Director: Sallie Aprahamian
Screenplay: Chris Chibnall
Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Chris Noth, Shobna Gulati, Tanya Fear
Runtime: 50 Minutes
Series 11 - Episode 4
If the previous two episodes of the series were about allowing the series to settle into its new groove, while also building up new prospective avenues for the characters to find themselves, Arachnids in the UK is what feels like the new standard mould for the series in terms of finally arriving at the “Team TARDIS” dynamic that it’s been working its way toward.
Arriving back at present-day Sheffield, the Doctor and her new friends discover a serious problem is roaming around the city in the form of giant spiders. Essentially a science gone haywire story in a modern setting, but shifting its action from urban environments to a luxurious hotel still under construction where the creatures have nested, working with a slightly underused Tanya Fear as Dr Jade McIntyre.
The creature stuff is all rather well-done, offering some of the best visual effects work the show has yet produced when it comes to the giant spiders, and there’s decent atmosphere made of the sheer amount of webbing in scenes. These aren’t aliens, but rather a result of scientific meddling combined with the toxicity of the waste dumped beneath the foundations of the gaudily massive hotel.
Which brings us to the antagonist of the piece, not the spiders of the piece – who mostly just come across as confused by their environments and the sheer weight of their size – but Chris Noth as American hotel owner Robertson; a multimillionaire and celebrity who is going to be using his influence to run for President in 2020.
Yeah, the analogue they’re going for with Robertson isn’t exactly subtle or disguised, with even a namedrop for the odious despot at one point. It’s bold to see them channel something that is so clearly a pointed piece of satire to such a relevant and sadly lasting concern, with Chibnall’s script throwing its stateside critiques at everything from Russian poisonings to gun violence.
It’s almost too obvious though, not just in presentation and performance (although Noth is very good) but nearly every action and line of dialogue clearly reading for something else, and it will absolutely rattle some while turning off others. But much of it does reach some sort of endpoint, with his final scene offering no cathartic release to seeing such a despicable seeming person just walk away from a situation with no repercussions, and the real horror being morbid reality stepping in to remind us that this is the kind of person who doesn’t get so easily offed by giant spiders in the real world.
For all that though, there is still a lot of good to be found to support the rest of it. It’s great seeing this Doctor react in the way she does to the humble qualities of everyday life, and putting on her best effort to stick in the good books with her new best friends, especially Yasmin’s mum played Najia, by a quietly compelling Shobna Gulati.
Yasmin probably gets the most attention when it comes to fleshing out that home situation that was mentioned earlier. Not as fractured as expected, rather a functional and relatively normal modern family with day to day issues from rubbish to employment status. But it’s feeding into what has already been glimpsed in Yaz, that she feels like the one most excited by the nature of her travels with the Doctor, thrilled at the prospect of new discovery and experiences other than the relative banality of home which puts her more in line with Rose Tyler than any recent companion.
There’s still work going on with Ryan and Graham, too. Ryan opens a letter explaining why his father was absent at Grace’s funeral, warming slowly to Graham as more of a father figure that he never had but just not enough to fully feel like he can be himself around him just yet. Ryan’s solution to decoying the spiders by blasting Stormzy gives us a very funny visual as the spiders follow the vibrations in what could be in itself a strange music video.
But it’s once again Bradley Walsh’s Graham who is the episodes bigger surprise, although it really shouldn’t be at this point. Walsh has been proving himself to have tremendous range in this unconventional role, and he’s no different here as he returns to his as Grace’s home, conversing with Grace (Sharon D Clarke, reprising her role) in his mind with a sad longing for the person he loved to still be around the share in the experiences that he and Ryan are now having.
It’s this handling of grief and the ways in which we process things that come out as the strongest component in the climax, as the three return to the TARDIS and ask the Doctor if they can stay with her, the warm and healing glow of the console room feeling like the right vessel for Graham to find some sort of solace in the escape from a home that doesn’t feel like it once did.
It’s also heartening that the Doctor is taking their friendship first over the prospect of having them on as companions. She wants them to be happy first, so anxious not to lose her new friends but rather than lure them in almost waits for them to come to her if they so wanted to, and forewarning of the dangers that they might face taking on board her own past losses and acting as a protector.
Arachnids in the UK is a little lighter weight than the previous emotional gravity of the prior episodes, but it’s an enjoyable little episode that does work in the character department when it’s not making everything else about the farce of contemporary American politics. The creatures work, Sallie Aprahamian’s direction is assured, and that it still manages to come down on the side of treating the threatening monsters with dignity as opposed to fear and violence is consistent with the Doctor we know and love.