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May 23, 2010

What Alaya’s Beneath

Stuart Ian Burns feeds himself to Doctor Who: The Hungry Earth

Blackpool won the Championship League play-off this afternoon.  I don’t know anything about football and indeed could care less about it most of the time, but I can totally understand the thrill which the fans of the winning club must have experienced at the final whistle because I suspect (though obviously can’t confirm so bear with me here) it’s much the same as I feel at the end of a particularly good film and for the purposes of this blog, an entertaining slab of Doctor Who (which a cup final success similar to a season ender though we won’t be able to test that out until the Pandorica opens).  At the very least it must have made up for the closure of a certain exhibition recently.

Which is my way of saying that contrary to the Twitter reaction (you know who you are) tonight’s closing title squeeze was greeted with applause from me which considering my historic enmity with writer Chris Chibnall and director Ashley Way (who was also on early Torchwood and so will be forever guilty by association) was rather a surprise.  I’ll admit to being charmed from top to bottom and though I’ll also admit to a couple of retrospective reservations (which we’ll come to) this was more or less everything I’d want and expect from an episode of Doctor Who.  We're even still in the countryside. 

contrary to the Twitter reaction

Before you ram issue 413 of Doctor Who Magazine down my throat (or some other orifice) and shout “What does that make The Caves of Androzani?” I will add that so far this isn’t the best story ever and no matter how good episode nine is it still won’t be.  City of Death wuz robbed.  But what it does deliver is a good old fashioned love letter to the Pertwee era and a reminder that even in this new(ish) version of the franchise with Steven Moffat’s fairy tale noodlings burrowing through it, that he’s still interested sometimes in offering a good old fashioned alien invasion story with a moral pulse, a tribute to the Silurian’s original creator Malcolm Hulke (albeit with a shorter miniskirt than Katie might have risked).

There is just something very comforting about an episode that throws out all of the post-modern tricks we’ve become accustomed to and goes about the business of showing us as traditional a Who story as possible that unlike The Waters of Mars which reported the standard Proppian/Dickian/Daviesian elements as a way of foregrounding the impending doom of the Doctor’s alien morality, just wants to leave us entertained.  For all the lush photography and rustic charm with a few obvious exceptions, parts of this episode look like we should be viewing them through the same gausy quality of episodes which now only exist in off-air NTSC copies down to the BBC Micro inspired graphic of the lizard's flatulence propulsion.

Just once the Eleventh Doctor is allowed to gradually follow the mystery, from the initial clue of the blue grass, through to breaking into an industrial building then gaining the trust of some scientist who’s experiment has rattled the cage of something other, with his companions becoming separated so that they can discover some bits of plot (nice moment for Rory in the grave) before falling into some peril (literally in Amy’s case) and taking refuge in a church up some other devil's end.  Arguably we have seen set ups in other episodes built on the Doctor’s own curiosity (notably The Beast Below), none of them as been quite this bald in execution.  About the only deviation is the Pertweevian cliché of the Doctor's perennial capture being turned on its head with his antagonist finding herself in the cell instead.

the Pertweevian cliché

Dr Nasreen Chaudhry and her new boyfriend Tony seem designed to merge the main early 70s bystander character types, like Ruth from The Time Monster finding something in common with Bert from The Green Death.  Of course, if this was a proper homage there would be a stereotypical Tory presence on hand tutting as the drilling was stopped for whatever reason (though given that this story is set in 2020 and depending on your optimism at the present climate it might as well be a Lib Dem – Chris Hulme’s in charge of the environment now after all).  Their role is arguably substituted with the fantastically named Ambrose whose collection of domestic weaponry is meant to suggest she’ll be the one to go Stahlman in the next episode, though it's clearly a front and Rory will be the on wielding the axe.

Despite what some fans my suggest, we haven’t seen enough of the new Silurian/Eocenes yet to really judge.  One of the b-list monsters along with the Sontarans, their reputation has grown large enough for us to forget that they’ve only appeared in two television stories and only one good story at that.  For fans I’d argue, it’s Hulke’s Target novelisation which has sealed their reputation and perhaps their infrequent contradictory appearances in spin-off media, including The Coup, that amazing preview that came free with DWM for the audio UNIT spin-off  in which a new knighted Brigadier attempts to help them be mankind’s first contact with alien life, only to have humanity dismiss them as men in rubber suits!

a new knighted Brigadier

Understandably the redesign, neatly another new branch of the species so as not to tread on what’s gone before employs the Star Trek/Frontier in Space appliance of allowing us to see the actor’s faces.  Taking into account the compensating mask which will no doubt come into play more in the next episode as way of cutting down on make-up requirements (and to give Forbidden Planet a bumber Christmas), that does mean that they may lack the enigmatic features of the likes of Ichtar and the wonderfully impractical flashing light but allows them a much wider range of emotions as seen in the interrogation scene we’ll discuss later.  They’re also more agile.  The scenes in the graveyard are gripping stuff, their Raston Robot like silhouette a perfectly alien shape against the stone and greenery.  Plus, doubters at least the reinvention of the Myrka hinted at in Confidential didn't come to pass.

It’s not all that straightforward though, with Moffat’s hand can be seen elsewhere.  As well as the idea of an every day piece of landscape become a portal of doom (and having had my own adventures I can tell you being pulled into the earth is no fun so exactly like being born), the spectre of older Amy and Rory on the hill are an incursion from the main story arc and ripe to reconfigure the story from an alternative viewpoint, perhaps shot in similar style to a similar scene between Harry Potter and Hermione Granger in the film version of The Prison of Azkaban (somewhat oddly since Rory is probably fulfilling the Ron Weasley role in the rest of the series) were the two watched their recent past spinning out unable to interfere.

This is The Waters of Mars, really…

All of the talk of fixed points in history in the trailer for Cold Blood suggests were heading back into time in flux “This is The Waters of Mars, really…” territory next week, which brings me to that retrospective reservation.  The deleted scene, the one revealed in Doctor Who Confidential which if you didn’t see it shows the Doctor and Amy’s walk to the mine.  Something has clearly gone awry if the first cut of an episode is fifteen minutes too long (did no one notice at the scripting stage?) and one casualty was what looked it should have been one of the best scenes of the season (and certainly would have made up for the paucity of Amy in the rest of the episode – was the she biggest causality of the cutting massacre?).

In the clips we saw, the Doctor and Amy are simply talking and laughing and joking about and talking about the main arc and Rory in the TARDIS in a way that they haven’t really since the first episode of this series.  The performances are relaxed and fresh and lensed in a beautiful mix of steady-cam mid-shot from the front and heading off into the distance from the back.  In this kind of show, these are the kinds of character scenes which people remember far longer than a bit of running (cf, the domestic chat between the Doctor and Rose in The Impossible Planet) and though I understand why such a long sequence had to be chopped for timing at that point in the episode, it’s a pity that it couldn’t have been tucked in somewhere else by way of a flashback.

the Tenth axis

Nevertheless with the strength of the writing elsewhere, there were enough other good character moments for the Doctor to go some way in making up for this aboration.  If Chibnall’s interpretation sailed very close to the Tenth axis with a few of His catchphrases creeping in (“I love a mine.”/“You are beautiful!”), he did give Matt Smith another opportunity to demonstrate his facility for working with children (“No, they’re afraid of me.”), his fallibility in letting the child spin off on his own and the very calm unwrapping of a villain’s armoury of bullshit we’ve already seen in The Vampire of Venice, his cross-legged, calm, unflappable intelligence more than a match Alaya’s thorn in the paw pretence, quietly elucidation her options but knowing full well, based on previous experience that she has war in her heart and that if he’s not careful it can’t end well.

Unlike this episode.  Since the more typical traditional body horror of Amy’s upcoming prospective dissection may have proved too much in these sensitive times (that infamous clip of Whitehouse commenting on The Deadly Assassin having gone airborne), the chosen, more nu-Who cliffhanger with its reveal of the lizard city, like a golden version of the Gungan city (if I can risk jinxing things with a comparison like that unless the next episode reveals a giant Silurian/Eocene leader with I’M BRIAN BLESSED!’S voice) is just the kind of epic imagery beloved of the comic strips (and the novels – can anyone confirm, since I haven’t read it, if this is what Hulke had in mind in The Cave Monsters?) and with its lava pools a reminder that they’re very much not from the amphibious end of the species.  If the designs in the next episode can extrapolate this vista properly, we’re in for a treat.

Next Week: Into the pit.  No, not that one.

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