TV EYE: Doctor Who S5 E09: ‘Cold Blood’

This week’s round-up of Who has arrived. More random burbling follows, most of which boils down to the fact that I’ll be happy if I never see another episode written by Chris Chibnal ever again. As usual, fear the spoilers…


Let’s be honest. It wasn’t good, was it?

This is possibly the point where a small reappraisal has to happen for all the people who were convinced that The Grand Moff was going to be the saviour of Who and rescue us from all the excesses of the RTD era. Because yes, the high points of S5 have knocked almost all of the previous seasons into a cocked hat, but I’m getting the distinct feeling that Moffatt’s reign is falling prey to the same sense of inconsistency, the same wandering quality, only that because the high points are so high, the low points feel magnified out of all proportion. Because when it comes down to it, Cold Blood isn’t dreadful – it’s just didactic, bland, slightly rambling, murky in its characterization, and ultimately a bit disappointing to watch. It’s not quite as annoying or disappointing as Victory of the Daleks, but it is a close run thing, and it also lacks a lot of the energy and polish that RTD was able to give a lot of his episodes (even the ones that didn’t work).

There’s a series of ways in which you can feel what could have been an interesting new spin on old Doctor Who villains crashing off the rails and simply failing to gel together. The Silurians are a fascinating Who villain, despite only having appeared twice in the history of the program – they’re one of the few Who villains to be built around a genuine moral conundrum (Technically, they are in the right – they were on the Earth first, and it isn’t their fault that those annoying little ape creatures have taken over), and the original Silurians appearance puts the Doctor in a really challenging position, especially since he’s trying to negotiate between the reptile people and the grittier, edgier 1970 version of UNIT (with one of the best characterisations of the Brigadier – a hard-edged military man who has no compunction in blowing up the Silurian base at the end of the story, much to the Doctor’s horror). The new two-parter is obviously trying to build on that and give the Silurians a new and interesting identity, but so much of what they do seems to deliberately wander away from what made the Silurians interesting in the first place.

The Seventies Silurians are, quite obviously, men in rubber suits who had to wobble their heads to show who was talking – I’m in no way surprised that the look has been updated, but in designing and streamlining the Silurians, they’ve ended up with something terribly generic. I can understand almost all the thinking (although apparently they lost the Silurians’ third eye because ‘Davros has a third eye’, which is a fairly lame bit of reasoning), but it’s led them in a terribly uninteresting direction. A comment I saw elsewhere captured it very well – that these Silurians look too much like people. The original Silurians were so affecting because of the fact that they look like typical Who monsters, so there’s a sense of disconnect and surprise when we see they’ve got distinct personalities and characters of their own. Smoothing out the design and basically making it “People with crested heads and lizardy skin” might make them easier to act for the performers, but it takes away the distinctiveness and the difference between the two races, especially since they don’t even use unusual contact lenses or teeth to give them a different look. Doctor Who aliens are supposed to look crazy – it’s one of the thing I loved about the original show, and the new Silurians simply look like something that could easily have turned up on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Buffy. The original Silurians don’t look great moving, but see a still photo and they’re distinctive and impressive. The new Silurians may have an exciting new CGI tongue, but, frankly, the old-school Silurians could use their third eye to MELT YOUR LIVING BRAIN. I know who gets my vote…

It’s not really a surprise that the story was disappointing, considering this is from Chris Chibnall, a man who’s consistently shown such little knowledge of things like story structure and characterization that I have to wonder exactly how he keeps getting employed. The episode almost plays like there are chunks missing, especially when the Silurian scientist goes from sinister Dr Mengele-style vivisector to a kindly, helpful bloke who is horrified, HORRIFIED when the female Silurian goes kill-crazy. Even the attempt to crank up the conflict between the Silurians and the humans ends up feeling completely overplayed and nonsensical – especially when the Mother (I’m sorry, but I’ve blanked all the character names from my mind, that’s how much of an impression they made) decides that the best way of getting the menacing Silurian who’s been saying “My death will spark the war!” to do what she wants is by threatening her with a Taser. And then, she’s quickly coming up with a doomsday countdown to threaten the Silurians with! Yes, the fact that the humans are painted as much more combative and warlike than the Silurians is interesting, and it’s nice that they don’t end the episode with a bloodbath (which was certainly the case with Eighties Silurian appearance Warriors of the Deep). But the whole thing fails to be particularly exciting – there’s no sense that any of this really matters, especially when the Doctor tries to get his ex-kissagram and a woman who runs a drilling operation to negotiate the future sharing of the entire planet. This is the reason you need UNIT, or a serious military or government presence in a story like this – it needs to feel like it matters, like there’s a link between what we’re seeing and general authority. Otherwise, it feels like embarrassing children’s television, like the Doctor’s flying off into cloud cuckoo land when he thinks that any of this matters in the slightest. Again, there’s the feeling that this is a terribly underpopulated episode, and that the tone simply doesn’t rise above mild excitement. It doesn’t quite tumble into the Total Bollocks Overdrive of Torchwood (S1 and S2, not the surprisingly good miniseries), but it’s really not that good, and a lot of it feels very flat, with Smith being given more Tennant-style lines, and Karen Gillan being stuck with a characterization that essentially makes her a slightly more eccentric and bolshy version of Rose, and doesn’t really connect back with the moments where the character has worked best. In fact, Amy’s slightly odd characterization, which has leaped around all season, almost feels like they’re trying to do a bit too much with her, cramming in three seasons worth of development into a few episodes, and the result is a little schizoid and doesn’t feel like a completely natural flow from where we started in The Eleventh Hour.

And then there’s the ending, which does feel like it needs to be treated as separate, especially since it does rather come out of nowhere. I was a bit worried about Rory – they’d succeeded in making me care about the character in Amy’s Choice, and he was functioning pretty well as a standard companion here, but I could guess that they wouldn’t keep the status quo for very long (especially since I don’t know how long you could stretch out the relationship between them, when I’m pretty sure that the plan is for Amy to stick around after this season. I’ve certainly heard nothing about her departing). It does smack a little of soap opera “make them care, and then BREAK THEIR HEARTS” plotting, and there’s also the fairly clear sense that I doubt we’ve seen the last of Rory. If they were just going to kill him off, that’s what we would have gotten – the fact that he’s been deleted by the time energy from the Crack in Time, and that Amy now doesn’t even remember that he even existed is fairly obviously going to play into the season finale. We’ve now essentially gotten a rebooted version of Amy for the next couple of episodes – a version of Amy that wasn’t running away from anything when she leaped into the TARDIS – but the presence of Amy’s engagement ring (which did seem to be very much still around) means that presumably the Doctor still remembers, and that part of the finale may involve the Doctor somehow ‘rebooting’ Rory’s timeline. There is, of course, the scene in ‘Flesh and Stone’ where the Doctor talks again to Amy in the Forest Vault, where he’s suddenly wearing his jacket again and tells her to remember what he told her when she was seven – which is either a massive continuity error, or a hint at some serious time travel craziness to come (which may even connect with that shot in The Eleventh Hour of the seven-year-old Amy hearing the TARDIS rematerializing – what if that’s something more complicated than a simple dream sequence?). And then there’s the Doctor’s discovery, the rather cool hint that the explosion that causes the Crack in Time might actually be the destruction of the TARDIS. The fact that the last four minutes of the show gave me more to think about than the rest of the episode combined is certainly a clue that something was wrong here – the finale is gigantically contrived, but it did at least give a sense of surprise to an episode in desperate need of one.

Ultimately, the lesson of this is that the new producers of Who need to learn a little bit better how to make their budget work, and that Moffatt may not be quite as good at being an all-purpose showrunner as RTD was (certainly this didn’t have the same sense of being covered in Moff’s fingerprints, the way many other RTD episodes are). It’s not a surprise that Season 5 is still turning out to be rather up and down – this new incarnation of Who is definitely better at being eccentric, offbeat and comedic than doing more mainstream Who runarounds (which certainly makes me curious to see what Richard Curtis pulls off with the next episode). While I’m hoping that we don’t see another Chris Chibnall episode for a long time, I am still interested to see the next couple of episodes – and it’s going to be really interesting to see what Moffatt is going to have in store for the big season finale. Once again, only time will tell…

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