Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Serial 158: Survival

Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (7th Doctor)
Companion: Ace

Written by: Rona Munro
Directed by: Alan Wareing 

Background & Significance: I'd like to say I've had many a conversation about "Survival". I'd like to say that I've debated endlessly about whether or not this is a good place to end the show after a twenty six season run (which is no mean feat. I mean, look at most shows in today's market place). Hell, I'd like to say that I've had long, drawn out, in depth conversations about whether or not this is even a good story.

Unfortunately, that's simply not the case.

In case you missed the memo, "Survival" is the unofficial series finale to Doctor Who, the end of which kicked off the sixteen year long "Wilderness Years" in which no Doctor Who stories were produced (barring The Movie, but that hardly constitutes getting a regular Doctor Who fix the fans had been getting for over a quarter of a century). Because Doctor Who was canceled, it doesn't really serve as an ending so much, instead getting the ending typical of other television shows that were similarly canceled before the crew could make a suitable ending. This is, of course, to "Survival's" detriment, especially because it feels like it's helping propel The Doctor and Ace into some new and interesting territory and the people in charge are hardly done with whatever it is they've got planned.

It also hurts that "Survival" comes at the tail end of what is a very strong season of Doctor Who stories. The season kicked off with "Battlefield" and went on to do both "Curse of Fenric" and "Ghost Light" before doing this, which, to be honest, is not of the quality of the others.

It's written by Rona Munro (her only Doctor Who story) and directed by Alan Wareing (who did "Greatest Show in the Galaxy" and "Ghost Light") and sees the return of The Master for the however many-eth time this is. (In defense of both Nathan-Turner and Cartmel, though, he hadn't appeared in years so it was high time to bring him back?) and sees more exploration of Ace as she and The Doctor return to her childhood stomping grounds of Perivale. So that's something. And it has Cheetah People. So that's something else, I suppose. Bur it is telling that not much is ever discussed about "Survival" (not much as I've heard anyways) with people instead focusing on the other McCoy greats (from this season or the last).

That it's not discussed, is perhaps the best foreshadowing I can give you before we start discussing it.

So let's get to it!



Commentary!: 

Part 1:

It’s interesting how The McCoy era never seems to feel quite like any other story that’s out there in terms of production, scale, or writing.

Take, for instance, this episode. For one thing, you can tell it’s made on the remarkable cheap despite being made on location. The fact that it’s shot on video means it doesn’t look as good as the location film work does (they switched to video location shooting in the middle of Colin Baker’s run), and the strange focus on Ace and her character makes it feel distinctly… modern. You can tell that Doctor Who is really trying to move forward despite the BBC’s efforts to the contrary, and it really does feel like the final days of Doctor Who whenever I step into the McCoy era. It’s all in the language of how the era plays out. How it looks and feels, and that gives it away straight off.

Most of this aesthetic is incredibly welcome. I rather love the focus on Ace and there’s something quiet about the way she comes back to her old stomping grounds for a visit with her friends from the old gang.

In a lot of ways, that does make this story feel like it’s somehow being brought full circle, at least with regards to Ace. Returning home is a very classic trope, and there’s tons of efforts to conflict Ace between the girl she was and the woman she’s become and it really feeds into this theme of “you can’t go home again.” Perivale has changed, and even though the changes have been fairly recent (her friends have only really started disappearing within the past few months) the effect this has on her is palpable, which, of course, is what leads her to the playground where she spends her time.

This can’t have been an accident, nor would I assume it is. Ace’s actions and behavior on the playground are very reminiscent of a person who doesn’t seem to fit in. The only thing willing to hang out with her is the cat, and (as we could probably surmise) that turns out to be evil, so…

But it’s a phenomenal touch all the same and one that’s easily appreciated. It really brings up a lot of interesting ideas about who has actually moved on. Based on the fact that Ace is the one who is returning to her home locale (which she so vocally expressed distaste for in “Ghost Light”) and the fact that she returns to all her own haunts despite the fact that all her friends have left them far behind and the fact that the girl with the change jar dismisses Ace because “she left them”, it’s only fair to assume that Ace is the one who needs to move on from Perivale and who needs to grow up.

What I love about this is that it leaves Ace alone to fend for herself. The Doctor (distracted so easily by anything else that comes by) isn’t really paying any attention to Ace and what she’s doing. Perhaps if he had, Ace wouldn’t have been stolen by Cheetah People. We then get the moment where Ace is torn from her happy little home town of Perivale and thrust unceremoniously into what’s totally not a quarry (although there is greenery. Plus for greenery) and it’s only there that she’s allowed to meet her friends. Except for the bit where, you know, everyone’s being hunted down and chased by Cheetah People. Ace is allowed to meet up with her gang now that she is vulnerable and felt like she’s been ditched, despite the fact that she was the one doing the ditching.

Now, what all this has to do with Cheetah People, I don’t know. BUT! I will say that I am a fan of Cheetahs riding horses. That gets me in a total Planet of the Apes kinda way.

Unfortunately, none of this is what I’m interested in. I’m more interested in Ace returning home, and taking her out of that home doesn’t quite make all of the sense to me. I also have no interest in The Master this late in the game (although let’s see what happens), nor do I actually have any interest in the Cheetah People as of yet. What happens next will happen next I suppose, but I have to say the stuff that I found most interesting is the stuff the episode seems to have discarded in the favour of the always ever more popular “let’s run away from the Cheetah People” of a Doctor Who episode. So that’s something at least. Best see where it goes from here.

Part 2:

See, this is what I mean by my interest starting to wane.

It’s inevitable, of course. A concept is only as interesting as the story behind it. And sure this concept is interesting, especially because it leads to some Lord of the Flies style shit. See, the planet of the Cheetah People is breaking up because the Cheetah People are fighting each other. If they don’t fight each other the planet will survive, but unfortunately each blow and strike of violence makes another part of the planet start to break apart (or whatever). And see, as a concept that’s quite interesting; unfortunately, that means we’re not really fighting off against anything and The Master is just a trickster to gum up the works (at least in this episode, anyways).

It reminds me of something I’ve been hearing lately, something I’d never considered, but that is, actually, possibly quite true.

One of the prevailing questions about the next Star Trek film (the JJ Abrams one that’s now slated for 2013) is “Who’s going to be the bad guy/villain of the piece?” The precedent/bar was set at Khan and every movie has tried to live up to it. They did it with Doc Brown in Search for Spock and again with Sybock (whaaaaaaaatever) in the fifth one and then again with General Chang in The Undiscovered Country. That even continued with Soran, The Borg, Ru’afo, and Shinzon in the Next Gen movies and again with Eric Bana (memorable for being Eric Bana and not because he was a Romulan or because he had a name) in the first Abrams Star Trek movie. But the kind, kind people over at Tor.com keep asking “why does it even need a villain? Voyage Home (that one with the whales) did just fine and that didn’t even have a villain at all.” And they’re right, they don’t need a villain.

But here’s my question: does Doctor Who need a villain in every story?

Sure, all the great ones have villains. Swing a Robert Holmes story and you’ll hit a central villain. Swing most of them and you hit a villain. Swing this one and you get… The Master. Now, that probably comes off as less than desirable, and it is. I’m not a fan of the JNT era Master. I think he’s boring and uninteresting and never does anything clever or worth my time. The major exception to that is “Planet of Fire” when his sole goal is “get me normal size!” Here it’s much the same, and that’s appreciated. His entire goal in this episode is “I want to get the hell off this planet before it explodes.” That’s a noble goal, and one that I’m quite interested in. It’s at least different from “Kill The Doctor!” or “Destroy the universe!” so that’s something.

But it leads to a couple of problems.

For one thing, it makes him not the main villain of this piece, or at least not the main villain of this episode. That might change in the last part, but for now this episode is exclusively about the impending threat of the explosion of this planet, and thusly, he’s just here for scene chewing and waiting for his ride to show up. And because he’s just waiting for his ride to show up (he has a plan!) he spends the entire episode not really doing anything of consequence and not being…. terribly interesting or engaging, which is a problem. There’s no backstory given to him, no hint of his TARDIS or any sort of… anything. He’s simply here, which is kind of a waste of The Master. I mean, it’s funny counting how many times he seems to be someone else’s pawn, but here it just doesn’t work for me.

So we’re left with an exploding planet, or rather a planet that’s Five minutes on Planet Namek’ing it. I repeat the question: is this a good enough vehicle to drive the story?

My answer? No, not really. This concept is a good concept, but it doesn’t drive anything except stakes. Stakes are important (stakes being “what do my heroes have to lose?") but with any sort of… driving force it’s just a race against the clock. What was once Ace’s struggle to deal with home and what that means to her has now moved on to a completely different scenario in which, quite frankly, I don’t really care. Ace’s scenes are the only in this episode I actually enjoy as they help hammer home the debate in Ace’s mind as to whether she wants to go back home or continue traveling with The Doctor. It’s some lovely and wonderful subtext and that sorta thing is always insanely welcome because god damn I think I might be in love.

But that’s Ace’s debate. The rest of these people? They’re just cannon fodder. There’s no indication at creating or establishing any sort of relationship or dynamic and they’re not given any sort of emotional core or resonance in this whole story. It’s rather unfortunate and I’m kinda sad because that’s the sorta thing this story should do, but instead of giving me any of that, it instead focuses on set pieces and trying to sneak past Cheetah People and throwing rocks at Cheetah People and running away from Cheetah People. Midge is the only character who’s given any sort of nuance or interesting thing (spoilers: he’s the Roger of the piece) and even then it only goes so far as “he wants to kill all of the people.”

So that leaves the Cheetah People, and I like these people in theory. I like what The Doctor says and I like that they have the instincts of cats and hunters (don’t run or they’ll chase you, don’t spook and they won’t attack), but there isn’t any character given to them. There’s no driving ambition or motive or central force. They could be bad guys, but there’s not anything there to give them character. It’s unfortunate, but true. They’re not really bad guys, nor do I believe Munro wants us to think of them as bad guys, but if that’s the case there’s a distinct lack of conflict in this story between most of the people. The Cheetah  People aren’t stopping our heroes from leaving; our heroes are not in the Cheetah People’s way.

Meaning that what we’re left with at the end of the day is inherently undramatic and not satisfying (for me anyways), and it feels like all of the interesting things I loved about the first episode are discarded in favour of more generic runaround and boring old set pieces.

It’s quite unfortunate, but there it is.

Part 3:

The absolute nicest thing I can say about this episode is that the last little speech from The Doctor is quite lovely. You know the one. The one about the bad things happening in the universe and how the tea’s getting cold, come on Ace we’ve got work to do. That one? Yeah. I love that.

Of course, that moment hasn’t aged well to the trained ear. It’s obvious that the line was added in post as a voice over to give some sense of closure to the series and open the possibility that life goes on, giving license to do countless comics, books, and audio dramas from then until the show returned and beyond. So it’s something I quite understand, but it’s not the thing that I love about this episode even if it is the nicest thing.

Honestly, at the end of this, I’m a little perplexed.

It’s odd how this story has three parts that are very distinct and different from each other. The first sets  up the mystery of Perivale and concerns itself with Ace coming home for the first time since The Doctor returned. The second was your typical Doctor Who runaround with “big scary monsters” and high high stakes. The third is about returning home and who you are when you get there, I suppose (so we’re back in episode one?). This, of course, is the prime real estate for the possessed Midge as he comes back to exact revenge on his tormentors and demonstrate the lessons he has learned now that the primal beast has arisen inside of him.

There’s a lesson in that. Something about how giving into your primal instincts never really pays off, or something. It’s most telling that both Midge and Ace are the ones infected by the whatever it is and by coming through with The Master and by palling around with him it’s clear that Midge is essentially The Master’s companion, what with the sweet leather jacket and the too-cool-for-school sunglasses. Now the story comes full circle and we have a repeat of the major theme: who are you when you come back home and bring what you’ve learned? Midge, it turns out, is kind of a dick and rather pretentious when he comes back (I won’t harp on William Barton’s acting too much; it’s hard to be the suave “I’m so cooler than you because I’m cooler and smarter and suaver than you are so shut up while I smug up and talk down to you about how I’m in control which you can tell because this is my controlling smug I’m in control tone of voice”).

You know the one.

Anyways.

Ace, it seems, is the same way. She comes back from her travels “infected” by that which The Doctor has learned and picked up from her travels “abroad”. What separates Ace from Midge is that she fights the darkness inside her and turns it into a positive force she can harness for future use. This, of course, is the basis for all things a Companion does whenever he or she end up leaving The TARDIS. They take what they’ve learned and made it better (except for Amy. Whoops). Midge gives into that dark side and ends up killing his gym instructor and playing a fatal game of chicken with The Doctor. Also, I get the feeling that the recruits he picks up at that gym are totally like… Power Rangers or something. Which is… A thing? I dunno. Look at those clothing styles. They’re kinda dumb.

Also on form here is Sylvester McCoy (seriously, look at him riding that motorcycle like a BAMF), although my biggest issue with him as an actor is he can sometimes go a little too over the top with his delivery of shouting and such. I had a discussion (several times actually) with a really big McCoy fan who said McCoy needs a tight leash and a very specific director guiding his actions and playing to his strengths. Now, I’m the first to say that “Ghost Light” is my favourite McCoy story and part of that is because Wareing pulls an extremely nuanced, specific performance out of McCoy that is (more than any other story I’ve ever seen of his on television) quintessential 7th Doctor and really nails the maniacal, manipulative side that is (in my opinion) the best stuff of the 7th Doctor. He’s best when he’s soft spoken but biting, manipulative but underplayed about it.

Here, though, he’s shouting and screaming and yelling at the top of his lungs. Sure, it’s got subtle moments of nuance and his fight with The Master is great in theory, but I don’t want to see this Doctor getting into fisticuffs with The Master. No. I want to see two genius minds going toe to toe and trying to outthink each other. I know it’s supposed to piss me off (“The Doctor doing violence! NO, DOCTOR! DON’T DO IT!”) but when he screams “If we fight like animals, we die like animals!” it just rubs me the wrong ways. It hits a level of energy that I don’t personally think McCoy does super well. The message is fine, it’s just that the delivery is really off for me.

That’s not to say he’s not great in other places. Him hopping on that motorcycle to play chicken is some genius stuff. Totally sells it.

But the real star of this episode is Ace.

As a disclaimer, I’ve decided that I hate this whole Cheetah People thing. I don’t think it’s well explained or well thought-out or well executed. She just gets a rage virus and goes out hunting? Not sure I buy that? And this makes her part Cheetah? ‘s a little weird, is what I’m saying. But I love watching her struggle with this growing beast/desire inside of her and seeing her deal with all of these things and issues as she tries to overcome it. (Honestly I think she’s somehow horcruxed to The Master because look how easily she occlumencies into this mind. It’s ridiculous.)

And this culminates in her losing her spirit guide Cheetah People best friend person (and seemingly The Doctor). Eventually the thing inside her subsides (how does this work exactly?). So… there’s that.

Then we get the absolute best moment of the entire god damn serial, when Ace takes The Doctor’s hat and puts it on her head while holding the umbrella in her hand. That’s so brilliant. And if nothing else that’s the best frakking ending for Ace to have on the show. Ace is slowly growing closer and closer to The Doctor, eventually ideally taking over her mentor’s role at least in some sort of partial role. That’s… that’s so good and I love that. I also love the way she smirks when The Doctor steps up behind her and snatches the hat off her head.

Genius. Totally brilliant. It’s one of those unique Doctor/Companion relationships that is… exclusive to The Doctor and Ace. It’s a perfect marriage of the two halves of the Doctor Who formula in ways so few others are. This comes from her being a tremendously well written and strongly-purposed character and a close attention to what would make a perfect companion to this Doctor.

And really, this is great. Such a great “last” Ace story, almost better than "Fenric" or "Ghost Light" if you ask me, just for the moments that really prove that Ace is much much stronger than she was before the Doctor showed up.

Although how she managed to “wake up” from having the rage virus (or whatever that was) I’ll never know.

Final Thoughts?: So it's not a great last story, and in other ways it is.

There's lots to like here. A fairly good use of The Master (okay maybe it's not, but it's a slightly different take, at least initially), a fairly interesting concept, and a wonderful use of Ace. Unfortunately, all these elements end up getting away from Munro in the end and the story suffers as a result.

I didn't really mention The Master in part three, but honestly that's because he really didn't end up doing anything substantial in that episode. Or anything at all, really (although we did get a long overdue "I am going to kill you Doctor" that I was sorely missing all through the first two parts). Really, it's an interesting and slightly different use for him, but they never really explain his presence, give him much of anything to do, or even utilize him to his fullest. It's honestly just the last in a long string of Master stories under JNT that slowly saw him go from "awesome bad guy" to "useless whatever" over the course of ten years. It's unfortunate, but there it is. Even more unfortunate is Ainley, who does a decent job here (but he's given weak material), but I can't help but wonder if the 7th Doctor would have done better under a different or newer Master. Ainley's Master is so inexorably attached to Davison's Doctor in my mind that seeing him with anyone else really makes it feel like he's hardly their challenge. He was such a perfect foil to Davison physically and mentally (sometimes) and psychologically (also sometimes) that... seeing him with McCoy just doesn't gel quite right. McCoy needed someone else, someone new, someone more suited to his Doctor.

I mean, there's even an attempt to give The Doctor and The Master a big climactic show down, but it's neither earned nor paid off. It simply happens and then it's over. That's not good enough.

And really that's the problem with all of this. For a three part story, it is both saturated with content and does not have enough. All of the ideas and characters are crammed in with little time to develop them. This probably would have done better as a four part story or with a stronger editor making sure the three episodes congealed thematically or whatever better than they did. As it stands, it's something of a mixed bag and tonally all over the map in terms of what it seems like it's trying to accomplish. I mean, look at the Ace story. What Munro is trying to say about Ace's character gets lost in the Cheetah and when it emerges I feel like Munro did manage to say something about her, but it felt like it was in another language and I have to dig far deeper than I have to in order to pull out a statement about it. That's unfortunate, and maybe a stronger editor or another draft would have helped, but as it stands it doesn't quite hang together as much as it should.

That's most unfortunate, but it's still an enjoyable story and while it doesn't quite wrap up all the little tidyings that it needs to to round off twenty six years the fact that the show's still ongoing makes it fine. I know it wasn't written that way (and really, it's more "ta ta for now" than "goodbye"), but it does provide some small semblances of closure, enough for me to be okay with it. I mean, for god's sakes the show was on its last legs and had been for some time. Wrapping up the series in totality in three episodes would be damn near impossible on such short notice and in such a cheap season. I'm glad that this is the last story of the Classic run (although I think ending with "Ghost Light" would be ballsier) and it's an enjoyable time even though I'm not the biggest fan or cheerleader for it.

Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! Reconstructioning! Lakes! Boats! Beanies! Demonic seaweed! Or is it demonic foam? It's one of those OR BOTH Next Tuesday on "Fury From the Deep"!

3 comments:

  1. Great review - I felt much the same about most of what you've said here, particularly about this being a weaker ending than Fenric or Ghost Light would have been, and about the pointlessness of traipsing off to the planet of the Cheetah People. I liked Ainley's Master here, I usually found him unbearable in his past appearances but here I felt he had a bit more gravitas. For me, the little Ace and the Doctor moments are the real highlight, just the little affectionate touches - they're by far my favourite classic era Doctor/Companion team. I think it says a lot about how good they were together that both RTD and Moffat have sought to emulate that relationship (and even some of its story-elements) in the revived show.

    I love this site, I love your reviews (all of you!), keep em coming! Looking forward to 'Fury' next week because I do love Patrick Troughton - he and McCoy are probably my two favourite classic Doctors, shame there's so little left of Troughton's era :(

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  2. First of all, good review and I've just started coming here today and all, good stuff. One thing I must mention about this though. Survival wasn't meant to be the last story of the season (with the help of Wikipedia here: This story is the second in what some have called the "Ace Trilogy", a three-story arc that explores elements of Ace's past before she met the Doctor. This was not an intentional trilogy, since "Fenric" was originally intended to start the season and be followed by Battlefield, Survival and then Ghost Light) So that explains Survival's situation. But either way, good commentary.

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  3. I was turned off by the whole Cheetah people concept. The only thing I liked about them was their costumes.

    This story would have been more mysterious and intriguing if it just involved the Master minus the Cheetah people. It really didn't even need the Master. The story of her friends disappearing was somewhat interesting, but being abducted by Cheetah people on horseback? Please. It was rather distracting.

    The story should have focused more on Ace's past in Perivale. Then have the Doctor manipulate the whole situation in his usual genius way to help her deal with her troubled past. It seemed like a poorly written and confusing story.

    I'm sad this is the last episode the 7th Doctor and Ace ended on. It didn't give any closure to their run as a team. It felt like it needed to continue to further explain Ace's back story and it would have been fun to see Ace and the 7th Doctor in a few more adventures. I didn't like Survival, but the other shows for season 26 were really good.

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