In a quiet, idyllic little town in Wales, something is amiss. See, there’s this enormous drill on the outskirts of town, the outsized hardware of a scientific project that’s about to dig deeper than humankind has ever dug before. But this minor milestone is surrounded by odd events—strange rumblings in the ground, unusual archaic minerals scattered around the surface… and whatever has been stealing bodies from their graves seems to be doing so from beneath.
The title of this episode of Doctor Who—“The Hungry Earth”—implies that the world itself is at odds with our human cast. The drill does violence to the earth (one needn’t belabor the symbolism), and with the mysterious events that the Doctor witnesses, it seems to be taking revenge on the human perpetrators of this violence. Scientific hubris has been a common target in science fiction, dating back at least to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but having perhaps its biggest heyday in the “atomic monster” movies of the 1950s. My personal favorites from this era are Ishiro Honda’s kaiju eiga—giant monster movies like Godzilla and Mothra that frequently present their monsters as angry gods, symbols of divine/natural vengeance that punish human beings for overstepping their bounds.
“The Hungry Earth” fits fairly well into this mold (although its monsters, when they are ultimately revealed, are human-sized). As recent news stories about the creation of the artificial life form “Synthia” show, there is definitely a popular sentiment that there may, in fact, be “lines that science should not cross.” It’s also an odd bit of prophecy that this episode comes out in the midst of what is rapidly becoming the worst oil spill in the history of human drilling—a case where our cultural concupiscence has pushed us farther than our technology can carry us.
Of course, the argument against scientific hubris can quickly turn regressive, as in C.S. Lewis’ opposition to space exploration. And, given the manner in which the revived Doctor Who has dealt with most of its moral oppositions, I expect the conclusion of this story next week to thoroughly complicate the problem. The story is a great throwback to the Doctor Who of the ’70s: its mysterious villains, for instance, had their most prominent appearance in 1970, and the “superdrill” concept comes straight from one of my favorite episodes of the early ’70s John Pertwee era, “Inferno.” But even in this nostalgic mode, the current Doctor Who strives to complicate the easy moral divisions of the show’s more formulaic days. Perhaps we can glean another symbol from this episode’s drill—a desire to dig deeper and uncover a more complex picture than what we see on the surface.
James F. McGrath__________
Whose Earth Is It Anyway? Watching Doctor Who During A Week Of Drilling and Fighting
It was interesting watching the Doctor Who episode “The Hungry Earth” during a week when violence connected with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been in the news and, as Gabriel also notes, drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has led to a disaster of devastating proportions. In this episode, drilling by humans to an unprecedented depth impinges on an underground dwelling of Silurians, a race of bipedal humanoid reptiles who once dominated planet Earth, long before the emergence of humankind. Although this was only the first part of a two-part episode, we have already been given hints that at least some Silurians may have begun to think that it is time to reclaim the planet.
That sounds all too familiar. There is no need to delve into the realm of fiction, much less science fiction, to tell a story about two groups fighting over the same land, one claiming “We were here first” while the other is the de facto possessor of the land. I am hopeful that the second part of the Doctor Who story will not feature either side appealing to its deity in order to justify its claim upon the land. But it is noteworthy that in this episode the representatives of humanity find themselves taking their stand in a church.
The Doctor’s approach to the matter demonstrates the wisdom of one who has seen conflicts rage across time and space, with no real winners when so many sentient beings lose their lives in the process. To the humans, he seeks to explain the Silurians’ point of view. They were here long before humans were, and so it is not surprising that they feel they have a legitimate claim to the planet. They are not aliens, the Doctor emphasizes. They are “Earthlians” just as humans are. To the Silurians, he emphasizes that previous occupancy of a land doesn’t give you an automatic right to it in the present. And to both sides he expresses confidence that there is a way to resolve the matter without the need for war. No one has died yet, and no one has to die.
The Doctor’s advice to the humans on how to achieve this also bears repeating: The Silurians are not evil—or at least, no more so than humans. It is important to have hope, to believe that a peaceful solution is possible. But perhaps most important of all is that the representatives of humanity act in a way that reflects humanity at its best. In the midst of conflict, people commit atrocities they never would have thought they were capable of in a time of peace. And so, while there is still time, the Doctor calls on the humans among whom he finds himself to be kind, forgiving, empathetic, and not allow ourselves to be sucked into an escalating cycle of violence and retaliation.
We will see in the second part how things play out. But the biggest question is unlikely to be answered in that episode. The biggest question is why we need a fictional time lord to tell us these things, and why we find his advice, whatever its source, so hard to follow.