Sunday, June 13, 2010

Doctor Who (US) - "The Hungry Earth"


The fifth season of 'Doctor Who' airing in the US on BBC America is a few episodes behind those in the UK. If you are only following 'Doctor Who' in the US on BBC America and do not wish to be spoiled, read these reviews only and not those labeled "Doctor Who (UK)".

Doctor Who
Season 5 - Episode 8
"The Hungry Earth"

Review by David Lowbridge

'Doctor Who' is formulaic. There, I said it. I feel better now.

This season shows no sign of breaking with the formula established by Russell T. Davies and companions, a formula borrowed from most successful US sci-fi drama series. Namely, you introduce the character, a ‘big bad’ for the series which is subtly hinted at in the early stages but only truly emerges in the final few episodes. These are interspersed with ‘monster of the week’ episodes which even those who don’t watch the show ritualistically can follow. Buffy did it admirably, 'The X-Files' too, though the so-called ‘mythology’ episodes gradually became a reason to switch off rather than on.

Furthermore, after four (arguably five) seasons of “new” 'Doctor Who' we can broadly ‘type’ each episode according to what has gone before.

The one with the regeneration ("The Eleventh Hour") in which the new team set out their stall for the forthcoming series, the one with the futuristic spaceship ("The Beast Below"); an excuse for the production design department to have a field day, as well as a clearout of any old props they’ve got lying around. This seasons’ monster of the week one lived up to its pulpy title ("Vampires In Venice") but fell short of most other expectations, as this type often does. Personally, I always enjoy the one featuring a caricature of a real life historical figure ("Victory Of The Daleks") and the high concept one ("Amy’s Choice"). Which leaves, to date, not the ‘ones’ but the ‘twos’.

I sometimes find these a struggle. Perhaps because of their feature-length running time (90 minutes) they sometimes dilute the usually highly-concentrated fun. The best 'Doctor Who' episodes go down like double shots of espresso topped with whipped cream and that stuff that makes your tongue go all crackly (children of the 1980s will remember this as the rather aptly-monikered ‘Space Dust’). Some two-parters feel more like a venti freeze-dried equivalent; enjoyable but a bit too long, with not a great deal of variety. I rather liked “Aliens of London”/“World War Three” in season one, but I think what I saw as Hollywood-esque explosion of a disaster movie was received by everyone else as more of a wet Slitheeny fart. Season Two’s Rise of the “Cybermen/The Age Of Steel” relied on too much cyber-intimidation and not a lot of suspense. “Daleks in Manhattan”/“Evolution of the Daleks” proved that Daleks work best in moderation. “The Sontaran Strategem”/”The Poison Sky” from Season Four was possibly the strongest of the ‘twos’, though this was apparently rescued in the writing stages by Davies himself, even though he’s not the credited writer. Interestingly, the head barista usually leaves it to one of his underlings to take on a ‘two’. This even extends to “The Empty Child”/ “The Doctor Dances” (arguably the best of the ‘twos’) back in Season One, the underling being Steven Moffat. Now Moffat’s in charge he’s saved his talent for the finale and left “The Hungry Earth”/ “Cold Blood” in the hands of Chris Chibnall, a one-time veteran of Who (“42”) and head writer of 'Torchwood'.

Chibnall succeeds in making an espresso where others have merely reached for the jar of Nescafe. There’s nothing instant about “The Hungry Earth”, aside from the sudden shifts of tone which somehow work, like rolling hot coffee around on the different taste centres of your tongue. The whole is a slow burner, ratcheting up the tension until the half-shadowed arrival of the Silurians, familiar reptilian-faces for the Doctor and anyone well-versed in pre-1985 'Who'.

Not that it starts that promisingly. The opening is classic horror setup: caring father reading to his son (aww bless), going off to work the night shift – alone - in a hazardous ‘drill thing’ (oh no!)... hmm, it’s a challenge more on the level of ‘spot the red shirt from 'Star Trek’ than Where’s Wally? So far, so Saturday night tele. You’d be forgiven for wondering if 'The Generation Game' was on afterwards. But soon enough Rory’s wandered off to investigate snatched corpses after being mistaken for a plain-clothes policeman (in a gilet Marty McFly wouldn’t be seen dead in). Meanwhile, the Doctor and Amy have ‘sonic-ed and entered’ the big drill thing, acquainted themselves with the ‘mad scientists’ of the piece, in this case played by yet more top class British TV talent (Meera Syal and Robert Pugh), and something is drilling up as well as down...

For the first time this series I actually felt I knew where we were headed. It seems to have been a conscious decision to treat the audience like a companion this series. That is, we’re always standing in the doctor’s shadow, trailing in his intellectual wake. “Excuse me I’m making perfect sense; you’re just not keeping up,” Mr. Smith condescends to the ‘noobs’ in front of him as well as those sitting watching at home. From a character perspective this is an interesting choice, making the Doctor more autocratic, as he has every right to be. Narratively-speaking it could be disastrous and there have been a few times where I’ve overlooked this in my reviews. This is for two reasons; 1) I love the show and I have trouble being objective about it (editor note - see David’s last review for 'Amy’s Choice') 2) I didn’t want to appear thick.

Does dropping the audience a few hints make a television show thick? No, it’s called ‘suspense’. Does writing within the framework of an established genre make it utterly predictable? Not if you exploit those conventions or utilise them well enough that you don’t consciously recognise them. Tonight wasn’t infuriatingly postmodern – it wasn’t anything different. Were the conventions on display? We could occasionally see the cracks (the ‘red shirt’, graveyard, misguided scientists, the plunging into darkness), though not, on this occasion the ‘big bad’ crack. For these reasons (in addition to the UK’s unseasonably scorching weather) I predict that the ratings figures for “The Hungry Earth” won’t be stellar. This is unfortunate, as it was formulaic, but it was also very funny, very tense and it almost made me cry (twice!). It’s the little things that make the difference; the unrequited romance between co-workers suddenly requiting itself in the face of imminent destruction, the son-of-red-shirt overcoming his dyslexia. You could argue that these are clich├ęd character-arcs, but they take up so little screentime and make so much of a difference to our involvement that the episode would be so much less without them. We need a bit of familiarity in order to connect.

The one scene that really does make this episode stand out relies on our shared cultural knowledge of that regretfully necessary hallmark of human civilisation; the interrogation. In this case, the Doctor was the interrogator, both good cop and bad cop. It was a 27-year old actor sitting on a fold out chair in front of an ex-RSC bit player covered in prosthetics and green facepaint. It was a Timelord confronting a Silurian. But it was also Guantanamo Bay ruled over by Commandant Ghandi. The scene’s import bled into the one that followed where the alien Doctor urged the small crew of human Silurian hostages “in this church, in this corner of planet Earth” (evoking Shakespeare’s ‘this sceptr’d isle’ speech from Richard II) to be the “best of humanity”. The creature, he half-assured, half-threatened was “only as evil as you are”. And just to underscore the sheer hypocrisy of a disturbing proportion of present day political discourse: “from their point of view you’re the invaders”. Any right-wing viewers not yet convinced into turning off by the show’s consistently liberal agenda will certainly not be tuning in next week. Even if Chibnall and gang stretch the point a bit too far in the concluding episode they will have still made it in a far less heavy-handed, puerile and less-formulaic way than Avatar managed in twice the running time.

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