Sunday, 24 April 2011

Doctor Who: The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood

The Hungry Earth

“Oh, I love a big mining thing.”

We’re in South Wales, as we must be every so often with current Who, and it’s 2020, a not-particularly-exotic future. In fact, the only reason we’re not in 2010 is so that Amy and Rory can see their future selves waving at them, something which we know is going to pay off later.

We’re also introduced to Mo as a doting father, which immediately tells us that something nasty is just about to happen to him, TV drama being what it is. And there are Tony and Nasreen, and precisely the kind of industrial complex that makes one nostalgic for the early Perwees. With the drilling, though, this starts out feeling a lot more Inferno than Doctor Who and the Silurians. And the ground eating people is all a bit Frontios. All this before the invisible barrier straight out of The Dæmons. Don’t worry; the obligatory mentioning of old stories is over now. I’m getting nostalgic. It’s been a long Marathon.

There’s also some blue grass, but not a banjo in sight. Sorry.

We also meet Ambrose and Elliot, who mistake Rory for a copper, while the Doctor effortlessly takes charge down below. Unfortunately it’s not long before Amy disappears under the ground and the Doctor can do nothing but panic. There’s a fascinating scene between him and an angry Rory; he may be a gentle soul but Rory has steel and guts when he has to, and he really loves Amy.

The interactions between the characters are fascinating, the two poles being the dangerously erratic Ambrose, whose maternal instincts drive her to be worryingly tribal and narrow in how she behaves. She seems to always be in denial about something or other and yet has strong views- a dangerous combination. She’s the one who collects weapons, foreshadowing what she’ll do. And yet, can we really criticise her motives?

The Doctor, on the other hand, is rational, has the right ideas, but is prone to making rash promises and taking his eye off the ball, often for frivolous reasons. This most childlike of Doctors has a bond with Elliott, but allows him to be captured by the enemy in a moment of carelessness. He lacks the single-minded protective side that motivates Ambrose, and this fault of his means we can never quite condemn her outright.

The new Silurians are a little disappointing to look at. Although more convincing than in the early ‘70s, these costumes have little of the coolness or reptilian scariness of their predecessors. I’m not bothered by the unfortunate fact that the female Silurians are bound the have, er... mammalian characteristics. But being able to see the actors’ faces probably doesn’t help here. The Silurians originally worked partly because of their impassive, unreadable faces.

The Doctor rather neatly sums up the whole human / Silurian situation in a highly efficient piece of exposition, and both sides now have hostages. Oh, and Nasreen (made very likeable by Meera Syal) claps at the Doctor’s speech in a rather lovely moment. But Alaya, a soldier, is stubbornly xenophobic and scarily manipulative. Her “I know which one of you will kill me” is chilling to the bone.

We end with a double helping of body horror, as Tony turns out to have a Quatermass-style infection and Amy is about to be dissected. Yuck. Oh, and there are in fact squillions of Silurians living deep underground…

Cold Blood

“Ah. Nasreen. Sorry. Probably worth mentioning at this stage- Amy and I travel in time, a bit.”

This sort of Pertwee-style ethical sci-fi drama feels rather odd when slotted into current Who. I’m not sure it quite works- this sort of thing really needs a good six episodes, old-style, to earn its payoff- but I have to admire Chris Chibnall’s writing here. He handles the themes, the characters and the plot well. I just think we’re dealing with something which can’t be done properly in two episodes.

One thing to admire is the structure of this episode, with the introductory and concluding narration by Eldane. It raises the stakes and reminds us we’re dealing with an entire civilisation. But there’s a problem in that the contrast between the xenophobic and warlike military and the peacenik politicians is just too extreme. This is inevitable and necessary given the screen time, but still unfortunate.

There are some fantastic scenes here, though. Alaya’s “divide and rule” strategy, eventually goading Ambrose into killing her, is gripping. And it’s interesting how everyone on the surface instantly defers to Rory as the leader of the “apes”. Most stomach-churning is the horrible dramatic irony that we know, as those underground don’t, that Alaya’s death means negotiations are futile.

The main plot ends quite early, though. It’s neat enough, and dramatically satisfying, for the Silurians to be re-frozen and for Tony and Nasreen to join them, but the whole thing feels rushed. I feel perhaps I’m being a little unfair on Chris Chibnall; his script is well-structured, well-plotted, and the characterisation is great. Everything is done well. But the Silurians, and the philosophical baggage they bring with them, simply demand more time to explore them. Perhaps they belong in the age of the six- or seven-parter, not in modern day Who. I don’t think it would be a good idea for them to return, great concept though they are.

The last few minutes his like a bomb, though. The crack is back; never before has a series arc been foregrounded so much, and I’m including Trial of a Time Lord. Rory’s death is sudden, his being erased from time doubly so, and Amy’s forgetting who he was, er, trebly so. This is a massive shock, and an obvious turning point. And then we’re shown what the Doctor has pulled out from inside the crack: a piece of the TARDIS.

There’s a lot I admire about this story, but the Silurians are not well realised and they simply don’t work in stories as short as this. I can only give this a 3/5, but that’s no reflection on Chris Chibnall, who has done a fantastic job with the ingredients he’s been given.

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