Matt Brennan and Josh Jackson review Doctor Who each week in a series of letters.
Having spent a significant chunk of last Thanksgiving attempting to coax a terrifyingly large spider out of a lawn chair, I can identify with the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions this week: If eight-legged creatures are even remotely upsetting to you, “Arachnids in the UK” is nightmare material. (For the record: I freaking loved it.) It’s also perfect Halloween programming. I jumped, as intended, at that first flash of the spider’s silhouette under the bed; I practically retched at that sound effect of the spider chewing away on the other side of the hotel wall; I recoiled at the stampede of spiders that chases Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole) down the corridor. (Hell, I caught a shiver from the factoid that there are 21 quadrillion spiders on Earth.)
What I’m still mulling is the episode’s other main element: Guest star Chris Noth (Sex and the City’s Big) as a very Trump-like rival of Trump (so… Michael Avenatti?) named Jack Robertson. From his presidential aspirations to the tawdry gold details on the exterior of his hotel to his rather insistent hand-washing, he’s clearly Chris Chibnall’s comment on / send-up of a certain political figure. But I’m not sure it works, or at least not as well as it needs to: The point Doctor Who arrives at this week is about greed and its ecological consequences, but Trump is the embodiment of so many despicable policies that I fear it becomes a distraction—though an intermittently entertaining one.
Anyhow, it’s time for my scheduled bathroom break. What did you think?
This was the episode where the Doctor’s new companions truly became the Doctor’s new companions. Both Graham and Ryan have fully shed their timidity, and we got to meet the lovable-but-sometimes-unbearable family that Yas (Mandip Gill) will be leaving behind. The trio will be facing aliens, monsters and other challenges with eyes open, and if a bunch of gigantic hairy spiders didn’t scare them off, I’m not sure that anything will.
I agree that Chris Noth’s character was a goofy caricature that can’t possibly provide any meaningful criticism of the current state of American politics, and I could have done without that entire part of the story. I was definitely rooting for the spider, and I worry that’s not the last time we see him as a stand-in for greedy corporations and corrupt politicians.
I also had trouble buying into the Doctor’s pacifism when it came to overgrown arachnids. How was shooting them worse than trapping them in a panic room where some generation of them will eventually starve to death? Giant human-killing spiders can’t be allowed to take over Sheffield, and I’m not sure I see a rational way to extend her pacifism to bugs who want to eat you.
But I’m glad you liked the campy horror of “Arachnids in the U.K.” That’s a bread-and-butter kind of episode of Doctor Who, and I wouldn’t have expected anything less the week of Halloween. Next week will be the first intentional adventure of this group of space/time explorers, and “Tsuranga Conundrum” looks like more of a sci-fi psychological horror episode in more claustrophobic confines.
You’ve seen a bit of the past, present and future. What would you like to see more of?
As you know, my favorite episode so far this season is “Miss Rosa,” and “Arachnids in the UK” confirms my suspicion—even fear—that Chibnall, along with plenty of other TV writers, is more comfortable channeling present politics through the lens of the past than finding something fresh to say about the zeitgeist. (“How’s this for fire and fury?!” is a truly embarassing bit of “timely” dialogue.) Still, I remain impressed by the sheer range of stories Doctor Who tries to tell, albeit with varying success: There’s so much on TV that’s convinced of its own artistic seriousness that watching a freewheeling sci-fi adventure—even one that stumbles into goofy choices—comes as a relief.
Plus, Whittaker sells it all with such fervor it can be hard to dismiss. (I’m already noodling a column on what it means to count her as my first Doctor.) As in all the episodes I’ve seen so far, she lands the comic notes nicely: Her entire “I’m trying to do small talk” interlude made me laugh. But the real high water mark of “Arachnids,” for me, has nothing to do with spiders or jump scares, Donald Trump or time travel. It’s the way the Doctor looks glumly at her feet, thinking of the prospect of exploring the universe by herself. It’s the way she leaps at Yaz inviting her to tea. It’s the suggestion, related to your point about the companions becoming the true companions this week, that the Doctor—perhaps this Doctor, in particular?—needs companions in order to give her universe weight. Maybe the best thing I can say about Doctor Who so far is that I can’t imagine the Doctor traveling alone. I think that means it’s working its magic.
You tell me: Am I on the right track?
To be fair, all the things you love about your first Doctor have, for the most part, been there throughout the show’s reboot (I can’t speak for classic Who). The Doctor, even the grouchy old Peter Capaldi Doctor, is not made to be alone. The Doctor is funny and frantic and confident and wise, but most of all, the Doctor is lonely. The Doctor needs companions with which to witness the wonders of the universe and with which to correct its wrongs, outsmart its villains and save humanity and other sentient beings—or at least a small corner of the UK—over and over and over.
That you picked up on that so quickly means both that you’re definitely on the right track and that Chibnall and Whittaker have worked hard to preserve and grow that part of the show.