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Doctor Who: Earthshock (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Earthshock originally aired in 1982.

I would suggest you get your people well back. The hatch may be booby-trapped.

What about you?

Well, my arms are only this long. I can’t get any further away.

– the Doctor and Scott

Earthshock is regarded as one of the stronger stories of Peter Davison’s tenure on Doctor Who. It’s easy enough to see why. After all, it features not one but two memorable twists. It also harks back to the classic “base under siege” stories of the Patrick Troughton era. While it’s still very clearly a piece of early eighties Doctor Who, its production values hold up rather well compared to adventures from that era of the show. It’s written by Eric Saward and, like The Visitation, it has that same sense of tension and pace, building towards a truly massive final twist.

And yet, despite that, I find it very difficult to love Earthshock. I suspect a lot of that is down to how it seems like Doctor Who learned all the wrong lessons from Earthshock, retroactively tainting an otherwise very solid serial.

Shattered...

Shattered…

Peter Davison’s first season very clearly had at least one eye on the past. Indeed, it probably had both eyes on the past. The Visitation, for example, was a clear attempt to hark back to The Time Warrior. Black Orchid was an attempt to do a historical story without an alien menace or any extraneous science-fiction trappings outside the TARDIS and its crew. In that light, Earthshock can be read as an attempt to do a classic “base under siege” story, of the kind that were very common during the Patrick Troughton era of the show.

You could argue that this habit of looking to the past continued into Davison’s second year. However it took a slightly different form. Most notably, instead of looking for old ways of telling stories to see if they might be updated for the modern day, instead the show looked to classic (and not-so-classic) monsters that it might revive for the purpose of nostalgia. I think it’s fair to anchor the show’s increasingly esoteric fascination with its own continuity in that shift.

The default Davison pose...

The default Davison pose…

From the twentieth season onwards, the show wasn’t really interested in something from the past because it might be possible to construct some compelling modern television from it. Instead, the minutiae of Doctor Who became an end in and of itself. Omega was a major part of The Arc of Infinity because… well, he’s an old baddie, right? Similarly, Attack of the Cybermen existed to plug some continuity that nobody but die-hard fans really cared about.

And, being frank, I suspect that you can trace that change to Earthshock. When Earthshock was first broadcast, it generated one hell of a response. It was considered to be the best adventure of the year. As a point of contrast, it’s worth noting that Kinda was considered to be the worst. And it seems that the production team tried to figure out what was so special about Earthshock and came up with an answer pretty quickly. The answer they settled on, and one which would inform the next few years of the show, was: Cybermen.

"MOAR POWER!"

“MOAR POWER!”

I am not a major fan of the Cybermen, as you may have noticed. I think they were great when they first appeared in The Tenth Planet. I quite like some of their appearances with Troughton. However, it seems like they pretty quickly reached the point where their defining attribute was the fact that they were Cybermen. They were the second most used monster in Doctor Who because they were the second most popular, and it seemed that they were only the second most popular monster because they were the second most used.

The Cybermen became iconic because they were Cybermen. Not because they represented a basic human fear, or because they were inherently other. They were Cybermen. You can see that even in Earthshock. The first episode ends with the reveal that Cybermen are controlling androids in the cave, rather than operating on Earth by themselves. This seems a little illogical. After all, the only reason to use bland and generic androids in your evil scheme instead of foot soldiers is to conceal your presence and identity, but the Cybermen seemed to believe the androids were doing a decent job concealing their own presence.

"What, you mean we're NOT the main monsters?"

“What, you mean we’re NOT the main monsters?”

The only reason that the androids exist is to build up suspense for the inevitable Cyberman reveal. It’s the same reason that the Cybermen refer to their bomb as “the device”, even though you’d assume that Cybermen would want to be relatively specific. The androids exist so the show can do its version of the first cliffhanger from The Dalek Invasion of Earth, revealing an iconic monster to be at the root of this evil plan.

However, the revelation of the Dalek (ha!) at the end of the first part of The Dalek Invasion of Earth worked because not only did it mark the return of the Daleks, but it also made it perfectly clear that an alien invasion force had seized control of Great Britain. (And, we confirm later, the world itself.) London wasn’t just abandoned, it hadn’t been hit by plague. It was under occupation by an evil alien menace!

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

Here the revelation only works if you care about the Cybermen. If you don’t know or care what a Cyberman is, the moment falls flat. The moment doesn’t reveal a massively sinister plan our heroes have stumbled across. Instead it just reveals that those familiar and silly-looking aliens are back. The Cybermen aren’t interesting because they’ve got a good plan, or because they’ve conquered the world. They are interesting because they are Cybermen.

We’ve seen this problem before, of course. Many of the lesser Dalek stories (Death to the Daleks, Destiny of the Daleks) hinge on the idea that the Daleks are interesting purely because they are Daleks. Of course, these bland Dalek stories are occasionally punctuated by stories that make a conscious effort to reinvent the Daleks (Genesis of the Daleks), to characterise them or their creator (Revelation of the Daleks), or even to use them in a social context (Remembrance of the Daleks rather brilliantly poking the casual racism of the sixties).

"I love you, Cyberman.""I know."

“I love you, Cyberman.”
“I know.”

The Cybermen, as a rule, don’t get that sort of treatment. Almost every time they show up, they are apparently interesting simply because they are Cybermen. In fact, in Earthshock, we don’t get any idea that the Cybermen are interested in conversion or enhancement. We’ve no real exploration of the fact that they were once similar to us. “Are they robots?” Berger asks. “Far worse,” the Doctor responds, but we don’t get to elaborate. The closest thing that we get is a conversation about how the Doctor’s emotions make him weak.

Even that, of course, is undermined by the way that David Banks hams it up as the Cyber Leader. After all, the Cybermen don’t seem like emotionless cybernetic lifeforms, they seem like generic power-mad villains with catchphrases like “Excellent!” Watching Earthshock, the only way that David Banks could chew more scenery would be to randomly chuckle to himself about how brilliantly eeevil all of this is.

Picking it apart...

Picking it apart…

Of course, none of this feels like too much of a problem in Earthshock. The script zaps along, and writer Eric Saward and director Peter Grimwade are able to create a palpable sense of dread. It sustains the adventure, and keeps up interested. And, to be honest, while they are under-developed, the Cybermen have never seemed more effective as bad guys than they do here, just marching on the bridge of the freighter.

However, none of the stories building off Earthshock would be quite as well-constructed in their attempts to emulate it. Omega would appear in The Arc of Infinity, with no real back story or any character development. The Black Guardian would take up a trilogy of stories boasting about he evil he was, but with not real hint of character or no real reason to be there beyond the fact that he was an old baddie. And, of course, the Master would show up continuously, with no rhyme or reason beyond the fact that he is a baddie people might recognise.

Davison is the bomb here...

Davison is the bomb here…

If Earthshock taught the production team exactly the wrong lessons about how to make good Doctor Who, it also firmly established the tone for the rest of the Fifth Doctor’s tenure. The Fifth Doctor has already been established as less dynamic and proactive than his predecessors. He’s less willing to take charge of a situation, but he doesn’t scheme or manipulate from the sidelines. He’s either passive towards or ignored by those characters in authority who are driving the story.

Earthshock acknowledges this. “For some people, small, beautiful events is what life is all about!” the Doctor tries to explain to the Cyberleader, and the line would serve well as an epitaph for this iteration of the character. This is perhaps the only version of the character who would be happier enjoying Black Orchid than The Visitation. It’s hard to imagine even Jon Pertwee drinking lemonade and playing cricket. There’s something quite pleasant about the Fifth Doctor’s character, even if it prevents him from filling the same heroic role that his predecessors used to play.

That's just not cricket...

That’s just not cricket…

As Peter Davison notes, it was a conscious choice:

I felt, in a way, that I had to be more fallible because I didn’t want to play the Doctor as a hero as such – like, dare I say it, a Buck Rogers type figure. I was never pushed towards this, but the implication always is that if you get someone younger to play a lead part like that, you tend to try and make him dashing. I felt he should be a sort of anti-hero, not evil so much that he doesn’t go about things in the way a normal hero would.

It’s not a bad character arc, to be fair. Stories like Earthshock manage to use it relatively well, and The Caves of Androzani would not be possible without it. Still, there are bumps in the road caused by this characterisation, most notably in Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks, so it’s not quite perfect.

The body of evidence is mounting...

The body of evidence is mounting…

It is also undermined by the fact that the arc does quite pay off. The Fifth Doctor is portrayed as too gentle and too passive for a hostile universe, but then the same sort of stuff starts happening to the loud and abrasive Sixth Doctor. As a result, it’s possible to get the impression that the show was just grimly cynical about the character of the Doctor as a whole, and it was only really Peter Davison’s performances that redeemed the approach.

Earthshock makes it relatively clear early on that the Doctor is probably not going to come out of this too well. “Too many people have died for you to play the fool,” Scott insists at one point, threatening to shoot him. Of course, he thinks the Doctor is a murderer, but the inference is quite clear. The Doctor, apparently, is not taking this seriously enough. “Look, aren’t we being a bit casual about this?” Adric asks as the Doctor wanders through the cargo ship.

No rush...

No rush…

The Doctor responds, “I want to announce my presence, to see what the reaction is.” The reaction gets him arrested and temporarily framed for murder while nobody listens to his sound advice. It’s very hard to portray the Doctor as the smoothest operator. Earthshock is almost brutal in the way that it repeatedly stresses how weak and ineffective the Doctor is. Peter Davison never appeared less like Tom Baker than he does as he allows the plot of Earthshock to unfold passively around him.

The result is well-known, and it casts the Doctor in a very dim light. It also comes to define the Fifth Doctor. While the Sixth Doctor was doomed from the moment that he tried to strangle Peri, there’s a sense that the universe is shrinking around the Fifth Doctor the moment that he so spectacularly fails Adric. We’ve always known that a companion could die, but seeing it happen is another thing altogether. The show hasn’t killed a companion in well over a decade. Even when Russell T. Davies killed his first companion, he took great pains to soften the blow.

A flying finish...

A flying finish…

It’s worth noting that Adric’s death isn’t really important of itself. Nobody likes Adric. Even the Fifth Doctor doesn’t seem especially fond of him, as we see at the start of the show. I suspect that Adric didn’t like Adric. Even Nyssa spent the past year unsure if she wants to have pseudo-romantic chemistry with him, despite the fact that there’s absolutely nothing else to define her as a character. The cheesy silent credits seem like a bit much given that very few members of the audience were than sad to see Adric go.

Instead, the death of Adric really only exists to reflect on the Doctor. People complain that the TARDIS crew don’t spend any time grieving in Timeflight, but the characters seem more shook up about it than the audience, at any rate. However, the loss of Adric is pretty much the defining event of Peter Davison’s tenure, just as much as Earthshock set the model for the next few years of the show. It’s no coincidence that the Fifth Doctor’s final word was “Adric.”

Yes, it's a Saward script. Why do you ask?

Yes, it’s a Saward script. Why do you ask?

To be fair, Eric Saward constructs Earthshock relatively well, if you don’t mind the shallowness of the Cybermen. There’s a nice bit of foreshadowing with both the Doctor and Adric and also concerning the fossils in the cave that provides a nice bit of set-up for the finalé. There’s even a hint of the social conscience that has been largely absent from the show since Nathan Turner took over, with the Cybermen exploiting unchecked capitalism to infiltrate Earth.

The Doctor finds that the wage agreements with the freighter staff are the biggest problem in getting them to assist him in his fight against the Cybermen. They refuse to stop and search the hold because it would mean that they might loose out on their profits. “We haven’t got time. If I’m late delivering my cargo I not only lose my bonus, but I have to pay a heavy fine.” It’s a nice little line, because it proves that the show hasn’t completely divorced itself from politics, even if it’s not quite as overt as it might once have been.

So, the Master next time?

So, the Master next time?

I’m not mad about Earthshock, even if I recognise why it has such an appeal to fans. Perhaps part of my problems with it stem from the fact that it really created a model of Doctor Who that ate away at the show over the next few years and – I would argue – contributed to increasingly esoteric appeal of Doctor Who. Treating the return of the Cybermen as an event creates an environment where the return of Omega is an event, and eventually where exploring the inconsistencies between The Tenth Planet and Tomb of the Cybermen feels like a worthwhile endeavour.

It’s very hard for me not to look at Earthshock as a story that wasn’t a massive influence on the years to come. And not in a good way.

 

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One Response

  1. The reason why Earthshock works is because it is basically an action story. Right from the get go the body count starts to build as the laser guns fire, and perhaps with a series such as Doctor Who, you have to mix things up now and then. Now and then you’d have your detecitve mystery stories, your historical ones set on Earth, your way out there stories set on spaceships or different planets (because it’s a show about time and space travel afterall), and then add in action, horror and even a small touch of comedy to the mix. I’d say it’s the same reason why people enjoyed watching Resurrection of the Daleks, and it’s because sometimes you just want to see firefights and things getting blown up. If you want something a little more intellectually stimulating, well you could always watch the brilliantly written shows Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. 😉

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