doctor who arachnids in the uk review

Doctor Who has never really done Halloween-themed episodes (despite the scary bent of many of its episodes, Christmas is more this show’s speed), but it seems fitting that the BBC sci-fi show’s Halloween-adjacent episode has all the hallmarks of a B-horror movie: corrupt businessmen, science gone horribly wrong, and big-ass spiders. “Arachnids in the U.K.” sees the Doctor and her companions return to Earth in an episode that recalls the classic show and gives us a creepy crawler that — in true Doctor Who fashion — made me feel more emotions than just fear.

Follow the Spiders

Arachnophobes beware, this will not be the episode for you. The last time the Doctor grappled with giant spiders in the classic 1974 Jon Pertwee-era episode “Planet of the Spiders” (not counting the spider-like Racnoss Empress from 2006’s “The Runaway Bride”), the creatures were glorified papier-mâché props only made terrifying by the persuasive performances of the episode’s stars. Not so in “Arachnids in the U.K.” It has the power of money and CGI on its side. The titular giant spiders are pretty impressive for creatures made on a TV budget, and the build-up to their introduction is properly creepy, with the episode slowly introducing seemingly mundane cobwebs in the corners of each frame. It doesn’t take long for the Doctor and co. to notice something is amiss when they land back home in Sheffield.

After the Doctor awkwardly hems and haws over traveling alone, Yaz quickly invites her and Ryan to her home for tea. But this being the Doctor, she can’t have a normal home visit — the Doctor’s interest is piqued when she notices that Yaz’s neighbor hasn’t been responding to to the concerned calls from her coworker Jade (Tanya Fear) outside. Quickly forgetting about tea and Yaz’s dad poor cooking, the Doctor, Ryan, and Yaz investigate. They discover the neighbor, Anna, to be in bed covered head-to-toe in cobwebs and suffocated to death. Realizing the spider that did this is still in the room, they run, the Doctor cleverly trapping the giant creature in the apartment with vinegar. The mystery deepens as Jade reveals herself to be a zoology researcher specializing in arachnids, herself investigating strange spider attacks across the city. At Jade’s lab where they had been genetically experimenting (never a red flag) with spiders, the Doctor notices that the locations of the attacks create — what else? — a web that pinpoints one specific location.

Kind of a Big Deal

An arrogant businessman who plans to run for president and will not hesitate to cover up a crime? Why does that sound so familiar? This week’s piece of stunt casting is Sex and the City‘s Mr. Big himself, Chris Noth, playing a thinly veiled Donald Trump surrogate in the weakest element of this episode. Noth’s Jack Robertson is a rich, corrupt businessman planning to run for president in 2020 who runs the hotel at the epicenter of the spider attacks. He’s cartoonishly evil — ruthlessly firing Yaz’s mom Najia (Shobna Gulati) when she stumbles upon him scheming, heartlessly sacrificing his bodyguard Kevin to a spider attack, and ranting about how guns make a “civilized country” — to the point that it becomes tiresome. To hammer it in, the episode even name-drops Trump, though in the context of Robertson having “hated Trump for decades.” It’s all incredibly on the nose.

But unfortunately, Jack Robertson (whose name sounds like the Doctor Who took it from a word generator simply titled America) proves to be a pivotal part of the episode. His hotel is the hub of the giant spiders because his under-the-table methods to build his luxury hotel. In this case, the hotel was built on top of a repurposed coal mine at the center of which is a huge landfill where tons of toxic waste has been percolating, including the spider carcasses from Jade’s lab. Naturally he deflects all responsibility and insists that they gun down all the spiders with the cache of weapons he happens to have in his panic room, which earns the immediate ire of the anti-gun Doctor.

Why Couldn’t It Be Follow the Butterflies?

I’ve said this before, but my favorite aspect of Jodie Whittaker‘s Doctor is that we get to see her work through a problem. She’s a genius, of course, but one whose gears we can see whirring throughout the episodes. It seems that showrunner Chris Chibnall is intent on keeping the Doctor grounded, with the Doctor perusing hotel blueprints and creating spider repellant out of kitchen ingredients, as well as truly only using her sonic screwdriver to unlock doors. I’ll admit that I miss some of those magical plot twists where the Doctor will whip out a deus ex machina out of nowhere, but Chibnall and Whittaker are both playing to their strengths: to keep the show as human as possible.

It’s those small human moments that help me forgive some of this episode’s storytelling pitfalls. Graham and Ryan have yet another stunning step-grandad and grandson moment, centering around a letter that Ryan’s dad left in the aftermath of Grace’s death. We see Yaz’s home life, and her tenuous relationship with her suffocating parents and sister. But Graham gets the bulk of the emotional heavy lifting. In a few tender scenes, Doctor Who shows that Grace’s death still leaves a mark on the man, as he sees visions of her chiding him about chores in the home that they shared. Graham doesn’t get closure, and perhaps never will, but we get assurance that this era of Doctor Who won’t treat any of its characters as disposable.

This episode too ends on quite a somber, non-triumphant note. The Doctor and Jade discover that the biggest spider of them all, the mother spider, has grown too big for her body and is slowly dying. But before the Doctor can try to save her, Jack Robertson fatally shoots the creature. It’s a shockingly sad moment that is spoiled by yet another on-the-nose statement from Jack: “Fire and fury…This is what the world needs right now. This is what’s going to get me into the White House.” All right, cool.

For much of this season, I’ve had to ask myself, “Do I like this episode, or do I just like Jodie Whittaker in it?” Because she’s brilliant once again — painfully empathetic and a total blast to watch. She shoulders the weight of the spider’s death and warns Ryan, Yaz, and Graham that she can’t keep them safe when they approach her about traveling together. She and Team TARDIS elevate a so-so episode that is threatened to be stunted by a flat villain. And in that sense, “Arachnids in the U.K.” feels like a classic Doctor Who episode.

Tidbits in Time and Space

  • Four episodes in and the Doctor is still figuring herself out, but I’ll take her growing pains for Whittaker hilariously mumbling, “Maybe I’m socially awkward…”
  • Did Doctor Who just hint that the Doctor was a girl — again? The Doctor rambles about being a “sister” before correcting that she was “a sister in an aqua hospital” (AKA just a nurse) that turned out to be an assassin training camp. But the show has hinted at the Doctor’s changing gender before in a Peter Capaldi episode in which he’s alluded to being a “little girl” once.
  • The “She’s charge,” “Says who,” “Says us” exchange is as validating as the commercials made it look.
  • Favorite Doctor lines of the episode: “I eat danger for breakfast. I don’t, I prefer cereal” and “I call people dude now.”
  • Who’d have thought that in the year 2018, Doctor Who would be playing grimes music by Stormzy to lure out giant spiders.”
  • We learn that Yaz is bisexual! LGBT icon.
  • The Doctor officially dubs the group Team TARDIS. Woot I’ve been calling them the right term all this time!
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