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Doctor Who: Cold Blood (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.

Cold Blood originally aired in 2010.

It is the story of our past and must never be forgotten.

– Eldane attempts to justify the “traditional monster” two-parters the revived show is so fond of

The Hungry Earth wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t great. There was nothing too exciting or novel about it, but it wasn’t a complete failure. It was an interesting and affectionate throwback to an older style of Doctor Who. It wasn’t exceptional, but it was -broadly speaking – functional. Chris Chibnell’s script had some rough edges, mostly around characterisation, but there was nothing too unworkable about the premise, which basically consisted of a selection of classic Doctor Who tropes thrown in a blender and served up to the audience.

However, Cold Blood is much less satisfying. Part of that is because it’s part of a story that can’t be sustained by nostalgia or affectionate references to tales long past. There’s also the fact that it hinges on an emotional climax that asks us to invest in an especially two-dimensional supporting cast. And that’s saying nothing about how the last few minutes of the episode aren’t even devoted to tying up its own threads so much as playing into the much more interesting season-long arc.

Cold Blood leaves me… well, cold.

Doesn't scan...

Doesn’t scan…

Cold Blood is probably the weakest of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who scripts. To be fair, a lot of the problems with Cold Blood can be spotted in The Hungry Earth. They just become a lot more apparent when the script has to offer some measure of resolution. Oddly enough, this isn’t Chibnall’s first Doctor Who script. He wrote 42 for the third season of the revived show. I’m actually quite partial to 42, and I think it’s a lot tighter than The Hungry Earth or Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.

I wonder if this isn’t some reflection in the different approaches adopted by Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat as showrunners. Davies was very fond of heavily re-drafting and re-writing scripts as needed. He offered notes to his writers to help them punch up scripts, but he would also frequently devote considerable time and effort to tidying up the scripts himself.

All broken up...

All broken up…

In A Writer’s Tale, for example, he muses on whether he deserved any credit for how Paul Cornell’s celebrated Human Nature turned out:

I had a whole Sunday of people saying, ‘That was brilliant’, and specifically, ‘What a brilliant script. Paul Cornell is a genius.’ Which he is. But I’m thinking, if only you knew how much of that I wrote! But I stifle myself, so it all goes inwards. It festers. People know that I polish stuff, but they think that polishing means adding a gag or an epigram, not writing half the script.

Davies contributed a phenomenal amount of writing during his time on the show, and that’s why a lot of his time on the show seems relatively consistent.

An underground movement...

An underground movement…

In contrast, while Moffat has yet to write a book documenting his approach to the series, but I suspect he’s a lot less prone to re-write large portions of the show’s scripts. However, he has gone on record about being reluctant to recruit outside writers to the show due to the difficulties with making their scripts work:

The truth is the less experience they have in television, the more you have to rewrite their script, so that can be tough…All the people who are frequently cited as “you must get an episode from so-and-so” haven’t written a television script. However brilliant his script, I will end up writing 90 percent of it and I don’t have the time…Doctor Who defeats some of the most hardened television professionals ever. I’ve been working in television for a quarter of a century, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Whereas Davies had his regular contributors (mainly Moffat and Mark Gatiss), he was also willing to welcome more outsider talent into the show, considering inviting writers like J.K. Rowling or Anthony Horowitz to Stephen Fry to contribute to the show. (In fact, Fry actually wrote a script, but it had to be ditched when production changes made it unworkable without massive re-writes.)

Totally screwed...

Totally screwed…

In contrast, Moffat’s third season of Doctor Who farmed out multiple episodes to the same writers, suggesting that the show might be moving more towards an American “writing staff” model than the traditional approach. Moffat seems to trust his writers a lot more, and prefer a minimal amount of direct interference in scripts written by other authors. As such, it seems more than likely that Chris Chibnall’s work under Moffat offer a more honest reflection of his writing than 42 did.

That’s arguably borne out by the fact that Chibnall’s writing has developed and improved over the past number of years. His latest script, The Power of Three, is the best piece of Doctor Who that he has ever written. It feels more like a logical development through The Hungry Earth, Cold Blood and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship than from 42. Looking at Chibnall’s filmography, it’s quite clear that he’s grown a lot more during his time writing for Moffat than he did around the time of 42.

Journey to pretty close to the centre of the Earth...

Journey to pretty close to the centre of the Earth…

After 42, Chibnall was recruited by Dick Wolfe as the writer of the first thirteen episodes of Law & Order UK. While it sounds like a prestigious job (which involved working with a host of Doctor Who alumni), it apparently consisted mostly of updating existing story ideas from the parent show for British audiences. However, he has developed a lot more since he became a regular contributor to Moffat’s Doctor Who. He created the ten-episode Camelot, starring Joseph Fiennes and Eva Green, and he’s recently generated considerable acclaim for creating and writing Broadchurch, starring David Tennant.

All of which is a long way of saying that The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood represent the start of Chibnall’s growth and development as a writer for British television. I suspect that there’s a lot more of Chibnall’s writing in Cold Blood than we saw in 42. And the results are hardly compelling. The characters struggle to become more than two-dimensional. The plot sort of folds over on itself with a wishy-washy non-resolution which effectively amounts to the Doctor shouting “rain check!”

They have to planet carefully...

They have to planet carefully…

By the time the season-long arc intrudes on the final five minutes of the show, it feels like a mercy that we’re being dragged away from a disjointed an uneven retread. There’s none of the grand tragedy of The Silurians to be found here. There’s no epic pathos. Ambrose never seems like a sympathetic or flawed human being, she exists more as a means of convoluting the plot a bit. Amy is captured, escapes and get promptly captured again before she’s released. I remarked on how The Hungry Earth was one giant nostalgia trip for the show, but I didn’t need a retread of the old “capture/escape” padding device.

The Silurians themselves don’t make much of an impression. Restac is a convenient antagonist who should be more sympathetic than she turns out to be. After all, her sister was murders by those damn dirty apes, so her anger should be justifiable. However, she just becomes the episode’s token antagonist.

A cutting remark...

A cutting remark…

Cold Blood tries to present Malohkeh as a sympathetic character. “I never meant to harm your child,” he assures his guests, kindly, before he is murdered by Restac. This ignores the fact that he spent The Hungry Earth conducting vivisections. After all, he can speak English. While Mo might have been feigning unconsciousness, it’s quite clear that Amy didn’t consent to his work as he began to cut into her.

This is pretty much typical of the dodgy character work in Cold Blood. The Doctor lectures Ambrose and the humans about how they need to be “better”, after he allows Elliot to wander off alone in the middle of a Silurian invasion. Ambrose calls him on it once, but it’s strange that she’s so willing to stand there and accept lectures from this man on responsibility. Indeed, for all his talk about responsibility, the Doctor shrugs his own off. Cold Blood doesn’t end with a bang or a whimper so much as an indifferent gesture. The Doctor essentially decides that things aren’t working out as he expects, so he’s going to hit the pause button and get out of dodge.

Damn dirty Time Lords...

Damn dirty Time Lords…

“So, here’s a deal,” he instructs the gang. “Everybody listening? Eldane, you activate shutdown. I’ll amend the system, set your alarm for a thousand years time. A thousand years to sort the planet out. To be ready.” It’s supposed be an enthusiast ending – suggesting that mankind can be better, and that they need to learn to be better before they can share the planet with the Silurians. However, there’s absolutely no indication that the Doctor is going to follow up on this. For all he knows, in a thousand years, the humans brutally massacre the Silurians again. But it’s somehow okay, because he’s not there to witness it.

That said, Cold Blood does raise some interesting points about the Third Doctor. After all, any story featuring the Silurians is going to evoke the Pertwee and UNIT era. The fact that the only story you can really tell with the Silurians is The Silurians means that every story focusing on the alien culture is going to reflect back to their first appearance. Since the sudden emergence of a race of ancient lizards trying to reclaim the planet represents a massive shift in the global status quo, Cold Blood gets to play with the conventional opinion of the Pertwee era as a strangely conservative piece of Doctor Who history.

Unearthing some prejudice...

Unearthing some prejudice…

After all, the Pertwee era was essentially about the Doctor teaming up with the military to defend the Earth against the threat of alien invasion. The fact that Pertwee’s Doctor had a taste for the finer things and moved in fairly exclusive circles cements this opinion of the era. To be fair, The Silurians was a bit of a subversion of this. It was a rare moment where the philosophical differences between the Doctor and UNIT came to the fore. UNIT wanted to protect humanity, while the Doctor hoped for a better world. The ending is so bleak not just because of the brutal loss of life, but also because the Doctor’s philosophy loses.

So Cold Blood offers an affectionate reconstruction of that era. This is the Doctor ready and willing to engage with Earth’s history. However, he’s not a staunch defender of the status quo and repeller of the invading horde. Instead, he’s willing to sacrifice the accepted flow of history, hoping to make a better world. This isn’t a Doctor who justifies his actions by reference to the integrity of the space-time continuum, as Pertwee’s Doctor did in stories like The Time Warrior. This is a Doctor who acknowledges that “time can be rewritten”, to borrow a quote from Moffat’s Forest of the Dead.

Cracked...

Cracked…

“There are fixed points through time where things must always stay the way they are. This is not one of them. This is an opportunity. A temporal tipping point. Whatever happens today, will change future events, create its own timeline, its own reality. The future pivots around you, here, now. So do good, for humanity, and for Earth.” Of course, the distinction between a “fixed point” and a “non-fixed point” is entirely arbitrary, it’s nice to see the Doctor willing to meddle in the history of Earth.

It’s the sort of subversive logic the character suggested to Rose back in The Unquiet Dead, and seems firmly at odds with the conservatism often attributed (somewhat fairly) to the stories from Jon Pertwee’s second season through to the end of his tenure. However, Cold Blood draws attention to the fact that Pertwee’s Doctor at least started out as this sort of enthusiastic radical. Cold Blood is a retread of The Silurians, and the Doctor’s position remains constant: to hell with the “correct” flow of human history, there’s an opportunity to help people.

Running rings around each other...

Running rings around each other…

That said, it does raise several points that the episode never addresses. The Doctor appoints Amy and Nasreen to negotiate for humanity. When they question the wisdom of his choice, he shrugs them off. Even ignoring the lack of expertise that Amy and Nasreen have in global politics, how would they enforce any agreement that these people made? How would Australia react to the fact that Amy had decided a whole bunch of Silurians should move into the Outback?

If the governments of the world refused to play ball with the terms agreed by Amy and Nasreen, was the Doctor going to force them to cooperate? Because that worked so well after The Christmas Invasion. There’s a lot of room here to explore the implications of a meddling Doctor imposing his own morality on the modern world, but Cold Blood seems unwilling to commit to these bold and challenging questions.

White out...

White out…

So when the season’s big over-arching plot intrudes into the narrative, we’re glad to see it. We’ve reached a point where the cracks can’t be ignored. Perhaps it’s a literal plot hole. After all, the cracks in reality serve as a very clever application of the infamous Doctor Who reset button, with Moffat turning the convenient storytelling device into a plot point. Here, the cracks aren’t just threatening reality itself, they’re attacking the show’s narrative.

Instead of resolving its own story and plot points, a crack conveniently appears in the structure of Cold Blood. The last few minutes of the episode are completely overwhelmed by something unrelated to the Silurian conflict that has been set up over the last hour-and-a-half. It’s not the most graceful way of diverting attention from the unsatisfactory resolution to the episode, and it’s not anywhere near as clever as the way that Moffat harness the crack as a way of “breaking” the story in Flesh and Stone, but it at least offers something a bit interesting.

Piecing it all together...

Piecing it all together…

Cold Blood is a disappointment, a letdown that’s only really notable for the way that the last few minutes change it into another story entirely, with the crack serving as a perfect metaphor for just how damaged the story is.

 

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