Making Small Talk: Doctor Who, “Arachnids in the UK”

It’s time for everyone’s favorite fantasy villain: Spiders of unusual size!

Yeah, you might have trouble sleeping after this one.

[Spoilers for Doctor Who‘s “Arachnids in the UK”.]

Summary

The Doctor gets Ryan, Yas, and Graham back home to Sheffield, and Yas asks the Doctor over for tea at her place, along with Ryan and Graham. Graham declines to go home, and discovers spider webs all over his and Grace’s home. Yas has to leave tea to go pick up her mother Najia (Shobna Gulati), who has just been fired from her job before even starting by mogul and hotel owner Jack Robertson (Chris Noth). The Doctor and Ryan go to pick up a package for Yasmin’s family from a neighbor and finds Dr. Jade McIntyre (Tanya Fear) trying to get into the same apartment, one belonging to a colleague she works with. Said colleague is wrapped up in a spider web and dead; there is a giant spider in her flat that the Doctor traps. She asks Dr. McIntyre about her work, which is scientific research involving spiders. There has been strange arachnids activity in the city for some time now, and the Doctor realizes that the nexus of the activity is a new hotel, the very same one where Yas has gone to pick up her mother.

Robertson’s bodyguard is attacked, and the Doctor, Ryan, Dr. McIntyre, and Graham all go to meet up with Yas and Najia at the hotel. They find more spiders, and much bigger ones, and more dead workers. After capturing a spider, they learn about the history of the property; it was once a series of mining tunnels that was then overlaid by a landfill. This landfill was full of chemicals that weren’t disposed of properly, along with all the spider bodies that Dr. McIntyre’s lab got rid of, and somewhere along the way these things mixed to create super spiders. They aren’t doing well, though; there’s a giant mother spider in the ballroom of the hotel that has gotten too big to properly take in oxygen, and she’s dying. Robertson comes in and kills her with a gun despite the Doctor’s protests. The other spiders are lured to Robertson’s panic room using vibrations from Ryan’s music, there to be killed off humanely.

After the ordeal is over, Yas and Ryan and Graham go to bid the Doctor goodbye, but instead admit that they would rather continue traveling with her. The Doctor happily accepts, and they all pull the main TARDIS lever together.

Commentary

This season, showrunner Chris Chibnall made a promise not to reuse any of Doctor Who‘s classic villains, likely in a bid to make the show more accessible to a new audience. Refusing to inundate us with familiar faces like the Daleks and the Cybermen makes it easier to get people interested in the Doctor and her adventures without the burden of needing or wanting over five decades of backstory. It also means that we’re going to get some monsters that are literally giant spiders.

Which is a thing that I am terrified of, so I can’t say it wasn’t effective.

Doctor Who, Arachnids in the UK

There is something else that should be noted straight away, which is—the Doctor got her companions home within a half hour of their initial departure on the first try. Last week’s episode doesn’t really count because she explains that the TARDIS redirected them for a reason, the detection of artron energy in the past. After that stop, she gets them home with little fuss, which begs the question… is this incarnation of the Doctor a better pilot than previous incarnations? Did some of River Song’s corrections finally stick? Because that would be a pretty big deal, given the show’s history. Then again, the TARDIS could just be giving her a break this time around.

For the first time since the Davies era of Who, the companions’ families are getting some extra attention. This was already true of Ryan and Graham and our unfairly departed Grace, but this episode we also get to meet Yasmin’s family, who are delightful. (Well, her little sister is a bit grating so far, but we already knew that she and Yas have a rough relationship and little siblings are often annoying to their older counterparts.) The Doctor’s more recent experiences with domestic situations, from Jackie Tyler’s Christmas dinners to a year living at home with the Ponds, has made her a bit more keen to accept said invitations—she’s genuinely excited to be asked over for tea, even if she is awful at small talk.

Of course, then she stumbles across Dr. Jade McIntyre and her colleague who has been murdered by a giant spider, and she never does get to try Hakim Khan’s pakora.

One of the things that’s subtly excellent about this episode is how the Doctor is surrounded by women for the duration of the adventure. Yas and Najia Khan and Dr. McIntyre are by the Doctor’s side for the majority of the episode as they figure out how to handle this spider infestation, while Graham and Ryan pair up a few times away from the crew to have their own terrifying fun. It’s seems like such a little thing, seeing four women storming through that hotel and solving all the problems, but when you’re accustomed to seeing rooms full of men plus a token woman or two, it can’t help but feel a little magical.

Doctor Who, Arachnids in the UK

There are many thankfully unsubtle digs in this episode, particularly in dealing with Jack Robertson and his corporate empire. While it’s stated that he’s thinking of running for president in 2020 because he “hates Trump,” the man is clearly of the same mold as The Donald—wealthy, devoid of conscience, ignorant of his own business dealings aside from how much money they make him, and proud to stoke violence. He doesn’t pay attention to the old mine beneath his hotel, or the landfill he’s permitted to grow beneath it, and he never takes responsibility for wrongdoing. When the Doctor tells him not to use a gun to kill the giant mother spider in his ballroom, Robertson berates “you people”—clearly thinking that the Doctor is also a British citizen—and their unwillingness to use firearms to solve problems.

Doctor Who couldn’t have known that this episode would air the day after another mass shooting took place on U.S. soil… but given the rate at which they occur these days, they had to have figured that it was a strong possibility either way. It’s indescribable, how that feels.

The second layer of this commentary is a clear indictment of gentrification; Robertson built the hotel by buying up a much cheaper property that used to employ blue collar workers (a coal mine), and insists he’s helping the area by bringing luxury accommodations to the city. But he knows nothing of the area itself or the people who live there, many of them working class. He fires Yas’s mother without bothering to talk to her, and he ignores the many red flags brought to him by employees about the problems with the hotel and its foundations. It causes many deaths, but this man still gets away scot free, with all his money and power intact.

Don’t they always?

Doctor Who, Arachnids in the UK

The only real weak link in the episode is that the spider conundrum isn’t really brought full circle or ended clearly. Robertson kills the mother spider, but the others are meant to be killed humanely, and we’re never told how that will be done. We’re also never told what will be done to secure the entire hotel site and ensure that more spider-killings don’t occur. Even if the Doctor had thrown in a few lines about her plans for the whole thing, that would have been better than where we’re left. As is, the whole story ends up hanging in midair without a conclusion. It reads as though Chibnall accidentally cut out a scene and never remembered to add it back in.

But the Doctor gets what she needs out of this adventure: three new friends who want to tag along through time and space. She’s upfront about what the cost will be, assures them that they will change permanently and that she can’t guarantee their safety (which is notably more than she’s done for many companions before). But they’re all in the mood for a change, so it’s just as well.

Asides and shout outs for this week:

  • The Doctor’s tendency to be accidentally rude while making small talk is a common character trait, but this time around heavily evoked the Ninth Doctor’s tenure; she meets a companion’s family and is questioned on whether she and Yas are dating by her mother, much in the way that Jackie asked about Rose and the Doctor. We also get another example of a mother being wary about who the Doctor is and where she came from, which was true of Jackie, Francine Jones, and Sylvia Noble as well.

Doctor Who, Arachnids in the UK

  • Given the proliferation of Ed Sheeran these past few years, it makes perfect sense that the Doctor would presume a very famous person she’s never met before would be him.
  • The Doctor mentions that she has had sisters and used to be a sister, though she seems to be talking about being a sister in the religious sense. She joined a group of nuns in the past, maybe? She claims that she was a sister at an aqua hospital, which turned out to be a training ground for some assassin group. Just a typical week, probably.
  • The Doctor once again considers calling her new group “fam,” but seems to settle on Team TARDIS instead.
  • Yas is the first companion to have visible siblings since Martha Jones.
  • The Doctor name-drops Amelia Earhart, and that time that they apparently had a plane stopped by a very thick strand of spider web.
  • The Doctor dons a fanny pack. Doctor. Doctor, you have Time Lord pockets, why would you do this to us.
  • The other most notable time the Doctor faced down scary arachnids was in “The Planet of Spiders,” the Third Doctor’s final serial in the show’s first eleventh season.
  • Psychic paper is back! But interestingly wasn’t explained away this time…
  • The time vortex looks very different this season, and appears to have far more detailed pathways.
  • Even after all this time, the Doctor still has such a hard time telling people that she’d rather not travel alone. It’s one of the character’s most endearing, yet rending, quirks.

Emily Asher-Perrin loved that the Doctor had no idea whether or not she and Yas were “seeing each other.” You can bug him on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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