Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Hungry Earth: Going Underground

'Do we have to call them vermin? They're really very nice!'

From its oblique thematic subject matter, through the exceptionally Green Death feel of the opening sequence, to the heat barrier straight from The Daemons and the base-under-siege aesthetic, this week's Doctor Who was, basically, The Pertwee Years: The Greatest Hits. And, it was beautiful. This was Chris Chibnell's fanboy hymn to an era when Doctor Who was sometimes a bit samey and definitely at its most 'establishment' but was never afraid to be outre, and little bit radical and tackle issues that actually meant something. Hell, it was the 1970s everybody was at it in those days. But, with its proper-scary pre-titles and slow, well characterised development of a very basic idea, The Hungry Earth was Doctor Who in the Twenty First Century getting yer actual Old Skool on us. 'Oi, don't diss The Sonic!' Rap on, brother.

Deciding to investigate a 'big mining thing' in 2020AD in 'not-Rio', the Doctor and his friends find themselves in stereotypical rural Wales. I mean, they're always in Wales but, this week, they're actually in Wales, if you see what I mean. First time, I think, since, Utopia. They soon make the company of two of yer Keith Telly Topping's favourite actors, Meera Syal and Robert Pugh, who are part of a drilling operation to do what, essentially, Professor Stahlman was doing back in 1970 in Inferno. There's another one to add to the Pertwee Era checklist. Bad move, that. Very bad move. 'The ground is attacking us,' notes the Doctor, still with that Troughtonesque glee at arriving in the middle of a minor emergency and acting like he owns the place. (There's also a few hints of Davison and Frontis circling around it but we'll let that one pass.) Thank goodness for psychic paper. Something, it seems, has been awoken by this unwelcome attention from up-top. And, you just know what that something means?

It's been twenty seven years since we last saw The Silurians in Doctor Who. They've changed a bit since Warriors of the Deep. They actually look good now. In fact, they look stunning, the design of them is jaw-dropping. When the Doctor tells Alaya that he thinks she is 'beautiful' he's merely voicing the viewer's thoughts. The Silurians - and their Sea Devil cousins - were always a rather curious addition to the Doctor Who rogues gallery. A very clever, and noble, idea - to do a warrior race that, actually, didn't want to invade a planet but, rather, reclaim (by violence if necessary) one they'd already owned, once upon a time. The problem with them, in the past and possibly still now, is perfectly summed up at the end of their last appearance however. The Doctor wanders, sadly, through a bloody battlefield of dead reptiles and mutters that there 'should have been another way.' In Doctor Who, 'ways' that don't involve wholesale mass slaughter are rare and sometimes come across as awkward compromises to dogma. This one may do too, after all the Doctor got to voice some good pacifist rhetoric about 'no one dies,' something of a regular Steven Moffat motif. But, often in drama, the last resort is the only valid way of resolving conflict and reaching a conclusion. It's sad but true. Next week we'll find out.

Matt Smith's Doctor in this episode walked a fine line between controlled introspection and occasional - thrilling - moments of manic clarity. A Doctor who confesses one of his most shocking secrets to a child (no, not that he can't make a decent meringue. Although thinking about it, that's something of a stunner as well). A Doctor who draws a round of applause after his eloquent, dignified, humane 'you have to be the best of humanity' speech. A Doctor who can interrogate a lizard warrior without prejudice or anger, only wonder. 'It's like this is every day for you,' Nasreen tells him, incredulously. He's even got an answer for that. 'Not every day. Every other day.'

I've a feeling that the ominous 'time's not fixed so things might change' dropped scene, featured on Doctor Who Confidential, might prove to be rather important next week. I think the next episode is going to be apocalyptic and upsetting and, probably, equally as good, if not better, dramatically, as this one. Chibnell has moved his pieces into place for a sharp, emotional, atmospheric conclusion. But, for the moment The Hungry Earth must stand as half-a-tale, well-told. It's summed up by little within it things. Nasreen twanging The Doctor's braces to wake him from concussion. Rory's shy, still, almost enmbarrassed decency when told he had to be the best that humanity has to offer. Amy's alternating anger and panic when waking in a glass coffin. The Doctor's conversation with Elliot about his desire to leave his home and how much he misses it now he can't go back. The Hungry Earth, then. A pocket symphony. Something small. Something delicate and minimalist. A nice, rather old fashioned in some ways, mixture of realistic elements of the very familiar and outrageous fantasy conceits. 'Have you always been this disgusting?' 'No, this is recent!'

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