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May 31, 2010

Lounge Lizards

Doctor Who: Cold Blood
Review by Frank Collins

Cbe As writer Chris Chibnall revealed in this month's Doctor Who magazine, he went back to Malcolm Hulke's Doctor Who And The Silurians as his inspiration for this two parter. With Cold Blood it's clear he doesn't know quite what to do with the Silurians once he's woken them up and rather like Hulke's original story, once you've shown that both races simply have too many differences to be able to get along, you either have to blow one of them up or send them back to sleep. Hulke used the internal conflicts of both the humans and the Silurians to represent the Cold War and post-colonial politics of the early 1970s and used the drama to show the wider consequences of the battle for the planet before...well...the Brigadier blows the Silurians up. I suspect the Eldane voice over was Chibnall's attempt to place this story into a broader context but it sits uneasily as historical commentary to a rather weak episode that is concentrated solely in an isolated mining village.

Cold Blood
at its worst presented the complex problems of racial hatred, colonialist entitlements and apartheid between the humans and the Silurians in very simple 'Janet And John' terms. The scene showing Amy, Nasreen and Eldane thrashing out their negotiations and reaching a compromise had its heart in the right place, but was truly awful when it had Nasreen turning to question Amy about the terms of Silurian immigration and settlement, devolving into just one of those interminable Star Trek Picard/Sisko/Janeway foreign policy board meetings with the rubber faced 'Aliens Of The Week'. Whereas it took the ANC and the National Party at least six years to establish a peaceful resolution to apartheid and a new constitution in South Africa, it took the three of them precisely five minutes to establish a legal framework for sharing the entire planet never mind a single country. The BA cabin crew strikes would be nipped in the bud with this team working at ACAS.

Cba The big problem here is, of course, a sense of scale. These negotiations take place in a bubble that's divorced from the rest of the planet. At least, in previous Silurian stories the uneasy dialogue between the Silurians and the humans was given either a national or global scale with the mutual lack of trust being shown to have far bigger consequences on the wider populace of Earth. Still, the script tries its best to show that all sides are culpable here and more or less treads the same ground as Hulke's Doctor Who And The Silurians. However, instead of the Brigadier blowing the reptiles up, we've got their leader realising that enforced hibernation for another 1000 years seems to be the only solution to the war that's brewing that will allow both sides some time to reflect on and potentially evolve in their attitudes.

To that end, Chibnall quickly tries to tie it up by having Nasreen and Tony stay behind as ambassadors in situ and the Doctor offering a sermon on the Welsh hills to spread the words of peace. Whereas in Hulke's script the xenophobic Major Baker succumbs to the Silurian plague as his just desserts for inflaming the conflict between the two races, the parallel character of Ambrose does at least have the consequences of her prejudices and mistakes presented to her. Ambrose and Tony are by far the most interesting characters in the story in that they do have a clear learning curve through the story, which is more than can be said for some. Ambrose is at least full of remorse in the end (a decent performance from Nia Roberts here) and agrees to take what she's learned about herself to bring up Elliot with the proper attitude.

However, morally, there are some mind-bogglingly strange notes in the script. Malohkeh, the Silurian Dr. Mengele, has happily been dissecting human beings for years and the Doctor doesn't even question it and actually allies himself to the scientist, who fifteen minutes in is upbraiding the military commander Restac for her methods in subjugating the humans. Better than plunging a scalpel into them, eh, Malohkeh? Presumably, he's the one who's been body snatching out of the local graveyard and planting the blue grass then? The Doctor merrily slaps the lizard on the back for reviving Elliot and conveniently forgets to mention the years of cruel scientific experiments he's carried out. I'm sure Mo will be proudly showing off that dissection scar down the pub next week too and like Elliot's kidnap it's all too casually brushed aside.

Cbd The Doctor also seems to get on his high horse a little too often here with the humans, blaming them for much of what has happened when in fact Malohkeh and Alaya had actually taken it upon themselves to attack the humans. He's quite happy tearing strips off Ambrose for what she's done, looking down his nose at her and the others for not being the shining exemplar he pompously expected them to be, but he's hardly been a reliable moral compass in this story. Eldane isn't exactly leadership material either and seems a rather pallid and ineffectual creature in the face of the military might of Restac. And just why was there a vast army of Silurians hidden away underground? When did their culture become so militarised?

I was willing to give the Silurian re-design some time last week but looking at them again this week just proved to me how utterly wrong the thinking was here from the design team. To take away their one memorable characteristic - the pulsating third eye - and then deck them out in skirts and fish nets, give them masks that make them look like toothless old hags and big clunky ray-guns just reduces them to the very thing fanboy Chibnall moaned about back in the 1980s. Worse still, they smother national treasure Stephen Moore in a horrid kaftan and the Star Trek make up to play Eldane, a sort of Silurian Nelson Mandela.

He looks less than dignified, alas, just when the script needed as much dignity as it could get and whereas Neve McIntosh really inhabits the make up and adds little physical ticks to breathe life into both Alaya and Restac, Moore doesn't quite seem to make the prosthetics work for him, almost afraid to work his facial muscles to bring life to the role, looking a little like he's just left the dentist with an anaesthetised face. A shame really because the rest of the episode actually looks rather good. There is an attempt to give a sense of visual scale to the episode with a lovely Gaudi inspired flavour to the production design which for the most part is highly attractive but sadly can't quite stretch to completely disguise the familiarity of Cardiff's Temple Of Peace location shoot. The lighting is particularly good and the brief use of Plantasia in Swansea as a location is effective too.

Cbb After all the thumpingly obvious signalling in The Hungry Earth, it was only a matter of time before we got to what I assumed was supposed to be a shocking ending with the death of Rory. Again, the script, direction and acting can't quite decide how this needs to be pitched and the biggest stumbling block is that the emotional edge has been worn off this laboriously signposted conclusion by the equally similar 'death of Rory' scene in Amy's Choice. I am sad that Rory has seemingly been killed off but there really isn't any emotional value in that scene and if, as I also suspect, that Rory will be restored then what exactly was the point in killing him off. Equally, now that Amy has forgotten him completely, then it just makes all the business in Vampires Of Venice and Amy's Choice rather inconsequential and redundant.

The series, in trying to build the moral and emotional dimensions of its characters and the consequences of the stories, when its subtext has been about remembering and forgetting, ironically seems to either forget that they exist or remove them completely just after they've been introduced. Amy and the Doctor have an adventure, something terrible and emotional happens, and then they go on a trip to Venice, or Rio or Wales and forget about it. Whether this is a consequence of related scenes being dropped from episodes isn't clear but both The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood feel like they've been victims of some very judicious editing. I can perhaps understand the Doctor's attitude because he's alien and has lived a long time but Amy trots through each story without the character palpably growing in stature. Even with Rory's death, she's robbed of her grief by the very 'crack in time' story device that Moffat's using across the series. That's either a very clever or a very stupid thing and I'm not sure we'll know which until the bloody Pandorica finally opens.

I'm not proposing a return to RTD's use of the domestic drama to ground the stories and develop the emotional range of the characters but just an acknowledgment that if you are going to make a series-wide arc so prominent in the stories, to the point of using it to actually kill off characters, then the consequences need to be seen to affect the other characters and story developments in significant ways across the episodes. There's a problem for me as, by not caring about Amy, then I don't really care if she can remember Rory or not. I'm not emotionally invested in the character enough for the death of Rory to really matter to me.

Cbf And if the Doctor knows how terrible the crack in time is then why has he spent nine episodes not doing anything about it? Unlike, say 'Bad Wolf', 'Saxon' or any of the other series-wide memes that have threaded each series together and led towards a two or three part finale, the 'crack in time' sub-plot is actually more front and centre than any of those memes and we, both the audience and the characters, know what it does and see the obvious threat again and again. The urgency it signals is ignored and the attempt to build a mystery into the series is constantly interrupted by the blatant moving of gears within certain stories to underline but not challenge the threat. 

Cold Blood is pretty to look at (apart from that poor CGI explosion of the drill head) but never really gets its hands dirty with the wider political, moral, environmental and global consequences of waking the Silurians up. There was a chance here, suggested by the Eldane voice over, to do a big story that would deal with many of the wider implications of the Doctor Who and Torchwood universes, of dealing with another species face to face in a world that has already seen alien invasions and where government agencies already know about the existence of the Silurians. Instead, we simply got a lot of species-ist agit-prop in an isolated Welsh village with a population of about a dozen, the destruction of a multi-million pound drill head (won't the government investigate the explosion and the disappearance of Tony and Nasreen?) and the contrived death of a supporting character.

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