|“What do you mean our redesign is bad? Look at his!”|
It’s March 8, 1982. Tight Fit are still sleeping with a lion, and continue to do so all story. Fun Boy Three and Bananarama, ABC, and Iron Maiden also chart. So that’s all terribly exciting, isn’t it. Let’s try the news – the US starts its embargo against Libya. That will end well, I’m sure. Mary Whitehouse’s attempt to prosecute the play The Romans in Britain for obscenity goes down in flames when it turns out that the witness who claims to have seen a penis on stage could not possibly have actually done so, proving a delightfully high profile defeat for Whitehouse. Also, syzygy!
While on television we have Earthshock. A story I’ve been hemming and hawing over what to do with almost since this blog started, hoping that watching it would in some sense clarify things. It didn’t really. This is, for me, one of the most inscrutable of Doctor Who stories. No, the thing that really clarified what to say about this story was actually doing revisions on the Troughton book (I just did my revisions to The Wheel in Space last night, and I have the first round of copy-edits in on the Season 4 material. I still need to do the extra entries, however – currently looking at The Prison in Space, Heart of TARDIS, and Twilight of the Gods. Anyone have a strong recommendation for a fourth?) and rereading what I’d written about the base under siege era.
The bulk of my writing on that subject focused on the way in which the base under siege became formulaic and boring, and it did. But a second strand that crops up throughout the entries is a process of contextualizing the stories in the changing tastes of Doctor Who fandom. This is, admittedly, an issue through large swaths of the blog, and it’s one that’s obviously growing in importance in this era. But redoing the Troughton entries reminded me vividly of the large faction of fandom who considered the base under siege format to be the absolute pinnacle of the series.
I did not much like that section of fandom when covering the Troughton era. And back in the Kinda entry I remarked, with some venom, that the crux of what was wrong with Doctor Who in the 1980s is that it took a section of fandom seriously. And this story is the flip side of it. Kinda was at the bottom of the Season 19 poll. Earthshock was at the top, and is still, broadly speaking, regarded as the best episode of its season. And this gets straight at what’s a bit tricky with Earthshock, which is that it’s tailor made for the crowd that thinks that bases under siege are the be-all and end-all of Doctor Who.
For the most part, Earthshock is an astonishingly straightforward story. Cybermen attack Earth. Twice. The pleasures it offers are straightforward pleasures. There are Cybermen. There are gun battles. Things explode. It is a story that operates under the complete and unfaltering confidence that having action sequences involving classic Doctor Who monsters is inherently worthwhile television.
Given that premise, Earthshock is, if nothing else, as good as Doctor Who ever got at this. Over the entire run of Doctor Who, including the classic “monster” era of Troughton and the “Action by Havoc” era of Pertwee, this is the best the series did at a straight action story. It moves at a brisk pace, has reasonably competent action sequences throughout, and has a pair of genuinely striking moments with the surprise appearance of the Cybermen and the death of Adric. It makes the clever decision to take the base under siege format – traditionally a six episode structure – and break it down to two linked two-parters so that the action actually moves at a real clip. If what you like about Doctor Who is its action sequences then this is rightly your favorite story. Even if that’s not what you like about Doctor Who, there’s admittedly a kind of infectious fun to this one. It’s sheer glee at reenacting various iconic Cybermen moments is catchy. Lawrence Miles describes it in About Time as a guilty pleasure, and he’s absolutely right. If you’re a Doctor Who fan who is capable of being invested in the fact that the Cybermen are reappearing then this story is a real hoot.
The problem is that so much of fandom seems unaware of the “guilty” part of guilty pleasures. The stereotypical social awkwardness of the science fiction fan occasionally, in the case of Doctor Who, spills over into an odd aesthetic awkwardness. Put another way, people are inexplicably of the belief that the faults of this story are more excusable than those of Kinda when it comes to showing Doctor Who to a general audience. This is very strange. Kinda has two major problems, both of which center on its conclusion. The first is that the conclusion is emotionally vacant, the second is that the conclusion focuses on a terrible giant snake. But as problems go, this second one is an interesting one. First of all, the superficially obvious problem that the snake is rubbish helpfully distracts from the scripting problem underneath it.
But second, and this is particularly key, there’s actually something fun about a dodgy giant snake. For all that people mock the bad effects of Doctor Who it’s genuinely easy for fans or non-fans to get a kick out of them. Science fiction is established enough that poor effects are part of its charm. And this was true by 1982. The purpose of special effects is often their visibility – the question of “how did they do that.” And thus a bad effect still fits into the basic grammar of special effects. It’s just an effect in which the question of “how did they do that” is all too answerable. And so a good story with terrible effects is not only something that the general public is more than capable of accepting, it’s something they actually can generally be counted on a perverse enjoyment of. There’s a camp glee to a bad effect. (I’ve long thought that a brilliant piece of science fiction television would be to take top notch scriptwriters and then just produce their scripts on an appalling shoestring budget with good actors and competent directors who are just unabashedly directing men in rubber suits, glove puppets, and wire models.)
Whereas Earthshock is frankly nearly impossible to love if you’re not a Doctor Who fan.
Consider, for instance, the much vaunted episode one cliffhanger. Remember that a key part of the appeal of this cliffhanger is that the return of the Cybermen was a genuine surprise and that nobody knew it was coming. Then look at how it’s actually done. The Doctor refers to whoever is controlling the android, then we cut to the people controlling the android as one of them shouts “Destroy them! Destroy them at once!” And, of course, the people controlling them are Cybermen.
But this is never actually stated. I mean, it’s not a huge botch – the Cybermen are well known villains that a fair portion of the audience legitimately would have recognized. But the impact of that cliffhanger depends 100% on the fact that the audience is going to recognize the Cybermen and care that they’re back. To anyone who is not at least a casual Doctor Who fan the cliffhanger looks like the people controlling the androids are, in fact, more androids. And yet people seriously believe this is somehow more appealing to people than a story where the only problem is a poorly done giant snake.
But there’s a larger issue at play here – one that gets back to the sorts of comparisons we dealt with back in the bemusing Space: 1999/I Claudius entry. And that’s that the BBC is not exactly great at doing space action-adventure. Earthshock is by far the most competent that the classic series ever got at imitating Aliens and Star Wars, but this is not exactly what you’d call an accomplishment in the grand scheme of the genre. The BBC just can’t do this sort of thing all that well. This manages “not a disaster,” which is a tremendous accomplishment for the BBC, but the fact of the matter is that if in 1982 you’re pitching the major appeal of Doctor Who as space marines then it’s pretty tough to account for why anybody would prefer Doctor Who to other things on the market.
The best account that presents itself is one of nostalgia – that this is Britain’s great contribution to science fiction television and so is rightly beloved on those grounds. And so we bring the Cybermen back because they’re the monsters that people remember from their childhoods. And we do space action because that’s what science fiction is these days, and it’s what Doctor Who did so well in the Troughton and Pertwee eras.
Ironically, of course, it’s John Nathan-Turner’s own maxim that dooms him here. The memory cheats. Not in the sense he used it – which was to suggest that old Doctor Who wasn’t as good as people remembered it being – but in the sense that people don’t remember why something was good years after they watched it. Yes, the scene of Cybermen bursting out of their tombs in Tomb of the Cybermen was absolutely fantastic, but it turns out to have been one of about three good moments in the entire story. It stuck in the memory, sure, but it wasn’t the heart and soul of the series, it was just the bit that stayed with you a decade later.
This is the biggest problem with the “monsters” model of Doctor Who. The sad truth of the matter is that Doctor Who was never all that good at monster action. Over the course of its nearly fifty years it has had some gloriously brilliant monsters, but most of them were the product of a particularly good BBC design team or of particularly inventive writing. The Daleks are good because Raymond Cusick hit the things out of the park. The Weeping Angels are good because they’re a quintessentially British version of a J-Horror monster. But the fact of the matter is that the Ice Warriors didn’t come back because green lizard-men from Mars are a good idea, they came back because the costumes were bloody expensive and had to be justified by re-use. And when the costumes wore out the Ice Warriors were never seen again, and with good reason: they were dumb.
This, more than anything, is responsible for the sort of sad and pathetic status of Doctor Who fans. It’s not, as with most genre fans, that they liked something unpopular. Doctor Who has, even at its lowest moments, enjoyed a measure of genuine respect in Britain. It’s telling that “Doctorin’ the TARDIS,” KLF’s gloriously trashy Doctor Who themed single, hit number one during the Cartmel years at the absolute lowest ebb of the series actual popularity. Even in the worst days of the 1980s the series enjoyed genuine theoretical popularity. No, the sad thing about Doctor Who fans has always been what they liked about Doctor Who. It’s always been that they genuinely thought the series was about its monsters and its thrills.
And at the end of the day this is where I have to just draw an aesthetic line. Because I’m on the other side of that debate. I couldn’t care less about the series as an action serial and the points where it becomes one are the ones that interest me the least. For me Doctor Who is interesting because of its inventiveness, and while I can get a guilty thrill out of mimicry of other popular texts of the time I cannot invest myself in the idea that it’s what Doctor Who is for. Doctor Who isn’t a chameleon just so it can consistently fail to distinguish itself in any meaningful sense from anything else around it. In this regard the two Saward scripts in Season Nineteen are in many ways my least favorite of the set – and I even include Time-Flight in that assessment. It’s not that The Visitation and Earthshock have no ambitions other than entertainment – that’s something I’ll never really fault Doctor Who for. It’s that they have no ambitions other than recreating other things. There is no spark or creativity anywhere in them. Can I enjoy them? Yes. Absolutely. But I cannot bring myself to love either of them. They have next to none of the animating spark that I genuinely love about Doctor Who.
But in the case of Earthshock I’ll push that critique one step further. Earthshock has the unfortunate distinction of airing two weeks before the Falklands War breaks out. I am not actually going to cover the Falklands War in massive depth – I have a different Pop Between Realities post planned in the next season gap. But its a soberingly problematic moment in British history. There’s not really a way around the sense that the war was, if not wholly motivated by the fact that there would have to be an election soon, at least firmly conducted with one eye on the polls. The Argentinian side – a fading military dictatorship in desperate need of a propaganda coup – was certainly no better, but the sudden reversion to raw militaristic jingoism in the UK was genuinely chilling, doubly so because it worked so well in the 1983 general election. Similarly, those inclined to despise Rupert Murdoch and The Sun have little evidence substantially better than the paper’s war coverage and reflexive support of the Thatcher government.
So to see Doctor Who, two weeks before the war broke out, running a story in which even the Doctor ends up as an action hero wrestling a Cyberman and rubbing gold into its chest plate before Nyssa guns it down and where the main supporting good guys are just space marines with big guns is… dismaying. In the worst days of the UNIT era there was at least a sense of tension between the Doctor and UNIT. Pertwee’s sort of drag action man, the camp sensibility of UNIT, and the fact that Pertwee even at his worst had at least some visible tension with authority figures all cut against the myriad of problems introduced.
Because the fact of the matter is that the military is, by definition, a tool of establishment power that prioritizes brute force and is organized according to an authoritarian focus on conformity for its own sake. There’s no way for the military to be anything else. This isn’t a statement of pacifist belief or anything along those lines – it’s simply an acknowledgment of how an organization like the military needs to function. And thus the Doctor – mercurial, anarchistic, and intellectual – is at the core of his concept at least mildly hostile to the military. That doesn’t mean the Doctor is a pacifist. That doesn’t mean the Doctor must always oppose the military. But it does mean that using Doctor Who to blindly and uncritically valorize the military is deeply problematic.
I don’t want this observation to be read as a critique of Saward’s politics. In his next scripts he displays considerably more skepticism towards the military, and one gets the sense that he grasped the problems of this story in hindsight. But the fact remains – on a fundamental, ethical level someone who loves the bulk of Doctor Who ought to have some problems with this story. If you’re the sort of person who likes Doctor Who then, quite frankly, you really should be the sort of person who likes subversive and mercurial play on and around a concept more than you like militaristic action.
There are two other things to talk about with this story. One I’m going to punt to Monday when I do the exact Big Finish audio everybody has been assuming I’m going to do ever since I started doing Pop Between Realities posts. The other is the death of Adric. This gets back to the sort of running theme of this entry, which is that fandom has a very warped sense of what works in television. The death of Adric is, for the sort of orthodox fandom that heralds the return of the Cybermen as inherently worthwhile, one of the great moments of drama in the series and a triumphant confirmation of how John Nathan-Turner has discarded the silliness of the Graham Williams era and become a serious program again.
It is difficult to take this even remotely seriously. Part of this is because Adric was a crappy character. But what’s remarkable is how little effort was even expended on trying to make his death work dramatically. He doesn’t die heroically in any way, shape, or form. He dies because he runs into a crashing spaceship to prove that he’s clever. His last words, “now I’ll never know if I was right,” are so outlandishly smug that it is impossible to even figure out what Saward thought he was doing with them. And on top of that Adric gets an extra heaping of annoying scenes in the first episode that work towards setting up a voluntary departure and, on the side, reminding everyone of why they hate him.
But this gets at a larger issue, which is that there’s an overt cynicism to the entire thing. It’s not just that killing a companion is obviously a bit of a stunt, it’s that they consciously picked the companion that was going to be least missed. If you’re going to have the Doctor fail and have a companion die, fine. It’s probably something worth doing every couple of decades just to forcibly broaden the possible horizons of what Doctor Who can do. And while the tragic departures of Rose and Donna are in every sense better versions of killing a companion, the fact of the matter is that it remains an effective way of increasing dramatic tension. The Doctor will save the day, yes, but there’s a possibility of an egregious price to be paid.
But to do it with the companion that is going to have the least emotional impact is just cheap. If you want to go down that route, do it in a way that’s going to matter to the audience. What we get here isn’t drama. It’s the hollow shell of drama – a major character death, a silent credit sequence, a few minutes of horrified and morose main characters at the tail end of this and the start of Time-Flight, and then everybody – the audience included – moves on. It’s not one of the most dramatic sequences of the 1980s. It’s a cheap sham designed to look like drama. It’s a sequence designed to rile up controversy – the exact sort of death scene that would be created by an executive who believes that art should “soothe, not distract.” It’s there to make people watching the show feel like they’re watching serious drama without making any effort at being serious drama. Just like the supposed emotional plot arcs all season have been the hollow shells of character drama instead of actual character drama.
So, fine. Thrill at the reasonably well-done action sequences. Enjoy the hell out of Davison and Sutton’s acting around Adric’s death, which really is, in both cases, damn good. Even enjoy the ridiculous macho posturing of David Banks as Cyber Leader if you want. Take your guilty pleasure from it. Fine.
At the end of the day, this is Doctor Who for people who read The Sun, two weeks before it becomes horrifyingly clear what that really means.