“Doctor Who”’s new showrunner/writer Chris Chibnall and new Doctor herself Jodie Whittaker continue to impress in this latest season, which feels quite fresh and distinct from the Russell T. Davies/Steven Moffat years of the show.
The latest two episodes demonstrate the variety of the season so far, with a potent historical drama about US Civil Rights hero Rosa Parks (“Rosa”), and a wildly fun, B-movie homage about giant mutant spiders (“Arachnids in the UK”).
For the review of “Rosa,” I am going to break with tradition a bit. Instead of writing my own review of the episode, I offer a link to a wonderful review written by my friend, author/artist Nick Abadzis. He is an Eisner-award winning graphic novelist, and all around terrific guy.
Nick has a lot of Doctor Who cred, having written several years’ worth of Titan Comics’ Tenth Doctor Who comic book series and a solo adventure involving the 11th Doctor as well. For me, his Tenth Doctor adventures were instant head-canon, with companions Gabby Gonzales and Cindy Wu immediately welcome to the Doctor Who family.
One of Nick’s most recognized works is the graphic novel “Laika”, for which he won an Eisner award. “Laika” is a multi-perspective story of the real-life Soviet cosmonaut dog that reaches into those imaginary spaces where the history books end. “Laika” is insightful and emotional. A powerful read.
His more recent alternate universe fantasy-adventure “Pigs Might Fly” (with illustrations by Jerel Dye) is an absolute delight. “Pigs…” is set in a quasi-steampunk universe populated by talking swine, where the powers of magic and science exist together. There are bits of L. Frank Baum, Hayao Miyazaki and even a pinch of Star Wars in its DNA, and I could easily imagine (and welcome) more stories from this universe.
Other works of Nick’s include “Hugo Tate” and the noir fantasy, “The Cigar That Fell In Love With a Pipe” (with David Camus).
Nick’s take on “Rosa” had a unique perspective that I simply couldn’t bring to the table. Here is the link to his review of “Rosa” from his own blog:
NickAbadzis.com/blog; on “Rosa,” a review.
Now for something completely different…
“Arachnids in the UK.”
***** SPOILERS! *****
On the heels of the hard-hitting “Rosa”, we next have a delightful B-movie homage that has a bit of former showrunner Russell T. Davies’ domestic touch with the characters, as the Doctor and her companions Yasmine (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole) find themselves arriving back in Sheffield, not long after they first left (unlike poor Rose Tyler, who found herself back home a year late…).
Former schoolmates Yaz and Ryan discover that they live fairly close to each other, as Yaz returns to her family’s flat. Ryan’s recently widowed grandpa Graham returns home as well, where he has visions of his late wife Grace (Sharon D. Clark). Graham and head-Grace’s reunion is quite moving; in fact, they were downright difficult for me to watch. As a longtime married man, I acutely sympathize with Graham’s situation. Having an older widower as a Doctor Who companion is an intriguing idea, with unique opportunities for future storytelling.
We also see Yaz at home with her sister Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar) and her father (Ravin J. Ganatra), while her mother Najia (Shobna Gulati) is at work. The Khan family’s squabbling reminds Yaz of why she was so glad to join the Doctor on her spacetime adventures in the first place. The Doctor also gets in a few funny moments as she attempts to make small talk with the Khans, who wonder if the Doctor and Yaz might be an item…?
Najia works for a hotel chain run by a too on-the-nose Donald Trump-avatar named Robertson (American actor Chris Noth), who is, of course, a complete prick.
Robertson fires Najia due to a massive overnight infestation of cobwebs throughout his hotel. Turns out, Robertson built his luxury hotel on a landfill, and the landfill’s toxic fumes have (in the best 1950s B-movie tradition) mutated the local spiders, which are now growing in sizes ranging from dogs to cars. “Earth vs. the Spider” (1958) and “Tarantula” (1955) immediately came to mind.
When I first saw the preview of this episode, I erroneously assumed it was going to be a quasi-sequel to other spider stories of the Doctor’s canon, such as 1974’s “Planet of Spiders”, or “The Runaway Bride” (the David Tennant-era story which introduced Catherine Tate’s “Donna Noble”). Refreshingly, it was unrelated to either. While this is not the Doctor’s first rodeo with giant spiders, it is by far the creepiest; especially since these spiders don’t have shrieking human voices or human actor’s faces. There is nothing remotely anthropomorphized about them. They are simply much larger versions of everyday, creepy-as-hell spiders.
As someone who was once bitten by a black widow spider (true story), I found this latest batch of Doctor Who arachnids more than adequate to jangle my nerves a teensy bit. That said, I found myself eventually sympathizing with the creatures and their plight, as the Doctor soon realizes that their continued unchecked growth will eventually kill them. The creatures will soon be unable to consume enough oxygen for their ever-enlarging bodies. The real villain is (of course) the dastardly and dickish Robertson, who wants to simply exterminate the spiders (much like a Dalek).
The Doctor instead decides on a more ‘humane’ solution of luring the dying creatures with music (like Saint Patrick and the snakes) into the hotel’s panic room, with sufficient rations for the spiders to feed on as they die off.
With the spiders rather abruptly out of the picture, the Doctor prepares to leave her companions at home in Sheffield. However, Graham and Ryan then decide that adventure is the perfect antidote to deal with the loss of their beloved Grace, while Yaz decides that she’s had enough of her family for awhile.
And they’re off…
I enjoyed the episode very much, but it’s not without its flaws…
A few tangled webs.
Chris Noth’s Robertson character was my least favorite thing about the episode, and not simply because he was ‘the heavy.’ As an American currently living under Donald Trump, I found Robertson to be exhausting; and perhaps that was largely due to the timing. The episode had the misfortune of airing after a particularly trying week here in the US, with several horrendous hate crimes seemingly inspired by Trump’s over-the-top racist/nationalist rhetoric. After all of that, I was really looking forward to a complete lack of Trump (and toxic American politics) when I sat down to watch “Doctor Who” last night. It would seem that Trumpism (in one way or another) is even bleeding into my favorite British TV series…. ugh.
* The Doctor’s ‘humane’ solution.
Granted, nothing could be done for the poor dying creatures, but herding all of them all into a panic room until they die off seemed almost as cruel as Robertson’s plan of simply shooting them. When all of the spiders are lured away into the panic room, the episode seems to immediately move on. No meditation on what happened, no discussion of the creatures’ fate. The ending feels a bit too abrupt.
Quite a mix.
With a nice balance of character moments and lots of creepy crawly perfectly-timed for Halloween fun, “Arachnids in the UK” is the most unabashedly fun Doctor Who episode of this season. The lightweight, B-movie story provides enough breathing room for the characters to each have their moments, as the Doctor and her companions come together quite nicely as ‘Team TARDIS.’
“Rosa” has been the most powerful segment thus far, and perhaps an early contender for a season best. While it may not have the popcorn value of “Arachnids…”, “Rosa” is important television, and all-too timely as well. It’s unnerving to see the Doctor’s human companions land in a time where they are treated like second-class citizens on their own planet just because of their skin color. We only ever saw previous companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) experience anything close to such prejudice when she and Tennant’s Doctor landed in rural England of 1913 in “Human Nature.” Humanity’s racism within its own genome has been largely skirted for much of “Doctor Who… until now.
Only four episodes in, this year has already seen a heady mix of historical drama, B-movie thrills, an epic quest, and great character moments, all wrapped in a grittier new look. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is still settling into the role (much as every Doctor does early in their first year) but she’s coming along nicely, and I very much enjoy her performances thus far. No ‘warmup period’ required.
Looking forward to seeing where the the Doctor and ’Team TARDIS’ wind up next…
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