The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood

TARDISThis was a tricky review to write. The incident I mention below, where Gary Gillatt counseled me on the perils of covering current day Doctor Who, is absolutely true. I used it here to hedge towards an awkward conclusion – that I didn’t really like this two-part story.

Worse still, I like its writer, Chris Chibnall, who declared himself a regular reader of my old website Off The Telly when I got chatting to him at a Torchwood press do (I’m not being grand, by the way – I mean, Ian Levine was there too). As a result, he’s one of the few DW writers I can actually say hello to. In fact, I  asked him if he’d be willing to pen me a short foreword for the OTT book. He wrote back that he was up to his eyes in Camelot, and so politely declined, but wished me all the best – which was very decent of him, considering I was freeloading.

And then I wrote this (for DWM #423). Which made me feel a bit bad. If you happen to ever be looking in, I’m sorry, Chris. Although, why would you seek out a negative review of your own work? That would be insane.

DWM #423

Flamin’ ‘g’-key! Always stickingggggg… g! Ah, that’s got it. Right.

The pleasures of reviewing brand-new Doctor Who for DWM are manifold, but in the main it boils down to: I’m reviewing brand-new Doctor Who for DWM! However, this plum appointment comes with an attendant menace. Its own Pandorica, if you like, ever-threatening to open. Your hotheaded, young (indulge me) reviewer discovered the exact nature of this peril when he sought counsel from a wise elder of the DWM tribe. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s former Editor and DVD reviewer (when is he coming back?) Mr Gary Gillatt!

And lo, Gary spake unto me, from an attractive terrace in Penge. “The challenge of reviewing the new series,” he said, “is that at some point you’ll have to write about the least-best story.” Now, I’ll be honest, I didn’t think too much about that – until I watched this two-parter. At which point those words slammed through my brain like a giant “TO! BE! CONTINUED!”, because I knew that, against expectation, here it was. Least-best.

Now, I don’t want to back away from the fact I found The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood disappointing – and should you continue reading, you’ll discover exactly why. But I do think I have to qualify my stance before pressing on. Because when I dub the adventure my personal “least-best” (didn’t Gary choose his words beautifully?) I mean precisely that. Chris Chibnall’s tale delivers thrills aplenty, a very Doctorish Doctor and a killer of an ending. All stuff we’ll also get to. But its main problem is more to do with the company it’s keeping. To compete with the gorgeous run of episodes we’ve enjoyed since The Eleventh Hour you’ve got to be super-model hot. This one’s more of a ‘stunna’. It lacks the sophistication and lure of the pretty things.

However, while it may be no head-turner, it’s no mutt either, because it scores a very early victory in its portrayal of the Doctor. It’s clear from the moment the TARDIS doors are flung open that Chibnall knows exactly how the Time Lord ticks. I like his Doctor. He steps out, realises it’s not Rio and then that’s immediately forgotten, cos he’s on the scent of a mystery. The ground feels weird and there’s blue grass breaking out (NB: The travellers have not just arrived at a waterlogged country and western festival). This Doctor – Chibnall’s Doctor – just won’t be diverted from the plot, even when Amy and Rory from 10 years in the future pop by. No, to him that’s peripheral business. That’s not where the story is it. It’s like an itch he can’t scratch until: “I love a big mining thing!” Ah! Of course you do, because that’s what you’re here for.

In this two-parter he remains a truly great children’s hero, nonchalantly munching on grass and scaring away both the monsters and young Eliott’s insecurities about dyslexia (“That’s alright, I can’t make a decent meringue”). His relationship with the boy calls back to that double-act with Amelia Pond, and again the secret of his easy rapport with kids seems to be the fact he doesn’t recognise them as such. He sees them as equals, and while later in the story he’ll entrust the future to Elliott, this facet of the Doctor’s personality is nicely subverted back in part one when he allows the boy to leave the church 60 seconds before the countdown climaxes. It never occurs to him that Elliott is, well, just a child. Protecting the young is what humans do.

So it’s a modern, multilayered time traveller, but the story he’s stepped into –a drilling project that awakens a threat from a bygone age – feels very old school, with all the good and bad that entails. This is a clear morality play peopled by archetypes. And it all ends with a big explosion. Nothing tricksy, but as a result, it’s maybe a little too linear, too exposed. Granted, there’s a neat switch in Cold Blood with Eldane’s narration hailing from 1,000 years in the future, but it’s on the ground – in the story beats – it becomes too obvious. An example: when the family first flee for the church in The Hungry Earth, you can almost hear the plot mechanics grinding into place. “Flamin’ door!” moans Tony. “Always sticking!” Thanks to that unsubtle piece of foreshadowing, we’re counting the seconds until the problematic portal comes back to bite us on the bum. Elliot is stuck outside, you say? Ohhh-kay.

However, this isn’t the only structural issue. There are also a few too many contrivances powering things along. Yes, one is a DW classic – splitting up the travellers into A-story and B-story teams – but others are less forgivable, specifically Amy’s “You never picked a Lizard Man’s pocket?” (not with my hands manacled, no) and the handy computer monitor in the church’s bring ‘n’ buy bundle, primed and ready for a spot of video conferencing. Sure, these are minor gripes, but nowadays we’re used to Doctor Who stories working that much harder to give the sense of events effortlessly falling into place. In instances like this the metaphorical sceneshifters are caught on stage.

But enough of drilling into the story. Because sensors indicate our excavations have disturbed something deep below. Something that’s rapidly rising up through the text!. It’ll be here in just two sentences’ time! In fact, one! Here be Silurians!

I’ve already made one qualifying statement, now here’s a second, although you might consider it a disqualifying statement. You see, I’ve never much cared for the Silurians. Yep, sorry, I’ll hand in my reviewing badge and return my ‘Russell’s Rateometer’ slide rule at the first opportunity. Let’s be clear, I absolutely agree with Steven Moffat in his opinion that the notion of an indigenous intelligent species which predates humanity is a terrific, movie franchise-launching idea. But the depiction of the creatures themselves – and the Ice Warriors too while I’m being horribly sweeping – has always been about how battle-focussed and honourable they are. Noble warriors. Sci fi samurai. It’s a trope I don’t care for and I guess both chilly-blooded races leave me a little cold.

Oddly, that didn’t make me resistant to their return, because there’s a lot you can do with the concept. And some aspects about this branch of Homo reptilia work very well indeed. As with most monsters, they’re scarier when we don’t really see them. Their modus operandi of pulling people into the earth is a fantastic, nightmarish motif and a clever restatement of their claim to the planet. Similarly, when the lizards are darting around the graveyard – silent, deadly, feral blurs – they feel like ultimate predators. It’s when they stop running and hiding that we can truly scrutinise their new look…

And getting rid of their third eye was a mistake. Yes, I’ll be bold. A mistake, I tell you! I can appreciate the production team’s worries the Silurians were in danger of muscling in on Davros’ act, but it’s left them without their big gimmick. It would be like Eurovision without bitter British disappointment, The Two Ronnies minus a Ronnie… the Eleventh Doctor sans bowtie. The lithe, lizard-like reinvention is beautiful, but it’s turned a once distinct DW monster into any other crinkle-headed, green-skinned critter from the Planet Generica. Yes, the whiplash tongue is a good effort to make amends, and feels more germane to the reptile theme, but it’s just not as strong a motif. Respect, though, for weaving a little Sea Devil into the look. Alongside those retro, disc-like guns, the string vests of yore have been refashioned as chainmail. Working the branding hard, even Mengele-esque scientist Malohkeh’s little apron is made of meshed metal.

In the dual role of warriors Alaya and Restac, Neve McIntosh sets the Silurian standard. Every movement she makes underscores the creatures’ reptilian origins with a barely suppressed fight-or-flight energy leaking into her slight and sudden gestures. Her portrayal feels inimical to humanity, and quite rightly. She’s the baddest most Silurian of them all. If kids are playing at Homo reptilia in the playground, it’ll be her performance they’ll – sorry, lizard ladies – ape. Conversely, the other members of her species act far more like us. Stephen Moore’s elderly Eldane, sweeping through that beautiful subterranean city in his jim-jams, even edges into avuncular. From a story point-of-view that makes sense. “We’re not monsters, and neither are they!” If that sentiment is to ring true some of ‘Earthliens’ must appear ready to parley.

Ah. The parleying. You’ve got to respect Chris Chibnall’s script for its purity of purpose – in both senses. Not only is the morality of the tale consistent and cleanly drawn (“You have to be the best of humanity” becomes its clarion call), but it’s also expressing the very finest of hopes for harmony between two races. However, much as that aspiration would be a hard sell in reality, it’s almost equally tricky to convey on screen. “Amy Pond and Nasreen Chaudhry speaking for the planet!” says a delighted Doctor. Wisely, the story chooses to go light on the detail, intercutting between segments of the negotiation. Nonetheless, in a real world where global cross-cultural harmony is a sadly distant idyll, the soundbites we do get inevitably come over as trite. Maybe even risible. “You give us space, we can bring new sources of energy!” reasons Eldane. “Okay, now I’m starting to see it…” says Nasreen. Big smiles all round. These good vibes continue and we could be on the brink of something historic, here. The universe’s first instance of inter-species high-fiving. Well, yes…

Okay, so I’m piping in the poison gas now, but that’s because I’m burying the griping and sending it to sleep for the next millennium. However, before we go there’s one last thing we have to attend to. Rory. Oh yes, we haven’t forgotten him.

The character’s death is as bold a move new Doctor Who has made. The preceding few weeks have skilfully manoeuvred him into the TARDIS, and secured his place as part of the team. With Amy resolving her feelings towards her fiancé, it felt as though a template had been set which would carry our three friends through, to the season finale at least. So to off Rory almost as an afterthought is a true shock. Not in the least as we’ve already been through this before (his ‘death’ in Amy’s Choice), but also because, cleverly, his survival seemed assured. “I don’t understand,” he says, as he recalls the sighting of his future self. “We were on the hill. I can’t die here.” But he does. He really does (unless, of course, they conspire away to bring him back later). And Amy’s not even allowed to remember it. It’s a final cruelty which, perversely, means we will never forget him.

Least-best story, then? Yes, but let’s be clear, that also means not-so-bad. Maybe even bordering on the rather ggggggggggg…

Flamin’ ‘g’-key! Who saw that coming?

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