One would think giant spiders would be the perfect premise for a classic Doctor Who story. After all, the show has built up a reputation for making the everyday and mundane menacing. Stone statues, cracks in the wall, shop window dummies – all of these have been given the Doctor Who treatment to good effect. It is surprising really that the modern series has yet to do a proper story about giant spiders until now. I had high hopes for Arachnids in the UK but sadly I felt that it was the first major misstep of series 11, and yet another example of Chris Chibnall failing to deliver a particularly memorable plot.
We already know that head writer Chris Chibnall is good at grounding the show in reality. He is also clearly trying to make a version of Doctor Who that is relevant to 2018. While this is an admirable intention, I think it goes a bit far in this episode when Chibnall attempts a political commentary that is incredibly unsubtle and heavy handed. The main guest star of the episode, Chris North, plays Robertson who can only be described as the episode’s pantomime villain. He is very obviously meant to be a parody of Donald Trump and indeed North’s performance occasionally seems to veer off into the realms of caricature. This would be fine if it had any relevance to the episode whatsoever, but amongst the backdrop of a story about giant spiders it feels as if North has accidentally wandered in off the set of Saturday Night Live. A running theme of this series so far has been the thirteenth Doctor’s disdain for guns. Whilst she shares this trait with pretty much all her predecessors, it does feel as though it has been made a particularly explicit part of this Doctor’s character. In this episode, the Doctor objects to Robertson’s idea of dealing with the spiders by shooting them. The problem is the anti-gun message is cheapened by the fact that the spiders ultimately have to be dealt with somehow and the Doctor has no problem with locking them away in a room to slowly die. This solution does not seem any more humane and so her objection to guns seems unjustified given the circumstances. The combination of the Doctor’s disdain for guns with North’s Trump-like character makes it seem as though Chibnall is trying to make a political point about gun control in America. I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with him trying to do this but it feels out of place in this particular episode and I don’t believe that Chibnall ultimately makes a clear and successful point. It also means that the resolution – a crucial part of any episode – makes no sense and feels rushed.
Despite this, there were some positive aspects to the episode. Some scenes were genuinely creepy and utilised the ‘monster of the week’ well; for example, when Graham and Ryan suddenly realise they have not thought to check the ceiling for spiders. I also like the fact that the giant spiders did not turn out to be some kind of alien menace but instead were the accidental results of scientific experimentation. And the final scene, in which Graham, Yaz and Ryan decide to keep travelling with the Doctor despite the fact they have made it back home was a nice moment. The idea that Graham sees travelling with the Doctor as an opportunity to help him cope with his grief felt like a novel and interesting motivation for a Doctor Who companion. The episode did disappoint me overall, but that does not mean I have lost hope in the series. I just hope Chris Chibnall can prove me wrong and deliver a truly memorable story.