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May 22, 2010

Onwards and Downwards

Doctor Who: the Hungry Earth

Review by Paul Kirkley

HE drill Steven Moffat was nine in 1970. From his infamous appearance as a precocious, freckled-faced stripling laying into Pip and Jane Baker on daytime telly in the late 80s, I’d put Chris Chibnall at about a decade younger, and thus serving his Who apprenticeship at exactly the time the Third Doctor’s era was at its most fashionable (i.e. just before it started appearing on video, and we could actually watch it).

For those who were really paying attention, there was the odd tip of the hat to Doctor Who and the Silurians in there, too

The Hungry Earth, then, is the current production team’s love letter to the vision of Barry Letts, Terry Dicks, Derek Sherwin and John Devon Roland Pertwee, adoringly riffing on everything from Inferno (big drilling project) to The Daemons (remote community cut off by force field) and The Green Death (Welsh mining village). Oh, and for those who were really paying attention, there was the odd tip of the hat to Doctor Who and the Silurians in there, too.

Okay, so it virtually  was Doctor Who and the Silurians. And that’s a significant departure for 21st Century Doctor Who: Steven Moffat has explicitly acknowledged the timeless brilliance of Malcolm Hulke’s basic premise, and the result is the first nu-Who story that feels less like a re-invention and more like a re-make for a new generation of viewers.  Which is fair enough, but it does leave us old-timers frequently asking “Yeah, and?”. For anyone even on nodding terms with the original, none of the mysteries presented here are very mysterious at all: Why are people being dragged underground? That’ll be the Silurians, then. Why are there so many empty graves? Yep, Silurians again.

I’m assuming we’ll get an explanation of why Alaya started out wearing a B.E.M. mask, unless she just got it free with Doctor Who Adventures

HE Alaya Not that you’d necessarily recognise them, as they’re the latest deign classic to have undergone a radical makeover. Sydney Newman would no doubt approve: the Silurians are no longer bug eyed monsters; now they’re just, erm, eyed monsters. (I’m assuming we’ll get an explanation of why Alaya started out wearing a B.E.M. mask, unless she just got it free with Doctor Who Adventures.)

I really enjoyed the first 20 minutes or so of this. How lovely to see rolling valleys and country churchyards in Doctor Who again . Some people complained that RTD and co didn’t make Wales look enough like alien planets; I don’t think they made it look enough like Wales. But here it was in all its lush, bucolic, picture postcard glory. The idea of focusing on an ordinary family was also a nice one, especially in the economically written pre-titles teaser, which managed to make us care about Mo in the very short time before he met his grisly fate. It does raise the question, though, of why the world’s most ambitious drilling operation is being project managed by a group of people who look like they should be running the village post office instead. It’s as if a couple of EastEnders families have clubbed together to roll back the frontiers of subterranean exploration (“Ere, mind me drill for minute, will ya?”).

That’s not a story, it’s a see-saw

For me, things started to fall apart when the main plot kicked in. Or, rather, when I realised it wasn’t really going to. Back in 2005, Russell T Davies warned that, in the new era of 45-minute stories, a single billing was in danger of giving away the entire plot. That’s never been more true than here: We knew it was about humans drilling down into the Earth while something else… okay, while the Silurians were drilling upwards and… yep, that was pretty much what it amounted to. That’s not a story, it’s a see-saw.

And so it was that the main set-piece of the episode involved waiting for three mysterious blips (oh no, hang on a minute, isn’t this the story with the Silurians in? That’s probably what they’ll be) to reach the surface, while our heroes rushed about rigging an A-Team-style lash-up that would allow the Doctor to watch it all on telly and then zap the enemy with his Time Lord version of the Red Button.

(Incidentally, this series has a very odd concept of time. Not the time-wimey stuff, but actual time, which tends to shrink or contract according to the needs of the plot. In Victory of the Daleks, Professor Pinocchio takes space-faring Spitfires from the design concept to physical launch stage in the time it takes the Doctor to eat a jammie dodger. In Flesh and Stone, Amy risks opening her eyes for “less than a second”, during which she finds time for a leisurely conversation. And here, Team Doctor gather all the camera equipment in the village and rig up a CCTV system in a minute-and-a-half. God help Steve Moffat if he ever goes on Countdown.)

Drag me to Heck

HE hell Random narks:

  • What did Alaya do to Elliot? And, even if her unfeasibly long Gene Simmons tongue was conveniently on 24-hour re-charge, why didn’t she do the same to the Doctor? Or just Do One from that particularly un-secure looking crypt with the big window, for that matter?

  • How come it took Ambrose such an eternity to realise her son was missing? Did she not think to check for him at any earlier point as she huddled in an isolated church under attack from rampaging creatures?

  • That “Star Trek lurch” acting as the TARDIS was pulled underground. Very lame.

  • The way Matt Smith – otherwise a God, obviously – said “So don’t insult me”. Not sure why – just suddenly sounded less like a 900-year-old Time Lord and more like he was admonishing his fag at Norhtampton School For Posh Boys.

Random cool stuff:

  • Alaya’s graveyard pursuit of Elliot – especially the bit where he tried to get through the door. So close to sanctuary, but so far. Chilling.

  • The Doctor’s heat sensor Ray-Bans. Those Doctor Who Adventures free gifts just keep on coming.

  • Poor old Amy being dragged to Hell. Okay, maybe not Hell – but Heck at least. Someone’s really got it in for that girl, haven’t they?

Malcolm Hulke, Colin Thor and Alan Punisher.

HE Meera Of course, we didn’t really need to watch this to know that Chris Chibnall is no Malcolm Hulke. (Have you ever stopped to think what a brilliant name Malcolm Hulke is? Like Colin Thor, or Alan Punisher.) Fortunately, though, Matt Smith is no Jon Pertwee (on the contrary, he’s still a Troughton man through and through – check out that bandy-legged run at 28:22 for further proof) and I’d take the prospect of Eleven exploring an underground city with Meera Syal over Three rubbing his neck and arguing with the man from the ministry any day. (By the way, if next week’s plot resolution to doesn’t involve the dyslexic kid managing to read something vital at some point, I’ll eat my copy of Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters.)

So the script and story may have been below par, but there were enough button-punchingly traditional Doctor Who trappings – it looks like the sort of cosily familiar Who we haven’t seen much of in recent years – to make it curiously charming, despite itself.

Humans – we’re so nostalgic.

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