Doctor Who complete reviews: Earthshock
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Is this parting sweet sorrow..or just sweet?
The turbulent decade of the 1980s – not much fun, eh? Thatcherism at the height of its powers. The emergence of the yuppies. Not to mention the likes of mannequin crooners like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet dominating the charts like suited bankers. So no wonder Doctor Who wanted to go revisit the 1960s for inspiration.
Think I'm joking? Well think on this. We've had Hartnell-like temper flares from the main man Davison. We've had an all-new historical adventure. And now, in true Daleks Masterplan-style, a companion is about to bite the dust.
Yes, time's run out for Adric, everyone's favourite laughing stock. He's about to buy it in spectacular fashion at the end of Earthshock, one of the jewels in season nineteen's crown. The great thing about this at the time was that it came totally out of the blue. Normally, companions – of late – tend to leave of their own accord or get married. And if you were to chance upon the Radio Times for the following week, there was Adric in the TV listings for a mysterious adventure called Time-Flight.
All very clever, and totally appropriate for a story called Earthshock. But this is a story that really lives up to its name, and then some. Take the first part, a brilliantly claustrophobic trip down some spooky caves where an expedition – led by moaning wallflower Professor Kyle – has been steadily whittled down one by one. At first you think, it's all the work of two eerie black androids who flit through the caves like ghosts. But in actual fact, it's all the work of...
Well, let's keep the suspense for a bit longer by extolling the virtues of this magnificent first part. If you thought that Doctor Who had lost its scary mojo lately, well here comes this gripping episode to disprove that theory. Eric Saward's script is fast-paced and tense, and full of memorably behind-the-sofa moments, including the sequence leading up to and including the death of dumpy (hey, Ian Marter's words, not mine) old trooper, Snyder. This is brilliant – Peter Grimwade's atmospheric direction really comes into its own here, with ominous shadows, camera angles, and then a macabre close-up of Snyder's melted remains. Put it this way, don't watch this story while eating a cheese-feast pizza.
"Matthew Waterhouse delivers his best performance, which while not BAFTA standard, is still perfectly competent and enough to make an impact in the last part"
The dark atmosphere is also established in the opening TARDIS sequences, where The Doctor and Adric are having a girly fall-out. Adric – tired of having the universe ripping the piss out of him – decides to throw his toys out of the pram and demand to go back to E-Space. Naturally, this is as easy as making a fully-functional aeroplane out of paper, string and paper clips, so The Doctor is not best pleased at this request. Cue lots of name-calling from the bowlcutted one, even to the point where he claims that the latest model of the Time Lord is “decidedly immature”, a case of the pot calling the kettle black if ever there was one.
It may be quickly resolved in the following part, and may be another example of how travelling in the TARDIS isn't as fun as it used to be, but the Adric/Doctor fallout does at least indicate how out of his depth the new Doctor's getting. Once upon a time, he had no problem letting everyone know who was top dog – whether barking at Leela, Romana or The Brig, but now he's being forced out of his own TARDIS by a brat. The shame. It's left to the more headstrong Teabag and even Nyssa (!) to try and diffuse the situation. The fifth Doctor just doesn't have that same level of control as he did before – neither his youthful appearance nor gentle nature carry any weight with the world around him. And it's a spooky premonition of the story's climax in which events spiral way out of his control. Now that's neat scripting, and both Peter Davison and – get this – Matthew Waterhouse are very good in these early scenes. In fact, Waterhouse delivers his best performance, which while not BAFTA standard, is still perfectly competent and enough to make an impact in the last part.
Generally, the acting is of a high standard in the first part. Clare Clifford is a bit of a weak link in the story, forever falling over and moping. Later in the story, she's stuck in the TARDIS in a snot-coloured green ensemble, which accounts for her longer-than-usual face. “Is there nothing positive that we can do?” she sighs – yeah, stop yer moaning, that's positive. Even her death scene's laughable, as she does a carefully-staged fall onto the floor.
Elsewhere we have Steve Morley making the most of his small role as Walters, which he does very well – and that's not easy when all you're required to do is sit behind a computer and talk into a prototype mobile phone. But he adds greatly to the tension, especially when the luckless expedition members are dispatched. Actually, I reckon that the computer somehow controls Lieutenant Scott's voice, which inexplicably changes accents between location and studio. Not only that, but in his very last scene (on the intercom only) he changes into one of the Chipmunks. Despite that, James Warwick is very good as the somewhat clichéd action hero, making the transition from aggressive enemy to dedicated helper of The Doctor.
And then there's that cliffhanger – and the first important shock of the story. Apparently, the Cybermen were going to feature on the front cover of the Radio Times in early March 1982 – fortunately, John Nathan-Turner saw sense, and the ending of part one is – as a result – one of the best cliffhangers of the whole series on account of its “Didn't see that coming” jaw drop.
"David Banks' deep, impassive drawl is hugely effective, and contributes greatly to the Cybermen sending kids behind the sofa again"
The Cybermen had been absent from the TV since 1975, when their last appearance in Revenge Of The Cybermen was about as impressive as a peashooter in a bar-room brawl. Luckily, they've been updated, in appearance, voice and temperament. The new costumes are EXCELLENT-ly designed, and combine a sense of the old 60s style Cybermen with something new (the effect of the see-through mouth is inspired). Their voices are also an improvement, and the new Cyber-Leader is played to perfection by David Banks, who would stamp his authority as the definitive Cyber actor. There's a genuine malevolence and dread about this new Cyber-leader, especially compared with the Revenge one, who was too busy mincing around with his hands on his hips. Banks' deep, impassive drawl is hugely effective, and contributes greatly to the Cybermen sending kids behind the sofa again.
Having said that, the new Cybermen are a bit more – ah, emotional than before. Not only does the Cyber-leader say “EXCELLENT!!” on a regular basis, which is a decidedly un-Cyber thing to say, they are also prone to occasional bouts of rage and a delight in seeing the Earth blown to smithereens. Two of them even have a watercooler moment on the freighter, presumably having a good old chinwag about the Cyber League football tournaments with great big clunky hand gestures.
Even so, the Cybermen do manage to be a formidable presence, bashing the hell out of two wimpy crewmembers (Davison has a good old belly-laugh at their freakishly girly screams at the end of part two) and shooting everyone that crosses their paths. They also manage to use irrelevant human emotions to gain a hold over The Doctor. Despite the Time Lord's insistence that emotions have their uses (even eating a well-prepared meal apparently – remember that the next time you tuck into a tepid microwave curry), the Cyber-leader threatens to destroy Teabag, thus proving that The Doctor's emotions are a curse rather than a blessing. And for one of the most compassionate Doctors in the show's history, that's got to sting even more.
If you wanted a mini-shock (of the good sort), then fans will have been drooling over the mini clip-fest with sequences from Logopolis, The Tenth Planet, The Wheel In Space and Revenge Of The Cybermen. Nothing special about that today – indeed, most episodes of Who have rapid clip sequences on a regular basis – but in the pre-DVD and pre-video releases, this was a mini-treat, especially for the older fans who had grown up with Hartnell and Troughton as kids. Perhaps the Cybermen have all the episodes of Who on some new-fangled disc that's about the size of a chocolate biscuit – maybe they could enlighten as to the last episode of The Tenth Planet...
Anyways, back on the freighter (The Doctor's diffused the androids and stopped a bomb – read on), the Cyberman's plan for destroying the Earth is proceeding apace. They've now hidden themselves abroad a giant freighter, thanks to the machinations of the duplicitous Ringway (good, creepy performance from Alec Sabin here). And when the head honcho of the freighter is a little old granny with delusions of power is at the top of the pile, that's got to be as easy as putting on a hat.
Ah yes, Beryl Reid as Briggs. Stomping about in black leather with Elton John's wig, Reid is a bit miscast. Imagine your granny being asked to impersonate Ripley from the Alien films, and you know what I mean. Reid actually isn't as bad as has been suggested – there are some moments when she nearly convinces, especially in the last part and her desperate pleas to drag Adric away from the plunging freighter. But a lot of the time, she's either shouting at the top of her voice, pulling furious, gurning faces or making a weird burbling noise that sounds like a cross between Aunt Clara from Bewitched and a choking horse.
Another problem with the freighter scenes is that they do throw into question the logic of the dastardly Cyberman plan – in short there is no logic. Spock would not be a happy man. Basically, the Cybermen plan to crash the freighter into the Earth by turning it into a flying bomb. But hold on, why did they put the androids and then a bomb on the Earth in the first place? Or did they just magically transport the Cybermen to the freighter in a matter of seconds?
Never mind though – all of the plot problems almost become an irrelevance, since the direction and acting are generally of the highest quality. Peter Grimwade successfully maintains the tension throughout the last couple of parts, again with subjective camera angles, well-judged lighting and a hugely atmospheric musique-concrete-style score from Malcolm Hulke. It may be slightly more unusual than the offerings from Paddy Kingsland or Roger Limb, but then compare it with The Sea Devils .
"When The Doctor scrapes Adric's badge against the Cyber-leader's chest, there's that feeling that the shot of the badge crumbling to pieces is more significant than you realise"
And the ambience of dread is so thick that you can almost smell it. Especially when The Doctor is forced to leave Adric on the freighter. You can guess that something might be up after he loses his badge in the third part to help to use against the Cybermen. But given that companions have escaped in the 1970s with their lives intact, surely Adric will get out of this scrape?
Well, think again - and the rapidly intercutting scenes of The Doctor's crew being taunted in the TARDIS by the Cyberleader and a lone Adric on the freighter suggest that all may not be well this time. This is really effective writing and filming, and sure enough when The Doctor scrapes Adric's badge against the Cyber-leader's chest, there's that feeling that the shot of the badge crumbling to pieces is more significant than you realise.
And so it passes that the annoying bowlcut finally gets blown to smithereens after jumping nervously away from an exploding typewriter. As epitaphs go, that's not particularly dignified, but then this is Adric we're talking about. Dignity does not enter the equation here. Yeah, the end sequence is a bit corny, with Teabag blubbing into Nyssa's arms, The Doctor standing in silent horror, and worst of all – the silent rolling credits – but hey, try telling that to horrified kids up and down the country in 1982, who have just experienced the Who equivalent of the end of Blake's 7 all over again. A powerful ending to one of the best stories of the season – and at least the annoying little runt gets a heroic goodbye, even if it may not have been deserved in the first place.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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