker again shone as the Doctor, with her passion for preserving life directly contrasted with Robertson’s desire to just shoot the things. She’s still reminding me of Matt Smith very much in her performance, but she did at least concede that, “I’m still figuring myself out”. Fair enough, it is early days; and there’s plenty of room to stretch her character yet.

Mind you, while the Doctor’s sanctity for life was consistent and well-portrayed, I had to wonder whether Robertson’s gung-ho, “let’s just shoot them” attitude might actually have been more humane. In the end, the Doctor’s “humane” solution was to lock the creatures in a vault where presumably they will either starve to death, eat each other, or grow so big they too suffocate. Doesn’t sound very humane to me.

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That wasn’t the only plot hole, either. The Khans’ dead neighbour Anna seemed to have been completely forgotten by the episode’s end, and more pertinently, so was the large spider the Doctor left trapped behind lines of garlic and vinegar in the flat. Sheffield’s arachnid menace may not have been as thoroughly dealt with as it appeared.

So yes, a very slim plot, without the justification of a Bigger Theme to hang on it like last time. But Arachnids in the UK  delivered on its thin premise of being a giant spider B-movie, and continued some good work developing the regular characters. It was nice to see Sharon D Clarke back as the shade of Grace in some genuinely tearjerking scenes with Bradley Walsh’s Graham, a good dramatic device for showing the character’s grief.

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And I also liked the early establishment that the Doctor herself is lonely, with her deflated look when she thought her new friends were leaving her so soon. The final scene, as they chose to travel with her despite having finally got home, was life-affirming and real; after some of my experiences these last few weeks, I found myself nodding in agreement when Graham said that travel took his mind off his grief; when Ryan said he couldn’t go back to just working in a warehouse; and when Yaz said she wanted to see more. More of the universe. And that’s what this show is all about – wonder.

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Giant spiders may not have been ingredients for a classic story, but that last scene captured what I’ve always loved about the show. “You won’t be coming back as the same people that left.” And as Graham said, that is indeed a good thing.

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