...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, May 28, 2010

Day 3428: DOCTOR WHO: The Very Hungry Caterpillar


Writing for Dr Woo has to be the official BESTEST JOB IN THE WORLD EVER™ but, in spite of this, it can be quite tough getting anyone to have a go. Apart from Miss Kate Bush who wrote "Kinda" and Mr Stephen Fry whose episode fell through, the only REALLY famous person was Mr Dougie Adams.

But now with Mr Simon Nye, Mr Richard Curtis and Mr Neil Gaiman writing episodes, you've got to admit the Grand Moff has been really jolly successful at getting some famous and talented people to write for him.

And also Mr Chris Chibnall.

If you didn't know there are alien space lizards in this (who aren't ACTUALLY aliens OR from space), then… oops, it's too late to warn you about SPOILERS, but here's Daddy Richard's review:
The easy thing to say about "The Hungry Earth" is that it's a very traditional Doctor Who, and a very slow one. Which overlooks that for all its lack of incident, for all its incredible Pertwee-era-redux wish-fulfilment, for all that even a Pertwee seven-parter could have got through the plot faster, it is actually quite enjoyable.

So, Chris Chibnall, bane of John Nathan-Turner and/or viewers of TV's Torchwood according to your taste, here tries to pull off Steven Moffat's trick of taking familiar elements and reworking them into a new story. The emphasis being on the word "tries".

The elements in question start with references to the televised adventures of the Earth Reptile People – "…and the Silurians", "The Sea Devils" and "Warriors of the Deep" – almost too numerous to recount, but including: the Doctor name-checking almost every variant on what the Reptile People have been called; his determination to try diplomacy; the monster point-of-view shots; the "examination tables" of the Silurian scientist; the description of a "network of underground caves"; from the trailer, the Sea Devil-like weapons and so on. "Warriors of the Deep" was supposed to see the Sea Base (under siege) plunged into darkness before the Silurian attack – which indeed happens here. Perhaps most subtle, subtle to the point that I might be making it up, are the blue-grass patches forming fairy rings in the drilling fields – with the Reptile People becoming the Unseelie Faerie Court in Paul Cornell's novel of the Eighth Doctor, "The Shadows of Avalon".

Nor do the "borrows" from the show's history end there, with – just for starters – the church and energy barrier from "The Dæmons", a hint of "isn't that us from the future" from "Day of the Daleks", the graveyard mystery of "The Curse of Fenric", and the Doctor being what monsters are frightened of also in the mix too (which is more Paul Cornell by way of Steve Moffat, of course).

Actually, it's been suggested that this episode is, more than anything, an homage to the opening stories of season twenty-one: "Warriors of the Deep" supplying the monster; "The Awakening" donating the church with sinister something breaking through from beneath; and "Frontios" giving up the empty graves and earth that sucks its victims down. Next week, we discover that it's really the Daleks who are mining numismaton gas to sell to the Sirius Corporation… or maybe not.

Alex, on the other hand, thought it was very, very much "… and the Silurians", plus a lot of "Inferno", and then loads of "Frontios", but hardly any of "The Sea Devils" or "Warriors of the Deep" at all.

It's all so clunkingly obvious, though. As though it's an exercise in ticking the boxes in your spotter's guide, rather than using them as extra polish to your own story.

The centrepiece is one of those "big science projects" from the early Pertwee-era, like the National Space Centre ("The Ambassadors of Death") or the Nunton Nuclear Reactor ("The Claws of Axos"). The Wenley Moor experimental cyclotron in "…and the Silurians" is another one, of course, though the most obvious parallel is the drilling project in "Inferno" – but done here on the cheap: only three staff at the ground-breaking drilling project? Where are all the extras in white coats and wellies moving purposefully about in the background, eh?

This is one of the key things that undermines (pardon the pun) the story: this is a huge scientific endeavour but it appears to be being run as a schools science project at the whim of Meera Syal's character Doctor Nasreen Chaudhry, assisted by her chum Tony and his son-in-law, Mo (presumably, in another reference, he's named for "Project Mo-Hole", the attempt to drill to the Mohorovičić discontinuity – aka "Moho" – that inspired the original "Inferno"). And it all appears to take place in their back yard. I mean, I do realise it's not completely without precedent – in "The Seeds of Death", Professor Eldred appears to have built an entire space rocket in his shed – but nevertheless it's just… bizarre. Ultimately what's it all for? Doctor Chaudhry claims that they are investigating the minerals in the blue grass. So, um, isn't that a bit of a leap to "let's drill twenty miles into the ground"?

Of course, it's all just a bit too obviously betraying the smallness of the cast – and couldn't they have avoided that by having Chaudhry, perhaps after some visit to brief the minister in London or Cardiff, arrive back at her huge project and be astonished to find all her staff have vanished? (Well, that's exactly what happens except her "staff" is established in the pre-titles as "one bloke".)

"Doctor Who and the Silurians" is about a clash of two civilisations: as a story it's huge, and not just because it's seven episodes long. The scientific installation and its staff represent an urban and elite Britain, but the setting of Wenley Moor with farm and cottage also take in Britain's rural aspect. We see people ranging from junior ministers to the local doctor, army officers and soldiers to commuters and a railway porter. In short, this feels like the whole country is involved. And for the Reptile People the stakes are even higher: even though there are only three speaking roles for "Silurians" – and their three-note whistle – Mac Hulke still manages to convey a sense of an entire race and all their technology and even their sense of aesthetics. And it could all come to nothing because the planet – their planet – has been overrun by verminous apes.

In contrast, "The Hungry Earth" seems to be about one family in Wales living in an oddly otherwise-empty village. (Just who does Ambrose prepare meals on wheels for?)

It doesn't half make talk about an all-out war between Reptile People and "apes" seem a little overblown.

On the other hand, maybe the small cast and the slow pace are deliberate so that the writer has more time than is usual for a modern Doctor Who to develop character.

I will say one thing for Chibnall: he's not indulged himself in the ongoing treatment of Rory as a "joke" character – something not helped by the unkindness of not adding Arthur Darvill to the opening titles, leaving his character seeming less of a "proper" companion than Karen Gillan's Amy. Which is a shame because Doctor plus two companions is a nice mix and not one that Russell really tried in his five years (yes, yes, aside from five minutes of Rose and Captain Jack, and Mickey barely stepping into the TARDIS before he was first sidelined into the B-plot, then into the B-universe).

Here Rory gets some actual character traits – he is, for example, slightly petty about Amy wearing her engagement ring – and even his own proper storyline, as he gets to be the one mistaken for a police officer. And he does gamely try to carry it off, even if admittedly he doesn't get very far with his investigation.

Amy, in contrast, seems almost under-characterised, mainly bitching about being dressed for Rio (which she's not, really), though, if we are to believe Doctor Who Confidential, this is because she suffered most from cutting the episode down from almost an hour in the first edit to the forty-five minute slot: a long chat with the Doctor as they progress to the drill-site being the – understandable – main casualty. A shame, as it sounded like an interesting conversation, and I hope it makes the extra features section when the series gets to be released on DVD and Blu-Ray.

It does seem odd to be praising the normally über-macho Chibnall for the softer side of his characterisation this week, but clearly it's something he's been working on. There may not be many of them, but at least the cast of characters do feel like real people with real motivations. Tony's sudden kiss of Nasreen at a moment of high tension is human and believable. Her appreciation of it plays against the usual cliché too.

Likewise, it is rather lovely that Dr Chaudhry expresses both scientific curiosity, which drives her to insist on accompanying the Doctor, and undiluted delight, both when she sees the marvellous interior of the TARDIS and at her discoveries in the cave passages once they’ve been dragged underground. She is a character who actually enjoys what she does – too often Doctor Who features scientists who seem actually grudging of making discoveries, like that isn't what they got into science to do.

There is also nice work on Eliot, son of unlucky Mo, who has dyslexia and attitude, and on his mum Ambrose who is a strong woman capable of shaming the Doctor when he's been alien and therefore stupid about letting Eliot wander off. My money is on Ambrose as "the one who will kill", just because she is a wife and mother. (Though that green stuff taking over Tony might be worth an outside bet – possession by green alien goo being, naturally, another lift from "Inferno".)

And of course, the Doctor. With a slower pace to the episode, Matt Smith gets to show that he can do the Doctor as a character without needing all the frenetic flapping around. Chibnall actually appears to get what that other Chris, Christopher H Bidmead, was trying to get across all those years ago, about an old man in a young man's body. There's a lovely moment where the Doctor goes to Tony (a man of, for a human, more than average years) slaps him on the shoulder and says "well done, lad". Robert Pugh's look is priceless. But also the terrible mistake with Eliot occurs because Eliot mistakes the Doctor for a young person and the Doctor forgets what young people are like, casually waving Eliot off without thinking what he's going to do. Or maybe the Doctor makes the reverse mistake: assuming someone who looks young might be just as self-reliant as he is himself.

And the centrepiece of the episode, what it all builds up to and then depends upon, is a character piece: the confrontation between Matt's Doctor and the Reptile Person Alaya played by the hugely talented but unrecognisable Neave Campbell McIntosh [thank you, Dan] (who we remember as the Lady Fuchsia in the BBC's disastrous "Gormenghast").

As I said to begin with: the easy thing to say about "The Hungry Earth" is that it's a very traditional Doctor Who, and a very slow one.

That's easy to say and sadly true, but this is also, much more unusually for this series, a very political story with Alaya seemingly on a suicide mission to use her own death to provoke a war between humans and retile people. It's a strategy reminiscent of those employed by the "honourable" Minbari in episodes of "Babylon 5", where the warrior caste try to reignite the war between Earth and Minbar, and indeed Alaya explicitly refers to herself as warrior caste here. This builds on the basic premise of the Silurians – that to them, we humans are the invaders of their world – adding the contemporary spin of asymmetric warfare and guerrilla tactics.

That's quite a complex motivation, and interestingly not one that sits with her given explanation that she and her fellow warriors were recently awoken because the drilling disturbed the hibernation bunker's life support. And we do know that she will lie, as "the drilling woke us up" isn't her first story. That was the failed "I'm the last of my race" gambit, an interesting self-aware reference to the series own habit of over-doing that cliché.

The presence of an enormous Silurian city twenty-one kilometres down also would appear to give the lie to the "we just woke up" line. Together, these things suggest that the Reptile People under the earth are rather more familiar with the civilisation of "apes" living up top than we humans are familiar with them. Moreover, we can further infer that the Reptile People in the city have decided that they would rather live down there than try to reclaim the surface – otherwise why build their city? Thus, on top of that, we conclude that Alaya may represent a faction opposed to the status quo among her people. Why else does she have to provoke warfare? Why would there need to be a pretext for war if the Reptile People were already keen to retake the surface?

(Alex points out that when I say "build", I overlook the possibility that the city is just supposed to have survived down there, untended for three hundred million years, what with a towering spindly city being so much more crunch-proof than the reinforced shelters that Malcolm Hulke described in the Cave Monsters, most of which had been crunched anyway. But he's kind enough to add that that, even if "true" in the story, would be very, very stupid.)

The Reptile People are redesigned again – thankfully referred to as another species by the Doctor, and thanks to "The Sea Devils" there is precedent for reptile people coming in different stripes – and their appearance is both beautiful and totally wrong. Beautiful because it's a work of scaly art, and allows for expressive facial movement and interaction. But wrong not because of, as so many people have pointed out, the mammalian eyes – or, even less subtly, the mammalian mammaries oh-so obviously unconcealed by the oh-so obviously form-fitting bustiere of her armour (and after the cyber-basque-and-kitten-heels of Chibnall's "Cyberwomen" this is starting to look like a pattern) – but because the whole point of the Silurians is that they are earthlings who could barely look less like us. The original series, "…and the Silurians", even goes so far as to suggest that humans have the screaming ab-dabs from just being near them they are so alien to us.

Unless, of course, there's actually something genuinely subtle going on and that these reptiles have had even more contact with humans than we've already inferred. Are those fairy rings a bigger clue than they appear? Should we be led to believe that these fey people have been taking away humans for a while now?

(I'm tempted to make a terrible "Deep Space Nine" joke and ask if the Reptile People might look like the Jem'Hadar but actually turn out to be changelings… no, better not.)

That's almost certainly an inference too far. I don't want to anticipate a far more interesting story than the one we're really going to turn out to be in the middle of… Next week we will probably see Mr Chibnall return to typical macho form and finish with a big fight.

Which reminds me: the other question for next time, of course, is whether there was any point to the opening scene in which future-Amy and future-Rory wave at present-Amy and present-Rory from across the valley. Or was Chibbers just indulging in a bit of gratuitous timey-wimey to show that he's got with the Moffat programme?

Forgive me if I analyse the "next time" trailer for a moment – yes, I know, spoilers on top of spoilers – but there appears to be the suggestion that the Doctor has an opportunity to re-write human/Earth Retile history (provided he can arrange a peace accord a thousand years early) because this isn't one of those "fixed points" in time. The "fixed points" appear, from "The Fires of Vulcan", to be "things that we know must be history"; or at least, from "The Waters of Mars", things that the Doctor knows must be history. But how can that be the case when future Rory and future Amy are able to come back here and wave at their earlier selves? To them, the events of "today" (all right, this day in 2020) must also be "things that we know to be history".

Perhaps I'm oversimplifying things here. The Doctor says that he can see the difference between times when he can and cannot change things. Meaning that presumably there is some flexibility to the course of history that allows re-writing (and of course, he's recently discovered the possibility of un-writing history too, through the crack in time). And yet surely the long-term, knock-on effects of making peace between human and Reptile People now would be so massive and wide-ranging that they would have to impact on some fixed points sooner or later, as it were. I suppose you could say the same for his intervention in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", except he'd already visited a "future" (relative to 2164 AD) and seen humans travelling in space (in "The Sensorites") so you could argue he was setting time on the lines he knew it would take – as in "The Fires of Vulcan", being the cause of the fixed timeline not changing it (see also "The Romans" and "The Visitation").

Nevertheless, we still arrive back at the problem of whether the Doctor can really change anything in the here and now of this story without causing at the very least a major continuity error in the timeline of his two companions.

Mind you, "Day of the Daleks" managed a continuity error between the two "they meet their past/future selves" scenes too. Maybe the Blinovitch Limitation Effect means that always happens.

We'll find out next week, I guess. Before then there's a cliff-hanger to be resolved.

Typical of the episode, the cliff-hanger is just too soft-peddled. Amy's revealed to be in peril, sort of, and then the Doctor and Nasreen find… a balcony…

Okay, the reveal of the city is nice in a slightly muted way, but what the story called for was to overturn all the "smallness" that we've had up to this point with something huge! We shouldn't have had just Amy and Mo on the examination tables… we should have had Amy and Mo and a hundred other slabs with the rest of the scientists from the drilling project. We shouldn't have just had the Doctor and Dr Chaudhry overlooking the Reptile People city… we should have had a swooping "crane" shot through the city full of Reptile People and then cut back to the reverse on the Doctor and Nasreen so we can see their faces as, with the sound of running feet, they are surrounded by a dozen Reptile guards. It's the difference between "oh, a city" and "oh WOW, a city!"; the difference between "oh, they're in trouble" and "oh NO! They're in real trouble!"

Unfortunately, that would probably have cost just that little bit too much more money.

With a new production team and a new TARDIS to build and the switch to HD – which I have to say looks gorgeous – and a cut in the budget on top of all that, it's almost like we're back in 2005 and they're having to feel their way into a new way of making a TV series, making the ends meet. And I suspect that it's making them… cautious.

Admittedly, it's a different kind of caution to the one they had in 2005. The Eccleston series was quite audacious in the range and style of stories it threw at the screen – mainly because they feared it was their one and only chance – but kept them quite small in production: the "biggest", meaning most effects-laden, being "The End of the World". Russell's caution was "let's do what we can because it may be our only chance"; Steve's is "let's do what we know works".

It hasn't really – up to this point – shown on screen, except it occurs to me now that perhaps this is part of why 2010 feels a little… less than the last five years. I've been putting it down to Russell writing "emotion" and Steve writing "plot", meaning Russell's stories just connect more, but a new thought occurs to me. They're trying too hard not to break it.

In a way, that's actually encouraging, because it means that it's not that they can't do it, and that they'll get better as they gain confidence, just as Russell's team grew in confidence about what they could ask for and achieve.

Next Time… And the Doctor talked it all over with Okdel and sorted everything out in a jiffy over a nice cup of tea and they all lived happily ever after. Or not. "Cold Blood"
You know, if you DIDN'T know that there were alien space lizards in this then putting it on after Junior Apprentice where Lord Sugar-Plum-Fairy has his OWN alien space lizards – or the Sir-alan-lurians as they are called – was a bit of a GIVE-AWAY, wasn't it!



Unknown said...

Neve McIntosh, not Neve Campbell, surely.

Millennium Dome said...

Thanks, and corrected

David & Yvonne said...

To my shame, long before mobile phones and PCs were part of life I worked on the special effects when Dr Who (William Hartnell) was transmitted to our screens only in black and white. At that time it was mainly intended for children and so no one noticed the desperate props and tin foil covered flashing control panels. Back then regardless of el-cheapo props we could at least understand the plots. Today even with the aid of computer technology the plots; apparently aimed at adults, would baffle most children. and I suspect the plots largely are rehashed from past series. But at least this time we are spared the last Dr Who's over-acting and his goggling, staring, slightly bulging eyes.
David Brittain
22 Thorns Way
Walton on the Naze

Millennium Dome said...

Dear Mr David,

Ooh exciting! Thank you for your comment!

Be assured, there is certainly NO SHAME in having been a part of the team behind the Hartnell Era. Mr Dr Billy's stories are some of the best in the series history, three years worth of episodes that achieved a greater number of AWESOME STORES than, well, the current run. My Daddies consistently rank him as a top Dr Woo.

Given a million pounds and a CGI machine, ANYONE can create special effects to boggle the mind, but it takes REAL genius to build Daleks and Zarbi and Mechonoids (oh my!) out of cardboard and tinfoil and wishful thinking. And yet some of the effects achieved in the 'Sixties – the view overlooking the Dalek City; the battle with the Mechonoids; the huge statue on the Arc or the destruction of Earth in the same story; the TARDIS herself – are some of the most memorable and impressive in the series.

Having said that, though, those effects served their stories not the other way around. The need for "event" television that is "visually spectacular" over genuine stories has been a bit of a problem in, er, some instances recently. Naming no names but they tend to have Daleks in them.

But I don't really think that plots are BAFFLING this year; except when – like here – they are verging on the missing in action. I just think that they're over too quick and too dependent on the big visuals and a star performance of Matt Smith to get over any catches.