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May 27, 2010

Down, Down, Deeper And Down

Doctor Who: The Hungry Earth
Review by Frank Collins

He9As far as fairy tale allusions go then The Gruffalo is I suppose an interesting allegorical choice for this week's Doctor Who. Julia Donaldson's story about the mouse that exploits fear of a mythical beast to scare away predators is pretty much at the heart of The Hungry Earth as father and son read it together and later the father sits and reads it whilst on night duty at the drilling complex. It conjures up a number of ideas and themes. It is traditionally a book that parents and children read together, often amongst the first books used to teach a child to read. With Chris Chibnall's overtly Pertwee-a-thon of a script, bolting together an array of 1970s classic Doctor Who tropes, we could almost be getting the same experience.

A very child friendly, mildly scary Doctor Who that can be digested by children and parents in the same company and about as non-threatening a version of Doctor Who they're ever likely to share as viewers. It once again skews the series to the more child friendly end of the audience spectrum and again, like many of the episodes this year, throws in familiar childhood fears that evoke in adults their own memories of such anxieties. Hence, we get a central child character who, after his father has been swallowed up by the earth, is allowed to go wandering about unchaperoned in the dark (by a Doctor who is as much a child himself when it comes to facing dangers) just as the monsters have started skulking round the graveyard. The fears of parental abandonment by children loom large in this episode and the central figure of over-protected Elliot is separated from both his mother and father in the story and is likely the symbolic trigger for what will be Ambrose's attitude to the SIlurians.

He3 It also evokes some very Gruffalo-esque qualities in the Doctor. Surely, the Doctor is the mouse who, like a Zen master that uses his antagonists' aggression against them, here reassures the child that he has met monsters before and they're usually the ones afraid of him. By his very nature, the Doctor is the tallest of all tall stories (especially now that he's played by the gangly Matt Smith) but the current series is in danger of over playing the whole fairy tale motif until it becomes obvious and dull.  This Zen like approach to confronting one's enemies, where The Gruffalo is a story of a mouse and a monster that shows no matter how gruesome the monsters children can create in their own minds, they are never as bad as they imagine them to be, is given strength by the Doctor's encounter with Alaya where he at first removes the mask from her face and, like the liberal Englishman he is, pulls up a fold away chair, crosses his legs and calmly gets behind her defensive bullshit. It's certainly one of the best scenes in a well paced slow burn of an introduction, and suggests that the morality of their relative positions might be further built upon in the concluding half of the story.

What's less intriguing is the all surface and no substance Pertwee love-in. Welsh mines and infected green-veined miners (he should have been called Bert) straight out of The Green Death; a drilling project that Sir Keith Gold would have fretted about only if the boss was Stahlman and not Chaudhry and they were looking for a new form of energy (and just where are the hand wringing politicians in Doctor Who these days?); a village and its church surrounded by a force barrier and Silurians that appear to have a 1970s wardrobe designed by Paco Rabanne. Writer Chris Chibnall clearly has great affection for the Pertwee years but it's a pity that none of the real political vitality of those halcyon days was present here.

They seem to be drilling for the sake of it and no none yet seems remotely bothered about the effects on the environment (quite serendipitous that this was transmitted in the aftermath of the appalling oil drilling disaster in the Mexican Gulf) and the encounter with the Silurians has barely explored the political theme of the indigenous species versus the rampant colonial invader, a very British concern that Doctor Who used to tackle with gusto in the 1970s and which has lost its resonance since most of our colonies desperately demanded independence from us years ago. There is potential to see further analogies to the 'Britain for the British' tub-thumping albeit reversed here with the Silurians spitting blood about us pesky apes. No, for the moment this is all suggestive window dressing until hopefully we get some serious sub-text in the second half.

He2 There are some oddly unexplained moments here too. Why are the bodies of the dead being removed from their graves? It's a nice little way to split Rory off from the Doctor and Amy and have him doing his own bit of investigating but after standing in one of the graves pondering on what exactly to do the idea sort of fizzles out. What was the point of the Silurians blocking out the daylight when they surrounded the village with the energy barrier? Just so the Doctor could swan about with a pair of clever heat vision Ray-Bans? There's a sense here of delaying tactics, putting enough of these oddities into the script to prevent it rushing too quickly to its conclusion and, again, based on this sense I reckon the meat of the story is in the second part.

There are enough rewards to be had though. I rather enjoyed that the supporting characters were actually fleshed out, given the extra time afforded by a two-parter. The relationship between Nasreen and Tony blooming as disaster strikes; Nasreen's reaction to the trip in the TARDIS and her growing admiration of the Doctor, with its 'old school' charm momentarily bringing Amy's cynicism and bitching into very sharp relief; and the Doctor's empathy with dyslexic Elliot ('Oh that's all right. I can't make a decent meringue') were all decent moments. The chase in the graveyard and Elliot's kidnap was also very atmospheric and tense as was Amy's rather horrified reaction to a potential dissection by Silurian (a neat parallel with the Doctor's criticism of Tony's willingness to dissect their attackers earlier in the episode).

I don't know about you but to me it's a bit obvious that Rory's days in the TARDIS are numbered. There is the heavy telegraphing of that opening scene between him and Amy where he takes her engagement ring off and puts it in the TARDIS for safe keeping. I can already see a distraught Amy finding that ring and wishing there had been another way. To really emphasise it, Chibnall plonks Rory in the middle of a graveyard and stands him in an empty grave. Subtle! And just what on earth was going on in the scene where the Doctor, Amy and Rory spot another Amy and Rory waving to them from a hillside? The Doctor brushes it off as a future version of them coming to relive past glories but that just sounds either like obvious misdirection or some serious over-indulgence. Or are they on that hill trying to warn themselves of the danger they are about to face. Something is afoot and we should cast our minds back to that original 3D trailer which climaxed with the screen filling with a Silurian mask.

He5 Shall we also take bets on who is going to start the war with the Silurians and fulfill Alaya's martyrdom complex? Will it be Tony, going all green veined on us or will it be Ambrose and her anger management issues symbolised by the huge pile of blunt instruments and guns that she's piled into her van? Again, the big speech from the Doctor about how they must be the best humans they can be in the impending crisis and how they have the potential to be brilliant just sounds like he's making excuses for what will be a regrettable blood-bath in next week's episode. It was hardly surprising that Nasreen was the only one clapping after that pompous twaddle. Ambrose will seek to protect her child and husband with as much zeal as Alaya, an equally determined female, will continue screaming for a war to reclaim what is rightfully the Silurians home.

One of the big problems with The Hungry Earth is the re-design of the Silurians. I can understand that it must be easier for an actor to give a better performance if the special effects make up allows you a wide range of expressions but here the Silurians we know and love, with their big ears, circular mouth/nose and that wonderful third eye have been replaced by a close cousin of  the Jem'Hadar. It's a very good make up but it's hardly a radical re-design and why have they suddenly got into the habit of popping on a mask? It's a good performance from Neve McIntosh but, old fashioned as I am, I want Radiophonic strangeness over my dodgy and not so dodgy accents and that pulsating third eye. But that's me wanting my cake and eating it and there are I suppose enough moments of Pertwee pastiche already in evidence.

For an episode completely driven by the return and reveal of a classic monster and their vast underground city, the new Silurians still need to go some distance to differentiate themselves from their Star Trek: Deep Space Nine cousins. It's not a bad episode and is certainly an improvement on Chibnall's previous efforts on both Doctor Who and Torchwood but it perhaps suffers from the stuffing in of all the familiar Doctor Who tropes from the 1970s as pure set-up for the second part of the story. Some good performances, some tense and scary moments but it didn't quite make the earth move for me. Let's hope the pay-off is a good one.


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