Doctor Who complete reviews: Survival
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
The Doctor bows out for a 16-year break...
It's fitting that the last story in the original run of Doctor Who is called Survival. No one could have known at the time that one day in the future, the show would be revived to great critical acclaim and high viewing figures. Back in December 1989, such prospects seemed as near as a water cooler in the middle of a desert.
Having escaped the chop four years previously, Doctor Who had pushed its luck too far with the Powers That Be at the Beeb. Despite something of a renaissance in the quality of scripts, BBC bosses could only see balance sheets and viewing graphs which told a story of astronomically plummeting viewing figures. Even though, they'd decided to put Doctor Who up against Coronation Street – at the time, this was the equivalent of opening a tatty independent second-hand record store next to a swanky chain of HMV in the high street. Even though Doctor Who boasted well-crafted, intelligent plots, good production values and a great Doctor/Companion team, it was now regarded as a quaint bit of TV that really only appealed to sci-fi geeks rather than mainstream audiences. And considering that the show still cost way too much (in the BBC controllers' eyes, anyways), Doctor Who was given the boot.
So as a final adieu, how does Survival fare? It's interesting in that it's similar in concept and feel to the 2005 incarnation: Doctor and companion land on present-day Earth in a mundane suburban England full of council estates and bored, everyday schmoes. Also, Survival tends to revolve around the companion of Ace, just like a fair number of the post-2005 shows revolved around companions like Rose or Donna. In that regard, Survival is something of a dummy run for what they call NuWho, and on the whole, it works like a charm.
Survival continues the quality of Ghost Light and The Curse Of Fenric. Like those two stories, it can be enjoyed superficially as gripping drama, and also as a thoughtful discourse on deeper subjects. Like Ghost Light, Survival carries on examining the theme of evolution. Rather than concentrate on life cycles, the story probes into the concept of the survival of the fittest. On the one hand, we have the Cheetah People, all raw hunger and good hunting. On the other, we have the primal instincts of human beings, whether it's Sgt Paterson, your archetypal quavering wreck in the body of a macho bully boy, or his grunting pupils who ironically give him a taste of his own medicine later in the story.
With that in mind, many fans have suggested that the programme goes full circle back to the first two Hartnell stories. Like An Unearthly Child, Survival concerns a group of terrified humans trapped in a primitive world and trying to avoid being the main course on the natives' menu. Survival also mocks the now dated heroics and macho bravado of The Daleks – Paterson's finger-jabbing taunts at Stuart in the defence class echo Ian's taunting of Alydon. The Survival title refers to this survival of the fittest theme, and also to the return of The Master.
"This is a more understated, dangerous Master than we've ever seen"
He couldn't keep away, could he? Yes, the bearded one's back for another bout of 'tache-twirling villainy. He's now ditched his usual Penguin suit and is now casually strolling around in what looks like a Lounge Lizard suit. I guess he's got to keep up with the 80s, but this more laidback look is perfectly in tune with The Master's more laidback personality. This is a more understated, dangerous Master than we've ever seen. Like Planet Of Fire, the character always works best when he's not trying to conquer the galaxy but to free himself from a terrible predicament. In this case, he wants The Doctor's help in escaping from the living planet of the Cheetah People, and to free himself from its influence. Stay too long on the planet, and you start to turn into a mangy cat with gooky yellow eyes, fangs and a tendency to hiss more than a pantomime audience. Even after The Master's successfully found a way back to Earth, he's still showing signs of possession. “I will be free of it!” he growls at his yellow-eyed reflection. “I will be free of it!”
The Master kind of sums up how the production team had finally got the balance right after the mid-80s. He's more of a credible, grown-up presence rather than a cartoon baddie for kids. Anthony Ainley plays the part with a suave, controlled menace rather like Robbie Rotten. It's a real revelation, and as a result, The Master comes across as far more of a dangerous threat than he had done in stories like Time-Flight and The Kings' Demons. It's also a neat move to keep his identity mysterious in the opening part. We get frequent shadowy close-ups of his face, which aren't that easy to guess – especially when The Master hadn't been seen since 1986.
The Master's also back to his manipulative, controlling best. Just like Rex Farrel and Percival in the early 1970s, Midge becomes The Master's latest whipping boy, momentarily taking control and ordering attacks on Paterson and poor old Squeak's cat. Of course, Midge is just as much a pawn in The Master's big gameplan, and before you know it, he's uselessly discarded aside. Good performance from Will Barton though as the troubled Midge – even before he becomes The Master's protege, we know something's up with the lad, since he starts more fights in the camp than a Big Brother contestant.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering? There's only one “Heh heh heh” - although, actually this is more of a “Ho ho ho” as The Master hops over the apparently dead Doctor. I suppose he's looking to audition for the Perivale Santa Claus, now that Doctor Who's off the air for what could be forever.
I really like the way in which the mundanity of Ace's home is juxtaposed with the exotic claustrophobia of the Cheetah People's planet. The incidental characters are the epitome of insular townies, including a couple of angry neighbours, bored studenty-type Ange, rattling her collection tin in Ace's face or the droll shopkeepers Len and Harvey, played by none other than Hale and Pace in a cameo that surprisingly works. Funny how the celebrity casting has taken a bit of a pasting in some quarters, but in fact, most of the time, they work very well. Hale and Pace don't overplay their small parts Al Murray-style, and are perfect choices for the rather sardonic pair of shelf stackers.
All of the guest cast are generally good – the best is probably Julian Holloway as the gruff Paterson. Like so many nasty pieces of work like The Brigade Leader or Scorby, Paterson's a bit of an old softy. While he spends his time barking at keep-fit trainees to get in shape, in the real world, he's actually pretty useless. When he's transported to the Cheetah People planet, he's something of a fifth wheel, always frowning, complaining and quaking in terror. All that conveniently disappears when he gets back home, and in true bully-boy style, deludes himself by saying that it never happened. Inevitably, he's dead within seconds of walking into the gym. Holloway brings the right combination of drama and humour to the part, and rather than go for a comedy stereotype, he opts for a more gritty, down-to-earth approach that actually works better in the more comedic moments – the funniest probably being his exasperated reaction to Derek holding his hand.
The Cheetah People though, are more of a problem. Lisa Bowerman gives another excellent performance as the feline Karra, all seductive whispering and menacing growls – the mask however makes her look like a walking, talking cuddly toy that's just escaped from the conveyor belt of The Generation Game. Luckily, the planet of the Cheetah People more than makes up for this – it's superbly realised with well-judged video effects to create the opaque skies and flashes of flame. The all-OB shoot, like The Curse Of Fenric adds much to the story's atmosphere, making it effectively warts 'n' all and almost documentary-style in its approach. Alan Wareing's direction is again first-rate, with good casting choices, high production values and a strong guitar-based incidental score from Dominic Glynn. In fact, the incidental music of this season has been of the highest standard – Battlefield's inappropriate din notwithstanding.
And so to Ace and The Doctor in their final hurrah. '80s companions had generally had a raw deal. There was none of the detailed characterisation that had gone into companions such as Jo or Zoe. Either they tended to be whiny cutouts (Tegan), annoying brats (Adric and to an extent, Mel) or hapless booby pin-ups (Peri). Ace fortunately broke the mould and enjoyed one of the best character arcs given to a companion for a long time. In the beginning, Ace was no more than a stereotypical stroppy teenager, shouting “Ace!” and “Bilgebag!” at the top of her voice. But over her last three stories, we get to see her grow from a kid into a young woman. Survival squares the circle of Ace's journey – her possession and Karra's temptation, if you were so inclined, could represent Ace's maturity and as some have commented, acknowledgement of her sexuality. There's also more of a grown-up attitude prevalent in Ace – she is openly upset at the death of Karra and the apparent demise of The Doctor. She's not afraid to be openly frightened either, unlike in the past when she covered up her real feelings with blustering cliches. “I felt like I could run forever,” she says at the end of the story, acknowledging the changes that have gone on. It's a shame that the cancellation means that Ace never gets a proper departure, but Survival is still a good last story, and Sophie Aldred's performance is a joy.
"Sylvester's Time Lord may not be as well remembered as others, but for me personally, the combination of his quirky eccentricity, off-the-wall humour and quiet contemplation make him an excellent Doctor"
Same goes for Sylvester McCoy in his last full story. There's less of the manipulation and more of the contemplative darkness. His quieter moments are particularly good, especially when he realises that something's up with Ace (“Ace, come back, come home”). He gels well with Anthony Ainley, and their quiet talks in part two are notable standouts. OK, so the final “If we fight like animals, we die like animals!” bellow is a bit OTT, but then this cuts to the rather amusing scene in which he's left kneeling in the middle of a Perivale road and looking like a fugitive from a loony bin. Like Colin's Doctor, we'll never really get to see the full extent of the 7th Doctor's trip on TV. You could – if you were inclined – read about him in the rather heavy-going New Adventures, but on TV, we'd never get to see the apex of the Cartmel Masterplan or how much darker his personality could get. As it is, we'll see him briefly listening to stuck records and then getting shot down in a hail of bullets in Chinatown, San Francisco. Sylvester's Time Lord may not be as well remembered as others, but for me personally, the combination of his quirky eccentricity, off-the-wall humour and quiet contemplation make him an excellent Doctor.
And so Ace and The Doctor return to the TARDIS in a story that's just as much about home as it is about giant cats and evolution. The Master's looking for a place away from the Cheetah People planet that he can call home. The ragtag bunch of Perivale refugees want to get back home. And Ace reaffirms the fact that home for her isn't Perivale, but in a rackety old police box. The final speech from The Doctor reinforces this nicely in an open ending - “Come on Ace, we've got work to do!” And so apparently that was the end of Doctor Who – in hindsight, it was just a pause before a brief awakening before another lengthy pause before a fully-fledged revival. As it is, Survival is a perfect final chapter with an optimistic outlook for a somewhat uncertain future.
Reviews of New Who begin next Wednesday, with 'Rose'. Before that - Paul McGann...
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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