Now that was some right proper Doctor Who.
After spending the last three weeks establishing the new parameters of the show, Sunday night’s episode did something few entries of the revived series have done well: embrace the 1970s show format. From 1970 to 1973, The Doctor (played by Jon Pertwee) was stranded on Earth and worked with UNIT to face menaces as varied as alien invasions and mad scientists. Producer Barry Letts was an early adherent of ecological awareness and made The Doctor something of an eco-fighter. Not that this was an entirely new concept as The Doctors of the era always found themselves allied with more progressive ideas. But in these earthbound shows, the Doctor often found mine operators, factory owners and officious bureaucrats as troublesome as Daleks or The Master. Indeed, The Master found these sorts of people willing co-conspirators.
While Letts embedded messages like these in the stories, he also made them fairly scary and well-plotted, which is the case with “Arachnids in the UK.” The Doctor (Jodie Whittkaer) successfully returns her new friends home. In fact, she even managed to get them back a few hours after they initially trans-matted into space — a shockingly rare example of precision TARDIS steering. But clearly in the weeks before their departure, trouble was brewing under the South Yorkshire streets. Spiders were becoming increasingly violent while Yaz’s (Mandip Gill) father Hakim (Ravin J. Ganatra) found a conspiracy in the garbage piles.
And shortly before the TARDIS returned, Yaz’s mum Nadja (Shobna Gulati) went to inspect the facilities at her new job only to be fired by property owner Jack Robertson (Chris Noth). But once all our players (and a guest scientist played by Tanya Fear) get to the hotel, the real truth comes to light: giant spiders are growing in the former mine under the hotel. The cause turns out to be a perfect storm of ecological disasters aided by Robertson’s disregard for the particulars of his various businesses.
The intent with the character is clear — a pastiche of the current American president and infamous hotelier. He’s even cited as a Robertson’s major rival in the business. Nonetheless, Noth brings an interesting nuance to the part as he is funny, pathetic and a threat all at once. His “I’m all out of Brians” might be one of the funniest things ever uttered on Doctor Who, but it’s also genuinely horrific as Robertson reveals his low regard for his fellow man. It is a trait The Doctor notes outright, even if she has more fun by not recognizing him or assuming he is Ed Sheeran. In fact, their cantankerous by-play recalls a number of great Doctor/earthly antagonist sparring matches over the years. But unlike a Letts-produced adventure, Robertson learns nothing and walks away unscathed. It might be disappointing to see the bad guy get away, but it is truthful nonetheless.
There’s also the possibility Robertson may appear again as his hotel empire spans the world.
On the character front, Yaz’s family is a wonderful addition to the show. Nadja is firecracker, while Hakim and younger sister Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar) finally give Yaz a little more dimension. She is, in some ways, strangely superfluous in the family dynamic; a point made early on when she notes she has no text messages on her phone and strengthened when she takes one last look at them later. Her desire to be “in charge” may stem from this apparent invisibility within her own family.
Meanwhile, it’s nice to see Ryan (Tosin Cole) acknowledge Graham (Bradley Walsh) as family even if he won’t call him “Grandad.” Here, it comes about when Ryan reads a letter from his father saying he is the only “proper family” he has left. “I didn’t like that,” Ryan says, but his thought is interrupted by some of the spiders. The meaning, though, is clear. Graham is family now. A point also underscored when they both choose to return to the TARDIS and travel with The Doctor.
Come to think of it, the show has rarely made such a meal of the companions choosing to travel in space and time. Indeed, the original companions were kidnapped, subsequent ones were rescued and others were just caught up in the excitement of it all. And though the modern Doctors often offer their friends the choice (eg, the last moments of “Rose”), a scene like the one which closed “Arachnids in the UK” is a real rarity. But it is also a scene which could not occur any earlier in the season. The relationships between the four friends — now known as Team TARDIS — had to be established and, ultimately, we had to care about them before they all decided of their own free wills to abandon their lives and run with The Doctor.
And though Yaz’s family was a delight, here’s to hoping they will not anchor the TARDIS in contemporary UK the way the Tylers, the Joneses, and Clara herself did. While “Arachnids in the UK” was a delightful modern reinvention of an earthbound Doctor Who, there is so much else to see in the universe besides South Yorkshire.
Doctor Who airs Sundays on BBC America.