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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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"!