For all this series of Doctor Who was heralded as a new start for the programme, its stories have had a traditional feel so far. A breezy introduction for the new Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) was followed by a trip to an alien world, then a meeting with a significant figure from history. Now this week, an encounter with outlandish creatures – both the eight legged and two-legged varieties. And I think it’s this feeling of treading old ground that left me feeling rather disappointed by Arachnids in the UK.
Spiders are always a good bet for a Doctor Who episode, of course, and full credit to the FX teams for creations that will have sent a large number of viewers into a cold sweat. Moments such as Kevin (William Meredith) getting dragged off and the discovery of lifeless, cocooned victims were genuinely unsettling.
My problem was that I didn’t feel the story was offering anything new or surprising; I’m all for the move towards making the series more accessible, but this felt unoriginal. The consequences of abuse of the environment is a valid theme for Doctor Who to explore, and the series has a proud history of doing so. But this episode seemed disappointingly thin and linear in its plotting, with nothing that sought to stretch the format by offering something we wouldn’t have expected after seeing the trailer.
Pacing does seem to be an issue with this run of episodes. It was nearly 15 minutes in before we glimpsed a spider. The Russell T. Davies era would surely have had a huge beastie showing its fangs before the opening titles, if not in a pre-transmission online TARDISode (there’s a word you don’t hear nowadays…). And some fairly lengthy spells of exposition had me looking at the clock rather more than was healthy.
There were signs that the script may have had some elements cut. Jack Robertson (Chris Noth) walks away from the action after shooting the spider and never returns to get his comeuppance. Yaz’s Dad’s (Ravin J. Ganatra) rubbish mountain felt like it could have been developed further (who else was expecting him and Yaz’s sister to be menaced by a web spinner?). And Robertson’s scheduled toilet breaks were crying out for some gags about English food or Sheffield takeaways (okay, maybe it’s just me with that one).
Noth was perfectly good in the role of Robertson but we’ve seen many instances of this kind of mega rich, narcissistic, bullying villain before. And I imagine that American viewers would have groaned at the unsubtle depiction of a gun-toting dunderhead with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Some positives, then. I’m still finding the main cast an enjoyable and appealing bunch. They feel rather more human and believable than the companions we’ve had in recent years. I found Yaz’s family to be less vividly drawn than the Tylers and Joneses of past eras, though we’ll most likely see them again before the end of the series.
A special mention for Bradley Walsh, whose portrait of a man going through the grieving process makes your heart ache. Graham has lived enough years to know that the most acute grief won’t last forever, but he needs company and to be kept busy in the meantime. It’s an unusual motivation for joining the Doctor and very different from the norm.
Someone else who craves company is Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, who showed a vulnerable side when it seemed her new friends were staying behind. To my mind, she’s settled into the role wonderfully well, and her blend of enthusiastic youth group leader and dogged problem solver, sticking her nose in where it may not be welcome, makes her an engaging presence. Unlike some, I rather like her big sweeping gesture when she uses the sonic screwdriver. It’s a minor point, but I feel she’s missing a trick in playing those moments where she references meeting a historical figure so straight. To me, the point of those lines is that more often than not the Doctor is having people on, so a knowing wink or roll of the eyes would be nice to see.
Interestingly, this episode was the first time I felt that the Doctor’s new gender had some bearing on how things were playing out. The fact she’s a woman means Yaz’s Mum (would she be happy to be referred to as that?), played by Shobna Gulati, is curious rather than wary and even hostile of the mysterious newcomer in the way Jackie or Francine were of former Doctors. And it could be argued that the Doctor’s warning to the group that it won’t always be safe brings the more feminine side of the character to the fore. Earlier Doctors tended to present it all as a bit of a lark.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh in my criticisms of this adventure. Judging from social media, other viewers were plainly more engaged in the episode than I was. Radio Times saw fit to give it the first five-star review of the series. Maybe another viewing will offer more depth than was evident to me on Sunday evening.
In many ways, I’m reluctant to criticise this series when it’s doing a lot of the things I’ve been crying out for. More accessible stories, told in a more straightforward way. Credible companions who aren’t portrayed as having unique gifts or talents. Less dependence on the programme’s past or its returning characters.
I’ve remarked in other reviews that it feels somewhat more like The Sarah Jane Adventures than 21st Century Doctor Who. But that wonderful spin-off, although very much a children’s show, was still capable of pushing the envelope and offering stories which were so much more than standard kids’ TV fare. And it’s this lack of originality that’s probably the main reason I found Arachnids in the UK a bit of a let down.