Maybe it’s a classic monster thing. This was easily the most frustratingly patchy Eleventh Doctor episode for me since “Victory of the Daleks.” In some respects it’s almost worse, since it’s given the luxury of a two-parter’s pace and squanders it.
The first problem we have is once again summed up nicely in a throwaway quip. When the Doctor sees the giant drill he gets this faraway expression like a boy who’s just set eyes on an awesome fire truck, and says, “Oh look, a big mining thing!” This IS funny, but it’s also revealing. If they explained what this rig was for, I missed it. As far as I know, it’s just a big drill that’s somehow gotten 21 km into the earth, and they’re drilling because they can, for pure scientific research or something.
…surely they explained it and I just missed it. But this tells you something about what role the drill actually plays in the story, which is just to stir up a nest of ants, or in this case, Silurians. Because that’s how you bug Silurians, you know — do a little drilling and they come up from the apparently hollow Earth and decide to carpe terra.
Which brings us to the next problem. If you never watched the classic series, I didn’t spoil anything for you (yet). You have no idea what a Silurian is. Even if you know what period in prehistory that word refers to, that still won’t help because the Silurians were misnamed. But if you’re a fan of classic Who you know exactly what’s going on because you saw the trailer. So this episode is largely an exercise in frustration and impatience as you watch everyone try to figure out what’s pulling people through fake-looking soft holes in the soil. You already know.
You also know that the people being pulled under are alive, first because, well really, and second because the Doctor apparently see Rory and Amy’s 10-years-later selves waving to him from a distance. This sort of thing doesn’t seem unlikely — could you resist the temptation, in their shoes? — but it also implies that the two of them survive not only this adventure but all future adventures as well. Not that we expect our leads to die (though remember poor Adric), but now the characters in the story shouldn’t expect it either. Why don’t future Rory and Amy try to warn themselves? Any number of explanations are possible (e.g. the Doctor told them not to), and surely we’ll get one next episode. Maybe this relates to the speech the Doctor gives in the teaser for next week, where he talks about this moment in history being changeable.
Speaking of the characters in the story: they’re all the type that do whatever’s convenient for the plot, regardless of the sense it makes. The attempts to give them depth — a secret affection, for example, or the clumsy, patronizing “dyslexia be damned!” moment — fell flat for me. I guess I care about the kid — you gotta love an 11-year-old who quotes Conan Doyle in the year 2020 — but I know this will be milked cynically in the second part. Either he’s going to be put in mortal danger or he’s going to befriend a young Silurian, or both. I Believe The Children Are Our Future.
Which brings us to the moment where the Doctor spoon-feeds us the Story Theme, which is that the way we treat the former owners of the Earth (who look distractingly and implausibly apelike apart from the scales and head crests) reveals our character as a species. Well, specifically it refers to how we treat our prisoners, which at least is topical. But in a proper script this would have been shown to us, not just spelled out in audible italics.
There’s a cartoonish tongue-lash (how long IS that thing?) which I can forgive, and a hand coming through the earth from above into what appears to be a hollow space which I can’t, since what’s going on here? How are they holding the ground up, a force field of some kind? Probably, but it’s not so much mysterious as just plain confusing. There’s a magic Sunblocker dome which seems to have no purpose apart from making things spooky (why not just have the attack come at night? why trap these people at all if your goal is to conquer the earth?). There’s a hilarious montage where maybe 5 people cobble together a complete surveillance (?) system covering the dig site and the nearby buildings within the space of about 5 minutes, which is perhaps the most far-fetched element of the whole episode, and that’s saying a lot.
Though there’s a funny-ish moment here about the sonic screwdriver’s limitations, there’s also a telling moment where he points it at the ground in a futile attempt to save someone who’s just been pulled under. This thing was always a blatant magic wand, even in the classic series (one of the best decisions John Nathan-Turner ever made was to destroy the thing in 1982), and this is one of those episodes where it’s really overused and overpraised. It’s nicely symbolic that it’s a scientific tool instead of some Gallifreyan mystical artifact, but when it’s used this casually, is there really a difference? Not to mention that whenever he whips it out I can’t get away from how oversized the thing is now. Did the TARDIS figure he needed to overcompensate for something?
I really liked Chris Chibnall’s “42,” and it’s nice to see how that story’s biggest flaw (the deification of the nigh-indestructible Tenth Doctor) is turned on its head here. Eleven, like Five, is allowed to make mistakes, and even if some of them seem a bit contrived, this is far better than the alternative. I certainly love the texture of this story, and the themes, and maybe my high expectations (it SHOULD have been my favorite of the season) are to blame here. I just really didn’t care for the script.
Unlike the Dalek episode, this story doesn’t even spring from a clever premise — it’s basically just “the Silurians are back and after literally millions of years they are finally REALLY pissed off.” Like the Dalek episode, this story could have brought these (really very respectable) monsters back in so many different dramatic ways and from so many different angles. Their strength was always that they weren’t evil or mercilessly hostile, but intelligent, civilized creatures with a legitimate land grievance to work out. You can see how this would be relevant today, and you can even see how Chibnall is groping toward this relevance as a man being pulled under the soil might grope toward the light. I’m really hoping he reaches it in the next episode, but for now he hasn’t given me much to hold on to.