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Doctor Who: The Hungry Earth (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Hungry Earth originally aired in 2010.

Oh look! Big mining thing! Oh, I love a big mining thing. See, way better than Rio. Rio doesn’t have a big mining thing.

– the Doctor looks on the bright side of arriving in not!Rio

The Hungry Earth represents the biggest structural shift of Steven Moffat’s first season of Doctor Who. The writer would indulge in a number of radical structural changes over his time running the show, but his first season as showrunner conforms to the pattern of Russell T. Davies’ four full seasons. There’s the introductory present/past/future trilogy, the two mid-season two-parters and the gigantic two-part season finalé. The content of Moffat’s season might have been markedly different (actual romantic snog! a season building an arc that isn’t just references and easter eggs!), but the format was carried over faithfully.

Moffat’s following two seasons would get more experimental. For one thing, both seasons would be split in half. This allowed Moffat to offer the first genuine cliffhanger in the revival’s history to last more than a week, with a gap of several months between A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler. His second season would feature the first two-part season opener (and first one-part season finalé) of the revived television show. His third season would feature no two-part episodes, spread across two calendar years.

However, sitting at the tail end of his first season, The Hungry Earth feels like the strangest structural element of Moffat’s first year in charge of Doctor Who. It’s what would traditionally be the first two-parter of the season, pushed back towards the end of the year.

Balancing the scales...

Balancing the scales…

The Hungry Earth & Cold Earth feel more like Rise of the Cybermen & The Age of Steel, Daleks in Manhattan & Evolution of the Daleks and The Sontaran Strategem & The Poison Sky than The Impossible Planet & The Satan Pit, Human Nature & Family of Blood or Silence in the Library & Forest of the Dead. This two-parter reintroduces old foes and adds new toys to the show’s chest – often literally, too, given the merchandising potential of many of these classic villains who have been renewed and updated for a modern generation.

(Strangely enough, the first two-parter of Moffat’s first season – Time of the Angels & Flesh and Stone – feels like it might have worked as either the first or second two-parter of a Davies season. It is a high-concept adventure with quite a bit of “meat” to it, but it also sees the return of a familiar alien threat and centres on lots of running around. It’s actually quite similar to Davies’ very first two-parter – Aliens of London & World War III – only, you know, without the farting aliens.)

I wear 3D glasses now. 3D glasses are cool...

I wear 3D glasses now. 3D glasses are cool…

This “(re)introduce an alien” two-parter tends to attract a fair amount of criticism from fans. The stories tend to be relatively simplistic, enough plot for maybe a single episode split across an hour-and-a-half of Doctor Who. There’s something gimmick-y about the way that these two-part adventures treat the introduction of a newly merchandisable alien as a mission statement. It feels as if the only measure of success for Rise of the Cybermen is the reintroduction of the eponymous monsters as more than just a joke, or that the main ingredients of Daleks in Manhattan are listed handily in the episode title.

There’s a sense of relaxed ease about the episodes, and I can understand why Doctor Who made a point to devote so much space to these tales. After all, they are great stories for a younger generation who aren’t necessarily steeped in the history of Doctor Who. There’s something quite lovely about imagining a child’s first reaction to seeing the Cybermen or the Sontarans. It’s part of curating Doctor Who as a bastion of British culture as much as running a critically successful television show. These plots don’t resonate with adults, because they simply aren’t meant to.

Might need from salt of the Earth for flavouring...

Might need from salt of the Earth for flavouring…

Of course, there are other practical concerns. From a purely cynical point of view, I imagine that the BBC’s merchandising department eagerly awaited these two-parters, figuring that it’s easy to market a “human Dalek” or “Sontaran” or “new Cyberman” figure than “Satan!” or “alien living in hollowed-out school boy!” or “flesh eating cloud of bugs!” So The Hungry Earth exists mainly to introduce younger viewers and reintroduce older viewers to the Silurians. It’s another alien design for the merchandise, and a way of making sure that nobody wonders what is up with Lady Vastra when she appears.

Of course, the Silurians pose a bit of a problem from a writing standpoint. A race of hyper-evolved reptilian “Earth-liens”, there’s really only one big story you can tell with them. Rise of the Cybermen had the luxury of telling a Cyberman origin story. The Sontaran Stratagem could at least pitch itself as a massive invasion story with a neat twist. In contrast, all you can really do with the Silurians as a race is “they want their planet back.”

Of Silurian bondage...

Of Silurian bondage…

All you can really do is remake The Silurians to a degree. This is why The Sea Devils was pretty much “The Silurians, guest starring the Master.” And why Warriors of the Deep was “The Silurians, but terrible and quite possibly unfit for broadcast.” The concept of a race existing on Earth before mankind is a fantastic dramatic hook, but it’s really the only dramatic hook that the Silurians have, as a race. So complaining that The Hungry Earth is just a retread of The Silurians is missing the point a bit.

To be fair, The Hungry Earth at least commits to its ideas. If it is going to exist as a retread of a classic story, then – by Jove! – it will be the biggest nostalgic trip ever. The episode features a future version of Amy and Rory popping by to wave hello to their younger selves, which is a nice way of reminding the audience that this is a time travel show. However, it also clues the viewer into the fact that this is going to be a bit of a trip back in time. “Come to relive past glories,” the Doctor notes. “Humans, you’re so nostalgic.”

You never bothered to scream, when the mask came off...

You never bothered to scream, when the mask came off…

The Hungry Earth is one big nostalgia fest. It doesn’t just borrow heavily and obviously from The Silurians. It feels like a big melting pot of homages to past Doctor Who stories. The idea of a British science expedition accidentally awakening a deadly threat feels like one of those standard-issue plot-generating devices from the Pertwee era, when the show found itself trying to be an epic science-fiction adventure show confined to seventies Britain.

The drilling expedition seems like a shout out to Inferno as much as The Silurians, and the whole set-up feels like it could have been borrowed from a pieces of seventies BBC sci-fi in the same way that the Pertwee era wore its influences on its sleeve. There’s an inherent conservationist message to the idea that mankind might need to share the planet with other species, evoking the politics of the show’s early seventies run.

A hole lot of trouble...

A hole lot of trouble…

At the same time, The Hungry Earth isn’t just a giant shout-out and celebration of Perwee era tropes. With the isolated community cut off from the rest of the world, it’s pretty much a classic “base under siege” story, evoking memories of the Patrick Troughton years in the late sixties. The gothic setting, including the church and the open graves, can’t help but feel like the trappings of a Philip Hinchcliffe adventure for Tom Baker. “The graves around here eat people,” we’re told, and it’s not too hard to imagine Tom Baker listening intently.

There are even several overt references to the Fifth Doctor. When the Doctor is recovering in Cold Blood, he innocently asks whether the Silurians have any celery. The show borrows iconography quite heavily from the underrated Frontios. An underground community preys on the humans living above ground, while the TARDIS is swallowed by the planet, and the Doctor recovers a piece of his broken ship.

Experimental chic...

Experimental chic…

In a way, this feels like part of the function of the first two-parter of a Davies season. Barring Aliens of London (which reintroduced UNIT), each of the first two-parters explored the relationship between Doctor Who and its past. It was more a celebration of the imagery and iconography of the show than an exorcise in storytelling. That’s why it was always so fascinating to see the redesigned alien species each year, as the revived show attempted to update a piece of the classic show for modern consumption.

However, The Hungry Earth has a bit of an edge here. Davies’ Doctor Who was simply playing off nostalgia for the entire run of the classic television show. That’s why it was such a big deal to see an old alien returning to the series. It’s like a visit from old relatives that you’ve only seen in photos. However, this is new “new Doctor Who”, with a new showrunner and a new mission statement. Moffat’s Doctor Who doesn’t just have to reconcile itself with the classic television show. It has to contextualise the Davies era as well.

The hole in things...

The hole in things…

Rather pointedly, The Hungry Earth seems to be just a little bit nostalgic for an era that had barely ended by the time it aired. The Eleventh Hour marked a clear departure from Davies’ work on Doctor Who in a number of ways. Two of the more obvious changes saw Moffat jettisoning the Doctor’s angst over the Time War, and also re-purposing Davies’ “run!” as a warning rather than an improvised piece of advice.

The Hungry Earth brings both of those back. The Doctor invokes his “Lonely God” angst issues when Alaya insists she is the last of her kind. “No. You’re really not. Because I’m the last of my species and I know how it sits in a heart. So don’t insult me.” When the Earth starts swallowing people, the Doctor can only fall back on tried-and-tested Doctor Who advice. “Under the circumstances, I’d suggest, run!”

The ground swallows her up...

The ground swallows her up…

(Indeed, when Amy asks the Doctor whether he has “always been this disgusting”, he draws attention to the fact that it’s a relatively recent character trait, in the grand scheme of the series. Still, it feels like he’s been this way for a while, underscoring that – by this point in its run – the revived series had begun to pick up its own history and personality. After all, Moffat’s first two-parter of this series had seen the writer reusing the Weeping Angels he had created for Davies’ final season.)

So The Hungry Earth is interesting to watch, even if it does feel like a retread. To be honest, most of the major problems with Chris Chibnell’s script only reach critical mass in Cold Blood. That said, the characters in The Hungry Earth do feel remarkably shallow, and the world they inhabit seems superficially formed. Alaya provides a convenient adversary rather than a nuanced character. Things happen less as a result of organic development and more because the script really needs them to happen at this point in the plot.

Matt Smith is still getting to grips with "shouty Doctor!"

Matt Smith is still getting to grips with “shouty Doctor!”

Indeed, it’s amazing how quickly Tony goes from “honest scientist” to “potential vivisectionist” towards the end of the episode. No sooner has the Doctor captured Alaya than Tony is suggesting that they get all Mengele on it. “Shouldn’t we be examining this creature?” he wonders. “Dissecting it, finding its weak points?” This is strange for a number of reasons. On a purely logical level, it seems weird that a guy interested in drilling would have a knack for vivisection.

From a character point of view, there’s no real indication that he’s so ruthlessly scientific. It foreshadows the problems with Chibnell’s writing which will reach critical mass in the second part of this adventure. At the moment, the characters merely seem under-developed. It only really becomes a problem when the script starts expecting us to invest in their actions or their conduct. The Hungry Earth is hardly the best first part in the history of Doctor Who, but it’s not as lost as the follow-up.

A green moral...

A green moral…

There are some nice touches here. I particularly like the way that Ambrose calls the Doctor out on his dodgy babysitting skills. Wondering where her son is, the Doctor timidly offers, “He said he was going to get headphones.” Ambrose is entirely right to call him out on his indifference, much like Rory did in The Vampires of Venice. “You let him go?” she asks. “He was out there on his own!” The problem is that the accusation is so effective that the Doctor’s decision to lecture the assembled humans on morality and conduct seems a little hypocritical. It’s a bit much for him to lecture Ambrose on how to behave in a crisis he created.

The Hungry Earth isn’t a great episode, but it’s not a bad one either. It’s an interesting example of Moffat playing with the format and structure of the show, even if Chibnell’s script feels a little too rote and too paint-by numbers. Still, it is much stronger than the second part.

 

 

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