We’ve had stories about mysteries, truly historical dramas, and now, mutant spiders causing frights across Sheffield. Classic Doctor Who is alive and well in the Chris Chibnall era, whether you want it to be or not.
Although an episode about giant spiders might draw the Classic-era Who fan’s eye to Jon Pertwee’s swan song episode “Planet of the Spiders,” this week’s Doctor Who actually draws much more heavily from the style and tone of another Pertwee story: 1973's “The Green Death.” It was a tale that balanced the pulp horror with a distinct eco-friendly streak—in fact, swap out giant maggots for the giant spiders of “Arachnids in the UK,” and a megalomaniac supercomputer for Chris Noth’s Trumpian presidential hopeful, Robertson, and you pretty much have “Green Death” but with significantly better special effects.
That said, “Green Death” had a much stronger conclusion than “Arachnids in the UK,” if only because it actually ended. What happened to the spiders the Doctor and her friends corralled into Robertson’s panic room? Why did the Doctor let Robertson just walk away after murdering the Spider queen? No one knows, and “Arachnids” hopes you’re either too distracted by a track from Sheffield’s sickest grime station (at least, according to Ryan) saving the day, or some eight-legged nightmares, to actually pay attention to the fact that its otherwise delightfully horror-laden romp came to an abrupt end.
It’s not just the gross-out horror pulp of giant bugs, or the pro-environment themes, that “Arachnids” borrowed from the Pertwee era. Back in the early ‘70s, when the Doctor was confined to Earth by the Time Lords, he was a scientific adviser to the United Nations military organization, UNIT. Yes, the third Doctor still fought aliens and creatures, but he was there to help understand the threats UNIT faced from a scientific standpoint. Even at its most educationally rigorous, Doctor Who has always had a fast and loose relationship with scientific fact—after all, it is a show about a time traveling alien with two hearts. And “Arachnids” is no exception, getting a few spider-facts right, while also getting the leeway to be a bit iffier on a few more thanks to the presence of a mound of conveniently unclassified toxic waste that can turn an average spider into a car-sized nightmare.
But no matter how fast, or loose, or in service of an otherwise cheesy romp around a cobweb-filled hotel this storytelling style is, leaning a bit more into the “sci” half of “sci-fi” is a bent that feels like it’s been pretty absent from modern Doctor Who for a while. Steven Moffat’s era of the show leaned into treating the Doctor as a mythological being as much as it treated him as an extraterrestrial. Plots were woven in fates and destinies hidden in ancient ruins and dusty texts, science was magic, and the Doctor was less of a scientist than a wizard waving a magic wand about. And when science or tech was needed to solve a crisis, it was typically whipped out of nowhere when required, a convenient Thingamajig that could ding stuff and help save the day.
Contrast that with Jodie Whittaker’s thirteenth Doctor rummaging through cupboards to find acetic acid and garlic to ward off a giant house spiders, and there’s a deliberate grounding going on in the Chris Chibnall era that sets it apart from the romantic whimsy that defined much of Moffat’s Who. That’s not to say that a whimsical vibe has no place in Doctor Who—if anything, it’s a testament to its love of change in all forms that the show can be both, and flit between whimsy and reality on a moment’s notice. But it is nonetheless a big shift in these first four episodes of Chibnall’s tenure: returning to the greatest hits of the classic show’s past in order to re-cement Doctor Who as a more grounded sci-fi saga. Well, as grounded as giant spiders hiding out in toxic-sludge coal mines can be.
This grounding also comes to the fore in the other side of “Arachnids”: the humdrum normality of domesticity, an angle ripped right out of the Russell T Davies playbook and given form here by our introduction to Yaz’s family. They’re loving and dysfunctional and quirky in all the right ways—almost feeling like an amalgam of what we’ve seen with the Tylers, Joneses, and Nobles in the past. But so far they’re even further untouched by the weird world of the Doctor than prior companion families, even as she goes rummaging around their flat admiring their sofas early on in the episode.
It’s an interesting contrast to the family drama Ryan and Graham are going through—itself so deliberately rooted in the story of the Doctor, not just because of her involvement in the tragedy of Grace’s death, but in Graham’s decision to use the opportunity the Doctor represents to get away from dealing with his grief. And while that still makes Yaz feel a little more distant and under-served in the story compared to her fellow TARDIS travelers, the Khan family, as wonderfully normal as they are, serve as another home base for the show to come back to in ways most few recent companions had.
Among all the familiar stylistic callbacks and otherwise fine horror trappings “Arachnids” weaves around itself, what does Doctor Who get out of this tonal re-centering, this search for identity in its own past? Aside from a fascinating parallel to that key mystery from “The Ghost Monument”—a secret hidden from the newly-regenerated Doctor by her past selves—it’s probably a good time to remember that “modern” Doctor Who turned 13 this year, and the show’s own 55th birthday is just weeks away at this point. That’s plenty of time for new fans to come into the fold, for kids to grow up, to enter this wild world of adventures across time and space. Sometimes, you need a reminder of all the things that Doctor Who has been, to show fans old and new what it’s capable of.
It’s like the Doctor herself said, in the far gone times of four weeks ago just as we were still getting to know her. Coping with history is about remembering the past, carrying it with you, so that while it’s gone from the world it’s never truly gone from yourself. When it comes to Doctor Who, that means embracing so much of what came before: the thrills and chills, the joys and the tragedies, and sometimes, the occasional giant creepy crawly. Now that Team TARDIS is “officially” on board, hopefully season 11 can now start showing us what it can bring to the table beyond solid takes on familiar Who themes.
- I will say that the horror factor of this episode relies a lot on whether or not you’re arachnophobic. If you like spiders, you were probably okay with the vast majority of the spider-action in this episode—but if you’re like me and want to burn the house down the minute you spot anything with eight legs, this was a bit of a nightmare to get through. Weirdly enough, the shot I hated the most wasn’t the spider-hordes working their way towards the panic room via the vibrations of Stormzy, but the lone spider Ryan and Graham had to catch. The way it skittered down that hallway...my jeebies were well and truly heebied, to say the least!
- Seriously though, what was the Doctor’s plan for the spider queen? Its giant size was already condemning it to a slow and horrible death. It’s not like she could have let it roam around the Yorkshire countryside scaring the bejesus out of people until it expired. Robertson shooting it was a dick move, but we never actually got a sense for what the alternative would’ve been.
- I can’t tell if Robertson being an unethical asshole business magnate-turned American political darling in opposition to Donald Trump in Doctor Who’s version of 2020 is a grim commentary on what Chris Chibnall thinks it could take to oppose Trump, or Doctor Who simply wanted a Trump stand-in without actually making it Trump. Probably more the latter than the former—Doctor Who really does not care for American presidents.
- The running joke of everyone calling Yaz’s mum “Yaz’s mum” only for her to correct them with a cry of “Najia!” was incredibly silly, and I loved it despite the episode wanting to mercilessly run it into the ground. Very mom thing to do, that.
- Bradley Walsh has maybe become my biggest surprise of this season so far. I never expected him to carry a lot of the emotional weight of the series, and so far he’s been handling it brilliantly. The moment he re-entered his and Grace’s home and was faced with his memory of her was absolutely heartbreaking.