Earthshock - DVD Special

Written by:
Eric Saward
Directed by: Peter Grimwade
Starring: Peter Davison
Year: 1982
Video Availability: Try

Earthshock's a story that I've put off reviewing as it's basically been done to death. Anything I say will be pretty much de rigeur - it's shallow, it makes no sense on repeated viewings, hate it for its sequels, Adric dies, blah blah blah. At least one of these is kind of untrue: while it's a "returning foe" story this had already happened in the JN-T administration with the Master, and while the action adventures it spawned were dire, there were really only just two of them.

Okay, shallow is fun as a one-off every so often. This is the visceral counterpart to Kinda's intellectualism, and the first time it all hangs together beautifully. Sure, it wasn't made to be analysed twenty-one years later, but guess what? They put it out on DVD.

The 80s are such tack, of course. Tomb looks hopelessly naïve today, but at least they made an effort. Here an old BMX outfit is used to pretend we're watching expedition members of 2526. They look like a local paintball tournament, but instead we're supposed to believe this is Who's (before its time) answer to Aliens. Yet people who slag Eric Saward always say he wanted to be Bob Holmes's bitch. I disagree - when only the second line in the story is an exposition wrenching "How does that thing work?" I'm sure he wanted to pay homage to Terry Nation.

Considering Who had been running for nigh on two decades at this point then a "Doctor, why did the dinosaurs die out? - Oh, we just happen to find out in the same story" venture seems alarmingly primitive in SF terms. Thanks to Who's ever-changing line-up the levels of sophistication rise and fall throughout its run. The Saward years aren't the worst but they do have large problems, and Earthshock - right from its "My name's Adric and I want to belong, oh I'm heroically dead" - never feels like it went beyond a first draft.

4'23m in and a soldier turns, strangely missing a massive moving shadow on the wall. Then it's Tardis time, with the Doctor and Adric gay bitching at each other like a right pair o' queens. Matthew Waterhouse worked better under The Drunk, but he's still nowhere near as bad as is made out, especially with hindsight. Hey, check it - "I'm not waiting around while you plot the course to your own destruction" says the Doctor. Won't that have ironic connotations later in the story? Yawn. Here's an even more portentous remark, and one Saward didn't mean: "It's all getting rather silly, isn't it?"

I was about to big up Malcolm Clarke's score, which is one of the very best, certainly of the 80s. Yet what happens when the task force detect the Doctor's two hearts? Yeah, you guessed it - "Ooo-wee-ooo-ooo-ooo-wa-ooo-wa-wooooo". Tacktastic! Bit of a padded one this, with lots of corridor walking as faceless ciphers are wiped out by Raston Warrior Robots brought back by the Cybermen from the Death Zone. Or maybe JN-T just really liked his androids in spandex. The dialogue is extraordinarily functional actually, and this is probably the least colourful the Tardis crew were in season 19. And that includes Time-Flight. Crap, but at least they had lines that were more than just linguistic bones. And seeing the Doctor being bitch-slapped by a man with a 'tashe somehow belittles the character. Six years earlier his response would have been "You're pushing your luck, Scorby!" - here he comes over as a bit of a wimp, which disappointed the playground almost as much as Adric's death delighted them. An extra half-star for the cliffhanger though…
* * * ½

Tegan gets some corny lines in this one, wry puns that Saward obviously mistook for sardonic wit. And while this is by far the best 80s appearance of the Cybermen, the emotional bumbling leader ("Excellent" count - ten) is unintentional parody. The Cyberleader's breaking of the fourth wall is a particular distraction.

Waterhouse is a little poor here, his "Well it made a point, didn't it?" a terrible adjoiner to the Doctor's toadying. Yet things do pick up a little as we get to the freighter. It's full of Saward macho types who call each other by their last names, but here's where I dredge up another Earthshock review cliché: Beryl Reid is miscast but still wonderful. It's become a cliché because it's true.

One thing that's notable is that the Doctor is still enthusiastic about exploring and enjoys meeting new people. Later stories - for example, Warriors of the Deep - would see him be cynical and paranoid about venturing outside the Tardis. A reaction to Adric's death, perhaps? Hmmmm… a slightly better episode this one, but still only worthy of:
* * * ½

The emotionless Cybermen want the Doctor to "suffer" for "past defeats"? This is a huge step up though, the plot finally kicking in (in episode three!) and the dialogue getting some more layers.

There's still inconsistencies though, with Saward - as would later become a habitual trait - abandoning characterisation and motive in favour of cheap thrills. So we get Tegan walking around with a big gun, getting all Tony Martin on the Cybermen's ass. That's the same Tegan who later berates the Master for the same thing, and leaves the Doctor because of an aversion to violence. Maybe after she left the Tardis in Time-Flight she got a good shagging because she certainly seems more laid-back when she returns in season 20.

Ringway's emergence as a traitor is a reasonable (albeit thoroughly pointless) twist I'd forgotten, though the revelation Adric's badge is gold-tipped is convenient to say the least. While Resurrection and Attack are spiritual relatives of this story, they're really quite different. The slow build-up of Earthshock means it pays beyond its conceptual limitations, and is never just a shoot-'em-up.

You know though, I'd never really noticed the gossipy Cybermen before. I can't understand how, as they're on screen for ages. As for the cliffhanger, it looks ropy and really just a magic trick - all done with mirrors.
* * * *

The idea of the Cybermen as terrorists is quite topical now, but why are they hiding on board the freighter in the first place? In fact, things do start to get a bit messy here, with lots of gunwork and Nyssa pretending to give a shit about some woman she hardly knows.

The way the Cyberleader psychologically tortures the Doctor in this, his most ineffectual story, is great however. Yet it's the best and worst of Saward's writing. A powerless Doctor also defeats the whole point of the character, and by having the enemy so unbeatable it effectively writes him into a corner. How to defeat the invulnerable foe? Naturally, Saward (who says on the DVD documentary that the only problem he had with the logical Cybermen was that they were logical) gets himself out if it in what would become customary style: he makes the Doctor into a gun-toting nutter and blows the mothers away. What happened to the other 150,000 Cybes from the freighter? God knows, or did I miss something?

Watching the story for the first time with the new optional CGI effects, I come to the conclusion that they're an okay addition, but not quite "state of the art" as the packaging claims, and to be honest I actually prefer the okay original effects. With new effects, apart from the fact that they make a nonsense of the commentary, I've never really understood the point. After all, why have updated effects if the filming style and performances are still so dated? And returning to the original production, then would only a gay producer give us silent credits?
* * * ½

One of the most underwritten Doctor Who stories ever televised, this cynical and shallow version of the series get its above-average score more by default than design.
* * * *


Commentary/Info Text: The commentary is always a nice extra to have, but never before has it been such a major selling point. Here the introduction of Matthew Waterhouse to the commentary booth (and Sarah Sutton of course) makes it arguably even more appealing than the story itself. With all the myths, rumours and interview bitching, just how would they get on?
Naturally, it couldn't live up to the anticipation, and they do get on perfectly adequately. Perhaps as a snapshot of how the four-way relationship would have worked at the time, Peter and Janet do most of the talking, with Sarah in quiet agreement and Matthew trying but never quite fitting in. Yet while the commentary doesn't have any of the expected ego clashes, it is very, very funny and is almost one long piss-take from start to finish. Every aspect of the story - Peter Grimwade and Beryl Reid particularly - is lampooned, and Peter's observant eye flags up many inconsistencies and errors you may have overlooked. Basically, he's the commentary king and (even though Janet's "fashion" gags stop being funny long before the final episode) this is highly listenable. I don't know if I'd like my kids hearing gags about VD and masturbation, but personally it made me smile. Besides, I don't have any kids.
The information text is pretty bog standard (and inexplicably turns to present tense in the middle of the fourth episode!) though does remind us that "Brave heart, Tegan" was a Davison ad-lib.

Sorry, but the extras on Earthshock are actually some of the most rubbish extras for a long time, with only the underwhelming talking head docu Putting The Shock Into Earthshock (32'26m) really feeling relevant or special. You get to see Ian Levine has lost loads of weight, and David Banks surprises everyone by telling a "one Cyberman actor was claustrophobic" anecdote, but I'm sorry - I'm sure Gary Gillatt is a lovely guy in person, but seeing him on this hardly does wonders for the cause, does it?

In order of disc appearance, then we also have 40th Anniversary Celebration (2'59m) which is a bunch of clips spliced together to a remix of the theme. Challenging this in the pointless stakes is 8'48m of location Film Sequences, presented in full before post-production. There's said to be lines not in the finished story, but I couldn't really pick up anything relevant.

Did You See? (10'15m) Has a patronising and wankily-presented look at the monsters of Who, broadcast around the screening of Earthshock. "A veritable cornucopia of the revolting." Yeah, I know it is, mate - but I wanna hear about the monsters, not your face. Boom! Boom! The Photo Gallery (4'39m) has 42 images (including two from the commentary) which are not really essential. The irritating sound effects even less so. Next time they should just slap a dripping tap and someone scraping their nails down a blackboard on it.

There are also the optional CGI effects, as well as the chance to hear the isolated music soundtrack (does anyone really bother?) and an amusing Easter Egg lasting 0'59m. Sadly, the final "extra" on the disc is the unfunny and indulgent Episode 5 (01'38m). It's all about context, of course - if this was presented as a second Easter Egg it wouldn't be so bad, but added to the menu proper it's indicative of the sixth form rot that's sadly starting to creep in to these releases. Get it sorted out, and quick. (In fairness, Steve Roberts of the Restoration Team did inform me that it was his intention for this to be an Easter Egg, and that his instructions were misunderstood when the discs came to be pressed).

* * *