It’s a well worn formula: take a group of isolated humans doing something vaguely scientific and Promethean, thus inviting disaster upon them. Add in an alien threat to throw these people off balance. Insert lots of action in long corridors and, into the mix, throw in the Doctor and his companions. Have the Doctor deal with the suspicion of the isolated humans and the threat of the invading aliens. Have him be the only person who can save the day.
This is old school Doctor Who, and there’s a reason why this formula has been closely identified with the history of the series: because it works. It tells a thrilling story without breaking the budget. It makes a virtue out of its own limitations. It allows leeway for some moral ambiguity, as some of the human characters succumb to the flaws of their characters. Sometimes, in better episodes, the aliens show themselves to be not quite the monolithic evil that we thought at the beginning. It is an elegant storytelling technique that the original series made its own.
And, in the recent two-parter of The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood, writer Chris Chibnall resurrects this classic formula and puts it to good use. It’s not perfect, but it serves its purpose and entertains the audience for a full ninety minutes. It may be 2010, and Matt Smith may be nine lead actors away from Patrick Troughton, but the show is coming home.
A full, spoilery review follows the break.
The image above is courtesy the BBC
It’s 2015 and somewhere in deepest darkest Wales, Nasreen Chaudhry (played by Meera Syal) and Tony Mack (Robert Pugh) head up a surprisingly compact drilling operation seeking to bore deeper into the Earth than anybody before them. And, while there are no signs of hot green goo turning associated UNIT soldiers into Primords (a surprise, given that Jon Pertwee’s Inferno debuted just seven weeks after the end of The Silurians), something is burrowing up towards the drilled in retaliation. The night shift worker Mo is the poor sod that gets left alone in this facility when something shuts down the drill head, and holes open up in the ground to swallow him up.
Cue TARDIS arrival. The Doctor, Amy and Rory find themselves off course from Rio, but before Amy can really get into complaining about not dressing for the weather, they’re brought up short by two figures staring at them on the horizon. The Doctor identifies them as Amy and Rory, ten years on. Interesting. But after laying this little thread of the season-spanning plot down, Chibnall goes back to the old school technique, separating Rory from Amy and the Doctor to create two plotlines worth of trouble. Rory meets up with a local family and learns that something has been stealing bodies from their graves, while the Doctor and Amy head for the drill rig, which experience tells the Doctor is probably at the centre of something demanding his attention. With the help of his psychic paper, he works his way into the control room with ease.
As confident as the Doctor is, however, nothing prepares him for when the unseen forces below decide to attack, opening up the ground and sucking Amy from his arms. Matt Smith plays this perfectly, and it’s rare to see the Doctor so desperately upset over his own failure to protect someone in his care. It’s a wholly different approach than, say, David Tennant’s anger when the television monster sucked of Rose’s face in The Idiot’s Lantern. It’s far less a reaction of “how dare they”, and far more a reaction of “what have I done”, and it feels far more natural and in character.
What follows is an exercise in old school Doctor Who, as the ‘aliens’ beneath the ground isolate the humans above and attack in earnest. Director Ashley Way (and, is it my imagination, or has Steven Moffat brought in far more female directors than previous producers of the program?) has great fun, enacting loads of tension as the isolated humans hole up in a nearby church, even if some of her techniques border on the blatantly obvious. Why, for instance, do the aliens below turn their forcefield around the town opaque, turning the day to night? Chibnall and Way suggest a psychological element in the attack, but it’s really just an excuse for more atmosphere. Still, as objections go, this one’s pretty minor.
It isn’t long before the Doctor figures out who’s behind the attacks, and the story moves onto the tried-and-true path of taking an old monster (in this case, the intelligent Earth reptiles first known as “the Silurians” in the Jon Pertwee episode of the same name) and updating them to the program’s new modern sensibilities. You have the humans struggling against their baser natures as they try to set aside fear and anger while the Doctor strives to negotiate a peaceful solution. You have the Silurians similarly divided, with the militant Restac seeking to wipe out the “ape vermin” while Silurian scientist Malohkeh campaigns for a peaceful settlement based on the respect of two sentient species who have an equal claim to the planet Earth.
There is very little that is new here, and on a coldly rational level, I have to doc points from The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, but there is also very little that I can really criticize the story for. The acting in all quarters is up to the show’s usual, excellent standard. Director Ashley Way knows precisely how to raise and lower the tension and keep the audience interested. I also appreciated the little musical cues Murray Gold was able to put in recalling the original Silurian and Sea Devils stories. And while Chibnall’s script does not stray from familiar ground, it’s still pretty solid, with the events so consistent with the broad strokes’ of the characterization of the story’s principals as to border on inevitability.
Chris Chibnall deftly alludes to the characterization that has been the centrepiece of many fan’s theories about the Doctor’s views on the Silurians. The reconciliation of homo sapiens with homo reptilia has been something he has been looking for since he first met the Silurians, and one which he hasn’t yet been able to witness. He knows that humans and the Silurians are basically mirrors of each other — each capable of brilliance and compassion, but each ultimately dragged down by their baser natures. He’s seen the humans rise above themselves, and he knows the Silurians can do the same. He lives in desperate hope that, someday, both species may be able to rise above themselves, together.
Sadly, today is not the day for that, even though the Doctor may have set the stage for that day to occur… tomorrow.
This is all very finely balanced, and I worry that it’s something that resonates more with fans of the original series than with casual viewers who might be unaware of the series’ history with the Silurians. Watching the episode for the first time, I was a little wary of how Cold Blood progressed, half expecting the Doctor to bring out a guitar and sing Kumbaya to dumbfounded Silurians and humans alike. But the story doesn’t tip over that edge, and Matt Smith ably portrays a Doctor who is so hopeful that the humans and the Silurians can at last work out a peaceful arrangement that he can barely contain himself. His clear enthusiasm for the prospect makes me believe in the episode, share his sense of disappointment, and those sparks of optimism as the Silurian leader Eldane forgives the humans for their faults, and pushes the reset button on this longstanding dispute for a possible peaceful resolution in a thousand years’ time.
There have been some complaints about the redesign of the Silurians, suggesting that, by removing the third eye and allowing the actors’ faces to appear through the makeup, they’ve destroyed part of the original mystique of these Pertwee-era creatures and making them look like creatures from Star Trek. I disagree, and I go back to Jon Pertwee’s comments about why he preferred the Draconians to other monsters like, say, the Daleks. Because you can see the actors’ eyes and facial features, you can actually see the actors act, and that puts such creatures above those who have to wallow through pounds of latex. Neve McIntosh is able to do much more with her characters than she would have been behind a mask.
And I have to credit Chris Chibnall and the production crew here for a slick bit of ret-conning, suggesting that the third eye and the immobile facial features of the original Silurians were because the original Silurians were themselves wearing masks. I’m willing to buy into that; the whole third-eye thing, while neat, is still an act of biological lunacy — name me any other vertebrate (let alone a reptile) in the Earth fossil record to themselves have had even the hint of three eyes? (Update: I really should learn to say away from such hyperbole. As Mustafa noted in the comments below, the third eye isn’t nearly the biological lunacy I made it out to be) Chibnall also takes on the herculean task of trying to straighten out the science behind the Silurian concept, trotting out the words “Eocene” and “homo reptilia” as alternate names for these creatures (since dinosaurs and reptiles came about long after the Silurian era in geological history), before tacitly admitting that the Silurians probably had their own name for themselves (and maybe we should start using it).
As for the Star Trek reference, it’s not Chris Chibnall’s fault that Star Trek: Voyager cribbed the Silurian idea from Doctor Who, and I would further suggest that if Doctor Who’s new design for the Silurians looks remarkably similar to the approach taken by Star Trek, well, perhaps in this instance Star Trek just happened to get the design right.
But the big problem with The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood is that some characters are inconsistent. Consider the character of Tony Mack: brave enough (and stupid enough) not to tell anybody, even Rory, that Alaya’s venom is slowly working through him, but afraid enough to go behind his friends’ backs to try and trade a cure in return for helping Alaya escape. Ambrose’s reaction is more consistent, and while Tony might not go for that, since he believes in the Doctor’s belief that humanity should be better, why go for deceit? Why not instead unsuccessfully try to appeal to Alaya’s non-existent compassion?
Similarly, the Silurian scientist Malohkeh shares the Doctor’s love of knowledge, his open mind and his understanding of the universe (notice how he nods when the Doctor goes on about some points in history being fixed), and yet he casually dissects Mo and is about to do the same to Amy. Sure, the script implies that he anaesthetized Mo enough so that he felt no pain (while still keeping him conscious through the procedure), but then there’s the scene where he puts the Doctor through a painful decontamination process, and he talks casually with Restac while the Doctor screams bloody murder. Casually experimenting on subjects that show themselves to be sentient, and then going up against the military leaders that want to exterminate them all, are the actions of two different characters — the latter being far more consistent with the Silurian civilian leader Eldane, whom the scientist wakes up.
But these are small flaws on an otherwise solid, if ultimately bog-standard outing of old school Doctor Who. The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood are decent productions that entertain, while honouring the memory of these classic Pertwee monsters. In the end, we could ask for little more.
I haven’t talked about the final five minutes of Cold Blood because, really, it belongs to another episode. Clearly, Steven Moffat pried the typewriter out of Chibnall’s cold, dead hands, and shoehorned in the latest developments of the season-spanning plot. It’s surprisingly clumsily done, but it was unexpected, and changes some of the things I speculated about after reviewing Amy’s Choice. It’s not badly done, and the revelation of what the piece of “shrapnel” is provoked a decent “holy sh—t!” reaction from Erin, but it is so out of character from the rest of the episode as to be jarring. More work could have been done here, perhaps.
But the season spanning plot remains far more consistent and well developed than anything Russell T. Davies put together (with the possible exception of Mr. Saxon). As I said before, for someone expecting the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who to provide us with a steady diet of Blinks and Girls in the Fireplace are probably disappointed. However, the season remains a solid production, with hardly any sour notes. I remain confident about the coming episodes, and happy with the current state of the show.