Thursday, December 06, 2012


Doctor Who – Survival: The Short Review

Before Doctor Who became the biggest non-soap opera TV drama and demanded a Radio Times front cover even a fortnight before it’s next on, it was once in a struggle to survive. Before Sylvester McCoy became a big movie star – will next week’s opening beat James Bond to the year’s biggest? – he was the Doctor. And exactly twenty-three years ago (checks watch) now, he walked off into the sunset at the end of a gorgeous adventure that was positively not the last of Doctor Who. It felt like a new start. And, in several ways, so it was…

Having picked a short and relatively classy trailer for Doctor Who’s no longer final year in my Eleven Great Trailers opening a celebration of the series’ fiftieth year, brace yourself. Survival has a superb guitar score that, like the story itself, is both part of and a critique of the ’80s. This trailer counts down to Doctor Who’s ‘final’ year without that critique, an overlong, overblown piece of – there’s no hope for me – irresistible cheese to get you in the mood.

With Richard and I re-reading Sylvester’s New Adventures twenty years on, I’ve also been watching his TV stories over again. Richard’s already reviewed Survival for Millennium’s blog; I hope to start a series of reviews to complete them all. But as tonight’s the anniversary of not the end, the end seems as good a place as any to start – so before I return to Survival on DVD in detail, I just happen to have a much shorter review to hand written by a much younger me in April 1996 (I suspect I’ve since evolved both more love for Survival than I had then and a greater resistance to fan clichés in my reviews). It was published in Liberator Magazine, looking at the VHS release and hoping desperately that the Doctor Who TV Movie starring Paul McGann and Sylvester McCoy would be a huge success…
“If we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals!”
For too long, we all thought this was to be the last TV Doctor Who story ever made and mourned it, even as we rejoice in Virgin’s superb series of original New Adventures novels. Transmitted back in 1989, a BBC production with a BBC budget, Survival has the same protagonists as the new TV Movie, but played by (mostly) different actors and almost certainly with a very different tone, with perhaps the last use of cliffhanger episode endings – all of which are refreshingly effective.

Survival is good, solid, average Who: story-driven, with something familiar, a few surprises, mostly rather well done drama and the odd let-down. Something is appearing in North-West London and carrying people away, aided by the Doctor’s arch-enemy. They turn out to be giant cat-people on horseback, a strikingly effective sight (although their animatronic cat ‘hunting dogs’ betray the budget). Their home world is falling apart as they fight – not just a quarry, but with a pink sky, the odd volcano and a satisfyingly stormy look. And while the inhabitants affect the planet, it casts its strange spell over them in turn…

There is a slightly dreamy air to this allegorical tale, which shows no love for machismo and ’80s values. A retired sergeant teaches ‘survival of the fittest’, but is killed in turn by a sharp-suited yuppie, and the Doctor in the end chooses not to fight. Both the Doctor’s companion, the self-reliant Ace, and his opposite, the Master, are possessed by the Cheetah Planet in superb performances (although some of the minor actors are a bit ropey). Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor was by this stage far darker, less goofy and with a far greater presence than when he started; while Anthony Ainley’s Master had sometimes descended almost into panto, here he is underplayed and sinister, fighting to survive with the gadgets and the veneer stripped away. He positively smoulders as he and the Doctor circle each other in a fine send-off for the old leads.
“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning. Where the sea is asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger. Somewhere there’s injustice. And somewhere else, the tea is getting cold.
“Come on, Ace – we’ve got work to do.”
And next month…
Well, the next month saw that TV Movie, and it wasn’t quite the huge success for which I’d hoped. Yet though that starred Sylvester and no previous Doctor appeared in Rose nine years later, Russell T Davies’ new series felt far more like Survival than the Movie ever did. Following this story with the glorious, inventive, emotional, allegorical New Adventures makes perfect sense; jumping straight to Rose, which takes the same real-world roots and family ties and does them so much more deftly feels equally right. I always wonder if the business with something nasty through the council estate cat-flap is a deliberate homage to this story, but I suspect Russell had better reasons for casting Noel Clarke than that his birthday is today. Though I can’t completely rule it out (it’s my Mum’s birthday too, though I don’t think she’d have been quite as right as Mickey). “I felt like I could run forever,” said Ace. And Russell made sure that it did.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for much more of the Sylvester McCoy years, a time when both on screen and on the page Doctor Who was determined to be strange and interesting – and under the surface of Survival more than most there’s a challenge to the viewer, to the times and to the series itself. When I return to it, I’ll look at how as well as reshaping the Master it looks right back across Doctor Who with an implicit critique of ‘standards’ like the Daleks, the Cybermen and UNIT era, while looking forward into the New Adventures, Professor Bernice Summerfield and of course Doctor Who’s triumphant return to TV.

But first, coming soon

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