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DOCTOR WHO’s “Arachnids in the UK” Is All About Family…Even for Spiders

DOCTOR WHO’s “Arachnids in the UK” Is All About Family…Even for Spiders

The following recap contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode “Arachnids in the UK.”

Doctor Who has a long history with scary episodes. At their best, they’re famous for driving generations of British children diving behind the couch cushions from Daleks, Weeping Angels, or other less infamous monsters of the week. At their worst, they leave us with wooden mothers in the attic, or whatever those eye gunk monsters were supposed to be in “Sleep No More.” Still, with Halloween around the corner, it’s the perfect time for this new Who crew to do their best attempt to scare us. And what better way than with “Arachnids in the UK,” bringing us a story all about one of the most utterly terrifying things in the world: family.

Okay, yes, also spiders. Giant, killer spiders. They’re around too.

We’re just shy of halfway through series 11, and with the arrival of the TARDIS back in Sheffield on the day our team originally left, we’ve officially come to the close of the “lost in space and time” mini-arc of the first three episodes. We’re introduced to Yaz’s (Mandip Gil’s) family, Ryan (Tosin Cole) gets a letter from his dad, Graham (Bradley Walsh) returns to his Grace-less home, and the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) sadly ponders the prospect of returning to the universe in her empty TARDIS. Sure, there are creepy cobwebs everywhere and something is up with an equally creepy rich guy (Chris Noth), but these are the beats that ground our story.

Despite the rather large supporting cast, including Noth in a comedic turn (as a clear Donald Trump stand-in masquerading as a fictional Trump rival),  this episode felt the most solid so far of the season for giving all of its main cast presence on screen. A huge reason for this is that The Doctor and her friends all are getting used to the ‘mucking about and helping out’ parts of the show. As the mystery elements of the episode unfold, our trio of new companions slides almost seamlessly into their tasks, freeing up time for dialogue that focuses instead on their relationships to each other and their blood family around them.

For the most part, these story threads really work. Graham’s lingering grief issues really landed, as Sharon D. Clarke’s return as the echoes of Grace in his memory is used just enough to tug at the heartstrings without feeling too over the top or distracting from the narrative. Ryan’s mysterious letter from his father only makes a few appearances, but his attempt to express his distaste for the term “proper family” when talking about it with Graham says more about their bonding than any scene between then so far on the show.

I had hoped this episode would be the one to really give Yaz some focus, but I have to say that I again feel like she’s not as well served by the writing as the rest of her team. Yaz pulls her weight when it comes to the adventuring part of things, and Gil’s chemistry with the rest of the team has a lot of charm, but the depth of her character is by far the most lacking, and most of what we do get seems to be more telling than showing. Yaz brings Ryan and the Doctor home to meet her father and sister but leaves before spending much time with either. We get a lot more of her with her mother Najia (Shobna Gulati), but while she asks a lot of questions about who this “Doctor” is and why Yaz knows her (tossing a little bone to the Yaz/Doctor shippers as well), none of them seem all that unreasonable. On a show with a history of mothers like Jackie Tyler, Francine Jones, and Sylvia Noble, the things about Yaz’s family that drive her crazy seem fairly tame. Yaz is dissatisfied and restless, but so far the reasons she’s cited for that — her job and her family — haven’t led us to see why.

As to our eight-legged freaks of the week, the spiders of the episode’s title are legitimately scary, and not just for those with actual arachnophobia. The episode slowly teases them, shots of cobwebs here or there, tense music from new composter Segun Akinola working hard to rachet up the tension until finally we’re introduced to the crawlies in their frighteningly large form. In true Who fashion, though, that’s not where the story ends. Yes, giant spiders are scary; yes, moments like discovering human beings held in cocoons of webbing is very chilling; but on this show, monsters are frequently not truly evil or even malicious. Like our characters, they’re a family. A legion of baby spiders working with a giant, terrified mother. The Doctor, and by extension the audience, genuinely find reasons to feel for them. This revelation of babies following a mother could have felt ham-fisted, but was used with a gentle enough touch that it fit nicely into the episode’s…yes, I’m doing it.. web. 

We’re four episodes into Jodie Whittaker’s era, and it really feels like she has found her footing. It occurred to me after viewing “Rosa,” that there was never a sensation during the episodes of feeling like we’re still waiting for the new actor to feel fully at home in the Doctor’s skin. She’s just here. While we can often point to exact moments in other Doctor’s runs where they became the Doctor, Jodie instead just quietly settled into the role as effortlessly as throwing on her already iconic jacket.

“Arachnids in the UK” might have done something better with that, though. As the episode wraps up, and the Doctor’s friends make the collective decision to continue traveling in the TARDIS despite making it home, we get a Doctor moment. Jodie’s Doctor doesn’t immediately smirk and welcome them aboard, begging them to run away with her. She checks on them, she makes sure they understand the gravity of what it actually means. When she looks at them and tells them she doesn’t know what’ll happen to them if they travel with her, we’re seeing a direct link to the Doctor who sat in his TARDIS afraid to regenerate because he was tired of losing people. Her concern for them at that moment carries the weight of the experiences of the faces that came before hers, and we can see them clearly. Her glee when they agree and her immediate desire to call them her “fam” is palpable.

And when Yaz tells her she’s the greatest person she’s ever met, it feels real for us too, because we’ve known her for over 50 years.

Images: BBC

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