ARACHNIDS IN THE UK
The terror. After the achingly fashionable mirrored titles, in which, it appears, we get to examine an alien digestive system from the inside, we see the words most guaranteed to strike dread into our hearts. Yep: "By Chris Chibnall".
Isn't it time - well, more than time - he gave someone else a go? How many of these things does he have, anyway? We're starting to suspect that many if not all of them have actually been dragged out from under the wobbly leg of Russell T Davies/Steven Moffat's desk and had the dust blown off them. Arachnids in The UK in particular richly deserves having "Rejected" stamped on it in angry red ink.
Why? Well, first of all, there's the people. There's absolutely nothing like a subtle and nuanced character study. And Arachnids In The UK is absolutely nothing like a subtle and nuanced character study. Mr Big's name here is Robertson, but he's actually playing someone distinctly more orange.
Argh. We'll give Chris Noth this: he gives it maximum welly. If there's anything genuinely funny to be extracted, he extracts it. But it's the definition of a thankless part: you can't satirise the unsatirisable. And this episode demonstrates why you shouldn't even try. The character's so broadly drawn it struggles even to be one-dimensional.
And while we're talking about character, shall we have a chat about the Doctor? We love the Doctor's speech in Yaz's flat about the sofa: not only is Jodie Whittaker's delivery brilliant, the speech itself is delightfully Doctorly. Except…which Doctor, exactly? You know that thing we said about these episodes possibly dating from way back? She's frequently sounded like the Tenth Doctor in a manic phase, and here the sofa speech is distinctly Mattish. And saying "I'm still figuring myself out" is far from an adequate excuse. Come on, it's Episode Four. If the showrunner can't do any better by now than having a mashup of two of the previous Doctors as a placeholder, does he actually know who she is?
Then there's the plot. As with Rosa, you'd think that this material is so strong it couldn't possibly miss. Let's face it, spiders don't have a lot of friends. And to be fair, they do get some good shocks out of it. We're actually very fond of spiders: they're not only amazingly talented but, in our opinion, pretty cute, but even we got the squills at the sight of Anna in a cocoon and the very many legs appearing from under the bed. Good start, right? Then we get the most effective horror in the whole thing as Enormospider bursts out of the bath. And it's pretty creepy when the Doctor sticks her head down the plughole, too.
But then? It all kinds of spirals away into nothing. There are more spiders, sure. And the TARDIS team is menaced by them, a bit. But only a bit. As in Ghost Monument, you never get the feeling anyone's genuinely in any peril. Danger, Will Robinson! Mustn't scare the kiddies! This isn't helped, either by vast wads of explanation being shovelled into the second half. You'd think it would be the epicentre of terror going down into the tunnels, but instead it's an endless lecture. Methane. Sulphite. Trichloroethylene. Vertical integration. Lab waste disposal. So very, very….zzzzz….
And the same with the human bad guy as well: off he goes without so much as a scratch on his highly polished carcass, presumably to join the League Of Mildly Irritating Villains with Toothface and Costco. (This had better be some desperately cunning arc plan, because otherwise it's bloody unsatisfying.)
As well as the tepidness of the scare, it's absolutely packed with stupidity. Sure, the idiocy of the toxic goo making spiders mutate so quickly, as if they're in a 1950s horror movie, is annoying. But it turns out that it's in the hotel lobby where we're really required to suspend our disbelief. First Yaz's mum Najia is summarily fired for no reason, which is seriously Not A Thing in the UK, and then Robertson's bodyguard pulls a gun on Yaz, which is Even Less Of A Thing. But that's not the weird part. That would be when Yaz - a police officer - just stands there without bothering to mention, either during or after, that it's all kinds of illegal or doing anything about it. Absolutely. Ridiculous.
The stupidity extends into horrendous plot holes, too. The Doctor reviles Robertson for giving the giant spider an accidentally merciful death while locking other spiders into the panic room to suffocate. And all the other megaspiders in Sheffield, including the one in Anna's flat and potentially the one in Graham's (we weren't sure if that was supposed to have moved on) have been happily abandoned to let them get on with their mad cocooning ways. Splendid.
And there's also that particular kind of anvil-dropping obviousness Chibnall makes his very own. Just in case you're unable to work out just who the episode is so very subtly satirising, they actually say "Donald Trump" out loud. And in case you hadn't noticed that the spider in Anna's flat was the size of a toaster, Ryan helpfully points out that it was way bigger than a household spider. YA THINK? Also, thanks for cluttering up an already crowded screen by bringing in someone to do the science. Pardon us, but isn’t that what the Doctor's for?
And while we're on the topic of obviousness, did we really need a metric forktonne of finger-wagging? Is there seriously any member of the audience who thinks dumping toxic waste is a good idea? This is less low-hanging fruit than overripe fruit that's fallen onto the ground.
All of that is bad, but it's worst when it applies to the characters. Any hint of motivation not thoroughly explained must be hunted down and underscored until it squeaks for mercy. The Doctor's beautifully delivered sofa speech, for example, is swiftly undone by her careful explanation that she might be nervous or socially awkward. Worst of all is the ending: just when we were enjoying the way they were showing the three companions' motivations leading them back to the TARDIS, in they troop and then proceed to spell it all out with a giant round of Chibsplanation. Facepalm.
It's not all terrible. As usual, Bradley Walsh kills the grieving husband bit, and his and Ryan's relationship gets another nice boost. Where she's allowed to be, which is hardly ever, Jodie is terrific (we particularly love her "I call people "dude" now!"). Yaz is always a pleasure to spend time with, although the RTD-era family stuff added little, unless you think giant hints that she might not be straight are massively shocking character development.
So as usual with Chibnall, it's the real-life, emotional stuff that succeeds, not the poorly-plotted and overexplained SF part. Remind us again why he wants to write for an SF show?
Well, we say SF, but is it? Just as in Chibnall's particularly dreadful Torchwood episode Countrycide, turns out it's nothing to do with anything SFian at all. (And if you haven't seen Countrycide and are cursing us for spoiling it, believe us, we're doing you a favour.)
NEVER MIND, IT'S BOLLOCKS
If you're not from the UK or musically inclined: the title of this is a very poor pun on the Sex Pistols' Anarchy In The UK.
If the overuse of the sonic weren't bad enough, do they have to have the Doctor wave it as if she's about to duel someone to the death?