THIS EPISODE TAKES
PLACE AFTER THE NOVEL "THE GLAMOUR CHASE" AND DIRECTLY PRIOR TO THE TV EPISODE "COLD
'THE COMPLETE FIFTH SERIES' LIMITED EDITION STEELBOOK BLU-RAY DVD
(BBCBD0130) RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 2010.
THE DOCTOR, AMY AND RORY HAVE LANDED IN THE NEAR FUTURE IN A SMALL WELSH VILLAGE. IT'S BEAUTIFUL, BUT DANGER IS BENEATH
22ND MAY 2010
(45-MINUTE EPISODE, Part 1 OF 2)
Earth Reptiles, Eocenes, Homo Reptilia or just plain old ‘Silurians’ are amongst Doctor Who’s most recognisable antagonists, despite having only appeared in three classic television serials and a handful of stories in the spin-off media. Accordingly, their return here has been keenly anticipated by most long-standing Doctor Who fans, many of whom quietly expected this two-parter to be one of the season’s highlights.
Here Chris Chibnall, better known for his work on Torchwood than on its parent show, has written an episode that ticks just about every box. The Hungry Earth is claustrophobic and laden with traditional Who scares, well-executed set pieces, and even a few delightful little character moments. And, on the whole, it’s good. But in a season full of superlative stories, ‘good’ isn’t really good enough.
“The ground doesn’t feel as it should.”
The episode is traditional almost to a fault, borrowing much from Malcolm Hulke’s original ‘Silurian’ seven-parter without really giving us anything new. The storyline feels pedestrian, predictable and even a little padded – I can’t believe that they had to shave fifteen minutes from it in order to get it down to time! What’s more, Cwmtaff looks uncannily like Wenley Moor - Chibnall has simply traded the rolling hills of Derbyshire for the picturesque valleys of the series’ native South Wales.
The reptiles themselves are equally uninspiring. Although Chibnall is faithful to Hulke’s original depiction in his narrative, the inevitable 21st century redesign has robbed the old “cave monsters” of what once made them unique. Their distinctive, warbling voices are now gone and even their trademark third eye appears to have been lost in favour of a more relatable visage. It’s like looking at a Dalek without a plunger.
“This land is ours. We lived here long before the apes.”
Indeed, the writer’s attempt to humanise the species has left them little more than slender, scaly, clothed humanoids. Narrow your eyes a little, and you might as well be looking at Star Trek: Deep Space 9’s Jem’Hadar.
Of course, this allows Neve McIntosh to play her reptilian character with a range of seduc-tive expression that forty years ago prosthetics prevented. Her interrogation scene with Matt Smith’s Doctor is particularly sinister and edgy; personal in a way that it couldn’t have been had the Doctor been staring at someone in an unconvincing rubber suit. The warrior caste’s masks are also a welcome addition, as are the extendable, venomous tongues, which set this tribe apart from the other reptilian sub-species that the Doctor has encountered previously. Furthermore, the principal idea of people being swallowed by holes in the ground is incredibly chilling and effective; textbook Who fodder. It’s just a shame that so much had to be sacrificed in exchange.
“The ground’s attacking us.”
My biggest problem with The Hungry Earth though its lack of shimmer and sparkle. The whole episode has a grey, sober quality to it that gives it a very different feel to the mostly- colourful romps that we’ve enjoyed so far this year. I was especially frustrated by Chibnall’s decision to sideline Amy for three quarters of the episode, only to give Rory a largely directionless and sombre subplot that pales in comparison to his entertaining exploits in recent weeks.
The weakness of the companions’ contribution here is made up for to some degree by a couple of memorable turns from the supporting cast. Meera Syal (The Kumars at No 42) is wonderful as the charming Dr Nasreen Chaudhry, who finds herself filling in as the Doctor’s assistant, and doing so with admirable relish. The biggest star though is Samuel Davies, who plays young Elliot, an incredibly bright dyslexic boy who shares an affinity for Sherlock Holmes with the Time Lord, not to mention a certain wanderlust.
“Excuse me, I’m making perfect sense. You’re just not keeping up.”
Ultimately though, The Hungry Earth is Matt Smith’s show. His Doctor is rarely off screen, driving the action forwards every step of the way with a stoic but spirited performance that, every so often, strays just slightly into melancholy.
For all its let downs though, The Hungry Earth does at least end fabulously. The threat of conscious dissection is an incredibly grisly image to paint at a few minutes to seven on a Saturday night, yet director Ashley Way still manages to top it with the dramatic last-minute reveal of a fully-fledged reptilian city – a moment that I’m sure in years to come will be remembered with the same sort of reverence as the Cybermen’s emergence from their Ice Tombs on Telos in The Tomb of the Cybermen.
“An entire civilisation living beneath the Earth…”
Consequently, though my general reaction to this episode is one of mild disappointment, I am at least hopeful for next week’s Cold Blood. Nevertheless, if a couple of months ago you’d have told me I’d be waxing eloquent about the virtues of the cheap and cheerful Amy’s Choice and ruminating on the shortcomings of The Hungry Earth, I’d never have believed you. Yet here we are.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2010
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
The latest series of Doctor Who gets more old-fashioned with each episode, wi-th The Hungry Earth providing a very sedate beginning to this story, filled with elements reminiscent of the original series. As well as the return of classic foes the Silurians, we’ve got the heat barrier from The Dæmons, the mighty drilling project from Inferno and the hungry earth itself, straight from Frontios. For dyed-in-the-wool and long-in-the-tooth fans like me, these elements can seem very much old hat. Yet, let’s remember that for many of the youngsters watching, all of this will be new, and there’s no point letting an effective idea go to waste, even if it does seem a bit clichéd to some of us. Looking at it that way, this is a successful episode, filled with memorable images such as the graveyard chase, the chilling sight of terrified humans being dragged into the ground by unseen hands, and the evoc-ative, revelatory cliffhanger of the great reptile city.
“Cold Blood. I know who they are…”
It is, admittedly, very slow-paced. There were moments when I was urging the plot to move forward more quickly. When the Doctor declares of the reptilian antagonists, “I know who they are,” I couldn’t help shouting “we all know who they are!” (and this wasn’t good; I was watching it at work). perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the frenetic pace of the modern series. Compared to many contemporary shows, this isn’t particularly slow, and it is certainly far pacier than the 1970s stories that inspired it. A two-part story has more room to breathe than a single episode; I certainly feel that, say, Victory of the Daleks could have benefited from this approach, and been given the opportunity to build up some atmosphere. That said, the direction here is nothing to shout about, with the exception of the excellent aforementioned graveyard sequence, which is sure to stick in many a mind for years to come.
More of a problem is the writing. I’m not the greatest fan of Chris Chibnall’s work. Although he has produced some excellent scripts for Torchwood and Life on Mars, he has a tendency to churn out clunky, uninspiring dialogue; som-ething that is evident here. While this is far better than his previous Who episode, the weak 42, it’s a bare script (some might say straightforward), and there’s little memorable about his characterisation. None of the guest characters particularly stand out, although some are thankfully saved by some excellent, believable acting by Meera Syal, Neve McIntosh, Robert Pugh and, especially, young Samuel Davies as Elliot. Whoever is in charge of child casting in this series is really choosing some excellent young actors. All the regulars put in fine performances, as usual, and although Karen Gillan’s Amy is somewhat sidelined, this does give Matt Smith the chance to really shoulder the episode.
“You’re beautiful. A remnant of a bygone age on planet Earth.”
Now, I love the Silurians - they’re a classic monster race, and I’m thrilled to see them back. As yet, of course, we have seen little of them, so I’m reserving full judgment for now. Still, based on what we have seen, I’m feeling positive. Wonderful though those original rubber suits were, the creatures clearly needed an updated look for the modern audience. There were two possible routes to go: one was to make the creatures more reptilian, most likely through CGI, and produce a dinosaurian entity in a more monstrous mold. On the whole, I prefer the route taken. By making the creatures more human, it is far easier for an audience to relate and sympathise with them, something that is vital if we are to believe that they are an intelligent, noble race. The make-up and prosthetic work on show here is excellent, although the downside is that the Silurians now appear less distinctive. They could be members of any number of reptilian races in science fiction. The idiosyncratic third eye is sadly missed, although I do like the addition of the whiplash tongue. From a pedantic point of view though, I really can’t stand the use of the name Homo reptilia. It’s far worse than the inaccurate Silurian label, being woefully scientifically illiterate. I realise that it did not ori-ginate here (I believe that it dates back to the Virgin novels), but I’d rather it hadn’t been perpetuated.
With an interesting final scene, the suggestion of some truly visceral horror (live vivisection - hardly teatime stuff) and the assurance of whole armies of reptile folk, the second episode looks very promising. Now that the set-up is in place, however, it does need to pick up the pace to provide the climax it merits.
Copyright © Daniel Tessier 2010
Daniel Tessier has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
The Doctor, Rory and Amy materialise in a Welsh mining village where they are drilling into the centre of Earth and the inhabitants are being dragged under the earth, Frontios-style. There they uncover a clan of Silurians wherein one of the characters catches The Green Death and they are all trapped under an energy barrier the exact same shape as the one in The Dæmons! Reading that sentence aloud sounds absolutely ridiculous; a hopelessly naïve love letter to the third Doctor’s adventures and the sort of trivial plagiarism that Terrance Dicks has been thrilling us with in his spin-off novels for years and years. And yet thanks to a slower than usual pace, a mesmerising performance by Matt Smith, and a stylish director in Ashley Way, The Hungry Earth transcends its clichéd roots and becomes something far more enjoyable.
Comparisons with Doctor Who and the Silurians are inevitable, but I think there is far more to be taken from this comparison than ‘they did it better then’ or ‘this is far superior.’ I think the question should be ‘has television been modernised, dumbed down, or is it just a lot less sterilised’? The Silurians was a complex story which planted you in the thick of the action with vicious animal attacks, nervous breakdowns, and the threat of a nuclear explosion, and it was populated with characters with a lot of depth and real issues trying to cope with an impossible situation. I am really fond of that story but like much of Season 7 it is extremely clinical and far easier to admire than it is to love.
“Dyslexia never stopped Da Vinci or Einstein, it’s certainly not stopping you.”
The Hungry Earth begins in a far more lethargic fashion, easing us into the story through a very likable family – a worried mother, a missing father and their dyslexic son. Whilst this updated version might feel like a more spoon-fed version of the same story, it is far easier to give a damn about the characters – they aren’t scientists or directors or parliamentary under secretaries; they are ordinary people trapped in the same impossible situation. And that is what Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have brought to Doctor Who - a more human element to the same type of stories that were being told in the classic series. It depends how you like your story being told, in complex scientific ways or simpler, character driven ways. I like a little of each, and now I can watch the story told from either point of view. Lovely.
Saying that, I don’t want to suggest that Chris Chibnall has completely failed at the scripting stage because this is one of his most adept pieces of writing yet. He is a writer that I have been wary of in the past thanks to his appalling work in the first series of Torchwood, but he rose above the heavy criticism and produced some cracking scripts for that show’s second series, especially the three closing episodes. His first stab at a Doctor Who episode, 42, was a mixture of fan pleasing elements and clichés, but it had a drive to it that made it a fantastic experience at the time but, a little like a Chinese takeaway, was utterly forgettable ten minutes after consumption. The pre-titles teaser for The Hungry Earth alone shows just how much he has grown as a writer as he manages to effectively establish the setting, the main characters and the threat in about four minutes. Others have commented that this episode feels slow, but after so many unfulfilling stories that have tried to squeeze the equivalent of a classic series four-parter into forty-five minutes, it’s lovely to have a story that takes its time building up the central dilemma. Without wanting to sound like a broken record, this episode have the feel, the elements and the pace of a classic series story with all of the latest technological wizardry to make it look terribly expensive. If you want to imagine what a four-part Pertwee story would be like if it were made today – tada!
“Something pulled her in. It wanted her.”
The whole idea of the Earth being hungry is really quite frightening, and it is just one of a number of primal fears that Chibnall taps into whilst setting up his story. The director certainly doesn’t shy away from the horror of being dragged underground and the scene where Amy begs the Doctor not to let her go and suffocate beneath the soil is one of the most upsetting in recent years. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan play these moments superbly and I was gripping my sofa in discomfort as Amy slipped from his grip. It’s great how they leave it so long before we see Amy again, and so there is a real question mark over her survival. Some of the dialogue really drives home the cold sweat of the situation: “The graves around here eat people.” Brrrrr. Other tense moments include Amy waking up in a coffin underground in a claustrophobic panic – that’s one of my husband’s biggest fears (being trapped in small spaces freaks him out so much!) so he had a moment of discomfort too. Finally, the thought of being dissected alive and a surgeon with a surgical mask coming towards you with a fuck-off sized hypodermic needle is just about the most horrible things I could ever imagine. Cheers Chibnall, you’re paying my dry cleaning bill!
And what is it with these leafy, rural locations this year? We had a quick peek at London in The Eleventh Hour and Victory of the Daleks, but aside from these and a trip to non-Venice (Croatia, wasn’t it?), we have been wandering through tiny, English villages and lots of greenery. Shady glens are becoming as much of a cliché to the Moffat era as the concrete towers of London were to Davies, only they are much prettier to photograph! You certainly won’t get me complaining when we are treated to moments as deliciously scary as Elliot being pursued through the graveyard by a slippery dark shadow. The black silhouette gliding across the camera and hissing makes for a very effective scare.
“From their point of view, you’re the invaders. Your drill was threatening their settlement.”
Matt Smith’s Doctor continues to hold the series together and in a story with a slower pace like this it is more important than ever for him to keep the interest up. So fortunately we get to see a schoolboy hero using a slingshot, his quiet admission to Rory that he needs him seeing the two getting closer, his pop eyed humour (‘Defending the world with meals on wheels!’) and his lovely admission that he misses Gallifrey “so much”. I love the Doctor’s theme music this year, which was used to fantastic effect in The Eleventh Hour and the closing moments of The Time of Angels, but is equally as effective underscoring moments of quiet heroism here. When he slips on his sunglasses and pursues the Silurian in the woods I was ready to confess that he was the coolest Doctor ever.
Once the Silurian threat has been revealed I was really impressed with how Smith decided to play his interrogation scene with Alaya. When Pertwee’s Doctor confronted the Silurians, he was all wild-eyed seriousness (that was part of his charm), but Smith underplays it beautifully, crossing his legs and talking very calmly as though she was speaking to an old friend. She threatens the genocide of the human race and he doesn’t even blink; his voice remains level as he tells her that there won’t be a battle here today. It feels as though this is a Doctor who has been here before and knows how to avoid the mistakes that happened previously.
“You stopped the drill, right? So, if you shut the drill down, why can I still hear drilling?”
Meera Syal’s Nasreem is a very different sort character to what we are used to seeing, and I loved how we skipped over the whole accusing the Doctor just because he has turned up at the wrong time and went straight for the quiet admiration almost invisibly. Nasreem is open to the Doctor’s crazy, romantic ideas and is willing to clap him on when he makes one of his life- affirming speeches and happily admits that he’s the only one who seems to know what is going on. Her reaction to the TARDIS is total ninth Doctor (“Fantastic!”) and she has a mute thrill at exploring under the Earth. All of this makes her sound like an excited fan, yet Syal plays the part with total integrity and believability. I hope she doesn’t let us down in Cold Blood.
The Silurians are such an intriguing race simply because of the questions they make us ask about ourselves. I’m sure that millions of words have been spent in hundreds of fanzines discussing their genius as Doctor Who antagonists, so I won’t bore you by saying anything more than having our own fear and xenophobia mirrored is a fascinating device that sees the human race fighting themselves. I think next week’s episode is going to be extremely disturbing in what it will reveal about the human race.
“Not monsters; not evil. Only as evil as you are.”
I have the strangest feeling in my gut that Rory is going to die in the next episode. Having him insist that Amy puts her engagement ring back in the TARDIS makes me think that Rory will die spectacularly and the ring will be waiting for Amy upon her return - it’s the sort of cruel irony that Chibnall is known for. What’s more, Ambrose’s long stare at those weapons leads me to believe that she is the one who is going to kill Alaya...
Rather than a spectacular build up to a disappointing conclusion (Davies style), there is an uncomfortable tension here that grumbles at the end of the episode. It feels slightly anti-climatic on the night, but it does leave a lot of possibilities for Cold Blood to explore, which is exactly the function a first part should perform. The Silurian civilisation is gorgeously depicted by the Mill, an intricate cave system of lights with inter connected pools of lava. I can’t wait to get down there and explore it…
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
The Earth Reptiles featured in this episode are from a “different branch of the species” to those previously encountered by the Doctor. Most notably, they lack the distinctive third eye of most ‘Silurian’ sub-species and wear human-like clothing.
Unless otherwise stated, all images on this site are copyrighted to the BBC and are used solely for promotional purposes.
‘Doctor Who’ is copyright © by the BBC. No copyright infringement is intended.