❉ As the Doctor, Jodie Whittaker continues to surprise and entertain, writes Robert Fairclough in our latest new series review.
A corporate business dumping toxic waste in a mine, which poisons the local environment and creates lethal mutant creatures… What we had here was a 21st century version of the Third Doctor story The Green Death (1973), which fielded giant maggots instead of giant spiders as the eco menace. It’s a sign of the times we live in that instead of the CEO seeing the error of his ways and blowing up the mad super computer which had caused it all, the 2018 managing director accepted no responsibility at all, executed a dying creature and walked away to, potentially, become the next President of the United States.
That looks great written down, and the realisation of the story offered some genuinely bizarre moments too, scenes you’d never see in another television drama, which is always Doctor Who’s raison d’etre when it’s on form: a spider the size of a bath erupting from the wreckage of one, human victims eerily cocooned in cobwebs, the spiders scuttling towards a tune by Ryan’s favourite rapper… cue Graham: “Can you believe they’re actually moving towards that music?” All great stuff. The rendering of the spiders was especially impressive, arguably the best CGI creature design since the show came back in 2005.
Aside from the striking visuals and genuinely creepy atmosphere, the story was a bit lacking. It was incredibly convenient that the Doctor and her chums ran in to an expert on spiders, Dr Jade McIntyre (the appropriately named Tanya Fear) almost from the off, who was more of a walking info dump than a character. The same was true, to a lesser extent, of magnate John Robertson, a stupendous Chris Noth. A very thinly veiled satire on Donald Trump, he filled in the backstory of the poisonous landfill site that his company then, scandalously, built a luxury hotel on top of.
I never saw Sex in the City (1998-2004), in which Noth played the self-explanatory ‘Big’, but you can see why Chris Chibnall wanted to employ him. A truly odious far right capitalist believing in gun law, sacking and sacrificing his employees without a second thought, for me ‘The John’ was the best thing in the episode, thanks to Noth investing him with entertaining anti-hero charisma. If he survived because a rematch is planned, I’m totally onside with that. An extremist politician as the new Big Bad would suit the tone of Chris Chibnall’s politically and socially aware Doctor Who.
In episode four of the first 21st century series in 2005, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) reconnected with her mum Jackie (Camille Coduri) in a tower block. In 2018, we had Yaz reconnecting with her mum and family in a more upmarket tower block, and it was refreshing to see that she didn’t get on with her chavvy, layabout sister Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar), to the point where she resumed travelling with the Doctor because she couldn’t stand the domestic grief. The ongoing step-family byplay between Ryan and Graham continues to be subtly done, and the spirit of the departed Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), just at the edge of Graham’s perception in their sad, empty house, was a mature directorial touch.
As the Doctor, Jodie Whittaker continues to surprise and entertain. The sofa schtick was vintage Matt Smith, while her ignorance of Ed Sheeran was laugh out loud funny, although I’m not so sure about her now calling people “dude”. What was missing was a righteously angry showdown with Robertson after he shot the giant spider, which reinforced the impression that the story just stopped after he strolled away.
As an ageing part time punk, I have to mention the episode title. Why? A pun on the Sex Pistols’ first single Anarchy in the UK (1976), few people under 50 were going to get the point, never mind that the riffing on an iconic punk anthem has no relevance to the episode, beyond the clumsy substitution of ‘Anarchy’ with ‘Arachnids’. Doctor Who is a lot cleverer than that.
In all, Arachnids in the UK was a winner, but the unsubtle exposition and supposition was a bit of a worry… somehow, I can see this story working much better as a Target book, like Malcolm Hulke’s adaptation of The Green Death did.
I sincerely hope that Chris Chibnall finds the time to write it one day.
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One, and is made by BBC Studios in Wales. Series link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Infinity’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.