After regenerating, accidentally dragging her three new friends with her to an alien planet, finding the TARDIS, and making a brief detour to 1950's Alabama, the Doctor has finally managed to get her accidental companions home, safe and sound. However, in typical Doctor Who fashion, things get complicated, leading to the first proper “alien threat on modern-day earth” episode of Series 11. I'm describing it that way despite this being the basic premise of The Woman Who Fell To Earth, because now we actually have the TARDIS and the Doctor's not coping with post-regenerative trauma. This, therefore, is a chance to see the Thirteenth Doctor on familiar ground.
Does the episode succeed?
The Quick and Spoiler-Free Verdict
Essentially, yes. I enjoyed it very much; enough to watch it twice. The main cast are all stellar, the supporting characters are welcome inclusions, and the episode's monster is genuinely scary and intriguing. Plus, the effects are up to the high standards set by previous episodes in the series. The ending is a bit anti-climactic, and there are a couple of jokes which feel too “ripped from the headlines”, but on the whole, this is still one of the better episodes of the year so far.
Content and Themes
Brief mention of a supporting female character being married to a woman. Some scary images, but no gore. The episode's villain is clearly meant to evoke Donald Trump in some ways…however, this doesn't turn out to be nearly as cringe-inducing as it sounds.
What I Didn't Like
My biggest problem with this episode was with the final resolution of the spider crisis. I feel like there needed to be more of a “showdown” with the creatures. They pretty much just went bye-bye in two seconds. Also, the scene with Robertson shooting the Mother Spider veered too far into the political realm, and made for a dissatisfying conclusion to the episode's main conflict.
What I Liked
Jodie Whittaker killed it in this episode. After Rosa, which moved the Doctor to the back burner a little too much, it was nice to see Thirteen get plenty of screen time. Whittaker gets more and much “Doctor-ish” with each subsequent story, seeming more confident in her performance as she continues to develop it. It seems fairly clear at this point that the gender chance is never going to be a major focus for the show. (Granted, I could be proven wrong about that, but I doubt it.) Instead, Thirteen is evolving along the same lines as every other Doctor, displaying her unique personality while staying true to the timeless fundamentals of the character.
The three companions are phenomenal. Based on The Woman Who Fell to Earth, I wasn't sure how Ryan and Yaz in particular would measure up to the standards set by past companions, especially since they didn't get many funny moments in that episode. But by now, it's clear that they're not lacking in this area. Both of them get great one-liners, and each one has a unique and entertaining dynamic with the Doctor.
However, special praise must be reserved for Bradley Walsh. Graham is definitely one of my favorite companions of the revived series. I never would have expected Chibnall to cast an older gentleman as a member of Team TARDIS, but I consider it to have been a stroke of genius. It's a delight to watch this unlikely traveler in time and space bravely tackle adventures week after week, while providing entertaining commentary on the bizarre threats he's faced with.
The supporting characters were all quite good…yes, even Jack Robertson. Since I was late watching this episode, I'd heard in advance that there was a Trump analogue in the story. Thus, I was expecting Robertson to be a grating caricature. To my surprise, however, this was not the case—partly because Robertson's American accent was authentic, and partly because the stories aobut him being a Trump parody weren't entirely true. Unlike the typical view of Trump in the media, Robertson is not explicitly racist, sexist, or homophobic. The story makes it pretty clear that rather than being any of these things, he's just a big jerk to everyone in general. This makes him yet another big bad capitalist villain, which is nothing new or controversial for Doctor Who. It does let the story down a bit, mainly because the entire spider problem predictably stems from Robertson's lack of concern for the environment, but aside from that, I thought he was actually kind of a fun charcter. He had some lines that made me chuckle, and there were moments when he was almost likable despite being a narcissistic sleazebag.
The effects were well-done, and suitably creepy. This season has been marked by a lack of reliance on CGI so far, but that changes a little in this epsiode due to the whole giant spider thing. It's hard to portray that convincingly with practical effects. Though the spiders were completely computer generated, they still looked real enough to make my skin crawl.
Finally, this episode did an excellent job addressing two very important issues. First, Graham and Ryan finally get a significant amount of time to process the loss of Grace, making up for the lack of emphasis on this in prior stories. The scenes devoted to this storyline were beautifully written and acted. Second, I loved how the final monents of the episode were hanlded, when the three companions officially join the Doctor. For perhaps the first time in her life, the Doctor actually makes a point of telling her potential traveling buddies that it will be very, very dangerous. Following up from that, the motivations of the three for joining her anyway were believable and well-explained. It made sense that Graham would want to process his grief in this way, and that Ryan would want to choose this as his new life instead of trying to pursue a more typical future with his estranged father. And while some might take issue with Yaz's desire to get away from her family, I actually thought this was a clever twist on familiar charcter tropes. There was no big, heartwarming scene in which Yaz hugged it out with her entire family. There didn't need to be. Not everyone gets along with their families.
Bonus point: the Doctor has (or at least had) multiple sisters. A nice new tidbit of canon that's worth filing away, I think. Could one of them be the Timeless Child?
While uneven in spots, “Arachnids in the UK” is, for the most part, a remarkably strong episode that continues to cement the high quality of Series 11. It's a nice throwback to the modern-day monster-of-the-week tales that were a hallmark of the Tennant and Smith years.
Join me again shortly for my review of Episode 5, The Tsuranga Conundrum!