[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
I’m sorry that my Hungry Earth article is very nearly a week late. But now is the time: Cold Blood is on tonight, and I want to write down my thoughts on the first half of the two-parter before I see the second. The reason for that is that in many New Who two-parters, the first half is the stronger: think of The Empty Child vs. The Doctor Dances, Silence in the Library vs. Forest of the Dead, and arguably The Time of Angels vs. Flesh and Stone. On the other hand, the second half sometimes lifts the first, casts it in a clearer light and makes it look better than on first impressions — think of how The Family of Blood surpassed Human Nature (which was already superb).
Either way, I don’t want the second half to bias my impressions of the first, so let’s take a moment to think about The Hungry Earth as a standalone episode.
I will try not to be too spoily, but I can hardly help revealing what the photograph already makes clear: this story features reptilian humanoids who can only be … anyone? Yep, the Silurians!
I have a soft spot for the Silurians, not only because they were the subject of the first Doctor Who novelisation I ever read (Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters), but because they are an intrinsically interesting enemy for the Doctor: not evil, they were here before us (either 430 million years before, if they are from the Silurian period, or any of a variety of other ages that have been proposed on and off screen if their name is incorrect).
In their original appearance, in the Jon Pertwee story of which The Cave Monsters was the novelisation, they were accidentally reawakened by a nuclear reactor, and were not so much genocidal as outraged to see their planet overrun by mammals. That story ended with the Brigadier blowing up the cave complex where they lived, to the Doctor’s fury. (That’s based on my memory of the novel — I’ve never seen more than fragments of the actual TV story.)
They next appeared in the Peter Davison story Warriors of the Deep, alongside their relatives the Sea Devils, but I’ve never seen that or read a novelisation, so I won’t embarrass myself by trying to summarise. And those two stories constitute the whole of the Silurian canon up until Hungry Earth.
In Andrew Rilstone’s brilliant essay Is Tolkien Actually Any Good?, he makes the point that “This is the key to why Tolkien became so very important to me. It wasn’t his bad writing, odd pacing, strange characterisation or over-complex history which appealed to me. What I wanted was it was the idea-of-elves, the idea-of-orcs, the idea-of-caves and the idea-of-dwarves”. In other words, the specific plots involving the elves, orcs and dwarves were less important to him (and by extension to other readers) than the archetypes that they embody, and the ages-long romance that they imply. That’s how I feel about the Silurians: their sombre history, going back tens of millions of years, is a “long defeat” all its own, diluted only slightly by the fact that they were asleep for nearly all of that time. It’s deeply resonant for me, maybe partly because of my work in palaeontology. So I was a bit trepidatious about seeing them on-screen for the first time since 1984. Could they live up to my memory and imagination?
The Hungry Earth begins by sketching some well-drawn subsidary characters: Nasreen and Tony (shown above) are inexplicably in charge of a deep drilling operation somewhere in rural Wales; Tony’s daughter Ambrose is married to Mo, who also works at the drilling operation, and they have a dyslexic son called Elliot. That’s it for the cast, apart from of course the lead trio: The Doctor, Amy and Rory. In a two-parter, five supporting characters is about right: there’s enough time to make them separable individuals, people with a bit of depth and motivation beyond stereotypes, and the Hungry Earth script does a good job of this. The older two, particularly, are not typical Who-fodder, and they’re acted well enough to carry off their slightly idiosyncratic characters. Ambrose is rather more Vanilla Worried Mother, and we’ve not yet seen much of Mo. Still, these characters are drawn well enough that by the end of the episode, when the Silurian captive says to Tony, Ambrose and Rory that “one of you will kill me, and I know which one”, it’s a puzzle that feels intriguing and believable rather than just opaque and unguessable.
As for the Silurians themselves: they are, very properly, kept off-stage for most of the episode, and even after they make themselves known we only see one — the warrior shown in the picture at the top. I didn’t realise at first, though — and was rather disappointed when I did — that what we’re looking at is a mask. When the Doctor removes it, the reptile-woman beneath looks like, well, a woman who is a reptile.
It’s an excellent make-up/prosthetics job, and it does mean that the actor underneath the gloop is able to actually act, but to my mind that advantage is won at too high a price. While the original-series Silurians were rather ponderous and expressionless, they had a certain dignity. More importantly they were very clearly other. (I wanted to say “alien” there, but in the context of Doctor Who everyone assumes that means extraterrestrial.) It was easy to accept them as an unimaginably old elder race, literally and metaphorically seeing things completely differently from how we do, and perhaps with a deep wisdom of their own. By contrast, the new Silurian design is basically a Hot Chick with reptile bits stuck on the back of her head. She can hardly help but come across as a mere human with a rather unfortunate skin condition. Consequently, all her talk of being prepared to “gladly die for my cause” just makes her come across as your regular Brain-Dead Fundamentalist rather than a representative of a profound and ancient civilisation.
It now occurs to me — oh dear — that this might even be deliberate. Could the programme be trying to make some crushingly dull point about fanaticism in our post-9/11 world? It’s rarely to Doctor Who‘s advantage to attempt big-r Relevance — something that any other program can do just as well or better. It does better when presenting ideas that its science-fictional premise allows but which, say, Eastenders, would not be able to contain. A reptilian elder-race is such an idea, and it’s cheap to throw that away in order to score some exceedingly cheap PC points. After all, it’s hardly as though most viewers need to be persuaded that Terrorism Is Bad.
So does this mean a big thumbs down for The Hungry Earth? Strangely, it does not. Despite my reservations about the redesign, and more importantly about what it implies about the Silurian race, I loved almost everything else about the episode. I’ve already mentioned the rich cast of supporting characters; both Amy and Rory also shine this time around.
But once more (and stop me if this is getting boring) it’s Matt Smith’s performance as the Doctor that really hits all the right notes. Perhaps I am more attuned than usual to his merits, having recently watched The Two Doctors (I know, I know, what was I thinking?), but it really does seem that he can do no wrong at the moment. Even his youth, which initially I objected to, seems to be working in his favour: he so consistently portrays his character as a much older man that the contrast between his face and his soul is powerful in itself. All Doctors have swung between seriousness and levity — it’s a signature move of the character — but with this Doctor, it never seems forced.
The classic “Doctor” moments in this episode happened mostly in the brief but intense scene in which he spoke one-on-one with the captive Silurian warrior. I was reminded of the meal shared by Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor and Margaret Blaine (aka. Blon Fel-Fotch Pasameer-Day Slitheen) in the otherwise rather lame Season 1 episode Boom Town. That episode, near-universally considered the weakest of Eccleston’s season, seems to have been conceived and built around that restaurant scene; it feel like a missed opportunity rather than out-and-out failure, as though the writer (Russell T. Davies, natch) felt that with that one brilliant scene written, the rest of the episode would fall into place on its own. By contrast, the at-least-equally-good Doctor/Silurian scene in The Hungry Earth is part of a much richer episode, with many other fine moments, not least Amy’s slow and inexorable descent into the sinkhole while the Doctor tries, and fails, to rescue her.
Classic moments include:
Silurian captive: I am the last of my species!
Doctor: 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.
Silurian captive: We will wipe the vermin from the surface and reclaim our planet!
Doctor: Do we have to say vermin? They’re really very nice.
and of course the closing moment of their dialogue:
Silurian captive: I’ll gladly die for my cause, what will you sacrifice for yours?
Doctor: [No words. Just a look of great sadness under control.]
Just writing these lines out doesn’t begin to do them justice. The writing is good, yes, but it’s Matt Smith’s Doctor that brings it to life. Everything I said about not being able to believe in the Silurian as a representative of an ancient race is turned on its head in the Doctor’s case: he does make me believe that he is a Time Lord — something none of his predecessors ever really did (with the possible exception of Eccleston).
So: there are plenty of high points in The Hungry Earth, and I am inclined to rate it as among the best episodes of this series despite the creature-design miscalculation. I only hope that the second half (which is on in less than two hours as I write this!) keeps up the standard “in the small”, of both writing and acting, while also working more strongly “in the large” to bring out the poignancy and dignity, as well as the menace, of the Silurian race.
Since I find that I am writing a lot about Doctor Who, and so far nothing at all about Veronica Mars, I have updated my header. Sorry, Veronica, you’re out (for now). The Doctor and Amy are in.