[A quick note before we get started. Please do not post spoilers about episodes not yet aired in the U.S. in the comments. 1) I will delete them. 2) They make me and others watching the show as it unfolds on BBC America very, very sad. That is all.]
According to Wikipedia—which, of course, is never wrong—“The Hungry Earth” was the lowest rated episode of Doctor Who when it aired in Britain on May 22. It beat, if that’s the right word, a record previously held by “The Satan Pit.” So what should we take away from that? Maybe that casual Doctor Who fans tend to avoid episodes that involve holes in the ground? Will this be the last such episode? Doubtful. That would run contrary to the Doctor’s professed love of “big mining thing[s].” And, besides, those tuning out missed a pretty good episode, I thought.
Again, however, we run into the difficulty of talking about the first half of a two-parter, which isn’t always easy. It’s all set-up and no resolution. It’s an intriguing bit of set-up, however. We land in South Wales in the near-future of 2020, near enough to look a lot like the present but with more high-tech big mining things. It’s not, much to the Doctor’s chagrin, Rio. But it is a place where 10-years-older Amy and Rory can show up and wave at their former selves from a distance, a curious moment whose implications I can’t quite figure out.
It’s also a nearly abandoned place where a scientific skeleton crew studies minerals deep, deep in the Earth. How deep? Deep enough disturb a bunch of “homo reptilia” who feel threatened by the activity of the surface-dwelling “apes” who displaced them millennia ago. The Doctor recognizes them as Silurians, an old enemy making their first appearance in the rebooted series. They’ve got a bad attitude, a talent for kidnapping, and a surprisingly sophisticated ability not to crack under the pressure of interrogation for creatures who’ve been living under the surface for years. Then again, the final shots do reveal a whole Silurian society down there, so we’re not necessarily dealing with scaly, subterranean hillbillies.
So again, I’m not sure where this is going. (Nor do I want to know. See above.) As is, “The Hungry Earth” succeeds as a pretty scary, atmospheric episode. It’s hampered a bit by a fairly unremarkable set of supporting characters. (So far, at least, though I do like Meerya Syal’s spirited performance as a scientist who’s not going to wait behind while the Doctor goes beneath the surface.) Writer Chris Chibnall, a Torchwood veteran, gives Matt Smith plenty of great moments, however, starting with, “Behold! Rio!” and carrying on through a weirdly chilling moment when he informs one of his new friends they won’t be using weapons in their fight. Seldom has an endorsement of non-violence felt so threatening. Great too: The exchange with the kid when he asks if the Doctor ever misses home. Two pregnant beats follow and then, “So much.”
Smith continues to nail this role. So does Gillan, whose take-no-guff willfulness continues to be a highlight, even if she spends much of the episode in captivity like a classic damsel in distress. Will she escape? Will Doctor Who subvert the woman-in-peril cliché? Will everything really work out fine? Tune in next week. (And we’re not talking about it until then, okay?)
• Here’s a question for veteran Doctor Who fans: Did Land Of The Lost rip off its Sleestak’s from the Silurians? Because they look an awful lot alike, prior to the moment the Doctor removes his Silurian captor’s mask.
• It felt like we had the beginnings of an inquiry into what kind of interrogation can be considered morally acceptable. It would be interesting if next week’s “Cold Blood” continued that theme.
• “Have you always been this disgusting?” “No. That’s recent.”