Doctor Who #999: Arachnids in the UK

"They're trying to make the whole hotel their web." "And we're the flies."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Oct.28 2018.

IN THIS ONE... Giant spiders have infested a hotel in Sheffield.

REVIEW: This episode is pure Chibnall, and by that I mean three things. It seems to reference the Pertwee era (The Green Death, Planet of the Spiders... although we got giant spiders as recently as Kill the Moon, which isn't unlike this at all). Its dramatic character moments are well-written and poignant. And unfortunately, the plot of the week isn't very good and even feels unfinished. At the end, we're made to wonder - and we shouldn't - just how trapping the spiders in a panic room will bring about a more humane death than getting shot. Unless #problem was blaring across town, are they sure they got them all? Was there more to the plan, like taking them to live somewhere else? Did Faux-Trump ("please don't mention that name" - yeah, I agree, let's not), did Robertson get charged with anything given his business practices, or for that matter, having his bodyguard wave a gun in a police officer's face (his hotel, his rules, my ass)? There's no mention of it. Yaz should have reported him after this little adventure, no matter what. It's just not addressed and we move on to the epilogue. It's a big problem, as evidenced by people online siding with Robertson over the Doctor. After all, the TARDISeers were starstruck meeting him (until they found out how much of a jerk he was), he doesn't mention bias against his gay niece, and he wasn't quite as obtuse or obstructive as past "I'm in charge" villains. Some see it as "he used a gun", the shorthand for being a bad person in Doctor Who, and found it lacking. They may be forgetting that he more or less ensured Kevin's death. Or that he was going to pay people off to keep his bad business going. Or that he considered his lack of mercy and ability to wield a gun as his way into the White House. It's not like this was a subtle portrayal of an American businessman. He's more or less a caricature, who may or may not read his one book in his 6-month bunker stay (I laughed), has scheduled bathroom breaks, and fires Nadja at least three times. So as long as you're hanging a big sign on him, why not give him CONSEQUENCES. Instead, we're not sure why he was wrong to try and put down the spiders rapidly and efficiently. We're not expressly told he's committed crimes. It doesn't work.

As a monster story, it's a bit of a throwback to B-movies, with well-realized giant spiders (the bit where Graham and Ryan run away from the big one is the one CG failure), and was obviously well-researched. Chibnall really seems to want to bring back the show's original educational remit, doesn't he? Not only have we had an almost proper historical, but the Doctor has been handing out science trivia in both sci-fi episodes. Is it meant to be make the show more kid-friendly, even as the dramatic content is made more adult?

Because even though I've found every plot of the new series to date dubious in some way, the gang's character moments have been way up there. We finally meet Yaz's family, and they're a fun lot, but you can tell Yaz can't wait to leave home. She comes off as an ingrate when, for example, she's testy with her mom on the phone. There's also the moment where she corrects her dad about being a police officer, not a police woman, even as he says it, an old pet peeve. And I totally get it. I spent my first year of university living at home and it was a very annoying experience. You're ready to move on, you're having all these new experiences, you're coming home late to a worried mother, or having arguments with younger siblings like you always used to... And that's where Yaz is at. This is why I believe she's ready to go cavorting around the universe with the Doctor. And there may be some infatuation there too. While Yaz's sister wonders if Yaz and Ryan are an item, her mom first asks if she's "seeing" the Doctor, and only later asks about Ryan. In the first case, she's worried and angry, in the other, she's gleefully expectant. I've seen this before. Some mothers will worry that their unmarried, uninvolved daughter is gay, even if it's just a matter of their concentrating on career (which Yaz obviously was), awkward about relationships, or simply very private about them. But it opens that door, and the Doctor not being sure just what the relationship is was pretty funny (unless Yaz actually has feelings for her, in which case it may turn out to be accidentally cruel). Some may want to 'ship Yaz with Ryan or the Doctor, but it's more than okay if she's never defined by either. In this episode, she denies involvement either way, which may actually be the bravest move of all, from the standpoint of TV clichés. Regardless, she's still the beating heart of the group, the one Ryan has always relied on, and also the one who notes the Doctor's loneliness and invites her to tea.

Speaking of relying on one another, I love that Ryan is slowly warming to his "grandfather" Graham. He offers to accompany him home, he worries about him, and when his dad's letter says he's his "proper family" and they should reconnect, he doesn't like that at all. Nothing proper about his dead beat dad, but an acknowledgement that Graham, via Grace, IS proper family. Of course, the moment is interrupted by the spider-plot, but we get it. Ryan also gets to play his favorite tunes, and think Yaz is uncool for not knowing it. And my favorite bit of his: When the Doctor talks to Jade about spider stuff in the lab, he's in the deep background making shadow puppets. As for Graham, it's like he's there to pull your heartstrings and leave you with the best of impressions, no matter the preceding hogwash. His grief, manifested as visions of Grace, is incredibly touching. If he's to leave on the TARDIS, it will be partly because she would have loved it herself, and partly to escape his grief. We can well imagine a version of this story where he stays home, sulks, falls into a depression, becomes sick again... We don't want that for him.

As for the Doctor, my favorite moment of hers is when she calls Robertson "dude". I laughed so hard, I missed the bit where she comments on it. Wish she hadn't. At the four-episode mark, I think it's safe to say Jodie Whittaker has come into her own. Her guileless grimaces. Her awkward small talk. Her manic rummaging through the family's mail or getting Jade to give her permission to break into an apartment. Going head first into a broken bathtub, not at all self-conscious. The "never get the bad guy's name right" meme. The Charlie Brown walk back into the TARDIS until someone invites her to tea.

And so everything comes down to the final scene where the gang - redubbed Team TARDIS - asks to become full-time companions. It was inevitable, of course, but look at home it's achieved. First, it's in an episode where they returned home and found it lacking, where giant spiders are said - like all living things - to feel the need to go home. In their short travels, the TARDIS has BECOME their home. The Doctor warns them that they won't be safe, and won't return as the same people they were when they left (she speaks from experience, some of it traumatic), but I dare say they already AREN'T the same people they were in episode 1. They already feel out of place in Sheffield. They can't go back to an empty house, a boring job, tedious family life. To their credit (and the direction's), they actually think about it when the Doctor asks them to be sure. And she has them pull on the lever with her, which is one of several statements about the show's new direction. When she's in charge in the hotel, Robertson asks "says who", they respond "SAYS US!" as a unit. Calling them Team TARDIS. It isn't a show about one hero with a supporting cast anymore. It's about a TEAM. They're SHARED story. And I hope Chibnall proves me right by keeping this quartet together through the entire 13th Doctor era.

THEORIES: The one thing I haven't mentioned is that gorgeous shot of the vortex, now reimagined as a sort of hub with different tunnels the TARDIS must navigate through, resolving into the camera going through the top of the timeship, through strange organic tissue, to finally settle on the top of the console. Great shot, a real Music of the Spheres moment! But I don't think we've ever discussed how the vortex can look so different from era to era. Is there something actively different about time in each iteration of the show, and if so, how? We can certainly accept that as effects technology changes, the vortex can be portrayed differently. That's fine. But within any given era of effects wizardry, it should be fairly consistent. I would accept four different vortex looks - black&white (60s), color (70s), electronic (80s) and modern CG (NuWho). It hasn't actually been consistent during any of these eras, and the latter has had three very different looks to date - the blue/red vortex of the RTD era, Moffat's purple/orange cloud, and now Chibnall's transwarp hub. We do have reasons for those last three changes though. The RTD vortex is post-Time War, so this is a simpler, kinder, two-directional vortex as it would be without the Time Lords' (and Daleks') interference. In the Moffat era, the cracks are showing, the universe is at risk, there's a TARDIS blowing up, and time is more and more fluid. In this era, the clouds are gathering in the vortex, and lightning bolts are striking timeships traveling through it. Something is very wrong. Now, Gallifrey has returned and look, the vortex looks very structured. Temporal engineering on a massive scale? And the Doctor having trouble navigating the maze too. The TARDIS doesn't have the maps yet.

- The spider story is full of holes, but if I were just rating the character development, I'd go much higher.


Anonymous said...

Lots of great character moments; for the most part I let plot holes slide if they could have been one-sentenced away, and that's how I view this one. Like, the Doctor speaks repeatedly of empathy and compassion for spiders, but spiders have teeny tiny brains and are probably not capable of emotions. So, I mentally edit that to the Doctor wanting to be "humane". Or maybe the Doctor doesn't know whether increased intelligence is part of the mutation and refuses to assume they're mindless beasts. OR, a thing about how she'd sent a pheromone into the air to bring all the spiders back. OR, locking the spiders in the panic room was just a thing until she could take them to Metebelis III ("they'll love it there, it'll be like a big family reunion"). That's a lot of holes.

About Not-Trump walking away without consequences, I think that was entirely intentional: that's the sort of world we live in.

I really hope Graham gets into the habit of picking up mementos of each trip, and when someone later asks about it, he says he's doing it for Grace, because at some level he's hoping to give them to her. Grief's funny that way.

Brendoon said...

A really good summing up.

It's interesting that this ep is hailed as one of the "top 5 scariest" by numerous groups people.
Natural arachnophobes, perhaps? Or just the media doing what the media does?

Spiders are cool.
You can scare some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time but...

Brendoon said...

ERf, didn't edit that very well, did I?

Siskoid said...

I've heard from a lot of arachnophobes, so yes, that's what that's probably about.

Jeff R. said...

It was probably a good choice for the actor to crib Baldwin's Jack Donaghy rather than his Trump for the role.


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