“Spiders! Why spiders? Why couldn’t it be ‘follow the butterflies’?” – Ron Weasley (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling)
Doctor Who has featured stories about spiders before, but none quite as disturbing as the ones in this episode. Perhaps it’s because the last story that properly featured giant spiders had a hilariously tiny budget and so the giant spiders were clearly made of rubber, but good sweet Lord, the spiders in this episode are actually terrifying to behold and I hate them. It’s a relatively good episode, though. (Spoilers follow)
Episode 1104: Arachnids in the UK (written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Sallie Aprahamian)
‘Something’s happening with the spiders in this city.’ The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Yaz (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole) find their way back to Yorkshire – and Yaz’s family – only to find something is stirring amidst the eight-legged arachnid population of Sheffield.
Before we get to the spider-talk, I wanna talk about my favorite parts of this episode. Chibnall is really great at writing character moments. This episode is full of really good ones that honestly end up being the best parts of the episode. From Yaz’s interactions with her family to the way that Graham is still mourning over Grace’s death, Arachnids in the UK has some of the best character work for our new companions that this season has seen so far. It’s really nice to finally get a glimpse at Yaz’s homelife – her family is really sweet and perfectly ordinary and it’s a really nice contrast to Yasmin’s desire for something more than ordinary. She doesn’t have a rough home life or anything; her family is loving and pretty typical, but she wants more than that and I love it. Graham having visions of Grace as he explored the flat they used to share broke my heart. I’m really impressed at how Chibnall and Sally Aprahamian (the director) handled those visions; they easily could have come across as hokey and ridiculous (looking at you, 13 Reasons Why) but instead, they felt extremely emotional and allowed us a good look at Graham’s grieving process. There are a number of other great character moments, both from the main cast and the guest cast, and all these good character moments are honestly what saves this episode.
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not really in love with the plot of this week’s episode. It’s not that it’s bad, per say, but it’s also not good. Essentially, Jack Robertson (Chris Noth), a wealthy American entrepreneur (who has aspirations for the White House), buys land from cities that they want to be repurposed, fills them up with toxic waste, and builds luxury hotels on them. He does this to a plot of land in Sheffield, only this time some of the waste he’s buried under the hotel includes the carcasses of some genetically modified spiders from the local university. One of those carcasses, apparently, wasn’t as dead as they thought and when it encountered the rest of the toxic waste, it mutated until it was a giant, deadly spider and then proceeded to reproduce. Now Sheffield is infested with giant, scary spiders who are hungry. This is actually a pretty good premise for an episode and it allows for some pretty great scares and some decent social commentary that (while not ever really explored to its fullest potential) comments a bit on politicians like Trump as Robertson, who claims to hate Trump, acts just like him in a number of ways. The episode is set up really well and there’s a really good balance between scenes that develop the characters and scenes that further the plot along and the mystery as to why the spiders are acting all weird (and are all giant) is well set up and fairly well solved.
Where the episode falls apart is its resolution, the same as much of Chibnall’s previous Doctor Who stories. It all just feels a bit too easy. There ends up being a panic room built underneath the hotel and the Doctor uses Ryan’s phone (which is blaring some loud rap music) to lure the spiders into the panic room by using the rap music’s vibrations, which spiders use to find their food, and then trap them inside the panic room, leaving them to die natural deaths. She then finds the mother spider, who’d previously been locked inside the ballroom, and discovers that the spider has grown to such a large size that it can’t breathe properly anymore and is dying anyway, only for Robertson to burst into the room and it shoot it dead. After a brief bit of the Doctor being mad at Robertson for killing the spider, the scene is over and we shift focus back to Yaz’s family and the build-up to the final scene in the TARDIS. It’s a resolution that doesn’t really work for me. It’s all done in less than five minutes and doesn’t really feel that satisfying. Robertson isn’t really punished for his role in the creation of the mutated spiders and neither is Dr. Jade McIntyre (Tanya Fear), the scientist who had been genetically modifying the spiders in the first place. The episode seems to have no interest in giving us any real resolution or closure to this week’s mystery; the spiders are dead, so the story is over, who cares about the aftermath? And that just… didn’t work for me. The episode had spent a lot of time building Robertson up to being a nasty man and he just gets… nothing. He doesn’t really even get told off that badly by the Doctor. I dunno. It just didn’t work for me and it sort of let the rest of the episode down a lot.
On the bright side, the episode ends with a really lovely scene where Ryan, Graham, and Yaz all decide to join the Doctor full-time. Graham says he wants to stay because being with the Doctor helps him cope with his grief from Grace’s death, Ryan says he wants to stay because life with the Doctor is better than life as a mechanic, and Yaz says she wants to stay because she wants something more than life as an ordinary policeman with an ordinary family, and that the Doctor’s pretty much the best person she’s ever met. It’s a really touching scene, capped off with the Doctor making sure her new friends know what they’re signing up for; that she can’t guarantee their safety and that they’ll return as different people than they left as. They confirm they’re sure and the Doctor dubs them all Team TARDIS and they all join hands to pull the dematerialization leaver together. Unfortunately, that final shot of the four of them pulling the dematerialization lever cuts off a bit earlier than I’d have liked and it kind of undercuts the scene. I get what they were going for, but I’d have held that shot just slightly longer and let them actually finish pulling down the lever before cutting away. That aside, it’s still a really nice scene and it’s perfectly placed within the context of the season. We’ve had four episodes filled with development for these new companions and we really understand why they’d want to travel with the Doctor. It’s a decision that feels dramatically earned and it propels us nicely into the rest of the season.
All in all, Arachnids in the UK is a pretty good episode of Doctor Who for the first forty minutes of its runtime and is let down by the final ten minutes. It’s got a really good setup, some really great character moments, some really great pacing, and a really weak resolution. The titular spiders are properly frightening and they frequently made me squirm in my seat. I’m rather arachnophobic so this episode was a bit hard for me to sit through and it’s probably not one I’ll be revisiting much. I really liked getting some more development for Yaz and getting to see her family was a lot of fun. I liked how central her mom was to this story and I hope we get to see more of her family in future episodes. Overall, I liked this episode well enough. The really good character work and the interesting premise are enough to outweigh the mediocre ending. I really wish the ending was stronger and that Robertson got some kind of comeuppance, but it’s not enough to really ruin the episode for me. The first forty minutes of the episode are really good and so it all balances out in the end as an enjoyable episode, if not particularly memorable. It’s not an episode that most people are gonna consider a classic in years to come, but it’s still some good, campy Doctor Who fun, and that’s totally okay from time to time.
3.5 out of 5 wands