Chris Chibnall preps us for Halloween with a freaky, but unexceptional story
After a middling set of opening adventures, last week’s episode ‘Rosa’ finally got Jodie Whitaker’s first series of Doctor Who on the right track. Now, just in time for Halloween, Chris Chibnall returns to provide us with a creepy-crawly horror story. Despite the agonisingly bad pun of a title, does ‘Arachnids in the UK’ continue from last week’s winning streak?
The Doctor finally manages to return her companions to Sheffield after at least 14 false starts. Feeling sorry for the Time Lord, Yaz decides to invite her new friend to tea with her family, only for Team TARDIS – as they coin themselves at the end – to get drawn into a tangled web (sorry!) involving a wealthy American businessman, an abandoned landfill, and spiders. Lots and lots of giant f*cking spiders.
This is the first time since 1974’s ‘Planet of the Spiders’ that the eight-legged beasties have been the main attraction of an episode of Doctor Who, and compared to the embarrassing paper-mâché arachnids of that episode, the spiders here are, from what I could see from between my fingers, horrifyingly well-realised. The unsettling noise they make, combined with their tendency to move in large numbers, makes them quite a disturbing threat. Director Sallie Aprahamian ensures that the fear factor is strongly maintained, from the opening shots right up until the death of the Queen spider (which actually made me feel some sympathy for it – which I never expected). Only when the script explains the reason for their existence does the tension fade; not because the explanation is stupid, but because it grinds the episode to a complete halt.
In fact, any faults I have with the episode once again have to be laid at Chris Chibnall’s feet. The script unfortunately feels very contrived, and relies heavily on conveniences to get the main cast together. Of course the only houses affected by the spiders are Graham’s and Yaz’s neighbours; of course a scientist who’s studying spiders shows up as the Doctor tries to investigate; of course the epicentre of the happenings is a hotel where Yaz’s Mum works. Speaking of that hotel, the script is tediously burdened with another weak antagonist in businessman and blatant Trump clone Jack Robertson. Whereas Krasko last week suffered due to a lack of real characterisation, Robertson suffers from an overabundance of characterisation, to the point he feels like less of a human, and more like a cartoon. This factor isn’t helped by the over-the-top smarmy performance given by Sex and the City’s Chris Noth.
It’s clear from previous episodes that Chibnall’s strength lies in his character writing, and that is definitely the case here. In the previous episodes, Yaz felt like the least developed of the main ensemble, so it’s nice to see her get some more screentime this week, especially seeing her interact with her mother Najia (Shobna Gulati), which makes for some entertaining banter. Seeing her family also helps build on her general lack of satisfaction with her current lot in life, and makes the final scene where she states that she wants to see more of the universe and declares the Doctor “the best person I’ve ever met” all the more powerful. Speaking of that final scene, I loved Graham’s stance on the situation; that travelling in the TARDIS may be a good way to help him get over the loss of his wife Grace, which still haunts him as the episode shows effectively. Although it was a brief moment, it’s also nice to see Ryan reading his Dad’s note, and hinting to Graham later that he actually considers Graham to be his real family more than his actual Dad, which made for quite a sweet moment amidst all the horror.
Jodie Whitaker meanwhile is as brilliant as ever, presenting a cheery and friendly demeanour that masks an underlying sadness, which we see briefly in her opening scene. She definitely feels more human than Capaldi, but still hasn’t lost the distinctly alien element that the character possesses. Much like last week, we get to see hints of her more ferocious and confrontational side in her scenes with Robertson, which Whitaker portrays really well. I can’t wait to see the point when she unleashes that restrained fury against a truly great villain in the near future.
All in all, ‘Arachnids in the UK’ is another solid effort for Series 11. It probably (almost certainly) won’t become a future classic like ‘Rosa’ but this is a very entertaining romp of an episode. Things are looking very good for this series, and I for one can’t wait to see what comes next.
Doctor Who continues next week on BBC One with ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’. Watch the trailer below