'Doctor Who': "Arachnids In The UK" Review
It's a spider-infested outing for Series 11's latest tale.
Warning: Potential spoilers for the episode below.
Having established the new look, feel, and tone of the series, and a noteworthy trip back to 1955 Alabama, showrunner Chris Chibnall takes his TARDIS crew back home to Sheffield. This trip back home for the Time Lord's human companions isn't anything new. After all, Russell T. Davies did so with Rose Tyler and Martha Jones in the earliest years of New Who. It's a way of grounding the program, and its lead characters, in something akin to the real world. Albeit one with, as the title might suggest, giant spiders!
Of course, if you're a fan of Who, there's a chance you'll know the show has a bit of a history with giant insects. Indeed, starting with "Planet of Giants" way back in 1964, you could even say that it's had a crack at doing them every so often. The Third Doctor era of the 1970s saw giant maggots in "The Green Death" and large psychic spiders appearing in his epic swan song "Planet of the Spiders." 21st Century Who too has had a go at it from the 2006 Christmas special with the Racnoss to "Kill the Moon" in 2014. As special effects and budgets have improved, it seems to be something that those making the show return to, perhaps drawn by a primal fascination and fear of these multi-legged creatures. So reasonably it isn't too surprising that a new showrunner would want to have a go at the idea.
If there are any of those past examples that "Arachnids in the UK" draws upon, it's the Pertwee era ones. This episode is the sort of story that might have been made back in its era with its present-day setting and focus on strange goings on in otherwise normal surroundings. Indeed, there are definite shades of "The Green Death" to be found in the episode as both that 1973 story and this episode made in 2018 deal with some strikingly similar themes. But unlike when Chibnall effectively wrote an inferior remake of a story from this era for Matt Smith's Doctor, this one feels less like a rip-off and more as paying tribute to the program's past, updating it a bit for a modern audience.
Somewhere else the episode invokes the Pertwee legacy is in a bit of satire. American actor Chris Noth (likely best known to audiences for his roles in shows Law & Order and Sex and the City) is the big guest star this week as the American hotel magnate John Robertson, a man with political aspirations back home whose having problems with his latest venture in the UK. If you're sitting there thinking "This sounds familiar," you'll probably know exactly who both character and actor seem to satirize if not outright parody. Noth, to his credit, seems to relish the chance to play a villain on his iconic British show and plays the role to the hilt without crossing the line over into parody mode. His performance is just one of the highlights of the episode even if it ends in a very odd place for this particular character.
Another one of which is, of course, the spiders themselves. As stated above, Who has something of a history with doing this sort of concept with a mixed history of success. "Arachnids in the UK" may well be the best realization of the idea yet thanks to some excellent CGI work combined with Chibnall's script and the production values. The episode is essentially Doctor Who doing a pastiche of horror films and with the entire production working to those strengths. Whether it's Sallie Aprahamian's direction or the photography and Segun Akinola's score, everything seems to be working towards making this episode as unsettling as it can be. Here at least, the episode succeeds nicely.
Which only serves to highlight the areas where the episode doesn't quite work as well. That's especially true of its supporting characters. None of them, with the sole exception of Robertson, feel particularly well drawn out even Tanya Fear as the spider specialist who becomes the fourth companion for much of the episode. That's all the more unexpected given that Yaz's family appears, particularly mum Najia (played by the enjoyable Shobna Gulati) who evokes memories of Rose's mum Jackie. None of the family appear enough to establish who they are, except that they're on Yaz's case frequently enough to get her to seek out the TARDIS by episode's end.
On the other hand, the episode is a neat little showcase for Team TARDIS. Whittaker continues to settle into the role rather nicely, finding just the right mix of humor, authoritativeness, and eccentricity that the part of the Time Lord requires. Bradley Walsh continues to surprise in the role of Graham, offering in this episode an often moving portrait of a man dealing with grief as he comes back home. Tosin Cole's Ryan continues to shine as his relationship with Graham further progresses, as well as him getting thrown into the action. Mandip Gill's Yaz feels oddly sidelined under the circumstances given the episode's apparent focus on her home life and mum but, when given something to do, she shines. The final scene, where the three of them come back to the Doctor and tempt her to go out on adventures, is a genuine highlight of Series 11 as it's the reverse of what we've seen in New Who: Usually, it's the Doctor being the one to tempt others; this time, it's different and in a good way.
Though it lets its character down somewhat, to the detriment of the episode, "Arachnids in the UK" is a fun outing for the new Doctor. It's an episode that feels very much like a throwback to Doctor Who in earlier times, one done with an eye towards making what's old new again with modern production values. While it may not be the home run that last week's episode was, it's still an engaging romp worthy of 50 minutes before your screen of choice.
About the Creator
Matthew Kresal was born and raised in North Alabama though he never developed a Southern accent. His essays have been featured in numerous books and his first novel Our Man on the Hill was published by Sea Lion Press in 2021.
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