Doctor Who Sunday: Earthshock
Due to the fact we can’t physically watch and review every classic Doctor Who story before the 50th Anniversary, we have decided to check out two episodes in each Doctor’s era every week until the 50th. This week is the Fifth Doctor’s week, featuring Earthshock and Caves of Androzani. For those looking for another good episode to understand the Fifth Doctor, also look at The Resurrection of the Daleks.
Earthshock is the sixth serial of the 19th season of Doctor Who. This four-parter was the first to feature the Cybermen since Revenge of the Cybermen in 1975, eight years previously. There are spoilers in this post as a main character dies.
Androids slaughtering an archaeological expedition in the future, greedy and impatient merchant captains, Cybermen, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. Although the plot felt a little stretched at times, for example the strange jump from a cave system underground to the sudden appearance of a space freighter, Earthshock was an enjoyable episode. However, its greatest achievement was the way it made the companion Adric a highly sympathetic character, who up until this point had been annoying and uppity (so an accurate representation of a nerdy teenage boy).
The plot is slow to get started – a series of mysterious disappearances in a series of caves leaves the viewer wondering what is going on, especially considering that the next scene is the Doctor and Adric having a childish squabble over him wanting to return to E-Space. Then the military squad (with a very equal gender balance) are sent to investigate the mysterious happenings start to have members disappearing one by one. It turns out the culprits for these sinister disappearances are a pair of androids, who are defending a metal hatch – rather out of place in a cave full of dinosaur fossils. To be honest, the first episode seems quite distinct from the rest of the story – it takes place primarily underground and the primary villains appear to be these dark and mysterious robots, controlled by an unknown source. After that, things begin to pick up: the Doctor and his three companions, Nyssa, Tegan and Adric, get caught up in a battle between the soldiers and the androids, and then discover, after defeating the androids, that there is a small bomb, which has enough power to basically blow the planet to kingdom come. Well, the Cybermen aren’t known for half-hearted measures. Although the Doctor stops the bomb, the Cybermen have a contingency plan: ram a ship full of explosives into the earth for much the same effect. This is to prevent an anti-Cybermen alliance developing. Somehow the freighter ends up flying through time to the time of the dinosaurs, and it turns out the Doctor and the Cybermen, with the help of Adric, help cause the destruction of the dinosaurs.
In some ways this story is one of the more realistic of Doctor Who stories – the Doctor doesn’t know the Cybermen are involved until the end of second episode, and there are communication problems all round, including with the Cybermen, who end up killing their human ally for a perceived treachery, even though he was as oblivious to more soldiers as the Cybermen were. Also, gender equality is quite strong in this story – there are just as many women as there are men in the military forces, and the two leading figures on the freighter are women. Whilst most of the other characters are quite two dimensional, oddly enough the Cyberleader has some of the most developed character developments during the serial: he is arrogant, a braggart and even shows signs of irritation and rage. Adric is also interesting – despite being an annoying and uppity teenage boy (most of the original Doctor Who fans would have been rather like him, which is something young teenage boys don’t like being reminded of), he manages to elicit quite a bit of sympathy towards the end. His stubbornness and need to be right ultimately proves to be his Achilles Heel, which proves to be quite a moving final scene. The emotional impact is further enforced by the silent credits at the end of show to indicate Adric’s departure from the show, with the background being Adric’s broken star badge.
Overall, this is one of the better Fifth Doctor stories. The Fifth Doctor had a problem with his companions overall, I personally couldn’t stand Turlough or Adric, but this is one of the few stories where his companions are actually quite strong. Although the plot was sometimes a but flimsy, it still pulled through, and the Cybermen always make excellent villains. Overall, the emotional impact of Earthshock is what makes it one of the better stories from the Fifth Doctor’s era, and makes for good viewing.
For those who are only watching episodes along with us (and congratulations if you’re doing that), this episode can be a little confusing. It features Peter Davidson’s Doctor, and his three companions Nyssa (Sarah Hutton), Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse). I don’t really know much about any of these characters, but both Nyssa and Adric are not from Earth – Nyssa is an alien and Adric comes from E-Space, which is extremely hard to return to.
In any case, what is easy to grasp is this: Tegan is Australia, Nyssa finds humans odd and Adric is precocious and pretty annoying. Adric is also one of the least-liked companions to be in Doctor Who – but his death scene manages to be surprisingly poignant. As Aidan notes, although the target demographic of Doctor Who, young, nerdy boys, is represented in Adric, his tendency to argue with the Doctor and storm off in petty huffs may have hit a little too close to home. However, whatever his flaws, his death is quite moving.
This episode is set in Earth’s future, underground (which is usually an interesting location). Classic Doctor Who stories often begin in a certain way, and end in a completely different place, and no episode shows that as well as this one. An underground expedition runs into trouble after being attacked by androids controlled by the pesky Cybermen. After the requisite number of extras dying, we find that the androids are defending a hatch. However, we still haven’t gotten to the really important part of the episode – after some investigating, it turns out that the Cybermen are aboard a space freighter and plan to pilot it into the Earth for some reason or another (basically, for drama’s sake).
So from the TARDIS to the cave, to the TARDIS, to the space freighter. There are a few humans on board, but they’re not particularly useful – one is a traitor and one is overly obsessed with earning her bonus. This episode’s plot really wasn’t its strong point: a lot of events felt contrived in order to move the story to a certain point, instead of natural progressions. However, while I felt the way the plot lurched forward wasn’t particularly great, I did enjoy the overarching story – basically, Cybermen are not very nice.
The best part of this story, really, is the companion Adric’s death. And despite how the fandom “loathed” him, his death scene was well-constructed, and actually made you feel bad for disliking him. His determination to solve mathematical problems leads to his death: by attempting to unlock the controls, he jumps them back 65 million years in the past (around the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs), but still on a collision course with Earth. This is alluded to early on in the first part of the episode when the Doctor and his companions chat about the extinction of the dinosaurs – the Earth was hit with a large object, but not necessarily a meteor. Recalling this at the end is a nice touch, even with the improbability of a freighter jumping back 65 million years in time (another way the plot felt contrived).
All in all, an unsatisfying plot but a great resolution.