Series 5, Episode 8: The Hungry Earth

“While you’ve been drilling down, something else has been drilling up.”

The Silurians are one of the most interesting concepts 70s Doctor Who ever came up with. As the original intelligent species inhabiting the planet, they went into hibernation to avoid the mass extinction which destroyed the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, their hibernation systems malfunctioned, leaving them asleep as the Earth came to be dominated by that upstart ape descendant, humanity. Given that Homo Reptilia (as the Doctor more accurately referred to them) are a civilised, cultured race with as much claim to this planet as we do, they’re an obvious allegory for the displaced indigenous peoples of nations like America and Australia. The interesting variance here is that unlike Native Americans or Aborigines, the Silurians are in some ways more technologically advanced than Homo Sapiens, and are perfectly capable of taking their planet back – by force, if necessary.

So, a well-thought out cultural allegory as originally conceived by writer Malcolm Hulke; the moral ramifications of which were well-explored in their debut story, 1970’s Doctor Who and the Silurians, slightly less well-explored on their return in 1972’s The Sea Devils, and barely glanced at in 1984’s Warriors of the Deep. A thoughtful new Who story could restore some of the original thoughtfulness and depth to the concept, surely? Well, perhaps. But probably not in the hands of Chris Chibnall.

In the interests of fairness, I should point out that, regardless of my previous opinions of Chris’ work, I do try and go into each new script with an open mind. Occasionally, this has left me pleasantly surprised; his opening story for Torchwood’s second season, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, was an excellent script, lacking in some internal logic but well-written and put together with panache. By contrast, his previous effort for Doctor Who itself, 42, was a bit of a mess of wasted potential, with some badly drawn characterisation and the ridiculous lack of logic that led to the ‘recall escape pod’ button being placed on the outside of the spaceship! After three years, I still can’t forgive the staggering contrivance of that concept, apparently put there solely to justify the set piece of the Doctor spacewalking.

As a script, I think The Hungry Earth falls somewhere between those two extremes; not a classic by any means, but a workmanlike setup for what looks like a more interesting second half. It’s basically, as my friend Kim put it, “45 minutes of exposition”. It does have the feel of an early 70s Jon Pertwee story; the setting of a remote village, enshrouded by a dome-shaped barrier (The Daemons), in which a pioneering scientific project is menaced by a mysterious alien force (any number of stories, but most notably Inferno). The village is curiously underpopulated though; when the barrier enshrouds the area, there are basically only five people inside it. It’s understandable that the story doesn’t really need any other major characters (except the Silurians themselves), but a few disposable extras like in last week’s episode might have added to the feel of the setting. Even with the excuse that most of the project’s workers commuted to work, it seemed a little odd that a village with a sizeable church and graveyard didn’t have at least a few more inhabitants.

Unlike in Inferno, it’s not clear what Nasreen Chaudhry’s drilling project is actually for; presently it seems that they’re trying to drill deeper than ever before just to show they can. It also seems curiously under-funded, with the control centre being represented by some computer terminals in what looks suspiciously like a warehouse. Still, budgetary constraints haven’t really harmed the episode’s CG effects – the domed barrier over the village was nicely realised, especially when it turned black to shroud the village in convenient darkness.

The build up to anything actually happening had some nice concepts, but seemed dragged out to excess. The idea of graves being robbed from below is nicely creepy, and the predatory holes in the ground were a good touch, noticeably reminiscent of similar sequences in 1984’s Frontios (in which a character comments, “the earth is hungry”). It was a good idea to split the regular team up early, with Rory being mistaken for a police investigator while Amy was kidnapped below ground, but it seemed to take far too long before there was even a hint of the Silurians appearing.

When they did, it was in the form of Alaya, a well-written character who got many of the episode’s best lines. As one of the ‘warrior class’ from a previously unseen sub-species of the Silurians, it was a good idea that the make-up left most of her face visible, allowing for a good performance as a proud, even arrogant, representative of a genuinely wronged species. Her assertion that one of the humans the Doctor was so proud of would kill her, thus starting what she sees as an inevitable war, was a particularly chilling pronouncement. It’s a genuine suspense builder that we can’t guess which – Rory, with his girlfriend kidnapped, Ambrose, with her son stolen, or Tony, infected with the creeping poison from this version of the Silurians’ sting.

The new versions of the Silurians have some imaginative touches. As well as the aforementioned sting, they’re equipped with Predator-style masks that give thermal vision, nicely parodied by the Doctor with his nightvision shades. This also led to the interesting revelation that Silurians are cold-blooded; an idea still somewhat hotly debated (forgive the pun) with relation to the dinosaurs themselves. It was also interesting that the Doctor referred to Alaya as being “300 million years out of her comfort zone”, a timescale which would put the Silurian civilisation rather early in reptilian development, somewhere around the Carboniferous period if memory serves. Still, given that Malcolm Hulke made a fairly significant historical error in naming them ‘Silurians’ in the first place, it’s hard to take the science too much to task.

Working with fairly broadly drawn characters, the guest cast aren’t bad at all, and it’s nice to hear some Welsh accents in the show, given where it’s produced. The characters seem primarily to be there for the Doctor to explain the plot to, so it’s a relief that the likes of Robert Pugh and Meera Syal can take what little they’re given and produce likeable performances. The only slight deviance from the ‘standard family’ of Mo and Ambrose is the idea that young Elliot is dyslexic – I wonder if that might prove a plot point later?

With the lion’s share of the dialogue taken up by the Doctor’s explanations this week, even the regular cast got fairly short shrift. Arthur Darvill has perfected an enquiring look as he listens to Matt Smith, and Karen Gillan got to be kidnapped and locked in a pod – very traditional – while looking rather worried. Matt Smith, given the only notable character interaction in his ‘interrogation’ of Alaya, was as good as usual, but hopefully some of the other characters will get a look in next week.

After the overlong set piece of the Silurian hunt under the blackened dome, the episode just seemed to amble towards what could charitably be called a climax, though it did seem more like just a convenient chapter break. Tony has a creeping green infection under his skin, Amy is about to be dissected while conscious in a scene reminiscent of Planet of the Apes, and the Doctor has headed underground with Nasreen to look for the Silurians. The revelation that there’s a huge city full of them led to a reasonably well-realised CG vista, but as a climax it was a little too predictable.

It’s not really fair to assess the quality of a first part without having seen the second, but on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, I think it’s going to be a rather rushed conclusion to an overlong setup. But the promise of a larger cast and some actual advancement of the plot next week looks interesting, and as an overall story I’ll reserve judgment till then. It’s notable, however, that the first part of the recent Weeping Angels two-parter was packed full of incident as well as exposition, and was an exciting episode in its own right; at this stage, the best I can say for The Hungry Earth is that it’s far from the worst thing Chris Chibnall’s ever written…