If last week’s episode “Rosa” was an emotional heavy-hitter about justice and the civil rights movement, “Arachnids in the UK” returns Doctor Who to a far sillier place. There are spiders on the loose in Sheffield, and these ain’t your average arachnids. These are giant, human-devouring beasts, and it’s up to the Doctor and her newly formed Team TARDIS to put a stop to them.
Recent seasons of the show haven’t really explored the companions’ lives outside of the TARDIS, but writer Chris Chibnall apparently wants to rectify that. Family has been a key theme of the season so far, ever since the Doctor first crash-landed in Sheffield. Graham and Ryan have been trying to navigate their relationship without Grace, and now, we get a chance to go home with Yaz’s family, too. Even this Doctor seems fixated on family, repeatedly trying to call her companions “fam” and making offhand comments about long-lost sisters. Past incarnations of the Doctor have been hesitant to go home with their companions, preferring alien planets and adventures to family dinners, but here, Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor is thrilled to be invited home for tea.
In some ways, an episode like “Arachnids in the UK” feels like it could’ve been an early Russell T. Davies episode: Rose, Martha, and Donna’s families always felt like a key part of their Doctor Who stories, and this ep seems to be setting up Yaz’s family in a similar way. She’s a got a dad, Hakim (Ravin J. Ganatra), and a sister, Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar), both of whom love to tease her. Her mother Najia (Shobna Gulati) has just started a new job at a brand-new hotel. (Despite Najia’s best efforts, the Doctor only calls her Yaz’s mum.) After several episodes centering on Ryan and Graham, it’s nice to see Yaz finally (finally!) step into the spotlight. When she’s with her family, we get a better sense of who she is and what drives her: She loves her parents and her sister, but she also feels stifled by them. She yearns for something more, and that something has arrived in the form of the Doctor. And it’s also arrived in Sheffield — where things are not as they should be.
Specifically, there’s something very wrong with the spiders. They’re flipping huge, and they’ve been attacking people.
There have been some creepy moments so far in the Thirteenth Doctor’s run, but “Arachnids in the UK” is pure B-movie horror — and it’s delightful. It’s got giant spiders! Who’ve been coming up through the pipes! And wrapping people up in nasty cocoons! It’s an arachnophobe’s nightmare, and it’s also a lot of fun. The Doctor and co. first come face-to-face with their eight-legged nemeses in Yaz’s apartment building, where a neighbor named Anna has gone missing. With the help of one of Anna’s coworkers, Dr. Jade McIntyre (Tanya Fear), the Doctor, Graham, and Ryan break into Anna’s apartment, where they find a spider the size of a small beagle. Dr. McIntyre explains that she and Anna work at a research lab, and the spiders in the area have been behaving, well, abnormally. Also, some of them are enormously large now. So there’s that.
They trace the spiders to the hotel where Yaz’s mum works, and it’s run by an American named Jack Robertson (Chris Noth). He’s offended that the Doctor doesn’t immediately know who he is, to which she replies, “Are you Ed Sheeran? Is he Ed Sheeran? Everyone talks about Ed Sheeran round about now.” In reality, he’s a pompous hotel magnate, who harbors presidential ambitions and loves firing people. It isn’t hard to draw comparisons to a certain American politician (although Robertson vows that he hates Donald Trump and that’s part of why he’ll be running in 2020). As Doctor Who baddies go, Robertson is a particularly cartoonish one, and Noth appears to be having a blast as a scenery-chewing psychopath.
Eventually, the truth comes out: Robertson built his hotel on a coal mine, which he’s been using as a landfill. A combination of toxic waste and the leftovers from Dr. McIntyre’s spider experiments has resulted in the giant pests stalking Sheffield. The poor spiders aren’t aliens or evil creatures; they’re just animals who’ve grown too big and aren’t sure what to do about it. They made their way to Yaz’s apartment building because her neighbor, Anna, worked in the spider lab and smelled familiar. The Doctor and friends eventually manage to contain all the spiders in the hotel, but the largest queen is dying — she’s grown too big for her body to sustain. But Robertson shoots her anyway in cold blood, drawing the Doctor’s ire.
In the past, the Doctor might’ve been quick to cut down Robertson’s burgeoning political career for his transgressions. (Remember what the Tenth Doctor did to Harriet Jones, prime minister?) This Doctor seems much kinder and far less vengeful than some of her predecessors, but it’s still a bit odd that she doesn’t give Robertson anything other than a withering look. He appears to just get away with it all, and it’s not clear whether he ever faces any consequences for a) building his hotels on illegal landfills and b) being a trigger-happy spider murderer. It’s sort of a lame ending to an otherwise fun episode — but there’s one more scene left.
Now that Yaz, Graham, and Ryan are finally back in Sheffield, it seems like it’s time for them to say goodbye to the Doctor. The only thing is… they don’t want to. Yaz has realized she doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life in her family’s apartment, and Ryan isn’t eager to go back to his warehouse job, either. And Graham, good old Graham, can’t stand the thought of going home to an empty house. “See, Doc, the thing about grief is it needs time,” he says. “I don’t want to sit around my house waiting for it to go away because that house is full of Grace and it makes it so much harder. But being with you and seeing all these things, it really helps.”
The Doctor warns them that if they choose to come with her, she can’t promise that they’ll be safe — or even entirely the same. “You’re not gonna come back as the same people that left here,” she tells them. But they don’t mind. Team TARDIS has seen a taste of the universe, and they’re eager to see more.
Odds and ends:
- The Doctor: “I eat danger for breakfast! [pause] I don’t. I prefer cereal. Or croissants.”
- I love, love, love the Doctor’s fanny pack (or a bum bag, as it’s known in Britain). It is perfect, and Jodie Whittaker rocks it. I hope it becomes a regular part of her look. (Presumably, it’s bigger on the inside.)
- The Doctor: “I’ve never had a flat. I should get one. I’d be good in a flat. I could get a sofa. Imagine me with a sofa! Like, my own sofa! I could get a purple one and sit on it. Am I being weird?”
Ryan: “A little bit, yeah.”
The Doctor: “I’m trying to do small talk. I thought I was doing quite well.”