(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them.)
Doctor Who is supposed to be a programme that sends you reeling behind the sofa in fear and horror. Occasionally, it sends you there for entirely the wrong sorts of reasons. My first reaction to The Hungry Earth was entirely the wrong sort of horror.
But do you know what? As the two episodes went on, and it became all too apparent how precious little thought had gone into almost any area of this production, I was suddenly struck by the notion that it was so hokey, it was almost becoming loveable.
The Silurian redesign, for a start (it’s not worth bothering thinking about the Silurian/Eocene/Earth Reptile/Homo Reptilia naming debate, as it’s blindingly obvious that writer Chris Chibnall didn’t think it through either): the third eye has disappeared, and apart from the scaly exterior and one or two flourishes (such as a vague similarity with the crest, and the vaguely-similar shape of the guns), they might almost be another species. The Sontaran retooling of three years previous took a familiar image and kept its most important elements, updating only those which would most easily survive being redesigned. The Silurians seem to have had the opposite kind of makeover. And more oddly yet, they seem to have inherited the string-vests from their marine cousins the Sea Devils.
And more oddly yet, somehow all of this conspires to work in their favour. My initial shock at seeing something so unfamiliar going by such a familiar (combination of) name(s) quickly wore off, and thanks in no small part to the performances of Neve MacIntosh, Richard Hope and Stephen Moore, I warmed to them immensely.
The Silurian soldiers look stunning with their masks on, too.
The human side of the story also seems badly thought through. Meera Syal and Robert Pugh come over as probably the most unlikely pair of miners that television has ever seen fit to depict, but once that shock – plus the budget-saving mechanism of having an entirely deserted valley and a mine that operates even without the majority of its staff present – has worn off, there’s something cosy and arch enough about the pair of them that pretty soon you find yourself rooting for the characters.
There’s an incredibly daft sequence with some lashed up surveillance cameras, a bizarre introductory sequence with Rory and Amy that pays off in the most predictable – and therefore ineffectual – fashion possible, a resolution that leaves the story as open-ended as we know it can’t really be, lashings of plot that either goes nowhere or defies logic, and an extended homage to The Daemons that seems to have been included for no other reason than to necessitate an otherwise entirely unnecessary and presumably rather expensive night-shoot. You have to applaud these two episodes for their audacity in being made at all.
Of course, there’s also the ‘cracks in time’ story arc resurrecting itself to kill Rory. If the poor fellow hadn’t ‘died’ last week as well, it might mean something. As it is, it simply leaves the question of whether Amy’s boyfriend really is dead this week, or if it’s just another red herring to be revised at a later date. The moment with the engagement ring suggests the former, but the Doctor’s subsequent reveal that part of the TARDIS has been residing on the other side of the crack (and what a phenomenally cheap looking special effect that crack is), implies the opposite. There’s a little ripple of wibbly-wobbly undulating throughout the series, which makes it very hard to take some of its more serious moments terribly seriously. I still don’t know why Amy doesn’t remember the Daleks.
But since when did Doctor Who looking cheap, encompassing odd performance choices and generally behaving like a scriptwriter’s bad dream ever make it anything less than thoroughly entertaining?
Besides, while The Hungry Earth might look cheap in parts, the realisation of the Silurians’ underground city in part two is simply magnificent, an awesome (or should that be ‘ore-some’) achievement. For all the bizarre acting on display, Meera Syal makes for a very engaging tourist in this nether world, and Neve MacIntosh’s depiction of twin Silurians on either side of the underworld/overground divide is compelling. By the end of the second episode, you almost want the war she so wishes for to break out – if only to break up the extraordinary conference that’s taking place in the next room (seriously, are we expected to take any of this seriously?). I don’t recall watching a programme with as protracted, frustrating and nonsensical a climax as this before. Until Chris Chibnall returns to the show, I doubt I will again.
For sheer entertainment, on the other hand (and by ‘entertainment’, I’m not referring to the simple pleasures of a television programme that works its way towards a logical and fulfilling conclusion, but rather to a ninety-minute excursion to a place where anything can happen and rather scarily very likely will – but not in the way you expect it to!), these two episodes deliver in spades. The sheer sense of satisfaction during the end credits is less to do with the fulfilment of watching good television well made, and even less to do with feeling unfulfilled by mediocre television being adequately made, than it is to do with watching mind-boggling television being made on this scale at all.
Yes, The Hungry Earth was as close as Doctor Who has come in many a year to sending me scuttling behind the sofa in horror, but the most horrifying thing of all is how much I loved it. It might stand entirely apart from the rest of this series’ output (so far), but Doctor Who could well do with some more of this kind of madness.
(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here: http://watchingdoctorwho.weebly.com/)