“The earth is hungry. It waits to eat.” – Turlough
This story is a bit of a mess—story points that don’t make any sense, mischaracterizations of the TARDIS crew, poorly blocked action and direction. I think it has the grain of a good story within it—some surprisingly good ideas in fact—but it definitely gets lost in a less than stellar package. There’s a lot of mischaracterization—the Doctor suddenly becoming manic doesn’t fit the Fifth Doctor well—and some attempts to be funny that fall flat like the ridiculous recurring joke of the hat stand mistaken as a weapon. There are lots of directing/acting problems which add to the problems of the program as well. From the initial scenes of the bombardment with people lamely running around to confusing and lackluster action and fighting to many moments of characters unnaturally standing their waiting for the action to happen to them, it’s definitely not produced very well. The whole tone is also very uneven as the power and threat of the villains seems to vary throughout the story.
Two of the worst parts of the story are the “destruction” of the indestructible TARDIS and the over the top falling apart of Turlough. First, by this point in the program everyone should know that the TARDIS could never be hit by some meteors and broken to pieces. (And why do they have it written so oddly that the Doctor just matter-of-factly seems to accept it with an, “oh well”?) I was going to be willing to accept the idea that the Tractators were so immensely powerful they could somehow break apart a TARDIS, but it’s later shown that they didn’t even know it was there. If they weren’t involved, then how did all the pieces of the TARDIS wind up undeground? Basically there is no explanation for any of this.*
Even worse is having Turlough go out of his head for almost three episodes. It’s already too much of a coincidence that he ends up on a planet with the most frightening thing history of his people though he never brought up or mentioned it before. Then they overdo how traumatized he is by it—making him nearly catatonic at one point. The story becomes very uneven as he keeps seeming to recover and then suddenly not. The worst offender is when they’ve temporarily defeated Gravis and for absolutely no reason whatsoever (!) Turlough zones out and walks towards the drilling machine as though back in his catatonia—ending up getting Brazen killed in the process. The whole story makes his character look totally useless and silly and is a real problem.
What are the redeeming moments? Well, the initial depiction of people being sucked into the ground (“Frontios buries its own dead”) is done well in the scenes where the pebbles starts giving way around them—at least until they give up and start using film editing instead. I also like the way they have the normally calm Doctor quite lose his patience but yet somehow still in a very polite way. Tegan comes across as quite resourceful and smart in this story. The Doctor’s bid to save her by pretending she’s an android secretary is kind of funny. (Or has it been Kamelion all along? Nah.) There are a few good throwaway lines (“Failure-proof technology.” “What happened to it all?” “It failed.”) and it’s realistic that in this ultra-strict society everybody is cheating a bit to get by. It’s really only in the fourth episode that some of the potential of what the story could have been shines through like the horrific corpse driven mining machine and the idea that Tractators are building smooth tunnels that will augment their gravity wave powers. The Doctor’s clever plan which tricks the Gravis into putting the pieces of the TARDIS back together while standing in the control room–which then suddenly cuts him off from his hive mind when it’s back whole and transdimensional–is nicely played. (Though it makes the whole TARDIS in pieces make even less sense than it already does since it affirms and acknowledges that it should exist outside of time and therefore not be subject to breaking apart anyway.) Unfortunately, all the good ideas are subsumed by the nonsensical trappings and bad direction.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
There’s no contest here. The vacant corpselike head fixed on the machine is definitely a surreal and disturbing sight!
*The only glimmer of something that can make the whole “TARDIS in pieces” aspect of the story palatable is that the Doctor uses the term “spatially distributed”. This recalls the HADS emergency displacement system which has been shown among other things to break up the atomic structure of the TARDIS. Maybe we can pretend that it is this which leads to the TARDIS being in pieces underground?
This is obviously my least favorite Davison story in this whole run. A total rewrite was warranted. There are lots of problems but I think if they had avoided the silliness with the TARDIS and made Turlough a lot less of a bumbling oaf it wouldn’t strike me quite so bad.