During the 1980s, Doctor Who started to do a couple of things over and over again, which almost certainly contributed to the eventual cancellation of the show: very violent stories, and stories which feed off the past of the show. Both of those things can arguably be traced back to the success of Earthshock, so it’s worth looking at this story in terms of what went wrong that everybody thought went right.
Of course, when we talk about what everybody thought went right, we really mean what fans thought went right. As far as the more casual viewers were concerned this was a story that was presumably much in line with the rest of the series. Looking at the viewing figures it was pretty average for the season, varying between 9.0 and 9.9 million, with chart positions between 32 and 50. In a remarkably stable season, this is neither exceptionally good or bad. The worst rating of the whole season was 8.5 million and 78th place for the first episode of Kinda, and the best was either 10.5 million for the fourth episode of Castrovalva or 26th for the first episode of Time-Flight, depending on which stat you consider the most relevant (answer: the latter). The much praised tactic of John Nathan-Turner to keep the Cybermen secret failed to make much impact in terms of the general viewing public, with the story actually losing viewers between the first and second episodes. But in terms of fan reputation, this was the most popular story at time of broadcast, and probably remains so today, with the possible exception of Kinda, which has enjoyed a complete re-evaluation over the years.
I can see why Earthshock is so popular. This is probably the only occasion where Doctor Who goes down the route of sci-fi action and produces something that doesn’t compare terribly with contemporary movies. I mean, it still compares badly, but it doesn’t look embarrassing. It is also gritty and adult in a very juvenile way, much like The Caves of Androzani. This is the moment where Doctor Who starts playing overwhelmingly to the teenage demographic to the exclusion of all else. The death of Adric is a symptom of that approach, something that seems big and important and grown up and dramatic, but is really just gratuitous and hollow. Let’s face it, Adric has been a complete failure as a companion, holding up a mirror to a section of fandom and sneering at them. Earthshock goes out of its way to keep doing that. Adric is a whiny nuisance in the early part of the story, and writer Eric Saward can’t resist making him like that to the very end, his heroic death undermined not just by the way he ends up a passenger on a spaceship that wiped out the dinosaurs rather than meaningfully resolving the plot by sacrificing his life, but also how his last words display his true motivations. In the end he wasn’t a hero. He just wanted to be smug and brainy.
Now I’ll never know if I was right.
The moment has some impact because Davison, Sutton and Fielding sell it so well (despite corpsing during filming!), not because of the writing.
All the action and violence leading up to this is impressive, and probably strikes just about the right balance, as does the return of the Cybermen. Or let’s say it strikes a balance that isn’t terrible. The violence of the Doctor and his companions is slightly out of character, and the Cybermen are doing a bit of a greatest hits, but this is a world away from what would come later, with both those things turned up to eleven. The Cyber Leader is full of emotion for an emotionless monster, and Saward tries to have his cake and eat it, having the Doctor challenge his lack of emotions although he has already pointed out the flaw in his own argument by commenting that the Leader is “positively flippant”. It is rightly an iconic speech though, especially as it is immediately used against him:
DOCTOR: They also enhance life! When did you last have the pleasure of smelling a flower, watching a sunset, eating a well-prepared meal?
LEADER: These things are irrelevant.
DOCTOR: For some people, small, beautiful events is what life is all about!
LEADER: You have affection for this woman?
DOCTOR: She’s a friend.
LEADER: And you do not consider friendship a weakness?
DOCTOR: I do not.
LEADER: Kill her.
So this is not a disaster, but the problem is one that is shared by a lot of Doctor Who stories. Nobody realised the bit that was worth repeating and the bit that wasn’t. Everybody saw a popular story with the fans, and didn’t realise the aspect of it that worked. Right back when we looked at Planet of Giants I mentioned that everyone clearly thought the good bit was how scary giant insects are, when the good bit was actually making everyday objects frightening, a trick that was immediately forgotten and eventually had to be relearned. Similarly, what’s great about Earthshock is nothing to do with the death and violence, the effective but unrepeatable success of the sci-fi action, or the return of an old monster without remembering what made them work well in the first place. What’s great is that magnificent first episode, with the simply-designed but creepy androids stalking humans in the dark tunnels, while lights go out on a sensor screen as they are picked off. In other words, the one thing that should have come out of this was how much better the new creations were than the old monsters, and how much more effective some simple dark tunnels are than a spaceship. For one week, Doctor Who remembered how to be amazing again, and then forgot. RP
The view from across the pond:
I’ve got to start somewhere and the best starting point I can come up with is the title. For a change, Doctor Who nailed it. Earthshock gives away nothing. Even the working title, Sentinel, didn’t give it away. Which is surprising considering how often a title stole the thunder from the first cliffhanger (more on that tomorrow). It’s almost like the writer wanted the first cliffhanger to be a reveal. They might as well have used titles like: “The School teacher’s abduction”, “The Daleks”, “it’s a horse”. All kidding aside, I hated titles that spoiled the plot. At least Earthshock gave nothing away and the surprise is spectacular. The android attack that leads to the big unveiling is exciting and does what a cliffhanger should: puts the viewer on the hook until next week. This was actually the work of John Nathan-Turner who went out of his way to make sure no information leaked about the story. It was a wise move; one he would spectacularly fail to learn from and repeat. But that’s another story…
Earthshock is a hard story to talk about because its hits are incredibly strong but there are logical errors which, for an episode about Cybermen, should not happen. Let’s question some of it. Why was Adric always such a whiner? Even in this one, he and the Doctor bicker, not like Weismuller and Hawk in Delta and the Bannermen, which would be fun, but like a father and a particularly belligerent child. In fairness to him, this is the episode that Adric finally comes clean about feeling like a third wheel, but it’s hard to ignore when we know at this point, it was his final story. At least in this story, he does develop enough character that I was sorry to see him go. Part of that character, however, is being afraid of a keyboard. Sure, we know that pyrotechnics are tricky when filming (ask Sylvester McCoy) but the character doesn’t know the keyboard he’s typing on will explode, so watching Waterhouse peck at the keyboard from 3 feet away just looks silly! Then we get to the Cybermen, who use androids to effectively do the same thing John Nathan-Turner was doing: hide themselves for a big unveiling some moments later. But these androids have lasers mounted in their hands that dissolve people, leaving little more than a puddle where they stood. Fine so far, right? Then why don’t the Cybermen do the same? Why do they have to lug around a bulky gun that can be turned on them? Both the Doctor and Nyssa use Cyber weapons against their masters (and that’s why you don’t play with guns!) I’d like to see either try that if the Cyberman’s hand had the weapon built in! It would also save them time when they lurk, which they seem to do quite a lot of. Notice when the Doctor has his back to the Cyberman at the end of the story, instead of shooting the Doctor from the door, the villain, menacingly, approaches which gives Nyssa enough time to grab another gun and shoot him. Then there’s Captain Briggs who has about as much command presence as my 4 year old nephew. Sure, you can’t help but like the person, but their ability to convincingly lead a crew is somewhere around nonexistent. She’s a grandmother and acts like one, even when she yells at that oaf, Ringway. Who, by the way, is Briggs’s version of Adric. He’s a whiner who feels like he’s ignored, just like Adric and sides with the wrong people just like Adric does over and over again. Ringway could be a learning lesson for Adric: and that’s why you don’t act like a whiner. Sadly, Adric gets the message on his final mission and never has a chance to see if he actually learned from Ringway…
Visually, the story is strong but does suffer some of the era’s typical constraints. The march of the Cybermen is clearly done using some editing software, or mirrors, I’m not sure which. At a certain point as the Cybermen are marching toward the camera in episode three’s climax, their feet merge because there’s evidently only one row of them, mirrored for the effect. And my kids and I got a kick out of the proximity people stand to talk to one another; they are close enough to kiss in some scenes. (Watch the confrontation between Lt. Scott and the Doctor!) And Cyberman breaking out of Styrofoam tubes just doesn’t look that impressive, but it was less impressive when they broke out of cling film, yet we adore Tomb of the Cybermen, so that’s no standard by which to measure against. After that there’s not a lot to complain about or pick on. The story is incredibly strong. I would add the Doctor (and Nyssa’s) use of a gun or the Doctor effectively asphyxiating a Cyberman as negatives, but both are done in self-preservation and with the hope of quickly saving Adric. This is not the “push in a vat of acid and make a quick quip” that we see in later seasons.
Part one with the crew of the TARDIS is a welcome and fun opening. I always loved when there were those moments inside the ship either at the beginning or end of a story. Then the mystery starts: mysterious deaths, strange hatch, androids… and the big reveal. From episode 2, when the Cyberleader pulls the Doctor’s image up on his version of Professor Kerensky’s machine, things really pick up. It has got to be said that flashbacks to the early Doctors was always something I loved, especially since I’d not yet seen any Hartnell or Troughton episodes by the time I was seeing this story. From here on, the story is brilliant. They even pulled off something that a major motion picture would try 3 years later. The Philadelphia Experiment (1984) has a scene where crew of the aircraft carrier have merged with the ship. I was shocked by that scene when I’d first seen it. The Cyberman, merged with the physical structure of the door, was visually stunning; it was an epic victory for the show and the Doctor.
The story also does an incredible job with foreshadowing. The opening seems to be the Doctor’s chance to discuss life on earth and little else. The shock reveal is that we’re going to see what actually destroyed the dinosaurs during this story. Like John Nathan-Turner intended, the big surprise follows this story through right to the end. Even the death of Adric. I mean, who saw that coming? (Besides Matthew Waterhouse, that is!) For the Doctor to lose a companion, that takes bravery in the writing. And yet it’s pulled off and actually made Adric likable. Then the end credits pay tribute to the fallen companion. It’s somber, respectful and sad. Earthshock was a much needed tour de force for the Fifth Doctor’s era. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Time-Flight