WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD…
Review by Paul Mount
First UK Broadcast: Sunday 28th October 2018
Writer: Chris Chibnall
Director: Sallie Aprahamian
Guest Starring: Chris Noth (Robertson) and Shobna Gulati (Najia Khan)
‘Something’s happening with the spiders in this city.’ The Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan find their way back to Yorkshire – and Yaz’s family – only to find something is stirring amidst the eight-legged arachnid population of Sheffield…
Sometimes Doctor Who – fifty-five years young and counting – can still focus, with laser-like precision, on those primal fears, shared terrors that unite the generations and which can, in the right circumstances, cause questions to be asked in the Houses of Parliaments. Plastic policemen, killer daffodils, screeching bats… those were the days. Arachnids in the UK, in many regards another rather anodyne entry in the new, no-frills series, creates one sublime moment of heart-in-mouth nastiness which, in different times, would have sent Mary Whitehouse scurrying to her typewriter to dash off one of her notorious “Dear BBC, I am outraged, does no-one think of the children?” missives. Something clicks and clatters in the pipes underneath the bath plug; the porcelain of the bath itself cracks and shatters and a huge, vividly-realised spider heaves itself over the rim of the bath to terrify a quivering Donald Trump wannabe.
Thrilling as it might be to imagine a generation of ankle-biters too petrified to even set foot in the bathroom again, it seems that the moment may have passed without significant trauma as the Daily Mail remains unscandalised and life goes on.
Life goes on in this new Doctor Who series too, as showrunner Chris Chibnall delivers another lightweight, linear, entirely undemanding romp which again displays his curious ability to create a marinade of competently-realised characters, howling stereotypes and occasionally creaky not-quite-good-enough-dialogue. Four episodes in and it’s looking like this is the show’s new template; frustrating as it might be for long-term fans who yearn for something a little more intricate (but hopefully less nonsensical than much of the work of Chibnall’s clever-clever predecessor) this new format is clearly working as the show is currently the highest-rating drama on British television and it’s drawn in/ back a broad audience which has had no interest in the series for years.
The TARDIS finally brings the Doctor and her new ’friends’ back to Sheffield and a fond farewell is temporarily delayed as the quartet dash off for tea at Yaz’s (which gives Mandip Gill a chance at last to put some flesh on the bones of her previously-sidelined character, Yaz) and discover that all’s not as it should be with the city’s arachnid population. Meanwhile, sinister billionaire business tycoon Jack Robertson (Chris Noth) is visiting the site of his brand new luxury hotel complex on the outskirts of the city. Fortunately for the show’s production budget he explains “I told all the staff to take two days off” which allows him to prowl the hotel alone with his bodyguard even as it robs the show of the potential for some deliciously-scary scenes of spiders rampaging about the hotel corridors chasing screaming staff and guests.
Fortunately (for the story if not the character), one of Yaz’s neighbour has been killed and cocooned by a huge spider which the Doctor and co find lurking under the woman’s bed. What’s the link between Yaz’s Mum, Robertson and his new hotel and the colossal spiders which, it’s indicated, are infesting the city?
The link is, perhaps refreshingly for Doctor Who, not extra-terrestrial but distinctly Earthly. In a shamelessly B-movie plot development (which also riffs on 1973’s The Green Death serial) toxic waste stashed in abandoned mine workings Robertson’s hotels have been built on have turned ordinary spiders into monsters. It’s at once wonderfully naïve and almost unbelievably hokey – monsters created by toxic or nuclear waste have been out of fashion for decades, frankly – but we can stretch a point and give Chibnall a pass because at least it’s something the audience can relate to and understand; a cautionary, if slightly wide-eyed and derivative twist in the tale.
The spiders themselves are deftly realised and there are a handful of signature scenes which really sell the concept and the animation from the aforementioned spider-in-the-bath sequence, the spider racing across the ceiling towards an incredulous Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole), spiders congregating together and drawn towards the music of Stormzy (presumably in a hurry to turn the tuneless racket off) and the final realisation of the van-sized queen spider struggling for breath before finally meeting her maker.
There are, however, some uncomfortable problems in what appears to be another quite lazy, ill-considered script by Chris Chibnall. In distancing the series from its recent over-complexity, he’s robbed it of any real subtlety or nuance; Noth’s Robertson character is a pompous Trump-like stereotype and whilst it seems a bit jarring to see him just turn and walk away at the end of the story, facing none of the consequences of his actions, it’s possible to identify a subtext suggesting that if you’re rich enough and famous enough you can pretty much get away with anything. Either that or Chris Chibnall couldn’t think what else to do with the character – which certainly seems to be the case with feisty scientist Jade McIntyre (Tanya Feare) who just vanishes once the story has run out of steam.
The resolution to the problem is massively frustrating; it seems to involve Robertson’s panic room and a plan to lure all the spiders inside it (where they can be humanely destroyed?) but it all happens so suddenly and with such a startling lack of dramatic tension that we’re back at the TARDIS and ready to move on before we’ve even realised that the story itself is over. So what happened to all the other spiders wandering round Sheffield? Were they all lured to the hotel by the smash hit sounds of Stormzy?
Arachnids in the UK is a sloppy, one-note story but then that seems to be what Chibnall is aiming for this year and it’s clearly working. Yet again, his dialogue veers from the nuanced to the downright clunky; the Doctor blathering about Ed Sheeran and her preferred breakfast choices is eye-rollingly clumsy and much of Robertson’s dialogue is straight from the CBBC Bumper Book of Big Bad Men. Nice as it is to see Mandip’s family, they get precious little screen time and mum Najia (Shobna Gulati) seems to exist purely to ask Yaz if she’s “seeing” the Doctor or Ryan.
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor has now found her groove, it seems (despite suggesting, at one point, that “I’m still figuring myself out”) and that groove is pretty much 100 per cent David Tennant – which is all well and good, but we had that version of the Doctor and it’d be nice to think this new incarnation at least has something new to offer. But Chris Chibnall’s mission statement is clearly to bring back the warmth and inclusivity of the Russell T Davies era and if that mission involves recreating the Tenth Doctor, then it may be that we’ll just have to live with it.
There’s good stuff here, of course. ”Team TARDIS” remain a likeable crew and the bookend scenes of the travellers returning home, the Doctor facing life alone again, and the scene where they all come together again and decide to carry on travelling despite the Doctor’s warning, are well-written and performed and there’s great pathos in the scenes where Graham returns home for the first time since his wife’s funeral and is haunted, almost literally, my his own memories.
Elsewhere though, whilst there’s some fun to be had, Arachnids in the UK is far too simplistic for its own good and throws away too much potential (there’s easily enough here for a decent two-parter) and its knock-off conclusion is a massive let down. Having established his leading characters now, Chibnall and his writing team need to focus a little more on slightly cleverer and more challenging storylines because at the moment the series, accomplished as it appears, isn’t yet firing on all cylinders and is stuck in second gear.