In the fourth episode of the eleventh series of Doctor Who, the Doctor finally returns her companions to Sheffield, only for them all to discover something terrible hiding in the city. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Trigger Warning: For arachnophobia and continued discussion of spiders, grief
What a fucking EPISODE, y’all. I love how openly critical this episode is of Americans, our culture, the pervasive love of guns that many of our citizens have, and that it doesn’t hand us easy answers. It’s an uncomfortable critique of capitalism and the rich, too! AND DONALD TRUMP. And it’s still an electrifying, moving story that deals with Graham’s grief, Ryan’s complicated thoughts on his father, and introduces us to Yaz’s family.
HOW IS THIS SO GOOD.
You know, it really struck me during this episode that these first four episodes basically form a huge arc; each story is complete, but it blends seamlessly into the others, as if we’ve watched a four-hour movie. It’s incredible writing, y’all, and the serialization here has done wonders for these characters. Honestly, I feel like this treatment towards Bill would have addressed some of the criticism I had for how she was written. I just needed more time with her, more time to understand her motivations, to see her life outside of the Doctor. These four episodes are so rich with emotional beats and intimate storytelling. The return to Sheffield is a HUGE moment for Ryan, Graham, and Yaz, and “Arachnids in the UK” manages to deal with this with empathy and care.
First, we’ve got the Khan family, and I like that once we meet them, we get them. At least from my perspective, this gave me the context that I needed to understand Yaz’s desire for more. Her family is wonderful and proud of her and supportive of her, but that doesn’t mean she still feels like she needs to be around them all the time. She clearly cares about them, too; I loved that long hug that Yaz gave her mother at the hotel. So, this episode establishes that love and care, and then shows us that Yaz feels smothered. She’s been stuck in her probationary period at work; she’s still living at home with her parents in the same flat they’ve been in for a long time. (There’s no numerical value given, but that’s what I felt this episode communicated to me.) In short: Yaz’s life is pretty normal and common. And that’s the whole problem: Yaz doesn’t want normal. She wants excitement. She wants drama. And look what the Doctor has provided her!!!
And then we can look at Ryan and Graham, both of whom are still dealing with the loss of Grace, and this episode allows us further inside their own emotional struggles. Graham imagines Grace constantly in his home, and each of these sequences is heartbreaking. But they’re oh so real, too. I remember the first time I imagined my father after his death. While it did not manifest as it did for Graham here, I instead “imagined” he was still alive in moments where I basically forgot he had passed. I’d hear a sound or expect him to be in his recliner or to call me on my birthday. My mind filled in the gap left behind by his loss. Visually, that’s what this felt like with Graham. His home was full of Grace, and even though she was no longer there, he still had not adjusted to that reality. Ryan, on the other hand, dealt with grief much differently. Which is how grief works! Ryan didn’t live with her, but she was a huge part of his life. Part of why this was difficult, though, was because Grace’s death unearthed many of Ryan’s feelings for his parents, who are no longer in his life. That’s why his father’s letter is so painful. His father hasn’t been around, and yet he has the nerve to talk about “proper” family?
The Doctor provides something for Graham and Ryan, much as she does for Yaz. Ryan can imagine a life outside of his workplace; Graham can give his grief space to leave his body. All of them find value in the Doctor, what she does, and who she is. And seeing that come to life in these four episodes has been magical.
AND THEN THERE IS SUCH A GREAT STORY HERE ABOUT HUBRIS AND WASTE AND CORPORATE ACCOUNTABILITY. I tend to like Doctor Who stories with antagonists that are complicated. (Actually, in general, I like those kind of stories.) We’ve seen a number of resolutions that involved figuring out the needs of a living thing; that twisted a villain into something more innocuous; that upending preconceived notions of who was in the wrong. The entirety of the conflict in “Arachnids in the UK” is human-made, though, and I was fascinated by the choice to confine this whole story to Earth in every respect. There’s no alien influence; there’s no outside force that deposited the spiders or made them grow; in fact, all of it is due to the combined actions of multiple people, but mainly? Robertson’s development company caused this. Human error and human mismanagement combined to create a literally toxic environment that gave rise to the bizarre, enormous spiders that began to spread around Sheffield.
This episode was skin-crawling for me; I had really bad arachnophobia as a kid, but it’s softened over the years. Now, I can observe spiders from a great distance or with glass between us; I still don’t like finding them indoors, but I tolerate them!!! They are not here to hurt me and they eat other bugs!!! Still: holy shit, this whole episode is nightmare fuel for me. IT IS A LOT. But you know what? I think it has to be, because it makes the resolution that much more powerful. I am so enamored with how Whittaker is portraying Thirteen, and one thing she’s doing differently—along with the scripts that write her character this way—is to make the Doctor immediately offer kindness. There is no sense of intimidation or rage in this version of the Doctor. Whereas Twelve was thorny and difficult to strangers at times, Thirteen is ready to meet the entire universe with arms wide open. She’s curious, eager, and excited more than anything else. And throughout this episode, she never views the spiders as evil. A threat to human life, yes. But evil? No.
Which is why she is so heavily contrasted with Robertson, played with terrifying zeal by Chris Noth. I love a good villain to hate ruthlessly, but Robertson struck so close to home. He is at times an analogue to Trump, but he’s more representative of the sort of gun-loving, me-first people that make up a portion of American society. That’s not to say there aren’t similar capitalists or violence-loving people in the UK, but Chibnall’s script felt specific enough to ring uncomfortably true in terms of how Robertson was depicted. On an emotional level, he’s written as a self-centered asshole who truly refuses to care about another human being aside from himself. Sometimes, that is played for comedy, but it’s mostly just upsetting to watch. He’s so real! And what’s scary is that in the end, he’s not held accountable. He murders the mother spider, makes a terrible comment about mercy, and strolls out of his hotel. It’ll probably end up as a tax write-off for him, even if it closes.
It’s a truly upsetting story of greed and a lack of empathy, and I was transfixed by it. Spiders and all! Whew, I love series 11 so much, friends. THIS HAS BEEN SO GOOD.
The video for “Arachnids in the UK” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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