Sunday, June 23, 2024

Team TARDIS Faces Spiders and Other Monsters

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The team is back in Sheffield, just in time for a rubbish conspiracy, giant spiders, and an example of human greed. “Arachnids in the UK” is what it says on the tin but with a twist and a moral message.

Something for the arachnophobes

The elephant in this episode’s room is that a relatively large number of people are absolutely terrified of spiders. This makes arachnids an easy target as monsters, especially when you can make them bigger and scarier in sci-fi. The spiders of “Arachnids in the UK” are not like the Eight Legs that caused the Third Doctor’s regeneration, however. Sure, they are larger than normal spiders and more aggressive and boy, is it discouraging that they keep attacking humans. But thanks to the Doctor’s empathetic approach, it turns out that the spiders themselves are victims.

The spiders of Sheffield still cause despair and kill at least three people, but they are not the real monsters of the story. The scenes with them are still intense and decidedly scary in most cases, just like it should be on Doctor Who. That being said, the willingness on the Doctor’s part to understand why the spiders are acting like is just as integral to the show. I doubt true arachnophobes were less afraid by the end of the episode just because the behavior was explained, but it’s good to see the complexity of it all nonetheless.

Empathy has always been a part of Doctor Who and the Doctor’s approach to their enemies, but Thirteen in particular is already showing her need to protect all life and try to understand aggressive actions. After the more abrasive (though not uncaring) incarnation that was the Twelfth Doctor, it’s good to see that even in their latest life the Doctor is still ultimately kind. That, as well as being restless and an absolute delight to watch. Whittaker’s Doctor is getting better every week and episode 4 had its fair share of highlights for her. The Doctor finding out that she and Yaz are not, in fact, seeing each other was one of many great moments. Also, Trump 2.0 can’t be president because he fired Yaz’s mum. That’s Gallifreyan rules right there.

The real villain

Speaking of Trump 2.0, aka Jack Robertson. Though he says in the episode itself that he hates the President (which is why he’s going to run against him), Roberston is a not-so-subtle take on Donald Trump. Actor Chris Noth even borrows some of the mannerisms, props for that. This greedy businessman is the real antagonist of “Arachnids in the UK” if we had to choose. It’s the result of his actions and carelessness that the spiders grew so large and became violent towards humans.

“Arachnids in the UK” is one of those stories that would have been a two-parter, had it been part of any other series. Not just because of the similarities with the way series 1 in 2005 structured its episodes but because it’s usually this type of story that gets treated to a mid-season two-parter. In one sense, I’m glad series 11 has no such double-length episodes and this story was successfully resolved in 50 minutes—though it was something of an anti-climax. The one aspect where the story could have used more time is here, in the real reason why the Doctor and friends needed to intervene.

Robertson didn’t need many scenes to be established as the unpleasant, arrogant, and selfish man he is, the very first scene when he fires Najia was enough for that. Instead, it’s the root of the problem, and Dr Jade McIntyre and her lab’s part in it, that could have used more time. I say the resolution was anti-climatic because as soon as we knew the reason for the spiders’ behavior we instantly got a conclusion, and the implications of the landfill and toxic waste were left unexplored. Not that the environmental message needed more stressing, but it would have been interesting to see more of Jade’s reaction and leave more time for the post-revelation. This is a problem I had with “The Ghost Monument” as well, though this episode overall is a significant improvement compared to that previous one.

Team TARDIS No.13

This story was more interesting than Chibnall’s other two episodes; the antagonist was better and the feeling that this is Doctor Who was stronger. But the main strength of the episode is once again Team TARDIS, who are now called that in-universe as well. Their bond is getting steadily stronger each episode, and it is a delight to see the group interact. Each of the companions had their own stuff to deal with and each of them had their own reasons for staying with the Doctor in the end. This is especially important because now they are not only traveling with the Doctor because of circumstance, but they also all know what this means and what to expect from it.

We get to know Yaz’s family, the Khans, which is something I’ve been missing dearly from Doctor Who since Russel T. Davies left. Apart from the odd exception, like Rory’s dad having a guest role in series 7, Clara’s Christmas dinner, or Bill’s two scenes with her foster mother, Moffat’s Who was lacking in familial connections outside the TARDIS. Not everyone was a fan of getting involved with the Tylers, Joneses, or Nobles, but I for one looked forward to those scenes. A huge part of reinventing the image of the companion for New Who was Rose visiting her mum Jackie regularly and not leaving her previous life completely behind. So to see the Khans and their casual banter and love was yet another highlight. It helps us understand Yasmin’s character more as well as let us know that she does have a life waiting for her, a life before and after the Doctor.

Ryan and Graham don’t get left out, either. While Ryan is reacting to a letter his dad sent him, Graham is trying to deal with being back in Sheffield and facing his home without Grace in it. Nothing could make me forget the fridging of Grace in episode 1, but at least it’s clear that she’s not going to be forgotten by her family. Graham’s hallucinations are heart-wrenching and genuine moments, even if it does make me concerned for his wellbeing. As for Ryan, he’s slowly but surely taking steps towards accepting Graham as his family, now that he realized that his dad was never “proper family.” Their big moment of the week is somewhat ruined by the spider plot, but the relationship keeps on developing.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is still finding herself but one thing she’s sure of is that these three are her new best friends. She goes from being a sad puppy to a bouncy one when Yaz invites her for tea, and she’s beyond ecstatic when everyone decides to travel with her. Thirteen doesn’t even have to tempt her companions with the idea of one more trip, she earns their loyalty by doing what she does wherever they go. It’s good to see the Doctor happy after the rough ride that Twelve had, and it’s good that they’re getting a fresh start. Plus I can’t get enough of Thirteen’s random comments combined with Whittaker’s delivery. It’s golden. Apart from the ones mentioned before, the best is probably, “Are you Ed Sheeran?” and her 100% unimpressed face.

“Arachnids in the UK” is a strong episode to follow the previous ones in series 11. Not quite as poignant as “Rosa,” but tons of fun, genuine scares, quality Team TARDIS time, and some social commentary. Doctor Who might be getting a little too political for some at this point, and it will be interesting to see if the rest of the season keeps up. Next week it’s back to outer space in “The Tsuranga Conundrum.”

Images courtesy of the BBC

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