Doctor Who: Arachnids In The UK (S11E04) Review
The Doctor has finally managed to get her friends back to Earth (and has changed back into her blue t-shirt, which means we’re counting down to red shirt/ blue shirt significance conspiracy theories in 3…2…1…). It’s not the only conspiracy that’s on offer, though, as an invitation to tea leads to a conspiracy which somehow involves Yaz’ dad bringing piles of potentially toxic industrial waste ad stacking it in the living room?
I’ve finally figured out what the lack of a cold open has robbed the series of – dramatic tension. “Doctor Who” has always, famously, been a programme built on cliff-hangers, great and small. From the fourth Doctor being drowned in the Matrix to the seventh Doctor climbing over a safety barrier and literally hanging from a cliff for no reason, it’s an integral part of the show’s appeal. When the show returned with a new longer episode format and largely self-contained stories, the giddy thrill of the cliffhanger was preserved by the cold open and the melodic ‘scream’ into the theme tune. The new theme arrangement has no real scream and merely serves as a bookend to what’s to come. Edge of the seat has become settling back into the cushions.
Not that it’s clear where you’d put the opening title break in Chibnall’s oddly incomplete and even more oddly staged story of…some spiders doing some stuff? The story proper begins with the weirdest scene I’ve ever seen in a prime-time drama. Chris Noth’s gratingly inconsistent Amercian hotel tycoon is having a conversation with one of his underlings but for some reason is standing about ten yards apart from her. It’s such an oddly blocked scene that it’s laughably absurd. Noth is at the heart of many of this episode oddest moments. Was his part written to be funny, because he never plays it that way? The repeated firings of Yaz’ mum feel like a joke but they’re always delivered like they’re serious. And his late-in-the-episode revelation that he’s profoundly arachnophobic is an egregious example, again, of telling instead of showing, something which is rapidly becoming a Chibnall hallmark. We find out his name as quick as Chibnall can say ‘Jack Robertson’ which it turns out isn’t very quick at all as it’s only dropped in Once we’re into the final third of the programme. By turns petulant, whiny, arrogant, confused, mean, cunning and stupid, you may be thinking he’s a satirical ersatz Trump figure, but no we’re told (of course) that he hates Trump, and plans to run against him in 2020, information which apparently will have to make do instead of actual character development.
There are so many arbitrary character moments here, in service to the flailing story, that the whole thing collapses like a house of cards in the slightest breeze. At no point does Yaz think it might be useful to inform Noth’s character or his bodyguard brandishing a handgun in the UK that she is a Police Officer. She’s happy to tell just about everyone else but for some reason, here, where it would actually be useful and invest her with some authority, nothing. Yaz’ mum, meanwhile, seems to assume that anybody her daughter is even the least bit familiar with is probably a sexual partner, which either speaks volumes for Yaz’ mum or Yaz’ past.
Of course, Chris Noth turns out not to be the episode’s biggest guest star, because they got Aragog in from “Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets” for a cameo too. You see, it turns out the spiders are the descendants of genetically engineered specimens from a nearby university laboratory which were inadvertently disposed of while biologically viable and then mixed with some toxic waste which was then illegally dumped in a landfill which then had a hotel built on top of it in a 50’s sci-fi plot so tortured Ed Wood would have rejected it. Especially as the upshot of this is the spiders will continue to grow until they get too big and, um, suffocate. No enhanced intelligence, no master plan, just spiders being spiders. Haters gonna hate, spiders gonna…er…spide.
I think we’re starting to get a sense of how much polishing was done by Davies and Moffat when Chibnall turned in his previous Who and Torchwood scripts. He’s fond of crafting character-driven emotional beats but he’s apparently not great at stringing them together in a coherent, compelling narrative in a single, self-contained episode and he’s absolutely terrible at sci-fi. His casting has been pretty good and I’ve got no problem with many of the changes he’s made to the series but “Doctor Who” has had showrunners before who didn’t actually write the scripts and were instead supported by a script editor who undertook those duties. On the publicity tour to promote the current series of “Doctor Who”, Chibnall often imitated John Nathan Turner sartorially. Perhaps its time he took another leaf out of his predecessor’s book and recuse himself from actually writing the scripts from now on?
The story doesn’t so much end as simply…stop. The biggest spider is shot dead, which the Doctor objects to because it’s inhumane having just locked the rest of the spiders in the hotel in a small panic room where they’ll be left to eat each other and then starve to death? Also, what about the spiders which have escaped the hotel and are scuttling around Sheffield now? They’ll presumably continue to grow until they reach gigantic suffocation stage but, in the meantime, who really cares? Not the Doctor, or her friends, or the spider expert apparently. Also, is Chris Noth going to be a recurring villain? If not, all his vainglorious pontificating about the White House, like the wafer-thin racist-from-the-future from last week seems pretty pointless or at least lacking any kind of comeuppance.
In favour of wrapping up the story he himself started, Chibnall instead chooses to give us another scene of Yaz, Graham and Ryan deciding to go adventuring with the Doctor instead of staying at home and dealing with their issues. Yay for denial, I guess, but we’re four episodes into a shorter-than-ever-before season so can we please stop beginning now?
Some random observations:
- Jodie Whittaker continues to be great as the Doctor, but is still shouldering too much of the tedious burden of explaining things to her companions (and their families) thanks to the tell, don’t show approach the show has taken.
- The view of the TARDIS travelling through the time vortex is spectacular and intriguing, suggesting there are fixed navigational paths through the sponge-like structure rather than a completely open, fluid travelling medium.
- Hopefully, it won’t be too much longer before the 13th Doctor figures out how to use the sonic without having to ‘brandish’ it so flamboyantly.
- Bradley Cooper’s Graham continues to be the series’ strongest character and his interactions with his memory of his wife, while touching, do remind us how unnecessarily she was killed.
- Not having returning monsters doesn’t mean having original monsters, as the Racnoss or the denizens of Metebelis III can attest to.
- The psychic paper’s back, I see. Or do I?
- Spiders like grime music. Who’d have guessed?
Half-way point next week. Is it all downhill from here?