Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Ashley Way

This story in a nutshell: The Silurians are back and they’ve been watching a few too many Pertwee adventures…

The Nutty Professor: One thing I really liked about Matt Smith’s Doctor in his first season was that he was basically portrayed as an awkward youthful geek that blundered into trouble and somehow found a way out. That was lost in season six when the whole show became focussed on mythologizing the character and building him up into a powerful entity to knock him down with his (apparent) death. Season seven then saw the character become something of a parody of his former self, all arm waving and Willy Wonka madness with hardly any of the gravity to balance it out. Even in Day of the Doctor he was overshadowed by his previous incarnations (particularly John Hurt). I maintain that season five is his strongest year, the one which introduced us to a barking mad kid who still had one foot in the door of reality. I miss that eleventh Doctor. Restricted entry is like an invitation inside for the Doctor. If he doesn’t make any sense it means that you aren’t keeping up. The way the Doctor makes Elliot feel better about his dyslexia by comparing it to something that he can’t do is rather lovely. He tells Elliot that he misses Gallifrey so much. The Doctor is disappointed to hear that there is a Silurian military, but then there always is, isn’t there? The Doctor doesn’t exact give a thorough account of Dr Who & the Silurians when he sums up the story as ‘the humans attacked them…’ Given the situation is already fraught, he might just have exacerbated it by failing to mention that the Silurians also tried to wipe out humanity. Smith seems to have forgotten his lines at one crucial point (‘you were so much…less…than the bets of humanity’). For once you have to wonder if less light hearted Doctor might have been needed to ensure that things run more smoothly and seriously. Imagine John Hurt’s Doctor down in the senate kick starting the negotiations. He would have the gravitas to get them all on the same page rather than just waving his arms about and letting them get on with it.

Scots Tart: So vital to the action that she is removed from the plot after ten minutes for almost half an hour and it is barely noticeable. Amy always knows what to say, doesn’t she? When she and Rory see themselves ten years in the future waving back the first thought that comes into her head ‘we’re still together in ten years!’ I don’t know why Rory puts up with her, I really don’t. This might be my least favourite Amy story of all, both in terms of her characterisation and Karen Gillan’s performance, and given my general dislike for the character that is making quite a statement. There is a smugness and disinterest in events from the character that we haven’t seen since the days of Tennant and Piper except worse because Amy hasn’t done the time in the TARDIS and built up a strong enough rapport with the Doctor to even attempt to justify her cockiness. Amy continues to flirt madly with the Doctor despite the fact that her boyfriend is along for the ride now. It’s very hard to get interested in the story when your lead companion is sitting at the side huffing and looking mightily bored by the whole affair. The first time Amy showed anything other than mild indifference to the whole affair was when the ground started swallowing her whole which co-incidentally was the first point I became interested in her. I thought it was karmic. I kind of figured that perhaps Amy wasn’t working for me when I was cheering as she was consumed by a gaping, muddy maw. It seems the only time I can ever feel anything for this character is when she is tortured horribly and when it appears that she has been buried alive my heart skipped a beat. That’s a horrible position for anybody to be in. Except Amy doesn’t panic for long, she’s soon being gobby again. It looks for a moment as though she is going to be dissected and I couldn’t help but scream ‘do it!’  After she has woken up in a coffin and almost faced vivisection, Amy wanders around the Silurian tunnels bold as brass and more confident than ever – there is no indication that she has undergone any kind of trauma. I’m sorry but Gillan cannot play Amy as facetiously as she does during this two parter and then expect us to suddenly give a shit at the climax when she pours on the tears. The script doesn’t help, making her as cocky and indifferent to her fiancé as possible throughout and then asking her to emote wildly over him at the climax. It’s like watching two different characters. And the confrontation in the TARDIS between Amy and the Doctor lacks the same punch as the one between Donna and the tenth Doctor in The Fires of Pompeii, not only because Tennant and Tate are better performers but because the climax was worked towards throughout the story. Like Amy’s Choice, it seems that only when Rory is killed does Amy remember that she has any feeling for him. That’s some relationship.

Loyal Roman: What baffles me is how Moffat could have gotten Rory so right and Amy so wrong (in terms of likeability) but let’s be grateful that he did because otherwise we would be in deep shit in terms of a TARDIS team that encourages you to keep watching. I will always open my heart out to the underdog, especially one who is treated as appallingly as Rory is (by both the Doctor and especially Amy) and played in such a puppyish way by Arthur Darvill. Rory is by far the most impressive aspect of Cold Blood, the one person who manages to keep his head above ground and prove his worth as a human being. When the shit hits the face he admits that he trusts the Doctor with his life. Watch very closely the differing reactions between Rory and Amy when they finally see each other again. Arthur Darvill is acting his heart out because Rory has confirmation that his fiancé is alive whilst Karen Gillan barely emotes, eyebrow cocked and ready with a disinterested one liner (‘you’re so clingy’). That scene describes perfectly why he is ten times the character she is. I hate those moments in drama when the story appears to have ended and a villainous character turns up at the last minute with a gun and shoots before expiring. It is such a desperate way of injecting a moment of last minute drama. As being shot dead wasn’t an indignity enough, Chibnall (although I’m willing to bet that Moffat had a big hand in this) then has the crack swallow him whole and the universe forget that he ever existed. I remember watching it on transmission and being heartbroken for all the wrong reasons. Not because Amy was so upset but because now we were stuck with her solo. I thought that Moffat had gone insane. Poor Rory. Mind you this is Moffat Who, where death has no meaning or consequence and Rory will be back before you know it. He might even die a few more times and come back again if you’re lucky.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The future pivots around you…be extraordinary.’

The Good:
  • The location work in the Welsh valleys in the Hungry Earth is to be commended as it really shows off how beautiful the countryside is. Isn’t the row of houses that the episode opens out on the same as the ones that belonged to a community of slavering cannibals nestled in the Brecon Beacons in the Torchwood episode Countrycide? I really liked that Moffat dragged Doctor Who away from the cities in his first season and into the countryside where Doctor Who has done some of its most atmospheric filming.
  • This two parter is a big sloppy kiss to the Pertwee era and I have read commentaries that some people think that that is a bad thing. A little nostalgia is lovely every once in a while especially with something like the new series that is always striving to innovate and do its own thing. A little bit of love for days gone by shows that we haven’t forgotten where the show came from. Amongst the wealth of references and acknowledgements to the cosiness of the Pertwee era are a big scientific base out in the sticks under threat (specifically a drilling project), the Silurians rearing their reptilian heads to try and reclaim the Earth and a giant bubble forcefield that is straight out of The Daemons. All that’s missing is an interfering man from the Ministry.
  • Murray Gold is really on form this week, punctuating the action with some memorable themes. I found that much of his work for season five was the last time he produced a wealth of genuinely great music. The Silurian score has an undercurrent of ominous tension to it that really sells their menace.
  • The whole concept of the Earth being hungry and swallowing people whole has been explored in Doctor Who before (Full Circle, Frontios) but it is such a strong, dramatic and frightening notion that it is well worth revisiting.
  • I’ve never seen Meera Syal play a dramatic role before (much like Jessica Hynes in Human Nature) and I was extremely impressed by the performance she gave. In fact she had such lovely interaction with Matt Smith I was half hoping she would hop into the TARDIS at the climax and toss Amy into her crack. She even has her own ‘enter the TARDIS’ moment. She’s a superb comic actress so perhaps it is no surprise that she commands your attention so effectively. Comedy is the hardest form of art to get right and she’s wonderfully amusing in The Kumars. The rather awkward kiss between Tony and Nasreen made me beam, it’s a subtle relationship but one that is open to bold gestures like this. The only thing that didn’t work for me was how blasé she was about the whole affair in episode two.
  • The build up to the appearance of Silurians appearance is so expertly handled and it would have taken the work of a particularly inept designer to disappoint after such incredible momentum. Doctor Who has always been great at building up to the appearance of a monster and there are some terrific touches in The Hungry Earth (the dark silhouette dashing through the graveyard, the dramatic POV shots, the tongue shooting from the darkness, the creepy masks). The design itself is a bone of contention because I can see both sides of the argument. It is massively unlike the impressive original Silurian costumes from the seventies and eighties and feels like an entirely different species and like the past is being updated to a point where the production team feel a little embarrassed by it (in a way that they weren’t with the Zygons). And yet the make up is absolutely superb and matches the work seen on any other genre show, allowing the actors huge freedom of expression and looking authentically like a humanoid reptilian species.
  • Never McIntosh gave a strong enough performance for Steven Moffat to select her as a new semi-regular for the series. I have to say that I was quite impressed with her sinister turn in this two parter and it seems a shame that Madame Vestra is portrayed as she a goody two shoes since McIntosh has a great deal of menace at her disposal. The most emotive moment in the second episode comes when Restac mourns her sisters death with an agonizing wail. It’s heartbreaking.
  • Tellingly the most gripping moment in this story is the one part of it that doesn’t belong here – the re-appearance of the Amy’s crack (that joke will never get old). It takes on massive significance here as it swallows Rory whole and leaves a forgotten void in his place. I do question the jarring insertion of arc elements at the end of stories that have nothing to do with it (Davies was much better at slipping these things in so they don’t distract from the overall story that is being told) but since this is the most gripping material on display perhaps I should be grateful. I love the fact that when the Doctor stumbles across a crack in the universe he is mad enough to put his arm inside to see what he finds. The one thing that really made an impact at the climax was the idea of forgetting the most important things in your life if they are taken by the crack. That’s terrifying.
The Bad:

  • Was something starting to go a little wrong come The Hungry Earth & Cold Blood? Had Doctor Who started to run its course in the eyes of the public? Time was when eight million viewers would turn up every week to watch the show but this two parter could barely muster an overnight figure of four and a half. Summer, Iplayer, blah blah blah…I’ve heard it all. Strange how you can pull all the excuses out of the bag and yet there were still shows pulling in far more impressive overnight figures at the time. The audience was there for those who wanted to watch on the night.
  • One of things this two parter emulates from the Pertwee era perfectly is that it isn’t in a hurry at any point, especially during the first half. The difference being that during the seventies you had Terrance Dicks at the rudder ensuring that the story was full of escapism and twists and turns to keep you interested as you churned your way through six part stories. This is rarest of things, a new series adventure that is slow paced and lacking in incident.
  • All The Hungry Earth has to offer as a side bar to the Silurian shenanigans is the exploits of the Mack family who aren’t drawn with a great deal of care and so come across as being far duller than they should. One thing that has often struck me about the Davies vs the Moffat era (something that I shouldn’t really do but I can never help myself) is how Moffat is a family man with a wife and children and yet it is Davies who manages to bring the idea of family to the screen with a much better sense of warmth and entertainment. The Tylers, the Jones’ and the Nobles are instantly recognisable and unique characters, full of personality and humour and massively enjoyable to spend time with. In comparison families such as those seen in The Hungry Earth, The Big Bang, Night Terrors, The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe, The Snowmen and especially Clara and her irritating kiddiewinks are dull as dishwater, lacking a sense of conviction and driving home the twee until you want to be sick. I think it is the perfection that lies in Moffat’s vision of family that doesn’t ring true and how loved up they are at the end of the stories. Russell T Davies pumped his families full of flaws and conflict but they thrived and flourished because of it. The Mack’s in this two parter are too simply drawn, too lacking in personality and failed to hold my interest. I didn’t really care about their fate and that was a massive problem. The performances are sincere but the material is utterly forgettable.
  • For once I would say that the threat doesn’t feel big enough. Again I am usually complaining about the reverse (Davies in particular tried to trump his own sense of epic each season until he was moving whole planets…only beaten when Moffat destroyed the entire universe at the end of this season) but this one story where I felt the worldwide consequences of the developments in the plot should have been stressed. When you are talking about an entire race of reptiles that have lain dormant under the Earth for centuries awakening and trying to retake the planet it would be nice to feel as if there was more at stake than a pretty Welsh valley. Both Dr Who & the Silurians (the plague in London) and The Sea Devils (the efforts of the Royal Navy) were given an impressive, epic scale to drive him the enormity of the Silurian threat. When it comes to a handful of people negotiating with the Silurians the story feels inappropriately inconsequential.
  • Ambrose comes across as a particularly unbelievable character, somebody who would risk a war with another species in order to protect her family. A war that would probably see everybody she knows murdered. Don’t get me wrong I can buy into the idea of her family meaning more to her than anything else in the world but she is characterised and portrayed as being so single minded and obstinate that I couldn’t really see much humanity in her. She is one of those characters that turns up in Doctor Who from time to time whose only purpose is to complicate that plot, no matter how unrealistic or bloody minded they might appear. I went off her when she started blaming the Doctor for Elliot’s disappearance (aren’t you his mother?) but in reality that was just the tip of the iceberg. This story is so plainly characterised that as soon as the Doctor declared that this ragtag bunch of people had to be the best of humanity I instantly knew it was Ambrose who was going to spoil negotiations (whilst Nasreen would show how honourable we are). I don’t think characters should ever be that easy to predict. When it comes to the moment of Ambrose killing Alaya, she’s isn’t seen as being suitably conflicted nor apologetic for the idea to work as it is trying to. She doesn’t come across as a mother trying to protect her mum, more like a stupid ape taking out her frustrations on a reptile. That’s uncomfortable in a very different way because Chibnall seems to be suggesting that this is where humanity always ends up – with blood on its hands. ‘I didn’t know it would go like that, dad…’ What? You didn’t realise if you shoved a thousand volts up a lizards’ jacksy that it would kill them?
  • Despite a fearsome visual, the cliffhanger is oddly undramatic. We don’t get many of these anymore so it seems a shame to waste one.
  • What I find especially strange in the second episode is how the visuals leap so wildly from some of the most stunning to the cheapest in a heartbeat. The CGI rendition of the Silurian bunker with hives and mounds interconnected with streams of lava and dotted with glowing lights is stunning but it rubs shoulder with some of the fakest looking caves ever witnessed in a single Doctor Who adventure. The CGI legions of Silurians all standing in suspended animation and ready for activation struck me as quite an unimaginative visual, especially after seeing how beautiful their habitat is rendered. I suppose it is a natural extension of a similar life action visual in Warriors of the Deep when the Sea Devils were woken up. Such a shame that we have seen so much of the Millennium Centre already in Doctor Who and that it should be so lacking in set dressing in this story because it is visibly the same location used in The End of the World, Gridlock and other episodes.
  • Why was Malohkeh portrayed as a scalpel brandishing villain who wants to dissect Amy when he is nothing of the sort? It turns out he is a good man who thinks that humanity has evolved into a higher lifeform and wants the best for us. His turn about in character is thoroughly unconvincing, doing precisely what the plot demands of him even if it means his motives change in a heartbeat.
  • There is so much corridor wandering in the second episode you that if you squint you might be convinced you are watching classic Who. What is bizarre is that the most important material (the negotiations between humanity and the Silurians) is skipped over in a brief scene so Chibnall can get back to more corridor dashing about antics. We should be privy to these arbitration sessions, they should be the crux of the whole piece and offering a way forward for both species. Don’t present an opportunity for a much more sophisticated drama than usual and then shy away from it in favour the usual action adventure high jinks.
  • Why didn’t they mention that Alaya was dead rather than simply making the much more dramatic statement of turning up with her body?
  • Was the fate of Nasreen and Tony supposed to be left ambiguous or is this another Moffat loose end that was meant to be tied up but he never quite got round to it? ‘Come and look for us…’
The Shallow Bit: Could Amy’s skirt get any shorter? It’s not just the Doctor’s characterisation that was at its peak in season five, it was his look too. That dishevelled tweed suit and messy hair. He looks like a student pretending to be an adult. Much quirkier than his tailored look these days. Smith wandering around in the darkness wearing shades is the epitome of geek chic.

Result: A missed opportunity and the first mid season two parter in the new series to disappoint. Weirdly enough considering I am usually pumping for the opposite, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood could probably do with being condensed down into one hour long episode and having all of the flab cut away. There is much that works in this two parter (the return of the Silurians is triumphant for instance) but also a great deal that I found wanting (the dullest family unit ever seen in Doctor Who) and as a whole I felt that it was let down by too much running time and a script editor that wasn’t forceful enough in tightening up the script. The Hungry Earth is by far the most superior of the two episodes with some deliciously atmospheric and frightening moments (the Silurians hunting at night) but the plodding pace and relative cheapness of the second half left me clock watching by the end. The characterisation isn’t strong enough to justify and explore the moral implications of Chibnall is juggling and the whole piece eventually devolves into the usual cowboys vs Indians in corridors shtick. I really enjoy the exploits of Madame Vestra and her gang but the one downside to come out of that is that the Silurians (and the Sontarans by default) who were initially introduced as a potential threat are only though of in terms of allies these days. A shame because there is something very sinister about them that I feel like we are missing out on. Like us and yet entirely dissimilar. Perhaps it should be explored again at some point. There was a chance with this two parter to genuine innovate the series, to re-introduce the Silurians permanently and see how humanity copes sharing the planet with another species. It would have made the contemporary Earth stories an absolutely fascinating exercise. Instead Chibnall seems happy to flirt with the ideas (briefly) and then toss them over his shoulder and get back to the running about in caves. There’s nothing more frustrating than potential being wasted (go and watch Star Trek Voyager and you can experience this aggravation for seven seasons) but in the case of The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood it is Doctor Who daring to suggest something bold and then just ignoring it, that’s just maddening. It isn’t even as though there was a dramatic reason for the alliance to discontinue (like an explosion that wipes the species out), Chibnall just sends them back to sleep again and leaves the problem in someone else’s hands. If average Doctor Who is made up of a mixture of great elements and poor ones, then this might stand as the most average Doctor Who of them all but for squandering a potentially riveting scenario I cannot award any more than: 4/10


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David Pirtle said...

I actually enjoyed this story, but watching it after recently re-watching the 5th Doctor's stories has me thinking their first years have something unfortunate in common. Their stories keep introducing new characters who would obviously make more entertaining companions than the one or ones they're saddled with: 7-year-old Amelia, Liz Ten, Dr. Bracewell, River Song, and now Nasreen Chaudhry. If they hadn't decided to start taking Rory along he'd be on the list as well. And unlike you I don't loathe Amy. I just don't think she's nearly as interesting as any of the above characters, including herself as a child.

Also slightly related to the 5th Doctor, the first time I saw this story I thought and hoped it was the return of the Tractators.

Anonymous said...

"blah blah blah…I’ve heard it all. Strange how you can pull all the excuses out of the bag and yet there were still shows pulling in far more impressive overnight figures at the time. The audience was there for those who wanted to watch on the night."

Very hypocritical for you considering that Series 11 (and 12) has the lowest ratings of the New Series history, and now you are the one making excuses about it.