You know, it really does speak volumes about the versatility and flexibility of the show’s format that one week you can have a heartfelt, impassioned look at the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement in America, and the next you’re fighting off an infestation of giant spiders in Sheffield. Suck on that, Star Trek.
It’s been said that Doctor Who is at its best when it brings the unfamiliar and strange to your very doorstep: Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor, used to talk about how much more frightening it was to have the perils come down to Earth, with his oft-cited example being to find a Yeti sitting on your loo in Tooting Bec.
In fact, the majority of his era on the show saw the Doctor being exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, and taking on the role of scientific advisor to UNIT, a military outfit which was once described in the snow as being set up to “deal with the odd, the unexplained, anything on Earth, or even beyond”. The Pertwee era saw everyday things take on a much more frightening aspect, including plastic dolls and shop mannequins that came to life and killed people, as well as deadly mutated maggots, and – in his finale – giant spiders.
Spiders have actually been used in the series on a number of occasions, from Tom Baker’s encounter with Marsh Spiders in a pocket dimension, to spider-like lunar creatures in the Peter Capaldi episode ‘Kill The Moon’, and David Tennant’s confrontation with the Empress of the Racnoss in the 2006 Christmas Special. Suffice it to say that some of these realisations of spiders have been somewhat variable in quality, given the level of technology available at the time to the production team.
It’s therefore reassuring to see that the CGI used to bring the titular Arachnids to life was overall a resounding success, making for some genuinely creepy moments. The positioning of this episode was particularly appropriate, being so close to Halloween that it’s ended up serving as an unintended special of sorts, with its cobweb-draped rooms, dark spaces and spooky, mysterious caves. Perfect timing to deliver some proper old school ‘behind-the-sofa’ moments for the kiddiwinks (as well as the arachnophobes in the audience).
‘Arachnids In The UK’ has also shown the series returning to the more grounded settings of the show’s revival in 2005, by showing blocks of flats, families, and real world locations (in this case, Sheffield), which made it so compelling and popular with modern audiences. To my mind, the show’s all the better for it, showing us not only familiar settings, but also a credible group of characters – Graham, Ryan and Yaz – who are very much rooted in the real world, and take us along with them into their fantastical journey into the Doctor’s world.
Another trend the series has continued is its pattern of story settings: contemporary – futuristic – historical – contemporary again. We’ve seen the Doctor’s friends getting to grips with life in the future and past, and now we see them coming full circle, by having to deal with another menace on their home turf, but now being able to apply some of the skills they’ve honed along the way. Travelling with the Doctor can change people, so it’s always been fun with the revived show to see this in action when companions – like Rose, Martha, Donna et al. – visited friends and relatives after exploring space and time, and illustrated how much they’ve grown.
By coming home again, it also gives us a chance to add some more depth to Yaz – perhaps the most thinly-drawn of the three companions so far – by showing her home life and family, with a strong focus on her mother Najia (the always divine Shobna Gulati). Mandip Gill has done a creditable job making Yaz seem so rounded and likeable, while having the least character development to date. By having a family connection of her own at last, it helps Yaz play catch-up with the established relationship between Graham and Ryan. It’s definitely the right time to ‘show, not tell’ when writing for Yaz, while giving Mandip a chance to show even more of her acting chops, with the story affording her a very different side to what we’ve seen before, as she settles uneasily back into humdrum everyday life.
The real heart of the show is still very much Graham, who helps give some of the story’s much-needed quieter and poignant moments, as he comes home for the first time after his late wife’s funeral back in episode one. The vision of Grace around the house provides for some genuine emotion, beautifully played by Bradley Walsh and Sharon D. Clarke, continuing that genuine rapport between the two in their interplay, and giving Graham a believable motivation to continue his travels with the Doctor, as he struggles to come to terms with his very real grief, and decides against sitting around an empty house while he tries to work through it.
The real disappointments this week come from the script, something which is exposed even more harshly given last week’s powerhouse piece. Chris Chibnall’s lifelong love of the programme is well known, and he’s managed to turn in some creditable stories so far. However, he’s gone beyond paying homage to the show and decided to do a wholesale remake of the Pertwee-era tale ‘The Green Death’ (a.k.a. The One With The Maggots). A businessman’s corporation dumping toxic waste into a mine, causing local creatures to mutate to a giant size – it’s been done before, and far better, too.
In addition, the baddie of the piece is a very one-dimensional character, who – besides being there to snarl and be a complete corporate bastard – is used as a simplistic commentary on Donald Trump, pitching him as a property magnate and hotel tycoon, and even hammering the point home to the extent of saying that he’s going to run for the Presidency in 2020, because he hates Trump. However, this ersatz Trump isn’t given real depth, and doesn’t seem a fully formed creation.
Another issue comes from the fact that he doesn’t get his just desserts at the end, instead having the opportunity to swan off and carry on his immoral business practice with no consequences. Yes, the Doctor gets to moralise at him on more than one occasion, but there doesn’t seem to be the satisfying payoff which the audience needs. It seems to be setting a precedent, given that Art Malik’s cosmic billionaire character in ‘The Ghost Monument’ didn’t get anything even close to a comeuppance. Sometimes, we need to have closure, otherwise it sends out a very odd message, having rich, amoral types acting with such impunity, and not having to face up to their actions.
In fact, it seemed that the main role of Jack Robertson in the story was to solve everything with a gun, affording Chris Chibnall’s script the opportunity to attack America’s gun culture, by contrasting that country with the UK. It’s given an extra bit of timeliness and currency due to the mass shooting which took place a day earlier in Pittsburgh, and drives the point home even harder as a result. However, it seems as though Chibnall had this big endgame moment in place from the very start, and worked backwards to try and fit a character around it, rather than starting with the character and then building from there instead. It’s also a waste of Chris Noth, who doesn’t get given a lot to play with, and ends up trying to do his best to imbue a generic ‘boo, hiss’ villain with something more than what little is on the page.
Even in what’s the weakest story of the season so far, there are still some shining, beautiful moments to be found, such as the Doctor’s heart(s)break at thinking she’s going to be on her own turning into such genuine excitement at being invited for tea at Yaz’s. The running joke about the Doctor constantly referring to “Yaz’s mum” as Najia keeps trying to get the Doctor to use her name instead also brought a smile to my face, as did the sheer joy of the Doctor realising that her new friends will be travelling with her a good while longer.
Perhaps the final word should be about the episode’s title, which seems oddly fitting for the story that it’s attached to: derivative of something that’s come before, not as clever as it would like to be, and doesn’t quite work. However, the series – much like an arachnid – still has plenty of legs.