Doctor Who, “Arachnids in the UK”

I’ve been a Doctor Who fan since I was 8, but I’ve been a spiders-and-snakes fan since I can remember. Ranger Rick taught me that these scary-looking animals were, if not harmless, certainly less likely to harm than their reputation would suggest. I was fascinated, reading all about the basic facts of these animals’ biology, but also about the different types of snake venom and the levels of pain a spider bite could inflict. While I never developed arachnophobia (mild spheksophobia, though, yeah), I won’t pretend that all this zoology-for-kids immunized me from being pretty freaked out when the giant wolf spiders showed up in my bedroom during the years we lived in Florida. So you’d think a story about spiders that are scary but also sympathetic would totally be my thing.

The problem with “Arachnids” is that it’s so eager to get to the sympathetic that it neglects the scary. If you’re the sort of person who freaks out at the mere sight of a spider, you might be strenuously disagreeing right now, but consider that you’re not the person this episode has to scare. The spiders could be dancing the Charleston with top hats and canes and you’d still be shivering behind the sofa. But those of us raised on Ranger Rick need a little bit more to work with.

These spiders can barely finish doing something frightening like embalm a person in silk, cunningly web off the exit to a hotel, or demolish a bathtub for no apparent reason before someone mutters sorrowfully “spiders don’t normally behave like this” and all is forgiven. I have often been known to spend twenty minutes enticing a spider into a cup so I can deliver it safely outdoors rather than spend twenty seconds crushing it to snot with a tissue, but even I have slain a spider or ten that got a bit too relaxed in my house, and I really don’t think it would have undermined the ultimate “spiders are sweethearts” message to have given us a solid thirty minutes of unleavened oh-my-god-we’re-fucked terror.

Because of that spiders-and-snakes fandom, three of my top 5 Doctor Who stories have forever been “Kinda,” “Snakedance,” and “Planet of the Spiders.” Two of these three are fairly well-beloved fan favorites, but “Spiders” usually takes a little defending. One of its alleged crimes is the uncelebrated acting performance of one Jenny Laird, mother to one of the more rebellious subjects of the titular Eight-Legs. Perhaps it’s an unwritten rule that a spider-centric story in Doctor Who has to feature a terrible performance, and in this case that’s provided by one Chris Noth.

I’ve never seen any of the other things he’s done (I sat through an episode of Sex and the City once, but I don’t remember a word of it), so let’s assume his talent correlates with his resume. Maybe we can blame the writing and the direction for how unwatchable this performance is. Surely it’s not Noth’s fault that he’s a one-dimensional tycoon without a single believable line throughout the episode. This cartoon billionaire’s one saving grace is that joke where we think he’s supposed to be Trump and then it turns out Trump exists in the Doctor Who universe, lampshading how dull this Trump parody really is. It’s not that guys this shitty don’t exist in our world, or that they deserve nuance or sympathy (that’s reserved for spiders); it’s that they’re a lead weight taking the place of a potentially interesting character. It’s not that evil/greedy middle-aged white men are new to Doctor Who as villains — almost every Jon Pertwee episode features at least one, even if it’s only the Master — it’s that they’re normally played as real people so you can dislike them properly. Hating Robertson is like hating stale bread. But we still want to see him get eaten by a spider before the end, and he denies us even that lovely coda. What an asshole!

Chibnall seems way too invested in working backward from his premise in as much detail as possible, perhaps paranoid that a good old-fashioned giant spider story might not seem too far-fetched to the armchair quarterbacks of Twitter. So in place of pulse-pounding spider suspense and action we get a lot of signposting about this lab that’s working on enhancing spider abilities, which eventually leads to what seems like a Rube Goldbergian explanation for the arachnids where I guess they just randomly tossed all these discarded spider experiments into a disused coal mine along with all sorts of other garbage that just happened to combine in the right way to lead to Big Mama Spider and all her confused babies? We’re supposed to blame lazy waste management corporations, I guess, but I also kind of wondered if maybe the spider lab couldn’t have been a bit more conscientious about its biohazard procedures. And I’m still having trouble figuring out how the landfill in the coalmine, far below the hotel, is leaking into Yaz’s apartment however many floors up.

Whatever your reasons for turning your nose up at “Planet of the Spiders” — the weaker cast members, the gratuitous hovercraft chase, the iffy spider effects, the casting of Cho-Je — just cast your mind back a minute and remember all the elements it was juggling. A crystal with the power to enhance the mind but also drive it mad; a circle of men intent on using peaceful meditation practices to summon demons; giant spiders with the power to inflict pain or death with a thought, and to sit on a person’s back and control their behavior; a Doctor struggling with his own hubris and fear who sacrifices himself to stop the unchecked growth of the empress of the spiders. And the spiders talk. If audiences of 2018 are too cool to embrace the dramatic possibilities of talking spiders then we are all losing out.

What’s good here? Jodie, Jodie, Jodie. Like Matt Smith before her, she continues to make this character seem like the same person and yet completely fresh, finding surprising spot-on line readings everywhere, utterly selling the Doctor’s position on everything with charm and conviction. Like Matt Smith before her, she makes mediocre episodes like this one sing. And though our cast of friends have a few clunky character development scenes to wrestle with, in particular the strangely awkward bit where they ask to keep travelling on the TARDIS without making reference to any adventure that could possibly have made the prospect seem like fun, they’re still a charming down-to-Earth trio who show no alarming signs of becoming the Most Important People in the Universe.