TV EYE: Doctor Who S5 E08: ‘The Hungry Earth’

A shorter reaction this week, mainly because it’s an episode that’s relatively good family-friendly fun without being anything mind-blowing or amazing. As usual, fear the spoilers…

At last – an episode that I don’t feel the need to write a 2,000 word analysis of, mainly because of the fact that the first part of this Silurian-rebooting two-part adventure is solid without ever being especially dreadful or especially impressive. Given that it was written by Chris Chibnall, I really wasn’t expecting much, and wasn’t surprised to find that there is a certain Torchwood-ness to the story, but at least it’s a ‘mildly watchable and entertaining’ Torchwood episode rather than an ‘Oh God Put me out of my misery now’ episode. There’s not much that the episode does that’s too wrong – this is very much a traditional Pertwee era Who adventure mixed with a Russell T. Davies era execution, and the whole thing feels very much of a piece with stories like The Sontaran Strategem and Rise of the Cybermen.

In fact, it’s a mild improvement on both of those episodes, and contains far fewer clangers of logic and storytelling (although setting up the network of cameras within four minutes was, frankly, bobbins) – it’s just not always tremendously interesting, and does start running out of steam towards the end of episode 1 (the point when, frankly, it should be doing the reverse). The story also feels terribly underpopulated, a factor that’s possibly driven by the budget cuts that Who has undergone this season. The budgetary issues are only really standing out in the more brash, blockbustery episodes, and here we needed a few more background people to draw attention from the fact that a drilling set-up that’s gotten 21 miles into the earth is being run by only two people (and seemingly has a crew of about five). It wouldn’t have mattered on a one-parter, but there’s a definite lack of scale, and it certainly doesn’t help that the episode relegates Amy to the sidelines, and that Rory really doesn’t get much to do other than being traditional companion fodder. There’s a lack of true oddness to this episode – there’s a handful of good lines, but nothing emninently quotable (especially noticeable after last week), and while the tonal shift isn’t quite as extreme as before, this is still an episode that could have slotted into the Tennant era with relatively little bother.

Of course, this is also another remixed old monster making a reappearence. The Silurians are particularly notable because of the fact that their original appearance, back in 1970, is a genuinely well-written story, hailing from the accomplished Who writer Malcom Hulke. They’re one of the few Who villains to have real complexity – their original story comes during Jon Pertwee’s first season, a much grittier era of Who, and plays the conflict between the humans and their reptile predecessors in some rather powerful ways, with the human characters often being more unpleasant than the Silurians themselves, and the Doctor desperately trying to broker a peace between the two races, a peace that’s eventually doomed to failure. It’s a high target to reach, and I don’t feel The Hungry Earth reaches it – the Silurians seem to be being played as Eastern Europeans (which is deeply odd), and the “I know which one of you will kill me!” felt very OTT (close to the old-school comic book covers that would announced “One of these characters will DIE this issue!”). The conflict feels slightly weighted, rather than organic, and it doesn’t help that the number of characters is far fewer – and the Doctor’s scenes with the Silurian do also show that I’m not certain Matt Smith is quite at good as being stern as he is at doing everything else (although I think that’s partly because the Eleventh Doctor is a tricky character to capture, and Chibnall isn’t quite there). The redesign on the Silurians is also a little disappointing, simply because they’ve ended up with something that looks good on an aesthetic level, and yet makes them look very generic. Losing the third eye was a mistake, while the absence of any special contact lenses means that they don’t really look like anything other than people wearing fairly good prosthetic make-up.

The ‘cliff-hanger’ also proves that the Moffatt era may not be anywhere near as ludicrously overblown as the RTD era but it’s not as good at cliffhangers either – this felt more like the episode had just ground to a halt rather than a proper dramatic moment. The teaser for next week does make it look like the scale dramatically increases, at least, and it wasn’t like this was dreadful (aside from Meera Syal’s performance, which was truly, truly bad, consisting mainly of blank smiles and chirpiness). Again, this is better put-together than The Vampires in Venice or Victory of the Daleks, but it’s also nowhere near Amy’s Choice or the Moffat episodes. A not-bad episode of Who, which is maybe nothing to go too wild over, but nothing to cry about either. It’ll certainly be interesting to see if my opinion goes up or down from here…

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