In all four previous seasons of the revived Doctor Who, the second two-parter of the year turned out to be one of the highlights of the season—see, for example, Steven Moffat’s “The Empty Child” in 2005, or Paul Cornell’s “Human Nature” in 2007. Unfortunately, this year that run of success is broken. Appropriately for an episode that centers around an underground drilling operation, “The Hungry Earth” is a slow-moving bore. While not actively dreadful, it functions mostly as a prologue for next week’s conclusion, and struggles to fill its running time with meaningful plot and incident. Most of the good bits are repeats of moments and concepts that have been seen before in Doctor Who—some from decades ago.
In 1970, Doctor Who was undergoing one of its periodic upheavals which shook up the series and sent it down an entirely different path. Not only was Jon Pertwee taking over the role of the Doctor from Patrick Troughton, as the show transitioned from black-and-white into color, but the whole setting and rationale for the Doctor’s adventures was being radically changed. At the end of the previous season, the Doctor had been captured by the Time Lords and exiled to present-day Earth with his TARDIS rendered non-functional; for the forseeable future, out would go the freewheeling adventures in time and space, and instead the Doctor would be working with the UNIT military organization in a series of contemporary thriller stories. Writer Malcolm Hulke, on being briefed by script editor Terrance Dicks about the new setup, was aghast that the production team had deliberately given up the ability to go anywhere in the universe, and restricted themselves to, as he put it, precisely two stories—“alien invasion” and “mad scientist.” Dicks immediately challenged him to devise a way around that restriction, and the two of them came up with an ingenious idea—an “alien invasion” story where we are the invaders, because the “aliens” are a reptilian species which once dominated the Earth, but went into hibernation millions of years ago, after which human civilization developed and took over the planet. Now these reptiles, known as Silurians, are waking up, and they want their world back. The stage is set for a struggle between two irreconcilable factions, each with a valid claim to the Earth, with the Doctor in the middle trying to broker a solution that both sides can live with.
Despite being destroyed at the end of “Doctor Who and the Silurians”, the reptiles, or rather an aquatic variant of them, returned two years later in “The Sea Devils”, and then rather less successfully a decade after that, in “Warriors of the Deep”, with Peter Davison as the Doctor. In each case, the Doctor found his efforts at making peace between humans and reptiles going for naught. Now, forty years after the original story, writer Chris Chibnall presents another iteration of the same basic concept.
Many of the elements of this story have their roots in the Pertwee era. The setting, a scientific drilling project in the near future (2020), immediately recalls the story “Inferno”—except that where that story was set in a believably huge industrial installation with dozens of characters and extras, “The Hungry Earth” slims down its cast to a mere handful. We do see some extra technicians milling around in the teaser, but soon they’re all sent home for the weekend, leaving the project in the hands of its chief scientist, Nasreen Chaudhry (Meera Syal), her assistant Tony Mack (Robert Pugh), and Tony’s family—his daughter Ambrose (Nia Roberts), her husband Mo (Alun Raglan), and their little son Elliot (Samuel Davies)—who are conveniently the only local inhabitants of the area. Indeed the night shift, incredibly, consists of just Mo on his own, and the story proper starts when the drilling control room is suddenly shaken and a mysterious hole appears in the concrete floor. Mo investigates the hole and, to the surprise of absolutely no one, gets pulled by some strange force into the earth.
The TARDIS arrives, with the Doctor (Matt Smith) apparently having promised Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) a trip to Rio. He immediately senses something strange about the ground, but they are distracted by two figures on a distant hillside waving to them. The Doctor peers through binoculars at them, and announces that it’s Amy and Rory’s future selves. The way this crossing of their own timeline is presented so casually feels very odd, particularly since nothing further comes of it this episode. I understand the episode seriously overran its allotted running time and had to be quite severely edited down; there was some additional material with the Doctor and Amy discussing the appearance of her future self and her relationship with Rory, and it does feel that something’s been lost here. Obviously, the fact that the scene was left in is a blatant clue about events next week, but I’ll leave off discussion of that for now.
After the events of “Amy’s Choice”, Rory and Amy are clearly a couple now, and they have a nice bantering relationship during the early scenes. The plot contrives to separate them by having Rory suddenly become concerned that she might accidentally lose her engagement ring and decide to take it back to the TARDIS; however, this does have the good effect of giving Rory some screen time to himself. When leaving the TARDIS again, he encounters Ambrose and Elliot, who take him to be a plain-clothes police officer. Ambrose wants him to investigate a grave whose body was discovered to have somehow disappeared without the grave’s surface being disturbed. Obviously, the body was taken from underneath by the Silurians—but, like a lot of the elements in this episode, several minutes of screen time are spent on something which doesn’t really amount to anything.
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Amy have made their way into the drilling control room and start investigating the hole in the ground. The ground attacks again, with more holes appearing in the floor; Nasreen rescues Tony, but Amy is dragged under, to the Doctor’s horror. The story suddenly comes alive, with great performances from Karen Gillan of Amy’s terror, and from Matt Smith of the Doctor’s desperation to save her, and his helplessness as she disappears from view. He quickly discovers that a whole network of tunnels has been created below the drilling project, and that several creatures are moving up through them—they will be arriving at the surface within minutes.
Chris Chibnall’s major contribution to the Who universe is as head writer (and writer of eight episodes) for the first two seasons of Torchwood. The first season had a lot of problems, but the second year was a great improvement, ending with a trilogy of episodes by Chibnall which showed off his strengths—an ability to create tense plot situations which fitted with and utilized the regular characters very well (as he also showed with a couple of excellent episodes of Life on Mars). Unfortunately, his work on Doctor Who, which requires him to create a whole setting and guest characters for the Doctor and companions to interact with, is much less strong. His previous Doctor Who was the 2007 episode “42”, where a mediocre script was elevated into a fast-paced thriller by brilliant direction from Graeme Harper. The guest characters were all pretty much cardboard, but that didn’t matter as the plot carried the viewer along. “The Hungry Earth,” though, is the first half of a two-parter, so the pace is a lot slower and there is no plot resolution. This tends to expose Chibnall’s weakness with dialogue—there are several sequences which take ages to arrive at the point, as in this example:
The Doctor: “Shh, shh, shh! Have I gone mad? I’ve gone mad.”
The Doctor: “Shh! Silence, absolute silence.”
(A long moment, as Nasreen and Tony watch him concentrating.)
The Doctor: “You stopped the drill, right?”
The Doctor: “And you’ve only got the one drill.”
The Doctor: “You’re sure about that?”
(The Doctor slowly lies down and puts his ear to the ground.)
The Doctor: “So, if you shut the drill down… why can I still hear drilling?”
By the time the Doctor has got to the punchline—“While you were drilling down, somebody else has been drilling up”—we’ve long since got the idea and are impatient to move on. To be fair, there are some clever points in the script, too. When the Doctor first arrived he noticed patches of bluegrass in the area, which Nasreen explains are indications of rare minerals that led them to site the drill here. This is a neat way of explaining what would otherwise be a huge coincidence, that the drill site happens to be right above the Silurians’ habitation—“The bluegrass! Oh, Nasreen. Those trace minerals weren’t X marking the spot, saying ’Dig here,’ they were a warning—’Stay away.’”
I did like the understated romantic feeling between Nasreen and Tony, bringing some definition to a couple of otherwise boringly standard characters. And Matt Smith does well establishing a connection between the Doctor and the boy Elliot.
The Doctor: “Lovely place to grow up, around here.”
Elliot: “Suppose. I’m going to live in the city one day. Soon as I’m old enough I’ll be off.”
The Doctor: “I was the same where I grew up.”
Elliot: “Did you get away?”
The Doctor: “Yeah.”
Elliot: “D’you ever miss it?”
The Doctor: “So much.”
As I said earlier, there’s a lot of recycled moments and ideas in this episode—for instance, we have a reprise of the idea that the Doctor is what monsters have nightmares about, from “The Girl in the Fireplace”. And later, a repeat of the joke that the sonic screwdriver “doesn’t do wood,” as seen in “Silence in the Library”. The Silurians set up an energy barrier around the village to isolate it from the outside world—a direct homage to another Pertwee-era story, “The Daemons”.
There’s plenty of stuff happening during the countdown to the reptiles’ arrival, but a lot of it is irrelevant. For example, the Doctor gets everyone working to set up a network of security cameras around the village (which they somehow manage to do within a couple of minutes)—which then proves to be totally pointless, as the reptiles send out an energy pulse which disables all the electronic equipment, including all those cameras. Then the plot requires the Doctor to be distracted and allow Elliot to run off one minute before the Silurians arrive, so that he can be chased through the graveyard by a half-seen figure. These scenes are agreeably suspenseful, but it’s hard to ignore the idiot plotting needed to set them up. Elliot is finally caught and taken away by a Silurian, as Tony is attacked and stung by another’s long venomous tongue (an unfortunately risible piece of CGI). The Doctor and Rory track the Silurians using a hitherto unseen gadget of the Doctor’s—a pair of heat-detecting sunglasses. They manage to capture one of the creatures, which is apparently enough to make the others leave, removing the energy barricade.
Rory: “Looks like we scared them off.”
The Doctor: “I don’t think so. Now, both sides have hostages.”
The Doctor interrogates the captured Silurian, Alaya (Neve McIntosh), in one of the best scenes of the episode. When she tries to claim to be the last of her species, he quickly replies, “No. You’re really not. Because I’m the last of my species, and I know how it sits in a heart. So don’t insult me.” Alaya tells how they were woken by the drilling, and issues the usual Silurian threat:
Alaya: “We will wipe the vermin from the surface and reclaim our planet.”
The Doctor: “Do we have to say ’vermin’? They’re really very nice.”
The redesign of the Silurians from their original form has come in for a certain amount of criticism from long-time fans, but I can see the reasoning behind it. Apart from the fact that they looked different in subsequent appearances in the old series anyway, the original Silurians were the epitome of “man in rubber suit” monsters, with inflexible headpieces that totally hid the person inside, so that their actors could only indicate which one was speaking by ferociously waggling their heads. Using a Star Trek-style facial prosthetic instead gives much more scope to the actor, allowing them to use their own eyes and mouth, but the disadvantage is that it removes a lot of the strangeness and “alien” elements from the creatures. It would have been better had the designers chosen to retain another element of the original, the third eye in the forehead which could be used to channel various psychic powers. That would have reduced their all-too-human appearance a little.
At any rate, Alaya is completely intransigent, so the Doctor decides to go below to find the rest of the tribe to talk to them. As usual in a Silurian story, only the Doctor is interested in peace between the races, and there is hostility on both sides.
Ambrose: “You’re going to negotiate with these aliens?”
The Doctor: “They’re not aliens! They’re Earth…liens.”
Matt Smith is convincing in his passion, but it’s undeniably stuff that’s all been done before. After a rather amusing moment when Nasreen is the only one applauding the Doctor’s speech about them being “decent, brilliant people,” she rather giddily demands to accompany him on his journey, and he lets her aboard the TARDIS, which the Silurians then drag down into the earth.
Meanwhile, Rory, Ambrose and Tony confront Alaya. In the manner of one who looks forward to martyrhood, she confidently tells them that one of them will kill her, thereby igniting a war. “I know which one of you will kill me. Do you?” We’re left with the thought that each of the three humans has a motive to hate the Silurians—Tony has been infected by the venom from the attack earlier, which is spreading across his skin; Ambrose has seen her son and husband abducted by the creatures; and Rory has lost Amy. (Speaking of Amy, she finally reappears after being absent from most of the episode as she wakes to find herself a helpless prisoner alongside Mo, as a masked Silurian scientist comes toward her with some kind of dissecting instrument.)
The cliffhanger, frankly, took me by surprise. It’s not that it’s an illogical point to place it—the Doctor and Nasreen’s arrival in the Silurian base and finding that it’s actually an entire underground city is nicely done, and signals a major turning point in the story. It’s just that so little has actually happened, storywise, that my first thought when the theme music crashed in was “Oh…is that it?” The real story of humans versus Silurians is only just getting started, and for that you’ll need to come back next week.
NEXT WEEK: The story concludes, with “Cold Blood.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Not a hard choice, this one. Obviously, “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” starring Jon Pertwee, with Caroline John and Nicholas Courtney, is the essential classic series companion to this story.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.