19.6 – “Earthshock”
In the latest episode of “Outnumbered”, we find poor harassed Doctor Single Dad on the receiving end of a full-blown strop from Petulant Pouty Son, who wants to know why his little sisters (Mouthy and Curly) are Dad’s favourites even though Pouty gets all the best grades at school. Can dad and son bond over defusing multiple planet-busting Cyber-stratagems, before Pouty carries out his threat to run away from home?
So here’s the million-dollar question: if an episode of Doctor Who is stylishly directed, well-lit, convincingly-acted, features a “classic” monster, clips of much-loved past Doctors and a major continuity event, is it automatically a good episode? Early 80’s fandom didn’t need too much persuading and were quick to hail Eric Saward as the second coming. After the high silliness of the Williams era, and then the remorseless innovation of Bidmead’s tenure, here was a writer who “got it”. Someone who could do Doctor Who the way it used to be done in the good old days.
Watching “Earthshock” now, I find it hard to believe that Saward wasn’t explicitly wooing fandom, whispering the sweet endearments into their ears that they desperately wanted to hear. Just look at Lieutenant Scott and his moustache! Beyond “being the competent leader of a group of soldiers”, the man has no distinguishing personality or backstory, just that facial hair. Remind you of anyone’s else’s upper lip in Who history? If Scott wasn’t a cynical bid to give DWAS members the warm fuzzies due to his uncanny resemblance to the Brig, then I’ll eat my UNIT beret. Sadly, girls, once he’s got you down the aisle and a ring on your finger you may find that the romance quickly fades…but we’ll get to all that in good time. For the moment, “Earthshock” is an exercise in fulfilling fandom’s whims, harking back to the “golden age” of Season 12 with its parade of returning foes, gritty tone and deadly peril for the TARDIS crew at every turn. Instant DWM season poll topper, not even a close thing. But is it any good?
Well, I think it’s rubbish.
The first thing that strikes me about this serial is how little actually happens for most of it. The big watchword is suspense. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, it’s of utmost importance that there’s a big reveal of the Cybermen at the end of the first episode, which means we get a whole 25 minutes of fooling about in caves with some really forgettable androids. Any viewer with half a brain cell will have instantly worked out that the scanner that, it’s stressed, detects only the heartbeats of “mammalian lifeforms” is not in fact a reliable indicator that the caves are free of hostiles, but we have to watch the soldiers slowly work that out for themselves. Is this interesting? It’s not obvious to me that it is.
One of the things Saward likes doing is having The Doctor suddenly getting really serious, like, whoa! the threats to the universe we normally face were one thing, but this Cyber-menace is on a different scale! We could be seriously out of our depth now, all the usual wisecracking is off the table guys. Peter Davison sells this brilliantly, because he’s a great actor, but it’s so unearned. The Cybermen have put a big bomb in a mineshaft, which gets defused. So they plan to hijack a crappy old freighter Beryl Reid is captaining back to earth instead. The Doctor has always defeated this kind of unimaginative scheme of the Cybermen before and we see a flashback to Tom Baker being rude about that fact in this very episode. So how come Saward gets to proclaim that the stakes are much higher than usual and strip the script of almost all fun and jokes accordingly?
Maybe it wouldn’t matter if he was a great writer of serious drama, but he just isn’t. The main plot is a nonsense; the Cybermen want to destroy an interstellar conference before it can sign a pact against them and this will put an end to galactic “unity”. Mmm, yeah, because the best way to stop people joining forces in a pact against you is to carry out a massively symbolic attack on all of them at once. And as for the rest of the script? Saward’s idea of plot progression is having people or Cybermen with guns entering rooms and opening fire every once in a while, crossing people off the cast list until one side has nobody left and the end of the story can be declared. The Doctor is stripped of any ingenuity whatsoever – his “solution” to the problem of the bomb is to cut some random wires and hope for the best. Tegan goes Ellen Ripley on us, hoisting around a massive gun and taking out Cybermen with it. The gold from Adric’s star isn’t enough to take down the Cyber Controller on its own… so The Doctor has to finish him off with another gun. This is everything that Doctor Who famously isn’t about and shouldn’t be about, and yet because it’s atmospherically lit or something it’s a “classic”. Sigh.
The Cyberman getting trapped in a solidifying bulkhead door idea may not be objectively big or clever, but it’s superbly directed to end up as an iconic moment that sticks in the memory: a real coup de Who. Chekhov’s Dinosaurs are educational and quite well done I suppose: we get a lecture about how the dinosaurs died out in a mysterious massive explosion in Episode 1, and a pay off in Episode 4. The other themes of the story are less impressive. The Doctor’s big line about human pleasures the Cybers are lacking – “smelling a flower, watching a sunset, eating a well-prepared meal” – is so unpoetic a Cyberman might have delivered it. Compare and contrast that to the Seventh Doctor’s “burnt toast and bus stations, full of lost luggage and lost souls”.
And, surely the most unforgivable element of all, the ending for Adric is muffed. There’s a nice progression through the episode where Adric is repeatedly brave and brainy and useful, makes up with The Doctor and says he’s decided not to leave the TARDIS after all. Then the Cybermen use The Doctor’s “weakness” of affection for his companions against him – if he does not do as they wish they will “kill the girl”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the obvious denouement at this point is for affection and friendship to save the day, as Adric sacrifices his life to destroy the Cybermen for The Doctor. But he doesn’t, does he? He’s wrapped up in the puzzle of the logic codes and wants to be “right”. He doesn’t die for his friends at all, just from not listening to other people and his own intellectual arrogance. He doesn’t even divert the freighter’s course in the end, it’s just one more meaningless casualty to cap off an episode that’s been full of them. What a shame.
There’s one thing I really like about “Earthshock” and that’s that it exists in a completely non-sexist future where women get equal respect and status and the top two most senior personnel on a spaceship can be female. The episode doesn’t make a big thing about it, but it’s actually huge; and while I understand that Beryl Reid as a freighter captain may be an acquired taste, for me her witty and waspish delivery is the absolute highlight. The rest of the serial is an enormous credit to all the talented actors and production team members involved…and also utterly lacking in any of the imagination, intelligence and humour that make Doctor Who; no Love, just Monsters. Feminist Beryl saves this from the lowest grade but I’m still going to have to make an example of this horrible script. A joyless, gun-obsessed 2/10.
Written and edited by Matthew Marcus