★★★★★ I’m in my happy place. I’ve watched a Doctor Who I thoroughly enjoyed. The first three episodes had much to recommend them, showed the programme going in a new direction with fresh talent aboard, and now it feels like they’ve properly settled in. I’ve always relished a monstrous menace in the now, a few shivers and jump scares, a bit of social comment – and a smattering of mirth. Arachnids in the UK has it all.
This is a terrific script from Chris Chibnall, which all the cast, especially the guest stars, have fun with. Shobna Gulati is delightful as Najia, the hotel manager fired in her first scene, who simply has to be Yaz’s mum and indeed is called “Yaz’s mum” throughout by the Doctor. Anyone calling her “Nadia” gets short shrift. Like all mums in light drama, she’s instantly nosing into Yaz’s new friendships and love life, and wants to know if Yaz and the Doctor are “seeing each other”. Even the Doc isn’t sure: “I don’t think so. Are we?” One of series 11’s several gentle nods to lady love. Let’s have some man love to even things up – oh and more of Najia, please.
“I’m going to litigate you until your last breath, Nadia!” snarls Jack Robertson. What about Chris Noth! At first, I couldn’t quite believe he was really going to play it that way. We may know Noth as Mr Big in Sex and the City; now he goes BIG in Doctor Who. The man is from a different academy, a different galaxy, of acting. I love what he does with this part. He’s hilarious.
A Trump-alike, Robertson is a ruthless property magnate, his swagger tinged with looniness, a buffoon whose OCD calls for scheduled bathroom breaks and whose paranoia demands a panic room in all his hotels. He abandons his PA to a chomped-by-spider fate – and is more concerned about his cellphone. He shoots to kill. His worst crime, though, is a hideous taste in hotel décor. Instantly recognisable to Joe Public, or Graham O’Brien (“You’re that bloke”), he has an eye on the White House. It’s a relief when POTUS is at last namechecked – and dismissed: “Please! Don’t mention that name.” Jack Robertson has hated Trump for decades.
Noth has such majestic control and delivery, a nutty glint, that almost every line makes me chortle. “A giant spider just smashed through my bath tub and took out my bodyguard Kevin.” “What’s wrong with this country? Why don’t you do what normal people do? Get a gun. Shoot things like a civilised person!” I was nearly on the floor.
He’s the best bad guy in ages. And we’ve seen some duffers this year. As a wonderfully Who-ey counterpoint, the Doctor arrives in the hotel ballroom armed only with a spray of peppermint and tea tree oil to ward off the mummy spider. Jack Robertson just shoots it, then walks out of the ballroom and out of the episode. No pay-off. This is becoming A Thing. In every episode so far, characters have left with no farewell, either winking out of existence (Tim Shaw in ep 1; Ilin, Epzo and Angstrom in ep 2; Krasko in ep 3) or, in Robertson’s case, stomping off set. Options kept open. I trust Chris Noth has been booked for a rematch.
“You fill up disused mines with landfill waste and build a luxury hotel on top,” observes the Time Lord. How very 2018. Of course, it’s also a throwback to the ecological-disaster message of 1970s Doctor Who. I remember as a child sitting a foot away from my telly in 1973 watching The Green Death when the third Doctor and Jo Grant were trapped in a coal mine and giant maggots emerged from toxic slime. A year later, in the same position, I was enthralled as a gigantic spider materialised on a “magic carpet” in Planet of the Spiders. Chibnall has mashed the two and dared the FX experts to deliver.
High praise for those teams: DNEG TV, Real SFX and Millennium FX. So many pitiful oversize insects, bugs and arachnids have “crawled” over TV and cinema screens down the years. A lot of shonky critters have featured in Doctor Who. But these spiders are a dream (or nightmare), totally convincing, beautifully (or horribly) realised – depending on your phobia/philia.
If there’s any failing, it’s in the plot’s 19th-century-novel levels of co-incidence. That Yaz’s mum works at the hotel at the epicentre of the crisis. That the Khans live two doors down from a woman connected to the spider research base. The script contorts and unfurls its eight legs to explain that one. And can the heroes be sure that Ryan’s grime blare has lured every mutant spider from across Sheffield? Their entrapment is tidy and comical but their demise (starvation, suffocation) is un-Doctorly.
Team Tardis are fully bonded by the episode’s close and the final moments are pure joy. You might often wonder in Doctor Who: why do these people travel together? Not here. We know the Time Lord craves company, but her three new best friends all have plausible motivation to resume their travels.
Ryan can’t face returning to work in his warehouse. Yaz longs to escape her family bubble and perhaps does have a crush on the Time Lord. “I want more time with you. You’re like the best person I’ve ever met.” And there’s Graham who can’t bear being at home: “The thing about grief is it needs time.” The scenes in his living room with the phantom image of Grace are sharply touching. Bradley Walsh excels again – he could sell sand on Mars – but all four leads weave delicate fibres into this web.
Katy Manning’s verdict
“Wow!” laughs Katy Manning. “A lot of people who hate spiders are going to be freaked out by this – but I LOVE spiders!” Indeed, the former Doctor Who star happens to be one of the universe’s greatest arachnophiles. This is a woman who has handled tarantulas.
She loved Arachnids in the UK. “Yes, I liked it bestest of all, without a shadow of a doubt. Out of the four I’ve seen – and they’ve all been different – this one is more my kind of Doctor Who. I think it’s really well written, the dialogue is snappy and quick, and very credible. Everybody is connecting well.”
Katy Manning in 2018 and (inset) in Doctor Who: The Green Death, 1973
Katy played companion Jo Grant for three years in the 1970s and, as you may recall, tackled giant maggots in a polluted coal mine in her Doctor Who swansong. “It’s a subject I care about. Polluting the planet! This is exactly like The Green Death. And I do like modern Earth stories every now and again, because it’s less expected. It makes it more scary.”
She found this episode “more emotional than any of the others so far. That was a really nice ending – all the hands together on the Tardis lever.” And she was most amused by guest star Chris Noth. “He’s got to go down well… because the show’s massive in America. He was funny. I laughed all the way through – but what happened to all the baby spiders!?” She was dismayed at the solution of trapping the spiders in Robertson’s panic room. “That really upset me. I was worried because they put all those spiders in that room but… Give them some food! It’s not humane to shove them in a room they can’t get out of. I would have fed the spiders and tamed them.” Picture the sequel.
On balance, Katy concludes: “That’s one you go away from cheering. It gives me that ‘YES! Doctor Who!’ feeling.”
Katy Manning is still very much part of Doctor Who family. She records Big Finish audio dramas all the time and this weekend is joining many co-stars at TimeLash IV, her first Doctor Who convention in Germany.
This article was originally published on 28 October 2018