Doctor Who Season 11, Episode 4 recap: Spiders from Sheffield

Photo credit: Doctor Who/BBC -- Acquired via AMC Press Site
Photo credit: Doctor Who/BBC -- Acquired via AMC Press Site /

Doctor Who took on hot-button issues like gun control and corporate malfeasance in an episode that was both heavy-handed and lighthearted.

Throughout its history, Doctor Who has been unafraid to offering pointed political commentary. In its original incarnation, the series took on the break down of British industry, environmentalism and gay rights. In its more recent iteration, the program has dealt with the immigration crisis, racism and war in boldly direct terms. However, four episodes into the season, it seems that this new era of Doctor Who will be the most political the long-running sci-fi show has ever been.

In no uncertain terms, “Arachnids in the UK” made definitive statements about gun control, pollution and corporate corruption. And though those themes were dealt with an undeniable heaviness, the episode as a whole didn’t feel like on exhausting polemic. On the contrary, it featured so much so subtle characterization, joyful enthusiasm and humor that it felt sort of like a romp. While most TV shows would struggle to pull off so many contrasting tones in one episode, Doctor Who knocked it of the park this week. In fact, outside of the season premiere, this episode might be the best installment of the show’s 11th season.

“I’m trying to do small talk. I thought I was doing quite well”

After last week’s emotional and awkward journey to the past, this week’s episode began with The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) returning her team to the present. Ecstatic to be home, Yaz (Mandip Gill) invited everyone over for tea. Graham (Bradley Walsh) declined as he wanted time alone to mourn his wife Grace (Sharon D. Clarke).  After bringing Ryan (Tosin Cole) and the Doctor to her family’s apartment, Yaz was pulled away to pick up her mother Naija (Shobna Gulati) who had just been fired by her cruel American boss Jack Robertson (Chris Noth).

Why generally like this episode, there were a few elements I didn’t care for. The most prominent of which was that this episode really didn’t tell us a lot about Yaz. It filled in a lot of biographical detail and show the audience with her home life is like, but it didn’t develop her personality very much. Four episodes into the season and she still feels like a sitcom version of the police officer. And it’s not something I fault Gill, her performance has been warm and naturalistic. But she lacks the definition Ryan and Graham have and that’s disappointing.

Photo credit: Doctor Who/BBC — Acquired via AMC Press Site
Photo credit: Doctor Who/BBC — Acquired via AMC Press Site /

“He got Kevin. I have no more Kevin. I’m compromised!”

While running an errand for Yaz’s dad, the Doctor met Dr. Jade McIntyre (Tanya Fear), a scientist who was checking up on a work colleague who lived in Yaz’s building. As it turned out, her work colleague had been killed by a giant spider. Dr. McIntyre explained there’d been a rash of giant spider sightings throughout London. Graham discovered a giant spider at his flat and went to Yaz’s to get the Doctor. A monster spider appeared at the lavish hotel Naija worked it and killed Robertson’s security guard Kevin.

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The Doctor determined that the spider sightings formed a web around the hotel and brought the group to it. After arriving, the TARDIS crew and friends realized that the exits had all been cut off.

While exploring, Robertson revealed that the hotel was built on top of a mine that it been used as a toxic waste dump. Dr. McIntyre noted that the toxic waste disposal company also responsible for dealing with her lab’s mutant spider carcasses, hence the arachnid plague.

In general, the revived Doctor who has not depicted very American well. The Russell T. Davies air of the show was notorious for featuring a slew of dundering cowboys, mean-spirited autocrats plucky street urchin. By contrast, the Steven Moffat largely avoided featuring the North American continent and when it did, it residents were largely indistinct. With this episode, Chris Chibnall offered his take on the USA and he seems to favor board Davies’ style satire.

The wealthy, gun crazed, petulant and idiotic Robertson seemed to be an avatar for a few different American stereotypes and cultural figures. Most obviously, he seemed like a parody of the current president. To Chris Noth’s credit, he made Robertson feel like a real despicable person as opposed to a cartoon character, but the line was the thin. Ultimately, it’s difficult to effectively skewer the absurd. And while the parody was well done, doing a Donald Trump parody in 2018 seems pretty pointless.

Photo credit: Doctor Who/BBC — Acquired via AMC Press Site
Photo credit: Doctor Who/BBC — Acquired via AMC Press Site /

“Why don’t you do what normal people do; get a gun, shoot things like a civilized person!”

Ryan used grime music to attract most of the spiders into Robertson’s panic room so they could be disposed of humanely. The Doctor found the overgrown and dying mother spider, but before she could find a humane way to dispose of it, Robertson shot it with Kevin’s gun. The Doctor chided Robertson for his actions but no more. Feeling uninspired and depressed by their current lives, Ryan, Yaz and Graham officially became the Doctor’s companions.

In terms of the rest of the show’s social commentary, I’d say “Arachnids in the UK” was slightly less effective than “Rosa.” This is partially due to the fact that this episode was attempting to tackle a broader range of subjects. Where is it was able to zero in all the complex ways racism is terrible last week, this week’s installment didn’t have anything nearly as compelling to say about pollution or corporate corruption. The Doctor’s absolutist take on guns certainly felt more relevant than usual in light of recent events. But given that she didn’t toss Robertson in the event horizon of a dying star, it didn’t feel particularly radical either.

What worked a lot better in this week’s Doctor Who was all the character work. It was nice to see that, like a real person, Graham is still struggling with the recent death of his wife. And it was a nice touch by director Sallie Aprahamian to make the representation of Grace slightly out of focus whenever Graham thought about her. It made his grief feel sharp without being overly maudlin. Also, I liked the running thread of Ryan dealing with his father’s reappearance in his life. And I especially liked his dismissal of his father’s assertion that Graham wasn’t his real family. Ryan and Graham’s emerging relationship has been one of the season’s best subplots.

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I also liked meeting the extended Khan family. Chris Chibnall provided just enough detail to show that while Yaz loved her parents and sister, should be eager for some space. In general, I really like that this season of the show has put such a strong focus on the home lives of the companions. Though I appreciated both characters, Clara and always felt a bit thin because they seemingly had nothing going on in their lives aside from hanging out on the TARDIS. Giving the supporting cast richer interior lives goes a long way on giving a show about an immortal time and space traveler some real stakes.

Did you think the social commentary overwhelmed the story in this episode?

Doctor Who airs on BBC America Sunday at 8 pm.