‘Doctor Who’: The Hungry Earth review

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Well, it’s been fun so far, hasn’t it? We’ve enjoyed the teasing hints of a story arc, we’re absolutely loving Arthur Darvill’s companion-in-waiting Rory, and we got so excited the first time we saw ‘Victory Of The Daleks’ that we went right ahead and gave it the full five stars (look, we were younger then, and we’d had a lot of sugar that day – plus, we got really jacked up on the sight of the Skittles-coloured Daleks).

And yet… Say it quietly, but there’s not a lot in post-2005 Who that feels like old-Who. Don’t get us wrong, we’re loving the decent special effects, the snappy editing, Murray Gold’s epic music, even the time given over to supporting character’s love lives. Nu-Who is slick, sharp, and sexy. What more could you possibly want?

Well, don’t you miss it? Don’t you just want just one old-fashioned, creepy, gloopy, slimy horror, with smoke-filled corridors and actors in green rubber suits? And, to heck with it, why not chuck in a green glowing skin infection picked up in a Welsh mining village? Is that too much to ask? Can’t we get just one Pertwee-style adventure that catches you by the throat?

Frankly, we’re a little bit annoyed. Regular readers will know that we’ve been pretty uniformly positive about Series 5, and now that we’re over the half-way hump, we were sort of looking forward to weighing in with our first ‘disappointed’ review. We were going talk about ‘wasted opportunities’ and ‘lacklustre plotting’. Well, it seems we have to wait a while – this, the first of what looks to be a gripping two-parter (‘Cold Blood’ follows next week), is a scary and smart episode that doesn’t let up for 45 minutes.

Oh, the nay-sayers will tell you that it’s unoriginal, that it’s derivative. But that’s (only part of) what’s glorious about ‘The Hungry Earth’: the POV shots of an unseen alien… a village surrounded by an invisible force-field… there’s even the occasional upsetting electronic Sea Devils type buzz on the soundtrack. It all leads to a tense and breathless drama with the long-awaited return of some old friends, one of which does for reptiles what Helena Bonham Carter did for apes.

Everywhere else, it’s a somewhat busy episode – The Doctor is either dangerously making promises that we know he can’t keep, or discovering his soul mate in a young boy, who introduces himself to Rory with a Conan Doyle quote that could pretty much serve as a mantra for the entire series. Oh, and Rory. When the series began, it was all about Amy, with the hair… and the legs. But Rory is continuing to prove himself as a genuinely important companion – who, if you’re eagle-eyed enough, seems to provide us with a very decent deus ex machina all ready for use in the following episode. And while we’re talking about wonderful companions that aren’t Amy (although Karen Gillan does shine in her limited screen time in this episode), we have to mention Meera Syal, providing a smart, sharp and clever performance as Dr. Nasreen Chaudry, who could justifiably call herself a companion due to at least one criteria.

You’ll have noticed that we haven’t even mentioned the villains yet. Chances are, if you’re interested enough to read this, you probably know who’s creeping around the edges. But we still won’t name them, partly because we like to avoid spoilers, partly because the name leads to a rather neat throwaway gag, but mostly because we want you to do us a favour: go into this knowing little or nothing. Be that six year old kid again. Pull the curtains, turn off the lights. Leave a space behind the sofa. ‘Stay calm’, The Doctor demands at one point. Calm? Pah. You don’t stand a chance.

Airs at 6.15pm on Saturday 22nd May 2010 on BBC One.