It’s October 28th, 2018. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper are at number one with “Shallow,” a fact with which I could simply end this essay and come to much the same conclusion. Silk City ft. Dua Lipa, Post Malone ft. Swae Lee, and Little Mix ft. Nicki Minaj also chart.
In news, a neo-nazi kills eleven people in a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Multiple attempts at mail bombs against Democratic politicians are intercepted, and a suspect is arrested in Florida. And in the UK, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, owner of Leicester City Football Club, dies in a helicopter crash outside the stadium.
On television, meanwhile, Arachnids in the UK. Set aside any elaborate theories about the Sheffield Gothic or whatever. Set aside the ending, at least for the moment. Let’s instead focus on the part of the episode that is extremely, pointedly Doctor Who, and build out from that to see where we might end up. Because there is one aspect of this episode that is extremely, classically Doctor Who, except that it’s done so extraordinarily weirdly that basically nobody ever notices that it’s even happening, namely that the episode undergoes a massive genre shift halfway through.
No, really. Look at the opening couple minutes, with their spider-low angles, ominous woodwinds, and dark rooms. This episode emphatically begins as a horror piece—a recognizable genre within Doctor Who. It continues in this mould for almost precisely half its runtime. And then, at around the halfway mark, there is a big set piece in which Jack Robertson is ambushed in the bathroom by the giant spider. At the beginning of this scene the episode is still horror—look at the steady progression through ominous shots and building tension. The giant spider emerges, Robertson starts screaming, and suddenly his security guard Kevin bursts in, Robertson escapes, and we cut away to Jodie Whittaker being very excited about Yaz’s mum. When, about a minute later, we return to the scene, the story is a very different genre, lurching into an extended comedy bit.
The last time Doctor Who dramatically changed course exactly halfway through an episode about spiders we got a televisual ritual about our lost space-based futures. That is not what we get this time, obviously, and nowhere is that more obvious than what prompts the genre shift. It’s tempting to be petulant and to say that nothing prompts it, but that’s not true. What prompts it—the actual on-screen event that makes this episode turn decisively away from horror—is Chris Noth doing a bunch of funny faces and comedy “I’m a selfish asshole” bits as Kevin gets eaten.
Many of the questions raised by this transition have no actual answers. Why is a mid-tier American actor best known for a supporting role on Sex and the City anchoring a mid-episode genre shift by doing comedy bits as a Donald Trump analogue? This is a question that simply cannot be answered without gazing directly into the mind of Chris Chibnall. Nevertheless, here he is, doing just that.…