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. Noth, it must be said, is an odd choice for a Trump analogue, especially in 2018 when it was not yet clear just how intimately he understood the “sexually abusive white dude” psyche. Trump is a larger than life, even in his narcissistic petulance and con man camp. Noth’s Robertson—and it must be said he’s very much not helped by the script here—is always small potatoes, right down to his actual scheme: building luxury hotels over illicit waste sites in Sheffield. To some extent, the shift simply feels like the anti-gravity of the character finally asserting itself on the story—the realization that the elements in play here do not actually support horror, and will have to go do something else—specifically something with comedy bits about spiders liking Stormzy, apparently.
Oddly, this deflating momentum ends up carrying the story to its endpoint, where it manages to unravel completely. The giant spider turns out to be dying of an acute case of the square cube law, meaning there’s nothing for the Doctor to do. Robertson shoots it dead anyway, which, in the simplified morality of Chibnall, is not a defensible act of mercy but one of brutal cruelty because Robertson uses a gun. The Doctor stares moodily as the Trump analogue walks away, and the story ends with her impotent and uninvolved. This, unsurprisingly, proved controversial on a number of fronts, and we’ll unpack that in a second, but it’s worth stopping for a moment and highlighting the fact that in a strange way this makes sense—that a story that at its halfway point abandons “let’s do a scary one” in favor of aimless comedy gurning arguably should end up about here, with nothing to do and nothing to say, a strange and perverse case of form accommodating function.
Of course, we do have to deal with the basic reality of, in 2018, the decision to have the Doctor functionally let Donald Trump off the hook. There are a lot of angles we could take on this, admittedly. The most basic and obvious is simply “fuck that shit,” and it’s a response with much to recommend it. Here’s the Doctor confronting rising fascism, bigotry, willful stupidity, and basically everything she’s ever stood against, and her reaction is to look cranky and let him walk away. It’s hard not to be upset about that. I certainly was when it aired.
There’s another position, broadly associated with the comics writer Grant Morrison, about whom I have written a bit, that argues that it’s ridiculous to ask for this sort of thing from our fictional characters. Morrison’s argument is that the things fictional characters offer isn’t solving all of our problems. Having the Doctor stop Trump might be a nice fantasy, but it’s not a practical use of the character because she can’t. She’s a fictional character, and so Trump isn’t a thing she can affect. Mind you, this argument isn’t really in favor of what Chibnall is doing here, because its real claim is that having the Doctor confront Trump at all is silly, but it at least justifies why the Doctor heroically taking down a Trump analogue would be a hollow pleasure that’s best avoided.
A third position, of course, is that Doctor Who once left a thinly veiled Margaret Thatcher weeping over her dead murder puppy in the rubble of her fascist regime, and that this is something to admire it for. I admit to having a lot of sympathy for this position, which would in this instance focus on the fact that Robertson isn’t actually Trump, but a fictional character himself who can absolutely suffer some horrendous and comical mishap for the sake of a cheap emotional catharsis. Shooting an off-brand Rupert Murdoch in the face was one of Moffat’s finest hours, y’know?
But at some point we have to admit that this simply isn’t Chibnall’s aesthetic vision. The Doctor hasn’t “saved the day” per se in any of her four stories so far. And given the knowledge that Chibnall’s fandom is rooted in the 1980s, and that he was that golden age of eleven through thirteen for the Peter Davison era, it’s easy enough to see where he’s getting this approach. Chibnall’s favoring of a more understated and passive Doctor who isn’t the swaggering hero that saves the day represents more or less the clearest aesthetic vision he’s managed to show to date..
And that’s the thing. If you squint really hard at Arachnids in the UK you get something that’s actually a coherent take on Doctor Who. It’s not especially my take—my nostalgia for the Davison era is outweighed by the fact that it very rarely works and that its failures seem rooted in the very writing that keep marginalizing the Doctor. But it’s a take—an actual thing Chibnall appears to want to stand for. And that’s worth embracing.
The problem, of course, is that it’s still so fucking hard to do it. Sure, Arachnids in the UK finally demonstrates with some clarity what Chibnall is going for, but it doesn’t actually, you know, get there. You’ve still got a story that starts with “we’re gonna do a spooky horror thing for Halloween,” veers off towards “actually we’re going to do a silly comedy bit around a Trumpalike,” and then ends on a note of ambivalent tragedy that’s completely unearned by either of those setups. As is simply always the case when a script says “Chris Chibnall” on it, there’s nothing there.
But fine. We know that one of the biggest problems with Chibnall is that he’s sending functionally unrevised scripts (no matter how many drafts he actually took on them, they come off as first drafts) to production. We know that better writers can wring adequacy out of his ideas. So let’s just, you know, imagine the revisions one might make to Arachnids in the UK to get a real story out of it and see if there’s anything to say about it. My goal here is not to Elify the story, but rather to find what Chibnall was going for and see how it could have been brought out more. Which is to say that it’s the note of ambivalent tragedy we’re trying to land.
The most obvious thing to note is that it’s the comedy middle that’s screwing it up. Maintaining a scary tone from the start until the tragic ending would be effective. Instead of making a genre pivot in the middle, have Robertson just be an absolutely callous monster at the death of Kevin so that it’s an upping of stakes instead of what it dramatically functions as here—a complete removal of them. This also sets up how you’d actually want to resolve it, which would be Robertson successfully taking credit and responsibility for solving the problem, positioning himself as a hero. (Chibnall, notably, basically got here for Revolution of the Daleks.) This would mean that the Doctor’s impotence would actually do something, with her absence of heroism providing an opening for the false heroism of Robertson.
The result of this would be a strangely pessimistic Doctor Who. But it would at least be one that has a point of view and beliefs about the world—one that has sight of the notion of systemic problems and an understanding that individual heroism and lonely gods from the heavens aren’t a solution to them. These are good messages, at least, although questions obviously remain about how they’d function as drama. And they provide some notion of how this could have actually been about something.
But here we run into the grim absurdity of the exercise. Is Chibnall a crypto-pessimist writing about the doomed nature of heroism in a world dominated by people like Donald Trump only to be frustrated by the deficiencies of his own production style and his inexplicable tendency to shoot hastily assembled first draft scripts instead of actually coming up with ideas and committing to them? Well… probably not, actually. One does have to admit that seems faintly improbable, and like an argument I would be hard pressed to actually make in any extended way over the remaining thirty posts. At best we have uncovered a sort of, well, ghost monument to the Chibnall era—an interpretation that is not there, could never have been there, is not even an illusion, that word implying an aura of convincingness, and yet somehow, improbably, is more substantive than the actual episode.
Past that, what is there to say? There is nothing here. This is an episode of television only in the sense that it consists of fifty contiguous minutes of moving images and sounds that were transmitted on BBC One. Form follows function, and the function of this essay is to talk about an episode of television that literally manages to say nothing whatsoever about anything at all. I may well have spent more time trying to figure out how to get two thousand words out of it than Chibnall did writing it. If those words don’t amount to much, blame him.