Thursday, 1 November 2018

Doctor Who - Arachnids in the UK


One thing Doctor Who is well known for is including lots of creepy chills and scares. This week’s episode is the kind that gives the show that reputation. Just in time for Hallowe’en, “Arachnids in the UK” presents us with giant spiders creeping out from under people’s beds, crawling along dark corridors, and spinning lots and lots of webs. It’s the kind of episode arachnophobes might want to avoid. In true Doctor Who fashion, however, the episode also provides moments of humour to soften the terror, and lots of great character moments.

Coming immediately after the incredible heights of “Rosa”, it’s not surprising that “Arachnids in the UK” does not reach those same heights, but it’s still a highly enjoyable episode. Unfortunately, it does have a somewhat weak resolution, which can make it feel a bit disappointing, especially in comparison to “Rosa”. However, the resolution aside, the episode has many great strengths, particularly the initial build-up of threat and the characters, which include our first introduction to Yasmin’s family. Overall, I’d say it’s my least favourite episode of Series 11 so far, but considering how strong the series has been, this does not make it a bad episode at all.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

I’ve mentioned before that Chris Chibnall’s strength is in characterisation, and that is showcased here. This is the Doctor’s friends’ first return to Earth after being whisked off on adventures with her, and this fact isn’t glossed over. This is particularly true of Graham. He only has a relatively small role in this episode, but it’s a poignant and powerful one. Doctor Who has rarely handled grief well—in either the classic or revived shows. The Master kills the Doctor’s companion Nyssa’s father, and she seems barely affected by it. The Doctor’s companion Adric dies and there is grief expressed in the scene following at the end of that episode and in the opening of the next episode, but then it’s business as usual after that. Amy and Rory lose their baby and are similarly barely affected. But grief isn’t something that just goes away. It can linger for what feels like ages. Even when you think you’ve gotten over it, it can rear its face once more. It’s refreshing to see Doctor Who not gloss over the death of a character for a change.

Of course, everyone experiences grief differently, and I like that we’re getting that through the different ways Graham and Ryan have responded to Grace’s death. Ryan has attempted to shove it aside, while Graham dwells on it quite a bit more. Graham’s scenes in his home are simply incredible, full of realistic emotion that Doctor Who rarely evokes. The scenes are calm and reserved without overt displays of emotion. Little touches like sniffing Grace’s clothes and Graham’s grieved expressions deliver so much. As I commented on last week, Bradley Walsh has a great talent for conveying lots of information in a single, subtle expression. He doesn’t need to be crying here for us to know how much pain he’s in. His little actions and quiet interactions with Grace’s ghost (not her literal ghost, of course, but rather a visualisation of Graham’s inner turmoil) are all that’s needed. These scenes are some of the most heartfelt and mature scenes Doctor Who has ever produced. I particularly like Grace’s first appearance, out of focus in the background. It reinforces to the viewers that she’s not really there, that Graham just wishes she were there.

In the last three episodes, Yaz has had the least development of the main cast and the least to do. She’s still been a good character, but it has been noticeable that we don’t know as much about her as we do Graham and Ryan. This episode finally gives her some more depth and background through the introduction of her family. The stand-out amongst them is her mother, Najia, or as the Doctor calls her, “Yaz’s Mum”. She has a nice understated presence, yet with an inner strength that shows itself when it’s needed. Yaz’s father and sister only have small roles in the episode, but the couple of scenes they’re in firmly establish the family dynamic: the playful sibling rivalry between Yaz and Sonja, their father’s desire to please and entertain, and everyone else’s exasperation at his conspiracy theories. Of course, it was pretty obvious that his latest conspiracy theory would turn out to be right, but it was still great fun and good foreshadowing of the origin of the giant spiders.

Yaz is shown to be a bit of an outsider, even to her own family—rarely bringing friends round and what friends she does introduce them to, her family deems “weird”. It gives context into why she ultimately chooses to keep travelling with the Doctor. They’re kindred spirits, both outsiders, both a little awkward in social situations.

I love the acknowledgement of the Doctor’s social awkwardness, and it really helps establish the contrast between the thirteenth Doctor and previous incarnations. Of course, the Doctor’s often been socially awkward, but in a very different way. Other incarnations will bombastically take over any scene, completely oblivious of how they don’t really fit in. The thirteenth is much more aware of other people’s feelings and reactions. As someone who suffers from bad social anxiety, I find her admission about feeling nervous around Yaz’s family to be hugely relatable. I’m not used to being able to relate to the Doctor in this way, but I like it! Of course, being more aware of other people’s feelings doesn’t mean that she isn’t still a little oblivious as seen in lines like, “Want me to go get [the package] while you make your terrible pakora?”

Ryan has the smallest role of the main cast this episode, but he has some good moments too that help to develop his character, particularly the reaction to the letter from his father. He has had difficulty acknowledging Graham as family in the past, so he can’t quite admit to Graham now that he considers Graham more his family than he does his father, so he resorts to just saying his father isn’t “proper family”.

One thing I have loved about Ryan since the start is how active he continues to be even when he doesn’t have something specific to do. Tosin Cole does a good job of bringing him across as someone who gets bored quickly and is easily distracted. This episode has a great moment at the university while the Doctor and Jade are discussing the spider situation. In the background, Ryan is making shadow puppets! I like that director Sallie Aprahamian doesn’t draw attention to it. The focus remains on the Doctor and Jade, and Ryan’s actions remain in the background. Viewers might not notice him doing this, but that’s okay because it’s not really important. However, it’s little touches like this that help keep the story grounded in reality. Just because he doesn’t have anything relevant to do at the moment doesn’t mean that Ryan is just standing around waiting for his turn. He keeps himself occupied!

As well as developing the main cast individually, this episode also does a good job of developing their relationships as group. Their arrival scene plays really well with the Doctor’s reluctance to leave on her own, and Yaz ultimately inviting her and the others back for tea. Similarly, at the end, the companions’ personal stories all reach the point where they decide they want to stay with the Doctor and travel more. I like that this is a decision they’ve obviously talked about together, since they approach the Doctor as a group. We also see more of the thirteenth Doctor’s concern for her companions as she warns them of the possible dangers. Previous Doctors have sometimes given warning of the danger, but they’ve generally skimmed over it very quickly before excitedly welcoming the new companion aboard. This Doctor clearly wants them to travel with her, but she’s also concerned for their safety, and she makes sure they’re certain before declaring the formation of Team TARDIS! I think I rather like that name.

The story of “Arachnids in the UK” has echoes of the Jon Pertwee (third Doctor) story “The Green Death” from 1973. Both stories have a central villain who epitomises the evils of big business corporations—Robertson in “Arachnids in the UK” and an artificial intelligence called simply B.O.S.S. in “The Green Death”. Both stories involve corporations illegally dumping toxic waste which results in the growth of otherwise normal creatures into giant ones. That’s not to say “Arachnids in the UK” is the same story as “The Green Death”. It’s its own entity. However, there are enough similarities to create something of an homage to that story. Indeed, Series 11 so far has come across as something of an homage to very early Doctor Who. “Arachnids” is also not a sequel to “The Green Death”. There is no mention of the earlier story; nor is there any need to have seen it to understand the current one, keeping this story, like all of Series 11 so far, accessible to new viewers.

The story starts out extremely well, setting the scene and building creepiness right from the opening moments. The meeting between Robertson and Frankie in the empty ballroom with large amounts of space around and between them immediately creates a sense that something is wrong. It’s not a typical place for a meeting, and it comes across as unnatural and foreboding. From there, the story builds tension with the introduction of the spider in the flat near Yaz’s and the spider in Graham’s home, leading eventually to the arrival of the mother spider as it bursts out of the bath in the hotel bathroom. The death of Robertson’s bodyguard Kevin, dragged away wrapped in webs, is one of the most terrifying things seen on Doctor Who in several years.

The story also does a very good job of establishing its supporting characters. It becomes clear within moments the kind of person Robertson is, his uncaring nature exemplified in his inability to even remember the name of his niece’s wife, promptly followed by his firing of Najia. There are a number of little touches that I really like, such as the fact that he has scheduled bathroom breaks and the way he just sort of slaps water on his hands to wash them.

Robertson is a pretty obvious Donald Trump analogue (despite the line establishing him as a rival of Trump) as well as a stand-in for American versus British sensibilities. For the most part, this works pretty well. Unfortunately, there are moments towards the end of the story where he devolves into a bit of a caricature, most notably his rant about guns: “Why don’t you do what normal people do? Get a gun, shoot things like a civilised person!” It’s a little too over the top.

It’s exacerbated by the fact that the story itself starts to run into a few problems around this time. Up until the point after they’ve lured the spiders into Robertson’s panic room, things work well. Indeed, I like that, despite the absurdity of giant spiders, the story makes a good attempt to ground itself in some realistic science. Using music to lure the spiders makes a great deal of sense, and Ryan’s choice of grime is hilarious. Unfortunately, it’s not clear what’s going to happen to the spiders next. Is the intention that they just stay in there until they all die? Is Jade going to do something, perhaps arrange to have them put down humanely, or maybe have them transported back to the university where they can be studied until they die naturally?

And what about the other spiders throughout Sheffield? We know that there has been all kinds of unusual spider activity in the city and at least a few giant spiders wandering about. All those other spiders are too far away to hear the music and be drawn in. What happens to them? Presumably, they’ll all die of natural causes eventually, but they have killed at least one person and could kill many more before they die. The episode just seems to forget about them. We never even learn what becomes of the one the Doctor confines in Jade’s associate’s flat earlier in the episode.

Then there’s the mother spider. While I do like the idea that it’s grown too large to breathe properly (another use of realistic science), it happens very suddenly and without warning. One moment, it’s chasing Graham and Ryan without any apparent difficulty; the next, it’s dying and its aggression is completely gone. The sense of threat that the episode has carefully built up completely vanishes as a result. It’s also just a little too coincidentally convenient as a story resolution. It might work better if the spider remained aggressive. Its fear and pain could cause it to lash out, keeping the final moments tense as the Doctor attempts to deal with it humanely before Robertson ultimately shoots and kills it.

The lingering questions and the overly convenient end of the mother spider make for a disappointing resolution for the story, and that’s a bit of a shame considering the rest of the episode is so good. That said, I still highly enjoy “Arachnids in the UK”. The good in the episode outweighs the bad by a large enough margin that I can ignore the shortcomings in the resolution, and the final scene on board the TARDIS is good enough to make me temporarily forget those shortcomings. Overall, Series 11 continues to be great Doctor Who and I eagerly look forward to the next episode.

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