What I Like About Who: No. 7

This is the seventh column in a weekly series from Rob Hull, Figures and More. Check back Mondays for a weekly journey through time and space, or read all of our adventures here

It’s the week of Halloween, and apparently, Chris Chibnall is taking the opportunity to scare the *#%& out of everyone. The latest Doctor Who episode, Arachnids in the U.K., called for none other than GIANT FREAKIN’ SPIDERS! Personally, I am arachnophobic, so I’m really hating my life right now. And in addition to gross, hairy arachnids, this episode also served as the “homecoming” for the Doctor’s friends, and for Yaz, that meant some quality family time.

The creepy, yet-to-open luxury hotel in the beginning of the episode holds promise as the prime locale for the sinister goings on to come, and we are introduced to Robertson (Chris Noth), who is important to the story, and his associates Frankie (Jaleh Alp) and Kevin (William Meredith),  who are not. And if you don’t believe me about their importance, think about this, KEVIN DOESN’T HAVE A LAST NAME! We also meet Najia, who is VERY important. More on her in a little bit.

Next we see the TARDIS flying through the Time Vortex, which has gotten a facelift as well, now resembling a honeycomb with countless potential tunnels down which the TARDIS can travel. Fortunately, the Doctor picks the right tunnel, and we’re back in Sheffield. Only half an hour has passed since the gang left in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. This leads to an absolutely heart-wrenching seen, as the Doctor prepares to say “goodbye” to her new friends. Why the quote marks, you ask? Because we already know they all travel with her for the entire series, but we will get to see them make the choice to stay. The Doctor’s leaving them behind is interrupted by an invitation to tea at Yaz’s house, which the Doctor happily accepts. It’s clear that she does not want to leave these friends behind. Jodie does a great job again of showing her acting range, as she shows the Doctor’s sad, dejected side. Even Time Lords are not without feeling. In fact, her acting ability is perfectly showcased by the flip from dejected to excited, as the Doctor goes to Yaz’s for tea.

This trip also gives Graham a chance to go home for the first time since Grace’s death. He goes alone, and we get to hear and, sort of, see the fantastic Sharon D. Clarke again. Graham spends some time reminiscing, and, in an amazingly touching moment, smelling Grace’s old coat. Bradley Walsh plays this quiet tender moment beautifully.

Back to tea at Yaz’s. On the way to her flat, Ryan and Yaz are doing a bit of flirting, meanwhile, a woman is standing outside the flat two doors down and and looking worried. More on her later, time to meet the fam.

We found out a little about Yaz’s family in The Ghost Monument, namely that they drive her crazy, and her sister wants her to move out so she can have her room. Yaz’s Father, Hakim, (Ravin J Ganatra) likes to cook, but is apparently pretty bad at it, and is collecting garbage that is being dumped without permission nearby. He’s also a conspiracy nut. Yaz’s Sister, Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar), spends her scenes alternating between trading insults with Yaz and flirting with Ryan. Yaz’s Mom, Najia (Shobna Gulati), is not home, but is actually at her new job. And, as if by divine providence, this is our entrance to one of the pieces of the plot. One more aside about the scenes with Yaz’s family: It is pretty well established that Yaz really has no life outside of her job. It’s important to note this because it’s important to understand just what the Doctor’s friends are leaving behind when they choose to travel with her.

Ok, on with the plot. Yaz’s Dad has been trying to pick up a package from a nearby apartment. The Doctor, of course offers to go get it, and Ryan goes with her. Yaz’s Mom, by the way, needs a lift, so Yaz goes to pick her up. All the threads are drawing together, no pun intended. And as luck would have it, the woman waiting outside the flat is Jade, as in Dr. Jade McIntyre (Tanya Fear), and she is a co-worker of the woman who owns the flat. Jade is a scientist who specializes in guess what? Spiders.

The Doctor and friends go in and find the flat covered in cobwebs, and Anna cocooned in her living room. Ryan goes into the bedroom and looks under the bed—ALWAYS A BAD IDEA IN DOCTOR WHO! Nothing good lives under a bed in Doctor Who. Of course, he finds the first giant spider, and here we go. At the same time, Graham finds a giant spider carapace that has been shed in his attic. After their encounters, the friends reconnect, and Yaz phones to tell them that they have found massive cobwebs in one of the rooms at the hotel. The rest of the team arrives at the hotel. It’s time to get on with it.

The plot from here is a pretty basic mix of connecting some rather blatant coincidences together and it turns into a pretty basic “confront the monster to get basic information, understand the situation, and resolve the crisis.” Throw in a few jump scares for good measure, add the “message” of the episode, which in this case is a warning about being eco-friendly, and presto! The result is a well-made, if not particularly blockbuster episode, which fits perfectly on Halloween week, and still has enough important and touching moments to warrant repeat viewing.

The spiders in the episode are all CGI animated, which is great, because if I EVER see a spider this big in real life, I will start running and screaming and I might never stop. This episode has all of the tropes you would expect from a story about giant spiders: people cocooned in webs, hung from the ceiling, rooms covered in cobwebs, multiple sizes of spiders in a procession, people being chased down corridors by spiders on the walls, a giant spider falling from the ceiling, etc. But, I think the most amazing part of all of this is that, in the end, the spiders are not the bad guys, and you actually end up almost feeling sorry for the Mother Spider at the end. You also get to learn some fascinating, and terrifying real-life facts about spiders. I don’t want to spoil a lot of the scares, but after this episode, I will be somewhat fearful of looking under my bed for a bit, and you will think twice about what it means to have a spider crawl up your drain. Poor Kevin.

 

So, if the spiders aren’t the “bad guys,” who is the villain in this episode? That would be Robertson, played by Chris Noth, formerly of Sex and the City fame. He is a Real Estate developer who owns hotels, and is running for U.S. president in 2020. He is also super opinionated, and thinks he’s the most important person in the world. He is pro-gun, which the Doctor definitely doesn’t like, and doesn’t care who or what is in his way, as long as he achieves his goal. Sound familiar? Yes, this is one of the most thinly veiled caricatures of President Donald Trump that has come out on TV. Though, they are careful to say he’s a different character, even referencing Trump by name in the episode. But, make no mistake, you know exactly what they’re going for, and the revelation that he’s sort of behind the whole thing, and his method of dealing with the infestation, leave no doubt that he is meant to be the true villain. It’s a fairly one dimensional part, but Noth still plays it to the hilt, really mixing smarminess and indifference effectively. When Kevin is taken below by a giant spider, his only comment is “I have no more Kevins.”

The Doctor has help in this episode from another “contender for a companion” character, Dr. McIntyre, who drops some seriously worrying science regarding the spiders in Sheffield, and reveals a key point of the plot involving her research and the waste from her lab. Anyone putting the pieces together yet?

By the way, speaking of serious science, the Doctor is able to keep the first giant spider contained using a paste made out of garlic and vinegar, and if that doesn’t just scream “I’m the Doctor,” I don’t know what does. As far as we know, by the way that spider is STILL THERE at the end of the episode, so hopefully no goes back to that flat for a while.

So, this episode’s message is ecological responsibility. It is revealed that the hotel is built over an old coal mine, which has been filled with debris—including biological waste from Dr. McIntyre’s lab—by companies owned by Robertson. And, I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that he is fairly ignorant about what has been done. Or, at least he was until the beginning of this episode when Frankie told him about it. The next time we see Frankie after that, is when the Doctor uncovers her wrapped up body in the mine tunnels underneath the hotel. Jade works out exactly what happened, and Graham and Ryan, get two awesome assignments: they have to trap one of the smallest spiders, and the biggest one. Lucky them, they succeed at both. They find the Mother Spider in a ballroom, in a classic “look up on the ceiling moment” that reminded me of something from the Resident Evil video game.

The resolution to the spider problem is a departure from the norm. So, it turns out that spiders can keep growing as long as they’re alive, and these spiders have been given an experimental enzyme to extend their lives. So, unless they die, they’re going to keep growing. Sadly, the Doctor has no choice but to lock them all in Robertson’s conveniently built-in “panic room,” so they all suffocate. This results in a—possibly unintentionally—hilarious moment, as hip hop music is played through the speakers from inside the panic room, activating the spider’s nature to seek out food by following vibration. This may possibly be the first time rap music was used for pest control.

When the Doctor finally encounters the Mother Spider, things turn tragic. The Mother Spider has grown too big, and can’t take in enough oxygen. She is suffocating and they can’t do anything about it. But, that’s not fast enough for Robertson, who shoots the Mother Spider dead. He survives, and in true villain fashion, simply walks away.

While all this is going on, we get some other moments of character development. Najia, Yaz’s mother, is a great character, and I really hope we see her again. She has a million questions for Yaz, such as “Are you and Ryan together?,” “Who is the Doctor,” “Are you and the Doctor seeing each other?”. Ryan also reveals that he got a letter from his dad apologizing for not being at Grace’s funeral and telling Ryan that he can go live with him now, his “proper” family, instead of Graham. Ryan is angry at the use of the term “proper” i regard to Graham, another small change in his attitude toward him.

Entering the TARDIS, Ryan, Yaz and Graham tell the Doctor they want to stay, but more importantly, they tell her why. Graham explains that grief takes time, Ryan does not want to go back to his job, and Yaz wants “more.” The Doctor—in what I think is a really poignant line—explains that she cannot “guarantee that you’re gonna be safe” and that “when I pull that lever, I’m never really sure what’s going to happen,”  and that “you’re not gonna come back as the same people who left here.” This is an extraordinary bit on candid admission, and it’s one that so many former companions never got.

The three friends all indicate that they understand, and an overjoyed Doctor christens them “Team TARDIS.” And then, in what I believe may be a first, all four of the members of Team TARDIS pull the dematerialization lever together, in what is a brilliant and poignant final scene.

So, in the end, this episode proves to be the perfect follow-up to the weighty, but fantastic episode that preceded it. A simple little monster romp with a heart—which is kind of a beautiful summary of what Doctor Who is, and should be, most of the time.

Next time, it’s back to familiar sci-fi territory as Team TARDIS has an adventure in a very futuristic locale, that reminds me a bit of the J.J. Abrams version of the U.S.S Enterprise. It’s called the Tsuranga Conundrum. Join me back here next week to find out what the solution is.

 


DID WHO KNOW?

  • Though there have been other alien “spider-like” creatures, such as the Racnoss from The Impossible Bride and the “space germs” from Kill the Moon, which were absolutely terrifying, you have to go all the way back to the tenure of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor to find the last time the Doctor tangled with actual spiders. These spiders were from a planet called Metabelis Three and were called “eight legs.” Their leader was a giant spider called the “Great One” and she wanted a crystal that the Doctor stole from her web. The Doctor traveled to Metabelis Three and destroyed the Great One, but the radiation poisoning from the crystals caused his regeneration into the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker.
  • This episode saw the—blink and you’ll miss it—return of the Psychic Paper. This very helpful item, consisting of a piece of special paper which shows the viewer whatever the Doctor wants him or her to see, was first introduced as part of the 2005 reboot, and was first used by Ninth Doctor, and by every Doctor since. This episode marks its first appearance since the season 10 episode Empress of Mars.
  • This episode contains some seriously scary facts about spiders, including that spiders can keep growing as long as they’re alive, and that there are an estimated 21 QUADRILLION spiders on the planet, which, if you’re wondering is 21,000,000,000,000,000. Now there’s a thought that helps me sleep at night.
  • The Doctor uses two spider repellants in the episode: a mixture of garlic and vinegar, and tea tree oil. It turns out they are both REAL spider repellants, with tea tree oil being one of the most effective and most recommended.