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