Doctor Who complete reviews: The Hungry Earth
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Steven Moffat's unwillingness to kill anyone important in Doctor Who seems to have been overpowered here. Or has it..?
For many years they waited. Under the ground. Waiting for the moment that they would see the light of day and reign supreme...
Yes, Chris Chibnall's crayon-scribbled Doctor Who scripts locked in a hermetically-sealed time capsule in the late 1970s and dug up and dusted in the 21st century. Well, possibly. Yes, having put us through the wretched 42 , it seems that the man ain't through with us yet. He was invited back to pen a two-part story for Matt Smith's first season, which not only brings back the Silurians but apparently wipes out Amy's gormless whipping-boy once and for all.
It's a shock tactic that could have paid dividends, but in the harsh light of day, it wasn't to be. Which makes my original take on the story somewhat laughable, given that a good story was supposedly elevated to classic status because of an ending that just might – just might have dared to be different. But no. And even The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood - or Hungry Cold as I'll call it from now on - isn't quite as good as first impressions would have me believe. But maybe that's OK – perhaps it's a story that's designed for instant absorption and digestion rather than one to come back to time and again.
Hungry Cold is basically what happens when you put lots of past Doctor Who references into a giant kitchen blender and turn them into pâté. There's a whole load of Pertwee stuff in the mix – we have a drilling project which also took place in Inferno – although in this instance, it's as down market as you can get: Basically it comprises one or two grimy extras in a garden shed – nasty old Stahlman wouldn't have stood for such flimsy excuses as The Credit Crunch, heads would have rolled in the government quicker than you can shout “Sir Keith!”. What else then? Ah yes, an energy barricade that isn't at all like the heat barrier from The Daemons ; some green infection that cropped up in The Green Death and let's not forget The Doctor Seeks Peaceful Solution dilemma which cropped up in The Sea Devils and – oh yes – Doctor Who And The Silurians . Aside from that, we also have similar sort of infection from The Ark In Space (which also looks a bit like the infected humans in Revenge Of The Cybermen) and also eating earth from Frontios. That's a hell of a lot of classic Who motifs, so with that staggering number in mind, maybe it's not altogether surprising that Hungry Cold just doesn't hit those giddy heights, instead coming across more as a generic updating of traditional Who elements.
"With all the gloomy darkness, gravestones and the dry ice machine cranked up to the max, this is the sort of stuff that Doctor Who does in its sleep"
That said, Hungry Cold is admittedly better than 42. There's more moments of greatness to be had in this one than the wretched sun shout-a-thon. Most of the acting's generally better than the rather wooden cut-outs that we got on board the SS Pentallian. The first part of the story is your quintessential Who set-up of gloomy, spooky atmosphere and plenty of shock tactics. The scene of Amy getting pulled into the earth is an effective one, and Matt Smith's horrified reactions really sell the moment. The isolated darkness also helps to ramp up the atmosphere – and given that the production team filmed this one in winter, it was an astute move, since the sun usually waves goodbye by about three in the afternoon. And it helps to give scenes like the pursuit of Elliot (the latest kid to be roped into Who – blimey, what are the truant figures like in schools these days?) an added edge. With all the gloomy darkness, gravestones and the dry ice machine cranked up to the max, this is the sort of stuff that Doctor Who does in its sleep.
And the first instalment also spins out the mystery of the alien – well, for the kids anyway. Most of us old codgers knew that the Silurians were coming back, so the breathless anticipation isn't quite there – but for young 'uns, the tension is handled well, with the constant countdown. And actually, the Silurians are well updated for the 21st century. It's a nice touch that we get to see Silurian faces rather than rubber masks, and altogether, the make-up is superb. Although, I don't know – maybe it's just me but I always think that a Silurian should be waggling its head a lot more – and old school purists may lament the loss of the third eye. Luckily, the POV shots are very good – we haven't had a great POV shot in ages, so the Predator-style video effects look amazing. Actually, director Ashley Way does a fine job with this story, using all the old tricks known to any good director worth his salt – good POV shots; exciting action sequences and stunning effects sequences – the shot of many Silurians in cold storage is a good example of the style that Way brings to this story.
"Everything that the first episode did right, the second one does wrong"
So altogether a good set-up, but sadly, the concluding episode botches all that good work. Everything that the first episode did right, the second one does wrong. It seems that much of the slack is taken up with endless, dull, talky scenes – this is seen mostly in the negotiation sequences, which seem to go on for an age, and it doesn't help that there's loads of pompous, overwrought speeches. “Go on,” urges The Doctor. “Be extraordinary!” in yet another Doctor variant on the “Be magnificent!” school of thought. The Doctor really should think about becoming one of those lectern-thumping motivational speakers, given that he seems to have a ready string of catchphrases at his disposal for making people feel better. And then Silurian elder (er, called Eldane) starts banging on in similarly pompous fashion: “We'll give you knowledge and technology beyond humanity's dreams!” he promises to Nasreen. “We work together, this planet could achieve greatness!” Blimey, no wonder Amy's looking like a bored kid in detention at one point during the discussions.
Actually, mention of Amy brings me on to another key problem with Hungry Cold: The characterisation. Like I said, the acting's generally of a very high standard. Meera Syal makes for a good sub-companion in the form of Nasreen Chaudhry, while Robert Pugh also does a good job as Tony Mack, the infected clinger-on of Nasreen. The Silurian actors are by and large, good choices, especially Stephen Moore as the wise old Eldane and Richard Hope as Malohkeh. Even the less sympathetic characters like Ambrose Northover are played well by Nia Roberts. Ambrose Northover though – what a great name. Everyone should change their names by deed poll to Ambrose Northover, since it sounds like the least likely name that any person could ever have – instead it sounds like a new breed of rice pudding exclusive to posh Royal Ascot visiting goons.
But here's the problem. While the acting's generally very good, it doesn't help that the Hungry Cold characters are divided into two distinct pens: Stupid and Annoying. None of the characters really emerge with much dignity, almost to the point where you think that they'd salvage more dignity by singing 'Agadoo' while getting pelted by rotten eggs in a greasy karaoke bar.
"Neve McIntosh doesn't quite have the right gravitas to pull the righteous anger off – instead, both her Silurians come across as surly teenagers who won't speak to their social worker"
So on the Annoying side, we have a number of contenders. Ambrose herself is one of them, the sort of borderline hysterical woman who can't even look after a pet hamster, never mind a 10-year-old kid. Ambrose is told not to harm Alaya, the feisty Silurian warrior – so what does she do? She reacts to Alaya's goads by going all bad cop on her ass with a lethal taser. Quite where Ambrose got this device from is anyone's guess, although given that possession of such a weapon could land her in jail, let's hope she doesn't keep it in an easily discovered place. Mind you, you can't exactly blame Ambrose in a sense, given that her kid's gone walkies and her dad's slowly turning into a human cabbage. And Alaya's not exactly the smartest cookie herself. Having strutted around like a Silurian Am-Dram Queen, Alaya starts taunting Ambrose with the sort of reckless stupidity that a helmet-less daredevil motorcyclist could possess. “A woman who can't even protect her own child must be too weak to...” she sneers at the winner of Rubbish Mother Of The Year 2010, who inevitably gives her a quick blast of lethal taser power. Even her doppelgänger Restac is just as annoyingly trigger-happy, always quick to give the humans short shrift – it's all been seen before in the original 1970 Silurian story, and it just lacks that certain edge this time around. Neve McIntosh doesn't quite have the right gravitas to pull the righteous anger off – instead, both her Silurians come across as surly teenagers who won't speak to their social worker.
But without a shadow of a doubt, the most irritating character in Hungry Cold is Amy. It's a shame that with Amy's character, it's a classic case of One Step Forward: Two Hundred Steps Back. Just when you think you can start to warm to her a bit, she suddenly turns around and grinds all that goodwill to powder in her gaudily manicured fist. So whereas Amy came across as being a likeable, well-rounded character in Amy's Choice, here we just get a surly, sulky brat. She treats the whole Silurian negotiation as a whopping great inconvenience rather than a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Worse still, she treats Rory with nothing but sarky contempt. Whether she's on at him for being too clingy or bellowing “RRRROOOORRRRYYYY!!!!” in that oh-so-ironic manner, you have to wonder quite what she's doing with the poor chap in the first place. OK, so Rory would probably need an instruction manual for operating a door handle, but Amy's constant sniping really tries the patience. And it also makes her later grief seem just a little hollow – more on this in just a wee while.
"What's happened here? The Time Lord's gone bananas, making goof after goof after goof."
Still, as annoying as Amy is, at least she seems to have her head screwed on fairly tightly – which is more than can be said of half the other characters. Whether Ambrose is putting paid to any peaceful solution or whether Alaya's putting brittle defence mechanisms before common sense, amazingly it's The Doctor who seems to have left his brain in the fish tank, bubbling away ten to the dozen. What's happened here? The Time Lord's gone bananas, making goof after goof after goof. Let's see – he agrees to Elliot leaving his sight just so the young scamp can go and look for his headphones at home – while there's danger brewing of course. He doesn't even suggest that he can find some sort of solution to cure Tony's infection – despite the fact that he's done this before in a double heartbeat (Evolution Of The Daleks anyone?). And worst of all, he's too busy faffing around at the end with saying goodbye and investigating the mysterious Crack to actually notice that Rory is about to (apparently) meet his maker. I don't know – maybe the decontamination process temporarily shrank his brain to the size of a coffee bean. Which may explain The Doctor's rather odd noises during this wretched process. In the past we've had The Baker Bellow and The Tennant Tantrum. As for the Smith Shout – yeah, not quite in the same league, is it? Matt unfortunately makes strange grunting noises like a pig locked in a sauna cabin.
So could The Doctor have saved Rory? Well, it doesn't really matter since the hapless scamp will be back in a couple of stories' time anyways. Yes, the ending of Hungry Cold is rather effective. Touching, even. The problem of course is that in hindsight it's all a great big stinking con. If only the production team were brave enough to kill Rory off for good, it would have been a fitting end to the character. Not only is he shot, but he's absorbed into the Crack, meaning that (in theory) he will never have existed. It's a lovely scene, and both Karen Gillan and especially Arthur Darvill play this to the hilt. Rory's last mumble of “You're so beautiful... I'm sorry” is rather poignant, and in fact, Rory's actually been more of a proactive player in this story rather than a gormless spare part. It would have made for a fitting curtain call, but given that NuWho production teams don't have the guts to actually make regular characters stay dead, the later revelation in The Pandorica Opens was maybe somewhat inevitable. A big, big shame – keeping Rory dead would have made far more of a dramatic impact this season (something that was badly needed, given the season's unfortunate lack of memorable incident) and it would have been a strong farewell for dopey old Rory.
But it wasn't to be. Which kind of pushes Hungry Cold down in the ranks. It's a routine, undemanding two-parter which while enjoyable enough, now doesn't qualify for classic status as I thought it might have done – thanks to a great big cop out later in the season. Hungry Cold contains one or two shocks in the first part, it's well put together and mostly well acted, but I'm afraid that's as far as it goes. If the characters weren't either so annoying or gormless, and if Rory had been allowed to stay dead, Hungry Cold may be better remembered. But ultimately, Hungry Cold is the equivalent of poor old Rory at the end of this story – easily forgotten.
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