A weird spooky episode, with a bit of a Sapphire & Steel style spooky British TV sci-fi mixed with a bi of a Neil Gaiman vibe. This one is a bit hard to review without spoilers, so click for more if you’ve seen it.
Is the world ready for gay bad guys? Not that there’s anything new about bad people being coded as gay in popular culture (e.g. Hitchcock’s Rope or Diamonds are Forever) but how about in a more progressive age in a show that’s been accused of being ‘too PC’? Well it’s Alan Cumming and the bad guy in question is King James the Sixth/First — a man with far too many contradictions to fit into this review. Cumming ramps up the hyper-posh version of the Scottish accent to create a twinkly eyed paranoid sadist with an over-exaggerated sense of drama. That’s pretty much most of the episode, Alan Cumming has extraordinary fun as the Scottish King in an over the top performance that is very entertaining. I’d watch a Blackadder like sitcom that was just Alan Cumming as King James badly hunting witches and chatting up men.
Sandwiched either side of Alan Cumming is a story about the Doctor dealing with witch trials. The setting is Lancashire near the real-life Pendle Hill famous for a different set of witch trials. The Yorkshire-based companions of the Doctor find their worst fears confirmed, as Lancashire turns out to be occupied by frightened peasants, religious bigots and alien mud monsters. [I can’t recall any other episodes set in Lancashire, although Clara Oswald was from Lancashire]
The emphasis on historical episodes this season also means the show has adopted a sort of Prime Directive ethical imperative not to interfere with history. Luckily its a rule that the Doctor follows more in the breech than the observance.
With the Doctor having to tackle mass murder, a Satan-obsessed Alan Cumming and alien mud monsters, there isn’t much space for the three companions. Even so, they all get stuff to do and Graham gets a hat.
The final shift into a conventional alien menace plot feels a bit of a let down given the rest of the wild stuff going on prior. The alien character design this season has largely been top-notch but this was more ‘classic’ Who 🙂
Alan Cumming plays King James fighting alien mud monsters. What more can we ask for?
Aside from saying that in this episode the Doctor gatecrashes Amazon, it is a hard one to discuss without spoilers (even revealing how I was wrong about who I thought eh baddies would be is a spoiler of sorts).
I guess the other thing I can say without spoilers is this a very pro-labour episode. It’s neither as radical nor as reactionary as some have described but rather an episode that takes for granted that audience sympathy is with people doing manual labour and that working people deserve respect. And no, that shouldn’t be seen as a radical message but it has become a radical message.
Here’s a fold before spoilers:
Doctor Who touches on an even more raw, unsealed point of history than it did with Rosa, this time setting the story in the midst of the 1947 partition of India. The story is decent enough and at times moving. It’s less reverential about the its subject than Rosa but also treats the topic with a studied vagueness. Keen to avoid apportioning blame for a political event that saw a huge death toll, ethnic cleansing and massive displacement of peoples.
With its focus on Yaz’s grandmother and her intent to marry her Hindu neighbour, the story largely avoids discussing the major villains of the actual partition: the British (or if we want to be very specific, the machinations of Winston Churchill). Particularly awkward given the Doctor’s Anglophile habits (and previous hob-nobbling with aforementioned ex-Prime Minister). Instead the story’s conflict is between two Hindu brothers with clashing perspectives on the division of India into two nations.
As with all the stories so far, the plot is not deeply complex but there is a decent sense of mystery regarding the demonic aliens haunting the events, although in some ways this mystery is inconsequential. As with Rosa, we are back to a non-intervention view of time travel that is applied inconsistently. Tragic events are forced to play out and we are told the TARDIS crew can’t intervene but this makes the Doctor’s continued presence feel cruel or worse, indulging in tragedy.
Yaz get’s a Yaz-centred episode but also is forced into a role that has to be passive for fear of changing her own history. As a character she still hasn’t had an opportunity to precipitate events – even Ryan (who otherwise does very little this week) makes at least one thing occur.
There’s merit though in a story that is essentially tragic. There’s emotional depth and a surrounding message of the importance of remembering and acknowledging painful history. The politics is thin, perhaps thinner than thin but what the episode does is reject the previous cozy approach to history that Doctor Who has played (rarely straying from events & perspectives of events that would have graced a school textbook from 1964). Watching this episode, you would be none the wiser about Britain’s Empire in India and the immeasurable suffering it caused nor the horror and complexities of Partition but you would know that at the level of ordinary people and families historical events have personal consequences.
Aka Doctor Who and the Space Gremlin or Doctor Who: Call the Midwife!
A bit of a Red Dwarf-ish episode without the jokes and a very Doctor-centric episode which gave the rest of the cast very little to do. Yas gets particularly short change as a character but does get a heroic moment. Graham gets the best jokes. Whittaker gets to try out a bit of the cranky/overbearing aspects of the Doctor’s characters for a little why (until admonished).
A big plus for the monster of the week, which I won’t describe in too much detail for those who haven’t seen the episode. So far this season is getting the balance between its ambitions and its actual capacity to deliver visually just right. Last week’s CGI spiders were convincing enough not to accidentally fall into the comical and this week’s CGI critter had its own charm.
Unfortunately, most of the supporting cast were a bit forgettable. The side-story about the pregnancy was mainly played for laughs without being particularly funny but also segued into the missing-dad aspect of Ryan’s character.
Another fine but not particularly classic episode that rests of Whittaker’s performance.
Chris Chibnall does not have a stellar reputation for writing Doctor Who episodes. The ones prior to his elevation as current showrunner have not been appallingly bad but not particularly remarkable either. So far, judged only as science fiction short stories, the plots of the season 11 of Doctor Who has been equally unremarkable, even if they have had other remarkable qualities. In this sense Arachnids in the UK isn’t any different. The story is reminiscent of the Pertwee-era story ‘The Green Death’ with corporate greed, pollution and mutated creepy-crawlies.
Yet, I think this really sparkled. The stripped down plots are letting other qualities come to the fore, not least of which is Jodie Whittaker’s take on the Doctor. She has really managed to pull the multiple strands of the character together to create a plausible new version that’s become convincing much quicker than some (e.g. Matt Smith who took a while to move from being a young man pretending to be old and become convincingly an old man who appeared young).
Obviously not an episode to recommend to anybody with a fear of spiders and I’m not sure how my Australian friends will react to the Doctor’s pro-spider pacifism^. The genuinely creepy (in multiple senses) and gross horror of the Sheffield spider infestation required no additional level of more subtle horror. Arguably it is a cheap trick to freak out your audience with murderous spiders but a cheap trick played well is a good trick.
Yas finally got a more Yas centric episode (although still somewhat crowded out by family and events). Chris Noth was a surprise and seemed to be having a huge amount of fun as a not-entirely Trump-like* property mogul playing up to American stereotypes.
Seriously good fun. The crisp banter and humour of the Doctor worked much better here than it did along side the more serious subject matter of last week’s episode about Rosa Parks. Some of my favourite Doctor Who episodes in the past have been Moffat’s clever-clever puzzle-box stories but Chibnall’s stripped down approach is proving to be very likable. Sooner or later I’ll be hungry for something more timey-wimey paradox inducing story with some high-concept monster that can onlybeseenwhenyouaren’tthinkingaboutit or livesinthegapinbetweenwords or some other such delicious nonsense but for the time being Sheffield** being eaten by spiders is plenty good enough.
^(Huntsman are flipping dinner-plate sized and funnel web spiders are a notable exception to the ‘their more afraid of us than we are of them’ rule and definitely want to fight you for sport. An episode of Peppa Pig was literally banned in Australia for being too nice about spiders – I kid you not.)
*(Although overtly not Trump in that he is described as specifically not liking Trump and hoping to run against him for President.)
**(I like Sheffield and I don’t want it to be eaten by spiders, which is why it makes for a good story.)
I was apprehensive about this episode, billed in advance as being Rosa Parks and the Alabama bus boycott. There were so many clear pitfalls in having Doctor Who crash into the US civil rights movements (and ‘crash into’ is the best way to describe the usual relationship between the series and history). In particular British or European perspectives on US racism can be smug and self-righteous in a way that is used to hide from the different expressions of racism within Britain’s own culture and history. Add to this the necessary superficialities of tackling a notable historical event in a 45 minute window while finding enough space for a science-fiction plot & some times-wifey pretext for the Doctor and TARDIS crew to be there.
Spoilers below (sort of).