Warning: spoilers throughout.
Considering how many times he had to deal with such things back when he was Jon Pertwee, it’s a wonder the Doctor doesn’t immediately smack someone on the ear whenever he learns they’re trying to drill deep into the Earth’s crust. Don’t they know that’s where all the rubber monsters live?
“The Hungry Earth” revives the Silurians, those misnamed (by the Third Doctor himself, a fact cleverly glossed over by the Eleventh) reptile beasties from the deep who first appeared in 1970’s “Doctor Who and the Silurians” and returned only once in the classic series, in 1984’s “Warriors of the Deep.” How strange for a series that revives favorite villains again and again to allow forty years between the Silurians’ first appearance and their third. (This is not counting their deep sea “cousins,” the Pertwee-era Sea Devils, because I’m nothing if not pedantic.)
Before we get to the Silurians – well, a separate branch of the species, at least, which helps explain the “Hey, the monster suit doesn’t look like an immobile Halloween mask anymore! Look, the mouth moves and everything!!” revamp of the creature design without overly disturbing the more continuity-minded fans – we get a swell return of the TARDIS-as-lousy-driver gimmick: headed for modern-day Rio, the Doctor and his companions arrive instead in 2020 Wales. Being ten years in Amy and Rory’s future, the Doctor becomes convinced he sees a 2020 version of the couple waving from a distance. But does he? The way this season’s tying itself together, I’m pleased to have no idea whatsoever about the possible answer, and I have no problem waiting it out.
This season has also been doubling up on the genuinely creepy horror (or does it just seem like it’s scarier this year?), and writer Chris Chibnall, the “Torchwood” vet who previously delivered the deliciously tense 2007 “Who” episode “42,” pours it on thick: bodies disappearing from the grave, hapless victims sucked into the ground, unseen beasties darting across the screen as they turn an isolated hillside into a night of no escape.
Chibnall and director Ashley Way play up the horror angle hard, delivering one of the season’s most frightening moments: Amy getting pulled under, grabbed by… something. The episode holds back on showing us the villains, so we’re still unsure just what has her, making it all the more terrifying. Being clever viewers, we’re certain the show isn’t about to kill off one of its main characters, but that only leads to a worse thought: the Fate Worse Than Death. And worse it truly is, as Amy awakens in the enemy’s underground lair just in time to be told that she’s going to get dissected, probably while awake, by a masked reptile-man with a rusty syringe.
But this is not entirely a horror story. It’s also a deliberately thoughtful modernization of the first “Silurians” tale, reworked to best fit the new season’s mold of grand adventure told from a relatively intimate view. It’s somewhat the opposite of the 1970 “Silurians,” which achieved a vastness of scope while hiding the fact that the producers could only afford a small handful of costumes for its title creatures. In its own limited way, that story gave us a continent-spanning epic; “The Hungry Earth,” meanwhile, reveals the previously unseen thousands of the Silurian race yet maintains a tight circle around their influence. The entire cast consists of a single Silurian warrior, another barely seen surgeon, and a handful of humans.
While it’s the opposite of “The Silurians” in presentation, it’s an equal in terms of theme. “The Silurians” was the first of many Pertwee serials to find the Doctor pleading for peace (often only to be undone by the military blindness of UNIT). Matt Smith’s Doctor, remembering his predecessor’s promises, works overtime to ensure the creatures are met with a complete absence of hostility. While his no-weapons stance is quite clear, there’s a subtle message that almost goes unnoticed: as the Doctor orders Ambrose (Nia Roberts) to put away the makeshift arms she’s collected, he says, delicately, “You’re better than this.”
His “You’re beautiful” comment upon seeing the Silurian Alaya (Neve McIntosh) unmasked and his praise for their technologies, meanwhile, is a follow-through on the Ninth and Tenth Doctor’s more vocal admirations for all life forms. It’s an uncommon notion, the action hero as peacenik, but “Who” has made such ideas work for decades, even if it has to openly admit the hypocrisies that come with the death that undoubtedly follows the Doctor.
No hypocrisies here, though, at least not yet. The Doctor is refusing to meet the Silurians’ declaration of war with anything but smiles and gentility. Where this episode finds its dangers is in the potential malevolence of both human and Silurian species; the Doctor explains to his frightened human cohorts that the Silurians are “only as evil as you are.” Can the humans – especially Tony (Robert Pugh), stung by both Alaya’s venom and the unknown fate of his family – resist Alaya’s lure to vengeance?
It’s a morality play wedged inside a horror story. How very “Who.”