Something that’s marked new showrunner Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who apart from his precursor Steven Moffat’s vision of the show is that it emphasizes the humanity and the adventure of the story instead of the humor and scares. When we heard that this latest episode, sporting the punning title “Arachnids in the U.K.”, would involve creepy giant spiders, it seemed that Chibnall was trying his hand at cooking up some Moffatesque family-friendly horror. And in a sense he did, but he can’t help but add his own flavor as well by sprinkling in his patented character work and real-world themes.
In “Arachnids in the U.K.,” the Doctor returns her friends to their hometown of Sheffield, half an hour after they left in the premiere. And also right on time to investigate the arrival of some enormous creepy-crawlies in the city. It seems it’s all to do with a swanky new hotel built by American fatcat and future Presidential candidate Jake Robertson and an apparently innocuous university study on spiders. Before long, though, they end up fighting for their lives in the building, which is hiding a shocking secret.
Of course, the big hook for this episode is the inclusion of the titular English arachnids and those who came to get scared by monstrous eight-legged freaks won’t be disappointed. Usually, CGI creations are never as scary as physical monsters but the design work on the spiders is terrific – those hairy legs and twitching mandibles! – and Chibnall provides a couple of memorable jump scares. The best of which is the tense bathroom scene in which a spider doesn’t climb up the plughole but smashes through the whole tub.
In contrast to the humongous critters on display, the episode actually operates on a fairly small-scale. Once we’ve got the character introductions out the way, the action takes place entirely in Robertson’s hotel. As ever, Chibnall’s writing wears its influences on its sleeve – the set-up of a ragtag group hunting some creepy, predatory monsters comes across a a kind of Northern version of Aliens but with spiders instead of Xenomorphs – there’s even a giant queen to defeat as the ultimate boss.
As it sounds, then, the A-plot is enjoyable but relatively by-the-numbers fare. However, as things progress, Chibnall lends the tale some weight by diving into a few topical issues. First of all, it turns out the spiders are the result of Robertson dumping toxic waste under his hotel – meaning regular spiders got Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-d. Classic Whovians will recognize that this is borrowed wholesale from 1974’s “The Green Death,” in which the foes were giant maggots mutated by radiation, not spiders.
Speaking of Robertson, he’s one of the least subtle Trump parodies out there, something that Chris Noth encourages with his performance as a despicable, narcissistic blowhard with no redeeming qualities. Through this caricature, though, some interesting points are raised about gun control, as Robertson shoots the spider mother and proclaims that his militarized attitude is going to be what gets him into the White House. Notably, he’s still at large by the end of the episode, which is a sad reminder that even the Doctor can’t defeat villains as powerful as him.
While Chibnall’s commitment to ensuring Doctor Who feels contemporary in its attitudes and ideas is to be commended, there’s a lack of focus on the two big issues brought up this week that keeps them from landing with the impact they deserve. Perhaps it’s because we were spoiled with last week’s “Rosa,” written by Chibnall and Malorie Blackman, which examined everyday racism with such precision and poignancy, but it feels like it might have been better if the writer had chosen one to tackle and saved the other to be given due coverage in a future installment.
But hey, it’s not all about big ideas in “Arachnids in the U.K.,” as the focus of the show is always “Team TARDIS” – as they’ve newly-christened themselves. As the action’s returned to Sheffield, we get to meet Yaz’s family after they were mentioned back in episode 2 “The Ghost Monument.” I’ve said in my previous reviews that, despite Mandip Gill’s spirited, endearing performance, Yaz has been the least fleshed-out of the crew. It looked like that was going to change here but honestly, it didn’t feel like we found out that much more about her as a person.
As always, though, Graham and Ryan’s dysfunctional family dynamic was delightful. Bradley Walsh continues to sell the hell out of Graham as an ordinary fella caught up in a crazy world and his visions of his late wife Grace were tear-jerking. It was his final admission to his friends that he needs to keep traveling to process his grief that really got a lump in your throat, though. Speaking of which, those bookends of the Doctor being reluctant to say goodbye to her pals and then excited that they were staying were wonderful. The characters feel like old friends already despite only being on our screens for a few weeks.
All in all, “Arachnids in the U.K.” didn’t have the fresh fizz of the series opener and the wow factor of “Rosa,” but it joins “The Ghost Monument” as another solid if flawed adventure whose heart is in exactly the right place. All in all, this brand new age of Doctor Who might be a bit of a superficially, light-hearted sci-fi show about alien nasties and mutated insects but, once you push away the cobwebs, it’s teaching us that the real threats we need to be aware of are much more insidious.