This review is for the episodes “The Hungry Earth” and “Cold Blood”, which together form a single Doctor Who story. One of the reasons I wanted to look at this story as a priority is that it is one of Chris Chibnall’s big contributions to Doctor Who, and with him taking over as showrunner next year it is interesting to look at this sort of thing and maybe get some indication of what we can expect. Having said that, we need to approach this sort of thing with the big proviso that Steven Moffat’s writing pre-showrunner were far from a perfect indication of the kind of Who he would run, but there were still some indications such as a generally darker and more adult approach.
First of all, Chibnall’s a fan. In fact, many years ago he was rather an embarrassing fan. There is an infamous clip of him accusing Pip and Jane Baker of being boring on television. To their faces. But let’s forget his misguided youthful enthusiasm and look at what kind of writer he has been so far. So here’s his roll call of Who writing up to this point (let’s not muddy the waters with Torchwood at this stage):
The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
The Power of Three
What we can tell from that, is firstly he is not actually significantly superior to Pip and Jane! OK, that’s a little unfair, but let’s look for comparison’s at what Moffat did before taking over:
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
The Girl in the Fireplace
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
That’s a list of stand-out classics right there. I’ll admit to being a little worried at this point.
But back to this story, and we can see Chibnall’s fan gene coming through. That’s a very good thing. Because this story manages to be very derivative of the classic series without putting off the new/casual viewers. Leaving aside the quality of the writing, there’s the formula for pleasing everyone(ish) right there. So this is very much a re-run of Doctor Who and the Silurians, with more than a hint of Inferno. Frustratingly, the drilling aspect of the plot is not hugely realistic, because they couldn’t even muster up a Pertwee-era level of realism, what with only three people apparently running a major drilling project. OK, it’s meant to be the weekend, but with the drill still running it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to have such a tiny level of staffing. Mind you, perhaps that just makes this more realistically the British approach to things – achieving greatness on a shoestring!
The Silurians are not in the first flight of memorable Doctor Who monsters. Broadly speaking we have something like the following:
Sontarans, Weeping Angels, Autons
Silurians, Yeti, Zygons
So we’re talking a kind of sixth rank of monsters, but still worth revisiting if you can do something interesting with them. Although this is very much in the realm of a re-telling rather than something new with old monsters, it does work well and is a plot line worth looking at again. The idea of an “alien” race having a prior claim to the planet, and perhaps the humans being “in the wrong”, or the “invaders/bad guys” is a clever twist, and opens up a lot of ethical/moral dilemmas, so it is worth a re-run.
When classic series monsters have returned, there have been varying degrees of redesigns, based primarily on how successful the originals were. For example, the Daleks were a design classic so did not need much of a change. Ditto the Sontarans. Not so with Silurians. The original was very clumsy man in a suit territory, but this redesign is far sleeker and more effective. It’s all quite Star Trek, but very impressive nonetheless. I have to admit to being a bit disappointed by the loss of the third eye. That could have been done so well, and when you have something about an original design that is actually an effective feature it does seem odd to leave it out.
We have a rewrite of the good Silurian / bad Silurian stuff, and it works well again. So we have a scientist Silurian who has the vision to see a future where the two races could co-exist (and he’s a brilliant character by the way) and then we have the more xenophobic faction. It is uncomfortably close to a science=good parable, but is still an interesting parallel with certain aspects of the modern world. The Doctor is also great here, encouraging people to be the best they can be, and Matt Smith really excels with this kind of material. The guest cast for these two episodes is simply fabulous with absolutely stand-out performances from Meera Syal, Neve McIntosh and Nia Roberts, but Chibnall gives them some great material to work with.
So back to Chibnall. Well in many ways this is probably as close as we have ever got to a classic series story in the modern era. I don’t think it is the approach he will take as showrunner, but if he can have at least moments of doing this kind of thing it will not be a bad thing, because these two episodes pay homage to the Classic series but do so in an interesting way and with dignity. RP
The view from across the pond:
It has been said that every story has already been told; there are no new stories! With the two part The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood that sentiment is absolutely true. We saw this when we first met the Silurians in… The Silurians. We saw it again to some extent when we next meet the Silurians in Warriors of the Deep. In both, humans are viewed as vermin and the previous inhabitants of the planet want to take it back. I guess, no one made the claim: “move the meat, lose the seat”, so the Silurians think they have to wipe us out. After all, we are the “aggressors”! It’s up to our favorite representative to negotiate on our behalf yet again in the modern era of Doctor Who.
While every story may be a rehash to some extent, let’s not forget why they get made again and again: sometimes, they are just good stories. When the moral dilemma makes us look at ourselves a different way, that can only be a good thing. And human beings are notoriously thick – we need reminding every so often. So when the story is good and the message is right, a repeat idea is not necessarily unwarranted! There’s a reason every child knows that “slow and steady wins the race”. This run-in with the Silurians is another one of those morality plays that makes us look at ourselves in a more critical light, maybe more introspectively. And Matt Smith does a great job reminding us to be the best we can be; advocating for peace with a race that sees us as little more than rats. His disappointment when we fail is deeply cutting. It makes us wish we could have the chance to do a better job because Ambrose just doesn’t see it! It holds up because it’s believable. It resonates with who we are because we know the feeling. It may not have the wow of some of Moffat’s early episodes, but it is a modern classic and an excellent morality play.
The story also continues the plot arc with the crack that seems to be following Amy and the Doctor around. In this episode though, it does so much more than it has so far. We find a piece of the TARDIS inside the crack and it erases Rory from existence! Karen Gillan does another amazing job having to live through the loss of her love while desperately trying to hold onto the idea of him as her memory fades. It’s deeply emotional. (And it was foreshadowed by the opening of the story, when Amy and Rory see their future selves waving at them.)
The effect of being pulled into the ground is both terrifying and impressive to watch. The Silurian redesign is beautiful. Though they seem to have lost their third eye, which makes little sense and is unfortunate, the design is so impressive, one can easily forgive the change. The cast is wonderful. Tony Mack is tremendously likable while his daughter, Ambrose, is a terribly disappointing. The scientist Silurian is fantastic. Alaya is a great villain. The characters carry this episode through the retold morality story, but the story itself is still solid. Like the classics of Aesop, it holds up well.
Humans are notoriously hard-headed, though, so we probably will get this message many more times in the future. At least it gets more impressive to watch with each re-telling. And if the characters are as good as they are here, I can live with that. And who knows, maybe eventually, the message will take root, somewhere deep down in our souls and we can move onto new stories with the Silurians by our sides! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Vincent and the Doctor