‘Doctor Who’ Episode 4 Is a Bug-Infested Adventure That Will Make Your Skin Crawl (RECAP)

Doctor Who Series 11
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Photo: BBC America

The Doctor and Team TARDIS become pest control when a mutant spider infestation takes over the city of Sheffield in a creepy-crawly episode of Doctor Who.

After last week’s powerful history lesson, “Arachnids In The UK” erred more on the side of light-hearted fun, well, depending on your levels of arachnophobia. Like Ryan (Tosin Cole), I’m not mad keen on spiders, and so I can only imagine how nightmarish this episode was for those with a genuine phobia of the icky insects. And the CGI on these giant eight-legged freaks was so well rendered that there was no hope for shonky effects to help alleviate your fears.

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The episode has a bit of everything. Disturbing monsters. Political satire. Family drama. Characters dealing with life and death and grief. Spiders being summoned via a Stormzy song (a brilliantly bonkers bit of television). Some parts work better than others. Chris Chibnall, who again wrote the episode, still has a big exposition issue (the main culprit being Dr. Exposition scientist woman this week) and a lot of his jokes fall flat. It also suffers from a common problem in Chibnall’s Doctor Who stories — poor plot resolution.

Where Chibnall succeeds is in character camaraderie, and this episode, more than any other, really makes the newly dubbed “Team TARDIS” genuinely feel like a team. There is a growing affection and trust between the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Ryan, Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) that makes their decision to continue traveling space-and-time together, for the most part, realistic and well-earned. I enjoy watching this group interact and I’m ready to see them grow and learn and make mistakes.

Photo: BBC America

This week the gang find themselves back home in Sheffield, just as the Doctor promised, and we are invited for tea at Yaz’s [American readers: “tea” in Yorkshire means “dinner”]. Gill does a great job with the material she’s given, but of the new companions, she is still the most thinly drawn, even with an insight into her family life. Her dad, Hakim (Ravin J Ganatra), is a busy-body conspiracy theorist. Her sister, Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar), is the typical mean-girl sister. And her mum, Najia (Shobna Gulati), shares Yaz’s hardworking, no-nonsense spirit.

The episode attempts to make us care about Yaz’s family by having Najia directly related to the plot, but Gulati, who is a fantastic actress in her own right, isn’t used to the best of her abilities. Other than some hugging and mother-daughter bickering about Yaz’s dating life, there is nothing tangible for us to grab a hold of or make us understand Yaz better as a person. There is an emotional gravitas when it comes to Ryan and Graham because of how their relationship was introduced and the loss of Nana Grace (Sharon D Clarke). Whereas Yaz is still searching for that thing that makes her tick.

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It’s easier to be drawn to Ryan and Graham because their stories interconnect. They’re both dealing with the same loss but in their own way; Walsh again draws subtle emotion out of Graham in the scenes where he remembers Grace. Ryan has previously rejected Graham as a grandfather-figure, but here, we begin to see a change of heart. After receiving a letter from his estranged father, Ryan scoffs at his dad’s invite to come and live with him as a “proper family,” choosing instead to stay with his step-granddad.

That shared grief is what makes sense of Ryan and Graham’s decision to stay with the Doctor at the end of the episode. They have both lost the biggest thing keeping them in Sheffield and they don’t want to sit around wallowing in their misery. Compare that to Yaz, whose reason for joining Team TARDIS is because her family “drives her mad,” despite them seeming like a perfectly ordinary family. It’s a shame with her background as a police officer that Chibnall couldn’t have used that to serve as her driving force; her desire to help others and take on more responsibility.

Photo: BBC America

As for the plot itself, it’s entertaining enough, with its fair share of thrills and scares. A narcissistic American business magnate, Jack Robertson (played by Sex and the City‘s Chris Noth), has been building luxury hotels on top of old coal mines and using the abandoned mines as landfill sites; another one of his shady enterprises. But the mixture of toxic waste and spider carcasses has created enormous mutated creatures who are now scurrying around Sheffield, cocooning people in giant spiderwebs.

The spiders, of course, aren’t the real villain. The big bad of the episode is big business. Robertson is an obvious Donald Trump stand-in, an egomaniacal hotel developer who wants to become President; it’s even suggested that Robertson is only running for office because of a personal hatred of Trump. Noth joyously hams it up as Robertson, boasting of his net-worth, frothing over firing Najia (who had a job at the hotel), and pondering whether Russian spies sent the spiders to assassinate him. He also reveals his cowardice when faced with real danger, abandoning his security guard and retreating to his panic room.

“Why don’t you do what normal people do? Get a gun, shoot things, like a civilized person?” says the Trump-wannabe. Robertson’s self-absorbed attitude and callous disregard for others allow for the Doctor’s goodness to shine through. “You have no mercy,” she tells him after he shoots the mother spider, despite the creature already dying through lack of oxygen. Whittaker delights when she’s goofing around with her friends or struggling to make small talk, but she is at her absolute best when standing up to the intolerable.

Photo: BBC America

It’s a shame then that “Arachnids In The UK” doesn’t stick the landing. Don’t get me wrong, the scene where the gang decides to head back to the TARDIS and join the Doctor is wonderful, but the actual resolution to the spider story before that is rushed and unfinished. The mother dies and her spider spawn within the hotel are contained, but what about all the others that had already escaped into the city? It’s like the Doctor just forgot or didn’t care about the citizens of Sheffield being mummified in spiderwebs.

That said, I’m excited to see where the team go next now that they’ve committed themselves to the Doctor – I must say I liked how it was the companions decision to move aboard the TARDIS and not the Doctor tempting them in. In fact, the Doctor warned them of the dangers and how they wouldn’t come back as the same people. Ryan, Yaz and Graham seemed ready for that. And so am I.

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Additional Notes

– What happened to Ryan’s dyspraxia? He caught that spider in the cooking pot in one shot. I guess the spider was so big it was kind of hard to miss.

-Does anyone else feel like The Doctor’s name-dropping is reaching Tahani in The Good Place levels of obnoxious? Borrowing shades from Pythagoras, flying through spider webs with Amelia Earhart. At least she doesn’t know who Ed Sheeran is and for that, she should count herself lucky.

-“I say dude now.” Whittaker’s Doctor felt very Matt Smith in that moment.

-The spider smashing through the bathtub was a tremendously terrifying twist on the very real ‘spider in the bathtub drain’ fear.

-It needs to be said, but what is up with the “Arachnids In The UK” title? Is it supposed to be a pun on the Sex Pistol’s song Anarchy In The UK? It just doesn’t work, does it? The words don’t look or even sound alike, other than beginning with A. I need answers, Chibnall!

Doctor Who, Sundays, 8/7c, BBC America