A dreaded sunny day, and once again – as happens every season it seems – the first part of the Doctor Who mid-season two-parter gets utterly slaughtered in the overnights. Biggest drop since the series returned, with 3 to 4 million people presumably still wandering about outside blistering themselves in the first spell of good weather we’ve had this year. Hopefully a lot of ’em will show up in the final figures having time-shifted the episode. One hopes so.
So, did they miss much by not being glued to the set for The Hungry Earth (Sat, BBC1)? Well… yes and no. More than any other episode this year, it’s a series of bits stuck together by wandering moments of plot contrivance. It’s kind of difficult to give this one more than a meh, as it feels like a gigantic setup for what will doubtless be an epic second episode next week. I hope that proves to be the case. If my suspicions are proved correct the two episodes viewed back to back should pack a wallop as they start slowly then begin to gallop on the way to what will hopefully be a satisfying resolution. On the evidence of part one alone though, it’s difficult to see what that resolution will be.
There were some lovely moments though. As ever, mostly provided by Matt Smith’s ever developing, ever unpredictable Doctor. He’s delightfully casually rude this week, rushing into the world’s smallest drilling project and taking it over without so much as a by-your-leave. Three people – one of them a pensioner – entrusted to a major undertaking that must have cost a pretty penny to set up. Your tax dollars at work there.
Effectively he spends this episode doing what the Third Doctor used to do – being abrasive to authority figures one minute and attempting to cruise by on charm the next. Eleven’s displaying a neat line in casual rudeness coupled with moments of unexpected menace. More than Nine or Ten ever did, you get the feeling this is a man who despite his outwardly pleasantly crumpled demeanour, is one you really don’t want to cross. He doesn’t take being contradicted well, and it’s more than just a childlike huff when it happens. I think we’re going to get at least one moment before the end of the season when Eleven actually loses it completely – and does something that everybody will regret. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
This episode the old-head-on-young-shoulders thing really comes to a fore as Smith delivers some rather affecting moments of total world-weariness. Just watch his face as he attempts to broker peace with Alaya (and that worked so well the three times he tried it before with this mob on screen), as she attempts exactly the same argument Rosanna used on him in Vampires of Venice. “I’d gladly die for my cause. What would you sacrifice for yours?” You know the answer to that one. He’d sacrifice anything, and it’s a dangerous question to ask. Because he might just tell you, and the answer would break your heart.
I don’t know if it’s deliberate, but this whole episode played out like a tribute to The Third Doctor’s era. Perhaps it’s the production team’s way of paying tribute to Barry Letts, our most recent and keenly felt loss.
The Silurians/Eocenes/Earth Reptiles/Whatever are an obvious one. An ill-advised attempt at bringing them back during the Fifth Doctors era aside, they’re Pertwee adversaries through and through. But look – there’s a project drilling through the crust of the earth, just like in Inferno. Future versions of our heroes intersecting with the present, just like in Day of the Daleks (well, with considerably less yellow CSO, anyway). And oh my goodness, there’s an old church for everyone to hole up in. And a massive barrier surrounding the village, just like in The Daemons. It’s Pertwee’s greatest hits and deliberate or not, it was really rather lovely to have the series’ illustrious past echoed like this.
Unfortunately, the plot creaked a bit from time to time, as Chris Chibnall desperately tried to force our characters into place in order to serve the needs of the story. The most obvious one is Rory heading back to the Tardis to park Amy’s engagement ring (and how oddly touching that there’s a spot on the console reserved for it). He only does it so’s he can be mistaken for a policeman shortly afterwards, and it didn’t ring true.
The Doctor completely forgetting the brains he was born with and not noticing the absence of Elliot in order to set up the graveyard chase sequence was another, especially given this incarnation’s desperate insistence on protecting the innocent. A shame he’s proving not to be very good at it so far.
That said, sometimes the contrivances worked rather well. Having The Doctor furiously rebut Tony’s suggestion that Alaya be dissected for research purposes chimed well with Amy’s gruesome discovery beneath the earth at the end of the episode. Not quite a Hexachromite Gas moment, but certainly getting there.
Three cheers though, for the reappearance of one of my all-time favourite things about Doctor Who. Once again, we got some superb one-story companions. I have a feeling little Elliot’s going to be even better next week (a superb child-actor. In Doctor Who. We’re a long way from Romulus and Remus in The Twin Dilemma, that’s for sure.) Meera Syal’s Dr Chaudrhy was absolutely perfect for this story – a young head on older shoulders teaming up with an old head on young shoulders. The sparks flew between the two performers in a way I’ve not seen since Peter Davison and Polly James in The Awakening, back in ’84. Beautiful. Just look at the way she twangs his braces after the Tardis crash-lands. She plays like she’s known him her whole life – even more than River Song’s managed in two appearances so far. More like this, please.
Oh, by the way forum people – claiming that this series has an anti-feminist agenda just because Amy gets tied up for the second time in three stories – I’d suggest that you do a wee bit of background research. Doctor Who’s been around for quite a few years now. It’s a rare episode where the companion doesn’t get tied up or put in a tricky situation. It’s an adventure serial, and this is what it does. Amy’s no more anti-feminist than any other companion. She’s just doing what the series format forces upon the companions. Celebrate the moments when she breaks free of that formatting, and howay with your nonsense.
On the whole? A bit patchy, with Rory more or less sidelined apart from the joyous moment when he bursts screaming out of a Meals on Wheels van. There’s enough promising stuff going on though to make me think that next week’s will be full of goodness. A companion in peril? An underground city? Two civilisations, each fundamentally opposed to each other? Lots to get through next week. It’ll be be great. It is more than it isn’t, these days. Bring it on.