Doctor Who is at its best when it's nasty

Torchwood's Chris Chibnall returned to Doctor Who with a two-parter about reptiles, betrayal, death and tragic love. And in the process, he showed us that a certain level of viciousness is part of what makes Doctor Who great. Spoilers ahead!

So first of all, sorry I didn't recap part one of this two-parter last week. I found it really difficult to recap the first half of a story when I'd already watched the second half. I think that next year, we'll just go back to recapping Doctor Who right after it airs in the U.K., and maybe we'll do pointers back to those reviews when the episodes turn up in the U.S. Or maybe BBC America will finally be able to run the episodes the same weekend, like they did with David Tennant's swansong.


So "The Hungry Earth"/"Cold Blood" definitely felt like it brought back a bit of the Torchwood spirit to Doctor Who. Maybe it was just that we were back in Wales and a group of people were grappling with creatures coming out of the ground. More likely, though, it was that things got a bit more intense and darker. We had one human in particular behaving in a terrible, misguided fashion. And then we had a dreadful, almost unthinkable loss at the end. It definitely felt like old-school Doctor Who in a way.

Oh, and for your amusement — here's writer Chris Chibnall in 1986, among a group of fans appearing on the BBC to criticize the just-completed "Trial Of A Timelord" storyline. Of particular interest is the bit where Chibnall (in the yellow tie) attacks overcomplicated plots and "running up and down corridors" storytelling, and accuses Pip and Jane Baker — to their faces — of telling "cliched" stories. (At least, according to Chibnall's Wikipedia page, that's him.)

It's not surprising that we get the misanthropic view of humanity in a story about the Silurians. They're the reptile people who lived on this planet before we did, and their claim to Earth is just as strong as ours, making them a departure from the traditional "alien invasion" story. And probably for this reason, every story that's featured them in the past has painted the human race in a less-than-flattering light, as we turn out to be just as ruthless and selfish as all the other creatures the Doctor has encountered. (Even the incoherent, dreadful "Warriors Of The Deep," from 1984, takes some time out to show humans being monsters.)


Part of what's impressive about "Cold Blood," in particular, is how it advances the Silurian storyline in a meaningful way. Chibnall picks up on the dynamic from the first Silurian story, imaginatively called "Doctor Who And The Silurians," in which there's a scientist, a leader and a warrior, and they bicker amongst themselves over whether to trust the human race. And once again, the Doctor convinces the leader to try and make peace — but this time around, maybe because the human military isn't involved, the two sides actually make a lot of headway. And even though it all goes to shit because of hotheads on both sides, you're left with the feeling that when the Silurians next emerge from suspended animation in a thousand years, things might actually go differently.

The scene where Ambrose tasers Alaya to death is pretty horrifying, and definitely one of the harshest things Doctor Who's done in years. (We did have the human race zapping a whale's exposed brain over and over again in "The Beast Below," as well, but this was a creature being tortured to death, viciously.) The episode's title, "Cold Blood," feels like a bit of a grim pun on the way Ambrose kills Alaya as well as the biology of the reptile people.

Making the main human antagonist a worried mother and daughter instead of another war-mongering soldier type was an interesting choice — it felt believable as a motivation, even though Ambrose is actually endangering her son's life more by killing Alaya. But it also reminded me a bit of C.S. Lewis' explanation, in Mere Christianity, for why husbands should be in charge and wives should obey their husbands:

A woman is primarily fighting for her own children and husband against the rest of the world. Naturally, almost, in a sense, rightly, their claims override, for her, all other claims. She is the special trustee of their interests. The function of the husband is to see that this natural preference of hers is not given its head. He has the last word in order to protect other people from the intense family patriotism of the wife.


In other words, there's a bit of a stereotype that women can't be trusted to think clearly when the safety of their family is concerned, and Ambrose's behavior plays into this a bit. Still, I mostly love the fact that Doctor Who is once again showing the human race as deeply flawed, while also pointing out the ways in which the "monsters" might actually have a legitimate point of view.

And yes, this is yet another Who story in which the "monster" is merely misunderstood, or at the most misguided. It's not quite a pervasive theme — the Daleks were clearly still evil in their story, and the Weeping Angels were pretty much pure nastiness — but it's definitely a recurring one. I think this them works extremely well with the Silurians, because you get the great thing of "hotheads on both sides derail our chances for peace," but I think the lack of strong antagonists is one reason I've had a bit of trouble connecting with Doctor Who this year. (And so have audiences in Britain, judging from the somewhat lower ratings.)


Oh, and the all-too-brief taste we get of Nasreen and the Doctor traveling together definitely left me wanting a season with Nasreen as the companion. I also quite liked the glimpses of her relationship with Big Tony, and the way she chose to stay with him in the end.

So will we get to see the Silurians wake up a thousand years later and attempt to forge a peace agreement with the more-advanced human race then? I rather hope so. Especially if the future of the human race does involve a partnership with homo reptilia, it could be the most daring thing Doctor Who ever does — a future history cycle in which humans and reptiles conquer the stars together.


So then the story takes a sharp turn a few minutes before the end, and we encounter, once again, the crack in the fabric of space/time. The Doctor managed to close one instance of this crack, aboard the Byzantium, by sending a horde of Weeping Angels into it. But there are identical cracks all throughout the universe, and they're all just as intractable. At this point, I start to wonder how many people these cracks have devoured. Do they only show up when the TARDIS is present, or are they really everywhere? If so, have billions of creatures throughout history been erased by the ever-present cracks? Are there huge gaps in the story of the universe, in which loads of key actors are no longer part of the fabric? (Or am I, quite possibly, overthinking this?)

And then Rory sacrifices his life to save the Doctor from Restac's ray blast. Poor, silly Rory. The Doctor probably would have been fine, but Rory is toast. And even though we saw an older Rory waving from the hillside in the previous episode, he's no longer there this time around - proving, once again, that time can be rewritten. Adding erasure to injury, Rory gets swallowed up by the crack, and it's like he was never born. Amy tries valiantly to hold on to her memory of him, but to no avail.


I'm afraid I never warmed up to Rory as much as some other people did, although this last two-parter went a long way towards showing Rory becoming a cool, competent traveling companion in his own right. He steps out on his own a bit more and takes a bit of initiative, plus we can see the Doctor trusting him with more responsibility. Rory speaks for the humans! Etc. And yet, in the end, I still didn't feel like I bonded with him that much, and the Doctor's final attempts to get Amy to hold on to his memory felt almost like the writers pleading with us, the viewers, to care that he was gone. "Funny Rory! Sweet Rory! Beautifully coiffed Rory! Rory of the lovely nose. You're going to miss him. Really, you are. No, really."

Rory's no Adric, that's all I'm saying.

So what did we learn about The Crack this week? Apparently, there's "shrapnel" in it - including a chunk of the TARDIS. Even though it can swallow anything you throw at it, the Doctor is able to stick his hand inside it, as long as he's got a hanky. But the Crack has a special appetite for Rory, since it actually sends out tendrils of stuff to eat him. (Of course, the Crack may have done the same thing to those clerics back in the Angels two-parter, and we just didn't see it happen.) So apparently the TARDIS explodes on Amy's wedding day, June 26, 2010, and the resulting fissure in time and space causes huge ruptures throughout the cosmos. Wicked.


So "Cold Blood" wasn't perfect - the head Silurian guy seemed a bit too easy-going, and the use of the "foreboding voiceover" trick was possibly the least successful instance ever. But all in all, this was a pretty good outing. What did you think?

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On a completely superficial note - I'm not a big fan of the Silurian redesign (not that I thought the old version was all that great).