Season 31, Episode 8 – The Hungry Earth, by Chris Chibnall

May 23, 2010

Review by Martin Odoni

Thanks to some of his diabolical efforts on the first season of Torchwood, as soon as I read Chris Chibnall’s name on an episode synopsis for Dr Who I tend to shudder. So I suppose I can be thankful that, on reflection, The Hungry Earth isn’t bad. I still doubt I’ll ever want to watch it again after next weekend (which will be required to watch the two-parter in whole), but I’ve certainly seen far worse episodes than this in recent years. I certainly appreciate that it resists the temptation to be silly or whacky.

In a way, this really does feel like a shameless re-tread of the Jon Pertwee era. From his first season we have Silurians rising to the surface of the Earth (Dr Who And The Silurians), and a drilling operation that is trying to penetrate beyond the Earth’s crust (Inferno), and drawn from later on, Welshmen involved in mining is referenced (Professor Jones in The Green Death). So this story certainly wins no points for originality. The fact that this is set in a rural part of Wales could be another deliberate swipe at Russell T. Davies and his futile attempts to make Wales seem like Europe’s answer to Hollywood. But the thing is, we had half an episode set in a country village only a week ago. I hate to revive old complaints, but why can’t we have an episode or two set on another planet?

On the subject of recycling old ideas, this insistence on bringing back one ‘classic’ monster from the past each season is beginning to grate. The Daleks, the Cybermen and possibly the Master are forgivable inclusions as they are all so iconic that the wider public will at least have some idea who they are. But the Macra, the Sontarans (the Rutans got a mention in that story as well), and now the Silurians have all been included too. Who the hell will remember the Silurians if they aren’t fans of OldWho? Add to that loads of pictorial-references to previous incarnations of the Doctor (there was a role-call of early incarnations in The Next Doctor, and then all of the first ten appeared in that flashback sequence in The Eleventh Hour, while the Doctor’s ID card in The Vampires Of Venice was a picture of William Hartnell), plus a superfluous-encounter between his Fifth and Tenth incarnations in the Time Crash vignette, and the series is developing a really problematic dependence on continuity for its themes and ideas. Never mind the pleasing continuity-orgasm for long-termists, there’s a danger of alienating (no pun intended) newcomers to the series by creating so many episodes that require knowledge of the distant past; exactly what happened in the mid-80’s.

The Hungry Earth has some pleasing qualities to it – Meera Syal and Robert Pugh are immensely likeable as Nasreen and Mack respectively, and it’s refreshing to see the Doctor working with Rory rather than Amy for a change, as it reduces the impression that Rory is just a hanger-on who’s only been included so someone can get jealous of the Doctor. Rory may actually develop into a companion in his own right if this change-of-approach continues. The sets are far more impressive than the tour-de-cheapness from Amy’s Choice and there are some exciting moments. And the Silurian outfit is very well designed. So top marks for production.

But on the whole, the episode all feels a bit half-hearted. The chief reason for that is padding. Now, I was watching Dr Who Confidential afterwards (I know, I know, always a mistake, but I was just passing time waiting for the football to start on ITV, okay?) and I was amazed when the editor announced that he had to cut away fifteen minutes or so of surplus material, and it was a real job finding things he could afford to remove. I just can’t believe he said that, because even in its final form, this episode has stacks of inconsequential padding in it. At the start of the episode, Rory and Amy see their future selves waving at them in the far distance. Their future selves do not appear again afterwards, and no further reference to them is made in subsequent scenes. It has nothing to do with the story, and could have been cut away with no loss at all. How about that ludicrous technobabble sequence in the middle of the episode when the Doctor gets everyone to gather as much electronic equipment as they can find so he can deus ex it all into some kind of null-field device (yeah, right…)? Now in a way, I’m glad that nothing came of that bit, because it would’ve been the worst bit of ‘save-the-day-by-plucking-out-of-your-ass-a-previously-unreferenced-ultimate-weapon-that-you-could’ve-used-in-so-many-situations-before-yet-for-no-identifiable-reason-you-never-have-done’ moment since UNIT suddenly remembered that they had a fleet of starships tucked away in the garage to fight off the Sontarans with in The Poison Sky. But at the same time, all of that effort to set up the Doctor’s technomagical device is superfluous because the plot would have developed in exactly the same way if they’d just sat there sulking for five minutes. So why not just cut it out altogether? The Doctor’s lecture about “The-best-you-can-be” was also overlong and sanctimonious, and could easily have been trimmed a bit shorter too.

Alaya is amusing in that we have a SIlurian with what sounds like a Welsh accent. She is also annoying in that she confirms one of my fears for this episode, which is that the Silurians are being simplified into yet another species of militarised fanatics, like so many races in NuWho. In their first two stories in Dr Who, the Silurians were paranoid and resentful of humans for taking their world from them, but also enlightened enough that they could be reasoned with. From what we see of Alaya and from the snippets in the trailer, their personalities are now going to be little different from those of the Daleks; aggressive, militant, manipulative and blinkered. And deliberately dissecting innocent people when they’re still awake adds a degree of pointless cruelty to them that is difficult to reconcile with their previous behaviour. Better to leave the Silurians out, as all this is going to achieve is to tarnish the jewel. I recognise that Alaya is a member of a different tribe, possibly even a different sub-species, but even so, if you’re going to change the Silurians’ nature, at least make it into something that isn’t just a rehash of the Sycorax et al.

Did you notice that Matt Smith can’t pronounce Alaya’s name correctly? The interrogation scene is interesting, while also containing a subtle violation of the fourth wall, post-modern style. When the Doctor describes last-of-the-species as being “old hat”, he is making reference to the terrible overuse of the concept of the last survivor of a dead world in science-fiction. Given that this is what the Doctor was reduced to in the Eccleston season, this is perhaps yet another swipe at RTD. Therefore, perhaps not a good thing? While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of these now-routine swipes, it’s another thing that’s happening so often it’s getting boring.

Performances are generally okay here. Matt Smith copes with the ‘DT’s-hand-me-downs’ feel of the script well – he gets some sanctimonious shouting to do again, but it doesn’t seem to confuse him so much this time around – Arthur Darvill seems to thrive on Rory being a bit more assertive than usual, and the guests are all on form. Karen Gillan is a bit annoying again though. She’s clearly been told once too often by Steven Moffat that her “sassy Scottishness is sexy”. It certainly is, but her smug face-pulling and overconfident prancing gait early on really aggravate. She doesn’t get much to do after falling through the hole in the ground except pull her trick with the eyes a few times. It’s a great trick and I’ve commented on it a lot already, but I really think the series is in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg there. Again, there’s no need to do a zoom-in on her pouty eyes every episode, it’s getting old fast.

Not a great first half of a two-parter then – it’s worrying that it’s been padded so much already and there’s still another episode of it to come – but it passes the time well enough. 6/10 again.

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