|Karen Gillan is a particular specialist at the “pretend you’re|
in the middle of an earthquake” aspect of acting in Doctor
It’s May 22nd, 2010. Roll Deep remain at number one with “Good Times,” which is unseated after a week by Bob and Bruno Mars with “Nothin’ On You.” with Jason Derulo, Usher, Fyfe Dangerfield, Leeds United Team & Supporters, and the cast of Glee also charting. In news, the so-called Borisbus design is debuted. Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, and David Miliband all announce that they’ll stand for leadership of the Labour Party. And not much more happens.
While on television, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, a nice, meaty, two-parter. Which is to say, a relic. The two-parter, as a story structure, has seemingly been deprecated, becoming the pure historical of the new series. Like the pure historical, it lingers into the second major creative era of the show before being quietly and unremarkably done away with – two-parters are a mainstay of Series Six Part One, and have suddenly vanished by the back half.
Moffat has spoken about two-parters skeptically as a structure, arguing that the way in which they can be made to work is to have the second episode start in a markedly different place from the first – a logic that, when taken to its extreme, eventually gets you things like The Snowmen and The Bells of Saint John or The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor in which the broadest form of the two-parter is preserved, but the individual stories are wholly distinct. And sure enough, the five two-parters of the Moffat era almost all do this, with the setting change in Flesh and Stone, the unexpected time jump in Day of the Moon, and the introduction of the Ganger Doctor in The Rebel Flesh. There’s a notable exception here, of course, and it’s this story.
It tries, certainly – the switch to a historical narration from the perspective of 3020 is an attempt to make Cold Blood a materially different sort of story than The Hungry Earth. But it’s a feeble attempt designed to try to cover up the truth, which is that The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is a case of the new series doing a two-parter that is utterly faithful to why there are two-parters in the first place, namely a desire on the part of Russell T Davies to preserve the cliffhanger structure of the classic series.
In this regard the most interesting question about these episodes, in many ways, is what Tat Wood is going to think of them. As one of the few people capable of suggesting that the new series ought be more like the classic series without sounding like an utter fool, these episodes ought be of particular interest to him. Not least because they harken back consciously to the Pertwee era in more than just the choice of antagonists. The opening sequence is drenched in Pertwee iconography, from a giant drill (Inferno) to the bucolic Welsh setting (The Green Death). There’s talk of jungle planets, and Nasreen is fairly straightforwardly modeled off of Liz Shaw. And, of course, there’s the antagonists.
But that’s just iconography. What really jumps out here is the structure – the fact that the way that The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood was structured as a two-parter was by increasing the number of major secondary characters (four Silurians and five humans) and by taking large amounts of the storytelling very slowly. The four minute cold open of The Hungry Earth is not outlandishly long, certainly, but it’s worth thinking about how this would have been handled in other stories. It’s difficult to imagine this story being handled this way even as early as Season Six, and unfathomable that it would be structured this way in Season Seven. These days we’d collapse exposition, introducing the human characters alongside the explanation of the drill, using the need to explain the plot to Amy as an opportunity to handle all of this. Instead we get it done in multiple scenes. Likewise, we have an entire thirty second scene devoted to the Doctor getting through the main gate with the sonic screwdriver. Again, what’s striking is not how torturously long this brief scene is, but rather that it exists at all, it being exactly the sort of thing the Moffat era eventually starts trimming with abandon.
Even where things change from how they’re done in the 1970s, it comes down to finding like-for-like replacements in a new iconography. In 1970 the human weaknesses that derail peace were the usual concerns of the 1970s: military thinking, economic greed, lust for power, all that jazz. This time it comes from a mother being overprotective of her family, which, although Moffat backs away from motherhood as a theme very soon after this, is at this point still a major and recurring theme of the new series. And, tellingly, the 1970s motivations and iconographies are all still there – they’ve just been ported over to the Silurian side, who do in fact have overly militaristic warriors and blinkered scientists of the sort who were all the rage in early 70s Doctor Who.
The result of all of this is a story that feels like the era it’s emulating more, perhaps, than any other new series episode. We’ve had occasion to look at episodes and say “this feels rather 80s” or “this is a callback to the 60s,” but we’ve never had something quite this imitative. At times it seems like the script is more interested in engaging with the Pertwee era than it is in the audience. Certainly Nasreen’s presence makes a lot more sense when read as an occasion to give Liz Shaw a departure story. And the reveal that the Silurian faces that were initially teased are just masks covering expressive faces that will actually (for the first time) allow the Silurians to actually function as individual characters instead of as people in monster suits, while clever, is also blatantly a case of saying “look, we can do things from the 1970s better now.” This is true as a statement of fact, but it’s telling that the entire reveal of the Silurians is structured around this reveal.
Admittedly, the reveal coincides with the revelation that the Silurians are individual characters. But while this was hugely notable in The Silurians, it’s somewhat less radical in 2010, when we’ve already had “the monster isn’t actually a monster” in The Beast Below and aliens with individual personalities are a standard component of the show’s bag of tricks. The moment where “the monster” becomes “Alaya” doesn’t serve as something that fundamentally reconceptualizes the entire story, not least because it’s not until Cold Blood that we get even the first hint that there are good Silurians. But more broadly, it’s because the central brilliance of The Silurians is now standard operating procedure – we haven’t had a single season of the new series that hasn’t featured monsters with individual personalities, and the “aliens are not equivalent to villains” idea has similarly become standard, if perhaps still less common than would be ideal in 2010.
Which gets at the biggest problem with redoing the Pertwee era, or at least The Silurians in 2010. What is often forgotten about The Silurians is that it’s the second Doctor Who story after a complete reconceptualization of the series’ premise. The TARDIS neither appears nor is mentioned at all – the Doctor is just a weird guy working for UNIT, and even that’s only been set up in the final episode of the preceding story. The Silurians trades heavily on the fact that the nature of the show was truly up in the air such that the idea that it might become about sharing a planet with lizard people is within the realm of possibility. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood doesn’t have that luxury, even with its near-future setting: the show is far too cautious in 2010 to do something like declare peace between Silurians and humans to be an imminent moment of future history.
There’s a bitter irony to all of this. In 1970 it was conceivable that the Silurians could actually serve as something other than antagonists, except for the fact that the show wasn’t capable of doing anything with them besides have them be men in generic monster suits. In 2010, on the other hand, the Silurians aren’t really capable of serving as anything other than glorified monsters, even though the show finally has the technical capabilities to do what Malcolm Hulke was trying to do in 1970. Instead the show ends up taking the predictable route, carefully making sure the breakdown of the peace process is ultimately the Silurians’ fault, albeit after some considerable human provocation on the part of Ambrose, and putting all the toys back in the box.
There are, of course, ways around this that we’ll see in later stories. For all that the resolution of The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood falters, it at least gave the series Silurian costumes and, perhaps more importantly, Neve McIntosh, who will work out much better later on in the form of Madame Vastra. Obviously we’ll talk about her more when the time comes, but it’s worth pointing out that she takes the idea of the Silurians to its logical endpoint instead of attempting a straightforward Malcolm Hulke imitation: she decouples the Silurians from the monster/people line and simply functions as a character. Yes, that means she also lacks the postcolonial aspects of the Silurians proper, but if The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is how those are going to be played out, with the story ultimately siding against the Silurians while putting on a fairly banal show of pretending it cares about moral complexity, that’s probably an acceptable sacrifice.
But equally, an awful lot of what’s frustrating about this story really does come out of that /. As a single episode in which the pace is quickened and the pressure increased, this could have been at least an interesting experiment. But at the pace of two episodes and ninety minutes, with its over-inflated cast of characters it crawls, and it’s nearly impossible, at the end, to feel like this was worth doing. There may be enough good parts across the two episodes to justify doing them, but there’s not enough over ninety minutes to justify taking that long. And that, perhaps, is the true nail in the coffin of the two-parter. Because here we have a story that could have been a pretty good single episode turned into a tedious two-parter.
Curiously, though, all the extra space fails to find room for Rory, whose pseudo-death serves as the episode’s climax. That the death is temporary seems relatively clear from the episode itself, as it’s a terribly unsatisfying conclusion to that story, not least because of Amy’s forgetting Rory existed. Beyond that, given that this is Rory’s second death in two stories, the sense that there’s something wrong with the twist is so clear as to seem deliberate.
Nevertheless, it seems strange that Rory should be on the sidelines for so much of an episode where he provides the climax. His lack of any sort of hero moment leading up to his death certainly increases the sense of wrongness, but it becomes a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul – it may pay off in the eventual resolution of Rory’s plot for this season, but it only highlights the difficulties of this story, coming off as one more way in which the emphasis and focus was put in the wrong places.
And yet for all of it, it’s hard to complain that the story exists. There are enough people who have always been inclined to insist that the new series should be more like the classic series in various ways that the temptation to try something like this had to be enormous. It was worth trying, to see if, against the odds, it could be made to work. It didn’t, which certainly isn’t proof that it couldn’t or can’t ever, but it at least serves as a needed warning sign to anyone who thinks that a medium can just be rolled back by forty years. As “great ideas to bring back” go, the Silurians looked like a good one, and again, this serves as a warning against the instinct that says that classic series concepts are inherently worth revisiting, and proves the end of the “bring back a classic series concept every year” logic. And the two-parter, by this point an instinctive and default aspect of the series’ production, stands revealed as something that can easily do more harm than good.
The point of mistakes is to learn from them, and in every case the series did. Whatever might be said of the rest of the Moffat era, they never screw up quite like this again. This story feels, in many ways, like the moment where a lot of received dogma about how Doctor Who was supposed to work got cast aside and the Moffat era resolved to not play it safe like this again. As with many of the moments when a particular way of doing things starts to break down, it doesn’t cover itself in glory, but that’s not the point. This is, at least, an important story, if not actually a very good one.