Thursday, June 10, 2010

Flat Earth

I've said it before (quite recently too) and I'll say it again: if you want a decent rule of thumb for what makes a good Doctor Who story, you could do worse than 'something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue' (where blue is just a handy metaphor for mood/atmosphere). It's that special blend of the familiar and the original that, to my mind, makes for the best stories, the ones that endure and lodge themselves in the imagination for years. If you get the balance right.

Unfortunately, something old, something borrowed, something borrowed, something borrowed and precious little new is not going to do it. If The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood leaves any lasting impression at all, I'll be surprised. Which, given the two-parter's inability – with a single (arc-related) exception - to surprise in any other respect, seems unlikely.

Was it rubbish? Well, it wasn't a complete landfill, but for me it qualifies as the poorest offering of this season so far. As with Victory Of The Daleks, the scale (haha) of disappointment is inevitably measured against expectations and a revisit of Doctor Who And The Silurians territory, one of my all-time favourite DW stories, is saddled with the burden of high promise. Truth to tell, the anticipation was tempered by the knowledge that Chris Chibnall (of Torchwood 'fame') would be scripting the episodes and the trailered glimpses of a new brand of Silurians who looked a lot more ordinary.

With optimism duly kept in check - after a return from a rather lovely holiday - I sat down to watch the two episodes back to back and found a story that fell spectacularly short. Sadly, it was for the most part a bit flat and dull.

It's almost a cybernetic reconstruction of an old story, with all its complex organs removed and replaced with functional mechanical parts, along with an artificial heart. Not content to retread And The Silurians, it stops to riff on Inferno (drilling project reaching to the depths of the Earth), The Green Death (infection of popular alien hue) and The Daemons (energy barrier seals off village from rest of world) along the way.

Within its scenario, it does at least succeed in generating a degree of tension in the first part, with the ground swallowing people up, the impending menace of monsters making their way towards the surface and the flitting of shadowy figures about the graveyard. But it never really conveys any sense of a global threat in the way that And The Silurians does, with its widespread plague. Unlike The Green Death and The Daemons, it doesn't even manage to give us the sense of a community under threat. Probably because the village that's been targeted has a current population of about four.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for small-scale threats focused on a handful of characters in isolated locations – Horror Of Fang Rock is another favourite of mine, for example. But this story doesn't have the predatory suspense and tension necessary to pull that off. It appears to want the best of both worlds, and although it shows us a vast reptilian army in stasis, it never properly evolves to extend its scope of menace beyond the regulars and limited guest cast.

And by 'limited' I only mean in terms of numbers, because to be fair the performances are pretty much all better than the script warrants. But nobody in particular shines. Meera Siyal is good, dependable guest star material but her character feels a bit sketched and generic. It's a nice little bonus to have Stephen Moore in the mix, throwing in a spot of voice-over to accompany a shot of the Earth and adding a dash of Hitch-Hikers nostalgia. But at the same time, it feels odd, thrown in at the start of the second episode – and then not really satisfactorily tail-ended. Wouldn't it have been better to use that device (albeit better-written) to frame the entire thing? Perhaps giving us at least the illusion that there was some point to it all.

Because pointless is what it felt like to me.

As well as the need to be great, it really needed to have something new to offer. All it had in the new department was bio-manipulated soil (fair enough) and a lashing lizard-tongue for the Silurians. Which, okay, was a reasonably interesting accessory, but not remotely as interesting as the third eye which they lost. Indeed, this branch of the Silurian race is as ordinary and dull as I'd feared and instead of the creative vision inherent in the original Silurian (and Sea Devil) masks are reduced to your bulk-standard Star Trek reptilians. I'm not averse to a change in design, I just would have liked to have seen more evidence of inventiveness applied. It's as big a misfire, albeit in different ways, as the re-modelled Daleks in Victory. I gather these Silurians may have owed their humanised appearance to budgetary constraints, but back in the days of old man-in-a-suit Doctor Who monsters I was always led to believe that tight finances were one of the things that inspired the fx experts and creature creators to be more creative. Lady Gaga looked more alien in a green scaly outfit in her Bad Romance video. (It you don't know the outfit I'm referring to, it appears at around the 3:30 mark). These Kermit-coloured Klingons completely fail to convince.

When one of them - Alaya - is captured, the story hands itself an opportunity for a major twist, as she declares she knows one of the humans will kill her and she knows which of them will do the deed. Then blows it, by it turning out to be exactly the same one you thought it would be. It's that level of predictability that compounds the (unforgivable) averageness of it all.

There are, of course, some compensations to be found in the mix, snatches of amusing dialogue here and there, for instance, and even if it lacks the sharpness of a Moffat script, say, Matt Smith continues to prove his credentials as the best Doctor since Davison. His lecturing a desperate mother on morality doesn't sit quite right next to his declaration of love for the Silurian vivisectionist, but that's the script's fault for not letting the Doctor in on the scientist's habit of dissecting living human specimens. But heck, even his subjects appear to forgive a bit of surgical probing a tad too readily for my liking.

Gillan's still great, even if the signs are minimal that Amy values Rory any more since making her Choice in the previous episode and, not for the first time, it seems she only appreciates him when he's gone. Which makes her look like a slow learner. More attentive script editing could have taken care to show better character/relationship development there. Meanwhile, Rory is as entertaining and engaging a character as ever, whether it's the business with the ring, being mistaken for a plainclothes detective or being left in charge of the group on the surface.

His death, when it comes, is the two-parter's only genuine shocker and there's real tragedy in Amy's battle (which she loses) to retain her memories of him. It's the first time in the two episodes my emotions are engaged. Then, of course, there's the follow-up whammy when the Doctor reveals the piece of wreckage he fished from the fissure. Okay, that last revelation wasn't totally unexpected, but it still delivers a pleasant oooer tingle. And the fact is, it's all so much more dramatic than anything that precedes it. (My only concern at this stage is that this, coupled with Rory's demise, points towards a big Undo at the climax of the season... but I guess we can worry about that when the time comes.) It's not all Mr Chibnall's fault then, because clearly this critical arc material needed to be squeezed in and that takes charge of proceedings at story's end. In a better story though, it might not have dominated quite so much and with the materials handed to him, the writer really should have been able to deliver something that was at least equal to those closing events and not so easily overpowered.

As it is, the effect is rather like following a meal with one of those mouthwashes that practically makes your head explode. The taste of what went before is obliterated, but actually in this case it's no great loss, because the meal was mediocre.

Those rumbles? Not the Hungry Earth. That'll be me hankering for something a darn sight better and a good deal more substantial.

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