I don’t like spiders. Not one little bit. But I do like scary films about spiders, and one of my favourites, in all its B-movie excesses, is Eight Legged Freaks. It’s about some spiders that are contaminated by toxic waste that has been dumped, grow to huge sizes, and start attacking people. There’s also a rather fun Doctor Who story that treads some of the same ground, with toxic waste being dumped down a mine by an irresponsible big business, causing creepy crawlies to grow to giant proportions. It’s called The Green Death.
Doctor Who has borrowed from the best over the years, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Season 13 in particular was all about taking familiar stories and putting a Doctor Who spin on them, and it worked brilliantly. But there are two steps to that process: (1) take a familiar story and (2) put a Doctor Who spin on it. You can’t just do (1) without (2) and expect to bring something new to the screen. Arachnids in the UK really is little more than a re-imagining of Eight Legged Freaks with a peppering of The Green Death, but where’s the new idea to add into the mix? The Trump-alike? The moralising Doctor (again)? No, that just won’t do. I’m all for Doctor Who having a strong moral core, but a moral message delivered clumsily doesn’t add up to a plot.
At the risk of repeating myself, because I realise I’m saying something similar every week, I loved this episode for every reason apart from the writing. Once again, Chris Chibnall is being saved by other creatives. At this point we have seen in total 9 Doctor Who episodes penned by Chibnall, and so far not one of those episodes has done much to dissuade me from the impression that he’s a hack. That doesn’t make him a bad showrunner (there’s more than writing to that job). In fact he has been a very good one so far, but his writing simply doesn’t hold together on a basic level. A 45 minute episode format is simply too short a time to excuse things like trapping a spider in a flat, promising to come back later to sort it out, and then just forgetting about it altogether, while also forgetting about the spider in Graham’s flat. He can’t seem to bring his stories to a conclusion either. Nobody gets brought to justice in a Chibnall episode. They are ultimately unsatisfying viewing experiences, for that reason. Once again, the villain, Not-Donald Not-Trump, just walks away, after clumsily driving home the point that guns are bad. This year is fast becoming an exercise in bashing the American way of life. I don’t object to that (sorry, Mike), because Chibnall is making good points with his writing. It just needs to be done in a less obvious and clumsy manner.
That brings us on to the Doctor herself. Superbly acted, again, but Chibnall just doesn’t seem to understand how the character works whatsoever. I can live with her finding her new “Team TARDIS” by looking a bit sad and lonely, but I really can’t stand how she (a) seems so powerless this year, consistently allowing villains to do whatever they want to and then walk away, and more importantly (b) gets her moralising all skewed. Unless I’m missing something obvious (and a quick glance at the forums reveals that if I’m missing it, so is everyone else), the Doctor’s plan for dealing with the spiders is to herd them all into a room and let them starve to death or suffocate. Because that’s humane, apparently.
No. They’ll eat each other and die a horrible death. It almost makes me nostalgic for the days when the Brigadier just bombed everything.
But… here we go again… I enjoyed it. I know the writing’s awful, but I can’t help it. This was still great entertainment. Again, we’re talking style over substance, but the spiders were some of the most impressive CGI we have ever seen in Doctor Who and each week so far has been almost like watching a film. The production standards are incredibly high. Lots of the director’s choices stood out. The one that comes to mind is how Not-Trump was introduced to us with a low shot along the floor, looking up at him, while establishing the scale of the room with the distance between him and Kevin, then with Not-Trump moving in closer to Kevin for the confrontational dialogue. Everything looks so slick. Lots of horror movie techniques were utilised, and the sight of Yasmin putting her ear to a wall with a giant spider on the opposite side might just haunt my dreams.
Speaking of Yasmin, I remember back when it was announced that there were going to be three companions speculating whether that indicated a lack of confidence in the new Doctor. Either way, it’s a gamble that’s paying off. Jodie Whittaker is great as the Doctor, but she is grappling so far with scripts that are pushing her Doctor in the direction of helplessness and fuzzy morality (but admittedly a considerable display of intelligence, and that’s important). It helps that she has three friends who are completely brilliant characters. I don’t have a bad word to say about any of them. “Team TARDIS” was OK as a team name, but I actually preferred it when she said “fam”, because there is definitely a family feeling to the TARDIS crew, and that’s something that has been lacking for a while. The Doctor and her friends, travelling around the universe, having a great time and putting things right. What more could we ask for? RP
The view from across the pond:
I get it: Jodie’s era in the TARDIS, coupled with a change in lead writer and executive producer, is something of a restart, allowing non-fans to jump on-board and see what they think. I accept this and if I’m honest, I’m glad for it. It gives people like my cousin a chance to jump on without having to know 55 years of continuity. Coupled with new cinematic filming, it’s a great time to discover Doctor Who. The cast has been outstanding: Jodie, Mandip, Tosin and Bradley are all stellar and the chemistry is perfect. Which just served to annoy me about Chris Chibnall’s writing in Arachnids in the UK. What made the episode strong is the characters, not the writing of the story.
It’s not that I didn’t like the story. Having spiders as an antagonist works for me because that’s my actual life. I hate them and they know it and they like to torture me. So watching with my hands covering my mouth to stifle a gasp made the episode fun. (Though I’m pretty sure I blacked out when the scientist said how many spiders actually are estimated to be on the earth…) But Chibnall does not respect continuity. I’m not talking about Planet of the Spiders here; they didn’t need to make a reference to it, though classic fans may have enjoyed it. I’m talking about his own continuity that he should be able to get right. Let’s review:
- In The Woman Who Fell to Earth, the Doctor has nothing in her pockets but by the next episode (still without a TARDIS) she has glasses that she borrowed from someone.
- In The Woman Who Fell to Earth, the Doctor formats Ryan’s phone. In Arachnids in the UK, Ryan is able to play music from a phone he clearly reaches into his pocket to get. Remember that great dialogue? “All my stuff is on there!” “Not anymore!” The cast then went on to one adventure after another and although…
- Rosa indicates that there were a number of false attempts at getting the crew home, clearly not much time goes by because it Arachnids in the UK, The Doctor says she’s still trying to get to know herself. So when did Ryan repair his phone and get all his music downloaded again? On the planet Desolation? Or in 1955?
And to me, that’s not my job to notice it. If you’re telling the story well, the audience shouldn’t pick up on that because the writer should have!
And I know we want to be all-inclusive but forcing it shouldn’t be necessary. The LGBT community probably knows Doctor Who is friendly to them without having to shoehorn it in any way they can. “Who are you again?” “Your niece’s wife”. What was the value added by throwing this line in? Did we know the niece? Care about her? Make no mistake, even if it were “your nephew’s wife” it wouldn’t have added anything. Why try to create any backstory to a character who is about to be written out. Why didn’t we have Kevin’s family history explored too? Because Chibbs was going for a “hey, we’re LGBT friendly” vibe which was totally unnecessary. The problem is that we’re all still walking on eggshells of political correctness, that we’re missing the fact that we should be color/gender/sexual preference-blind and instead we’re trying to say we are by pointing it out!
Speaking of political correctness, the moment I saw Chris Noth’s Robertson, my first thought was of Trump – not sure if it was the tie that got me or the “you’re fired!” Now, I admit, I loved how he reacted to being compared to Trump but he was clearly meant to be a Trump stand-in and the Doctor is made to look weak in front of him, which is exactly the wrong image if you’re trying to make the Doctor’s morality be the one people should be standing behind and emulating. Where are the Doctor’s 6 words to topple his empire? His hotel business and running for office was so in-your-face that he became a caricature instead of a villain but one that actually wraps the story up because we were running out of time. As much as I hate spiders, I wanted the Doctor to find a way to help the giant one, not have it shot to give the episode an abrupt end. And am I wrong in thinking locking a living creature in a room to starve to death is not actually a more dignified, humane way to die? I think I’d rather be shot! (Not that I want either option, but if I had to choose, starving to death seems far less dignified!)
So we’re left with another loose end… the Stenza teleporting home, Krasko being somewhere in time; a timeless child, potentially 2 contestants from that race, and now Trump II is out there running for office! Sigh…
The character building, however, has been fantastic. The cameo from Sharon D. Clarke as Grace really drives home how amazingly these characters are written and adds a sense of melancholy and realism to what these people are living through. The dialogue between Graham and Ryan about “proper family”, while unresolved, is magnificent. The scene in the TARDIS at the end is a joyful triumph. The spiders did look great too and I’ll turn 8 blind eyes to their ability to walk on the walls and ceilings because it does make for a better story than the science would allow for. And that’s the bottom line: I could ignore certain things in favor of a good story, but can’t get past gross oversights. Anyone who knows about how spiders cling to walls understands their small size allows for it while a large one would not be able to do that (they don’t have glue on their feet) but I can accept that. I can’t accept that Chibnall wrote the scene where the phone was formatted only to have Ryan pull out a fully functioning one in this episode. I also wish they were less nonchalant when walking through the spiders lair. There should have been enough webs in their faces that it would have been hard to walk through the area without looking like they were trying to flag down a passing jet – like I do, every time I walk into a web and flail like I’ve been electrocuted…
And I do wish Chibnall would get off the Moffat’s bandwagon with having to throw in stupid comments like the Doctor being a “sister once”. I’m taking it she means a sibling rather than some half-witted attempt at making the Doctor have earlier incarnations that Hartnell. But I will go out on high note though. My favorite commentary was when Graham was amazed that the spiders were walking to the music…
Here’s to hoping these are all “molting” pains and the stories will get progressively stronger. Otherwise, we’re back in RTD territory: great characters, hole-y stories. And I want more than that for my favorite Time Traveler!! At least the characters do keep me coming back for more! ML