Who remembers Kill the Moon? Cast your minds back to the heady days of Series 8, when much of the Doctor Who fanbase was still in shock from Peter Capaldi thundering down the camera as a raw, roughly-hewn Twelfth Doctor. The most memorable thing about that highly polarising episode, plonked right in the middle of Series 8, was that it was billed as an arachnid-riddled tribute to Philip Hinchcliffe, but ended up being more a live-action abortion debate in space which culminated in the Doctor and Clara dramatically breaking up. Although it was hated by many, I actually didn’t mind Kill the Moon, but what I was disappointed about was being cheated out of the nightmarish, Hinchcliffe-esque horror story we were promised. The spiders weren’t even that good.
That’s not something that can be said about Arachnids in the UK, although this one, too, indulges in what now appears to be the obligatory share of political commentary. These spiders were horrifying, a fitting tribute to the legacy of Philip Hinchcliffe. I don’t have insider knowledge about how the BBC spends its money, but it’s increasingly clear that the Beeb has flicked a bit more dosh Doctor Who’s way this year, because Series 11 has looked visibly more stunning than the Who we’re used to. Testament to this is how much more realistic and skin-crawlingly horrifying the CGI spiders in this episode were than the last time Doctor Who tried to scare us with eight-legged beasties. Frankly, it says something that the thing I found more unconvincing wasn’t gigantic spiders but the fact that the Doctor, Yasmin and the rest of them didn’t spend the entire episode alternately rooted, petrified, to the spot or running in the opposite direction screaming their heads off.
It does seem like Chibnall has taken a conscious decision to dial up the creepiness this year. Even more gruesome than the spiders, actually, I thought, was Yas’s neighbour cocooned like an Egyptian mummy in cobwebs in her bed. Super freaky, and straight out of the horror writer’s playbook. In The Woman Who Fell to Earth we had a villain, looking like one of those disgusting characters out the front of ghost rides at funfairs, who plucked teeth from his victims and stuck them into his face as trophies.
This is something I’m totally on board with. Delighting in being scared and horrified is something that unites all ages of Doctor Who viewers, children and grown-ups alike. Adults really just want to be scared like children are. And Mary Whitehouse may have complained sanctimoniously in the seventies that Doctor Who’s monsters would traumatise children, but children love nothing more than being traumatised, as I learned from my encounters with several of them on Hallowe’en this year. I’m still traumatised by The Empty Child, and to this day I can’t look a gas mask in the face without coming over with a bad case of goose bumps, but watching The Empty Child as a frightened 10-year old started off in me an enduring love of Doctor Who and its scary monsters.
Donald Trump was there, too, in the form of an obnoxious business magnate with high political ambitions called Robertson. Well, he wasn’t really a Donald Trump analogue, even though he was clearly supposed to be. At least, he wasn’t an analogue of the version of Trump we’re told to hate by the people on the telly. Trump is dim, blustering, erratic and bravado-driven, while Robertson was cunning, calculating, cold and ambitious. In other words, Trump is a Gryffindor while Robertson was a Slytherin. I actually think that Donald Trump is much shrewder than people give him credit for, but that’s a discussion for another day. Robertson, played by Chris Noth, was an entertaining presence in the episode nonetheless, even if his role in the episode as a stick to jab at stupid Americans with their guns and their capitalism and their misogyny and their Donald Trump was a bit – and this is the second week in a row I’m using this word – preachy.
By the way, what exactly was the point of the standoff between the Doctor and the American over shooting the spiders? I’m just a little confused about where the Doctor is at now with her opposition to using guns, because in this episode she wouldn’t countenance using guns to kill gigantic spiders that were about to go on a murderous rampage around Sheffield, and in The Ghost Monument she refused to use guns against killer robots. Robots. Has the Doctor’s opposition to using guns turned from something moral to something theological? Are guns now unclean to the Doctor, like pigs are to Jews and Muslims? Because that’s what it looks like.
And it was never really explained to us when, and why, the Doctor added spiders, and presumably cockroaches and vermin, too, to her list of Living Creatures With Dignity Whose Lives Must Be Protected At All Costs. When it came to the Doctor staring down Robertson over shooting all the spiders, I was kind of on Robertson’s side. So, I suspect, was much of the audience. They’re spiders. I hate them. When I see them in my house I stamp on them – or, rather, spray them with bug spray because I’m too scared to go near them. But, really, I want an answer to this: how far does the Doctor’s principle of protecting life extend, and why?
I was surprised to learn that this was actually the first episode of the series that was filmed, because Whittaker looks more comfortable and fluent in the role than I’ve seen her yet – certainly much more so than in the series opener. It could just be that I’ve got used to watching Whittaker as the Doctor – or maybe I’m slowly coming round to this whole female Doctor business. The sequences in Yas’s apartment, with the Doctor acting endearingly awkward and weird in a normal social situation – very Matt Smith, in other words – were very good. I’m also coming round to the Scooby Gang arrangement this year – no doubt it’s hard writing for four main characters along with a handful of supporting characters each week, but, so far, miraculously, they’re pulling it off.
On a final note, something that I will mention, but not necessarily criticise, is that this feels more like the Doctor Who of Steven Moffat than the brave new, mature, grown-up Who it briefly looked like we were getting in The Ghost Monument, which still remains, I think, the best episode of this series so far. The latest two episodes have conspicuously retreated back into familiar, comfortable Moffat territory. I say I’m not going to criticise this because they’ve been good episodes – this is a good episode (well, it was fine) – and comparing something to Steven Moffat’s work is by no means itself a criticism, coming from me (one of the few Moffat partisans who looks upon his era with undiluted approval), but weren’t we supposed to be doing something new from now on? Weren’t we supposed to be moving on from Moffat and radically reimagining Doctor Who? I’ve written at length about this theme so I won’t repeat myself yet again here, but I will simply point out that so far my warnings have been vindicated: from the 10.96 million who watched The Woman Who Fell to Earth, viewing figures have fallen to 6.43 million this week, only about a million or so above the average of Series 10. Changing the Doctor’s gender, by itself, is not enough to win back viewers.
This episode was another nice episode from Chris Chibnall. It’s clearly the equivalent of several RTD era stories like “Aliens Of London”, “The Lazarus Experiment” and “The Sontaran Stratagem”, and in that regard it does a good job of showing us why Ryan, Graham and Yaz would want to continue on with the Doctor, they all have something at home they would like to avoid. That’s probably not the most healthy motivation, and it’ll almost certainly bite them later, but I’ll take it.
The spider mystery managed to be fun and creepy, and it felt like classic Doctor Who, though the resolution bothered me. Robertson is one more mook in a long line of evil businessmen cliches who exist to make the Doctor look more virtuous and right by comparison (think Henry Van Statten, for example), but the contrast doesn’t really work here, since the Doctor’s solution to the spider problem is just as messed-up Robertson’s when you think about it for more than minute. Instead of shooting them, she leaves them trapped in a box to either starve, suffocate, crush each other or cannibalize each other. Yikes.