Doctor Who: Arachnids in the UK, series 11 episode 4 recap: pop culture and poignancy collide as the Time Lord returns to Sheffield

Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor - WARNING: Use of this copyright image is subject to the terms of use of BBC Pictures' Digital Picture Service (BBC Pictures) as s
Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor - WARNING: Use of this copyright image is subject to the terms of use of BBC Pictures' Digital Picture Service (BBC Pictures) as s

The Tardis returned to the Steel City for an old-fashioned romp with contemporary resonances and colossal creepy-crawlies. 

Here are all the talking points from episode four, punkily titled “Arachnids in the UK”…

Tardis touched down in Sheffield

After crash-bang-walloping through the new-look, spectacularly multi-coloured space-time continuum, the Tardis landed in Sheffield, where it all started - to be specific, on the Park Hill housing estate, home to both Yasmin (Mandip Gill) and Ryan (Tosin Cole). Due to the miracle of time travel, it was only half an hour since they left. 

The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) wasn’t cut out for small talk over a cuppa – “I’m socially awkward, still figuring myself out” – and leapt at the opportunity to investigate an AWOL neighbour. Before we knew it, they’d been drawn into a (cob)web of intrigue. 

Spiders, man. They do whatever a spider can

Bradley Walsh - Credit: BBC
Bradley Walsh Credit: BBC

Using her trusty sonic screwdriver (now with added Sheffield steel), the Doctor gained entrance to neighbour Anna’s flat – only to discover its comatose resident cocooned in cobwebs and the creature that spun them still on the premises. “Something’s wrong with the spider eco-system in South Yorkshire,” concluded the Timelord. Well, duh.

She soon realised that Anna’s concerned colleague Dr Jade McIntyre (Kick-Ass 2's Tanya Fear) knew more than she was letting on. “This isn’t the first incident,” admitted the university zoologist. “The spiders in this city are out of control.” 

There had been three months of unusual arachnid activity in Sheffield, centring on a new luxury hotel. Jade was on hand to do the expositional heavy lifting, which for once saved the Doctor from doing it. The hotel was built on illegally dumped toxic landfill, which had mutated the bio-engineered spider carcasses from Dr Exposition’s research lab into super-sized creepy crawlies. 

There were cobwebs everywhere – how pre-Halloween – while in a network of disused coal-mining tunnels, the not-so-itsy-bitsy spiders stored mummified human corpses in cocoons. 

Writer Chris Chibnall had great fun riffing on regular spidery behaviour. These giant specimens scuttled out of bath plugholes and from beneath beds. Clearly familiar with homespun life-hacks, The Doctor used garlic and vinegar to hold them back. Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan trapped them using a cooking vat and a baking tray, like a scaled-up glass-and-card technique. 

“She’s more scared of us than we are of her,” said Dr Exposition about the spider queen, like an adult reassuring a frightened child. Pop it down an extra-large loo, perhaps?

Mr Big made a Trump-alike villain

“You’re that bloke.” “Yeah.” A bombastic American businessman and prospective Presidential candidate, partial to pointing at people and saying “You’re fired!” Remind you of anyone?

Chris Noth (from Law & Order, The Good Wife and, of course, Sex and the City) chewed scenery with eyebrow-waggling relish as dastardly tycoon Jack Robertson, who planned to run for the White House in 2020. “I’m not a politician, I’m a businessman and I know how to run things,” he boasted, in between his scheduled bathroom breaks and OCD-ish hand-washing routines.

Chris Noth as Robertson - Credit: BBC
Chris Noth as Robertson Credit: BBC

Robertson was convinced that the spider infestation at his swank hotel (did you spot the Trumpian golf course too?) was the work of eco-protestors or Russian spooks. He was equally convinced that it could be solved with guns (“How’s this for fire and fury?”). 

Cue another of the Doctor’s seemingly weekly anti-gun speeches, while Robinson chuntered: “What’s wrong with this country? Why don’t you shoot things like civilised people?”

Just when the Trump parallels were becoming clumsy, the script deftly dodged around them. “You’re only running because you’ve hated Trump for decades,” said Jade, to which Robertson pleaded: “Please don’t mention that name.” 

Cheeky Chibnall even squeezed in an oh-so-topical mention of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements). We’re surprised nobody tweeted about “fake news” or "covfefe".

Graham’s grief was poignantly portrayed

Amid all the arachnid action, Walsh came into his own this week, providing the emotional heart of the episode. As cancer survivor and retired bus driver Graham O’Brien, he found himself haunted by the benevolent ghost of late wife Grace (a touching reappearance for Sharon D Clarke) upon his return home.

Seeing her memory all around their empty house, he talked to Grace, sniffed her coat, was gently admonished about domestic chores and touchingly said: “I’ve got so much to tell you.”

Happily, however, Graham now has a new family: the Doctor, Yaz but step-grandson Ryan, who bristled at a letter from his estranged father: “It says he’s my proper family. I don’t like that he put that. Proper family? He’s not proper.” The implication being, of course, that Graham is. Aww. 

Stormzy and Sheeran made pop cultural cameos

New showrunner Chibnall’s scripts continued to zing with zeitgeisty reference points. When the Doctor guilelessly asked Robinson, “Are you Ed Sheeran?”, it was right up there with last week’s terrific Banksy gag.

She also made mention of pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart (“A right laugh”) and quipped: “The Spider Mother in the Ballroom sounds like the best novel Edith Wharton never wrote.”

When her plan needed vibrations to attract the arachnids, Ryan knew just where to find the best vibes: “Raise! Sheffield’s sickest grime station!” Cue spiders scuttling in the direction of Stormzy’s 2015 underground hit Know Me From.

Was there also a sly South Park nod from Robinson when his bodyguard bit the dust? “Oh my God, it killed Kevin!”

Romp had a retro feel

There was a distinctly Seventies atmosphere to this episode, with the Doctor and a ragtag gang of humans battling a monster-of-the-week in an Earthbound setting. 

Cue chases down corridors (“Word of advice, mate,” Graham told Robinson. “Run now, ask questions later”), doors slammed shut in the nick of time and characters spouting semi-plausible scientific gobbledygook.

Arachnophobes might even have found themselves hiding behind the sofa. Hope there were no creepy-crawlies back there. 

We finally met Yaz’s family

Jodie Whittaker, Bhavnisha Parmar, Tosin Cole, Ravin J Ganatra and Mandip Gill - Credit: BBC
Jodie Whittaker, Bhavnisha Parmar, Tosin Cole, Ravin J Ganatra and Mandip Gill Credit: BBC

Third companion Yaz had been the most underdeveloped character of the trio before this episode but now we got a fuller picture. 

Her mother turned out to be plucky hotel manager Najia Khan, played by the excellent Shobna Gulati of Coronation Street and Dinnerladies pedigree. Gulati had to overcome her own arachnophobia to film this episode, although luckily most of the spiders were computer-generated. 

Najia kept reminding the Doctor that she wasn’t just “Yaz’s mum”, while repeatedly asking: ”Are you two seeing each other?” Textbook mum behaviour. Hopefully hers will become a recurring role. 

We also met Yaz’s conspiracy theorist father Hakim (Ravin J Ganatra) and lippy sister Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar). They could be waiting a while for that bread, though…

Outsized spiders have become a recurring foe

This wasn’t the first time our hero has battled an eight-legged enemy. Most memorably, giant spiders played a role in the Doctor’s third regeneration. 

In Jon Pertwee’s swansong adventure, 1974’s Planet of the Spiders, the “Eight Legs” on Metebelis Three possessed powerful psychic abilities and were capable of controlling human minds. One of the classic Who era’s most memorable images was companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) with a giant spider on her back – a visual later echoed by the Time Beetle squatting on Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) in 2008’s Turn Left. 

Pertwee’s Doctor eventually confronted spider-in-chief The Great One, triggering his regeneration into Tom Baker. 

In 2006 Christmas Special “The Runaway Bride”, the ancient Empress of the Racnoss (a barely recognisable Sarah Parish) was a towering, ravenous spider who, in an alternate reality generated by the aforementioned Time Beetle, drowned David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor beneath the Thames.

Frankly, it’s a miracle the Timelord isn’t a chronic arachnophobe.

Team Tardis is now officially complete

As this episode got underway, Graham, Yaz and Ryan were still accidental travellers, rather than fully-fledged companions. When the Doctor returned them to Sheffield, following a detour via futuristic Desolation and Fifties Alabama, there was a reluctant parting of the ways.

Yaz picked up on that, casually asking the lonely Timelord: ”Do you want a cup of tea at mine?" The Doctor brightened instantly: "Yes I would, thanks! I love tea! Tea at Yaz's? Amazing!”

Half an hour and lots of spiders later, there came a lovely closing scene. We heard how Tardis travels would help Graham with his grief, rescue Ryan from his dead-end warehouse job, and save Yaz from her bickering family and thwarted career ambitions.

“Look at you,” grinned the Doctor. “My fam. No, still doesn’t quite work. Team Tardis? Welcome aboard. Properly.” The quartet then pulled the console lever together, propelling them straight into their next adventure. A magical moment. 

Space voyage as series hits halfway

The series reaches its midway point next Sunday with “The Tsuranga Conundrum”. 

The fifth episode finds Team Tardis joining a group of strangers in a far-flung galaxy to fight one of the universe’s most deadliest and most unusual creatures. Meet you back her for a Doctorly debrief.