[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.]
So, did Cold Blood live up to the very promising The Hungry Earth, the first half of the two-parter that it concludes? Having watched it only once so far, my answer is a qualified yes. My concerns about the Silurians looking too human were exacerbated when we saw more of them, but since they actually did have noticeably different characters, the ability to read that on their faces was fairly useful.
Here, for example, we see a statesman — one who wants to broker peace. And you can sort of see that in his face, as compared to the warrior who we saw last week. It’s an impressive job of make-up to enable the actors to act through the layers. I still don’t think the loss of alienness is a price worth paying, but at least now that I’ve seen the second part, I can understand why the programme makers did think so.
Read on for some slightly spoily thoughts …
Part 2 of the Silurian story had a high-concept arc, which I liked a lot: it began with a voiceover from a Silurian, speaking from the future, explaining that this is the story of how understanding was established between Homo sapiens and Homo reptilia. (Yes, that’s what the Doctor calls them: for all his sciency goodness, he’s still an old-fashioned Linnaean taxonomist, and not a particularly good one either if he thinks that synapsid and sauropsid species can be congeneric, but let it pass.) Establishing from the start that peace would somehow be achieved may seem to undercut the drama, but it’s not really so. The tension is in seeing how something is brought about rather than whether it is — trading away the latter is a small loss in exchange for the gain of setting out from the beginning of the episode that the goal is reconciliation rather than conquest.
Unfortunately, the excellent broad-brush-stroke work was not really matched by the detail of the plot, which involved rather more running around, getting captured and last-minute escapes than strictly necessary. Excellent and touching individual moments were rather lost in the rush of forgettable events. We should have been left with a sequence of strong images — not least, the awful moment when Rory had to carry the body of the dead Silurian warrior into what were looking like being successful negotiations. Instead, I was left with a confused blur punctuated by pools of relative stillness where the important stuff happened.
This is part of the problem you get when you take the focus away from the Doctor himself and let subsidiary characters become too important: you lose not just Matt Smith’s superb acting, but the outsider’s perspective that the Doctor offers — the consistently different approach to solving problems. In his absence, the best that Amy and Mo could come up with was to rush into the execution chamber waving guns: not an approach the Doctor would have taken, or for that matter sanctioned, and one that fails predictably. It would have been much more distinctively Whovian if, for example, Amy and Mo had gained control of the chamber, but the Doctor had then persuaded them to demonstrate their moral level by giving up the weapons by choice. Instead, they were simply overpowered and lined up to be executed themselves. Much less interesting.
More mystifying was the Doctor’s choice, in the central conference, to leave the humans’ side of negotiation with the Silurians to Amy and Nasreen. Their perspective on the deal to be made was as mundane and selfish as we might have expected (although in fact I expected better from Amy), whereas if the Doctor had been directly involved he would have insisted on doing what it right rather than what is expedient.
I can sort of see what the episode might have been trying to do here. Just as the Doctor wants to give the humans more responsibility, and to help them grow to the point where they can run their own planet responsibly, so perhaps the idea was to show us this by allowing him to hand the episode itself over to his human companions. The idea may be noble, but it fails for two reasons.
First, the humans in question are just not big enough to carry the load. Nasreen, played by a woman approaching fifty, might have been expected to have accumulated some wisdom in her half-century, but displays precious little. Amy is of course much younger but has had the benefit of travelling with, and learning, from the Doctor; yet she, too, handles the negotiations with the Silurian leader as a whiny game of what’s-in-it-for-us rather than an opportunity to show grace on behalf of the race that she represents. [An aside: speaking of race, it was a nice touch to have the humans’ negotiators represented by a caucasian and an Asian … though both were of course British, as befits Doctor Who, as distinctively British a program as I’ve ever seen, however many aliens and spaceships might be involved.]
But the second problem with the Doctor-handing-over-responsibility approach is that it left him with little to do. And that is squandering the series’ greatest asset. In stark contrast to his taking control in The Hungry Earth, and to the virtuoso moments afforded by the dialogue with the captive Silurian warrior, he spent most of Cold Blood doing … well, not much at all. Blowing up warriors’ guns with the sonic screwdriver and running away, mostly.
Ah yes, the sonic screwdriver. It’s becoming a real problem again. Russell T. Davies was rightly derided for making it an all-purpose get-out-of-jail-free device, and I can’t have been the only person who cheered when it was destroyed part way through The Eleventh Hour. Or the only person who headdesked when the TARDIS presented him with a new one at the end of that episode. To be fair, it spent the next few episodes doing only what it is supposed to do, namely open doors. But its functions seem to be expanding again. This is a very bad habit and must be curtailed. It is of course the Doctor’s defining characteristic that he never, ever carries a gun (except when he goes to shoot Davros while disguised as a vet, or when he goes to shoot the Master, or on any of the other occasions when he wants to). To use the sonic as an explicitly non-weapony weapon (i.e. one whose function is to destroy other weapons) could be construed as a clever reversal, but for my money it goes much too far towards letting the Doctor solve problems the way an action hero would. And an action hero is the one thing the Doctor must never be.
Still, if I seem to be complaining about all the things that Cold Blood did wrong, that’s only because it’s more interesting that listing what did work. I wouldn’t say that it lived up to the standard that its rather spiffing predecessor set, but then neither was it a catastrophic falling away as, for example, The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords was after the climactic revelation of Utopia. It got the job done. And the clever not-really-resolved ending set the scene nicely for a potential sequel set a thousand years in the future, which I really hope gets made. (Yes, I am still a Silurian fanboy; and good as Hungry Earth/Cold Blood was, it’s still very much the case that the definitive Silurian story still waits to be written.)
Speaking of writing, I somehow failed to register before watching The Hungry Earth who the writer was, so I was astounded to see in the closing credits that it was Chris Chibnall, whose work I generally loathe. (His only previous Doctor Who episode was 42, which to be fair I need to see again, but he was responsible for the truly appalling Torchwood episode Countrycide, as well as the laughably incompetent Season 1 finale, End of Days.) It’s good that I didn’t know he’d provided the Silurian scripts or I’d have gone into the first episode prejudiced against it. Instead, he’s shown that he can write well when he tries — very well in places — so I can only assume his dreadful Torchwood scripts are done that way on purpose because that’s what the show’s audience wants. Ugh, it hurts even to think about it. Let’s change the subject …
… to Rory!
One of the pleasant surprises over the last four episodes (Vampires of Venice, Amy’s Choice and the Silurian two-parter) has been Rory’s swift emergence as a character of perception, wit and courage. Initially I’d been worried that he’d be a retread of Mickey Smith, who took a very long time to develop into the rather heroic version we knew by the end of Season 2. But no: almost immediately, Rory adapted to life on the TARDIS, anticipated the Doctor’s explanations, didn’t allow himself to be fazed by events. By the end of Cold Blood, he had established himself as by some distance the most admirable of the human characters, and one with a great career ahead of him.
Which of course makes what happened to him all the more heartbreaking. I will say no more for the sake of avoiding spoilage, but Amy’s attitude concerning Rory at the end of the episode was pretty darned poignant, I can tell you (he said, mysteriously).
We shall see how this develops. I did see a small clue that points one possible direction: the engagement ring that he took back to the TARDIS early on in The Hungry Earth was still there at the end of Cold Blood. What can it mean?
As usual, I avoided watching the trailer for next week’s episode, but I understand it’s a sort of comedy historical written by Richard “Blackadder” Curtis. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I do love it that Doctor Who‘s format lets it veer so wildly between comedy, adventure, profundity and levity; but Curtis seems liable to tip the show too far away from the serious stuff, and that would be a shame. Well. We shall see.
Warning: if you read on into the comments, you will find that they are rather more spoily than the actual article.