Earthshock – Review

or “How To Spring Clean a Crowded TARDIS”

I’ll start my random series of reviews with Earthshock, during Peter Davison’s tenure as the Doctor.

There’s no point in disguising it, I generally despise what happened to Doctor Who under John Nathan-Turner’s stewardship. Despising the JNT regime seems to come in and go out of vogue. I believe I can honestly say I’ve never followed the flavor of the times and have always disliked what happened to Doctor Who.

Undeniably, JNT was a long-time fan of the show and I have no doubts about his intentions or dedication to the show in light of all the crap it was subjected to; however, good intentions do not make up for serious missteps.

JNT intentionally implemented changes in the TARDIS crew. Phasing out the agreeable Doctor/Companion pairing for more fractious Doctor/multiple companions combination that, presumably allowed for more dramatic latitude. The format shows its cracks here, but fortunately, a slight relief is in the offing.

The story opens with the Doctor and the execrable Adric having a fight. Adric, complete waste of flesh that he’s been since he left Alzarius is complaining he’s always being picked on. Fair enough, but he deserves it. He’s decided that, for some half-assed reason he wants to kill the entire TARDIS crew in a dangerous return to e-space. Instead of forcefully putting his foot down (and Adric off the TARDIS at the nearest convenient uninhabited planet) the Doctor goes into an equally childish hissy fit, lands the TARDIS on 26th century Earth and goes for a walk to cool off.

I’m so glad that added dramatic tension to the TARDIS crew, it allows them to have a whole series of other excuses as to why they land at random places in the universe.

In any case, it is here that the story begins. The Doctor is drawn into a mystery concerning underground tunnels, mysterious androids (build for no apparent reason in male and female forms) and a whopping great bomb designed to destroy life on Earth. It’s here that Adric becomes useful momentarily – almost a first since he began his travels with the Doctor. What could it mean? Will Adric finally become a useful member of the crew?

The bomb defused, it would seem the story is over, but no! It is not. The Doctor, his companions and a small military force from the Earth travel into deep space searching for the signal that seemed to control the timer on the bomb.

OK, I’ll take a quick aside to say the bomb was a poorly thought-out contrivance. While I can accept that the Cybermen might be able to send a remote signal to tell the timer to start counting down, I find it difficult to believe that they built a bomb that requires that signal to continue until the bomb explodes. That seems a very poor design.

Aboard a deep space freighter we learn that the Cybermen have an army concealed aboard that were initially destined to be the occupying force to suppress the survivors of the destroyed Earth. Their backup plan, just crash the ship into the Earth. (Wasn’t that the plan that failed in Revenge of the Cybermen?)

It’s onboard the freighter that the crowded TARDIS formula really begins to shine. While the Doctor and Adric in shades of earlier more halcyon days of Doctor Who get falsely accused of causing the mysterious crew disappearances and deaths onboard the freighter, Nyssa demonstrates the ability to stay in the TARDIS and worry, while Tegan demonstrates that overalls are what you need to be “prepared” to fight Cyberman, but actually just spends her time wandering lost around the freighter. This crowded TARDIS formula really puts value on the screen, doesn’t it?

The Cybermen take the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa back to the TARDIS to escape the impending crash of the freighter, but leave Adric and the remaining ships crew aboard so they can experience the destruction of Earth firsthand. (Once again, isn’t that exactly why their plan was foiled in Revenge of the Cybermen. Have they learned nothing?! Apparently not.)

While the Doctor and the TARDIS crew watch from space, Adric finally uses his badge for mathematical excellence to try to unlike the navigation system and save the Earth. Again, the previously less-than-useless Adric manages enough to save the day, making him, perhaps, finally worthy of traveling in the TARDIS. Alas, he’s blown into a bazillion pieces. Despite his growth as a character during this episode, I cannot stifle a cheer every time I see this episode. Honestly, I couldn’t be happier with this ending unless they also managed to get rid of the (occasionally useful but always abrasively obnoxious) Tegan at the same time.

Despite any logic flaws in the story, Earthshock is one of my favorite Davison-era stories. The Cybermen have been given a complete makeover since their last appearance and are in my favorite form – although, their suits are, perhaps, a bit too baggy. They even seem mildly credible as a fighting force.

Their use of androids made little or no sense, nor did their logic that destroying a conference designed to bring planets together in a battle with the Cybermen and demonstrating their “…superior cyber technology…” would cause the planets to be less inclined to band together and beat the Cybermen.

Davison’s Doctor is mostly ineffectual with flashes of brilliance in this episode, perhaps meant to evoke the second Doctor, but it comes off an ineffectual. Luckily, Nyssa sets the bar of uselessness in this episode and even the fifth Doctor can’t limbo under that bar this time around.

I should point out that when push comes to shove, the Doctor effectively kills the Cybercontroller in a very hands on way. There was a recent controversy in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship that the Doctor wouldn’t deliberately and directly kill someone. That’s nonsense. In this episode, not only did the Doctor kill the Cybercontroller, he did it by taking his gun and shooting him repeatedly at point-blank range while the Cybercontroller was incapacitated and dying of gold poisoning – and I applaud him for doing it, but the arguments about the Doctor not killing are just unfounded.

Crowded TARDIS: 1 down, 1 to go.

3 thoughts on “Earthshock – Review”

  1. I will not get sidetracked into a defence of JNT. I will not get sidetracked into a defence of JNT. Every time there’s a discussion of 80s Who I need to keep reminding myself of this. I’d love to discuss the whole era of this long serving producer some time, but such a big topic it will swamp anything else…

    But what I will say is: there are some very distinctive ‘hallmarks’ of the era in this one. Not just the crowded TARDIS, dramatic ‘friction’ or returning monsters but the stunt casting. Beryl Reid. It doesn’t always work, and Reid looks like she hasn’t a clue what’s going on, but it’s highly amusing.

    In fact, this whole serial seems to be full of flaws – most of your post is spent on detailing them, and yet you say this is one of your favourite Davison era stories. Either you really hate the Davison era, or the things you’ve picked on don’t quite comprise your overall view of this one. I’ll say this isn’t a particular favourite of mine, but the latter interpretation would make some sense to me. Despite all the nonsense that is peddled in this, despite the poor use of the companions, and despite the fact I don’t even like the 80s cybermen (oh sure, the costumes look alright, but the voices are not a patch on the 60s incarnations) this is a pacey and entertaining ride. There’s some conviction to it, which carries you along (right through the the cheesy silent credits) and it’s got that structurally satisfying circularity that the first Davison story Castrovalva pioneered.

    I will take issue, though, with the parallel you’re trying to draw between the killings of Solomon and the Cybercontroller. The incapacitation here is temporary. Yes, the Doctor’s act is direct and has been extremely controversial, but even so it’s nowhere near the delayed, pre-meditated act of cold revenge the Doctor commits in murdering Solomon.

    1. Rightly so we save the JNT era for another day.

      However, for purely logistical conveniences, I have started these blog reviews at one of those “fixed moments in time” of the original series and I felt it required some prefatory remarks concerning the make-up and problems of the JNT era, lest my complaints might be misconstrued as being specific to this story – which they are not.

      Trying to balance that “this is so absolutely typical of the JNT vibe” and “let’s just look at this one story” was a difficult juggling act which caused me to re-write this from scratch three times. I fear that I may have either lost some of what I was saying or still missed the balance in the final version that made the cut.

      Looking at the entirety of the Davison era, I find it difficult to find even a single story that stands out. Earthshock is one of the few that rises above the foam – a bit. As you say, it has pace, earnestness and entertainment.

      No, I don’t hate the Davison era, I just find it to be remarkably bland with irritating toppings on it: Adric, Tegan & Turlough, specifically.

      Doctor Who continued to be of interest to me because of the premise of the series, not the quality of the individual stories.

      This also continued on through the Colin Baker years, where I thought Colin had much greater potential but was serviced will an ill-chosen method of introducing his character and direly awful stories. Sylvester McCoy didn’t even have that.

      1. I’m going to save my responses to your Baker/McCoy comments for our regeneration specials on The Twin Dilemma and Time and the Rani.

        As for stories that stand out from the Davison era, I’m unfashionably fond of Earthshock‘s predecessor, Black Orchid. And I love Enlightenment. There some really dire Davison clunkers, too (Time-Flight anyone?) so I’d probably place Earthshock as above average, but only just. Generally I’d agree that the era has too few solid hits, even if there were some I really liked, but somehow the potential of the 5th Doctor is clearly demonstrated in his short tenure, even if it feels like it was never fully realised…

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