Thursday, June 24, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Green

The Hungry Earth is an episode that borrows widely and quite heavily from the Jon Pertwee era of Old Who, but only in superficial ways. There are little images and echoes, but none of the social or political awareness that the Pertwee era was soaked in, and – of most relevance – none of the subtext and debate one might expect of a sequel to The Silurians. I know that some of this will crop up in next week's episode, but I'd better not go into detail about that at this point. I'll add it to what is already shaping up to be a long review for next week.

This first half of the story was pretty superficial all over, being mostly set-up, quite a bit of waiting for things to happen and a small portion of action. The human characters aren't very well developed, and we haven't even met most of the Silurian characters yet. Essentially what we've got here is an episode composed of thumbnail sketches, not just in terms of the cast but in narrative terms as well. The Lovely Jo complained throughout about clich├ęs in the script; I'd certainly agree that it's a perfunctory bit of work.

In particular, some more background on Dr Choudry and her team (and by “team” I mean Tony Mack) would have been nice, since she seems to be the most significant guest character. Any hint of motivation would have been appreciated too – it might have made her activity in this episode seem less like a series of leaps and more like a continuing journey. Oh look, now she's got a thing with Tony Mack! Now she trusts the Doctor completely! Now she wants to explore underground!

What's going on with the drilling project? Eh, it's just a big drill. There's some story about unusual mineral deposits turning the grass blue, but I don't see how that translates into a project to drill further down into the Earth's crust than ever before. Some sort of soil analysis would seem a more obvious course of action, if grass is involved. And who's paid for this monumental project? Does Dr Choudry report to a board of directors, or perhaps to a Minister for Science? Is she funding the operation out of her own private fortune? (And after all, would anyone else stump up – at a guess – billions of pounds to drill through 21km of crust just on the offchance of finding some mineral deposits?)

My other question (and The Lovely Jo's) is, where are all the staff? Wouldn't a project of this magnitude need more than two scientists and what looks like maybe half a dozen manual labourers working on it? Wouldn't it need more than one night watchman? And would the scientists really pack up for the night mere seconds after making their big breakthrough? Wouldn't they wait around for the first exciting data? Are they really such extreme clock-watchers?

A quick thought: “Cwmtaff”?! Seriously? Jesus.

I can understand the cricket bat and other improvised stick-type weapons, but I have to wonder just why the Welsh family's private arsenal includes a shotgun and a taser. Did they have to hunt for their food in the wild before the drilling project brought jobs to the valley? Were they previously employed by a dodgy private security firm? Are they just survival nuts? What's the story there? (I mean, yes, I know what the story's going to be, I just can't see the justification for how it got there to begin with.)

As with previous Silurian stories, there's an attempt to give the lizard people a generic name that backfires. “Silurian” was the first one, and although it's stuck, within two years Jon Pertwee was explaining to his companion that it was inaccurate and “Eocene” would have been more appropriate. Except that it wouldn't. Here, after briefly paying lip service to the geologically based misnomers of the past, Chris Chibnall contributes a biologically based one of his own: homo reptilia. I'm not sure which is the worse gaffe – suggesting that the lizard people originated millions of years before the dinosaurs even evolved, or giving them a taxonomic name that implies they belong to the same genus as humans. (Well, the back cover of The Silurians' novelisation back in the 1970s claimed that Tyrannosaurus rex was “the biggest mammal that ever lived” - perhaps it's all one big knowing joke?) The New DW Adventures, a range of original novels published by Virgin in the right-on 1990s, suggested “Earth Reptiles”, which is probably the best of the bunch. But to be honest, if they're not going to take the risk of giving the Silurians a cheesy sci-fi name in their own language, I'd rather they ducked the whole issue and just called them lizard people.

(EDIT: A quick suspicious flick through the pages of Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters reveals that in fact Malcolm Hulke used the phrase "homo reptilia" himself! As if calling T-rex a mammal weren't enough! So it's his fault and not Chris Chibnall's! Although I could've done without having it used on screen...)

The Silurian make-up is a bit of a let-down. The biggest and most immediately obvious change is the loss of the old third eye, surely the distinctive feature of this Who monster. It'd be like having a new Cyberman costume without the jug handles on the head; and now that I live in a country with a surviving three-eyed reptile species, I can merrily say that considerations of realism don't enter into it, if they ever would have. Just some lizardly contact lenses and some camouflage for the clearly human maxillo-dental area could have done wonders for the new look – a bit of green face paint isn't really sufficient. The Lovely Jo suggested that the more rugged looking masks the Silurians wore, with some articulation around the mouth, would have been a much better “face” than what we actually got, which seems to be the view of a lot of Who fans online.

And this year's award for the least subtle bit of plot telegraphy goes to: “I'm just popping down to the Silurian base – don't kill the hostage while I'm away!”

All in all, this is 45 minutes of passable Who, but nothing special. It's not notably good, but it's not notably bad either, so I'm inclined to give it 5 out of 10. Next time, as someone once said, I shall not be so lenient...


Christopher Pittard said...

Yes, I'll go with all that. I think you're being a bit harsh on the 'telegraphed' plot development (surely the fact that one of them will kill yer silurian isn't so much a twist as a murder mystery), while you let the force field gubbins off the hook entirely. In its favour, the part where the Doctor loses the child is actually quite good. Ultimately, this is Who by numbers, only a bit better than the Sontaran stuff a couple of years ago. 5/10.

Incidentally, I know you've been looking around the net for spoilers, but if you haven't already found out the reveal in "The Pandorica Opens," then don't. It's a corker.

John Toon said...

The episode's worst sin is its mediocrity.

What force field gubbins did you have in mind? It seemed kind of surplus to requirements - just another hollow Pertwee reference (The Daemons) shoehorned in for nostalgia's sake - but I wouldn't have said it was particularly wrong.

But I couldn't let the plot telegraphy go unremarked. It's not just that bit of next week's episode that's telegraphed, mind you, but I didn't want to reveal too much. I'm sure Jo spotted it all herself, but even so.

The bit where the Doctor loses the child - to me, that just looked like rank stupidity on the part of the Doctor *and* the child (let's run out of the safe haven unaccompanied, thirty seconds before the monsters are due to arrive!). Characters in the bin just so that Chibnall can put the kid where he wants him for next week's episode. It was a little bit funny in a sick way, but it was the worst kind of expedient writing.

Christopher Pittard said...

Well, that's exactly it; it was force field for force field's sake, as the aesthetic movement almost put it. M'wife summed it up pretty much in the first few seconds of the credits - "So the whole thing was simply to set up next week?"

By the way, I've finally got around to seeing "The Eleventh Hour" and have commented appropriately on your review... and regarding "The Beast Below" v. "The Happiness Patrol," I watched the latter again last week just to see if it is better. Sorry, but it really isn't, and I'm sticking to that even though Sheila Hancock is, in a sense, my boss.

John Toon said...

Mrs Pittard's nailed it, I think.

You are of course entitled to your opinion on The Happiness Patrol, even though it's COMPLETELY WRONG!! ;)