Ten years in your future. Come to relive past glories, I’d imagine. Humans, you’re so nostalgic.
The Hungry Earth prefigures the Chibnall era in much the same way that Silence in the Library did the Moffat era – it’s not exactly an “episode zero”, but you can feel the shape of what’s to come lurking in the distance, an early exposure to the idiosyncrasies and stylistic quirks we’ll come to associate with Jodie Whittaker’s time in the title role.
Most of that is just incidental, smaller details that don’t really have much impact on the plot – ancillary observations flitting about the margins, not quite coalesced into a distinct style. Chibnall slips into his Law & Order: UK voice early on, a stretch of police procedural jargon that Arthur Darvill manages to lighten with a comedic affect; beyond the obvious, you could make the case that The Hungry Earth is very much procedural Doctor Who, or the closest to it that might exist, remixing various influences from the show’s history into something that feels very familiar even as it is (in the most pedantic sense) technically not something the show had done before. Meanwhile, Elliot, the young boy with dyslexia, brings dyspraxic Thirteenth Doctor companion Ryan to mind – both, as I understand it, written with the genuinely admirable intent to represent children Chibnall knows in real life, speaking to them through the show.
There’s also that big, unwieldy guest cast – one of the Chibnallisms that most characterises his era. (Not just his era, in fact, but almost his work as a whole: 42 does the same thing, as does Dinosaurs on a Spaceship; the whole point of Broadchurch is its ensemble cast, and to a lesser extent the same is true of the Law & Order format he adapted for ITV. Even his plays – which I think only I have read – have a similar inclination. No idea why that is – it often seems like such an unnecessary, self-inflicted difficulty to have to deal with – but I’d be interested to see Chibnall try and consciously reject that, to write something stripped back and smaller. What does Chris Chibnall’s Heaven Sent look like?) The Hungry Earth isn’t so bad for this – though it does cause some problems we’ll return to in a moment – but it still grinds the episode almost to a halt at times, which is already if not glacially paced then certainly leisurely so.
What’s most striking, though, in terms of how it foreshadows what was to come in 2018, is how Chibnall writes the Doctor here.
One of the more persistent critiques of the Chibnall era – and, specifically, of the Thirteenth Doctor – is that he writes the lead as ineffectual in a way she’s never been previously. There’s disagreement about how and why this is: maybe that recurring difficulty actually dealing with her adversaries is a comment about neoliberalism; maybe it’s a metafictional point about what Doctor Who is and can be in an increasingly right-wing cultural landscape; maybe Chibnall struggles with writing endings and loses track of the various moving pieces of his plots; maybe Chibnall, despite it being his central reinvention of Doctor Who, simply struggles when it comes to writing female characters.
But look at The Hungry Earth, and look at how Chibnall writes the Eleventh Doctor. He loses Amy; he manages to just forget about Elliot; in the end, he’s not able to broker a peace between the humans and the Silurians. Granted, this isn’t quite the criticism made of the Thirteenth Doctor – the charge there is that she’s written too passively, whereas the Eleventh Doctor still some agency here. Still, though, he manages to do more or less everything wrong – what’s apparent, if nothing else, is that Chibnall doesn’t quite believe in the Doctor as a hypercompetent character in the same way as Moffat and Davies did. (It makes for an interesting contrast to what Chibnall does clearly think is compelling about the character – look at The Timeless Children, with its focus on lore and mythology, and then look at this, thoroughly uninvested in what has otherwise characterised the modern Doctor.) Watching The Hungry Earth felt almost like a revelation in that sense, like I’d unlocked something about the Chibnall era I’d not previously understood – a step on the way to understanding the perspective that underwrites it.
(Incidentally, look at how the Doctor is framed there, the religious imagery behind him – there’s a long stretch of The Hungry Earth set in a church, a place of refuge and sanctuary. That’s a recurring theme across the Thirteenth Doctor’s run too; my interview with Will Shaw touches on this a bit, and this article by Max Curtis is one of the best pieces on the Chibnall era as a whole, not just its interaction with faith. It’ll be something worth returning to next week, I suspect, but it’s striking to see those ideas here too – not quite focal, again just a smaller detail, but something that calls forward to one of the most developed aspects of Chibnall’s era as showrunner.)
Let’s look again, then, to that crowded guest cast. It’s not that any of them are unwelcome exactly – Meera Syal’s character is great, it’s really nice to have her in the show – but their inclusion does weigh things down, warping the episode around them.
In fairness, can at least in part be attributed to how the episode is paced. As already noted, The Hungry Earth is very leisurely paced – there’s a conscious and deliberate slowness to it, not so much because it’s doing anything very thoughtful or contemplative, but because it’s very methodical in its plotting. It moves through the beats of the story as though a ticklist – we must see the Doctor breaking and entering, we must see Tony and Nasreen confront the Doctor, so on – and goes to some lengths to underline each one. Everything The Hungry Earth does, it does as though it has all the time in the world to do it in; I was genuinely surprised to learn that a whole subplot about “the Discovery Drilling Project [being] under pressure from its financial backers to reach greater depths more quickly” was excised to bring the episode to runtime.
The problem, though, is as much about the chessboard as anything else. Which character does what where and when? With a cast as large as this, it necessitates splitting our leads – which I don’t think serves Rory as well as it really needed to. This episode should’ve been a big showcase for him, developing his relationship with the Doctor independently of Amy, but it struggles to do that, in part because of that third plot strand accommodating Ambrose and Elliot. (It reminds me, a little, of Resolution of the Daleks, and how utterly obvious it was in hindsight that Charlotte Ritchie’s role should’ve been given to Yaz – it’s not exactly the same, in that this would demand more of a restructuring than that one, but still.)
That, ultimately, is The Hungry Earth – not just a precursor of the Chibnall era, but in some ways a rubric for it. Much the same can likely be said of Cold Blood, as we’ll see next week.