Doctor Who: 11-04 “Arachnids in the UK” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Everyone’s personal taste in Doctor Who is different. What your mileage is with sillier romps like The Unicorn and the Wasp or more cerebral stories such as Listen may vary, and while plenty of stories have that unique Who ability to scare, there aren’t too many episodes that some viewers may be downright unable to watch, thanks to a certain phobia. Yes, it’s time for Doctor Who taking on spiders again, only this time they aren’t praising the Great One, terrorising Catherine Tate or pottering about on the moon- they’re taking over Sheffield.
The fourth episode of Series 11, Arachnids in the UK, The Doctor and her new band of friends (fam still isn’t sticking) finally arrive back in the Steel City, just half an hour after they’d originally left in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. The Thirteenth Doctor isn’t quite ready to leave her new friends just yet and manages to be invited over to Yaz’s for some tea. Of course it’s the complete opposite of some food and a friendly chat when The Doctor stumbles across a woman suffocated in a ridiculously large spiders web when collecting a package for Yaz (what a way to start a story, though!). Something’s happening with the spiders in the city, and it all seems to be stemming from shady, absolutely not Donald Trump, American businessman Jack Robertson.
The Good Wife’s Chris Noth as Robertson fulfills the over the top evil and comical businessman role with aplomb, clearly relishing the role and the chance to be as much of nuisance as possible. For the third villain running (fourth if you count guest characters in general) Robertson simply vanishes from the story once his big moment of spider killing is done. I thought we’d be treated to a piece of Jodie’s more ruthless side here, maybe depowering him in the fashion similar to Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion, so it was disappointing that the cause of all the trouble got off scot free- unless there’s more to it later down the line.
Arachnids in the UK is a perfect example of a “does what says on the tin” story- there’s a lot of spiders (all very big) and they’re running rampant in the UK (well, Sheffield). It’s the most pure of a romp that we’ve had this series, with the mystery of the spider’s growth and behaviour driving the plot while the character work excels around it, as is becoming tradition this series. The spiders themselves are fittingly well realised enough to really give arachnophobes a scare, and they’re refreshingly not just mindless monsters and killers- they’re scared, confused animals that just happen to have developed odd behaviours.
Sadly I didn’t feel like the mystery at the heart of the story did anything more than be serviceable. Tanya Fear as Dr Jade McIntyre is given the thankless task of delivering clunky dialogue on repeat, whilst even despite appreciating The Green Death type eco story on display I just didn’t feel more than along for the ride casually rather than gripped at any point. The scene at the landfill site as the plot revelations are discovered is emblematic of the story’s problems- so much saying, not enough doing.
And it’s a shame, because seeing the cast do their thing once again is as always a joy, particularly now that Yaz has been remembered to be existing and Mandip Gill can do more than just try her best with scraps she is given. Yaz’s family are great, her awful cook father Hakim (Ravin J. Ganatra) and lively mother Najia (Shobna Gulati) add a real fun layer. From our slowly becoming usual cast, Bradley Walsh again runs away with some of the scenes of the episode, as he returns home to an empty home plagued by sad lingering memories of beloved wife Grace. It’s a lovely contrast that drives he and Yaz back to The Doctor- Yaz wanting to get away from the crazy household she lives in, and Graham with his empty one. Ryan falls to the back slightly this time, but does directly carry out the funniest moment, as he blares Stormzy to lure the spiders away from where they can cause harm.
Regardless of the story being a bit unsurprising and overexplained, there’s still enjoyment to be had. I was never bored, and the increasing ridiculous size of the spiders made me grin as they kept getting bigger. It did turn out to be a rather weird ending, with The Doctor scolding Robertson for shooting the Big Mama Spider (not official name but I’m calling it by it) before proceeding to lure the other spiders into a panic room where they will either suffocate or starve. Is that *really* a more humane way of dealing with them? Drive home the anti-weapons point by all means, but it certainly felt like a weirdly dealt with resolution, when combined with Robertson literally walking out of the story.
The story is served well by the increased production value that Series 11 has gained, with the setting of the hotel allowing for some suitably claustrophobic scenes reminiscent of Eight Legged Freaks in subterranean tunnels. Segun Akinola’s score continues to prove more of a compliment to the scenes in which it plays, rather than being a selection of outstanding separate pieces, which is an asset to stories such as Arachnids in the UK.
By episode’s close we’re given (another!) great final scene in the TARDIS, as The Doctor’s new friends finally come aboard for travels in time and space. It’s played as earnestly as possible by all involved, and it’s wonderful to see a group of people come along for a variety of their own personal reasons. Most interesting though is how The Doctor’s reaction plays out, giving us an insight into Jodie’s Doctor not often seen- hesitation, doubt, as she warns her new friends that this can all get very dangerous. Doctor Thirteen is clearly still feeling the fresh losses of her Series 10 friends, regardless of the “soft reboot” of Series 11, and I loved this scene for that just ever so brief hesitation on The Doctor’s side, of all people. What will that tell us about her character and how it develops in the coming weeks? For all the continued brilliance of Jodie’s earnest comic delivery this week, I’m dying to see her really carve out her niche for The Doctor.
Arachnids in the UK isn’t particularly deep in the slightest, but when it’s a story about spiders taking over Sheffield and eventually being trapped in a room (indirectly) by Stormzy, you’d be a fool to try and pin too much on it. For spider thrills and silliness this has more than enough of both, but for my money it just didn’t dive enough into the ridiculousness to be worth more than a fun ride you wouldn’t be in any rush to go back to. While I fully understand the desire to explain certain aspects at times, I felt it affected the pacing enough to drag the episode down in my estimation despite enjoying the watch, which is a shame because when it reaches peak absurdity (like The Doctor preparing spider repellent or almost everything Robertson says) it hit the mark for me. But for an episode so close to Halloween, I have to give props to Chris Chibnall for trying the scares, and if you’re an arachnophobe, then I’ve no doubt it worked. Maybe that’s enough!