Photo: Ben Blackall (BBC America)

Leave it to Doctor Who to offer an episode that starts with me cowering in fear over the image of a giant spider and ends with me tearing up over the death of an even bigger one. “Arachnids In The UK” is a scary, funny, unexpectedly moving episode that solidifies our thrown-together TARDIS crew into an official TARDIS Team. After the hefty tone of last week’s Rosa Park-centric episode “Rosa,” Doctor Who offers something more akin to a B-movie horror-comedy romp this week. And while I felt like I talked myself into liking “Rosa” less than I actually did because I could intellectually see some of its flaws, this week I find myself willing to overlook some fairly big storytelling weaknesses in “Arachnids In The UK” because I enjoyed its execution so much. I guess that’s just the way it goes with Doctor Who’s ever-changing storytelling model.

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After tackling a space-set adventure and a moving historical one, Doctor Who returns to present-day Sheffield to let the companions check in on their home lives and to offer a riff on the classic Earth-invasion storyline. This time around, however, the invading forces aren’t from outer space, they’re everyday Earth spiders who are acting strangely and growing exponentially thanks to some sci-fi science and a pile of toxic sludge. If, like Ryan and me, you have a touch of arachnophobia, this episode likely sent some major chills up your spine. “Arachnids In The UK” effectively renders its titular creepy-crawlies in all of their eight-legged horror. In fact, I don’t think I’ve been so freaked out by a Doctor Who monster since that unseen creature in Rupert Pink’s bed in “Listen.” But this episode does more than just play upon its viewers’ spider fears. In fact, it turns out Sheffield’s spider population aren’t really the villains of “Arachnids In The UK,” they’re merely the victims of the corporate schemes of this episode’s real monster—American businessman-turned-politician Donald Trump, er, Jack Robertson.

To be fair, the episode makes it clear that guest star Chris Noth (a.k.a. Sex And The City’s Mr. Big) isn’t playing Donald Trump. Trump exists in this universe and Robertson is a rival hotel-owning businessman who wants to launch his own presidential campaign for the 2020 election. (The idea that Trump’s presidency will spawn a bunch of copycat egotistical-businessmen-turned-presidents is terrifying in its own way.) But, for all intents and purposes, Noth is playing a Trump stand-in. And he exists in this episode mostly to be the butt of its jokes and to be overruled by a bunch of competent women who actually get shit done, which is satisfying in its own way. Noth is clearly having a blast hamming it up as this confused but bullishly confident figure, and he gets the tone just right so that the Trump parallels are funny rather than overbearing. The episode also includes a pointed political metaphor with the reveal that Robertson’s seemingly glamorous luxury hotels are actually built on dangerous landfills of toxic garbage.

Maybe the most interesting thing about the episode is that Robertson is never punished for his villainy. He skirts responsibility for the toxic landfill situation and, despite some chastising from the Doctor, he feels confident that his “fire and fury” gun-wielding take down of the Mama Spider is exactly the kind of thing that will get him into the White House. “God help us all,” Graham notes. As with “Rosa,” it seems there are some socio-political forces too big for the Doctor to tackle. Unfortunately, the dark poignancy of Robertson’s final scene is undercut by the fact that it doesn’t feel like a final scene. “Arachnids In The UK” suddenly and inexplicably drops the spider storyline, which is both jarring and confusing. I’m wondering if there were some wrap-up scenes left on the cutting room floor (What happened to the giant spider in Anna’s apartment? Where does arachnid scientist Dr. Jade go from here?) or if the problems were inherent to Chris Chibnall’s original script.

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The lack of resolution to the spider storyline is by far the weakest part of the episode, but the rest of “Arachnids In The UK” is engaging enough that it mostly makes up for it. Robertson’s unopened hotel makes an eerie, atmospheric setting for some suspenseful storytelling, and there are enough layers to the spider mystery to keep the episode clipping along at a brisk pace. Appropriate for the Halloween season, the episode is chockful of horrific images—like a giant spider emerging from a bathtub or a giant spider crawling on a ballroom ceiling. “Arachnids In The UK” also takes great advantage of this season’s bigger ensemble by mixing up its character pairings and giving different combinations of characters a chance to bounce off one another. Chibnall’s skill at writing banter-filled ensemble dialogue shines through as the Doctor and her companions team up with Robertson, Dr. Jade McIntyre, and Yaz’s mom Najia to try to figure out what’s going on. The scene in the kitchen is a highlight, as is the moment the Doctor first meets Roberston and is surprised by his efficient explanation of the fact that a giant spider just killed his body guard.

Along with its atmospheric and comedic elements, “Arachnids In The UK” makes time for meaningful character beats too, which is what elevates it above “The Ghost Monument”—an episode that had an interesting premise but no real meat on its bones. Beyond its spider-centric story, “Arachnids In The UK” is an episode about Ryan, Graham, and Yaz taking stock of their lives and realizing they do want to be full-time companions. Whereas previous Doctors have explicitly asked companions to join them, this Doctor lets her TARDIS Team come to that realization on their own. Her ecstatic reaction to Yaz’s invitation to tea proves she isn’t eager to leave her new friends behind just yet, but it’s clear that she doesn’t want to push them into something they aren’t ready for either, especially when she’s already dragged them along on two unplanned adventures.

This is Jodie Whittaker’s best, most comfortable performance as the Doctor yet, particularly when it comes to comedy. She underplays the Doctor’s failed attempts at small talk and her general confusion as to who Ed Sheeran is, both of which are funny gags made even funnier by Whittaker. As she mentions in this episode, the Doctor is still figuring out who she is, which calls to mind the long journey the Twelfth Doctor took to find himself. So far she continues to blend the Tenth Doctor’s empathy with the Eleventh Doctor’s lack of filter, which is proving to be a delightful combination. But unlike those Doctors, who would often use whimsy to hide how they were really feeling, this Doctor seems to genuinely wear her heart on her sleeve.

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Photo: Ben Blackall (BBC America)

Though Yaz’s likable family is ostensibly the focus of this episode, Ryan and Graham get some lovely, subtle character shading as well. Returning to his empty home, Graham is haunted by visions of Grace, which emphasizes the fact that his grief is still fresh and that traveling with the Doctor is a way for him to work through that grief in an active way. Meanwhile, Ryan gets a sweet moment in which he criticizes his absentee father for implying that Graham isn’t his real family. I love that Ryan and Graham’s relationship is realistically growing and changing with time rather than being presented as an issue to be resolved in a “very special episode.”

Whereas the first three episodes of the season each felt like they had something to prove about this new era of the series, “Arachnids In The UK” is freed from that burden and able to be more of a standalone romp. It highlights the strengths of this season (strong characters, great banter, a unique comedic voice) as well as its weaknesses (choppy editing, storylines that resolve without enough oomph). Mostly, however, it moves this era of Doctor Who out of the “getting to know you” stage and into the proper adventuring stage. The TARDIS Team are ready to go, and I’m more than ready to join them.

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Stray observations

  • It’s bizarre that after spending so much time defending the spiders, the Doctor’s plan is just to lure them into Robertson’s panic room and (I think?) just let them starve as part of a “humane, natural death.” Couldn’t she have taken them somewhere where there could live in peace or something?
  • I love that Najia was very chill about her daughter’s sexual orientation, but very nosy about her dating life.
  • I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet, but I love the work new composer Segun Akinola is doing on this season’s score.
  • Not only did the Doctor used to have sisters, she used to be a sister in an “aqua hospital.”
  • Despite meeting her family this week, Yaz still feels relatively underdeveloped as a character. Rather than trying to weave the two sides of her life together, this episode largely ignores the fact that Yaz is a police officer to focus on her as a daughter and sister instead. Still, Mandip Gill is so charming the episode almost gets away with it. I was really moved by her final speech about wanting to spend more time with the Doctor because she’s the best person Yaz has ever met.
  • I’m wondering if the openendness of his exit implies Jack Robertson might become a kind of Harriet Jones-esque recurring political figure in the Doctor Who universe.

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