Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: Cold Blood

doctor who cold blood review chris chibnall ashley way matt smith silurian neve mcintosh alaya restac

It is the story of our past and must never be forgotten.

There’s this oft-repeated (but not, as far as I can tell, actually verifiable) behind the scenes detail about Cold Blood suggesting that it was originally intended to be a much more structurally complex piece, edited down to its current form relatively late in the day when someone in the production got cold feet and lost confidence in the idea.

Apparently, the alternative would’ve seen Cold Blood structured a little bit like the film Memento – it’d be narrated by Amy, describing the events of the episode as she forgot them, the whole episode framed by that final scene where the Doctor is trying to stop her from forgetting about Rory. How exactly that would work I’m not sure: it sounds clever in theory but it’s difficult to imagine that in practice. More likely than not, I suspect what we’d get would’ve actually amounted to something disappointingly literal (the voiceover not mentioning Rory while he’s onscreen, that sort of thing) – entertaining though the idea of Chris Chibnall writing what could’ve been one of Doctor Who’s most technically innovative episodes is. (Granted, that does feel a little harsh – having the idea in the first place speaks well of Chibnall, even if he couldn’t quite get it to work, because it would’ve been a huge break from the realism established by Davies up to this point – but even so.)

Whether that’s actually true is hard to say – I couldn’t source the original claim, but feel free to write in if you can; interestingly, Moffat apparently wrote the linking narration by Eldane, and it’s unlikely he’d do that on a Chibnall script without good reason – though there is definitely a sense of this episode as having been restructured fairly late in the day. There are inconsistencies throughout: “follow Nasreen”, says the Doctor, watching everyone leave, before turning around to talk to Nasreen; the scientist Malokeh is, charitably, an inconsistently drawn character, never quite coalescing as menacing or sympathetic; so on and so forth. There’s a messiness to it, which does undercut it a little; this is the sort of episode (the very traditionalist, throwback type piece) that relies, if nothing else, on the competence of its execution, which isn’t quite there here.

It’s an interestingly cynical episode, though.

In part, I suspect that comes with the premise – there’s never going to be a contemporary (or near-contemporary, anyway) Doctor Who episode about sharing the planet with the Silurians. It’s too big, too much of a disruption of the show; you’d lose any and all verisimilitude between their world and ours, a loss which likely wouldn’t be worth what you’d gain. So always, whenever this premise rolls around, with the Silurians or the Sea Devils or both, it’s going to end with peace plans foiled by some act of misplaced aggression, and some platitudes about how there should’ve been another way, hopefully there will be next time, etcetera. There’s always going to be a cynicism inherent to these stories – what’s interesting about it is what that cynicism is directed towards.

With Cold Blood, Chibnall almost ends up restaging Midnight as a secondary plotline; I wish he’d leaned into that more, to be honest, spent more time with Alaya taunting and goading them in the church. There’s a version of The Hungry Earth that opens with Alaya’s already captured – akin to Dalek, I suppose – and goes from there, emphasising one of the more interesting ideas Chibnall brought to this, stressing the intimacy and proximity of it all. You get the sense that’s what he found most compelling about it all, if nothing else; Chibnall, I think, is probably a more cynical writer than he’s necessarily reputed to be – it always strikes me that there’s a deep vein of cynicism running through his Series 11 and 12 work, at odds with the much-vaunted hope and optimism that’s supposed to characterise the Jodie Whittaker era. (That’s the intentional cynicism, I suspect, rather than Nasreen’s ugly, Malthusian sentiments during the negotiation scene – an interesting, though probably accidental, suggestion of an alternate take on this episode where the problem isn’t literal aggression but more figurative.)

More than anything else, though, it got me wondering what a genuinely non-cynical approach to the Silurians would look like – one that would presumably needed to be more invested in the postcolonial resonances of the concept, probably need to be set outside of the UK. For all that Chibnall is to my mind a somewhat cynical writer, I don’t know that I’d say the same of him as a producer: that episode feels plausible in his era in a way it hasn’t previously, and it’s something I’d be interested to see in Series 13.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Hungry Earth

doctor who hungry earth review matt smith eleventh doctor alaya restac silurian eocene chibnall

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.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?