21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood

Here be spoilers for Matt Smith's first season – if you ain't seen it yet, do so first.

From time to time, I get asked about my thoughts on the Jodie Whittaker series. Online opinion continues to be as opposite as chalk and cheese – but following my 42 review (way back in November 2018) in which I confessed to not having seen the latest run of Doctor Who, here comes more of the same. For various reasons (which I won't bore you with), I still haven't had the time to catch up with Jodie's premiere season. Judging by the rate I'm going, I'll probably be able to provide my four blog readers with some kind of answer by 2051.

However, a revisit of the second Chris Chibnall venture into Doctor Who, again, inspires little confidence. In 2009, Chibnall was invited back to pen a two-part story for Matt Smith's first season, which not only brings back the Silurians but apparently wipes out Amy's gormless whipping boy once and for all. It's a shock tactic that could have paid dividends, but in the harsh light of day, it wasn't to be.

With that in mind, The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood (or Hungry Cold as I'll call it) functions more as a story that's designed for instant absorption and digestion rather than one to come back to time and again. Which maybe isn't a good thing when compared with classics such as Genesis Of The Daleks or City Of Death – you know, stories that are quality enough to remain classics 40-odd years after they first went out.

Hungry Cold is what happens when you put lots of past Doctor Who references into a giant kitchen blender and turn them into paté. There's a whole load of Pertwee stuff in the mix. First up, there's a drilling project (which also took place in Inferno). In this instance, it's as down market as you can get, basically comprising one or two grimy extras in a garden shed. Nasty old Stahlman wouldn't have stood for such flimsy excuses as The Credit Crunch: heads would have rolled in the government quicker than you can shout “Sir Keith!”.

What else then? Ah yes, an energy barricade that isn't at all like the heat barrier from The Daemons; some green infection that cropped up in The Green Death and let's not forget the Doctor Seeks Peaceful Solution dilemma which cropped up in The Sea Devils and Doctor Who And The Silurians. Aside from that, we also have similar sort of infection from The Ark In Space (which also looks a bit like the infected humans in Revenge Of The Cybermen) and also eating earth from Frontios. With all of these Classic Doctor Who throwbacks in mind, it's not altogether surprising that Hungry Cold doesn't hit those giddy heights, instead coming across more as a generic updating of traditional elements.

The first part of the story, to be fair, attempts to show some promise. It's your quintessential Doctor Who setup of gloomy, spooky atmosphere and plenty of shock tactics. The scene of Amy getting pulled into the earth is an effective one, and Matt Smith's horrified reactions sell the moment. The isolated darkness also helps to ramp up the atmosphere – given that the production team filmed this one in late Autumn and early Winter, 2009, this was an astute move, since the sun usually waves goodbye by about three in the afternoon. The darkness helps to give scenes like the pursuit of Elliot (the latest kid to be roped into Doctor Who – blimey, what are the truant figures like in schools these days?) an added edge.

With all the gloom, gravestones and the dry ice machine cranked up to the max, this is the sort of stuff that Doctor Who does in its sleep. The first instalment also spins out the mystery of the arriving alien. Most of us old codgers knew that the Silurians were coming back, so the breathless anticipation isn't quite there – but for young 'uns, the tension is handled well, with the constant countdown. It's a nice touch that we get to see Silurian faces rather than rubber masks, and altogether, the make-up is superb. Although, I don't know – maybe it's just me but I always think that a Silurian should be waggling its head a lot more. Luckily, the POV shots are very good – we haven't had a great POV shot in ages, so the Predator-style video effects are a refreshing hark back to the good old days.

Actually, director Ashley Way does a fine job with this story, using all the old tricks known to any good director worth his salt – good POV shots; exciting action sequences and stunning effects sequences – the shot of many Silurians in cold storage is a good example of the style that Way brings to this story.

Altogether, a promising set-up, but sadly, the concluding episode completely squanders the opportunity. Everything that the first episode did right, the second one does wrong. Much of the slack is taken up with endless, dull, talky scenes. This is seen mostly in the negotiation sequences, which seem to go on for an age, and it doesn't help that the script is groaning at the seams with sandwich vans full of pompous, overwrought speeches. “Go on,” urges the Doctor. “Be extraordinary!” in yet another Doctor variant on the “Be magnificent!” school of thought. The Doctor really should think about becoming one of those lectern-thumping motivational speakers, given that he seems to have a ready string of catchphrases at his disposal for making people feel better.

The Silurian elder (er, called Eldane) has also chowed down on the pomp sandwiches. “We'll give you knowledge and technology beyond humanity's dreams!” he promises to Nasreen. “We work together, this planet could achieve greatness!” Blimey, no wonder Amy's looking like a bored kid in detention at one point during the discussions.

Mention of Amy brings me on to another key problem with Hungry Cold: The characterisation.

Ironically, the acting's generally very good. Meera Syal makes for a good sub-companion in the form of Nasreen Chaudhry, while Robert Pugh also does a good job as Tony Mack, the infected clinger-on of Nasreen. The Silurian actors are by and large, good choices, especially Stephen Moore as the wise old Eldane and Richard Hope as Malohkeh. Even the less sympathetic characters like Ambrose Northover are played well by Nia Roberts.

Ambrose Northover though – what a great name. Everyone should change their names by deed poll to Ambrose Northover, since it sounds like the least likely name that any person could ever have – it sounds like a new breed of rice pudding exclusive to posh Royal Ascot visiting goons.

But here's the catch. While the acting's overall of a high standard, it doesn't help that the Hungry Cold characters are written with two distinct pens in mind: Stupid and Annoying. None of the characters really emerge with much dignity intact, almost to the point where you think that they'd salvage more dignity by singing Agadoo while getting pelted by rotten eggs in a greasy karaoke bar.

Let's kick off with Ambrose, who couldn't even look after a pet hamster, never mind a 10-year-old kid. Ambrose is told not to harm Alaya, the feisty Silurian warrior – so what does she do? She reacts to Alaya's goads by going all bad cop on her ass with a lethal taser. Quite where Ambrose got this device from is anyone's guess: let's hope she doesn't keep it in an easily discovered place. Given the Midsomer-style locale, it wouldn't surprise me if John Barnaby popped by for a quick visit.

Mind you, you can't exactly blame Ambrose in a sense, given that her kid's gone walkies and her dad's slowly turning into a human cabbage. And Alaya's not exactly the smartest cookie herself, taunting Ambrose with the sort of reckless stupidity that a helmet-less daredevil motorcyclist could possess. “A woman who can't even protect her own child must be too weak to...” she sneers at Ambrose, who inevitably gives her a quick blast of lethal taser power. Even her doppelgänger Restac is just as annoyingly trigger-happy, always quick to give the humans short shrift – it's all been seen before in the original 1970 Silurian story, and it lacks that certain edge this time around.

Regrettably, the most irritating character in Hungry Cold is Amy. It's a shame that with Amy's character, it's a case of One Step Forward: Two Hundred Steps Back. Just when you think you can start to warm to her a bit, she suddenly turns around and grinds all that goodwill to powder in her gaudily manicured fist.

Whereas Amy came across as being a likeable, well-rounded character in Amy's Choice, here, she's a surly, sulky brat. She treats the whole Silurian negotiation as a whopping great inconvenience rather than a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Worse still, she treats Rory with nothing but sarky contempt. Whether she's on at him for being too clingy or bellowing “RRRROOOORRRRYYYY!!!!” in that oh-so-ironic manner, I wonder what she's doing with the poor chap in the first place. Granted, Rory would probably need an instruction manual for using a door handle, but Amy's constant sniping is starting to try the patience. And it also makes her later grief seem a little hollow – more on this in just a wee while.

As annoying as Amy is in this story, at least she seems to have her head screwed on fairly tightly – which is more than can be said of half the other characters. Whether Ambrose is putting paid to any peaceful solution or whether Alaya's putting brittle defence mechanisms before common sense, amazingly it's the Doctor who seems to have left his brain in the fish tank, bubbling away ten to the dozen.

What's happened here? The Time Lord's gone bananas, making goof after goof after goof. Let's see – he agrees to Elliot leaving his sight just so the young scamp can go and look for his headphones at home – while there's danger brewing of course. He doesn't even suggest that he can find some sort of solution to cure Tony's infection – despite the fact that he's done this before in a double heartbeat (Evolution Of The Daleks anyone?). Worst of all, he's too busy faffing around at the end with saying goodbye and investigating the mysterious Crack to actually notice that Rory is about to (apparently) meet his maker.

I don't know – maybe the decontamination process temporarily shrank the Doctor's brain to the size of a coffee bean. Which may explain his rather odd noises during this wretched process. In the past we've had The Baker Bellow and The Tennant Tantrum. As for the Smith Shout... yeah, not quite in the same league, is it? Matt unfortunately makes strange grunting noises like an overheated pig in a sauna cabin.

Let's move on to the ending of Hungry Cold. In isolation, it's rather effective. Touching, even. The problem of course is that in hindsight it's all a great big stinking con.

If only the production team were brave enough to kill Rory off for good, it would have been a fitting end to the character. Not only is he shot, he's absorbed into the Crack, meaning that (in theory) he will never have existed. It's a lovely scene, and both Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill play this to the hilt. In fact, Rory's actually been more of a proactive player in this story rather than a gormless spare part. It would have made for a fitting curtain call, but given that NuWho production teams don't have the guts to actually make regular characters stay dead, the later revelation in The Pandorica Opens was maybe somewhat inevitable. A big, big shame – keeping Rory dead would have made far more of a dramatic impact this season and it would have been a strong farewell for the character.

Hungry Cold is a routine, undemanding two-parter. The first part is superficially enjoyable and is well put together and well acted, but I'm afraid that's as far as it goes. Chibnall's script literally loses the plot in the second half with annoying, gormless characterisation, unwelcome dollops of pomp (including the weary voiceover narration – yawn), and a complete disregard for logic (Nasreen and Tone bizarrely elect to stay underground in the vain hope of a cure to the poor chap's skin condition). All of this adds up to Hungry Cold being one of the least effective stories of the Matt Smith era, and again makes me wonder how Chibnall nabbed the showrunner post on the basis of such a naff script.

It's the equivalent of poor old Rory at the end of this story – easily forgotten.

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