Thematically, I suspect that this series of Doctor Who is going to be largely of one piece. By this, I mean that I’d suggest that it is more concerned with stating the personality of the series than it is with developing individual episodes. It’s perhaps most similar to Russell T Davies’s first series in that regard, although there was a noticeable amount of tonal variation there too, especially the contrast between the feet-finding and freewheeling Aliens of London/World War Three and the more assured and claustrophobic Dalek. Arachnids in the UK had a lot in common with both those series one episodes. There was some comedic running away from spiders, especially from Graham and Ryan, which reminded me of the Scooby-Dooish fleeing from Slitheen in World War Three. Jack Robertson is a Henry Van Statten for our times, not content to influence from the shadows, but determined to be seen as the ruler of (part of) humanity, just as prone to enjoy demonstrations of his power over individuals, and just as vulnerable. Against this obsession with dictating from the top of the tree stands the Doctor, leading on the ground by discussion and evidence-gathering and seeking inclusivity and the most humane resolution rather than the most expedient. Yet there might be a hint that in its contemporary episodes especially, Doctor Who is not certain that the Doctor’s methodology is sympathetic to the programme’s current environment. In that regard it looks more towards the era of Doctor Who script-edited by Eric Saward between 1982 and 1986, when the arms of mercenaries and rebels offered solutions and even the Doctor accepted the necessity of facing down Cybermen and Davros with guns.
The Doctor is foregrounded a little more than she was in either The Ghost Monument or Rosa. Where those stories emphasised more the immediate reactions of the Doctor’s new friends to their changed situations, here they are more reflective as they adjust to how much they have changed in the days or weeks since they left Rahul’s workshop in ‘that warehouse’ (as Graham puts it), and how only half an hour has passed for everyone else. It’s Yaz who really has the everyone else, in her noisy and fractious but warm family, and they provide a good contrast for the Doctor to show her lack of social skills, her dependence on other people (‘Yaz’s for tea!’ … ‘Want company?’) and desire to find a problem she can solve. If there’s no-one seeking her help for her not to refuse, she will go and find them and inflict herself upon the crisis. Jade McIntyre seeking a missing colleague along the gallery might be a coincidence, but it’s a police procedural sort of coincidence, as there has always to be something going on in the precinct. Where Aliens of London juxtaposed the domestic with the cosmic (and who among long-term viewers must have wondered whether the Doctor’s half-hour was really going to turn out to be a year, as in 2005), the threat here is very terrestrial, although the Doctor’s interest escalates the scale: a missing parcel added to a missing person becomes a mysterious death followed by the revelation of a giant spider wanting to keep a larder going. The Doctor then becomes an improviser and problem-solver again, mixing up a spider repellent from kitchen ingredients. She later demonstrates ruthless project management skills with very selective listening and relying on Yaz to shut up Najia who is focused on protecting her reputation and establishing how her daughter knows these new friends – particularly the strange woman who talks nonsense about Ed Sheeran and later begins to detail her breakfast preferences.
Chris Chibnall’s two-parter in Matt Smith’s first season, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, felt very much like a tribute to Malcolm Hulke’s Silurian and Sea Devil stories from Jon Pertwee’s time as the Doctor in the early 1970s. Chibnall will almost certainly first have encountered those stories as books rather than as television. Another story written up for the novelization series by Malcolm Hulke, but not originally from his typewriter, was The Green Death, and Arachnids in the UK owes a lot to it and to another Robert Sloman serial for Pertwee’s Doctor, Planet of the Spiders. Where late period Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat would almost certainly have nodded at the earlier stories, perhaps by making Robertson the owner of the intellectual property rights of Global Chemicals, adapting them to attempt to degrade his landfill more quickly, with little success, or having the Doctor teleport the spiders to Metebelis III at the end, Chibnall’s desire for a minimal backstory means we don’t have either. Shared with The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, as The Woman Who Fell to Earth, is an awareness of Britain’s industrial past, although where with The Woman Who Fell to Earth Sheffield’s technological skills were very much alive, here there is more of a contrast between the hi-tech genetic engineering and the abandoned mineworkings where the spiders lurk amidst the rubbish. In a sense Anna’s death is a form of poetic justice, though in contrast little blame accrues to Jade, who is required as a walking information resource.
Jack Robertson becomes the latest villain to walk or be teleported away from a crisis of their making. Chris Chibnall’s version of the Doctor seems to deal in limited solutions which might have greater consequential than immediate impact. Several have questioned whether the Doctor’s solutions to the spider problem, to let them grow and then die in the panic room, or let the mother spider suffocate under her own body weight, were of the ethical or compassionate standards they expect from the Doctor. The Doctor is not perfect; she abhors guns and her actions were rationalised as the maximum level of intervention while still allowing nature to take its course within controlled conditions, but there is no satisfactory answer, and I’m not sure whether this is part of an ongoing critique or flawed plotting.
I’m sure connoisseurs of horror films featuring overgrown animals have more to say on this episode’s cinematic roots (or perhaps other means of distribution than theatrical release are more relevant to the genre), and there’s more to say on the regular ensemble’s relationships, the attention to detail throughout (particularly what people in a scene but not central to it should do, such as Ryan’s hand shadow puppetry in Jade’s lab), or why this version of Doctor Who, while technically accomplished and highly enjoyable, feels a little hollow, though some of the reasons are apparent above. The final scene, though, is a rousing pledge of co-operation (following a quiet ‘She’s Leaving Home’ moment for Yaz, off to meet a woman in the time machine trade) and I look forward to further variety of settings and seeing how the series’ identify evolves.
Oh – and was this the first Doctor Who story that had a credited scientific adviser – Dr Niall Doran as remote successor to another environmentalist, Dr Kit Pedler? I’ve not looked it up.