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May 24, 2010

Finale Envy

Doctor Who: The Hungry Earth
Review by Tom Dickinson

There are some Who fans who'll think I'm insane, because I disliked last week’s ambitious and heavily psychological Amy's Choice, but thoroughly enjoyed The Hungry Earth, which amounts to what Erik of Bridging the Rift described as "Who-by-numbers." Indeed, this week’s story is in a lot of ways business as usual for the TARDIS crew, but I find that refreshing in a weekend where two huge mythology shows have their earth-shattering finales. I like it when a show breaks out of its own patterns, but I think last week was a botched attempt, and so it’s nice to see the show back to doing what it does best and doing it well. And it's just as earth-shattering, but in a more... you know... literal way.

Of course, the inevitable criticism that this story is more or less the same as 1970’s annoyingly-mistitled “Doctor Who and the Silurians” is not without its merits, but then again the same could easily be said of the Silurians’ other classic appearances in “The Sea Devils” and “Warriors of the Deep.” Leaving aside (at least until next week) the question of whether it was a good idea to bring back the Silurians (Eocenes, Homo reptilians, or whatever they decide to call them this time), but given that they were returning, the same basic story was part of the package. The Silurians don’t have the versatility of the Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans or Autons. The only story you can really tell about Silurians is one in which they crawl out of the sea (or ground) to take back a planet they feel has been stolen from them.

Perhaps that’s unfair, as I’ve never seen what’s been done with them in spin-off media, but that’s what the Silurians are all about and so at the very least, that’s what you need to do when you’re introducing them to an audience for the first time. So with the basic science fictional concept of the story essentially predetermined, what’s left to writer Chris Chibnall is the drama he chooses to put in the foreground. The Sea Devils took the concept of the Silurians and set it alongside the personal conflict between the Doctor and the Master. Warriors of the Deep (a story I rather enjoy, Myrka be damned) set it against a cold war between two human governments. This time, Chibnall takes the Silurian concept and sets it in a small Welsh settlement with a tiny population and copious additions of base-under-siege added to taste.

How very Pertwee.

And of course, they couldn’t resist throwing in a drill. Humans, in the name of progress, digging deep into the ground and unleashing something dark that was best left buried. How very Pertwee. I’ve always been a Nu-Who man at heart, but some of my earliest forays into the classic series were with the Third Doctor and season seven in particular. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I have such a soft spot for that era, and even though the Tenth Doctor was very much my Doctor, the Third had the distinction of being my favorite Doctor (although both are quickly being eclipsed by Matt Smith). Inferno was one of the first classic stories I ever saw, and the Beneath the Surface box set was another early Who DVD purchase for me, so I admit I’m tickled by the prominent shades of Pertwee in this story, even if I don’t have the old-school fan experience to fully appreciate this as a “love letter” to the writers and producers of the program’s UNIT days.

But then, the majority of viewers won’t even get it to the extent I did. I don’t have numbers to back this up, but I suspect the greater part of Doctor Who’s current audience has never seen an episode with Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, and even many of those who have probably won’t pick up on just how heavily influenced by Pertwee this story was. Some may even think that the Silurians are a new monster, as their return has (rightly) been hyped far less than previous returning classic baddies, even the Sontarans (who outrank them, but only just). The days where the show could get any real mileage out of resurrecting icons of the show’s past are mostly behind it, despite constant rumors of the Rani’s return (I’d rather have Glitz or Sil first, thank you). So it’s possible that by positioning this as a sort of neo-Pertwee adventure (something previously and successfully attempted in The Lazarus Experiment) Moffat, Chibnall et al have crafted a story that will fall a little flat with the not-We, who might receive it with a bit of a ho-hum.

Whether that’s the case or not we’ll probably have to wait until next week to find out, but it’s certainly true that this story lacks the dramatic richness you might expect from the second two-parter of the year. It became a bit of a tradition, especially in series three and series four, that the first two part Doctor Who story of the year would be a lighter affair featuring a returning classic monster, and the second two-part story often has a lot more dramatic weight to it. Moffat seems to have reversed the situation and front-loaded the really tense stuff, and while next week’s conclusion looks fine enough, it won’t be The Family of Blood or Forest of the Dead, that’s for sure. Perhaps I’m wrong: the bit in the trailer about time being in flux could connect this story to the season arc in a shocking way, or it could just be be misdirection. My instinct is that Rory or Amy will point out that they have to survive, or else how would their future selves be there? And the Doctor will object that it "doesn’t work like that," and that will be the end of it. But I’ve been wrong before. Sometimes things are not what they seem.

Nasareen is charming and likable. I'll be sad when she inevitably dies next week.

But even if everything is what it seems here, it’s still a good story. Getting Amy out of the way for an episode gives the Doctor the opportunity to work with other companions. Rory takes on the companion role, and while he’s not spotlighted as much as I’d like him to be it’s clear that he’s more than just a Mickey 2.0 because the writers are committed to taking him seriously as a character (and, I hope, as a long-term companion). Meera Syal’s Nasareen is charming and likable, possibly destined to be remembered as a great pseudo-companion like Sally Sparrow or Joan Redfern... or perhaps more like Lynda with a y. I'll be sad when she  inevitably dies next week.

Writer Chris Chibnall and director Ashley Way are both veterans of Torchwood, particularly its oft-maligned pre-Children-of-Earth iteration, and neither of them has a spotless track record, but here they both perform admirably, with enough clever dialogue bits and cinematic flair to keep the story afloat through what mostly amounts to setup for next week’s main event. And lots of setup it is. But it says a lot about the quality of the episode that it was able to retain my interest during a weekend when Doctor Who is destined not to be the most important or interesting thing on television, facing steep competition from the Gene Genie and the Losties. Perhaps I liked it so much because it didn’t demand too much of me while my televisual attention is devoted elsewhere. But while there’s a lot less to say about this episode than about either of those finales, The Hungry Earth still hangs together quite well as a by-the-book Doctor Who first part.

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