By Mark Laherty
Chris Chibnall goes to work one morning. He has to pitch the fourth episode to the producers. “What if, uhhh,” he says, “spiders? Like, what if we just did spiders? It’s been a while since spiders.”
So: spiders. More specifically, the Doctor finally coaxes the TARDIS into bringing her friends back home but discovers that something spooky is afoot with the local eight-legged population. Why have they all converged on a hotel? And why is there a Trump-alike character swanning about?
I just made fun of how the premise of this episode is standard sci-fi genre fare, but the story itself is quite good. Chibnall is well able to pull together a TV show that makes sense most of the time. I don’t want to drag up old clichés about previous showrunners, but many will find straightforward and functioning stories to be a welcome breath of fresh air for Doctor Who.
Or, maybe you’ll find it to be a bit too painting-by-numbers. Not a lot about how the eight-legged freaks are portrayed strays from the well-trod path. Obviously, you’d be disappointed if nobody got webbed up; you might have more ambivalent feelings about the mystery’s ultimate solution. But, where it mixes things up, it does so in a way that feels true to the shows pathos and its silliness.
Director Sallie Aprahamian (Extremely Dangerous, The Sins, Real Men) does a great job with the episode’s scale. The much-touted ‘cinematic’ feel of this season isn’t just limited to the Cooke and Angenieux anamorphic lenses. There’s a striking moment where the gang run back out to the hotel’s foyer and see the entire entrance blocked off by spider’s webs. This is obviously a tense moment, but a beautiful one too; god knows how this would have looked in a 1970s Tom Baker episode or even a 2000s David Tennant one.
Though we’ve returned to Sheffield, it doesn’t feel like the same Sheffield as the season premiere. Samuel Maleski wrote a fascinating piece on ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ and its Dark Sheffield setting. You might dismiss this as Sheffield being dark because it’s night-time, but the visuals do strike a particular chord. It’s similar to one of my favourite movies from when I was a teenager, AKIRA. a lot of what I liked about that film was how the city of Neo-Tokyo itself was treated as a character, as a visual representation of the systems that cling to it like a disease.
Doctor Who isn’t all about a failing society, but it does represent the ills of society in the physical space. Maleski writes: “when you, small human, gaze at this capitalist labyrinth, you do wonder what kind of Minotaurs roam its depths.” The same effect is captured in ‘Arachnids,’ just in a different way. We don’t have the night-time aesthetic, but we do have grotesquely physical monsters lurking in the dark underbelly of a city. As the gang dive into the space below the hotel, you might be reminded of the underground spaces in Victorian London stories like Sweeney Todd. Just like those tales, the human bodies being gobbled up into an entrepreneurial structure reflect popular anxieties about capitalism. We sure do live in a society.
Speaking of society, let’s address that Donald Trump analogue. Robertson, a.k.a. Mr. Big (played by Chris Noth of Sex and the City and The Good Wife). Goodness knows this dude is played well by Noth, who I understand is a big star. But, the basic idea of having a fictional version of Trump walking around feels a bit on the nose. I don’t want to rabbit on about ‘the art of subtlety,’ but it does feel a bit artless coming immediately after ‘Rosa.’ Last week’s pure historical wasn’t what you’d call subtle, but it tied past injustices to the present in a much more graceful way. All the same, it’s amazing to see Doctor Who stick its hands in the mud week after week this season to get political. That’s where sci-fi thrives. The least political story in this season so far is the one where the Doctor literally says, “We’re stronger together.”
This week also sees a renewed focus on Graham in his role as Sadman McDeadwife. This is something I didn’t talk about previously because it was a spoiler, but it’s a focus in this episode from the start, so: Graham’s wife Grace, a black woman, was killed off in the first episode. Folks have discussed this a good deal already, so suffice to say that this is a textbook case of fridging. Grace was killed off for little dramatic reason other than to give Graham and Ryan something to be sad about. And so it is with this episode. Graham’s grief isn’t without its moving moments and Bradley Walsh is still excellent. But, when Grace lurks in the background as a metaphorical memory-ghost, you can’t but wish that she was a regular on the show. This new era of Who has made a renewed commitment to diversity both on-screen and behind the scenes. That commitment has had immediate results. But, Grace’s death was a serious misstep.
On the upside, Yaz finally gets some proper attention. We meet her family, most notably her mother Najia (Shobna Gulati of Dinnerladies and Coronation Street). The show has had a lot of balls in the air, so it makes sense that it’s skimped on Yaz a little bit until now. Again, it’s great to see the results of Who’s commitment to diversity; this is a full British Pakistani family. It’s also nice that the Khans not only ask Ryan if he’s dating Yaz, but ask the same of the Doctor. This leaves Yaz’s sexuality as a little ambiguous. Four episodes in and it seems that this new era is intent on working in at least one LGBT+ character per episode.
For all that, it’s a little concerning that Yaz doesn’t seem to have a hugely compelling internal life. We know that she wants to climb the chain of command in the police force. If she rolls up to the police station at the end of her story, gets a promotion, and that’s the whole shebang, it will be disappointing. Similarly, you can see from the first episode that Ryan will eventually call Graham Grandad. Still, there’s a good deal of texture on show here.
That may or may not sell you on this new season. Many people I’ve spoken to have said that they liked the show with Chris Eccleston and David Tennant, liked Matt Smith less, and didn’t watch Capaldi. A major stylistic difference between Eccleston/Tennant and Smith/Capaldi is that their companions had a lot of texture and detail. Rose Tyler got an award in gymnastics in third class. That sort of thing. Do you like that sort of thing? Knock yourself out.
Forgive me if I’m not too enthusiastic about the overall character arcs that are taking shape. Even if it’s all a bit obvious, the gang is charming and entertaining. How much you’re going to enjoy them depends on what kind of character writing appeals to you. Claudia Boleyn of the Doctor Who Magazine’s Time Team raved about the “GORGEOUS character moments” – this comes in the context of her being critical of much of Steven Moffat’s writing. Take to Twitter and you’ll see plenty of fans not only enjoying the show but wanting to hang out with the new TARDIS team. If you wanted a return to this kind of form, this is your moment.