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Doctor Who: Arachnids in the U.K. (Review)

I’ve heard you’re only running because you’ve hated Trump for decades.

Please don’t mention that name.

Arachnids in the U.K. is perhaps the best episode of the eleventh season of Doctor Who to date.

Arachnids in the U.K. feels like a nostalgic throwback to the Russell T. Davies era, which makes it feel of a piece with the first three episodes of the season. Executive producer Chris Chibnall has executed his spin on the traditional “present-past-future” triptych that was a hallmark of the early seasons of the revival, and so it is time to return to the contemporary United Kingdom in order to better develop the supporting cast and make some very broad political commentary about the modern world.

Finding its (eight) legs.

It is interesting to reflect on how far Doctor Who has come since its resurrection that this idea seems almost quaint, a nostalgic “back-to-basics” approach that seems lifted from thirteen years earlier. It is a valid and worthy approach to Doctor Who, and reflects Chibnall’s desire to make the show more populist and mainstream than it was during the more esoteric tenure of Steven Moffat. There is a reason that Davies was able to transform Doctor Who from a failed cult curiosity into one of the biggest things on British television using this template, after all.

At the same time, there’s something just a little worrying when the stand-out episode of the eleventh season feels like a perfectly serviceable mid-tier episode from the first four.

“Who is this Harriet Jones? I feel like we could make a deal with her. A tremendous deal.”

Arachnids in the U.K. belongs to that Davies era tradition of broad run-around adventures set in the contemporary United Kingdom that also provided an opportunity to develop the supporting cast. Arachnids in the U.K. is very much of a piece with episodes like Aliens of London, World War III, The Lazarus Experiment, The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky. Indeed, it could arguably be considered of a piece with Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel, even if those episodes unfolded in a parallel version of the contemporary United Kingdom.

Chibnall has been borrowing from the Davies structural playbook when it comes to his first season. This makes sense, and should not be considered a mark against him of itself. After all, the Davies era playbook is strong enough that Moffat adhered to in both his first and his final seasons as showrunner, understanding that the template provided a very solid structure for both welcoming the audience into the world of Doctor Who and also as a framework for developing and expanding character.

Chibnall inherently understands that there is reason why a showrunner positions stories like this in the larger arc of a twelve- or thirteen-episode season. After all, Davies kept telling stories like these despite the fact that they were very rarely considered among the best episodes of their respective seasons; very few fans would argue that Aliens of London, World War IIIRise of the Cybermen, The Age of Steel, The Lazarus Experiment, The Sontaran Stratagem or The Poison Sky were the highlights of their respective seasons. In fact, some were arguably the lowlights.

Despite the somewhat muted critical response to stories like these, Chibnall understands the appeal of positioning a story like Arachnids in the U.K. at this point in the year. On the most primal and basic level, it allows him to tell a child-friendly monster story. After all, Chibnall’s first season has lacked a straight forward monster story to this point; The Woman Who Fell to Earth featured a low-rent Predator, The Ghost Monument featured murderous bedsheets as a threat of last resort, Rosa featured a greaser space racist. These are broad science-fiction threats, not monsters.

What a tangled web we weave.

As a result, it is worth establishing “monsters” as a thing that Doctor Who can do once again. More than that, it is worth establishing “child-friendly relatable monsters” as a thing that Doctor Who can do again. “Giant spiders” are pretty much the safest and most straight forward bet for an old-fashioned monster with broad appeal. A lot of people are afraid of spiders, especially children. More than that, there’s a long lineage of killer giant spiders in popular fiction; Tarantula!, Arachnophobia, Eight-Legged Freaks.

This is also safely within the “simple, everyday fear” that audiences associate with Doctor Who. The idea of monstrous people-cocooning spiders is the same mundane anxiety that the show tapped into with killer mannequins in Spearhead from Space or creepy cats in Survival. It should be noted that “creepy giant spiders” is something that Doctor Who has done before, rounding out Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor with Planet of the Spiders and even popping up in The Runaway Bride. Spiders are inherently creepy, and giant spiders are inherently creepier.

To an extent, Chibnall is going for low-hanging fruit here. Spiders are essentially an easy lay-up as far as Doctor Who monsters go. The episode doesn’t take something mundane and make it uncanny, it takes something that is already creepy to a large portion of the audience and makes it bigger. This is a fair observation, particularly in the context of Chibnall’s larger struggle to put his own unique stamp on his Doctor Who tenure. The showrunner has boasted that there will be no old monsters in his first year, but it would help if the new monsters were more ambitious.

To give Chibnall some credit here, that would seem to be the entire point. During the Steven Moffat era, the creepy elements always existed at a level of abstraction for kids. The Weeping Angels were monsters that could only move when the camera couldn’t see them. The Silence existed in the space between moments, erased from the minds of their victims. A crack in a wall was a crack in the universe. Even the Vashda Narada lived inside shadows, eating their victims in darkness. It isn’t that kids couldn’t understand these fears. It is just that giant spiders are more tangible.

Conspiracies on the web.

This is perhaps important, given that Chibnall is very consciously trying to broaden out the audience for Doctor Who, to make it accessible to a larger market. Moffat’s monsters were clever and primal, tapping into deep-seated existential fear, but they tended to require explanation or justification. In contrast, there is something very “back-to-basics” about giant monstrous spiders that requires no explanation. Monstrous spiders are monstrous spiders, and everybody can appreciate that.

There is something very simple (and very appealing) in playful scenes like the gigantic spider crashing through the bathtub to confront Robertson. That sequence is perfectly within the wheelhouse of archetypal Doctor Who. It takes a familiar everyday occurrence that most of the audience will recognise – a spider crawling out through a drain – and then amplifies it past the point of absurdity into something monstrous and horrifying. There is a sense that the giant spider in Arachnids in the U.K. could be some future writer’s first proper Doctor Who moment, and that is fantastic.

That said, Arachnids in the U.K. does a couple of vaguely interesting things with its very basic monsters. The most obvious is a subversion that is so obvious that it barely counts, which is the reveal that the eponymous gigantic spiders are not the real monsters in this episode. It’s perhaps the most basic thing that a writer could do with this premise, but it is still worthwhile to see it executed within this narrative framework. It suggests that the “back-to-basics” mission statement is only rolling the series back so far, which is slightly reassuring.

The more interesting and subtle thing that Arachnids in the U.K. does with its creatures is to use them as a metaphor for urban neglect and decay. The first half of the episode is populated with eerie shots of spider webs in unusual urban locations, helping to create a mounting sense of dread and foreshadowing the reveal that giant spiders are invading Sheffield. At the very least, they are an effective visual. The Chibnall era of Doctor Who continues to look spectacular; it is the best looking that Doctor Who has ever looked.

Inside, she’s dancing.

However, there is also a sense that the spider webs serve as a visual stand-in for how these communities have been allowed to decay and to fall into disrepair, how they have been neglected and forgotten. After all, cobwebs are visual shorthand for abandoned spaces, reminders to the audience that certain spaces have been forsaken or forgotten. The reason that gothic castles have so many cobwebs is to underscore how dead they are, how rarely the living pass through these eerie spaces.

As such, there’s something powerful in applying that visual to a city like Sheffield, which has arguably been neglected and forgotten by those in power. There is a surprisingly subtle and biting political commentary in this visual metaphor, reflecting the reality that so much of the United Kingdom has been left behind by those in positions of authority. Indeed, there is some sense that monsters are festering in those neglected and forgotten places, with a lot of xenophobia and anger traced back to the lingering wounds that austerity left on the United Kingdom.

Indeed, the spiders are just a metaphor for the type of predatory exploitation of these regions by individuals like Jack Robertson. Robertson is very obviously a stand-in for one particular real-life monster, but he’s also developed as a predatory influence who cynically takes advantage of spaces that have been abandoned or forgotten. “Maybe it’s not too pretty, maybe it’s never been used, maybe it’s an industry that’s died,” he explains. “We go in and we help them figure it out. We get a good deal, but we give them world-class facilities. It’s a win for everybody.”

Arachnids in the U.K. is refreshingly blunt in its treatment of Jack Robertson as an obvious proxy for Donald Trump, despite the dialogue that makes it clear that he is not Trump and that the series definitely shouldn’t be mentioning his name. In his introductory scene, Robertson tells an employee, “You’re fired.” To ensure the audience gets the point of comparison, he later reiterates, “You’re fired. Again.” He has a lavish gold-plated hotel in the United Kingdom, complete with golf course. He references his “yuge stash of weapons.”

Tremendous.

Like Trump, Robertson is presented as an obsessive compulsive germ freak. Like Trump, he boasts about his skills as a deal-maker. “I am not a politician, I’m a businessman and I know how to run things.” He boasts about his material wealth, explaining that this is “just one hotel in an incredibly successful chain of hotels, which is just one small part of my business portfolio, as featured in Fortune Global 500.” He is played by Chris Noth, wearing a gold tie. Noth will perhaps always be best known as “Mister Big” from Sex and the City, establishing a New York connection.

Of course, like Trump, Robertson is a liar and a cheat. He’s a coward. He’s a fraud. Arachnids in the U.K. presents him as a predatory force, building his hotels on toxic waste dumps and refusing to properly execute his contractual obligations as the owner of a waste-management company. Asked to account for his decision to build a hotel on a toxic waste dump, he insists that it is “perfect vertical integration.” At its most basic, Arachnids in the U.K. emphasises that the Trump empire is built (literally) on a mountain of crap.

Again, this is something that Chibnall has carried over from the Davies era. Davies was hardly the most subtle of political commentators, and his tenure as showrunner was marked with a variety of broad asides at the political establishment. It was Davies who murdered Tony Blair off-screen in Aliens of London and shoved him in a cupboard in Downing Street while criticising the Iraq War in World War III. It was Davies who had the Master essentially play the part of Tony Blair (again) in The Sound of Drums, before murdering an obvious stand-in for George W. Bush.

This is all very crude political commentary, but there is something to be said for a willingness to go broad on a series like Doctor Who. After all, The Green Death is essentially a gigantic environmental parable. The Sun Makers exists because Robert Holmes was angry with the tax man. Andrew Cartmel boasted about wanting to use Doctor Who to bring down the government, most overtly in his use of a thinly-veiled Thatcher parody in The Happiness Patrol. Jack Robertson belongs to that sort of broad political lineage, and it’s good to see that.

You can check out any time you want…

More than that, it is refreshing to see that level of overt political engagement with contemporary politics after the level of abstraction that Chibnall employed in both The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument, episodes that nodded obliquely towards the election of Donald Trump and erosion of contemporary social norms through their science-fiction high concepts. Rosa did slightly better, particularly with the conversation between Yaz and Ryan explaining that racism has not been “solved.” At the same time, all these stories existed at a remove.

There is an endearing bluntness to the use of Robertson as a Trump stand-in in Arachnids in the U.K., the character so transparent in his function that he might as well have a giant neon sign calling him “Donald Trump.” It demonstrates that the Chibnall era still has some teeth. Hopefully it will not limit its political commentary to the United States. There are plenty of events in contemporary British politics that also deserve that level of scorn and derision. Empress of Mars worked well enough as a broad Brexit allegory, but there must be more to be said.

Mister Bigly.

Robertson works very well as an antagonistic force for two reasons. First of all, Chibnall explicitly positions him within a framework of villainy that ran through earlier episodes like The Ghost Monument or Rosa, in that he is an expression of a systemic evil. “My hotel, my rules,” he boasts repeatedly in the episode, using his ownership of the hotel to justify everything from a gun-totting bodyguard to the murder of a spider. It recalls both the systems of racial oppression in Rosa and Ilin’s use of the rules to justify his own vindictiveness in The Ghost Monument.

More than that, Arachnids in the U.K. allows Robertson some small moments of humanity underneath its critiques of capitalist excess. Thanks to both Chibnall’s script and Noth’s performance, there are glimmers of emotional complexity to Robertson, fleshing out the character to a second dimension. Although the moment is fleeting, it seems like Robertson is genuinely emotionally affected by the discovery of Kevin and Frankie in the mines under the hotel. It suggests that Robertson is at least capable of empathy, albeit in small quantities.

That said, there are moments when Arachnids in the U.K. goes a little too broad in its portrayal of Robertson, much like Davies would occasionally go a little bit too far in his criticisms of Blair and Bush. This is most notable at the climax of the episode, when Robertson becomes a much broader caricature of American machismo, killing the spider with a gun. “Why don’t you do what normal people do?” he demands of his guests. “Get a gun, shoot things, like a civilised person!”

It’s a standard critique of American gun culture, of which Trump is undeniably a supporter. However, it doesn’t necessarily fit as a criticism of Trump himself. While Donald Trump Junior might be a hunter, it is hard to imagine Donald Trump reacting to an actual crisis with a personal gung-ho enthusiasm to resolve it using his own firearm. This is a man who dodged the draft. While he presents an image of machismo, he is not a man of action. Arachnids in the U.K. loses sight of its specific target in its final act, muddying the metaphor.

The Don.

To be fair, the final act is muddied anyway when it comes to the plan to lure all the spiders into the panic room where they will presumably suffocate or starve to death. “They deserve a humane, natural death,” the Doctor argues. Robertson responds, “Shooting’s quicker.” Robertson is speaking for himself, but also (ironically) for the creature. Shooting is also probably more humane. Indeed, as the gigantic mother spider slowly suffocates inside the ballroom, it’s hard not think that Robertson might be correct when he assures the people around him that “it’s a mercy killing.”

It’s clear that Arachnids in the U.K. wants to be an anti-gun story, which is a good thing in this contemporary society. However, the execution is much clumsier than it needs to be. In some ways, it recalls the awkwardness of when the Davies era tried to present the Doctor as anti-gun in stories like The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky. The Doctor is perfectly happen to kill in self-defense or as a preventative measure, but only on her own terms. It is very similar to the awkward self-righteousness she demonstrates towards Carl in The Woman Who Fell to Earth.

In fact, Arachnids in the U.K. might be seen as returning to the strange characterisation of the Doctor as an intergalactic time travelling police officer suggested in episodes like The Woman Who Fell to Earth and Rosa. In The Woman Who Fell to Earth, she boasts of “sorting out fair play throughout the universe” and punishes Tim Shaw for failing to follow his own rules. In Rosa, she allows herself to be complicit in systemic racism because that is how things are supposed to be.

In Arachnids in the U.K., the Doctor acts very explicitly like a police officer when investigating the missing lab technician in the apartment two doors down from Yaz. She actually checks with her companions for “probable cause” before breaking into the home. She explains that she can open the door “if you thought it was appropriate, if you’re worried about her.” It is good that that the Doctor isn’t willfully invading privacy, but it is also strange that it’s formulated like a police officer looking for probable cause. It feels at odds with Doctor’s anarchist tendencies.

Yaz are all good.

Quite apart from the appeal of stories like Arachnids in the U.K. for establishing very basic monsters and for making broad political commentary, Chibnall understands another reason why Davies kept returning to the template. It is a very effective way to establish and develop character. Having the Doctor embark upon a very simple meat-and-potatoes monster hunt in the contemporary world allows for the series to flesh out its companion characters and the world that they inhabit. It does necessary character-building that helps the rest of the season.

After all, Aliens of London and World War III allowed the series to spend more time with Jackie and Mickey after a couple of whirlwind adventures, providing a more grounded understanding of Rose before the series bounced off on another couple of distant adventures. The Lazarus Experiment was grounded in Martha’s family dynamics, allowing the audience to get a sense of who she was and where she came from. The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky allowed the audience to spend more time with Sylvia Noble and Wilfred Mott, fleshing out Donna as a character.

This is seldom work that is immediately satisfying. In fact, it could be argued that the third season of Doctor Who never really managed to flesh out Martha’s family into fully formed individuals at all. However, it does provide a stepping stone for further character development and provides a broader context. More often than not, it also serves as a template for affirming the bond between Doctor and companion, allowing the companion to step back into the “real world” and then commit to staying with the Doctor.

Chibnall employs the template rather well in Arachnids in the U.K. Notably, this is the first real character development that Yaz has received to this point in the season, which is both good and necessary. It helps her to feel more like an individual and less like a plot function, even allowing for the narrative shortcut of having her mother working at the hotel where the spiders are congregating. After all, The Lazarus Experiment took a similar shortcut by having Martha’s sister working on the eponymous research.

Research for the hero inside yourself.

More than that, there is also considerable time afforded to fleshing out both Graham and Ryan, and allowing them some space to process their reactions to the loss of Grace. In both cases, it is made clear that their journey with the Doctor is intended to allow them some space to escape from the weight pressing down on them, to postpone the hard work of moving on. There is something touching in Graham’s confession, “That house is full of Grace and it makes it so much harder. But being with you and seeing all these things it really helps.”

This is perhaps the closest that Chibnall has yet come to articulating a big idea about the Doctor and Doctor Who beyond the idea of a simple back-to-basics approach. The closing scenes of Arachnids in the U.K., coupled with the ending of The Woman Who Fell to Earth, posit both the Doctor herself (and perhaps time itself) as a healer. This is an endearing metaphor for the character and the series, and implicitly for these kinds of stories. It is not as lyrical as Moffat’s argument for the Doctor as a necessary and heroic imaginary friend, but it is a place to start.

The dialogue is appreciably stronger – and more playful – in Arachnids in the U.K. than it has been in earlier episodes. Chibnall is much weaker when it comes to writing dialogue than either Davies and Moffat, something that was immediately clear in the opening minutes of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. The dialogue in Arachnids in the U.K. feels a lot more like Doctor Who, contrasting the mundane with the absurd. “My husband’s right,” Najia reflects. “It’s a conspiracy.” She pauses and turns to Robertson. “Do you have any idea how annoying it is when my husband’s right?”

At the same time, it is also clear that Chibnall is more overtly copying the voices of his predecessors. There is an early charming sequence in Arachnids in the U.K. when the Doctor ruminates on flats. “I’ve never had a flat,” she explains. “I should get one, I’d be good in a flat, I could get a sofa. Imagine me with a sofa, like my own sofa, I could get a purple one and sit on it!” This is effectively a direct lift of one of the better jokes from The Day of the Doctor, in which the Doctor ruminated on having a job and needing a desk for that job.

Walls are closing in.

Arachnids in the U.K. is also the first episode of the season to actually make the larger ensemble work within the template of a fifty-minute episode. On a basic plotting level, Arachnids in the U.K. does what The Ghost Monument should have done with its four leads; it makes a point to frequently split them up and divide them. In Arachnids in the U.K., the cast are frequently broken up into smaller groups, each doing their own thing. It allows the narrative to jump between them in a more fluid manner than The Woman Who Fell to Earth tried to cross-cut between threads.

(It is interesting to wonder if this reflects an effort to alleviate some of the production pressure on Doctor Who, harking back to one of the key innovations of the Barry Letts era. With Carnival of Monsters, Letts hit upon the idea that it would be more efficient to shoot a story with distinct clusters of cast members to make production smoother. Arachnids in the U.K. suggests a similar approach might work on modern Doctor Who without needing to resort to the doctor- or companion-lite episodes of earlier seasons.)

Spider-Man.

Arachnids in the U.K. is the strongest episode of the season to date. It is only slightly worrying that the strongest episode of Chibnall’s first season is a good imitation of the kind of mid-tier episode that the series was producing more than a decade earlier.

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