After the intense social commentary and emotional social justice warrior-ing of episode 3 Rosa Parks, Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who goes for a simple ‘monster of the week’ episode – in this case, spiders. But this new Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) can’t leave PC politicking well enough alone. It’s everywhere you look, and I admire that enormously.
The episode begins with the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham arriving back in Sheffield, and facing their imminent dissolution. The Doctor is about to go off on her own, the others back to their lives. It’s quite a sad moment, because sure, the Doctor leads an infinitely lonely existence.
Then Yaz invites her home for tea. Dad makes a mean (bad) pakora, mum (breathlessly called Yaz’s mum by The Doctor, like she’s a schoolkid coming round to play) works for Mr. Big in his Big Hotel, and sister throws out snarky retorts. The Doctor loves it. She rhapsodizes about imaging herself having a sofa. Or a flat. Or a view from a flat.
Then the spiders come.
There are giant spiders next door. There’s one in Graham’s attic. And most of all, there are really giant spiders in Mr. Big’s hotel where Yaz’s mum works. Or used to work. She gets fired instantly, for, well, having the audacity to speak?
After that, with the gang all in the hotel, it becomes in some ways a pretty standard, if high-quality, monster romp. The graphics are fantastic for a show like this – those spiders look almost Hollywood movie-grade. The gags are good. The acting is fine.
Except it’s not standard, because nothing about this Doctor is. The really interesting stuff comes toward the resolution, and may have actually answered a question I’ve had lingering since the final moments of the first episode.
That moment was on the crane, when the Doctor has just thrown a bit of tech at the toothy Tim Shaw, and he’s about to get time-zapped back to his own world. The chap who was Shaw’s trophy then kicks out, knocking Tim Shaw off the crane to fall, presumably, to his death. Except of course he zaps off in space.
Big win, no? Except the Doctor rounds on the trophy guy and says angrily “You had no right to do that!”
What now? I didn’t get it then. Was she angry that he had stolen the kill from her? I couldn’t imagine it any other way. Tim Shaw had already killed several people. He deserved to die. What could the Doctor possibly be mad about?
Well, look at Arachnids for a possible answer. the Doctor shows tremendous empathy at her every interaction with the giant spiders. On her first interaction in the flat next to Yaz’s mum (couldn’t resist) she gets down and has a chat with the spider, telling it to hold fast while she figures some things out. Of course the spider doesn’t understand, but that’s not the point. The point is that the Doctor even makes the effort to explain her plan.
Why explain it to a spider? Well. Later on, when a spider explodes out of the bath plug (fantastic new phobia for kids!), she ducks her head down to chat, with seemingly no intention of hurting it. She says several times that these spiders are not acting normally – something has done this to them.
That is quite complex. We’re not just blaming the spiders for being monsters. We’re looking beyong their ‘monstrous’ appearance and trying to figure out what it is. After all, they’re not actually eating humans. Killing them, yes, and wrapping them in silk, but not eating them. They are trapped in their too-huge bodies every bit as much as our heroes are trapped in the hotel with them.
That requires a tremendous empathic leap – to feel for the spiders. The Doctor makes that leap with ease. she tries to bring us along with her. So the piece de resistance comes at the end, when we see the massive spider trying to climb the wall, and the Doctor explains that it is too big to breathe. It’s dying, and trying to escape from them. It’s more afraid of us than we are of it.
What a beautiful moment. It’s just a spider, she’s saying. It’s suffering. Sure, we could kill it, but if we take the time to understand it, we don’t need to. So this Doctor is adamantly against killing. She will seek to understand even the darkest of hearts, and then heal them, rather than outright kill.
So this sheds light on Tim Shaw’s fall. She is angry at the trophy guy because he tried to kill Tim Shaw. He had no right to make that judgment, she is saying. In the moment, Tim Shaw was neutralized. Sure, he was a bad guy, a killer, but in that moment he was harmless. On his way out. And the death penalty was not trophy guy’s to hand down.
So the monster is not just the monster. In Arachnids, the real monster is the Trump-like Mr. Big who has allowed his hotels to be built on huge piles of irresponsibly dumped waste – hotels and waste and companies which he refuses to take responsibility for. Remind you of anyone? He insists he doesn’t know everything his companies do. But he takes all the profits they produce. He plans to leverage that into the presidency.
The real monsters are humans. Greedy, base, standard-issue humans.
I love that Doctor Who is making humans central to its stories. Aliens just aren’t as interesting. Unless, of course, they are aliens with human-like motivations. Daleks are fascinating because, like the Borg, they can be seen as extreme fascists. They have no empathy – and that is terrifying.
My only concern is how anti-American this episode could have come across. Yes, I’m all for railing against guns at any chance the Doctor can get. But having that in there, alongside a villain who is so stereotypically ‘American’? It’s a lot to swallow. Of course we had Rosa Parks and other positive Americans last time. So I’m not overly concerned.
On the whole, I continue to think that the Doctor is doing amazing, uplifting teaching for all of us. She’s from the future, from another race. She’s supposed to be wiser than us. How fitting then that she cares so deeply for life in all its forms, us humans included.