Doctor Doctor Who Guide

'Earthshock' is a classic. I know this, because other fans have told me so. Regardless of whether I actually agree or not, the fact remains that it's importance to Doctor Who's history is undeniable, since of course it sees the return of the Cybermen for the first time in seven years and sees a companion killed off for the first time since 'The Daleks' Master Plan'. Despite these memorable aspects however, the question remains, is it actually any good?

Actually, yes and no. 'Earthshock' has both good and bad points in equal measure. Firstly, there are the Cybermen. There are two basic ways to write for the Cybermen; the first is to focus on what they represent, which is dehumanization, the second is to treat them as little more than marauding robots from outer space. The former is what makes the Cybermen unique; the real horror of the Cybermen lies in the fact that they don't just want to kill you, they want to make you like them. Some fans have suggested to me that in the twenty first century, with transplants and prosthetics commonplace, the Cybermen are no longer scary in this regard. To those fans I say, imagine having your genitals lopped off then being forcibly lobotomized. The Cybermen worked so well back in 'The Tenth Planet' for this very reason, and their lack of emotions meant that they were a foe that couldn't be appealed to. The second approach is far less original, as marauding robots from outer space are commonplace in science fiction, but it can admittedly work on occasion as 'The Invasion' demonstrated. This is the approach that Eric Saward adopts here; with the Cybermen seeking to destroy Earth, they are committed to destruction rather than conquest and their survival imperative is not to convert more humans into Cybermen, but to prevent the Cyber-pact. 

Portraying the Cybermen as rampaging robots potentially reduces their menace from the start, and there is another problem; Christopher Robbie is rightly ridiculed for his emotional performance as the Cyber Leader in 'Revenge of the Cybermen', but David Banks is just as guilty here. He plays the Cyber Leader with a voice dripping with vocal inflections, and the Leader announces "Excellent!" repeatedly and makes expressive hand gestures throughout. I might be more able to forgive this if it were not for the fact that Saward includes in his script an effective exchange between the Doctor and the Cyber Leader on the importance of emotion, which works well in itself but only goes to highlight the fact that the Leader has been exhibiting emotions throughout. Smugness included. And the Cybermen suffer in other ways; the pointless sequence with the thermal lance is illogical padding, since they prove more easily able to break onto the bridge with explosives. Worse still, although not Saward's fault, we see two Cybermen standing around making embarrassingly chatty hand gestures as they guard the stairs in the hold. Perhaps they are arguing about how unemotional they are… 

And yet despite all these criticisms, the Cybermen work really well in 'Earthshock'. They look and sound great, and seem genuinely unstoppable in a way that they certainly didn't in their last story, and director Peter Grimwade wrings some great suspense out of the story. The Cybermen bursting out of their cocoons in the hold, advancing remorselessly on the bridge, appearing out of nowhere and attacking first Tegan and then the troopers entering the TARDIS, are all extremely dramatic scenes. Their redesigned costumes make them look physically impressive, and the silver chin visible behind the transparent mouthpiece is a nice touch. Moreover, David Banks performance as the Cyber Leader, for all that it betrays the emotionless heritage of the Cybermen, is incredibly effective; the Leader works supremely well as a specific villain to represent the Cyber race, and in this respect his booming cry of "So, we meet again, Doctor!" makes sense, as he greats the Time Lord not as an individual, but as a representative of his entire species. What also works is the scale of the Cybermen's plan, which puts at stake the Earth and makes them far more than the pathetic bunch of tin soldiers seen in 'Revenge of the Cybermen'. This is however slightly undermined by some ill thought out aspects of the plot, a problem that would return to haunt Saward again in the future; as The Discontinuity Guide points out, the power drains caused by the revival of the Cybermen nearly put the entire mission at risk as they come close to causing the engines to misphase. It could be argued that they are precise enough to know exactly how much of a power drain they can cause before this happens, but it is also worth noting that a sane captain would have dropped the ship out of warp drive and the ship would have been stopped. Possibly Ringway assured the Cybermen that Briggs wouldn't risk her bonus for anything, but it does rather create the impression that Saward is getting carried away. 

Mention of Briggs and Ringway brings me to my next problem with 'Earthshock', and another problem that will return to haunt Saward; the characterisation is appalling. Aside from the Cyber Leader, only two characters are really of any note. The first of these is Ringway, but he's very badly written; as a Cyber agent, he knows precisely what is going on, but he frets and moans about the missing crewmembers above and beyond the call of duty. Presumably he's engaging in double bluff, but it is taken so far that it makes his eventual revelation as a traitor seem horribly contrived. Secondly, there is Briggs. Beryl Reid plays the character with considerable relish, but the fact remains that she is so obnoxious, and so clearly in dereliction of her duty (she puts her bonus before the safety of Earth) that it raises the question of how she ever managed to reach and keep such a senior position. Especially given that Berger clearly finds her conduct alarming. Perhaps Saward is providing a clever homage to 'The Wheel in Space'. Perhaps not. The upshot of this, and the fact that Berger is given almost no memorable personality at all, is a common failing of Saward's; I simply don't care what happens to any of the characters. Fans of Saward like to argue that he brings an adult feel to Doctor Who, but this seems to be a rather juvenile concept of what constitutes adult. Saward racks up the body count, and 'Earthshock' is filled with death. The troopers introduced in Episode One are mere cannon fodder, and are superfluous after Episode Two; their roles on board the freighter are fairly minimal and could easily have been rewritten, but instead we get a lot of pointless running around or hanging about in the TARDIS. Kyle's death strongly suggests that Saward suddenly realises that he needs to do something with the character, so he kills her off. But Saward's death scenes seldom carry any weight because they are gratuitous; we don't get to know any of the characters well enough to care (with the obvious exception of Adric). 

But again, despite these deficiencies, 'Earthshock' remains compelling viewing. The constant slaughter is largely meaningless, but Grimwade's direction squeezes tension from the story regardless. Episode One is very atmospheric, as the troopers are gradually eliminated by an unseen killer, and the featureless black androids when they are eventually revealed are memorably sinister. Once the androids are destroyed, the bomb provides suspense; once the bomb is disarmed, the Cybermen step in. Whilst I may not care about the supporting characters, the regulars are constantly in peril during 'Earthshock', and this is where the tension lies. Design also benefits 'Earthshock'; the freighter is very well realized, especially the ominous, gloomy hold. The cave sets in Episode One are reasonable, although admittedly they bear very little resemblance to any caves I've ever actually been in. Most of all however, Malcolm Clarke's incidental score is incredibly effective and adds considerably to the drama. 

The use of the regulars in 'Earthshock' is interesting. Nyssa is once more largely redundant, but Tegan and Adric are used prominently. Adric I'll come to below. Tegan gets an important role in Episode Four as she is used by the Cyber Leader as a means of controlling the Doctor; prior to this however, she is left with Scott and his troopers and this result in some extremely dodgy characterisation, as she leaps over fallen Cybermen in search of weapons and generally gets trigger happy. It's utterly ludicrous, especially given her usual terror in really dangerous situations, and whilst it could be argued that fear motivates her to extreme actions (such as when she desperately wrenches at the TARDIS controls in Episode Four), she seems far too safe in the presence of the troopers for this be convincing. Despite this however, Saward does make some decent use of both the girls, by repeating a trick from 'The Visitation', but making it work this time. The opening TARDIS scenes are once more in soap opera territory, but here they work because they cause the TARDIS crew to fall out; once the androids are defeated and the bomb disarmed, the four of them get together in the TARDIS for the last time and apologies are made; having faced crisis together, this shows how close the four have become, especially the Doctor and Adric, which lays the groundwork for the finale. By first causing the Doctor and Adric to fall out, Saward is able to show them making up, which emphasizes the depth of their friendship. In addition, the final scene works well too, as Tegan and Nyssa hug one another in grief, and the Doctor stares in shock at Adric's shattered badge. Davison is on form throughout, despite the fact that Saward has a tendency to place the Doctor in situations that he is unable to cope with. Whilst he successfully directs the destruction of the androids and disarms the bomb, once on the freighter the Doctor is unable to stop the Cybermen. With the threat of Tegan's death held over him, he can do little and it is only when the Cyber Leader decides to kill him at the end that he risks using Adric's badge. This slightly impotent portrayal of the Doctor is not one of which I am especially fond, but Davison at least rises to the challenge, his performance brimming with angst-ridden frustration. And he looks devastated at the end…

Which brings me to Adric. I find the silent end credits to Episode Four embarrassingly melodramatic, but I can't deny that Adric's sacrifice is highly effective; all the more so because he is such an irritating character that in saving the Earth he rather redeems his habitual petulance. After his childish tantrum and subsequent sulking during Episode One, his insistence that the Doctor leaves him behind to save Tegan shows that he has started to grow up, and his desperate attempt to break the Cybermen's control of the freighter at the cost of his own life is undoubtedly heroic. It is also ultimately tragic; his initial tampering causes the freighter to spiral back in time, safeguarding Earth and ensuring humanity's future. He achieves nothing further after he nips back out of the escape pod. It is easy to joke about the demise of such an unpopular companion, and it doesn't help that Waterhouse's amateurish acting robs his final moments of some impact, since he just looks bored, but it remains true that on its first broadcast Adric's death was really shocking. Ultimately, it makes 'Earthshock' the classic that it is often described as. I'm not sure personally that 'Earthshock' qualifies for this term; it is inherently flawed and often poorly written, but there remains about it something utterly compelling that always makes it worth watching.

Filters: Television Series 19 Fifth Doctor