Doctor Who (Modern): S11E04 “Arachnids in the UK”

Series 11
Directed by Sallie Aprahamian
Written by Chris Chibnall

Those of you who were unimpressed with the heavy handed “Rosa” (although I question how many people watching Doctor Who aren’t used to that by this point) will likely be happy to see the show returning from the sci-fi-lite historical to more of a sci-fi horror story just in time for Halloween.  With the team only just starting to achieve some chemistry last time, it’s going to prove to be an interesting test sending them back to Sheffield already.  I’ll admit, I figured they’d keep the TARDIS away longer, bouncing through time and space seemingly randomly, but perhaps they figured that would get old quick or that audiences would no longer go for a story where the companions didn’t make that choice to be a companion of their own volition.  Instead, it was up to Chibnall to convince these three to stick together (or honestly just get Ryan and Yaz to tag along because I already had the sense that Graham would be always there for and watching over Ryan) with The Doctor.

Chris Noth is a candidate for US President in 2020 and considering he’s an arrogant asshole with an eagerness to fire people who an owns ostentatious hotel (one of many as part of his wide-ranging business portfolio), I see no parallels to any current American politicians.  Oddly enough, they actually mention Trump by name and that the man, Jack Robertson, hates him.  He’s just set to open his new hotel only he’s run into a few issues that he’s eager to cover up.

With the TARDIS having finally returned to Sheffield, the team looks ready to split apart.  After seeing just how depressed The Doctor looks at the prospect of traveling alone again, Yaz feels bad and invites her (and the others) home for tea.  Yaz has an unemployed sister, a father who is convinced of a grand conspiracy going on in the city, and a mother who is fired on her first day as the general manager at Robertson’s hotel.  Graham instead returns to his home and finds that he still sees his wife there.  It’s a great, if tough to watch Sharon D Clarke’s brief return to the show.

Yaz’s father is right however as there is something going on.  Spider webs have been appearing all over the city and when they help a Dr. Jade McIntyre break into the flat of her coworker Anna who hasn’t been seen in a few days, they find it absolutely filled with cobwebs and Anna has wrapped snugly in a cocoon in her bed.  They also find a spider that is far bigger than it should be, but a native spider, not anything alien in appearance and one that Jade is not surprised by for they are out of control in this city.

The action shifts to the Not-Trump Hotel as episode embraces its roots as a good old-fashioned creature feature complete with giant spider bursts through a bathtub.  The spiders seal them in, turning the place into a giant web as they swarm all over it.  They’re even given a delightfully B-movie origin story in the hotel being built on old coal mines filled with toxic waste including bioengineered spider carcasses.  Up until the ending, I was all ready to talk about how much I liked this episode and how fun I was having and then it just kind of crumpled.

Once again, this year, we have a conflict between the Doctor and someone who wants to kill the villain of the week and that can’t be a coincidence.  The final plan is to use some kind of EDM to lure the spiders in to the panic room and let them suffocate to death seemed pretty cruel to me (especially since all the food that was in there was pretty well sealed up and meant for a bunch of humans not a giant swarm of spiders) to begin with, but The Doctor seemed largely unconcerned by it.  What she was concerned by was Robertson coming in and capping the pathetic, mewling, dying mother spider which posed no threat and then saying that is how he gets to be president.  It’s also way too blatant of a set up to be anything but one for him returning as the president in the future and yet when Harriet Jones did something similar years ago, The Doctor ended her in an instant.  In this more modern, even more cynical world, it seems the message is clear that now that doesn’t work.  To be fair, Ten’s method of taking down Jones always carried a sinister quality to me (a whisper campaign started by one phrase) that now feels too distressingly relevant.

We do however get our team officially together now as they all decide to join The Doctor on the TARDIS.  Ryan doesn’t want to go back to his warehouse job just yet while Graham’s given reason is that he that he can’t spend time in the house that reminds him of Grace which is a depressing if understandable thought.  It’s also a bit of an awkward fit putting in a man’s quiet, and somber reflection on death throughout an otherwise goofy episode.  Then again, there’s some wild swings into the final moments when the spider is killed, and we move to Yaz’s depressing family life.  Yaz needs more out of life and wants to be around The Doctor more because she’s so wonderful and are we going back to the couple teasing of The Doctor and the companion or is this going to be another one-sided Martha/early Amy thing?  I don’t think I’m reading too much into it especially since there’s a number of instances of teasing throughout between the pairings of Yaz/Ryan and Yaz/The Doctor, but I don’t recall any hints of that before this episode.

The show feels like it is moving along smoothly now and the team, even before becoming official, feels like a team.  It’s even starting to become clear what the various themes and repeated plot points are this year as the no killing and constant hanging plot threads leave open a much larger world for Chibnall to play with should he take advantage.  I just wish he’d get better at tying them off in the episodes and in making the tones feel more cohesive too.

Grade: B

Stray Observations

– Chris Noth is in this episode presumably to demonstrate what an American accent sounds like
– “I have no move Kevins”
– The effects for the spiders look really rather good and in general this series has seen some good special effects.  I’m waiting for the inevitable moment where the fact that they used up their budget starts showing.
– The Doctor indicates that she used to have sisters and if they don’t show up at the end of this season, I’ll be… not at all surprised.  The show loves teasing mysteries of The Doctor without payoff.  Still, it sounds like a perfect late season reveal that one or more are still alive.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: The officially dubbed Team TARDIS push the lever down together to send themselves to the next destination.

Next Up: Next Sunday, 11/4, we will return to coverage of the Thirteenth Doctor with “The Tsuranga Conundrum” while Doctor Who Classic coverage will return on 11/5 with “The Krotons” at 10 AM.