Previously on Doctor Who, “Rosa”
With “Arachnids in the UK,” Doctor Who makes a traditional rotation back to the TV trope Monster of the Week, first identified during The X-Files’ tenure. In this episode, the monster isn’t alien, but an innocent research project on spiders made exponentially worse by a collision with Chris Noth as a Trump-clone politician, environmental irresponsibility, and corporate greed, capped off a heavy note on American gun violence and arrogance. Subtle? Not by a long shot. Where Monster of the Week stories make up for their transparent allegories and anvil-weight messages is through sparkling, humorous at times, interactions and character development.
Finally landing back in Sheffield a scant half hour from their accidental departure in the warehouse, the Doctor and her companions find it difficult to say goodbye. While Graham heads home alone for the first time since Grace’s funeral, Yaz invites the Doctor and Ryan up for tea at her family’s flat. Yaz’s family is charming, her father announcing he’ll fix them pakora, which he’s “terrible” at, and Yaz and her sister teasing each other over relationships and jobs. Ryan is content to blend right in, but this Doctor is a bit of a nervous babbler, blundering on about buying a flat to put a purple sofa in, how she used to have sisters, used to be a sister… at an aquatic hospital… which turned out to be a training camp for the Quiston Calcium Assassins. Clearly part of her companions’ jobs this run is to keep her from leaving all of humanity agape from her random stories.
Bradley Walsh again shines with Graham’s heartfelt grief in his empty flat, where he imagines up an out-of-focus vision of Grace reminding him of all the little details he’ll now have to remember for himself. He has so much to tell her, he says to the now-quiet room, settling in to smell her knitted shawl. Kudos to director Sallie Aprahamian for her visceral, sensory portrait of these moments, which are cut short by a scuttling in the attic and Graham’s discovery of an explosion of cobwebs and a gigantic spider molt, sending him scrambling back to the crew, where he hands Ryan a letter he found with his biological dad’s handwriting on it.
As usual in these MOTW narratives, an unusual number of coincidences brings the Doctor and her friends into a collision course with the creatures. At a new luxury hotel on the verge of grand opening, chain magnate and budding politician Jack Robertson (Chris Noth) berates his assistant Frankie and bodyguard Kevin over a mysterious problem that will hurt his image and how it must be cleaned up, then abruptly fires his general manager, who turns out to be Yaz’s mother Najia (Shobna Gulati), over the unacceptable conditions of the rooms. Bewildered, she calls Yaz over to pick her up, and they’re forced into a gunpoint tour of exactly what is wrong with this hotel–more spiderwebs–as Frankie surreptitiously films the cavernous basement as evidence against Robertson and is snatched by presumably one of the web’s makers.
Meanwhile the Doctor and Ryan offer to pick up a package from the neighbors and find Dr Jade McIntyre (Tanya Fear) concerned for the same person, a colleague from her research institute. With flair, the Doctor sonics open the door and finds even more of those webs, her colleague wrapped like a moth, and two enormous spiders. When Jade notes the spiders are simply overgrown house spiders, nothing special, the Doctor compassionately tells the unhearing creatures that she will figure this out for them if they’ll wait right here. Noting that Jade obviously knows more than she’s letting on, the Doctor has Jade take them back to her facility where they were looking into the strengths of spiders, which can grow as long as they are alive, but they were using a specialty disposal company for any waste. She has, however, noticed a bit of unusual behavior amongst the local spider population, and graphing the incidents on the map, the Doctor locates its epicenter: Robertson’s new resort. That’s where all the players gather.
Robertson is equal parts terrible and ridiculous. On one hand, he holds the team at gunpoint, interrupts everyone, locks Kevin in with a giant spider, admits to building his hotels over stripped mines that he’s using as landfills, blames anyone but himself for his problems, and leverages his personal arsenal against the Doctor’s wishes. On the other, he frets over “not having a Kevin,” screams like a fool when a giant spider explodes out of the tub during Robertson’s “scheduled bathroom break,” fires Najia multiple times even though she’s already fired, talks to himself comically, has impotently slathered the cavern door with over 300 Keep Out stickers, and might run for President in 2020 simply because he’s personal rivals with Trump. Unsurprisingly, his disposal company is the one responsible for the whole mess by not burning the spider carcasses and now they’re taking over the hotel.
Ryan and Graham are tasked with teamwork several times, trapping a “little” spider in a stew pot for examination, then surveying to make sure that was the biggest one. Of course it wasn’t, but they’re distracted by Ryan’s admission of reading the letter, in which his father invited him to live there as they’re “proper family,” which angers him. Suddenly the elephant-sized mother comes barreling down the ballroom and away they dash, one of many slapstick door races and door slams in this episode. Ultimately, the plan forms: to lure the little ones into Robertson’s panic room with thumping music (Know Me From by Stormzy), courtesy of Ryan, and let them die a natural death (which doesn’t sound all that great either to be honest) while herding the mother with essential oils from the spa. They are saddened to find her smothering under her own weight and prepared to let her pass on her own, but Robertson barrels in with Kevin’s pistol and shoots it anyway, declaring this decisiveness would get him elected, because shooting things is what “civilized people” do, and disappears from the narrative. Yet another hanging chad of an episode ender, hinting at the return of President Robertson 2020, perhaps even in in episode 8, also directed by Sallie Aprahamian.
Relatively light on true horror but full of heebie jeebies, “Arachnids in the UK” is perfect for Halloween week with its abandoned luxury hotel for some The Shining-esque vibes. Segun Akinola provides excellent atmospheric music throughout, particularly in the reveal of the apartment spiders and in the discover of the property’s history as a mine, in which the background pulse is reminiscent of drills. Minus the innocent overgrown spiders, whose size is never fully explained, and three victims with scant lines thanks to “pheromones,” all escape unscathed with bonus bonding. There’s not even a true villain–Robertson is just an awful person who signs checks and shoots guns, and the spiders are just unfortunate victims doing their spider thing, blessedly without unnatural intelligence or spider-voice lines a la the Empress of Racnoss in “The Runaway Bride“. Najia exasperatedly endures being called “Yaz’s mom” throughout the day and wonders hopefully if she’s dating the Doctor or Ryan, finally asking her to explain how exactly they do know each other. It only encourages Yaz to nip out for a moment to the TARDIS, where she finds Ryan and Graham have already wandered, pleading their case to stay on, Graham in particular, who’s come to realize he can’t be in the house without seeing bits of Grace at every turn. Jodie Whittaker absolutely nails the Doctor’s painful hope-against-hope that they really want to be with her, but takes a moment to warn them anyway, because the companion life isn’t safe and they won’t be the same when they return, a wistful truth no matter what shape they return in. But they already aren’t the same and join hands on the TARDIS controls to solidify their fam… No, Team TARDIS.
Quotes, Stray Details, & Trivia
- Message: “Every living thing has the same instinct: to come back home.”
- “I eat danger for breakfast… I don’t. I prefer cereal. Or croissants.”
- “I call people ‘Dude’ now.”
- In contrast to the Twelfth Doctor, who barely noticed his companions’ needs and came out of the barrel stating he wasn’t their boyfriend, this Doctor seems quite aware of her companions’ states and gives a Tenth Doctor grimace when Yaz says they’re not seeing each other after asking, “Are we??”
- When the Doctor doesn’t recognize Robertson but sees how star struck they all are, she wonders if he might be Ed Sheeran.
- Ryan and Graham tag team in hilariously proposing the entire thing is Russian espionage against Robertson.
- One of the funniest moments: Ryan making shadow puppets in the background while everyone else talks.
- The Doctor name drops Amelia Earhart, saying they once got an airplane tangled in a woven rope of spider webbing. “You’d like her, she’s a right laugh.”
- The Doctor uses her psychic paper but flashes it so fast, it’s impossible to know if it actually worked on Robertson or not.
- Spiders have previously appeared in Doctor Who including “Planet of the Spiders” (3rd Doctor) but primarily in the comics.