After last week’s socially relevant “Rosa,” it would be easy to say that “Arachnids in the U.K.” is a bit of fluff meant only to creep out viewers and have them squirming in their seat. If you suffer from even mild arachnophobia, surely this episode did just that. But to write off “Arachnids” on the grounds that its sole intent is to deliver spooks and scares is to miss its deeper messages, of which there are several. Once again, I would posit that this is Doctor Who at its best. This is the sort of fare the show can offer up without wearing out its welcome, whereas episodes like “Rosa” must be created sparingly. Indeed, Doctor Who offering up thrilling sci-fi scares alongside important commentary about the world around us is the best kind of Doctor Who there is.
“Arachnids” isn’t the show’s first tango with eight-legged beasties. New series viewers will no doubt recall the creepy-crawlies the Twelfth Doctor and Clara faced on the lunar surface in “Kill the Moon,” and some years before that, the Tenth Doctor and Donna squared off against the Empress of the Racnoss and her eight-legged children at Christmas in “The Runaway Bride.” But the granddaddy of all this cobwebbed madness is Third Doctor Jon Pertwee’s epic finale, “Planet of the Spiders,” in which he stood up to one massive intelligent spider. So the new Doctor is no doubt equipped to deal with all of this without batting an eye.
Yet the roots of “Arachnids in the U.K.” are seemingly found less in any of these stories, as much as they are in another Pertwee tale, “The Green Death,” which finished off his penultimate season as the Doctor and he bade farewell to Katy Manning’s Jo Grant. Known by countless British citizens as “the one with the maggots,” the serial detailed the horrors that emerged from a corporation called Global Chemicals dumping large amounts of toxic waste into an abandoned coal mine. For starters, the maggots got bigger. Sounds familiar, yes? Chris Chibnall seems to have grabbed that environmental premise and added in several dollops of current political commentary around which to craft his scares.
It all starts innocently enough with tea. Having finally steered the TARDIS back to Sheffield a half-hour after the foursome disappeared, the Doctor is on the verge of saying good-bye to her new friends (it’s an adorably awkward attempt at not really wanting to leave them at all), when Yas mentions tea at her place, which the Doctor jumps at. Yas’s family are normal, decent folk. Dad Hakim is an environmentalist, sister Sonya is addicted to her smartphone, and mom Najia (Shobna Gulati) is seemingly the primary breadwinner, and it’s at her current place of employment (though not for long) that the horror begins. She’s set to be the manager of a new hotel, but things quickly go south and she’s fired by the owner. We spend a lot of time with Najia in this episode, and through her come to see how Yas became the take-charge individual she is, summed up by the Doctor’s line, “Najia, you made a very awesome human.” (On a side note, Hakim’s pakoras looked mouthwatering.)
Jack Robertson (Chris Noth, relishing every scenery-chewing moment) is a wannabe Trump — a rich fat cat with a chain of luxury hotels dotted around the globe. His political aspirations are a terribly kept secret. He’s a pompous pig who treats everyone in his employ like garbage. He’s a coward who hides behind guns and inside panic rooms. He doesn’t give a second thought to the consequences of his business dealings because at the end of the day he can afford to live above them, damn anyone else who gets caught in the crossfire. He’s American. Pay close attention folks because our overseas neighbors certainly are. One could even argue that Robertson’s a grotesque caricature of America itself at this point.
This character will rub a lot of people the wrong way, but that’s exactly what he’s supposed to do. After the somewhat milquetoast villains we’ve had so far this season, it was refreshing to meet a guy I understood only too well because we live with the real version of him on a daily basis. Some people will instinctively hate him because they don’t want their favorite sci-fantasy series invaded by the harsh reminder of reality, and I would understand that. But my argument is that it would be irresponsible of Doctor Who to not do this at some point. Remember last season when the Doctor said Donald Trump was inevitable? So was a character like this on Doctor Who.
Robertson is the true villain of the piece, and only Doctor Who could take giant mutant spiders and make them sympathetic in the end. It’s painted as genuinely awful what’s happened to the critters, who have no dastardly evil plan and are simply behaving as they would if they were of normal size. Part of me wonders of Chibnall, who has a sole writing credit on this episode, looked back at “The Green Death” and felt sorry for the maggots, who were victims of an identical scenario, only UNIT and the Doctor went after and destroyed them all. Clearly, the Doctor has mellowed over the years.
In the end, Robertson just gets up and leaves and pays no price for his villainy. It seems like every week this season I’m saying, “I wonder if this villain will return at some point?” Here we have a villain I actively want to return. I want this guy to become president in 2020. I want the Doctor and Robertson to keep crossing paths. I want her to be a recurring thorn in his side. I want to see a full-blown “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” scenario because he needs to be taken down, but not after one botched hotel opening. He needs to amass a laundry list of crimes, and this particular Doctor is the perfect woman to make him answer for them.
Beyond the central conflicts of the story, there are little B moments, such as Graham returning to his home and being haunted by thoughts of Grace. Before hopping into the TARDIS again, he tells the Doctor that he can’t stay home and wallow in grief — that traveling in the TARDIS helps him to forget. I loved that. I felt as though Graham was speaking for viewers of Doctor Who in that moment. We watch the show to take us somewhere else, away from our daily worries and fears. Don’t concern yourself with the imposition that is Jack Robertson. Next week we’ll go somewhere so far away that it’ll make him look like the insect that he is.
Nobody actually wanted to say good-bye to each other. Of course they were all destined to hop back into the TARDIS with the Doctor. She tells them they’ll change and they won’t be the same when they get back. They’re fine with that. There’s trepidation in the Doctor’s acceptance of their request. She knows only too well that bad things happen when traveling with her, but she also knows that she can open up the lives and minds of these people in a way they could never experience living in Sheffield. That moment when they all pull the dematerialization lever at the same time said loads about the future of this TARDIS team, but it’s still the Doctor who gets all the best lines, and this episode was loaded with them: “Is he Ed Sheeran?”; “You can’t be president if you fired Yas’s mum”; “I eat danger for breakfast. No I don’t. I prefer cereal”; and my personal favorite, “Dude, I have all the authorization I ever need. I call people dude now.”