I. Oh.: The Doctors Revisited (Peter Davison)
The entire Doctors Revisited series takes a fundamental turn here, and largely not for the better. Where the Tom Baker episode merely brought in the actor who played the Doctor as one of its primary talking heads, here the show has access to essentially all of the major stars of the era. Where the first four episodes were basically anchored by two Scottish fanboys, here Davison, Strickson, Fielding, Sutton, and Waterhouse are the stars, with Tennant and Moffat contributing only choice insights.
For this specific instance, at least, it is to the program’s detriment. The thing is, of course, that we know both Moffat and Tennant’s opinions of the Davison era, since they each, in their own ways, expressed it in “Time Crash.” Moffat, in particular, has been an outspoken defender of the Davison era for nearly twenty years now. There are hints of their impassioned defense of Davison throughout, but it’s easy to wish they’d spent a little less time spoiling all the twists of Earthshock right before they showed it and a little more time fleshing out the initial claim that Davison brought “believability” to the part.
And yet it’s equally worth noting what isn’t here. Nobody is being snarky. Davison and Fielding, in particular, have been positively withering about aspects of their time on the program elsewhere, but here both of them give thoroughly enthused performances. Nobody says anything nasty about Adric or the effects. The only thing anyone giggles at is the celery. As we turn the corner into 1980s Doctor Who, there’s not a hint that they’re entering a problem area. Indeed, people were generally more willing to laugh at the Troughton and Pertwee eras than they are this.
The result, though, is soulless. The era is presented as good, but without the clear case for what was good about it that the first four installments made. It feels like people mumbling bland platitudes and explaining the plots of thirty year old television episodes, which, of course, it is, just like the first four installments, but they did much better jobs of covering that. And we should, perhaps, wonder what bits of interview got left on the cutting room floor.
Which does rather bring us back to Earthshock. It was inevitable, of course, that we were going to get this or The Caves of Androzani, and while one might have hoped for the latter, you kind of knew it had to be this. And in some ways that’s good. We complained that Spearhead From Space made it too easy on the Pertwee era. The same could easily have been said about Caves of Androzani, and it really can’t of Earthshock, which strays into camp in more ways than just Beryl Reid. And while nobody introduces the episode that way, the fact that they hype its surprises while simultaneously spoiling both of them does, shall we say, set up a few other surprises for audiences for whom this is an introduction to history.
I am, admittedly, not a huge fan of Earthshock, but it’s one of those ones like Inferno where if the rest of the world would just agree to stop claiming it was an all-time classic, I’d be happy to stop criticizing it. It absolutely has its charms – it’s just that those charms are more akin to The Stones of Blood than City of Death. But after a somewhat disappointingly bland summary of the Davison era, there’s something charmingly appropriate about good old Earthshock. Following this particular documentary with that particular episode is, at least, going to give everyone a very solid sense of what the Peter Davison era was like. It may not have been what they were going for, but it worked nicely.
January 2, 2015 @ 3:04 am
This was the first time I had seen the episode, and out of its original context, it's even more alienating. With the cliffhangers edited out, the Cybermen reveal is basically just a single cut from some robots to some other robots. There's not even a sweet musical sting to make up for it. Outside of the context of "Doctor Who reeling in the wake of Star Wars" the action scenes fall even flatter. Of course, Star Wars had ILM doing its laser rotoscoping and Doctor Who had… well, judging by the shoddy production values and ostentatious, bright nature of them, let's assume JNT did it himself. Androzani would later hit on the right way to do sci-fi action scenes with a BBC budget: blanks. Odd that it took so long to rediscover the lost art of the Pertwee years…
Anyways, in the context of the Doctors Revisited we don't care about Adric because we've never met him, we don't care about Cybermen because they're a yearly presence (and the 80s were the worst years of Cyber-designs), we don't care about the action because it's terrible, really all we care about is the Doctor (who's… well, very much the stereotypical 5th Doctor in this story) and about the plot, which actually ends up bizarrely playing to the serial's strength by revealing to the audience who just finished series 7 the exact nature of the war described in Nightmare in Silver.
January 2, 2015 @ 5:45 am
The Davison era is enormously hard to pin down – I remember Phil saying he found it a frustrating one to write about, and while Moffat and Tennant are both big fans, I don’t remember them ever crystallising why that is in any very convincing way (aside from “Davison is an excellent actor”, fair enough). The reason, I think, is that it’s pulling in 3 directions at once. His 20 stories divide fairly evenly into the cerebral (Castrovalva, Four To Doomsday, Kinda, Snakedance, Mawdryn Undead, Enlightenment), the gritty/militaristic (Earthshock, Warriors OTD, The Awakening, Frontios, Resurrection, Androzani) and the garish romp, generally featuring plenty of continuity porn (The Visitation, Time-Flight, Arc Of Infinity, The Kings Demons, The Five Doctors, Planet Of Fire)*. Bidmead-y, Saward-y, and Nathan-Turner-y, if you like. The prominence of Earthshock and Androzani means the gritty stuff looms larger in hindsight, but focusing on one, or even two, of the styles is leaving a lot of the era out.
In theory this split in emphases shouldn’t have been a problem, particularly as the series got a lot better at doing the gritty ones – the disaster of Warriors aside, I’d take any of the other season 21 examples over Earthshock, and even Warriors is thematically more interesting (for all they botch it). If you have the show on twice-weekly, on weeknights, varying it visually and tonally makes a certain sense, and the Davison era is the most “something different every story” since Hartnell. But in practise only season 19 managed a balance: season 20 lurches between thoughtful and romp-y, season 21 is dominated by grit. And the three styles infected one another in sometimes unhelpful ways – the “Black Guardian trilogy” is three thoughtful stories with some overlapping themes united mainly by the fact that the Black Guardian adds sod all to any of them.
Then you have a leading man who is defined by his marginality – a Doctor most at home with diagnosis and patient care. This makes him very well suited to the cerebral (as a character happy to patiently let the story happen around him, and do the ‘right kind of nothing’) and also turns out to suit the gritty (as his inability to control the situation gives the storytelling more urgency) but in romps, the scenery-chewers around him take control. And you have a TARDIS crew that – as Phil pointed out a lot – seem to be fitted out for a fourth different kind of story, the emotional, character-driven piece, that nobody has any interest in writing (Black Orchid gets nearest, while still not being any good).
So even people like me, who love the Fifth Doctor and have deliriously happy childhood memories of the era, find it tough to get a grip on: the show has never been as divided or messy, before or since.
January 2, 2015 @ 5:53 am
"any good at it" that penultimate para should read – I rather like a lot of things about Black Orchid.
January 2, 2015 @ 9:00 am
Can't wait to see how they handle Colin. Earthshock, for all its flaws, was a legendary and iconic story. Except for maybe Vengeance on Varos and possibly The Two Doctors, I can't think of any Colin Baker stories that are even on the same plane of competence as the stories shown for the other Doctors.
January 2, 2015 @ 9:18 am
As it happens, the Doctors Revisited are on DVD, as they were broadcast back during 2013.
January 2, 2015 @ 10:11 am
The blandness of the the Doctor's Revisited for the 1980's ends up echoing the tone of DWM in those days: stick your fingers in your ears and go, "I'm not listening" Everything is fine!" Perhaps because the snark and withering criticism is so readily available on the DVDs and in interviews, there is little or no need to include it here. Given that the revisited series was to catch up new viewers, and we obsessive fans who have micro-analyzed each and every era all on our lonesomes simply tuned in to see if we agreed, perhaps there was absolutely nothing to be gained by including any of it.
January 2, 2015 @ 10:26 am
the 80s were the worst years of Cyber-designs
Gasp! I adored them.
January 2, 2015 @ 10:28 am
Earthshock has plenty of faults in the cold light of day, but when I was 8 it was the MOST EXCITING THING EVER!!!!, and that's a pretty solid achievement for a Doctor Who story.
January 2, 2015 @ 10:29 am
"Revelation of the Daleks," as creepy and awful and difficult to watch as I personally find it, is probably on par with Vengeance and T2D in terms of quality. But yeah, otherwise that's kind of it.
January 2, 2015 @ 10:36 am
As huge a fan of "The Stones of Blood" as I am, I know what you mean: its charms are myriad but, alas, deniable.
If not "Earthshock" or "Androzani," really, though, what else? Of course I'd pick "Kinda" but we all know why that wouldn't fly. It's tempting to opt for a Master story, since the Davison/Ainley faceoff seemed like such a big part of the era, at least in theory, but which one? "Castrovalva" sidelines both of them for large parts of the story, and the rest of the Master stories of the era are rubbish.
January 2, 2015 @ 10:56 am
As far as I've always felt, the two best approaches for the Cybermen are to make them look scary, which the Tenth Planet does with aplomb, or to make them look cool, which the CybusMen rock at.
January 2, 2015 @ 1:47 pm
I agree with you on the goals, but not on which designs achieved them. 🙂 My first reaction to both the Mondas and Cybus Cybermen was "oh HELL no." So goofy, so clunky! I'm able to appreciate them both now if I squint but — and I think this is the key — they were among the last designs I saw rather than the first. My first Cybermen stories were almost certainly "Revenge" and "Earthshock," so that big-headed silhouette is still what seems normal to me.
I have a long boring monologue in me about why David Banks' Cyberleader and their behavior in "Earthshock" and "Attack" still seems scarier to me than anything they've done before or since, but it would still probably be more persuasive if you could time-travel and show them to your impressionable preadolescent self. 🙂
January 2, 2015 @ 6:39 pm
I think Monday Cyber men are the scariest because of the voice and, oddly, because the costume predicts later horror icons like Leather face and Michael Myers.
January 2, 2015 @ 6:42 pm
I still think that giant rocks that float around like Daleks and sucks the blood out of anyone who touches them is creepy and awesome.
January 2, 2015 @ 8:40 pm
Yes. Exactly this.
January 2, 2015 @ 8:46 pm
I will defend to the death Stones of Blood for the impact it made on me in my tweens. I still can't look at the monoliths at Stonehenge without hearing them pulse with life and fill with that unearthly orange glow. Still holds up pretty well… for a 70's BBC TV show.
They missed a trick in Pandorica… a surprise twist as the Doctor's speech turns away the intelligent alien hoards, but the instinctive and basic Ogri come to life…
January 2, 2015 @ 9:26 pm
The big surprises being…smug, pro-torture Cybermen and the ham-fisted attempt to jam foreshadowing into the first episode?
January 2, 2015 @ 9:27 pm
^ Cybermen created autocorrect, too.
January 2, 2015 @ 10:49 pm
I'm glad I'm not alone on this. The two scariest Doctor Who monsters for me as a kid were the Ogri and Mr. Sin.
January 3, 2015 @ 1:18 am
Metallic voice: Yew wheel bee comb lye cuss.
January 3, 2015 @ 4:39 am
You ever done any work with 'Text-to-speech', Prandeamus? You've got a job with me editing for phonetics anytime you want.
January 3, 2015 @ 8:50 am
Ah, that cheered me up, Ozy. As soon as I hit "publish", I found myself thinking, "Hang on, I'm sure Mondasian cybermen vocalised the ss on the final syllable and therefore that's not a correct transcription". Followed by, "Is there a word phonetically like 'cuzz', short of Shakespearean abbreviations for cousin." Which proves that the holidays are well and truly over and I need to get some real work done.
I've done trivial stuff with TTS in the 80s with Superior Software BBC Micro ROMS, 'tis all.
Does this job pay well? 🙂
January 4, 2015 @ 10:01 am
You say this wasn't snarky, but wasn't this special where Moffat made his claim that they could have done a better job with Adric if they'd asked members of the audience to step in for the part? I might be misremembering, but I could have sworn that he was brutal to Waterhouse in his recounting of Adric's death scene.
January 7, 2015 @ 2:14 pm
He might say it here too, but he definitely says that in the documentary on the DVD for Earthshock.
July 10, 2020 @ 7:01 pm
When this series of specials aired, I have to admit the pedantic fanboy deep inside of me was a bit annoyed they chose to go with the omnibus versions of the stories rather than the cliffhanger versions — and it kind of stood out on this one when Moffat in his intro talks about how Earthshock pulled off not one but two major shocks.
Of course, it’s interesting that Moffat would choose this one since on the DVD, he’s pretty critical of it overall and of Matthew Waterhouse (I think Moffat is the one who says that it feels like Waterhouse was on a tour of the set and can’t believe no one’s asked him to leave yet).
Like you, I think this one is good, but not great. Eric Saward tells the same story twice in the course of four episodes — strange stuff is going on and the Doctor and company are suspect of being behind until it’s shown they aren’t. “Kinda” would have been a more interesting choice (since I can’t see them showing “Caves”) but it can be a bit off-putting and actually requires viewers pay more attention than you have do to this one.