Tuesday, 30 October 2018

To show off that I’m reading John Yorke’s Into the Woods at the moment, let’s begin with some screenwriting theory. In the popular three-act model for writing feature films, the first act features an inciting incident, followed by a period of indecision, before the hero commits to the adventure, leaving their status quo behind. This applies probably uncoincidentally well to the formula for a modern Doctor Who series, as established by Russell T Davies and mucked around with by Steven Moffat: in Episode 1, the companion meets the Doctor (inciting incident); then they spend a couple of episodes testing the waters of time and space; and around Episode 4, they revisit home before committing to full-time companion status - adventure awaits!

And so it is that the Doctor brings her three friends back to Sheffield (again nicely grounded by location filming), but before Graham, Ryan and Yaz can make their decision, there’s a problem to deal with: as a delightfully goofy piece of dialogue puts it, “something’s wrong with the spider ecosystem of South Yorkshire”.

In other words, time for a fun and fast-paced adventure in which our characters are chased around a massive hotel by massive spiders. They may not be alien, but the spiders are the best monsters of Series 11 so far; especially given how common a phobia they are, it’s surprising that post-2005 Who’s never properly done spiders before (I don’t count the moon-spider-germs in Kill the Moon, as they were heavily overshadowed by the fact that the moon was an egg). They also allow for the best action sequences so far, shot with punch and wit; the giant spider emerging through the bathtub is a perfect example of what Doctor Who can do like nothing else – putting a sci-fi twist on an everyday image, to deliciously creepy effect. 

It may not be as boundary-pushing as Rosa, but Arachnids in the UK is a lot of fun, and often that’s exactly what Doctor Who needs to be. It must also be stated that this isn’t easy to pull off – see the same writer’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship for an example of Who trying a similar daffy B-movie style and making a complete hash of it.

I’m also impressed by how the Doctor’s methods of dealing with spiders and, to an extent, the gradual reveal of the cause of the spider infestation, draw on actual science; an arachnid expert was consulted, in a desire for truthfulness which never troubled the Moffat era and which harks back to the Reithian principles of Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert’s original vision for Who as a show that would alternate history and science lessons. Last week taught kids about the civil rights movement and this week taught them that spiders hate the smell of garlic – in both cases hiding the education behind the production values and narrative flair of modern TV.

I have a few bones of contention, my biggest being with the character of Jack Robertson. Chris Noth plays arrogant American businessman brilliantly; I love the smarminess of lines like “I don’t have clarity on that”, and the ridiculous way he washes his hands is a lovely character-building detail. But... is the fact he’s planning to run for president necessary? By which I mean, does he need to be a blatant Trump parallel? I’m all for the dreadful state of current politics being satirised, and I’m all for Doctor Who doing that, but it feels unnecessary here; the bouncy B-movie story doesn’t allow the satire to cut deep enough to justify itself, and instead I found myself taken out of my enjoyment by the sour reminder that Trump exists.

That said, the sheer off-its-tits insanity of Mr Big from Sex and the City shooting a giant spider in the head while quipping “How’s that for fire and fury?” is one of the reasons I love Doctor Who.

A few plotting oddities, though nothing as bad as the structural messiness of The Ghost Monument: the curious coincidence of two separate events (Najia’s firing and the dead neighbour) drawing the team from Yaz’s flat straight into the conspiracy; in the time it takes Yaz to go to the hotel and then to a bedroom, the Doctor and co. investigate the flat, fight a spider, go to the lab, do some science, and then go to the hotel; and the question of whether locking spiders in a room to suffocate is actually that much more ethical than shooting them dampens the impact of the climax. 

And then there’s the ending, or lack of. The arcs of both Robertson and the spider scientist just stop once Big Momma Spider’s dead. Is there going to be a deleted scene on the DVD in which she reveals the conspiracy to the public and so scuppers his political ambitions? If so, why was it cut? If not, why was it not shot?

But the final coda, in which the Doctor's friends become her companions, is marvellously done. The first act is now complete, and it’s apparent that it’s done its job; after four episodes, we finally have a good sense of who the three companions are and what their arcs are, even if some are stronger than others: needing distraction from grief is a dramatically great reason for running off into time and space; having a dead-end job and an absent father is pretty good too; dad being bad at making curry is not so great. 

Altogether though, I’m loving Team TARDIS, and this rollicking adventure reinforced that. Bring on Act 2.

(Side note: it doesn’t seem coincidental that this ‘start of second act’ is when all the tie-in media is beginning to be rolled out, and I’m really excited for Jody Hauser and Rachael Stott’s Thirteenth Doctor comic, launching next week. If you’re enjoying the series, give it a try.)

  1. Rosa
  2. Arachnids in the UK
  3. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
  4. The Ghost Monument


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