I am reminded of the way in which late-era Gatiss stories landed with a sense of pleasurable relief. Not in the high stakes way of Rosa or The Woman Who Fell to Earth where being crap would have had disastrous consequences, but in the way that you’re relieved when you brace yourself for pain that never comes. “Attack of the giant spiders written by Chris Chibnall” is as far from a straightforwardly promising premise as it is possible to get. And yet this is surprisingly good. It’s not a classic in the all-time best sense, but in the well-worn and vintage sense; it’s Doctor Who doing what Doctor Who does, and doing it well.
It’s fair to ask why. If you rifle through the back catalog for an obvious analogue, after all, the closest thing you get is probably The Lazarus Experiment, which is an outright failure of an episode. They’re both “return to Earth” episodes in which the Doctor finds a non-alien threat around the family life of one of someone who goes from being a temporary companion to a permanent fixture. Neither offers a particularly compelling premise or a searing sense of ambition. Indeed, there’s not necessarily an obvious explanation for why Arachnids in the UK is roughly The Faceless Ones tier while The Lazarus Experiment is closer to The Android Invasion.
Instead it’s a profusion of details. One thing the Chibnall era is rapidly establishing as a strength is its ability to structure the process of the Doctor figuring things out over the course of an episode. Where Moffat drew on his sitcom background to build ostentatious narrative contraptions that snapped together with a catharsis of (sometimes spurious) cleverness, Chibnall is drawing on his time writing various flavors procedurals, whether Law and Order UK, Broadchurch, or, in its own way, Torchwood to make a show that is about the Doctor encountering a situation and working out what it is and what to do with it. If Arachnids in the UK feels classic, it’s not in the “attack of the common phobia” sense, but in the sense of going back a mode of thinking about plot and setting that was consciously discarded in one sense when Innes Lloyd came to favor the base under siege as a narrative structure and in another when Russell T Davies reworked the show as a post-Buffy character drama.
But Chibnall isn’t rolling back the years so much as he’s working out how to do procedural Doctor Who in 2018 and in fifty-minute containers. There’s deftness to the way he splits the party to give Graham and Yaz character beats while weaving the establishment of the mystery across all three strands, then calmly reassembles it once the mystery is in place and it’s time to start investigating it. And he continues in this vein, breaking off Graham and Ryan to give them a big scene and establish the queen spider while the Doctor, Yaz, and Najia go solve the how and why of it, but then bringing everyone back together for the denouement.
He’s also working out how to make this many companions work as characters. Four episodes was a while to get everyone to have a distinct personality, and there’s still a sense of there being a rotation system for who feeds the Doctor questions, but everyone is at least to the point where they feel like they have their own arcs and perspectives. There’s a growing sense of what it would be interesting to give individual characters as challenges and as plot points. Certainly it doesn’t feel overstuffed or like there’s a character who’s surplus to requirements, a state of affairs that isn’t really true of any stable three-companion lineup post-1965.
Certainly there are problems, mostly centered around the episode’s sense of politics and ethics. The idea that the spiders aren’t evil but simply confused and afraid is compelling, but the episode tries to hang more on the idea than it can actually support, attempting to build a big moral point out of “don’t kill spiders” that falters both on the fact that squashing spiders is a pretty normal thing to do and on the fact that the Doctor attempts to make a distinction between shooting a spider or starving it to death in which the latter is apparently more humane. Given that this ends up being the main conflict in the climactic scene, its incoherence is frustrating.
And then there’s Jack Robertson, our transparent Trump analogue. Obviously I don’t mind Doctor Who lampooning current political figures; The Happiness Patrol is wonderful. There’s something a little weird about Doctor Who targeting American politics two weeks in a row in a period where it’s not like there aren’t some significant concerns to be had about British politics, but equally, one suspects the current political climate might not be one where Doctor Who can get away with doing a blatant Brexit story; spearing Trump and American racial politics may well be its safe route towards commentary. We’ll just have to hope Star Trek: Discovery tackles Brexit to balance it out.
No, the problem is much the same one that made Rosa so unpleasant. The Happiness Patrol ended with Helen A broken and weeping over her monster dog in the ruins of her regime. Arachnids in the UK ends with Robertson storming off in confidence of his impending victory, with the Doctor just sort of glaring at him. Given that I think it would be perfectly acceptable to have the Doctor clap Trump himself in unbreakable chains forged in the heart of a dwarf star or imprison him forever by tricking him into the event horizon of a collapsing galaxy, having an analogue flounce off without so much as a “don’t you think he looks tired” is fantastically unsatisfying. Sure, he could come back and this could see actual resolution, but let’s face it, given the general sloppiness of Chibnall’s plotting it seems just as likely that this is it.
But this is the first episode we’ve had that plausibly marks what standard-issue Doctor Who is going to look like in the Chibnall era, and the answer is “perfectly fine.” Indeed, four stories in there’s yet to be anything with a credible claim to being a turkey. Whittaker certainly isn’t the only Doctor to achieve that; based on consensus opinions of stories, the record is either six or seven. But it’s healthily above the median, and an impressive baseline of quality. That record of six or seven belongs to the Pertwee era, depending on whether you want to break its hot streak with The Claws of Axos or Colony in Space. And that increasingly seems like a solid point of comparison for the Chibnall era. I once described the Letts strategy as sacrificing the quality of your high points in order to avoid fucking up. That seems like what Chibnall is aiming for at this point. And when you can avoid making an episode with the premise “spiders!” suck, you’re doing pretty well for yourself.