Eight years ago Chris Chibnall contributed to Steven Moffat’s first series in charge of Doctor Who, by writing a two-part story that took in a number of elements from specific serials of the Third Doctor’s tenure. Notably, of course, The Silurians, but we also had a location being isolated by a force-field, such as had happened in The Dæmons – both stories from the first two of those Third Doctor seasons. Now Chibnall has returned to the era, this time its latter end, in order to borrow the premise of The Green Death, transposed onto the eponymous creatures from Planet of the Spiders. 2010’s The Hungry Earth had been a fun and largely traditional Doctor Who story, and coming after three low-key episodes introducing the programme and its conceits and new characters for a casual or returning audience, Arachnids in the UK sounded like it might be a bit of a romp too.
It wasn’t quite. Being broadcast so close to Hallowe’en, this was presumably written to be ‘the spooky one’, and in that sense it perhaps works better if you’re an arachnophobe. The spider effects were, if not always 100% convincing, then certainly as good as anything of the kind the series has previously achieved, and once the regulars got holed up in the hotel from whence the ‘invasion’ had evolved, there was plenty of scope for a bit of Jack Nicholson-esque cabin fever.
Instead we had Mr Big, Chris Noth, not so much BOSS as simply ‘a Boss’ (or the Boss, if he gets his way regarding the American Presidency), and this return to Sheffield felt a little lacking in venom in some quarters, if mostly wholly satisfying in many other respects.
So on the downside, then, there were some tonal inconsistencies, especially in the characterisation. Noth’s wannabe world leader Jack Robertson, while as well-performed as you might expect, seemed at times to be playing in a different production to the rest of the cast, with lots of big reactions and some very ostentatiously comic ones. Thus it was hard to adjust to his more serious moments – and nobody did seem to be taking him seriously, despite his similarities with a certain actual world leader. Although maybe that was the point. Tanya Fear’s Dr. Jade McIntyre, despite being rather crucial to the plot, appeared to have been beamed in from exposition central, and the game was given away almost as soon as she opened her mouth; on the upside, she did take on some of the explaining that Jodie Whittaker has hitherto been burdened with, and the Doctor felt that much more natural this week because of it.
And if the title of this week’s episode suggested an instalment that wasn’t going to take itself too seriously, that was only partly true. There were some very funny moments, and both the way Ryan resolved the more immediate problem and Robertson’s solution to any kind of problem were hilarious, and nicely pertinent to one another. But the production seemed to find it difficult coping with the rapid changes in tone, and sometimes the comedy undercut the peril rather than underpinning it, with some of the message of the episode feeling a little insincerely delivered as a result.
On the other hand, this episode covered quite a lot of more thoughtful, sometimes rather meaningful, ground, and often with a great deal of subtlety or consideration. If the pollution in The Green Death was the by-product of a computer with a power trip and that needed to be dealt with, here we discovered the contamination of the spiders was being caused by an avoidance of responsibility, a willingness to put profit above accountability and an acceptance of cutting corners to cut costs; the modern world in a nutshell. That Robertson appeared to simply walk away scot-free at the end of the episode wasn’t the oversight it might first have seemed; this was just another example of power overriding other concerns, and an illustration – perhaps even a sort of warning – that until we change the rules in order to punish those who deem themselves above the law, this sort of thing will simply continue to happen.
Not that such a message was delivered on-screen, necessarily – but it was there to be taken, in a series that’s reconfigured itself for a broader audience but is still capable of sneaking in (and sometimes not so sneakily) little observations about the state of the planet, and more particularly its politics and politicians.
It was also good to see as logical a use of the location as there was a rational cause and explanation for the threat.
The regulars were brilliantly served this week too. The scenes between Bradley Walsh and Sharon D. Clarke as Graham began to come to terms with his grief were beautifully handled, the kind of thing Doctor Who has dealt with before in recent years, but disentangled from the science fiction – Steven Moffat preferred to resolve this stuff as part of the ongoing fantasy – in a way that felt completely new to the programme. And these scenes were kept just separate enough to live on their own, while ultimately playing a major part of the relationship building between Graham and Ryan (and ultimately the decision to keep on travelling that we closed on). If Walsh has become very much the heart of Series Eleven, Tosin Cole was this week quite brilliant too, by turns – and with consistency – internalising and externalising his character beats in believable and realistic ways. Mandip Gill was also excellent, and while she’s very much emotionally the minor player among the foursome so far, this week she was given much more to do and she accomplished it all with a lightness that is going to prove fundamental to the balance of the team. Some of the early scenes, as the TARDIS landed and we very gradually acquainted ourselves with being back home, the investigation very slowly taking over the narrative, were a joy to watch.
Jodie Whittaker’s quite a joy to watch too, and not because she’s nailing being the Doctor yet. She’s still getting there, and there’s neither a reason to doubt that she will nor any question that she’s right for the part. But the disconnection between Whittaker playing the Doctor and Whittaker being the Doctor is still niggling at the edges of the performance, and it’s fun to see the journey she’s undergoing.
Arachnids in the UK was meat-and-potatoes Doctor Who, an ostensibly lightweight little story told simply and designed – as the rest of Series 11 has been – to be accessible by anyone, whether inured in sci-fi in general and the series in particular or not. And while that means that for those of us already hardwired into the programme, it’s currently behaving a little like Doctor Who’s occasionally lecturing, yet still rather basic infant school teacher. That’s taking some getting used to, and it feels a bit like being told to finish your greens when you’ve already got your eye on the dessert. But there’s a lot of worthwhile stuff in there – and it’s all still new enough that there’s no predicting quite what we’ll be getting next.
DOCTOR WHO SERIES 11, EPISODE 4: “ARACHNIDS IN THE UK” / WRITER: CHRIS CHIBNALL / DIRECTOR: SALLIE APRAHAMIAN / STARRING: JODIE WHITTAKER, BRADLEY WALSH, TOSIN COLE, MANDIP GILL, CHRIS NOTH, SHOBNA GULATI / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED OCTOBER 28TH)