Monday, 5 October 2009

Doctor Who: Earthshock

Part One

“Too many people have died for you to play the fool.”

We open with some unusually hardboiled potholers wearing skiing goggles round their necks, soon revealed to be military types investigating the disappearance of some other, presumably less hardboiled, potholer types. It’s all very hardboiled. Did I mention this story starts off very hardboiled? Because we’ll be seeing an awful lot of hardboiledness.

The now obligatory early TARDIS scene gets the now obligatory token reference to the previous story out of the way, and gets on with a bit of conflict between Adric and the Doctor, whose relationship has been interestingly dysfunctional since the Doctor’s regeneration. It’s as if Adric now no longer sees the much younger-looking Doctor as a father figure but as a rival for the position of alpha male. This may seem absurd if you’re not Adric, of course, as he’s just an awkward teenager with increasing tendencies towards acting like an arse, but it might explain his behaviour. It’s either that or a lax grip on the regulars’ characterisation by the script editor.

Oh, and all this happens in Adric’s room. Are we going to see the full set by the end of the season?

Adric wants to go back to E-Space and, for some reason, Terradon, although it was explained in Full Circle that it’s got nothing to do with him. Suddenly the Doctor’s casual dismissal of Romana’s ethical queries about taking Adric away from his own universe in Warrior’s Gate is coming home to roost. Perhaps that’s why he throws such a strop, leaving Tegan and Nyssa to play the role of grown-ups this week.

Anyway, the TARDIS lands, it’s 2526, they’re underground and they see some dinosaur fossils. Lovely. Foreshadowing, anyone? We get nasty black robots, killing, and general hardboiledness. It’s all rather effectively done, with the device of having Walters above ground with the scanner working well to increase the tension. It’s all very Alien and very generic early 80s action movie, but this is a very well constructed opener. It’s all a bit hardboiled, though.

We end, in what is possibly the most spoiled cliffhanger of all time, with some Cybermen. They’re back!

Part Two

“You know, I find this situation so bizarre. There’s no purpose for it.”

I think this is where we get our first “Brave heart, Tegan”. But mostly, it’s where we get our first glimpse of the Cybermen as redesigned for the 80s, with David Banks, “excellent”, fist shaking and non-monotonous voices. They’re somehow less symbolic of the body horror intrinsic to the Cybermen then the 60s models were, in spite of the nice touch of the visible organic chins behind the glass jaws, but to balance this they’re chunkier and more physically threatening. The visible chins are simultaneously a problem though, because as soon as the Cybermens’ already worrying increased vulnerability to gold becomes apparent, the glass jaws lend themselves rather too easily to crap and obvious metaphors like what I’m using now.

Oh, and we get our first “I know that object.” Brilliant!”

It’s been a while since we had a parade of clips from earlier stories so the fanwank here is excellent, although the Cybermen seem to have junked their copy of Tomb of the Cybermen. There’s a problem here though- Revenge of the Cybermen was quite unequivocally set on a beacon built in the “late 29th, early 30th” century, and this is equivocally 2526. Now, lack of obsessive detail to continuity among the production team would of course be unthinkable, so we must seek an alternative explanation. Have these Cybermen travelled from the future?

The story ends with some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the Doctor and Adric have made up (er, yay!) and the bad news is the appearance of the horribly miscast Beryl Reid. No disrespect to her, but this is the first time the alleged JN-T syndrome of horribly miscast guest “stars” seems to rear its head. Till, I’ll keep an open mind as the era continues.

Part Three

“I’m just a mouth on legs!”

The Cyberleader declares that the Doctor “must suffer for our past defeats”. Good to know they’re as emotionless as ever. And the bit with the Cybermen sealed inside plastic bags actually shocked me almost as much as it amused me with its blatant disregard for good health and safety procedure. Did no one think of the kids watching? Could that even be screened today?

Amusingly, the freighter’s crew are all a bunch of cynical jobsworths, which in no way dissuades me from my view that Eric Saward may possibly have seen Alien at some point. Oh, and the fact that Ringway turns out to be a traitor leads me to believe he may well have seen some previous Cybermen stories. There’s a lot that’s traditional about this story now that I stop to think of it, with the Cybermens’ appearances being rationed until they appear in force halfway through the story. And we also have a first wave, admittedly just of black robots, who are defeated early on only for a much bigger wave to turn up later on. It’d all be very '60s, if not for the fact that it’s very '80s.

Part Four

“Now I’ll never know if I was right.”

The Cybermens’ dastardly scene is revealed; they plan to put a bomb on the freighter and ram it into Earth, thus disrupting a galactic conference at which their enemies are plotting against them. The fiends! The episode’s very exciting, with lots of tension right up to the end, although we get to pause slightly for the Doctor’s rather good speech on emotions. This almost makes up for the fact that most of the human characters have been referring to the Cybermen as robots, which shouldn’t have happened; the Cybermen haven’t been seen for ages, so the script should be making it very clear to the casual viewer that this is exactly what they’re not.

Oh, and the boy Adric snuffs it. The script has quite a lot of fun with the old dramatic irony beforehand, though; Adric shakes the Doctor’s hand as he leaves and says goodbye, while assuring Tegan that he’ll see her soon. He’s starting to remind me of the character Dead Meat from that excellent film Hot Shots.

The freighter goes back in time 65 million years to the time of the K/T boundary, where it’s neatly revealed that the freighter crashing into Earth will become part of the existing historical pattern, in scenes a little too similar to Saward’s own The Visitation. And then it all starts happening thick and fast. There are Cybermen in the TARDIS. The Doctor shoots one repeatedly with a gun- he’s always doing that sort of thing. And Adric’s use of the gold in his badge to kill a Cyberman is simultaneously great for adding to the heroism of his final sacrifice and awful for the credibility of the Cybermen. But that’s for the future.

Adric’s death manages to actually be quite affecting and not at all bathetic, which I wasn’t expecting. And the silent credits are a nice touch.

Part Five (DVD only)
Indisputably the finest episode of Doctor Who, nay, television drama, ever to exist. Utterly sublime in its superiority. But sadly I’m not going to count it towards the story’s overall score as such things are Just Simply Not Done. It’s definitely canon, mind. So there.

This is very fast-paced, very well-structured, and with a sense for the natural beats of the storytelling that so elude Christopher H. Bidmead and that RTD does so well- it’s generally very well-written. But at the same time, it’s also very, very hard-boiled- did I mention that? Because the guest characters are all required to act in this hard-boiled manner, there’s no real depth to them. It’s all dated since the 80s in the same way the work of Frank Miller has- it’s still enjoyable, but no longer seems as big or clever as it did, and it often makes me laugh at inappropriate moments because of its unintentional boys’ own silliness. Still, a good ‘un. 4/5.

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