Doctor Who, “Arachnids in the UK”
Series 11, Episode 4
Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Sallie Aprahamian
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, and Bradley Walsh
Guest Starring Sharon D. Clarke, Shobna Gulati, Tanya Fear, and
Original Broadcast 28 October 2018 (50 minutes)
With “Arachnids in the UK,” showrunner Chris Chibnall throws every possible Doctor Who motif, trope, and plot point into a blender, whirls them round and round to see what the mixture will produce, throws said mixture against the wall, and then allows the drippings to congeal into an hour of television so crazy that people who claim they do not enjoy it are sourpusses of the first order.
From a title that clearly cribs the Sex Pistols song “Anarchy in the UK” to giant spiders cocooning human beings into disgusting webs, from an American hotel magnate who vows to challenge Donald Trump for the presidency in 2020 to touching scenes of one character seeing visions of his dead wife, “Arachnids in the UK” has it all. The fact that Chibnall forces so many disparate elements to fit together as well as they do is notable, but should not suggest that structural coherence is this outing’s primary goal. If it were, we could declare “Arachnids in the UK” a dismal failure and get on with our lives. Yet this episode lurches from character study to horror movie to political satire to family melodrama so effortlessly that I can only admire Chibnall’s chutzpah in following “Rosa,” last week’s stunning tribute to Rosa Parks’s courage, with a giant-bug adventure that manages to make the viewer feel compassion for mutated spiders running amok in a Sheffield hotel.
Yes, friends, Doctor Who has returned to the tonal lunacy that represents, depending upon one’s perspective, not only the best and the worst of Classic Who but also the highs and lows of the Russell T. Davies era that launched New Who in 2005. “Arachnids in the UK” most strongly recalls Davies’s first two-part story, “Aliens in London” and “World War Three,” which satirized the terrible political decisions that enmeshed the United States and the United Kingdom in President George W. Bush’s devastating 2003 Iraq War by introducing viewers to the Slitheen, an extraterrestrial species that will forever be known to Who aficionados as the “farting aliens.” Really?, the uninitiated reader may ask. All true, is the response. The Slitheen, after all, are bulbous green alien junk traders so large that, in order to masquerade as human, they kill people and then wear their skins like suits of clothing, but can only do so by using a compression device that provokes a “gas exchange” that sounds like flatulence. I swear I am not making that up.
Chibnall must have watched Davies’s Slitheen two-parter, taken the full measure of its glory, and decided, “I’ll do Russell one better!” Hence, “Arachnids in the UK,” an episode that careens from genre to genre, from hope to fear, and through several stages of environmental consciousness while also managing to introduce us to Yasmin “Yaz” Khan’s (Mandip Gill’s) family, to lace several accurate facts about spiders into its narrative, and to see the glorious Sharon D. Clarke return as Grace Sinclair-O’Brien in visions—or manifested memories—that her widower husband, Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh), encounters as he grieves her death from three episodes prior, in the Series 11 premiere, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.”
What should be apparent by now is that no verbal description can do “Arachnids in the UK” justice, but, based on the user reviews posted to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), this installment has gone down like the proverbial “lead balloon.” Several viewers outright hate this episode, which seems inevitable given how marvelous its predecessor is, but they also miss how “Arachnids in the UK,” while hammering the Trump regime’s real-time idiocy with no attempt at subtlety, also pleads for a better world that treats every creature with respect, dignity, and justice. In the wildest possible way, that is the perfect follow-up to “Rosa.” Chibnall’s script works on so many levels of satire simultaneously—from the sublime to the nearly obscene—that receiving scorched-earth reviews seems like a deliberate ploy by Chibnall and Doctor Who’s Series 11 production team to recall the franchise’s remarkable ability to tell stories that combine the optimistic, the humanistic, the realistic, and the lunatic into one big ball of madcap nonsense.
The regular cast is as good as always, with Jodie Whittaker turning in another terrific performance as the Doctor, whose quirky sense of humor and worried questions about whether or not she has become rude so firmly remind us of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor that no doubt remains that Chibnall is a huge admirer of Series 1’s protagonist (and narrative excesses). Tanya Fear—the best possible surname for a performer who finds herself cast in an episode devoted to giant spiders—is excellent as Dr. Jade MacIntyre, the arachnologist whose lab experiments on local spiders disastrously collide with the financial and political machinations of Jack Robertson, a hotelier played so bombastically by Chris Noth that, if Alec Baldwin ever tires of parodying Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, Noth should step in to replace him.
Robertson is a coward, a blowhard, and a narcissist. Sound familiar? Noth—so excellent as Detective Mike Logan in the Law & Order franchise, as Mr. Big in Sex and the City, and as adulterous Chicago State’s Attorney Peter Florrick in The Good Wife—eats up all available scenery every time he is on screen. It is a nice performance by a good actor who clips his words in a way that does Trump one better (or worse) by making Robertson sound like an egotist who can barely tolerate the need to talk to anyone whom he considers beneath him on the social scale, which includes, at last count, everybody.
This bottomless need for adulation contrasts the Doctor’s warm concern for other people so clearly that, when she tells Robertson she has no idea who he is, he replies that she is the only person on Planet Earth who does not. The Doctor, in a burst-out-loud-laughing moment, then asks, “Are you Ed Sheeran? Is he Ed Sheeran? Everyone talks about Ed Sheeran ‘round about now, don’t they?” I should file an official BBC complaint against Chibnalll and Whittaker, since this exchange forced me burst out loud laughing and, consequently, spit tea all over my shirt.
Robertson has built his newest hotel directly over a Sheffield mine that is also filled with toxic garbage that mutates experimental spiders from MacIntyre’s lab into giant arachnids that the visual-effects team animates so well that no viewer can keep from getting the heebie-jeebies watching these creepy-crawlies scamper over floors, walls, and ceilings. Some audience members have complained that these spiders do not look real, but in fact they do, or at least as real as spiders the size of Shetland ponies ever can look.
Robertson’s concerns that news of this discovery will tank his chances of becoming the American president in 2020 cause him to lash out at everyone in sight, particularly Najia Khan, Yaz’s mother and Robertson’s employee, played with dignified elegance by Shobna Gulati. Yaz’s family is a welcome addition to this episode and to Who lore, with her father Hakim Khan (Ravin J. Ganatra) and sister Sonya Khan (Bhavnisha Parmar) bringing the same working-class grace to Doctor Who that Rose Tyler’s friends and family brought to Series 1 and 2, that Martha Jones’s (Freema Agyeman’s) relatives infused into Series 3, and that Donna Noble’s (Catherine Tate’s) mother and grandfather gave to Series 4. The Doctor’s inaugural visit to the Khans’ tower-block apartment so closely matches the Ninth Doctor’s encounters with Rose’s mother, Jackie Tyler (Camille Coduri), and father, Pete Tyler (Shaun Dingwall), that Chibnall seems to have transferred these earlier scenes into his episode’s 2018 timeframe. The family dynamics on display are so easy, familiar, and snarky that they offset the episode’s more fantastic happenings, particularly the fact that Team TARDIS must lure the large spiders that have taken over Robertson’s Sheffield hotel into confined spaces where they will eventually, but humanely, perish.
Sallie Aprahamian’s assured direction rides herd over an episode that could—but does not—degenerate into incomprehensible nonsense. Her mastery of horror-movie tropes, particularly early downward angles of the TARDIS gang, from ceilings and corners covered in spider webs, forecasts the oncoming insanity well, while Segun Akinola’s spooky score enhances, without signposting, the shenanigans.
Best of all, however, are the scenes in which a bereft Graham returns to his home, only to encounter visions of his deceased wife Grace, who sits or stands behind him while offering comments like, “You’ll have to learn how to change the Hoover bag now. And work out where I kept the spares.” When Graham inhales Grace’s scent from one of her coats, she asks him, with humor and with regret, “what you doing, sniffing coats? How is that going to help?” Bradley Walsh and Sharon D. Clarke are magnificent in these small moments, so much so that I hope Chibnall finds a way—and in the premiere time-travel program of our era, how can he not?—to bring Grace back from death. She is too terrific a character to leave in the shadows for long, although these scenes’ restraint suggests that Graham’s grief will remain an ongoing plotline. Ryan also starts coming to terms with his grandmother’s absence from his life, but this development cannot match the touching, too-brief exchanges between Graham and Sharon’s spirit.
The Doctor manifests similar feeling for the Sheffield spiders when Robertson wishes to shoot them dead with American guns. She realizes that they did not ask for their fate and that, if their destiny is to die so that Sheffield’s human residents are not overrun, no one need celebrate this outcome. As barmy as this episode may be, no one should forget that it is a big-hearted environmental parable wrapped up in horror-movie clothing that recalls Them! (1954), Arachnophobia (1990), and Eight Legged Freaks (2002). Its sense of compassion—for all life—is what most sticks in my mind about “Arachnids in the UK,” and, if you give this outing a chance, may be what most sticks in yours.