'Arachnids in the UK' recap: Spiders invade Sheffield in a scary, funny 'Doctor Who' romp

Paul Kirkley
Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who: Arachnids in the UK (BBC)

The fourth episode of Doctor Who S11 has landed. Here’s everything you need to know about ‘Arachnids in the UK’:

What’s it about? The Doctor brings Graham, Yaz and Ryan home to Sheffield, only to find the city overrun by giant spiders – and a blowhard American business tycoon whose similarity to a certain US president is entirely intentional.

Verdict: Given Doctor Who’s track record of turning everyday objects into the stuff of nightmares, it’s surprising the show hasn’t done more with spiders over the years. After all, with even the word enough to send some people scurrying for the hills, it feels like half the work’s already done.

‘Arachnids in the UK’ more than makes up for the oversight, however: it may be a shockingly poor pun, but it’s a terrific Doctor Who story, mixing big scares with big laughs and plenty of feels.

In many ways, it evokes the the contemporary, urban milieu of Russell T Davies’s watch – especially the scenes set in and around Sheffield’s Park Hill council estate, where we meet Yaz’s family for the first time. But in Hallowe’en week, Chris Chibnall pushes the terror further than Davies was comfortable with: make no mistake, these oversized arachnids – some the size of vans – won’t do anything to help spiders stage a PR fightback. (Though it does address the age-old jibe about them not being able to get out of the bath in somewhat spectacular fashion.)

Chris Noth as Robertson in Doctor Who: Arachnids in the UK (BBC)

Not all the meanies in the story have eight legs: Chris Noth’s Robertson, a blowhard business tycoon with presidential ambitions, is terrific panto villain (if you can call a character based on the current leader of the free world a panto villain, which you absolutely can). We get the measure of him right off the bat with his brutal dismissal of Yaz’s Mum (“You’re fired” being a less than subtle nod to Donald Trump’s former job on The Apprentice). This is a man who expects the world to jump to attention at the snap of his fingers, which makes it all the sweeter when the Doctor bowls in and takes command, reducing Robertson to the role of emasculated bystander.

It’s a very funny episode, full of moments of charm for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. I loved her awkwardness in Yaz’s flat (“Am I being weird?”) and her baffled response to being asked if she and Yaz are seeing each other (“We’re not, are we?”). There are plenty of emotional beats, too. Graham’s return home is deeply moving (“I’ve got so much to tell you”). And the Doctor has never looked more lonely and vulnerable than when struggling to say goodbye to her friends – and rarely more excited by anything in the universe than the giddy thrill of “tea at Yaz’s”. It’s delightful stuff.

Director Sallie Aprahamian’s CV includes a fair chunk of children’s TV, and she’s clearly enjoying being let off the leash here: parents can expect plenty of requests to sleep with the lights on this week, and no doubt the odd damp sheet too. Aprahamian’s vision is well supported by the show’s new FX house, Double Negative, whose CG spiders are of the Hollywood quality you’d expect from the digital boffins behind Blade Runner 2049.

How gorgeous, too, is the TARDIS’s kaleidoscopic tumble through the time vortex – surely the most stunning in-flight sequence we’ve ever seen in Doctor Who? (And one that put me in mind of Miguel’s journey into the candy-coloured Land of the Dead in Coco.)

Falling out of that polychromatic lightshow onto the streets of Sheffield is a beautiful example of how Doctor Who juggles the fantastic with the domestic. It’s also a reminder that being British is key to the show’s USP: audiences are hardwired to expect this sort of stuff in New York and LA, so it’s glorious to see giant spiders creeping and crawling over South Yorkshire. And fighting said critters with a blast of Stormzy is another very British – and quite brilliant – touch.

Sheffield is a fine city, of course, but by the end of this episode, Graham, Yaz and Ryan have decided they want more. They’ve had a taste of life with the Doctor, and now they’re hooked. But she can’t guarantee their safety. “When I pull that lever,” she tells them. “I’m never quite sure what’s going to happen.” And neither are we. That’s the magic of Doctor Who in a nutshell.

Doctor Who: Arachnids in the UK (BBC)

Doctor’s notes: The Doctor used to have a sister. She’s worried she might be socially awkward in her new body. Or maybe she’s just nervous.

Fellow travellers: We meet Yaz’s family: mum Najia, sister Sonia and dad Hakim (who is lovely, but makes terrible pakora). Yaz hasn’t met anyone special because she’s “married to the job”. Ryan gets a letter from his dad, and is annoyed by its reference to Graham as not being “proper” family. Is he slowly warming to the idea of him as his granddad? Graham has started talking to Grace. By the end of the episode, all have decided they want to swap Sheffield for adventures in space and time.

Isn’t that…? Chris Noth (Robertson) is best known for playing ‘Mr Big’ in Sex and the City, along with roles in in Law & Order and The Good Wife. Shobna Gulati (Najia) has been a mainstay of British TV for 20 years, most famously as Anita in Dinnerladies and Sunita in Coronation Street.

Location, location, location: Sheffield, South Yorkshire, 2018.

Scary monsters: Giant spiders, mutated by “a soup of toxic waste” beneath Robertson’s hotel.

Quote unquote: “Something’s wrong with the spider eco-system in South Yorkshire.” The Doctor

“In the end, every living thing has the same instinct: to come back home.” The Doctor

“You can’t be President if you fire Yaz’s mum.” The Doctor

Shobna Gulati appears in ‘Arachnids in the UK’.

“I want more. More of the universe. More time with you. You’re like the best person I’ve ever met.” Yaz, speaking for every viewer there.

Gadgets and gizmos: The psychic paper is back, showing the Doctor to be a “crisis investigator”. Which is pretty on the money, actually.

Best bit: In an episode packed with scares, laughs and high-octane thrills, perhaps the most affecting moment is the Doctor’s response to the simple offer of staying for tea: “Definitely, yes I would! I love tea. Tea at Yaz’s? Amazing!’

Worst bit: The Doctor’s solution to Sheffield’s spider problem seems rather effortless, and brings the story shuddering to something of an abrupt halt.

Scariest bit: The Doctor, Ryan and Jade exploring Anna’s flat is deliciously creepy. Monsters literally under the bed – what could be more Doctor Who than that? Anna’s body covered in cobwebs is also a memorable image (was anyone else reminded of Robert Smith in the video for The Cure’s Lullaby?).

Funniest bit: “Are you Ed Sheeran? Is he Ed Sheeran? Everyone talks about Ed Sheeran round about now, don’t they?”

Huh? The story is predicated on rather a lot of unlikely coincidences: Of all the cities in all the world, the spider infestation just happens to be Sheffield, Yaz’s mum just happens to be working at the hotel, and their neighbour at the testing lab. What are the odds?

Back in time: Grabbing vinegar from the kitchen cupboard to fight off a marauding monster in a flat feels like a deliberate nod to Jackie Tyler melting a Slitheen with a jugful of acetic acid in 2005’s World War Three.

Next time – ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’: Injured and stranded in the wilds of a far-flung galaxy, The Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan must band together with a group of strangers to survive against one of the universe’s most deadly – and unusual – creatures.

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