“It’s not my fault. I didn’t know anything about spider carcassses!” – Jack Robertson.
Arachnids in the UK often feels like a trivial episode of Doctor Who. One that, if it had zeroed in on some of the more enjoyable aspects of the episode, could have gone down as a classic. Instead we’re left with a light, breezy and fairly-forgettable adventure that really makes me wish giant spiders had good representation on television for once.
We join the TARDIS team back in Sheffield attending tea at Yaz’s place (yes, we get some more information on her finally). Unbeknownst to them their neighbour has yet to be seen for the last three weeks. The Doctor and Ryan investigate next door alongside a concerned friend, Dr Jade Mcintyre (Tanya Fear) only to find the place riddled with lavish webbing and its occupant cocooned dead on the bed, complete with a giant CGI house spider hiding underneath the bed and strangely fascinated with the taste of human flesh. Now, I’m a big fan of spiders. I think they’re fascinating and creepy and any excuse for a film or television show to incorporate them I’ll take it, so Doctor Who didn’t necessarily have to do much in order for me to accept the premise and run with it. Series 8’s ‘Kill the Moon’ featured spider-like aliens that dwelled on the moon and I didn’t bat an eyelid, but my biggest problem with ‘Arachnids in the UK’ is the treatment of the titular beasties, and how inconsequential they seem to not only the plot but to the characters themselves.
The plot of the episode (from showrunner Chris Chibnall) is a straight rip-off of 2002’s Eight Legged Freaks. A university in Sheffield had been experimenting with altering the lifespans of certain species of spider, alongside a spike in sightings and statements about giant arachnids in the local area – all centering around a new luxury hotel complex run by exuberant businessman and not-Donald-Trump-at-all hotel runner Jack Robertson (played by Sex and City’s Chris Noth). It turns out that the hotel is built on a series of old mining caves that spread throughout Sheffield and as part of the deal signed by Robertson, the caves are filled with various pieces of toxic waste and scrap from across the city. Unfortunately for Dr Jade and her colleagues, some of the various spider carcasses still have a slither of life in them yet and once they’re introduced to the toxic waste…boom. Giant spiders. That’s the level we’re at here.
For me there’s two elements that really went above and beyond in this episode, one of them being the presentation. Once again the show continues to look amazing, even when confined to limited corridors for the majority of the episode. Whilst I wish this could have meant a more horror-themed installment to tie-in to the closeness of Halloween I’m still glad with what we got. The spiders themselves, too, look fantastic. The initial meeting between Ryan (Tosin Cole) and his eight-legged friend had me worried a little, as the interaction between the spiders and characters within the episode are little to non-existent, but for the most part they were a joy onscreen and it’s a shame more wasn’t done in regard to their silhouettes and screen presence. The highlight of the episode for me is a set-piece within the hotel bathroom where the mother of all spiders manages to break through the bath and entrap Robertson’s loyal assistant Kevin. It’s a beautiful creature to behold onscreen and reminded me of the feeling I got from Harry Potter’s Aragog at a younger age. It’s the only point where the spiders pose any threat too, as Chibnall’s script decides to spend a huge amount of its time lamenting over contemporary climate problems that feel awash in an episode like this.
Bradley Walsh’s Graham continues to impress in the episode too. As Ryan and Yaz (Mandip Gill) head over for tea with The Doctor, he heads briefly to a home without his wife Grace (Sharon D. Clark) and attempts to face his grief in the form of blurred visions of his lost love. It’s remarkably poignant and visibly affecting to his character, requiring a nuanced performance from Walsh – something he excels at. Even his brief talk with Ryan about the idea of him moving in with his real dad is well handled despite how short it is. In comparison Jodie Whittaker’s incarnation of The Doctor now feels a little undercooked, still rambling on with the energy of an excited toddler in almost every instance; we’ve yet to see her really change much even when faced with the likes of violence-loving potential-politicians such as Robertson. She insists within the episode that she’s “still trying to figure herself out” and it’s worrying that this apparent breathing space is still in full flow almost halfway through the series. If rumours are to be believed that we’ll be without Doctor Who for 2019, then Whittaker will have to prove herself more than ever in a short space of time to remain in the minds of the show’s audience during its absence. Even Tosin Cole’s Ryan seems to be coming into his own onscreen, with moments of typical cocky lad-ish behaviour being offset by his uncompromising buffoonery. A period in the university lab where he just sits and makes shadow puppets to himself whilst the other characters converse is a particular highlight, and develop his character marvellously. Despite being introduced to her family and home-life, we also still learn nothing new about Yaz either. Her relationships with her mother (Shobna Gulati) and father (Ravin Ganatra) are established briefly but then left dangling. I’d have thought the idea of a giant spider cohabiting the block of flats with Yaz’s family would be a part of the plot too but apparently not, it’s just left alone like the majority of the plot threads in the episode.
About halfway through this week’s episode I became tremendously worried about the allegorical nature it seemed to be heading towards, mostly due to Chris Noth’s Jack Robertson. He chews up scenery left right and center, firing Yaz’s mother the first instance they meet (for entering the room, no less) and calling for gun violence at a moments’ notice. It’s abundantly clear from the get-go who we’re really seeing here, and the script just keeps hammering the message in for those that might be watching from the other room or with the sound muted. Even the title ‘Arachnids in the UK’ takes on another xenophobic meaning at one point before being dropped completely, a choice which would have at least made the episode more memorable. Noth seems to be the only one who thinks he’s in a cartoon, and I don’t think he’s really to blame. The fact that he doesn’t really get his comeuppance is just another notion to add onto the list of underwhelming conclusions found this week.
As Ryan blasts out oddly-PC grime music to attract the spiders (all of them, somehow) into a steel panic room in the basement, I was left with a severe lack of payoff. Robertson’s ruthless murder of an already-dying spider leader simply lead to a stern talking-to from The Doctor and then we are rushed back to the TARDIS with no room for any follow up. What happened to the rest of the spiders? Were they left in the panic room? Wouldn’t they die in there? What about the other spiders that had made it all the way around Sheffield? Couldn’t they breed giant spiders too? One spider egg has up to a hundred babies in it. Could that mean giant spiders could take over the UK? Is that a new story arc? Am I being too hopeful here? Nothing is answered at all and whilst the trio asking the time lord whether they can join her again allows for Graham to break our hearts again with his confession of grief, the scene leaves so many questions up in the air. ‘Arachnids in the UK’ a disappointing stumble for what hand, up until this point, been a promising start for the new Doctor. One I’m hoping next week will abolish the memory of.