It’s 1988. I’m in the last year of primary school and I have a dream that gets inside my head, more or less permanently. It takes place in one of those alt-universe scenarios in which the school has been converted into a wildlife reserve, and what passed for a stationery cupboard and ICT suite thirty years ago has been designated ‘The Tarantula Room’. As the dream begins I’m walking out of that room into the main hall, which has been made over as a snow scene, where there is a tarantula the size of a park bench sitting near the piano. Back in the main enclosure, I come across two glass cases: one is filled with babies, the other is seemingly empty. As I approach, a colossal, black-and-orange arachnid is climbing into view, filling the entire cage. It’s smaller than the one in the hall, but it terrifies me, and I scream and I run for the doors – and find them locked.
That was three decades back and since then I can’t look at a tarantula without breaking into a sweat. Actually I don’t look at them at all. I leave the room during the first five minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I haven’t even bothered with Arachnophobia. Years ago I visited the cinema with a few friends; they ran the trailer for Eight Legged Freaks and I watched the whole thing from behind my hands, along with one other similarly afflicted member of our party who is now a respected children’s author. I just about made it through Return of the King, although I still haven’t quite forgiven Emily for running a hand up my arm when Shelob came out.
Still. Spiders are OK. Spiders are useful and clever and always welcome in our house. Spiders I can handle. Except. Except when…look, when I was four, my parents took me to the Cotswold Wildlife Park. It was all going well until we got to the giant tortoises. Tortoises are supposed to be something you can pick up and hold, which can have devastating consequences if you’re partially sighted and mistake them for a pasty or something. Coming face to face with one that’s as tall as you are was a bit of a shock. It’s a great shame because the Galapagos tortoises are dignified and wrinkled and command our respect. You’re not supposed to run away screaming, although the tortoise probably couldn’t do much if you did. It calls to mind the Eddie Izzard routine about the Attack of the Giant Land Snails. “They’re coming!….They’re still coming!”
This is basically the three-paragraph method of explaining that last night’s Doctor Who was, in many ways, a bit of a difficult one. But we got through it, largely because the kids came and sat on the sofa, giving my whitened knuckles a reassuring squeeze with one hand while using the other one to run their fingers up my arm. I am considering a will rewrite.
What happened in ‘Arachnids in the UK’? Well, the long-awaited “She’s in charge” scene finally reared its ugly head, although it flows nicely when it does. The Doctor is competent in a crisis and flustered by social niceties. Ryan’s into Stormzy. We get to meet Yaz’s family, who are disappointingly ordinary. Graham is seeing ghosts. And on the site of an abandoned coal mine, Donald Trump is building a hotel populated by giant spiders. These are house spiders, grown to a colossal size thanks to a combination of genetic experimentation and toxic fumes from the landfill that is sitting beneath the hotel’s foundations. It’s like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, except no one jumps on a skateboard.
There’s a scene at the beginning of the episode that is possibly its strongest moment. You’ll have seen it several times already because it’s the one the BBC used as their preview clip. It’s the bit where the Doctor lands in Sheffield, half an hour after she left, and releases her companions back into the wild, only for a guilt-stricken Yaz to ask her back for tea. It is a simple scene, with an obvious punch line, but it is absolutely endearing – not since the Duty of Care scene in ‘Under The Lake’ has the Doctor been quite so lovable – and nothing else ‘Arachnids’ throws at us quite matches it. Lesson learned? Hold back your strongest material, especially when people are going to watch you anyway.
Four stories in and the staples of Chibnall’s writing style – at least the ones he’s adopted for his tenure in charge – are starting to arrange themselves into patterns. There is the obligatory lesbian character. There is the moment Graham is refreshingly practical. There is the bit where Ryan flirts with Yaz. Some of it is good; some of it isn’t. The gay thing is, at least, dealt with with more subtlety than it was under Moffat, who insisted that it wasn’t a big deal that Bill was gay and then rammed it home just about every week, doing everything except giving her a badge to wear. Chibnall’s approach is to drop it in for a random character and then move on, and perhaps this is the best way forward. Perhaps the only way to meld this into the show’s philosophy is to do it in every episode until we stop realising it’s there. “How often does the train go past?” / “So often you won’t even notice it.”
The ending is another matter. I don’t know. I spoke last week about how this was to all intents and purposes a kid’s programme, and have written reams elsewhere explaining why this is and how we must accept it and move on – but I do wonder if kids are the audience for this. Don’t they know already that guns kill people? Wouldn’t we be better aiming something at the NRA? We can see from the outset that Robertson is an irredeemable bastard – cowardly, selfish, and ready to believe his own hype. He is Trump (or at least the left-wing media’s embodiment of Trump) in all but name – indeed, that particular elephant is dealt with halfway through the episode when it is revealed Trump is a business rival whom Robertson hates, leaving Chibnall free to poke jibes at the current President without fear of Cease and Desist notices from the White House legal team.
When you’re writing for the screen they go on and on about ‘show, don’t tell’ – but was it really necessary to have Robertson brandish his dead bodyguard’s firearm with an evil cackle like some 1990s supervillain? Even if it was, did we really need him to monologue, while the Doctor glowers about mercy, wearing a ridiculous spray gun kit on her back like some Blue Peter Ghostbuster? We were fine last week, because that was a story that was actively about social justice, but in something clearly designed to be a horror narrative (aired three days before Halloween) it feels like Chibnall’s trying to win a bet or something. I’m not adhering for stylistic unity, but moments like this just don’t fit.
It’s appropriate, in its own way. The last time the Doctor dealt with spiders we had twenty minutes of Hinchcliffe-inspired jump scares, followed by twenty further minutes of tedious social commentary, along with the revelation that the moon was an egg. I’m not so cross about that, but I do object to them shoehorning an abortion debate into what was, until that moment, a satisfying and frightening story. ‘Arachnids’ doesn’t suffer from quite the same structural issues, but its climax, in which a leering Robertson declares that guns are what will make America great again – within twenty-four hours of another mass shooting – is undoubtedly hot property, but something that frankly could have done with a bit less piety and a little more subtlety. That Robertson escapes unharmed (and without so much as a by-your-leave by any character except Graham) is a sure sign that we will be coming back to him later, and if we’re counting possible story arcs in a year that we’re not supposed to be having them, I make that four for four.
This was a great episode, until its last ten minutes. It’s frightening – the spiders are convincing, and the build-up to their reveal is decently handled, thanks to Sallie Aprahamian’s competent (if not exactly imaginative) direction. The leads acquit themselves well – Graham’s soft-eyed sightings of Grace are among this week’s quieter highlights, and Whittaker excels at just about everything, whether it’s striding through hotel corridors or trying not to eat Hakim’s dodgy pakora. The supporting characters are (for a change) interesting and engaging; Tanya Fear, in particular, excels as a scientist who is there solely to provide scientific exposition, but doing so with such flair that for once all the technobabble is actually fun to watch.
Does all that make up for things? Perhaps it does; perhaps this week the whole is greater than the sum. But there’s a sanctimonious tone to the conclusion of this story that taints it: the idea that all life is sacred, however many appendages you have. Has the Doctor never heard of pest control? Is she going after Rentokill next? When Robertson pulls the gun and announces that this is a ‘mercy killing’, you almost find yourself agreeing with him – and that, I’m convinced, is not how we’re supposed to be feeling. It all climaxes in a damp squib of a finale, the Doctor and her new friends (we’re not supposed to say ‘companions’ anymore, are we?) travelling off to new adventures in a sequence that’s supposed to be heartwarming, but simply isn’t. And as much as I’d like to put these moments out of my mind and concentrate on the good stuff, it’s scenes like this that linger like a bad smell. Perhaps it’s overstating the point, but how unfortunate that ‘Arachnids’ should end its life the same way the mother spider ended hers – on its back, disorientated and confused, with all its legs wriggling in the air.