Not bad at all.
The episode opens with a neat gag about leaving and going somewhere else which is horribly overplayed by Tennant and Piper, then segues into a neat cliffhanger which is resolved in the cheapest and most sitcom way imaginable, not to mention a terrible riff on “To serve man”. Not promising. Tennant and Piper then proceed to gurn their way through a steadily more interesting scenario before things suddenly improve.
Retrospectively it’s clear that the reason The Doctor and Rose are so glib initially is to better sell the reversal when they learn that the Tardis is lost; from this point forward they are much improved. It’s still not good however if you only retrospectively understand why something was annoying. The cheap resolution to the cliffhanger also proves to have plot significance, but again this doesn’t save it from being awful.
However the rest of the episode, while over-familiar, is an effective mix of just about every element you’d want in a Quatermass-inspired instalment about ancient evil at the edge of the known universe. The ensemble of stock characters is just barely well enough developed to make them interesting stock characters, and the setting is an intriguing and evocative mix of hard SF and the most ridiculous Skiffy. Archetypal Doctor Who in other words. There’s not a single original idea in the whole episode, but while it may be possible to tire of remote locales full of rag-tag explorers being wiped out by maelvolent evil, I find it highly unlikely.
The production values are generally first rate, and if the sense of creeping menace isn’t nearly creepy or menacing enough, there’s still enough here that’s evocative. The aliens remind of the Pak’ma’ra from Babylon 5 as well as a number of other creatures, but they’re very well realised and lend a suitably Lovecraftian vibe to the proceedings; Rose’s empathy with their enslavement also helps to lift them from background aliens to something a bit more interesting. I also liked the rickety lift-shaft into
khazad-dum za’ha’dum the vast alien cave, and the big satanic seal. Even the incidental music rose to the occasion this week – at least some of the time – bucking the general trend by going for a solitary and elegaic theme.
It’s all too derivative to make a true classic, but as in Tooth and Claw derivative can still be very successful if done well. My only gripe is, again, the overly-broad comedy in the early stages and the perhaps unfair feeling that episode 2 is bound to disappoint with a superficial resolution involving running and shouting. Fingers crossed.