OK, so a slightly clever title, though only people fifty years old will get what it’s punning on. A decent set-up, exploiting one of the most widespread phobias. A truly nasty bad-guy, who is clearly Donald Trump despite the transparent distraction-references to Trump. There’s plenty of potential here.
Ah, but so much of this either doesn’t make sense or just fails to engage.
I like the origin of the spiders — not aliens this time, no mention of Metebelis Three, but the result of careless industrial processes and late-stage capitalism. But after it’s been made completely clear that the big spiders we’re seeing are regular domestic spiders grown to giant size, we’re then told it would be wrong to kill them for some reason — as though their mere size grants them sentience.
So instead of shooting the spiders as Trump-substitute wants to do — which would be wrong — the Doctor’s plan is: trick them all into going into the safe room and lock them in, leaving them to starve to death or eat each other. Which is more humane how, exactly? This is irritating because, having gone some way towards building a coherent plot, the resolution makes no sense logistically or morally. It’s as though Chibnall did a certain amount of decent hard work on sharpening the first half of the script, then shrugged and said “Ah, that’ll do” and left the second half in its first-draft form.
So much for the Monster Of The Week. What about the ongoing arc? In the absence of a “Bad Wolf”, “Silence Will Fall”, “The Hybrid” or what have you, the arc this time is simply the developing relationships between the four people on the TARDIS. I actually applaud this: most of the season-long arcs in Doctor Who have been fairly lightweight, and not really able to carry their science fictional premise anywhere very interesting (with the Impossible Astronaut death being a happy counter-example). Simply taking each adventure as it comes and spending time with actual characters is probably an improvement over this — or at least, an interesting change of pace.
The probem is, Chibnall patently can’t do it. He’s given us this nice combination of characters — Graham the trying-too-hard granddad dealing with the loss of his wife; Ryan the good-at-heart kid who resents his grandad; Yasmin the insecure trainee police officer. And then … what? Nothing, really. He clearly doesn’t have a clue what to do with them. The Ryan-Graham relationship has not advanced one iota since the opening episode. Yaz, who was maybe the most interesting of the three character, has if anything gone backwards, with nothing to do but stand around being The Girl One. (I’m not yet convinced that any of the three are very good actors, either.)
Astonishingly, introducing us to her family if anything makes Yaz less interesting. I literally can’t remember single thing about any of the family — I’m not even completely sure how many of them there are. That’s how forgettable they were.
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Back when we first met Rose’s mum in 2005, it was a transformational moment for Doctor Who — the first time we really felt that the companions had actual lives outside of their adventures. The Aliens of London tends to get dismissed rather casually now because of the rather silly aliens, but Jackie Tyler’s near-hysterical reaction on seeing Rose again, for the first time (in her perspective) in a year is note-perfect and grounds Rose’s story in reality. Mickey’s sour response to her return, having spent a year under suspicion as her murderer, rings true. By contrast, all Yaz’s family can offer us is her dad’s not-too-great cooking. It’s a terrible failure of imagination.
Because, look, this is one of the unique things about Doctor Who. Because it plunges, week by week, into wildly different situations, it can show us ordinary people in extraordinary situations — but, more, it can also show us how those people have changed when we see them back in ordinary situations. That’s magical. (And it’s why the end of Donna’s series was so heart-breaking — that, after her memory erasure, she was back to being exactly as she’d been before she met the Doctor.) You get the sense that Chris Chibnall doesn’t understand any of this — that it’s enough for us just to go “Ooh, look, big spiders!”
It’s not, Chris. It’s not enough.
- Arachnids in the UK Review by Elizabeth Sandifer is interesting, as always, though I can not agree with “One thing the Chibnall era is rapidly establishing as a strength is its ability to structure the process of the Doctor figuring things out over the course of an episode”!
(I think it might tell us something that people like Andrew Rilston, Andrew Hickey and Gavin Burrows are not writing about these episodes at all.)