Doctor Who – “Arachnids in the UK”

“Arachnids in the UK”
Doctor Who: Series 11 – Episode 4
Written by: Chris Chibnall
Directed by: Sallie Aprahamian

Synopsis: The Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan find their way back to Yorkshire – and Yaz’s family – only to find something is stirring amidst the eight-legged arachnid population of Sheffield.

After a trip to the future and the past, this episode saw the Doctor and her companions return to contemporary day Sheffield to touch base with home before fully committing to their travels through time and space. While I do enjoy the way the series has ordered its episodes using the repeating pattern of stories set in the present, future and then past – this episode felt a bit anti-climactic following on from “The Ghost Monument” and “Rosa”, and lacked the same spark and energy due to its current-day setting. However, it did act as a conclusion to this introductory story-arc for the Doctor and her new friends, giving them the actual decision as to whether to stay at home or continue their travels. With previous companions, this story-arc is usually resolved within one or two episodes, but Chris Chibnall has developed these characters in a much more realistic manner, giving them tangible reasons to want to travel with the Doctor, such as Graham’s grief.

The strongest element of the episode was Graham’s quiet moments of reflection when at home alone with his memories of Grace. While previous show-runners might have rushed through the grieving process, Chibnall has consistently given Graham and Ryan moments to reflect over Grace’s passing, resulting in a more honest and resonant portrayal of grief. Even Ryan is given a moment to choose between “his proper family” or his step-grandfather, and while Graham doesn’t get the emotional validation this time, it is clear that he wants to stay with him and by travelling with the Doctor, he has chosen “his improper family”. The episode also sheds some light on Yaz’s home life, and it seems relatively mundane with a distracted father, a nosy mother and a irritating younger sister. There’s a few nice character moments between Yaz and her mother, but she remains ill-defined as a companion – especially next to the multi-faceted Graham and Ryan.

In terms of the main plot, with a title like “Arachnids in the UK”, I wasn’t expecting too much beyond a typical giant spiders story, and that’s largely what we got. There was hints of a “base under siege” format towards the second half as the Doctor and her companions were trapped in the hotel, but it didn’t really amount to much aside from discovering the truth behind the sudden growth spurts in the Arachnid population. The CGI on the Spiders was a bit hit-and-miss and perhaps practical effects would have been a better idea here – I remember how awesome the Empress of the Racnoss looked in “The Runaway Bride” and something a bit more puppet-based could have ratcheted up the scare factor. Considering how brutal Chibnall was during “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”, I’m surprised there was not more casualties in this episode, especially since there was one candidate who deserved a nasty comeuppance.

Chris Noth guest-starred in this episode as the Trump-like hotel magnate with political aspirations, and while his character expressed a dislike for Donald Trump, he was effectively a Trump clone. I quite liked him as an abrasive American businessman, but when the Trump comparisons came in, then it seemed a bit too on the nose – especially with the whole “I’m American, we solve problems with guns” angle – at least it wasn’t a full Trump impersonation. The fact that he escaped any karmic justice rankled a bit, and while I get that Chibnall was trying to show realism and not all the bad guys get punished, I was hoping that the Doctor would get one over on him in the end. It just felt like his sub-plot fizzled out somewhat – perhaps we will see the character revisited, especially if he becomes the US President in the Doctor Who universe.

The ending of the episode definitely felt rushed, and some plot holes were hastily pasted over. For example; Were all the Spiders brought back to the hotel by Ryan’s music? What about the ones in Graham and Yaz’s neighbour’s flats? What happened to the hotel – was it closed down, was Yaz’s mum given her job back? It felt like these minor details weren’t addressed, in favour of showcasing the final sequence with the TARDIS team reuniting. While the episode was less engaging than its three predecessors, it still felt very cinematic in style. I loved some of the creepy touches, such as the focus on the cobwebs or the camera shot on Chris Noth filmed through the plug hole before the spider erupted from the bath. Sallie Aprahamian did a great job at directing, as it was suitably creepy for a Halloween episode, and further demonstrated how beautiful Doctor Who looks on a bigger budget.

Arachnids in the UK” fell flat in someways due to both its setting and its plot, evocating memories of some of Russell T Davies’ contemporary Earth stories such as “The Lazarus Experiment”. In fact, it felt more akin to Torchwood at times, a series which Chibnall also wrote for, with its Earth-based threat and horror atmosphere. Ultimately consigned to memory as “that one with the giant spiders”, if this episode represents the weakest spot in Series 11, then I will be happy with that as this was still an enjoyable, if cheesy, romp. The anti-gun messaging and anti-Trump rhetoric felt a bit hamfisted, and could have been done much better – although it could also have been done a lot worse. As with the previous episodes, Chibnall shows that he can do those quieter character moments perfectly, infusing the series with a dramatic realism that surpasses what has come before, but the action set-pieces still need work to become truly iconic. It is a shame that we’re not getting any established monsters this series, as I’d love to see Chibnall’s take on some of the old classics, but we’re getting some great “done-in-ones” here, even when they don’t quite hit the bullseye.

Score – ★★★

Next Episode – “The Tsuranga Conundrum”
Injured and stranded in the wilds of a far-flung galaxy, the Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan must band together with a group of strangers to survive against one of the universe’s most deadly – and unusual – creatures.

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