Discussing Doctor Who: Arachnids in the UK

Doctor Who Arachnids in UK

Following up an emotional trip to Alabama during the Civil Rights movement, the Doctor brings Team TARDIS back home and discovers something’s not quite right. There are spiders in this apartment complex … and the rest of the city!

I’m joined this week to talk “Arachnids in the UK” by Hannah Long (@HannahGraceLong) and Jenna DeWitt (@Jenna_DeWitt).

If you need to catch up, previously, we broke down “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” “The Ghost Monument” and “Rosa.”

This week, Jenna’s asking the questions, while Hannah and I handle the answers.

Jenna: Doctor Who is often scary at least once a season, but oversized arachnids are timely for a proper Halloween episode. Did you find this episode sufficiently creepy?

HannahI did think it was creepy! The spiders weren’t quite up to the Shelob standard for creepiness, but there were several hiding-behind-the-couch moments. The legs coming out from under the door. And when Ryan and Graham forget to check the ceiling for spiders. Agh! The effects were certainly better than the laughably fake spiders in the Third Doctor regeneration story: Planet of the Spiders.

Aaron: As I said with the opening episode, I enjoy the creepy and horror bits of Doctor Who. This was definitely a fun, scary episode. It was made especially fun in our house because my wife is terrified of spiders, so she missed large chunks of the episode with her hands over her face.

Jenna: The action gets going when the Doctor and Ryan find Yaz’s neighbor the prey of a giant spider. I love that the Doctor is not only science-smart enough to improvise a way to keep the spider away, but when that doesn’t work, she gets down and has a conversation with it. Throughout, she maintains the dignity of living things, no matter how creepy-crawly. Thanks to handy zoologist-on-the-scene Jade, we find out this first big boy isn’t unique (nor is it the biggest). Her lab has been studying spiders just like these, so she helps take a bit of the know-it-all status off the Doctor as the token educator to move the plot along. But Jade and her lab might share in the blame for the mutant spiders in the first place. Did the science ethics and environmental impact in this episode seem too forced? Not emphatic enough given the recent panic over climate change? Just enough?

Hannah: I’ve already mentioned a Third Doctor story, but Arachnids in the U.K. really borrows very strongly from another seminal Pertwee tale: The Green Death. In that story, evil industrialists and a villainous computer dump waste down a mine—and instead of giant spiders, you get giant maggots. That episode’s themes were really obvious and explicit, which means this is well in the tradition of preachy Doctor Who. I didn’t think the episode was particularly insightful in its examination of corporate corruption. It relied really heavily on tropes and you could see the resolution coming miles away.

Actually, speaking of resolution, what happened to the rest of the spiders? What about the one in that apartment? What about all the webs keeping the Doctor and co. from leaving? What about the waste? This episode has a lot of loose ends that I was too entertained to think about.

One last thing about the Third Doctor: I know Thirteen might have implied she’d been a female before, but my preferred head-canon is that “I was a sister once” refers to Jon Pertwee’s Going-Undercover-In-Drag phase.

Aaron: Well, I don’t think I can get that sight out of my head. I feel like that is more terrifying than the spiders.

I’m glad you brought up the lesson the show was trying to teach in this episode about corporate greed and science ethics. Perhaps, it’s as you said last week, Jenna, they’re trying to bring Doctor Who more back to the kids’ show roots with more of an educational tone. I’m OK with that to a point—even if it’s a lesson I may disagree with—as long as the show and story are well done and the lesson isn’t overwhelming.

But I don’t want Doctor Who to turn into a form of cultural propaganda. Current shows like Supergirl started off as fun shows with some interesting points and have eventually turned into a thinly veiled sermon for modern progressive values with characters existing merely as stereotypes.

Even though Doctor Who mentioned Donald Trump and Supergirl has yet to do so (since it exists in a different universe where a female alien just resigned as president—don’t ask), Doctor Who handled the political issues with more tact. Even though Hannah and I were in a Twitter discussion where someone complained that the past two episodes have been attacks on America. I didn’t see that.

Underneath it all was a standard evil, greedy corporation that took one too many shortcuts, but as Hannah said, it was so entertaining and fun that I didn’t mind the less than creative turns or the gaping plot holes left unresolved.

Jenna: It has been noted so far this season that Yaz has been in the background compared to Ryan and Graham, so landing at her home and having insights into her family life is an attempt to make up for the missing backstory before. Yaz’s mother, Najia, is brave like her daughter, and her father is curious and observant, which to me provides context for Yaz being an ideal companion. What did you think about a more Yaz-centered episode and this take on the tradition of a domestic introduction to a companion’s family?

Hannah: Oddly, I feel like Yaz is still a bit of an enigma. We’ve not had an ah-ha moment about her character.  She wants to get away from her sister’s teasing and her parents’ curiosity about her romantic entanglements (“Are you two seeing each other?” “I don’t think so. Are we?”) But is that enough reason to want to leave the planet?

Maybe Yaz just needs someone to confide in. Ryan and Graham get some significant character development out of the way through their interactions about Ryan’s dad, but Yaz doesn’t have a way to convey her full reasons for travelling. She says she wants to spend more time with the Doctor—though this appears to be an out-of-the-blue comment unless she really is interested in the Doctor romantically like her mom guessed (and literally all of Tumblr will assume).

Aaron: Yet another reason for me to stay away from Tumblr, but the Daily Mail has already made it a thing.

But, as Hannah said, I was hopeful we would get more motivation for Yaz and a fuller developed character. In a meta sense, the character “Yaz” is in the same position as the Doctor—as the Doctor is being presented as a stand-in for all women and girls, Yaz, in a way, is the “Muslim character.” They want to do all they can to avoid playing into negative stereotypes.

I get that and don’t think they should make Yaz a secret terrorist or anything of the sort, but give her character some depth. Ryan has an absentee father, a stereotype of the black community, but it’s part of what makes him three dimensional. He has some defined direction as a character. I hope Yaz gets that soon.

Jenna: The aspiring Trump rival provides another foil for the Doctor’s nonviolence, setting up a moral choice between killing the spiders and locking them away safely in a panic room where they can live out their lives without hurting anyone. Did the Doctor make the right choice? Did you find it a believable and/or satisfying solution?

Hannah: Firstly, I want to talk about the villain himself, because I didn’t expect to like him, but I did. They avoid the all-too-common pitfall of making a villain bad in every way (he dislikes Trump, for one thing). Ryan and Graham are initially star-struck by him. He gets a lot of funny lines. He’s quite logical. Those virtues make his many vices interesting to watch.

Also, he’s too cartoonish to take very seriously. When Doctor Who did a parody of Margaret Thatcher in the ‘80’s episode The Happiness Patrol, the character was so mustache-twirly and caricatured that she became her own delightful, demented thing. With the exception of the “fire and fury” line (too on the nose, Chibs), Jack Robertson feels more like an entertaining but generic corrupt CEO than an actual exact Trump replica, which would have been dull.

As for the moral choice about the spiders, I thought the Doctor’s solution was both completely in character and … dumb as a box of rocks. I don’t want to be over-analytical about this rather silly episode’s poor ethics, but it did rub me the wrong way. It’s partly personal. I’ve had to help kill two mortally wounded animals this year which were struck by cars.

The Doctor’s stance flows from the show’s general inability to recognize human exceptionalism—that our awareness, imagination, and ultimately, our souls, make us unique in the universe. Animals and humans are not the same, and if we think they are, we end up conflating the value of space whales and moon dragons and spiders and human beings, which gets us into trouble. Letting an animal suffocate to death when you can use a gun to quickly draw its pain to a close is just cruel. Yeah. Jack Robertson is the hero of the episode. You heard it here first, folks.

Aaron: Can we start calling Hannah “Hot Take Hannah”? Hahaha. But yeah, it struck me as an odd climax to say, “Don’t quickly kill that insect trying to kill humans! Instead, let them suffocate with a long and painful death because … reasons.” It will be interesting to see if a future episode deals with assisted suicide in some way and then takes the exact opposite stance for humans.

To me, the spider issue is much worse than the space whales or other instances of conflict between human life and others. This is not some alien creature that we aren’t sure to the extent of their sentience. This is literally just big, mutant spiders. They’re confused and it’s not their fault, but they’re bugs that virtually no one thinks twice about killing when they see them in their house. Why would making them bigger and more dangerous assign them a deeper moral significance? Is this a reverse Horton Hears a Who: a person is more of a person if they are bigger? Maybe an Animal Farm: All spiders are equal, but bigger spiders are more equal than others?

Jenna: In the end, Graham has a lovely speech about grief and how being away from home helps him heal. Ryan isn’t eager to go back to his job, and Yaz is ready for adventure. The Doctor warns them to be sure they are ready for the danger ahead, the ghosts of dead companions practically haunting her right there in that tension. These three consent to be taken on a journey that will change them, and Thirteen adopts a fan-popular phrase for multi-companion groups: Team TARDIS. Now that we know Yaz a bit better and have continued to see more of Ryan and Graham, how are we feeling about our new Team TARDIS? What are your hopes for the team?

Hannah: Honestly, I think I enjoyed this episode more than any I’ve seen so far. It’s not as inventive or ambitious, but it was far more competent with pacing, dialogue, and character development. The scene in the hotel kitchen showed a vast improvement in using dialogue and conflict to demonstrate character. It gives me hope that we’ll get to see more Yaz development. The Doctor gets to be funnier than she’s been so far. I will be glad to see some other writers get a shot at writing the new Doctor, but this episode showed me Chibnall is slowly but surely starting to become comfortable with who these characters are.

Aaron: It’s interesting, Jenna, that you kind of crystalized what seemed to be each of their motivations for traveling with the Doctor. Having that significant, but different driving force for each one could provide for compelling stories and interactions in the future. Graham trying to move past his grief could raise issues with Yaz just chasing adventure or Ryan trying to find purpose beyond a factory worker.

Jenna: Bonus question: Any past scary episodes you’d recommend for Halloween-week viewing? Mine would be “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances” with “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit” in a close second!

Hannah: Oooh, fun question. I’d say “Midnight” is the episode which has scared me the most, and I second the recommendation for “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances.” If I had to choose a Classic Who episode, I’d say “Brain of Morbius” is a good Gothic story – just ignore the clunky design of The Monster.

Aaron: I will definitely third “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances.” That was the first episode my wife watched and she almost never watched Doctor Who again because she doesn’t do scary and “Are you my mummy?” almost did it for her.

My other would be Blink. As I said earlier this season, I love the monsters that take things you see in everyday life and make them terrifying. I haven’t looked at statues the same since.

Next week:

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.