Thursday, 1 November 2018

Arachnids in the UK written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Sallie Aprahamian



This story in a nutshell: Spiders! And they’re bloody massive!

Oh Brilliant: I appreciated seeing the Doctor’s vulnerability at losing her new team. I don’t think it took any thing away from her character to be so visibly upset at having successfully gotten them home. Hartnell used to break my heart in this fashion all the time. Whittaker is stuck with Chibnall’s overly eccentric and unamusing dialogue again for parts of the episode, that really hamper her attempts to bring a natural quirkiness to the character. All that nonsense about purple sofas…it’s just cardboard wit in the wake of what Davies or Moffat would have delivered and a far cry from Marjorie Blackman’s thoughtful dialogue for her last week. He’s trying to hard, which makes it sound like Whittaker is trying too hard. When the Doctor days she is still figuring herself out I got the impression that Jodie Whittaker was too. Rather wonderfully I thought she was at her best when empathising and trying to understand the spiders. It certainly felt more Doctorish than her scenes with Robertson where she should have eaten him up for breakfast but instead just sort of lets him get on with being an idiot. The Doctor mentions several off-screen adventures in Arachnids that sound a lot more memorable than the one we are in – fatal mistake. How like the Doctor to find out that a mega giant spider has killed a man and dangle herself down the hold it came out of. Fearless, that one. ‘A call people dude now’ is exactly the sort of line they should be avoiding or the first female Doctor will just be remembered as a knock off tenth or eleventh Doctor. Does it push to hard at the end to bring the four regulars together? Actually no. But I fail to understand how the episode can be so pitch perfect in its characterisation at points, and so ridiculously unsubtle in others. Regardless, this approach of having the three companions all agree to walk willingly into the Doctor’s life is really novel and provides the episode with a touching sentiment to got out with. This isn’t a Doctor and companions, it’s a true ensemble piece and we haven’t had that feeling since the sixties.

Graham: The best exploration of grief in the new series to date, and the most truthful. Graham’s visit to his dead wife’s flat are some of the most impactful scenes in the 13-year run of the revival to date. When Amy lost her child it was skipped over with appalling silence, when Clara lost her boyfriend it was handled volcanically and soon forgotten. And when the Doctor lost Rose it was dwelt upon with appalling regularity. With Graham’s loss of his wife, we see the true extent of grief in a very personal, intimate way. It’s been subtly handled but ever present, how he has honoured her name, remembered her strengths, protected her grandson. Fortunately losing Grace co-incided with Graham heading off into time and space but now he is home and has to face up to his home without her and in some expertly directed sequences, the best in the episode, we see him haunted by her loss and reminded of what is missing. My friend Jack mentioned that had we all known that Bradley Walsh would have been the highlight of the new series of Doctor Who, we would have all laughed. Actually I figured early on he was going to shine in this season, and he’s proving worth his weight in gold and with a hangdog expression that can elicit tears in me much like the mighty Cribbins. And comparing anybody to Cribbins is a huge compliment.

Ryan: Is this the first Doctor Who season that might come with its own soundtrack? There’re a few moments of character thrown Ryan’s way (mostly to do with his nan and dad and both are marinating nicely and will probably yield results later in the season) but like The Ghost Monument, it’s the moment Ryan is characterised as a proper bloke that really stands out. Pumping the hotel full of ghastly contemporary music, he truly earns his lad status. He might not be the most memorable of companions but he does stick out in moments like this (perhaps for the wrong reasons).

Yaz: So, this was Yaz’s chance to shine as we are introduced to her family…and I didn’t get much if I’m honest. Comparing one period of NuWho with another is inevitable now we have reached our third showrunner and if I am honest there was nothing particularly standout about Yaz or her family beyond ‘they were a normal, humdrum family,’ Not something you could level at the Tylers or the Jones’ (for very different reasons) and especially the Nobles who all stood out as rich, colourful, vivid people with lives no more unusual than yours or mine until they met the Doctor but who came to life because of him. The Khans are a pretty bland bunch; the paranoid father, the working mother and the annoying sister but none of them especially reached out to me as being particularly engaging or worth investing more time in. The biggest difference between the characters in the Chibnall era with those of the previous two administrations is that you could drop the companions from Chibnall’s era into any regular drama and they would fit in just fine. That’s an intriguing approach and very worthwhile but at the same time it means they don’t really match up to a Doctor Who episode, which requires you to be a little more vivid and standout (‘We’re on the bloody moon!’ ‘Quick word with Michael Jackson’ ‘Well isn’t that wizard’). Yaz and her family are all very realistic, and because of that a little forgettable. The implication that Yaz might be bisexual is he most interesting thing we have learnt about her so far, and to be honest that probably shouldn’t be the case.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Can you believe they are actually moving towards that music?’

The Good: The direction is impressive throughout and I really love the touch at the beginning of the episode where the camera pans low across the various hotel sets like we are watching the POV of a spider. It’s an immediate suggestion of danger from the eight-legged freaks and a visually arresting start to the episode. I can’t help it – the TARDIS landing in an urban area gives me goosebumps every time. It’s the sort of thing that had I seen it as a child I would have been thinking ‘she might be coming for me!’ I don’t suffer from Arachnophobia but I seem to know everybody in the country who does (I would love to have a pet tarantula but everybody would disown me if I dared) and I was contacted by a friend who was watching this episode live who was literally behind the sofa for one week. See my photo attached. It’s the most impressive spiders we have ever seen in the show and blown up to terrifying proportions they truly come across as a quivering, scuttling, predatory menace. In an episode that was aired just before Halloween it is a genius concept to explore. This is how petrifying the cobwebs spun in Planet of the Spiders should have been, victims bound up in sticky webbing and asphyxiated. For some this would be the ultimately dread. Good on the show for going for plain and simple scares again. The detail in the CGI is impressive and I love the fact that there are no attempts to exaggerate the spiders creatively. These are ordinary household spiders, the kind that fall on your face when you’re sleeping and crawl down your throat but HUGE. Kudos to Chibnall for the scene of Kevin being straddled by a spider, looking as though he is being devoured alive and then dragged screaming hysterically to his death wrapped in webbing. It’s the nastiest thing I’ve seen on the show in ages. Also, the scene of Graham being hunted by a spider in the corridor genuinely gave me the shivers. It’s in these moments that the episode shines. `

The Bad: Doctor Who has never exactly been known for its nuanced villains; nine times out of ten they turn out to be money grabbing, ranting psychopaths with inferiority complexes. However, Robertson manages to be in a league of his own as the cod-Trump wanabee that the series was always going to produce. The attack on Trump is advisable, but the way it is handled here makes the whole exercise a little awkward. Chibnall goes for all out attack and the result is a comic book character without any layers and somebody it is very hard to believe in. He’s also one of those characters that is simply inserted into the story to get in the way of the good guys in as irrational a way as possible – there is nothing remotely plausible about his actions for most of the story aside from to provide somebody to hiss at. It’s one dimensional villainy at its most obstinate. Somehow Big Finish made an even bigger botch of this when they tried to do a takedown of Trump in The Silurian Candidate and the one saving grave of this episode is that it isn’t quite as awful as that. Shobna Gulati is a very accomplished performer and she acquits herself well in this episode but she is given the most anaemic of characters to play. Yaz’s mum’s proximity to Robertson means that we are introduced to her in the wake of his appalling and unrealistic actions, which makes her anguish pretty hard to swallow. Jade McIntyre is similarly one-note, often just there to provide plot exposition and knowledge about spiders despite the actress trying hard to infuse some kind of plausibility into the character. Remember the ‘narrows it down!’ sequence in World War Three leading to a face off with vinegar and exploding goo? Chibnall attempts to pull off the same trick here with vinegar and garlic paste, except it’s not funny or particularly clever. In Tooth and Claw Davies creates a setting that turns out to vital to the entire plot, unpeeling layers as the story continues. In Gridlock he pulls of the same trick but on a planetwide scale. Chibnall tries to do the same thing here with the hotel and whilst everything ultimately does make sense (the toxic dump polluting the spiders into epic scale) it is a very simple explanation with a half arsed ecological message tossed in. In a season that is wearing its left-wing badge, this is another lecture to humanity. The Green Death provided an environmental lecture, but it did it in a far more intelligent way, presenting its argument through colourful and engaging characters.

Result: The title kind of tells you everything that you need to know; it’s as generic as a Doctor Who title can possibly get whilst still promising something kind of exciting. And that is exactly what you get; a traditional Doctor Who runaround featuring some really creepy monsters. But let’s not pretend that this is anything more than that, a chance to blow spiders up to alarming proportions and trap them in a hotel with the Doctor and friends. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s ideal Sunday night fare the weekend before Halloween. But once again I’m not being challenged and that is something I long for now in this ultra-safe season. Maybe this harmless approach to the storytelling was needed to ensure the ring of changes this season (a female Doctor, a new TARDIS, a fresh team of companions, the emphasis on characterisation) went smoothly. Maybe the latter half of the season will up the stakes in terms of creativity and complexity now the status quo has been confidently shifted. I certainly hope so because an entire buffet of romps would be disappointing. I’ve spoken a bit a bit about how functional Chibnall’s dialogue is and it is really apparent here, where some spice and wit in the script would have really have helped with the (empty) characterisation. If it sounds like I am being hard on this episode then I can counter that with some superlatives; mainly the gross icky spiders who feature in some very memorable scenes, a few that are particularly scary. I love it when the show dares to cut loose and just be a bit frightening and it achieves that in droves here. As usual the direction and music are fantastic and I really appreciated the scenes with Graham visiting the flat and the warmth between the regulars in the final scene. It’s a perfectly enjoyable, competent episode. Sometimes you’ve just got to shove some characters in a confined location and throw something nasty at them. It’s when this episode attempts to be smart that it truly falls down, with an ecological message that falls flat and a Trump parody that is insultingly puerile. Also, the ‘humane’ climax lacks any kind of satisfaction. The spiders are quite brilliant…but they are the only brilliant thing about this. I really like the fact that they are victims, despite their actions. It makes their fate especially unjust. Chibnall has The Power of Three, Adrift, Fragments and Broadchurch series one inside of him. I want him to deliver something like that for his debut season of Doctor Who: 6/10

4 comments:

Will Rigby said...

As per usual you've summed up most of my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Chibnall might have The Power of Three, Broadchurch #1 and Fragments as laurels upon which to rest and to suggest his writing may move out of first gear, but against that every other piece of television he has written has been mediocre to downright appalling, viz Cyberwoman, the rest of Torchwood, 42, Broadchurch #2 and #3, United, The Great Train Robbery etc. This balance sadly makes the case that any hope the series will kick into life is likely mistaken. The only hope to salvage the series and perhaps the future of the show is that some of the other writers can produce a decent script. At least the evidence all points to the failure of the revived Who lies squarely with Chibnall. Jodie, Bradley, Tosin and Mandip are all great. It is so sad they have been given perhaps the weakest writer on the modern show, rather than a series under Moffat or any of the names in the mix who turned down the opportunity. The next couple of episodes will seal the show's fate.

Anonymous said...

I have seen people say Chibnall's era is a return to RTD. It isn't, character drama and characterization was much better in that era and you felt for the characters. I only empathize with Graham and I find Jodie's characterization rather appalling. She tries too hard to be quirky and spunky and it comes out very forced. Like the dialogue "I'm socially awkward" you don't need to have the Doctor say that, just write her as socially awkward. I know you hate Moffat but he managed to make his two Doctors alien, weird and socially illiterate without having them spurting it out loud. I also miss the wit from both Moffat and RTD eras

Jimmy W said...

In my opinion, Doctor Who should not even be attempting a Donald Trump parody. For me, Doctor Who is the ultimate escapism show; a chance to immerse myself in a fascinating alien culture, or learn new things about history. I definitely do not want to be reminded of present day politics when I watch Doctor Who. I didn't like the preachiness of the Pertwee era and I don't like it now. Also, what a complete waste of Chris Noth's talents; he may not be Olivier or anything, but he's a decent, experienced actor capable of giving a lot more than this one-dimensional character required from him.