Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Earthshock written by Eric Saward and directed by Peter Grimwade

This story in a nutshell: The Cybermen are back and a million fan boys scream like big girls in excitement.

An English Gentleman: People always cite Kinda as the strongest story for Davison's Doctor in his first season but he is mostly ineffectual as a protagonist in that story, threatened and patronised and not treated very seriously by anybody. It’s Earthshock where Davison really comes into his own for me; commanding his audience and providing some exciting and tense moments. Watch how he grins quietly at seeing the Death mask from The Visitation and the double helix neck wear from Kinda. He is furious at Adric for vocalising his personal faults; his lack of explanation (he does say ‘I’ll explain later' more than any other Doctor I can recall) and failing to get Tegan home. I'm pleased that he doesn’t return the favour and list Adric’s failings because this story would have to stretch to a ten parter and that is all it would be about. With Adric whining about being homesick and the Doctor stamping his feet and refusing to go back into E-Space it is like having two overgrown children in the TARDIS at each others throats. Adric thinks that since his regeneration the Doctor has become decidedly immature (when the truth is the reverse – Adric was almost tolerable when there was a chance that the Doctor might have kicked the crap out of him in the towering form of Tom Baker whereas as soon as fair fellow Davison took over Adric starting behaving like a patronising twat). Davison is fantastic at suggesting the urgency of the situation, both in dashing about like a madman and through the intensity of his performance as he races against time to deactivate the bomb. Ultimately it is the Doctor who is the bigger man and apologises to Adric first. Even under the threat of death he has the arrogance of a Time Lord. The Cybermen want him to suffer for his past defeats, which is going to be some punishment given their ineptitude in the past. His reaction to seeing the Cybermen marching through the freighter is chilling, brilliantly judged by Davison. ‘For some people small and beautiful events are what life is all about!’ – that’s a great line that could only come from the mouth of this Doctor, I honestly cannot imagine either Baker either side of Davison saying that convincingly in character. Look at the Doctor’s face as they are going to kill Tegan, all that facetiousness has dropped away and for once he looks genuinely terrified. It's another example of the Doctor behaving in an uncompromising and violent before Colin Baker took over the role - here he poisons and then blasts the crap out of the Cyberleader and somehow that passes muster whereas much of the violence towards the antagonists is questioned and vilified in the next era. Perhaps it is because the fifth Doctor looks genuinely mournful when he slaughters his enemies. The Doctor’s silence at the end of the story speaks volumes and is far more effective than when they actually do talk about it in the next story.Sometimes saying nothing is far more moving.

Maths Nerd: Unfortunately rather than accentuating his positives (there must be something), Eric Saward goes for the opposite approach by opening the story with Adric pouting and sulking in his bedroom that nobody likes him or has any time for him. It is hardly enamouring him to the audience, is it? He’s betrayed the Doctor more often than he has been his ally, treats Nyssa (who is his intellectual superior) like an idiot and is painfully sexist towards Tegan. He’s tired of being an outsider and yet does nothing but encourage that treatment from others and is an irritating know it all (watch as he tells them all the year they have landed in and try not to clench your fist and want to ram it down his throat). Adric bitches at the scanner screen that shows the Doctor departing into the caves. Matthew Waterhouse cannot even talk to himself convincingly, sounding like a squeaky mouse as the console makes weird squeaking noises. How can you look unconvincing throwing a rock? Waterhouse has a rare gift for looking stiff on screen unmatched by any other actor to have appeared on the show. Adric demands to know what is going on when the Doctor is trying to disarm a bomb – there is a time and a place, lad. ‘I’m hungry!’ he whines. He doesn’t even want to go home and just put on that display of angst to make a point and suggests he might change his mind one day (I believe that supposed to illicit some kind of fear in the audience when all it invites is disappointment). Adric finally becomes useful and applies his intelligence as soon as they are captured on the freighter. It feels as though Saward has suddenly remembered he is about to kill the kid so we might as well see him achieve something before he goes. Adric helps the Doctor to trap the Cyberman in the door and bravely agrees to stay behind whilst they head back to the TARDIS and comes commendably close to averting the ship's course. Although of course had he achieved that it would have been his most stupid action yet, wiping out the entire human race and giving birth to a potential race of intelligent, self-perpetuating dinosaurs. Daft old Adric misses his chance to escape – what is so weird about the final ten minutes of Earthshock is that it should take the extreme action of his death for me to feel anything (but irritation) about this character. The worst companion gets one of the best ever exits, there’s irony for you.

Mouth on Legs: The story where this phrase was coined. What is going on in the universe to bring to bear a moment that sees the Doctor and Adric having an immature bitch fight and Tegan watching on as the sensible parent? There does seem to have been some deliberate progression plotted into the season for the character, where her desire to return home is lessened (she mentions in the last story that she wanted to stay with the crew for a while), she has started to enjoy her adventures a little more (Black Orchid again) and her melodramatic tendencies have been watered down (Fielding's performances in the latter half of the season are far more palatable than those of Four to Doomsday and The Visitation). The next story sees her return home (and to Heathrow no less) and should have seen the end of her adventures with the Doctor, her voyage reaching it's natural conclusion. It is marvellous for Tegan to be able to strip out of that hideous uniform and rough for a while in military fatigues. If her psychotic attack on a Tereleptil taught me anything in The Visitation it is that this woman is dangerous when riled and that is taken to the next level in Earthshock. She even gets a great Ripley-esque moment where she rushes up to an injured Cyberman and blasts the crap out of it at close range. It was halfway through the fourth episode when I realised that Tegan had not annoyed me even once throughout the entire story (normally it is within the first couple of minutes of episode one) which is something of a minor breakthrough. All it takes is some reasonable characterisation and pleasant demeanor. Given their biting, back stabbing relationship I am not surprised it is Tegan who breaks down at Adric’s death. Perhaps there was more affection there than we thought.

Alien Orphan: Poor Nyssa, stuck in the TARDIS again whilst everybody else gets to go out and have all the fun. Thank goodness Big Finish have given the character more opportunities. Nyssa is dismayed at having landed on Earth again. I love how Nyssa takes charge in the TARDIS – ‘I want things to settle down before we go out.’ Probably the most emotional moment in the whole story comes when Nyssa reacts dramatically to Kyle’s senseless death – Sarah Sutton looks devastated and it is impossible not to think back to her peaceful life on Traken at this point and wonder if the Doctor isn’t damaging her with these violent adventures.

The Good Stuff: Earthshock opens with the ultimate Doctor Who image – a bare quarry! There can be no doubt at what you are watching. Looking at the first episode as a whole it is the archetypal opening instalment with people dying in some caves, the Doctor being caught and blamed, plenty of atmosphere and a monster reveal at the cliffhanger. It has always been a winning formula and directed this moodily it is one of the finest examples. Somebody has remembered that if you turn the lights right down it creates a sense of atmosphere and dread and there is one moment in particular that stands out in this respect, the troopers emerging into a mist-filled cavern with the camera tracking their movements slowly, the androids entering behind them, their egg shaped heads gleaming. To give Grimwade his credit the first episode is packed full of memorable imagery like that. I love the ickiness of Snyder’s remains; it really looks like she has been reduced to blood and acid. Suddenly the danger feels real. The first cliffhanger is still one of the best and you can imagine the excited screams of a million geeks as the sleekly re-designed Cybermen are revealed. Given the fact that multi-camera techniques in a studio usually means that action is fairly stilted, the attack on the androids is dynamically directed and I especially like the impressive visual of their heads exploding in a shower of slow-motion sparks. Beryl Reid wouldn’t be anybody but JNT’s first chance to play Briggs but you have to admit she really goes for it. I don’t find anything offensive about her performance even if she didn't have a clue what she was talking about. The freighter sets match the caves for atmosphere and with some clever direction it feels vast and spooky, the ideal place to hide a Cyber Army. The Cybermen feel like a genuinely unstoppable force as they murder their way through the crew in Earthshock, if there is one thing the show always manages to get right about these creatures it is their numbers and their relentless advance. The siege on the bridge is an example of how clever editing can make a scene far more tense than it otherwise would be with cuts to the Cybermen at each door and the Doctor's voluminous reaction. It is one memorable set piece after another in Earthshock, the Cyberman bleeding down the corridor and the guard trapped within the door are both images that linger in the mind. Casting my mind back to the Williams era and I cannot imagine that period of the show ever managing to pull off a monster reveal as effective as the moment when the Cybermen burst free of the silo and surround Tegan and Scott in the shadowy vaults of the freighter. It looks gorgeous and is tense and exciting, JNT's stock and trade. The Cybermen want to destroy the Earth to put an end to a conference that would see several worlds unifying to defeat them. You have to give Eric Saward a round of applause for thinking up a decent reason for all this carnage as I can think of quite a few stories that never bothered. There's a terrific jump out of your seat moment when the soldier is suddenly grabbed by the throat outside the TARDIS - we have simply never had Doctor Who like this before. Earthshock is one of those rare occasions where you get a crushing sense of dread as you approach the climax, as Adric is left behind and Doctor runs out of time to save him. That feeling of anxiety is usually reserved for the regeneration stories. Adric's death is beautifully handled, clutching his brother’s belt as he plummets into the Earth. Nyssa’s scream always gives me goosebumps and Tegan’s tears are very affecting. Suddenly the TARDIS doesn’t feel such a safe place to live after all.

The Bad Stuff: I don’t think the soap opera scenes added anything to this season – they were handled much better in the very first season  but here the show feels more like Crossroads than ever. All we need is for Tegan and Nyssa to reveal their secret affair and Adric to turn out to be the Doctor’s son. ‘The Earth collided with something from space’ informs the Doctor in a scene that screams of setting up future developments. James Warwick is super butch (‘Too many people have died for you to play the fool!’ and ‘it could be…rough!’) and never entirely believable. Having recently watched The Nightmare Man it is clear that this was all an affectation and that he can take to the screen in a far more naturalistic fashion. A lot of the rocks in the caves wobble spectacularly. ‘You could hide an army down here…’ – there is foreshadowing and then there is hitting your audience over the head with future developments. Peter Grimwade is right, the musical score is often detrimental to the action. And sounds a lot like a farting competition at times. Cyber moon boots? There are a couple of hilariously gossipy Cyberman guards standing about making emphatic hand gestures. The Cybermen bursting through into the bridge is such an effective moment that it is a shame the door is clear made from balsa wood. Things take a turn for the weird when the freighter starts travelling through time in the last episode. Even for a show that can be about anything and going anywhere this feels as if it comes from absolutely nowhere. How funny is Adric tentatively tapping at that soon-to-explode console?

Result: One of the most dynamically directed classic Doctor Who serials with all the crew working to make Earthshock as exciting and atmospheric as possible. It’s a remarkably sturdy production with a terrific look; both the caves and the freighter are realistic, shadowy locations and everything from the costumes to the hardware add to the sense of reality that Grimwade is determined to push. The Cybermen make an impressive return to the series, their appearance is given excellent build up in the unforgettably tense first episode and their strength of numbers and insanely ambitious plans are more impressive than ever. Peter Davison gives the most assured performance of his first season and the regulars all get a moment to shine. Eric Saward might not be the most sophisticated of scriptwriters but the way he stacks the threats in this story so they escalate towards that unforgettable climax is rather elegant and he includes many impressive set pieces along the way. None of the guest characters make much of an impact but Earthshock isn’t supposed to be a good character drama; its all about explosions, deaths and a whopping great threat to the Earth and on that level it is one of the best examples the show ever gave us. Featuring one of the best first cliffhangers and definitely the finest companion exit, Earthshock takes risks and wins and sees an annoying companion depart the series in true style: 9/10


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David Pirtle said...

Adric only genuinely flipped on the Doctor in Four to Doomsday, and even then it was only out of naivete. Every other 'defection' was just a ploy. It's just that he tried that ploy so often that, combined with his one genuine betrayal, it became all he's remembered for, that and his constant whining whilst with Davison.