Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Serial 121: Earthshock

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companions: Tegan Jovanka, Nyssa, Adric

Written by: Eric Saward
Directed by: Peter Grimwade

Background & Significance: Sometimes Doctor Who lacks punch. I mean, let's be honest. Doctor Who was designed to be an edutainment Saturday night family programme. It's designed to be inherently new-viewer friendly. Anyone can pick up any story and be able to watch and follow and understand it.

As such, the show is resistant to major status quo shifts and changes in terms of the overall scope of the narrative. Sure there have been major changes, but very little in the show's whole is dependent on past continuity. All you need to know is there's a weird old alien dude named "The Doctor" and he has a blue box that travels through time and space so he goes around with his companion(s) and gets in adventures and that's all you really need to know to get started.

But what happens when something major happens? What happens when something happens to The Doctor? Aren't his regenerations almost always considered legendary and powerful, regardless of the quality of the episode? The fact that The Doctor dies gives the story weight and stakes in ways that the show, to be honest, rather lacks in many places. How many times can you end a cliffhanger with someone pointing a gun at the Doctor and saying "mwahahaha" before you realize that "No. They can't kill off The Doctor. That's stupid." Hint: not many.

But let's say we have something happen. Let's say a companion dies in the line of duty.

It's almost hyperbole to say companion deaths over the course of the show are rare. By my count, the rate of companion deaths is... five? Maybe? There's only been one companion death in the modern era (and even that was retconned) and between the show's creation and Peter Davison (eighteen years) there were only two companion deaths, both in the same serial and with characters we barely knew. They were deaths for shock value, not deaths that mattered and hit on a great emotional level.

"Earthshock" is different. "Earthshock" by itself is a good story, but couple it with the death of a companion and the story becomes nothing short of legendary and wonderfully pyrrhic. It carries weight and is powerfully affecting, regardless of how you feel towards the character in question.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

We open in a desertish area, one littered with soldiers and a base camp from which to work. They seem to be looking for something that’s stuck in a tunnel leading to some caves, but there’s nothing.

One of the women, Professor Kyle, a scientist, asks how a particular piece of machinery works. The soldier setting up the equipment responds by saying it’s a device that tracks bio-electrical activity, specifically, the heartbeats of mammalian lifeforms.

So they’re looking for someone.

The technician turns on the screen and checks it out, saying they’re not reading anything inside the caves. The leader, Lieutenant Scott, asks if anyone could be, perhaps, masking their signature. The technician says no, perhaps lead would interfere, but they’d need a lot of it.

Professor Kyle starts crying and freaking out, saying she knows that everyone inside, her co-workers, are all probably dead. She says they were just examining it (archeologists, you know the drill) when they were attacked. She managed to get out, but it looks like she was the only one.

We then get an ominous shot of two dudes decked in all black walking through the tunnels. Kinda creepy.

The soldiers prepare to enter the caves, Lt. Scott asking one of his soldiers for her opinion on Professor Kyle and her sanity. They both agree that she seems to be telling the truth, as far as she knows it, anyways. They’ll just keep her at the front. For safeness.

The soldiers enter the cave and start making for wherever it is they’re going, unaware of the fact that they are being followed, or at least monitored, by the black-suits. Outside, the people scanning for life signs get the occasional random flare on the scanner. That’s not supposed to happen. How strange.

We cut to The TARDIS where The Doctor enters Adric’s room to show him something he found about “The Black Orchid” (which was their previous adventure). But Adric’s being all emo. The Doctor starts asking him what’s the matter, to which Adric replies “I’m tired of everyone thinking I’m such a joke”.

Despite the insane metatext of that, The Doctor assures him that he isn’t, but Adric’s beyond the point of reasoning. It’s been no secret that The Doctor doesn’t make as much time for him as everyone else, nor is it beyond noticing that, despite The Doctor’s promise to spend more time with Adric, he’s not been good about his promise to Tegan to take her back home.

And this makes for frustrated Doctor and Adric bickering and fighting, again.

We cut back to the tunnels, where Professor Kyle talks about how the expedition was cursed, tools would go missing, lighting fixtures would be knocked down, all that stuff… Which is very peculiar.

Back in the TARDIS, The Doctor erupts into the console room, furious at Adric’s request to go home, back to E-Space, despite the fact that Adric knows (and The Doctor reminds him) that the TARDIS is not designed for E-Space.

Adric offers to do the calculations that would get them there, but The Doctor is still reluctant, especially given the fact that getting to E-Space involves both the calculations of random and negative coordinates. He does, however, allow Adric use of the TARDIS’s computer system to help him out saying, “I’m not going to wait around while you plot the course to your own destruction.”

Ominous foreshadowing?

The TARDIS sets down in one of the tunnels (and we find out it’s the year 2526) and The Doctor heads outside for a walk while Adric works out the calculations. Nyssa and Tegan head outside to try and talk to The Doctor.

As this is happening, down in the tunnels, one of the soldiers falls and requires medical attention. They tell the scanners that they’re sending her back to the surface. And that’s when the communications go down.

When they come back up, the scanner notices the two soldiers heading out of the caves, the main party, and a random set of three new dots, whom we recognize as The Doctor and his companions.

Not taking any chances, Scott tells his squad to prepare arms for action.

The Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan examine some dinosaur bones fossilized in the walls of the caves. We then get a really nice small conversation about dinosaurs and how they ruled the earth and died out from a giant something or another, leading The Doctor to remember that he’s always wanted to find out.

In the caves, the wounded party doesn’t appear to be making much progress in their exit and one of the scanner people (Snyder) heads down into the caves to try and find them and pull them out. But the screen does that flare again, which is a pretty bad sign.

And, sure enough, as Snyder approaches, there’s a scream. She races off, but the blips go out, including hers and all that’s left of Snyder is a bloody puddle, her torn-to-shred clothes, and her nametag. Which is okay. The nametag came out of her salary. It’s a bitch to replace those things.

And amidst all this, those weird black figures are standing over her remains.

The remaining scanner sends word to Lt. Scott that the three soldiers are dead. He sends off a few more to go check it out.

The Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan continue their discussion of the dinosaurs and their extinction. I only mention this because The Doctor grins and calls Tegan’s ancestors “primitive”. Which is funny, because I’m still convinced that The Doctor hates Tegan as much as I do. He’s just much kinder about it then I am.

As the search party approaches where their comrades went down, the scanner flares again, and the technician-soldier starts tripping. It’s almost too much to handle and he desperately works to figure out what it is. He tells them it’s nearby, and warns them to be on the lookout.

And this leads us to our first youtube, which, I must say, captures the feel of this episode very much. It’s very dark, very moody, very quick with the cutting, and the end of the episode is … I don’t even know how to explain it except to say that like… Just imagine being a kid and watching this and having NO idea. I mean, none. There were no spoilers for this back then because no one knew. It’s just a sucker punch.

Part 2:

With the party under siege by the androids and the soldiers pinned down, The Doctor tells the Lieutenant to have his men all concentrate their fire on one of the androids in one spot. They do, and it manages to damage the android, at least a bit.

The Cybermen, freaking out- (yes, by the way, this is what happens when you don’t watch the youtubes. I’ve moved on. Go watch it. It’s good.) decide to pull the androids out of the action for the time being. They are too valuable to keep in the line of fire where they can be destroyed.

Apparently, it’s in the Cybermen’s budget to only afford two androids.

While this is going on, Adric takes his step out of the TARDIS to go see where The Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa have gotten off to, which leads him right into the main area where the lull in the fighting is happening. He hides behind a rock.

The android’s retreat leads The Doctor to do some hasty thinking. Realizing that it’s the androids’ job to protect the metal panel in the wall, The Doctor advises that the soldiers shoot the panel, throwing the androids’ sense of self-preservation into strife with their directive to protect the panel.

Amidst the confusion of this course of action, Adric hurls a large rock at one of the androids, knocking it down and allowing the soldiers to blast the crap out of the androids, exploding them and leaving the Cybermen’s hatch vulnerable.

With that, The Cyberleader deems it proper to activate the device. One of the Cybermen protests, but the Cyberleader yells at him, telling him the hatch is lost. It’s now or never.

The Doctor starts trying to open the hatch, shoving everyone back and away, so when they are all finally out of the way, they hope to be out of range of the bomb.

That’s right. A bomb.

It arms and activates. The Doctor tells Tegan to usher everyone into the TARDIS, while he and Adric stay behind to disarm the bomb. That is, until he realizes something and rushes off to the TARDIS with everyone else.

The Doctor races into the TARDIS and starts pulling out wires and cables, explaining that the bomb has been activated by remote control, not by the opening of the panel. He attempts to trace the signal back to its origins as the timer dips closer and closer to zero.

Bee tee dubs, the bomb only has a sixty second timer.

The Cybermen watch the countdown, but start to freak out when the timer stops before detonation. Turns out, The Doctor managed to jam the signal, but it’s not going to last for long, especially if whoever it is at the other end decides to boost the signal to override.

Slowly, The Doctor and Adric work to dismantle the bomb, working against the clock as the Cybermen boost the signal enough to reactivate the countdown…

But it’s not enough, and The Doctor manages to disarm the bomb just in time. With the day saved, The Doctor gets back into the TARDIS, tells all the marines to shove off and they can dismantle the bomb, cuz the TARDIS is heading out into deep space to find out where the androids come from.

Lt. Scott refuses to go, though, saying that he wants to get to the bottom of this just as much as The Doctor. He and his marines will join the Doctor and Co. as they travel.

While they’re traveling, there’s a delightful cutaway where the Cyberleader reveals he recognizes the TARDIS and thusly The Doctor, and plays some old clips of The Doctor speaking out against the Cybermen, which is a nice touch. It’s really neat to see these brief snippets from Hartnell and Troughton and Tom Baker as they each yell at their old foe.

And then there’s a nice scene of The Doctor and Adric in which The Doctor tells Adric that, despite their argument earlier, they can go to E-Space and take Adric home if he can calculate a suitable path, which he has. The Doctor is surprised but Adric tells him that he only did it to show that he can. He has no desire to go back to E-Space.

We then cut to a freighter in deep space (one The Cybermen know of), where two members of the crew (Ringway the dude and Berger the woman) discuss the fact that three people on this ship have gone missing. But not to worry too much. The Captain is coming onboard right now…

The TARDIS’s crew lands on the freighter in the cargo hold and The Doctor heads outside with Adric to go check everything out, leaving the rest of the crew behind. They resolve to walk around the cargo bay until someone notices their arrival.

The Captain, Briggs, arrives on the bridge with a transponder code that will let them patch straight through to Earth with no delays at any check points. Turns out that there’s a big major conference on Earth and everyone’s on red alert because of that bomb, hence the long wait to get the clearance she wanted.

Also, I’m pretty sure that she’s a lifelong lipstick lesbian.

The freighter takes off, heading into warp drive as they head back towards Earth and their bonus, which is all the captain seems to care about. She heads off to her cabin, giving the twitchy Ringway permission to double the patrols.

The Doctor and Adric continue to stroll around the cargo bay, unhampered by any patrols and unstopped by anyone who might have seen them on the security footage, which is strange.

At one point they are spotted by Berger on the bridge, who calls the Captain out of her cabin. Ringway investigates the cargo hold for possible intruders, but no one seems able to find The Doctor and Adric.

Giving up, The Doctor and Adric chill out on the stairs, until they hear a scream. They race to the sound as The Captain orders Berger to sound the alarm, indicating that they have intruders.

The Doctor and Adric find the murdered guards stashed between some cargo containers. The Doctor says he recognizes the type of attack, but he can’t figure it out from here. Regardless, they decide to run away from the scene of the crime.

Only to find Ringway, pointing a gun, standing right over them.

Part 3:

Ringway calls in his capturing of The Doctor and Adric. The Captain thanks him and promises him extra bonus just so long as he brings the two prisoners to the bridge, which he does.

As they go, the soldiers on the TARDIS get restless, Lt. Scott in a mind to help out The Doctor. The Cyberleader is unworried about The Doctor, but wants him taken alive, for torture reasons. He activates his personal guard.

On the bridge, Captain Briggs interrogates The Doctor over his protestations that he and Adric are innocent. She doesn’t get too far, though. Berger, the first officer, reports a power surge. Nyssa, on the TARDIS, also picks it up remarking on its proximity and sheer size.

The Doctor tells The Captain about the bomb and how it was triggered from this ship. She doesn’t believe him, but there is another power loss. Berger says it’s happened before, but never on this scale. They trace it to the cargo bay and Briggs sends out a squad to check it out.

As the Cybermen (causers of the power surge) prepare to take the bridge of the freighter, The Doctor urges the Captain to drop them out of warp, which The Captain refuses to do. If they deviate from their path they’ll have to be searched before they can reach Earth because of their heightened security and as a result they’ll lose their bonus.

He realizes that by not stopping, the bomb-planters are receiving a free, safe-passage ride to Earth.

The magnetic field outside the TARDIS subsides and Lt. Scott prepares to head outside to go check things out. Tegan insists she go with them, and because it’s MUCH easier to just agree with her than listen to her bitch and moan all the time, he agrees.

As the squad heads outside and begins searching for the Doctor in the hold, the cameras start to go out one by one, leaving large tracts of the ship invisible to the bridge.

The Captain orders Ringway to arm up the crew and to prepare for… whatever it is they need to prepare for. The power on the ship starts to normalize and the cameras come back online just in time for them to watch the Cyberleader’s squad of Cybermen on the march for the bridge.

There’s also a really great moment where The Doctor realizes it’s the Cybermen and Davison KILLS the delivery of his realization.

A firefight breaks out, the Cybermen managing to take out all of the crew with no casualties or damage on their side. It’s a slaughter.

I would like to point out that the best thing about this is the revelation that after the Cybermen wear shoes with shoelaces, they have moved on to moonboots. Don’t believe me?


Ringway makes it to the bridge and holds everyone at gunpoint, revealing that he’s sold the ship out to the Cybermen. The Doctor jokes that they probably won’t have them paid in gold cuz they’re allergic to the stuff. Kills them.

Adric gets the idea to use his gold-trimmed badge against the Cybermen, but Ringway notices and takes it from him. But then he freaks out cuz he doesn’t see Berger and the Captain and The Doctor manages to get the drop on him and knock him unconscious. They shut the two entryways to the bridge, sealing it off from the Cybermen outside.

The Doctor attempts to make The Captain see reason, but she rationalizes that away with a “there’s only a few of them” defense. They should be able to hold them at bay long enough to reach Earth safely. The authorities can sort it out then.

But that’s when Adric points out that they came out of one of the silos in the hold. And there are 15,000 silos.

Tegan and the Marine squad come across dead freighter crew. And then they notice the Cybermen. Lt. Scott (who I’ve just noticed has a pretty sweet mustache) notices that the dead crew have the same weapons they do (HOW DID A FREIGHTER GET MILITARY GRADE FIREARMS? SOMEONE IS GOING TO GET FIRED. Nevermind. Moving on) and realizes that they’ll have no effect on the Cybermen.

The Cybermen start to cut through the bridge security door. The Doctor works frantically to attempt to stabilize an anti-matter shield over the door to keep the Cybermen out permanently.

And this brings us to our second youtube, with the Cybermen attempting to take control of the bridge and Tegan and the Marines attempting to take out the Cybermen. Also, the end part is awesome.

Part 4:

The Cybermen install a computer to the bridge’s navigation console, locking the coordinates and making them unchangeable. The course is Earth. Nothing can stop them now. The Captain and Berger are confused about why they’re doing this.

The Doctor tells them that he thinks they’re turning the ship into a kamikaze bomb.

As The Doctor had already surmised, their security clearance allows The Cybermen to make it to Earth with little trouble. By the time Earth figures out what’s going on, it’ll be too late to stop them.

Turns out the attack on Earth is designed to assassinate all the various Presidents visiting on Earth for a pact-signing peace conference, one The Cybermen don’t want signed. The disunity caused by this event will lead to strife and allow the Cybermen victory over the separate powers, who, if unified, could destroy them.

Elsewhere on the ship, Tegan, having been separated during the arrival of the reinforcements, attempts to make it back to the Marines, who are heading back to the TARDIS to regroup.

Unfortunately, she’s captured and a sneak attack from the Cybermen sees an attempt to assume control of the TARDIS as the Marine squad gets back inside.

Fortunately, they manage to fend off the Cybermen and keep them off the TARDIS.

Tegan is brought to the bridge by the Cybermen and The Doctor reveals that she is a friend. There’s a really neat conversation starring The Doctor pleading for the power and importance of emotion, something frowned upon by the Cybermen.

To retaliate, the Cyberleader tests The Doctor by putting Tegan up against the wall and ordering to shoot her if he does not cooperate. The Doctor folds, and The Cyberleader taunts him, saying his emotions have just proved a major weakness in his armor.

The Cyberleader returns control of the ship to Captain Briggs. Fat lot of good that does, though. They’ve still locked the computer on an automatic drive, and they can’t do anything about it.

The Cybermen begin to retreat from the ship, heading off so they’re not around when the ship ends up crashing into Earth. The Cyberleader stays behind with two Cybermen on the bridge, telling them to restrain any who attempt to interfere with the navigation. Instead of killing, they are to observe humanity’s responses, to better understand and prepare for the coming war.

With the ship starting to empty of Cybermen, Lt. Scott and the Marines make their way for the bridge in an attempt to seize control of the ship. The Cyberleader deigns it proper for him to travel in the TARDIS with The Doctor and Tegan.

He orders Adric left behind. As collateral. The Doctor pleads for the Cyberleader to bring Adric along, but Adric, eventually, decides to stay. There’s a possibility for him to get off the ship as it is.

And then, the Doctor Who team tips their hand, as The Doctor bids Adric a farewell.

Now, leading up to this, there’s no more hints that something’s going to happen than in any other story, but this farewell has a bit of a final feel to it, with Adric saying goodbye and The Doctor wishing him good luck. It’s not necessarily over yet, but something is definitely… off.

The tone makes a shift here, and, while it’s been ominous if you know what’s coming, if you had no idea, the inevitable ending makes itself known here.

The Cyberleader, The Doctor, Tegan, and two flanking Cybermen make for The Doctor’s TARDIS, leaving Adric behind on the bridge. Adric continues processing the information, talking to the left-behind Berger and Briggs about what they can do to stop the inevitable from happening.

The Marines arrive on the bridge and shoot their way to a re-take of the ship. With time running out, Adric, Berger, and Briggs attempt to unlock the three complex logic codes locking the navigational controls.

Elsewhere on the ship, a small force of Cybermen break out, on their way to reinforce the bridge guard, just in case.

The TARDIS takes off and flies after the freighter, The Doctor and his companions hostages and watching as the freighter heads towards Earth.

Adric unlocks the first logic code and goes to test out how much it can affect the navigational computer.

And this leads us to the final youtube, leading us to the end of the episode and the final fate of Adric. It’s a violent end and a doozy, a huge downer, and kinda spectacular in its own tragic, tragic way.

Final Thoughts?: Damn. I had the thought the first time I watched it, and it's really the only thought I'm left with at the end. Damn.

Even without the death of Adric, it's still a kick ass episode. It's well directed, tightly written, and is a very clear story with a very strong plot. It clips along and never feels too forced or confusing, and the dynamic of the ship still stands out to me as a very strong quality in a story of strong qualities, Even the moment when Ringway reveals himself as a traitor is just one of those great moments. Stories about greed and corrupt individuals are always fascinating (be honest, they are) and this is one of those stories that just seems to have everything in spades.

Of particular effect are the Cybermen. Really, they reigned as gods in the Troughton era and then sort of... disappeared after "The Invasion". They never appeared in Pertwee's time and only made one mediocre appearance under Tom Baker. Even then, I find it terribly difficult to do original things with the Cybermen, but they function particularly well here and it's a stunningly epic return. The dynamic of them on a space freighter works insanely well as an action movie and this is easily one of my favourite Cybermen stories of all time. I'd go so far as to say better than "The Invasion" (which I love tremendously), but then again, that story had twice the number of episodes.

And all that's well and good, but once you add in the fact that Adric dies, this story instantly raises the stakes for anything. Matthew Waterhouse sells it, and the last half of episode four is as tense as anything on Doctor Who. The suspense and tension escalate and you just want The Doctor to save him, you know he will, until he doesn't, and you're reminded that as good as The Doctor is, he can't always save everybody; he can't always make the world a better place, because it is cold and at times very heartless, and not everything always ends up okay despite everyone's best efforts.

I heard it over on another blog when he was reviewing "Earthshock", but you can definitely feel the energy and whatever coming off of Jonathan Nathan-Turner in this story. It is, perhaps, one of his finest moments over his reign in the show, and it's this Nathan-Turner that I like the most. Compare the one here to the one a few years later during his run on "Trial of a Time Lord", which we'll be talking about in a few weeks.

The difference is stark. You can see the effects of coming on and doing a run and not giving a damn and trying to make an impression as opposed to what he becomes later, which is less willing to take risks and be edgy and groundbreaking.

All around, "Earthshock" is legendary and with very good reason. It's another one of those serials that you can just bring in to someone who wants to get into the old show and show them just how good it can be. Sure, it's not the best story out there, but certainly up there. It's not very often when The Doctor loses so completely, and when he does, it's not very often that the story is of the caliber to match such a move.

It's one of my favourites, and one I know I'll be coming back to it time and time again.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Leela mistreated! Giant walking bacteria! Evil eyebrows! Pointless clones! And the introduction of K-9! My recap of "The Invisible Enemy"! Coming next Tuesday!


  1. i find it curious that you don't remark at all about the violence which includes excessive body fluids (basically a cooking pile of mostly melted human parts, including a bloody name tag and literally cooking hand gripping a bloody radio - is that more acceptable to you than the beheading of cybermen in Attack of the Cybermen?). It's one of the most shocking mutilation death violence i've seen, for some reason, and it was in Doctor Who of all places. It's right there with Adric's death as far as impact on me as a young viewer (when i saw it on fuzzyvision tv in my parents basement late at night).

    i'm glad you liked this story. It's one of my favorites (if not THE). i came here to see what you thought of it after reading your Attack of the Cybermen review, since this story has bleeding cybermen, mutilation (via very graphic partial disintegration/full body boiling/whatever), and the Doctor taking part in a shootout ending, just like Attack did. Actually, i think Lytton's wrists being crushed, while really going through me, is a lot easier to take than a poor (& cute) lady marine shown mostly reduced to a mess of boiled flesh, internal organs and fluids.

  2. I think the "they got reduced to a juicy puddle of gooey mush" is not as effective as the violence in Attack of the Cybermen because it's so much less stylized here than it is there.

    The thing that allows them to get away with it more here than there is because of the style with which its presented. Here it is fantastical and far less realistic than Lytton getting his hands smushed. Laser guns and vaporizing "gets a pass" because it's unrealistic. It helps kids (and even adults) differentiate between what's real and what's not.

    It's why watching Cybermen torture someone by driving their fists into a person's head makes you wince more than watching a Cyberman get fused into a door. It reminds you that what you're watching is not something that's real and it allows for something possibly more violent and horrific because you're still reassuring the people at home "don't worry. None of this is real."

  3. Earthshock was my alltime favourite Cybermen story until I saw Tomb of the Cybermen which is an absolute classic Cyberstory and Tomb is an ace story in billions of ways. There are elements of all the Earlier Cyberstories in Earthsock and it is a much better story than Revenge of the Cybermen in millions and billions of ways Revenge was trash and dire. Earthshock was much better