Spiders, in Britain at least, shouldn’t really be any scarier than the flies they feast on. But there’s something in the way they move those long crawly legs, the dark places they hide in, the shock of getting tangled up in their webs. Even people who aren’t properly afraid of them are usually a bit afraid of them really.
Last weekend’s Doctor Who episode Arachnids in the UK gambled on that everyday creepiness and won, with almost-believable CGI and a script that cannily made the most of the unseen. Parents and teachers will no doubt curse this episode as much as they praised the last one, for sowing such a terror of our harmless eight-legged roommates.
That said, chilling moments, like when scientist Jade (Tanya Fear) reminded slimy tycoon Robertson (Chris Noth) that no-one would bother assassinating him with a giant spider since a tiny one would do the job so well, were balanced out with comic relief, like the spiders’ weakness for Grime music.
And the episode’s simple premise left room for some down-to-earth character-building, with the Tardis crew back in present-day South Yorkshire after adventures with aliens and world history. Prominent use of Sheffield’s iconic Park Hill estate, and nods to the region’s coal mining past, breathed reality into this setting.
The episode shone further light on their inner lives. Alongside Graham’s (Bradley Walsh) struggle with grief and Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) estrangement from his dad, we finally got to meet Yaz’s (Mandip Gil) family and see a bit more of what drives her. Moments like this made their inevitable decision to continue travelling with the Doctor feel a bit more meaningful.
But of course the increasingly confident Doctor herself was the star. Just four episodes in there’s no question of calling Jodie Whittaker “the new Doctor”: she’s the Doctor full stop.
At the other extreme from Park Hill, the spiders infested a luxury hotel owned by Robertson, a vain, greedy and incompetent businessman hoping to replace his rival Trump in the White House. Robertson was the script’s biggest missed opportunity, with Noth unwilling to commit to the full-blown scenery-chewing pantomime villainy the role was crying out for. This left Robertson a bit of a cardboard cut-out.
In between Doctor Who’s more ambitious forays into high-concept sci-fi and high-stakes history, Arachnids in the UK ticked all the boxes of what makes a decent, watchable, scary and funny bread-and-butter episode.
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