By Chris Chibnall
Minor Spoilers Follow.
So after an intriguing opener, a frustratingly bland follow-up, and a politically-charged, powerful but divisive third entry, has Doctor Who’s 11th Series finally found some rhythm?
No. No it bloody hasn’t. And it’s abundantly obvious who’s fault that is.
The cast do their best here, but while they keep things watchable, its very hard for actors to rescue things where the writing is this poor and the dialogue this ham-fisted. Bradley Walsh continues to impress, and it was a relief to see Mandip Gill get slightly more screentime this week (now her family’s been introduced hopefully that might help flesh her out a bit). You suspect in the Moffat/Davies years Yaz would have been the sole companion – and I feel sorry for the actress cause I think she would have knocked it out of the park back then. Now, the material isn’t good enough and she’s got little enough of it compared to the other four. Tosin Cole doesn’t get that much to do this week, but he seems to have settled into the role of Ryan well enough. I am not liking Jodie as much as I thought I would a few weeks back – but with this kind of writing its very hard to tell how much that’s on her. She’s clearly as good an actor as the previous Doctors but her Doctor’s personality is getting a bit wearing. Doctors are always on Thin Ice with me when they get too preachy (Tennant and Capaldi both came close to this during their last seasons) and unfortunately Jodie’s incarnation gets VERY preachy whenever she goes into moral outrage mode. Yes, the Doctor should always be someone who calls out injustice, stands up to evil and holds the universe to rights. But this NEEDS to be shown – NOT spelt out for the audience as if we’re all four-year-olds.
Anyway, the writing. God the dialogue is atrocious in places. Gone are the dramatic, uplifting speeches of Moffat or the intense drama that Davies dished out. While some of the quiet, understated moments of emotion or humour work, this is largely down to Bradley Walsh or Tosin Cole, not the script. I can’t think of a single memorable line that Jodie has said so far to be honest. The plot is still riddled with clichés (monsters and toxic waste – really? Even comic books dropped that one a long time back) and while, yes it is very easy to take shots at Americans at the moment, the politics here felt REALLY forced. Chris Noth’s businessman was such an obvious caricature than it was hard to take him seriously as a character, and let’s face it, he was just incompetent and closed-minded, not devious or despicable enough to be a compelling villain. The Doctor having a thing against guns is nothing new (4 and 10 were especially notable for this) but most of them do, reluctantly, permit their use by allies when needed. Some of them have indeed used them in particularly dire scenarios (5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12 have all used some form of weapon when needed). But again, the issue here got very preachy – and the sympathy for the spiders was, while a doctor-ish trait, done in an on-the-nose and ham fisted way.
Now I’m no fan of spiders – I have a notable fear of the larger, hairier varieties. But these ones were not scary. Harry Potter had scarier ones with 2002 level special effects. While they certainly looked realistic, they weren’t creepy enough and never really threatened the main cast in a significant way. The direction was a mixed-bag – the show still looks miles better than it did even a couple of series ago, but the director really didn’t seem able to make anything remotely scary. For one thing, everywhere is too well lit – it doesn’t matter how proud you are of your CGI monsters, you know they’ll probably look better in the dark – and they’ll definitely be scarier. The composer gave it a decent shot (and let’s face it, creepy music wasn’t always Murray Gold’s forte either) but it was probably his least memorable contribution so far.
The guest cast seemed good (the one thing every episode has nailed so far has been the guest actors/actresses) but Chris Noth in particular seemed to deserve much better material (like Art Malik in Episode 2). Yaz’s family seem like interesting characters, which is a relief after Clara’s and Bill’s dragged things down whenever they showed up, so hopefully we’ll see a bit more of them as the series goes on.
In many ways ‘Arachnids in the UK’ reminded me of Oxygen last year. Poor writing, crap political asides and lame jokes coupled with uninspired direction and a cast that, despite their best efforts, can’t rescue it. Since Oxygen is arguably my least favourite Capaldi episode, this is not a good sign. Series 11 so far has had one of the weakest starts of any modern series. Normally in Who when this happens, things pick up around episode 5 or 6. Fingers crossed.
Overall, while the episode was watchable and the cast shone in a couple of places, Chibnall is falling below my already low expectations for him. Even his ‘Cyberwoman’ and ‘Sex Alien’ episodes of torchwood had more oomph than this. The cast has potential, but you just get the constant sense that things could be so much better with a different writer and showrunner. Whatever Moffat and Davies’ flaws, they never had me this worried about the shows future.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Next Time: F*** knows. Something in a hospital. These teasers are just annoyingly bland now – they’re better off scrapping them completely.
On the plus side – only 1 more Chibnall episode left before we get 4 in a row where he isn’t involved. Whether I still care by that point is debatable.