Written by Eric Saward, directed by Peter Grimwade
Transmitted: 8 – 16 March 1982
The TARDIS has become far too uncomfortable and the Doctor needs space to think. Adric has impertinently insisted on charting a path home through the CVE to the dimension of his origin, something that could rip the craft apart, and he refuses to listen to reason. Finding solace in a cave rife with dinosaur bones, the Doctor attempts to find some peace, but becomes a suspect in the grisly murder of an archaeological survey team. Trapped by investigating military, the Doctor tries to explain himself, but is interrupted by a pair of faceless androids firing death rays from their palms. There is much more to the strange situation that the Doctor can guess, and he will soon realize that the planet Earth is the target of a deadly attack from a very familiar foe from his past.
The nineteenth season of Doctor Who was a reinvention of the program, a much needed jab in the arm from the seven year stretch of Tom Baker. Yet the year to date was riddled with production problems regarding scripts, rotating script editors and more. John Nathan-Turner had lost Christopher H. Bidmead and Antony Read in short order, but gained Eric Saward who was massaging the script ‘The Enemy Within’ by Christopher Priest which would have involved the Doctor facing off against a weird creature that lived in the heart of the TARDIS. It would have also seen the departure of Adric, a character intended as an Artful Dodger-type who had fallen rather flat. Yet the script failed to come together and with nothing else planned, Saward swooped in with ‘Sentinel,’ a story that would eventually morph into Earthshock, the story that brought sufficient impact to the nineteenth season for new fans and old and brought a beloved monster out of cold storage.
The opening episode is among the best in the program’s history as it starts off normal as you like with the TARDIS bicker fest and the Doctor landing in an unknown situation. But the supporting cast of characters searching through the caves adds tension. The Doctor has inadvertently wandered into a crime scene, one in which the killers are still in residence. As he approaches the danger, so does the rescue party who are being systematically picked off as they descend deeper into the labyrinth.
The innocuous title of the story leaves the identity of the killers a mystery to the viewer as well as the Doctor. So determined was John Nathan-Turner to keep the reveal of the Cybermen a secret that he refused a Radio Times cover featuring the newly redesigned Cybermen and blocked off the viewing gallery. He was also determined to keep Matthew Waterhouse’s departure a secret by including him in the following story as a flashback.
What a cunning guy!
Peter Davison’s first year was very unusual. The opening conclusion to Logopolis, Castrovalva, was a mind-bender, and Christopher Bailey’s Kinda too far ahead of its time for some. The more traditional Four to Doomsday and the Visitation served as steadier ground, but there was something missing from the program that had been absent for some time. In many ways, Doctor Who goes through periods of introspection and reinvention, looking to its past for inspiration. In this case, Earthshock was not just a return of the Cybermen, but a hearkening back to the Troughton era when monsters lurked in shadows and lumbered toward the viewer, hands out-stretched in horrifying deadly purpose. Likewise the Doctor himself had become more flawed, not at all the flippant Superman Tom Baker had portrayed who laughed in the face of danger and offered sweets to glowing skulls.
In his first year as the Doctor. Davison was given little direction on how to portray the character other than ‘not Tom Baker.’ His performance can often come off as overwhelmed and breathless, but if you look deeper there is a lot going on there. This Doctor is a somewhat reluctant adventurer who inherited the laundry of his past. He seems more drawn toward tranquil pass times such as cricket and drinking tea than fighting evil. Yet when he encounters evil forces or insidious plots, he is more likely to assimilate the situation and only comes to the rescue in the eleventh hour. This was Davison’s justification behind the all beige costume with red piping that visually subdued his presence rather than popping out as Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee had.
At only 30, Davison was a celebrated TV actor at the time and looked at the role of the Doctor as too good of an opportunity to pass up. More attuned to playing roles that are informed by background, it is impressive to see an unusual version of the Doctor that is both charming and socially awkward all at once. Surrounded by companions, he continually disappoints them in the face of adversity! It’s no wonder that the phrase ‘Brave heart, Tegan,’ was coined by this incarnation to plead for courage and optimism when facing insurmountable odds (a line improvised by Davison on the spot).
Peter Davison’s Doctor was a genius (evidenced is in the fact that he defuses the Cyber-bomb and turns the hatch leading to the bridge into an unstable substance trapping the invading Cybermen), yet his mind is frazzled. He can be seen calculating and plotting outcomes at several points through the story, but in the end he is just a man who is unusually adept with mechanics. It is his technical skill and nerves of steel that lead to the destruction of the androids and the defusing of the bomb they are guarding. But the mystery remains, what was the bomb for and who put it there?
In deep space, an old enemy has been battling him at every move, frustrated by this stranger’s intelligence. The Cybermen have yet to show their hand, but are unmasked to the viewer in a truly shocking climax.
After the Cybermen are revealed as the main threat, Saward wisely reminds the audience just who they are. This is clever as the Cybermen had not been seen since 1974 and before that not since 1968!
A beloved monster second only to the Daleks in popularity, the Cybermen were mostly a 1960’s craze along with the Yeti and Ice Warriors. But through the use of rarely seen flashback footage, we are reminded that these creeps have fought the Doctor many times before. This is a big deal in an age when repeats were rare, the internet non-existent and most of the episodes lost.
As some fans put it, this short sequence in which the Cyber Leader recounts the identity of the Doctor and his race’s many encounters with him in the past creates a connection all the way back to the beginning of Doctor Who, making it feel like one ongoing story (for the first time in easily ten years).
The Doctor tracks the signal to the bomb to a freighter in deep space where another mystery waits. Again, the Doctor wanders around and is again a prime suspect for murder as he is found next to a pair of corpses in the freighter’s hold. But there is more going on than anyone suspects. The captain is more concerned with her pay for delivering the cargo and her twitchy security officer Ringway is making her life miserable. Power failures run rampant through the ship and a heightened level of security surrounding Earth means more delays. Little does she know that she is carrying an army of Cybermen to Earth to attack a special meeting of Earth forces. It’s an impressive twist on a contemporary plot idea in which terrorists commandeer a plane for safe passage to their target.
Whereas in previous stories the Cybermen are shown as cunning and cruel creatures ruled by logic, they are downright ruthless here, even stating that the Doctor must ‘suffer’ for his past actions. Saward has come under for for giving emotions to an emotionless race, but I think that is a misunderstanding of the Cybermen. They do not possess a full spectrum of emotions, but they are driven toward their goal, much like a predator is compelled to kill out of instinct. The Cyber Leader toys with the Doctor by threatening to kill his companions not because he enjoys watching the Doctor squirm but to remind his enemy of the weakness of emotion and attachment.
The actual first meeting between the Doctor and the Cyber Leader is very impressive. Actor David Banks towers over Davison and clad as he is in a modified flight suit, appears strangely alien and bizarre. The Doctor attempts to find some kind of emotional connection with the Cybermen which is laughable since they are so INhuman, yet he tries out of sheer desperation. All of this heightens the drama as he is no longer the man with all the answers, just a man determined to fight the good fight as best as he can. From this moment on, the Doctor is clutching at straws and his options are rapidly slipping away. When he must finally surrender his TARDIS to the Cybermen and leave Adric behind on the freighter, he is overcome with anxiety, dumbfounded with impotence.
Again, portraying the Doctor as being this powerless (without later saving the day) would never happen today.
So desperate is the Doctor that he at one point raises a gun at a Cyberman (an image that was weirdly reproduced for posters that year). Saward’s script shows just how remarkably smart and resourceful the Doctor is, but in the end, the Cybermen have prepared for every eventuality, through the use of the androids, the bomb, the mole on the freighter and finally by taking control of the ship’s computer with technology that cannot be hacked without sufficient time. The Doctor has lost. This is such an important moment that it carries over into Davison’s final year when he chooses to kill Davros and later the Master! He finally realizes the stakes of the game he has been playing and how lucky he had been up to Adric’s death.
Earthshock is full of amazing images and while the cast complained that director Peter Grimwade was a taskmaster one cannot argue with the final result, a spine-tingling thriller that would be remembered for generations. It brought back the Cybermen in a big way in much the same way that Resurrection of the Daleks brought menace back to the Daleks two years later. Sadly, the Cybermen would become rather boring and lose their impact in subsequent outings, but Earthshock saw them at their menacing best!
The soundtrack by Malcolm Clarke of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is nothing short of stunning. Yes, the same madman behind the atmospheric and odd Sea Devils soundtrack provided the moody audio landscape for this one. After some of the strange incidental music by Paddy Kingsland which was mainly evocative of synthesized flutes, it was something else entirely to hear throbbing beats, metallic clangs and strained warbling mechanical wailing. The alien atmosphere and sense of dread is evident through all four parts from the dark and mysterious caves to the claustrophobic confines of the star freighter. Topping this all off is a signature tune of the Cybermen, an eerily threatening march that clearly announced a classic monster had returned.
Of course one of the main impacts of Earthshock is the loss of Adric which was played incredibly well all things considered. Given that the companions of modern Who are constantly portrayed as the most special people who have ever lived, it is an interesting choice to have the Doctor and Adric at odds with each other throughout their relationship rather than have Adric raised to some kind of near-mythical importance. In fact, most fans despised Adric and still do. It’s the age old case of a too clever audience refusing to take the bait of accepting a smart kid as being ‘just like them.’
Throughout Earthshock, it becomes clear that the stakes are higher than usual and that the Doctor is out of his depths, wandering into a mystery beginning with a slaughtering of innocents to a devastating bomb to an entire space craft full of kill crazy robots. THEN things get really bad when the Cybermen turn the craft into a time traveling explosive aimed at the planet Earth! As became the usual trend in later Eric Saward scripts, the death toll is rather high. However, in difference to his later work such as Resurrection of the Daleks and Revelation of the Daleks, the sacrifice by Adric in Earthshock is a noble one. Granted, Adric was hamstrung by fate, but he bravely faces his fate rather than pleading for rescue. It’s quite touching (and something we would not see today, I wager). Tegan and Nyssa plead with the Doctor to save him, but sadly, this is one point in which he cannot intervene. The Web of Time is resolute and irrefutable, making Adric’s death part of a landmark in history.
As a return to form for a classic baddie, Earthshock gets top marks. The Cybermen are creepy, lurk in the shadows and attack en masse. They cause high levels of destruction, but humanity survives by a hair’s breadth. What strikes me as particularly chilling is the mocking laughter of the Cyberman as he fires his rifle at the ship computer Adric had been working on.
The first death of a companion since the 1960’s, Earthshock was unnerving and rattled viewers who suddenly wrote in to defend the previously unloved character. The ratings soared which is unfortunate due to the lackluster finale of the season, Timeflight.
To celebrate the return of the Cybermen and continue the exploration of the classic series, Earthshock will be shown this Sunday, May 26th, at 8:00 pm ET/PT as part of the Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited – The Fifth Doctor on BBC America.
I have been paying some attention to BBC America scheduling of these classic stories and am pleased with the choices they have made (though personally I would not have gone for the Aztecs for Hartnell). This weekend is a special thrill as the Cybermen will be returning in Nightmare in Silver.