Ed (ed_zeppelin) wrote in doctorwho,
Ed
ed_zeppelin
doctorwho

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The Hungry Earth

Part-ones have a lot of advantages over regular episodes and that's never been more apparent than in this series, where Moffat's storytelling direction has done odd things to the pacing of single-episode stories. In this case, it allows Chibnall to keep the monster meaningfully hidden for the bulk of the story, which is what I suspect Mark Gatiss and Toby Whithouse would have wanted to do if they'd had half a chance. That's what allows The Hungry Earth, fundamentally wrong on many levels, to be more enjoyable than I think it's worth.

This episode is a kind of Frankenstein's monster, with lots of disparate elements of plot and character stitched awkwardly together. The Doctor is introduced to the drilling project, for example, by suddenly looking at the horizon and going "oh look, a drilling project!"; the kiss between Nasreen and Tony is just a scene in which their faces inexplicably slam into each other, so badly is there relationship established; meanwhile, plot elements like the blue grass and the empty grave are just dropped unceremoniously from the story once they're done with. It gives the whole episode a very shaky feel as it moves from one plot point to another without any sense of natural development or cohesion, and I felt it removing me from the story because I could see the joins.

This is very much a fan's-eye-view of Doctor Who, and I suspect that the lack of cohesion between its mish-mash of superficial plot elements comes from Chibnall treating the fourth wall like it's got a target painted on it. Chibnall fetishises the Doctor, writing him doing "Doctorish" things and having supporting characters respond to him in kind. Why would Syal's character ask "what are you wearing?" to this stranger who's just broken into a securely locked compound, if not in response to an innate awareness of Doctorishness that the character doesn't have but the author does? Little details stick out here, such as Nasreen introducing herself with her full name in a social context where it feels out of place, or a Ambrose sneering at him specifically so that another character can talk him up. Chibnall spends the entire episode mythologising the Doctor in a way that practically brings the episode into the realm of metafiction: putting him in ray-bans is another example, in order to solve a plot point that established new series conventions dictate could have been dealt with by the sonic screwdriver. Much of the Doctor's actions and dialogue feel like they were written for the trailers rather than the episode itself; I half expected the him to come strutting in going "I am known as...the DOC-TOR!" in full Colin Baker mode. It would have fitted in seamlessly.

I did quite enjoy the episode though - it looks good, generally, and the slow pace and hidden monster afforded by a second episode do allow the bumps to be smoothed out. I'm criticising it a lot though because I feel that it's essentially wrong in principle. Most jarring is the extent to which elements from previous episodes are incorporated into the plot - okay, you could make the case that the parallels with Inferno are superficial, but the inclusion of the heat barrier is such an extraordinarily blatant piece of theft that the episode has almost as much claim to being a sequel to The Daemons as it does to The Silurians. This, to me, is exactly the wrong kind of continuity reference and is, frankly, abusing the unawareness of the casual viewer. Think about what the heat barrier's role is in The Daemons: in cutting the village off from vital UNIT reinforcements, it forces dangerous changes of plan on both the Doctor's and the Brigadier's part, as well as raising the dramatic stakes by preventing the Doctor from retreating to safety, or the troops from entering to protect him. Now compare that with the role of the heat barrier here: with nobody outside trying to get in, and with all the characters inside it having no intention of leaving anyway, what exactly is it supposed to be a barrier against? It has no role in the story except to simply be there; okay, it plunges the churchyard into darkness in time for the well-directed scene of Alaya stalking Elliot, but was it really that important to have a night-shoot? Would the scene not have worked in the daylight when most of it relies on camera trickery anyway, rather than the darkness, in order to keep the monster obscured? If that's the only reason for having the barrier there then it must surely rank as the most contrived piece of plotting ever seen in the series, since the entire purpose of having the barrier would be to allow a scene that's less interesting than the barrier itself. Even putting the logic of it aside though, the flagrancy of the theft is simply mind-blowing. We aren't talking about a nod to the past; we're talking about an entire plot element lifted wholesale from another story and deposited here, a phenomenon amplified by the memory of Chibnall doing the exact same thing in his previous episode, 42.

It doesn't end there though. There's a fatal flaw in having the Silurians in this story, and that's that they, er, aren't Silurians. They look nothing like the originals. Don't take that as a bit of fanboy whining though - this is a serious conceptual problem. What we see here is generic reptile monster #94, which just happens to appropriate features of The Silurians in order to create the plot. What, in this context, does the Doctor's claim that they're "a different branch" mean, exactly? To a casual viewer, different to what? It's never made explicit in the episode how the Doctor knows who they are; Malcolm Hulke might have been able to pull that one off with The Sea Devils, two years after the original episode, but Warriors Of The Deep was 26 years ago now. Here we are in 2010, and suddenly there's an episode giving us a monster and claiming them as the Silurians despite taking away the bulk of the Silurians' defining features. Just repeating the motivations (three-dimensional in 1970, one-dimensional by 1984) doesn't quite do it.

Like I said, I did quite enjoy watching this episode in a funny way. But there's something about the way it's done that I find quite alienating. This isn't what Doctor Who is; this is a simulacrum, a photocopy of a photocopy. Why have cotton when you can have cotton substitute?

**

 
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