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Doctor Who: Survival (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.

Survival originally aired in 1989.

Where to now, Ace?




Yes, the TARDIS. There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do!

– the Doctor and Ace turn off the lights on their way out

There was a long gap between Survival and Rose. It was filled with stuff. It was filled with lost of interesting and different Doctor Who stuff. There were books and audio plays and even a television movie to help fill the decade and a half when Doctor Who was not a regular feature of British television. A lot of that stuff was important, and a lot of it helped determine and shape what Doctor Who would become when it did return. It’s telling that the many members of the writing staff on the revived Doctor Who cut their teeth on novels and short stories and audio plays and specials in the wilderness years, while no writers returned from the classic show.

At the same time, however, the gap between Survival and Rose doesn’t feel as profound as it might. It’s misleading to suggest that Survival was a clear bridge towards the Russell T. Davies era, or even to hint that the revival could have emerged fully formed from this three-part closing serial. At the same time, Survival is really the closest that the classic series ever came to the spirit of the Davies era, hitting on quite a few familiar themes and ideas and settings, as if Cartmel’s vision of the future of Doctor Who was not too far from the version proposed by Davies.

Survival was the end of an era, but it also motioned towards the start of another.

Riding into the sunset...

Riding into the sunset…

Watching the final season of Doctor Who, it’s weird to think that Ace was introduced in the serial Dragonfire at the end of Andrew Cartmel’s first season. Dragonfire was a serial set on an ice-world built by dodgy overlit sets. The final season of Doctor Who unfolded primarily on planet Earth, never venturing too far from the present day. While this undoubtedly helped to manage the show’s ever-dwindling budget, it also set an important tone for the series. Doctor Who was firmly realigning itself with modern-day planet Earth, a version of the world recognisable and familiar to the viewer.

Ever since the start of the Tom Baker era, and particularly with the departure of Sarah Jane, it seemed like Doctor Who had really lost its tether to contemporary Britain. The points of intersection between the Doctor and the viewer’s world became much rarer as the show went on. Though the John Nathan Turner era reintroduced human companions starting with Tegan, none of them really served to anchor the show. Ace’s predecessor, Mel, didn’t even get an origin story.

Hedging his bets...

Hedging his bets…

So one of the interesting things about the Andrew Cartmel and Sylvester McCoy era of the show was the conscious attempt to bring the show back down to Earth. Their first season of the show was pretty firmly anchored in the fantastic and interstellar. The most grounded story in that season, Delta and the Bannermen, featured a stop at an intergalactic toll booth and a bunch of extraterrestrial tourists visiting a quaint Welsh holiday resort.

With Cartmel and McCoy’s second season, the show began to re-establish roots. Remembrance of the Daleks went right back to the beginning, the the show’s origins in Totter’s Lane. This wasn’t novelty or quirk as the visit in Attack of the Cybermen had been; this was a conscious attempt by the show to engage with a Britain that wasn’t too far removed from the world inhabited by the show’s viewers and fans. Silver Nemesis was a bungled attempt to reconnect with some of the show’s original post-Second World War Anxieties.

Eyes without a face...

Eyes without a face…

However, the final season of the classic show very firmly placed one foot in a world that would be familiar to the viewers watching at home. Battlefield was set in a future so near that little had actually changed. The Curse of Fenric unfolded against the backdrop of Fortress Britain during the Second World War. Even Ghost Light was underscored by Ace’s garbled childhood memories of Gabriel Chase, with dialogue comparing the Social Darwinism espoused by Josiah Smith with racism in Ace’s own time.

Survival takes this approach to its logical conclusion. After her traumatic experiences in Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric, Ace goes home. She chooses to go home. “As I recall, Ace, we came here at your request,” the Doctor remarks. She doesn’t want to leave the TARDIS or anything like that – though one might forgive her, given the Doctor’s manipulative streak. Ace just wants to visit her old home and see how things are.

Following the Master's lead...

Following the Master’s lead…

This is something novel. Companions occasionally want to go home. Ian and Barbara, for example, spent most of their time on the TARDIS trying to return to their time. Tegan spent most of her first year in the TARDIS moaning about needing to get to Heathrow, an experience so traumatic that the Eleventh Doctor was still recovering from it in The Crimson Horror. However, these were perceived as definite end-points for the characters. Ian and Barbara got home in The Chase. Tegan got home in Time-Flight. She left the crew, and then joined the crew again in Arc of Infinity.

This is a fancy way of saying “companion pops home and then continues on the TARDIS” was not something that classic Doctor Who really did. Even Jo Grant didn’t seem to have too much of a personal life when the Third Doctor was stranded on Earth. The closest the show ever came to that sort of dynamic was when the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane would occasionally cross paths with U.N.I.T., but that was obviously a very different dynamic.

Horse play...

Horse play…

This is a personal trip for Ace. “I just wanted to see what my old mates were up to.” This is the Doctor doing “domestic”, as much as a later incarnation might insist that he doesn’t do domestic. It’s worth noting that while this is anomalous in the history of Doctor Who, it would become the default mode for the revival. Rose would frequently pop home to visit her mother, or to intersect with contemporary London. (The revival was barely two episodes away from Rose’s origin before we jumped back into he life for the show’s first two-parter.)

This continued with Martha and Donna, both of whom built up their own supporting casts around contemporary London. This was, in many ways, the default mode for the Davies era. While Moffat moved away from the soap opera slightly, it is telling that both of his companions would also frequently return home from the TARDIS to their own lives. (Or, as Rory explained it, “real life and Doctor life.”) Amy and Rory had a house and friends and social obligations. Clara has a job and a life, spending only one day on the TARDIS a week.

Over-acting? In Doctor Who? Never!

Over-acting? In Doctor Who? Never!

So, it’s safe to say that even the basic premise of Survival was a massive influence on the revived series, to say nothing of the setting. Perivale feels like a real late eighties British suburb. There are some wonderful shots of the Doctor and Ace wandering around the area, creating a sense of an actual community. The Doctor visits the shops, the pair stroll through a public park with the sprawling estates visible in the background.

The duo even visit a run-down social centre, one that has clearly seen better days. Survival isn’t set in a romanticised version of the suburbs. It’s set in something that feels rather grounded. It’s not too difficult to imagine some dingy little bus service that happens to run through both Perivale and the Powell Estate. It’s a world completely alien to the Doctor, far more alien than the Planet of the Cheetahs.

The Master is willing to play ball...

The Master is willing to play ball…

One of the show’s better gags has the Doctor simply walking out of the local store, carrying several tins of cat food. “Oi, haven’t you forgotten something?” the shop owner remarks, following him out from inside. “Yes?” the Doctor replies, eagerly, aware that his mind is prone to wander. “Money?” Len responds. The Doctor pauses a moment to consider the situation. “No,” he confidently replies, “it wasn’t that.”

We also get some nice little sequences from the first episode of the Doctor’s preoccupation with the cat mystery, set against Ace’s attempts to reconnect with her old friends. The Doctor doesn’t do social. Ace relates her own problems and insecurities about coming home, and particularly the attitudes that she faces, but the Doctor can’t really focus on any of that. “Are you listening to me?” she eventually asks. He isn’t. It’s not his fault. The Doctor just works that way. He does crazy things.

Survival of the fittest, eh?

Survival of the fittest, eh?

Things likes whisking around the universe with young women without bothering to let their families know where they are. Survival is the first time that Doctor Who acknowledges that disappearing for a few months to travel in space and time is bound to create problems. “Your mum had you listed as a missing person,” Patterson tells Ace. Davies would use a similar plot beat in Aliens of London and World War III with Rose.

Granted, the Doctor wasn’t responsible for Ace leaving Perivale – at least not directly. However, Survival makes the very valid point that if something like that happened in the real world, there would be consequences. People typically notice when bright and intelligent individuals disappear suddenly, even if “travelling in time and space” isn’t always the first assumption. “I thought you were dead,” Ace’s friend Ange bluntly states. “Either you were dead, or you’d gone to Birmingham.”

Cheetah yuppies from outer space!

Cheetah yuppies from outer space!

Okay, Survival doesn’t really do anything with the idea – but it doesn’t have to. Even drawing attention to these facets of Doctor Who is important, conceding that the show does need to be brought up to date. Television drama has changed dramatically in the years that Doctor Who has been on the air. Audiences expect different things from their shows, and Doctor Who needs to keep up. Nobody really wondered what Sarah Jane’s family thought of her disappearance, but more modern audiences are liable to think about broader contexts, and perhaps less willing to accept everything at face value.

Still, Survival is more than just a piece of television pointing towards the Davies era, although it is fun to make all of those connections. It’s also the end of the Cartmel era. It’s a bit of a jumbled mess of an episode, suggesting that Cartmel never quite figured out how to make three-part adventures work. Silver Nemesis and Ghost Light both felt like somebody had used a machete to squeeze a four-part episode into only three parts.

A cool cat...

A cool cat…

Survival suffers from the weird pacing of Delta and the Bannermen, which is weird – you’d assume that a three-part episode would be easier to script than a four-parter. There’s a reason that “the three act structure” is a staple of writing. It’s very hard to mess up. Instead, Survival feels like a two-parter with a one-episode epilogue. The Cheetah people are dealt with quite early in the third episode, setting the stage for a weird confrontation with the Master than never has room to breathe.

Still, there’s a lot here to like. Most notably, Survival pretty much pushes Cartmel’s social justice themes right to the fore of the episode. The Cartmel era of Doctor Who was decidedly political and keen on social justice. Paradise Towers was the strongest story of Sylvester McCoy’s first season, because it felt like it had something important to say about housing in contemporary Britain. The Happiness Patrol pitted the Doctor against Margaret Thatcher.

It's been so long!

It’s been so long!

The Cartmel era has been pretty consistent its rejection of the idea that the strong have the right to do whatever they want by virtue of their strength. Might does not make right, and it does not justify anything. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy laid into the philosophy pretty heavily with the colonial character of Captain Cook. Ghost Light contrasted Josiah Smith’s Social Darwinism with actual Darwinism.

This is, of course, a reaction against the values of Thatcher Britain – what has been described as her “sink-or-swim Social Darwinism.” Thatcher’s speeches reinforced the idea that poor people were poor because they lacked the will to work, and that they needed to simply put on a happy face and pull themselves up by their boot straps. Anybody who was suffering had nobody but themselves to blame; pull yourself out of that hole you’ve found yourself in.

Sinking his teeth into the role...

Sinking his teeth into the role…

Survival might blame evil warrior Cheetahs for a lost generation of teenagers with nowhere to go, but it’s quite clear that the show blames Thatcherism for the decline and decay of public services like the local social centre. In Survival, the Doctor finds himself in a modern-day Britain where everybody is being taught to look out for themselves, to try and ensure their own survival at the expense of others.

“Have you ever heard of survival of the fittest, son, eh?” Paterson asks. “Have you ever heard of that? Life’s not a game, son.” In the store, the a staff member tells a joke about how two friends try to survive a lion attack. His co-worker doesn’t get the punchline. The Doctor explains, “He doesn’t have to outrun the lion, only his friend. Then the lion catches up with his friend and eats him. The strong survive, the weak are killed. The law of the jungle.”

The Doctor faces his most dangerous threat yet... teenagers...

The Doctor faces his most dangerous threat yet… teenagers…

The Doctor is appalled by this. “Very clever,” he concedes, “if you don’t mind losing your friend. But what happens when the next lion turns up?” Of course, it seems like the entire world runs on this punchline. The only way to safely return to Earth is to exploit the victims of the cheetah people. “A way out? Yes. We wait for one of us to change and then we use them, before they try to escape or kill us all.” The Master has no problem with this, but the Doctor hesitates slightly.

It’s a nice touch – if a little on the nose – that the predatory teenager changes out of his working class clothes and into a yuppie’s business suit. He even wears sunglasses to conceal his cheetah eyes, and talks in yuppie clichés. He makes his pitch at the local social club with practiced ease. Cheetah people apparently have the killer instinct in more than one way. “Waiting on the Sarge? He’s been held up. He asked me to have a little chat with you. I learned a secret today. The secret of success. Thought I’d share it with you.”

The social club never let Midge attend any of the table quizzes, because they suspected he was a bit of a cheetah...

The social club never let Midge attend any of the table quizzes, because they suspected he was a bit of a cheetah…

The Doctor is naturally positioned as the logical alternative to all this. Contrasted with the Master, the Doctor is the champion of social justice over self-interest. “Survival of the fittest,” he muses. “Rather a glib generalisation, don’t you think? Survival for what?” Paterson responds, “You show me a better way of surviving, and I’ll give it a go.” In a scene that feels like a clear inspiration for Davies Doctor/Master mountain-top duel from The Last of the Time Lords, the Doctor pleads with the Master to stop. “If we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals!”

Survival is, like Battlefield, a clear attempt to rehabilitate a classic Doctor Who concept. It’s a show that takes a classic bit of the mythos, blows the dust off and tries to figure out how that concept can work in the late eighties. In Battlefield, it was U.N.I.T. In Survival, it was the Master. It’s interesting to note that these were two concepts that Davies really struggled with when he resurrected the show, so the Cartmel era was clearly on to something.

The Master doesn't have the best healthcare plan...

The Master doesn’t have the best healthcare plan…

The Master is a character that has really been looking for a solid direction since the end of The Keeper of Traken. He’s become something of a pantomime villain for the show, one who shows up every once in a while when the series needs a convenient bad guy. He showed up far too often during the Peter Davison and Colin Baker eras of the show, a classic concept that was reused so frequently not because the writers had good ideas, but because he was an artefact of the show’s past.

He’s been absent quite a while – probably a beneficial side effect of the restricted season orders that Doctor Who was receiving in the late eighties. However, Survival has a better idea of what to do with the Master than any other serial in recent memory. It understands that the Master is driven by some ill-defined greed and lust for power, which is hardly the most nuanced of motivations, but it makes more sense than anything in The King’s Demons or Time-Flight.

Ace was feeling quite catty today...

Ace was feeling quite catty today…

Interestingly, this allows the show to position the Master as the logical end-point of Social Darwinism. He’s a character who does all these horrible things simply because he can and very few people have the power to stop him. He’s “might makes right” writ large. Survival draws attention to how crazy and stupid the Master’s schemes typically are, and the character’s pathological inability to quit while he’s winning, but frames them all as part of a distinctly eighties sense of entitlement.

“What’s he doing it for?” Ace wonders when the Master decides to continue being a sociopath after escaping from the cheetah world. “Why? He’s escaped, hasn’t he? He doesn’t need to keep the Cheetahs busy! He’s safe! What’s he still doing it for?” It’s a logical question, and one which demonstrates that Ace has never had to deal with a Master plot before. At least he’s not disguising himself as a racially-insensitive caricature this time. The Doctor suggest “malice”, but the episode hints at something even more fundamental.

Master of all he surveys...

Master of all he surveys…

The Master believes he is the most powerful force in the universe. He believes that he is entitled to whatever he desires. He believes that existence itself is a perpetual conflict, whereby he must fight to claim what is rightfully his. Survival of the fittest. Certainly, the speech that the Master has Midge deliver at the youth club reflects this world view. “Get rid of the deadwood, let the wasters go to the wall, and the strong will inherit the earth. You and me.” And mostly him.

Survival rather cleverly mirrors the Master to the Doctor. The Master recruits his own young followers – a clear contrast to the Doctor’s companion. However, while the Doctor tries to teach Ace to be a pacifist, the Master turns his disciples into soldiers and killers. He keeps Midge on a leash. While the Doctor empowers his companions, and helps them to grow and develop – the Master confines and constrains his followers.

The Doctor always was a bit of a numbskull...

The Doctor always was a bit of a numbskull…

This contrast is only really possible with Ace, as she seems to be the first companion who is clearly and demonstrably strengthened by her time with the Doctor. Ghost Light, The Curse of Fenric and Survival are all built around Ace’s development as a character. The implication here is that the Doctor should be doing more of this sort of thing going forward. Like The Curse of Fenric, the resolution of Survival hinges on the Doctor enabling Ace to make the right choice herself.

Survival is a fitting and appropriate final moment for the Cartmel era, and an appropriate closing not for the classic era. Fifteen years is a long gap, but there’s still a sense that Rose is much closer than anybody could have thought at the time.

2 Responses

  1. Hello, Darren

    My name is Daniel and I´m a brazilian fan of your blog. I have to say, it´s possible that this is my favorite blog about pop culture. And, sorry going off the topic of this review, but, do you watch NBC´s “Community”? I would love to see reviews of the show here. If you don´t, I couldn´t recommend more, it´s one of the best comedy series ever made (maybe I´m too much of a fangirl of the show but, fuck it, life is too short to be cynical).
    Thanks and continue with the brilliant work!!! ^^

    • Thanks for the kind words Daniel. I’m glad you enjoy the blog, and honoured that you read it so regularly.

      I keep hearing great things about Community, but I’m afraid I’m a bit run off my feet at the present.

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