Wednesday, January 05, 2011


Doctor Who: Earthshock – Macho Vs Beryl Reid. Fiiiigghhht! #cdwearth

Tonight at 7.30, the lovely Doctor Who DVD people tweeting @classicdw invite everyone to watch 1982 thriller Earthshock, and I can see why. Ask any fan for the 1980s’ most exciting stories, and it’s bound to come up: brilliant direction; shock Cybermen return; Moffat-style ‘past Doctors’ clips montage; masses of action (and death); and a memorably tragic ending. Yet I never know if I’ll find it thrilling or disappointing to watch – and that’s not because of the collision of a certain member of the cast with planet Earth, but of Beryl Reid with the machismo stomping through the story. So here’s just why Earthshock is great… And why it isn’t necessarily good. Then, if you’re on Twitter, you can find out what other people think by following #cdwearth this evening.

1982 was a huge turnabout year for Doctor Who. As in 2010, a long-running Doctor who’d taken the series to new heights of popularity had just regenerated into the youngest actor yet to play the part, and people were wondering if the series could survive the change. There were more companions in the TARDIS than usual, one of whom gets killed off then briefly resurrected as a villain’s artificial creation (though at least in 1982 this had consequences – he didn’t then leap back from the dead altogether, just as the large chunks of the Universe destroyed at the close of the previous series stayed that way)… Well, all right, it’s not really very Moffatty in tone, with its incoming lead writer whose signature idea is ‘Just this once twenty-seven times, everybody dies!’ but in part that’s because it has a very unpredictable tone. Season 18 in 1980-81 had a striking thematic unity; Season 19, a year later, was all over the place, particularly in terms of the sudden chasm opening up between the ‘arthouse’ and the ‘macho’ stories, a divide I coined for a review of Kinda – the story that I was quite sure when I was ten was the worst of the season, and now might just be my favourite instead.

You see, one of the oddest things about Season 19 is that it’s one of the very, very few year’s-worth’s of Doctor Who where I’m not sure which I like best – or which is the best, which isn’t always the same thing. Back in 1982, I was absolutely sure that Earthshock was the best thing in the year… Yet now I could probably pick any one of five of the seven stories (not the other two, obviously). Is it still Earthshock, the ultimate in macho Doctor Who? Or Kinda, the epitome of the arthouse, along with Castrovalva – both exploring reality, identity and the dark places of the inside? Or, sometimes, my favourite of the year (more those I might like best, rather than consider the best quality) could step into history, with The Visitation’s sardonic aliens and gorgeous music – a feature of the year – or the sinister layers behind the jolly façade of Black Orchid.

So when I came to pick out why 1982 was brilliant for my series during the 45th anniversary year, obviously I chose Doctor Who Monthly’s masterpiece The Tides of Time.

So Why Is Earthshock Brilliant?

Slotting in the DVD, as we’ve been invited to do tonight, gives you a clue. Although it was quite an early release – out nearly eight years ago – the special features are much more in tune with those of the more advanced range. It was the first to feature its own special documentary, now almost a requirement: appropriately for a story that had made such a splash at the time, this was Putting the Shock Into Earthshock. And the story did indeed have an impact for its two big shocks – the well-hidden return of the Cybermen (not just for the first time in seven years, but the last time to date that a ‘returning enemy’ managed to stay a secret), and the ending, which I’ll be spoilering at the end of this section, so watch out… And which means I’d better not mention the cruelly funny “Episode 5,” still a rarity in being a ‘comedy’ DVD extra that’s actually amusing. Add to that the full isolated score, and an especially impressive one at that, a contemporary TV review, commentary, text notes, photo gallery, raw film sequences including deleted material, slightly underwhelming optional new CGI effects and all, and it still stands up as a particularly good DVD package. But to work out just why I thought so highly of the story, I have to go back not just eight years, but twenty-nine. What grabbed me the first time I saw it?

Put simply, the first episode is a brilliantly inventive horror piece. Perhaps presenting ‘scary shapes in the dark’ is more stylish than original, but what about the hi-tech scanner that becomes an old-fashioned portent of doom, or the weapons that melt people into pizza? When I was ten, that was the most memorably horrible form of death ever. Those opening twenty-five minutes are a superbly crafted build-up of tension, with great music, moody lighting and the threat building through troopers, then androids, then great gleaming uber-monsters that I recognised in delighted shock… While there’s no such thing as the ‘perfect’ episode of a series that takes you to any time and any place, in almost any style, this is as near to one type of it as you can get. Rarely had visual style and sound design come together so effectively to create an atmosphere of dark, echoing menace – and once the Cybermen were revealed at the cliffhanger, the march composed for them became one of the era’s most hummable pieces of ‘action music’. From the deep, low dripping echo acting as a bassline to eerier music dancing around it as troopers crawl through dark caves to the closing silver revelation, director Peter Grimwade, lighting operator Fred Wright, and – particularly – special sound designer and incidental musician Dick Mills and Malcolm Clarke do some of the best work the series has ever had.

The new design of the Cybermen, too, was both striking and seemingly powerful. Their last TV appearance had been when I was three, and it was one of the first stories I ever saw – while I loved it at the time, it’s fair to say it’s not generally considered a total, brilliant success. Before then, you had to go back to the 1960s, where they were the archetypal scary black and white monsters in the shadows. So this reinvention was stunning, if not without its own problems, as I’ll come to shortly. For me it’s still one of the four impressive Cyber-stories from the last century (though one’s yet to see a DVD release, the other three were once released together by Amazon in a handy boxed set as if to say ‘these are the ones to grab’ – as opposed to last year’s Cyber-box, which could have been labelled ‘these are the ones to avoid’). And yet the odd thing is that, in amid the excitement and despite much of it being made up of augmented parts from old Cyber-stories, you don’t really notice that there’s no particular reason for the monsters here to be Cybermen; they work, but they could have been almost any other monster, doing nothing to unearth the central terror of people who were once just like us.

There’s much less claustrophobic darkness after Part One, but the lighting’s still very effective, and the story remains packed with striking images. The silos the waking Cybermen punch their way out of may not stand up to a close look – but when those punches make such huge, echoing bangs, set to that riveting march, you don’t give it a close look; a perfect example of how sound design makes an image more impressive, add to the weight of what’s probably cardboard and assisting the build-up to a great cliffhanger of the steel giants marching remorselessly. Then there’s that fluid camera moving across all the dead crew on the stairs as the Cybermen march over them, or the Doctor’s finest moment in the story, as he does something clever to stop a Cyberman and create a cool and original image: for once, I’ll not say what it is, but it involves a door…

Earthshock also made a success of the programme’s new format. For Peter Davison’s three years as the Doctor, stories were shown not once a week but twice, with the 1982 adventures starting with twenty-five minute episode on Monday, continuing on Tuesday, and then carrying on the following week. This meant both that stories were over in half the time, and that they felt more like two halves than four quarters. Even now, Earthshock’s best watched not all in one go, but two episodes at a time, where it works almost as two two-part stories. One side-effect of this – heretical though it may be for a story most praised for its climax – is that Parts One and Three are vastly superior to Parts Two and Four. For me, both ‘first’ episodes are more interesting than the messy faffing around of their pay-offs… Though, cleverly, in each ‘first episode’ the Doctor meets a trigger-happy bunch who accuse him of murder, so we assume it’s a repeated meme when in fact (spoiler) the second accuser is complicit in the deaths. The one way in which the ‘two by two’ split fails is that, while you’d expect Part Two’s cliffhanger to be the strongest in order to keep your attention for the best part of a week, the three other episodes all have terrific climaxes, but Part Two’s is so banally clichéd that even Adric – who, unlike modern companions, has never ‘seen’ TV drama and can’t be genre-aware – can spot what’s going to happen and warns the Doctor, who at this point is so passive that he literally sits down and picks at his hat, waiting for someone to get killed. And the one you’ll care about isn’t for another week.

So Why Isn’t Earthshock Brilliant?

Adric and the Doctor are, of course, also at the heart of some of my problems with the story (and cover your eyes, folks, because here’s that big spoiler). I have no problem with a hero occasionally choosing to do a Zen sort of nothing, but it has to be the right sort of nothing. It isn’t, here. Instead, too often the Doctor comes across as simply not having a clue. Adric, on the other hand, has a terrifically memorable part in the story – because it’s still the only time that one of the Doctor’s long-running TV companion (as opposed to a few who’d been around rather less, or all of Russell and Steve’s modern ‘ooh, nearlies’) is killed. That’s the key reason so many people remember this story, and yet, and yet… For me, the final episode is its most obvious failure, even with that shocking emotional punch. It’s less that the Doctor fails to save Adric, but that he fails to do anything very much, spending most of the story wandering aimlessly in order to let the Cybermen make all the moves, hoist themselves by their own petards, and wait for the scriptwriter to put the pieces into place for a mechanically inevitable tragedy.

I considered mapping out some of the problems I have with the plotting of the story (if you’re interested, e-mail me for a screed), but I came up with such a list that it would distract from what really pulls me in two – that while Earthshock is fabulously exciting, there’s a lot about it that feels wrong, and that’s less about logic than ethos. It’s true, too, that Part Four was always less exciting for me, which counts against it. Just as we’re supposed to be running towards the climax, unfortunately by the start of the final episode now the Cybermen have ‘won’ and people are just being moved around according to their plan, while the actors are still working hard, the key behind the scenes people seem to have run out of ideas (and not just the writer). The formerly atmospheric team of sound design and music, particularly, suddenly runs out of steam – with no tension to be cranked up until the end, both the action and the sound underscoring it seems far more minor and directionless. And you’ll have gathered that sound cues have a big effect on me. For years, I’d assumed that ‘let-down’ feeling was because ten-year-old me preferred action to emotion. Now I realise I prefer action and tension to lots of aimless running around with a bit of emotion hammered onto the end of it.

My central problem with Earthshock’s ethos, though, isn’t one that I saw as any kind of problem when I was a bloodthirsty ten-year-old thrilled by Doctor Who violence. And yet, even then, I loved what many see as Earthshock’s biggest fault, and yet for me is its saving grace…

When Macho Wins, the Doctor Loses

I’ve explained a little (well, perhaps a lot, by most reviewers’ standards) of why Earthshock is one of the stories about which I have the most mixed feelings. Will it be thrilling? Will it be disappointing? And a lot of that’s simply down to the mood I’m in. Will I love the echoing caves? Will Part Four underperform? But as I’ve grown up with Earthshock, I’ve become increasingly uneasy with its unremittingly macho ethos.

Though it’s easy (and probably true) to argue that Earthshock turned out to have a negative influence on Doctor Who, I don’t blame it for all the excesses that it inspired – in part because it was so exciting and thrilling that people wanted to do it again, you could say it led to horrible, leaden messes like Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks, but you can’t judge a story by its wannabes. Earthshock is far better than any story I can think of that just ‘wants to be Earthshock’ – the direction, design, most of the performances and perhaps above all the music and special sound are all hard to fault, with gripping action and some of the most tense sequences of any Who story. Even the script, despite its faults, is a good deal better than that of its imitators.

My biggest problem with it is its ethos. It fetishises guns and macho values, and the Doctor rather gets lost in the mix. The literal poster boy for this sense of just not ‘getting’ the series is the infamous publicity shot of the Doctor kneeling and aiming a gun, as if that was what he was about. That’s scriptwriter Eric Saward’s unhappy signature piece – in every story he writes, the Doctor wields a gun and to some extent becomes just like every other ‘action hero’. What a failure of imagination.

There’s still a lot of the story I enjoy tremendously, but if I watch it with my brain on it simply feels wrong. There are four main groups of characters in the script – the Doctor and his friends, the troopers, the ship’s crew and the Cybermen. Three of the four are gun-wielding macho teams, while the Doctor either has to join in or be portrayed as weak. That’s a despairingly bad standpoint for a Who story.

Take the Cybermen. In their earlier stories, they’d always been a failing race hanging on to life and giving up their humanity for survival – there was something tragic about them, and their inherent weakness was illustrated through their low numbers, a people dying out, and their consequent need to mount insidious plots through infiltration and hypnosis. In Earthshock, this all changes (having started in The Invasion, where they may as well have been remote-controlled drones but where they’re far more forgivable in a story that’s not really about the Cybermen at all – even there, though, the Cybermen march impressively through streets they’ve stealthily put to sleep first). Mr Saward has a strange fascination with them, but as if protesting, ‘They’re my favourites, so they can’t be weak!’ has changed their character entirely into a thrusting military superpower. Clay Hickman can only have been thinking of this story when he described the Cybermen as the series’ most military monster – surely not, and clearly the Daleks or Sontarans, say – on their return in 2006. That simply wasn’t how they’d ever been presented, yet extreme butchness seemed desperately necessary to their new writer; Mr Saward’s obsession with Cybermen has been well-documented, but if you’ve missed it it’s at its most hilarious from Terrance Dicks on his The Five Doctors commentary (and I once heard him say much worse in person…).

Losing the ‘iron lung’ chest unit (and exoskeletal piping) isn’t just an aesthetic change – there’s no longer any mention of the Cybermen being a dying race putting themselves back together through cybernetics; their replacement parts are no longer a sign of weakness, but a butching-up to make augmented macho supersoldiers. The Doctor’s opposition to them is fatally undermined by his only being able to do so by hanging around with, er, another bunch of macho supersoldiers.

Similarly, Mr Saward obviously remembers that he loved the Cybermen when they were an insidious force of plotters conquering through hypnosis, so he has them doing some insidious plotting… But also makes them a big butch military power bloc with a ginormous fleet, because they have to be really macho and well hard. Ironically, this is also the one where they rely on terrorist bombings rather than their fleet, which as far as I can tell is just there to stand slightly off to one side of the story, willy-waving.

Contrast the testosterone-fuelled Cybermen with our neutered hero. Having thought up an exciting movie-style action adventure with several sets of exciting soldiers in it, Mr Saward appears to have no idea at all what to do with a lead character who doesn’t go for violence as his first choice.

Take this exchange from Part Three:
“Could that be the Doctor?”
“I hope not. Guns are not his style at all.”
Mr Saward’s script pays lip service to the Doctor’s ethos, but only as something to worry about because he’s so feeble – then has Tegan picking up a gun anyway, and relegates the Doctor to the narrator, while – closer to the action – Scott gets to say, “Set weapons to kill.” And within a couple of minutes the Doctor’s snapping up a pistol at the door, too (blink and you miss it, thankfully, unless you look at the horrible posters).

The moment where the Doctor really collides with Mr Saward’s preferred values and gets smashed to bits is Part Four – first metaphorically, in his debate with the Cyberleader, then pretty much literally, when Adric is blown up because the writer thinks the Doctor too weak to save him. He simply can’t believe in a hero who isn’t butch.

It’s not as if Mr Saward isn’t capable of writing some good lines for the Doctor – “always the perfect guests,” say, and he does have a memorable exchange with the Cyberleader about what’s wrong with being a Cyberman:
“I see that Time Lords have emotional feelings.”
“Of sorts…”
“Surely a great weakness in one so powerful?”
“Emotions have their uses.”
“They restrict and curtail the intellect, and logic of the mind.”
“They also enhance life! When did you last have the pleasure of smelling a flower? Watching a sunset? Eating a well-prepared meal?”
“These things are irrelevant.”
“For some people, small, beautiful events is [sic] what life is all about!”
It’s an argument against a brutish, macho script – which is why, in the end, Mr Saward from his viewpoint can’t think of an argument that would let the Doctor ‘win’. It’s easy to forget that this scene ends with the Doctor – the Doctor! – simply lost for words. Cue ‘woman as victim to be threatened and protected by young male hero’, one of the most B-Movie cliché absences of character the Doctor’s ever been submitted to, with the Cyberleader of course assuming the Doctor’s straight, only threatening him with Tegan, not reasoning that the Doctor might have any “affection” for the bloke he’s been with through the whole story. “Such a reaction is not a disadvantage?” “No,” replies the Doctor – and the script – hollowly. Absolutely no-one here is distinctive: Tegan reduced to a 1950s cipher; the Doctor to an ineffectual juvenile lead worried for ‘his girl’; the Cyberleader so blatantly macho that, rather than heralding a victory for machine logic, he’s merely a military cliché one step up from Scott.

So while Mr Saward can write some decent individual lines for the Doctor, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with him overall. Sure, the Doctor can’t win every fight, but he should at least have a reply to the Cyberleader saying how weak he is. The answer here appears to be, ‘Yes, being nice makes you puny. It’s a fair cop’. Zap! Pow! Grr! Aarrghh! Small, beautiful events aren’t what life is all about for Mr Saward, are they? Ironically, given that so many later stories borrow from Earthshock, one that doesn’t seem to resemble it at all (except for the hats) is Frontios, by Mr Saward’s infinitely preferable predecessor as lead writer – which does a very similar gag with the Doctor putting down Tegan to pretend he doesn’t care for her, and yet Chris Bidmead is also able to write the Doctor as outthinking the alien leader, something Mr Saward conspicuously fails to manage here.
“Can’t you do something?”
“Not at the moment.”
Or, indeed, at all, following on from not being able to better the Leader’s argument. The Doctor doesn’t save the day; it’s Adric with his Cyberman brain and Scott with all his big guns. The Doctor’s just left with the coda (not saving the Earth, and too late to save Adric); killing the Leader with, in effect, a bit of Adric would have a thematic rightness, but no, the gold star he grinds in only makes it grunt a bit. The Doctor then has to straddle it, pumping blasts and shooting to reclaim his masculinity.

The saving grace of all this is the not-macho-at-all Captain Briggs, who by accident or design (was it the producer going for a star name, the director putting a bit of personality into the story, or both?) almost single-handedly drags scenes back to being Doctor Who. As you’ll see in a moment.

I did a quick tot-up earlier of the Doctor Who stories that feature no guns at all. I make it very few – only about one in eight – but, interestingly, Russell T Davies’ period as lead writer’s was probably the one that manages it most often. When Mr Saward seemed so often to despair of his hero and have everyone else in the story tell him to ‘Grow a pair,’ it’s almost as if Russell told his writers, ‘You see how that Eric Saward did it? Try growing an imagination instead’.

Ironically, I think the easiest way to thoroughly enjoy this story is to adopt a particular frame of mind; you must first restrict and curtail the intellect, and logic of the mind, then also emotional feelings… Leaving you with the enthusiasm for excitement of an energetic boy. Surely a great weakness in a spectacle so powerful?

Or you can have some of whatever Captain Briggs is having.

Beryl Reid – No-one Else Would Dare

There are some word-associations by Doctor Who fans so common that they’re almost automatic. Long ago, when Target Books were our main way of experiencing the past, the first Doctor was always “crotchety” or the third always had “a shock of prematurely white hair,” for example. But surely few are so overused as the instant association of “Beryl Reid – miscast”.

I thought she was brilliant. And as I’ve got older and my view of Earthshock has become rather more complicated, I still think she’s brilliant. Not only is it a hugely enjoyable performance, but the space freighter’s Captain Briggs is the saving grace of a story that threatens to throttle the ethos of Doctor Who with its crashing (if often very exciting) machismo.

Unusually for a Twentieth-Century Who story, there are an impressive number of female characters in Earthshock – but you’d hardly notice. Nyssa, Kyle and Berger are all as bland as anything (no pun intended), while not just the men, and the Cybermen, but all the female troopers (even Tegan) are written to be played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

What an enormous relief, then, to have the character written for Sigourney Weaver played by a short, crabby older woman who takes the piss. How can people say Captain Briggs is miscast, when Beryl Reid and her put-downs are a complete joy? Can you imagine how unbearable it would have been if Briggs had been as grim as Lieutenant Scott, so they’d all been like that? Thanks to the casting of the thankfully not-mighty Beryl, Briggs comes across as much more of a Whoish character than as written (and far more than any of the other guests).

So let’s celebrate a series that’s not afraid to cast differently and more interestingly than a dourly macho American series stuffed with people in uniform would: that isn’t miscasting. It’s a series that’s true to its own different ethos, where people aren’t uniform – in either sense – and individuals have personalities rather than just being exactly what you’d expect.

Think of Bernard Cribbins as Luke Skywalker blasting ‘incoming’ out of the sky (The End of Time).

Or Arthur Cox as James Dean, the oldest, plumpest, most follically challenged teenage rebel in space (The Dominators).

And Beryl Reid as Ellen Ripley.

No other series could. No other series would even try. Let’s hail them all!

Martin Wiggins’ “Earthschlock”…?

One last thing: Martin Wiggins, now famous (ish) for writing the wittier of the DVD production notes (and as a, cough, minor sideline, being a senior Oxford lecturer, and allegedly killed in The Shakespeare Code), is reported to have written a thoroughly brutal review of Earthshock when the VHS came out under the title “Earthschlock” in the October 1992 DWAS magazine.

Does anyone have a copy of that savage critique (or know Dr Wiggins and be able to ask him)? I’d be interested to read it, as I enjoy his writing and am intrigued to know what he thought (though I suspect I enjoy the story very much more than he does). A web search hasn’t been fruitful.

Having spent all morning listening to Gerry Rafferty, this piece has been written to the soundtracks from Earthshock (unsurprisingly) and Tron: Legacy, which may have been made in 2010 but sounds even more 1982.

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Many thanks for posting this review, which gives much food for thought; I'd not appreciated how new a militaristic interpretation of the Cybermen was in 1982, though I'd argue that Saward's jumping-off point was probably the 'tin soldiers' line in Revenge of the Cybermen. My own recent thoughts, should you be interested, are here.

I've had a look for the October 1992 Celestial Toyroom, but haven't found it in my current abode - it must be at my parents'. I think that in 1982 Wiggins (who teaches at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford, rather than Oxford) wrote a similarly negative review for William Gallagher's fanzine Web Planet, but I don't have that either!
Thank you very much, and I'm intrigued by your "gathering"... I think I've very much dated myself here, too. Fascinating glimpse of the politics – that hadn't occurred to me, but of course you're right (and I think I vaguely remember reading that Philip Purser review, though it wouldn't have been in the Torygraph; did he take over one of Halliwell's guides?).

Thanks, too, for looking for the old mag – please do let me know should you ever turn it up…
I never understood the Beryl Reid hataz either. The script doesn't give her much to work with but she's still a presence; everyone else is shortchanged by the script too and no-one else makes it work the way she does.
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