What are we supposed to have done?
Season Nineteen has been about change. A new Doctor stands at the helm of the TARDIS, and producer John Nathan-Turner has interwoven psychedelic psychological drama with pseudo-historical potboilers and manor house murder mysteries. The shift in tone from story to story leaves viewers guessing as to what comes next. None of it quite prepares viewers from Eric Saward’s “Earthshock” (Story Production Code 6B), which takes Doctor Who to brand new ground: a companion dies.
The argument can be made that two prior companions have lost their lives in a story, with Katarina and Sara Kingdom both perishing during “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” but neither really “settles in” to life on the TARDIS to the extent that viewers develop a relationship to them, certainly not to the degree that viewers have come to know Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric, the precocious and persnickety Alzarian maths whiz. Adric’s TARDIS tenure has not been the smoothest—from his first appearance in “Full Circle,” he has been an outsider, the butt of many a joke and never really given a chance to shine, to be the focus of a story. His single outing as the sole companion, “The Keeper of Traken,” sees him sidelined almost immediately by Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa, and in the very next story, “Logopolis,” Janet Fielding’s Tegan comes aboard, to say nothing about the little matter of Tom Baker regenerating into Peter Davison.
Nevertheless, Matthew Waterhouse does the best he can with the scripts, which so often lean into Adric’s youth and callowness, and though few might proclaim Adric to be their favorite companion, he’s firmly part of the TARDIS team, and indeed is the longest serving cast member by the time Eric Saward and John Nathan-Turner decide to remove him. Saward litters the script with foreshadowing of someone’s demise, and there’s more on-screen death in this story than has been seen in years, but the ending still has the power to shock, because it is ultimately a pointless death. Indeed, the most stunning aspect of “Earthshock” is not that Doctor Who finally had the narrative courage to fatally write off a companion but that it didn’t matter at all to the story’s outcome.
Which is not to say that Adric is not heroic or that his death does not matter. Rather, to have Adric try, and fail, to alter the course of a gigantic space freighter as it is about to hit prehistoric Earth speaks to the very heart of Doctor Who, particularly the new vision of it as conceptualized by Nathan-Turner and embodied by Peter Davison in the character of the Fifth Doctor. Where every other Doctor in every other story (save the Third Doctor in “Doctor Who and the Silurians“) would have succeeded and rescued Adric, here, the Fifth Doctor fails, even as a plot to destroy Earth is foiled and history falls into its rightful patterns once more. His success, such as it is, comes, finally, at a cost. It’s a sobering moment, one that hints at a depth in the Doctor only suggested before, and one that helps viewers forget that these guys show up again…
The Cybermen make an ignominious return in “Earthshock,” their first appearance since 1975’s forgettable “Revenge of the Cybermen,” a full seven years before. Though their updated visual design looks striking, a strong combination of a human chassis augmented by extensive and sleek machinery, their motivations and machinations remain as disjointed as ever. They wish to destroy Earth in the twenty-sixth century in order to interrupt a conference being held by multiple planets, all of which seek to resist the growing threat of the Cybermen, a reasonable change from wanting to conquer the Earth just because. The planet is on maximum security alert due to the of the high-stakes gathering, and yet no one in the story, soldiers included, knows who or what a Cyberman is, other than the Doctor.
Saward and Nathan-Turner so desire a first episode cliffhanger where the Cybermen are triumphantly revealed that they employ two faceless androids, rather than Cybermen, to guard a paleontological dig site on Earth that just so happens to hide a planet-shattering bomb in its deepest cavern. The misdirection is certainly effective, but at great narrative cost, to say nothing of the monetary cost of location shooting in a quarry for the large cast of extras who do nought but get killed by the androids. There’s a sense throughout that very little expense has been spared for this story, with a quite large cast and extensive set building and effects work, and indeed, bringing back one of the “big” villains after several years deserves some effort. Residual payment was even made to reuse clips of the First, Second, and Fourth Doctors confronting the Cybermen, as replayed with a red tinge from the Cyber Memory Banks. But the bifurcated story structure, introducing a group of human soldiers led by Lieutenant Scott (James Warwick) and a hapless paleontologist, Kyle (Clare Clifford), before unveiling a second set of characters an episode later, only serves to pad out and dilute the action and limit screen time for our time travellers.
After the androids are dispatched, the Doctor and Adric manage to defuse the bomb, aided by Nyssa electronically interfering with the efforts of the Cyber Leader (David Banks) to remotely detonate it. Aside from hiding the Cybermen, the opening episode in the caverns also serves to foreshadow the ending, as much attention is paid to the “mysterious” source of whatever hit Earth some sixty-five million years prior to wipe out the dinosaurs. The scene then shifts to the enormous interstellar freighter that the Cyber Leader has been operating from, which the Doctor and Nyssa are able to track from the bomb detonation signal. He gives a lift to Scott, Kyle, and some nameless soldiers, who are intent on finding out who might want to destroy Earth (and who don’t seem at all fazed by the peculiar dimensionality of the TARDIS).
Captained by Briggs (Beryl Reid), whose sole focus is on getting her enormous vessel to Earth on time to secure a bonus, the freighter has been given clearance to enter Earth’s security zone, no one having thought to check whether the fifteen thousand silos it carries might happen to have, oh, possibly a hibernating Cyberman in each. Ostensibly an invasion force to occupy the Earth after the now-defused bomb did its deadly work, the Cyber Leader now takes over and repurposes the freighter as a doomsday device to destroy the planet. (Yes, with the fifteen thousand Cybermen still on board.)
The grandiose (and confusing) plans of the Cybermen fall flat in terms of narrative impact, and as each successive freighter crewperson falls to the Cybermen’s onslaught, the stakes grow less interesting, even as frequent director Peter Grimwade shoots the metal men from a variety of well-conceived angles. It’s only when they have taken over and captured the Doctor, Adric, and the bridge crew, at the end of the third of four episodes, that the story really begins. From that moment on, the Doctor doesn’t do anything. He is, fully, defeated, and Davison imbues the Fifth Doctor with a pathos that we have never seen in our gallant Gallifreyan before.
The Cyber Leader gloats and preens—scarcely the attitude of a being that has jettisoned emotion—as he threatens to kill Tegan, captured while attempting to rescue the Doctor along with the dwindling group of soldiers commanded by Scott. The Doctor beseeches him to stop, and the Cyber Leader (who acts as though he knows the Doctor from a prior encounter on Telos, even though chronologically the case can be made that “The Tomb of the Cybermen” takes place after “Earthshock”) practically rejoices that he has emotional control over the Time Lord. Indeed, the threat to Tegan’s life causes the Doctor to leave Adric behind when the Cyber Leader commandeers the TARDIS to escape the doomed freighter, locked on a collision course with Earth.
Adric stoically embraces the chance to fix the situation on his own, and once Scott’s band finally breaks through to the control room and dispatches the few guards left behind, Adric, with help from first officer Berger (June Bland), sets about solving the logic circuits that prevent altering the freighter’s heading. He’s in his element, wrestling with a problem of pure mathematics and logic. After solving the first of three problems, Berger throws the controls, which move the freighter not in space but in time, such an outlandish result that Saward has Briggs ask how that could be. Adric’s reply, that it is possible “when you have an alien machines overriding your computer,” feels insufficient and a blatant hand-wave, but Waterhouse delivers it with such certainty that one is inclined to allow it.
And to when did the freighter travel on its time warp? Some sixty-five million years in the past, leading the Doctor to the realization that the freighter is the cause of the cataclysm that does in the dinosaurs, much as the Terileptils caused the Great Fire of London in “The Visitation” just two stories earlier. At that point, he—and the audience—know that the freighter has to strike Earth; and yet Adric continues to decrypt the lock on the freighter controls, even as Scott, Briggs, and Berger try to pull him into an escape pod. He’s about to input the final code when a Cyberman straggler fires a blast at the console, stopping the young Alzarian’s efforts, saving history but condemning him in the process. True to character, Adric’s last words are, “Now I’ll never know if I was right.”
On board the TARDIS, the Cyber Leader becomes furious that he has become the cause of Earth’s proper historic development, and he prepares to kill the Doctor, who smashes Adric’s star-shaped mathematics badge into the Cyberman’s chest unit. Lined with gold, Adric’s badge clogs the cyber-circuitry, giving the Doctor enough time to break out of his fugue state and gun down the Cyber Leader in the most overt act of violence we’ve ever seen from the Fifth Doctor, and indeed not matched since the Fourth Doctor went on a bit of a rampage in “The Invasion of Time.” And yet, of all the times the Doctor has ever employed violence, this time feels the most earned, the most organic to the predicament, the least likely to have had a different plausible outcome.
The Fifth Doctor has, indeed, been defeated. His only concern for the second half of the story is to keep his friends alive; when Tegan tries to throw the TARDIS off course as it follows the freighter under the command of the Cyber Leader, the Doctor grabs her and yells at her for almost getting them all killed. And when Tegan begs him to do something, anything, to save Adric, to save Earth, he confesses that he cannot. How can he save the universe when he can’t even save a friend? It’s an overwhelming experience, to see the Doctor without a plan up his sleeve, and it’s a reckoning long overdue for the series.
The guest cast, as wide and varied as it is, turns in a fine if muted performance, with David Banks’ rendition of the Cyber Leader in particular coming across strongly from a dramatic perspective even as it is at odds with the previously developed nature of the Cybermen as beyond emotions such as cruelty and glee. A purely cold, uncaring Cyber Leader might have made for a more chilling story, but Saward and Nathan-Turner need that bit of personified evil to balance out Adric’s sacrifice, which is hard enough to take as it is.
Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding play smaller, but still significant, roles in “Earthshock,” with both Nyssa and Tegan having the chance to gun down Cybermen at various points in the story. Nyssa functions as a very calm figure, comfortable making decisions and holding down the TARDIS while others go gallivanting about looking for trouble. Tegan is one of those on the hunt for said trouble, and once she finds it, she says of herself, “I’m just a mouth on legs,” a colorful if not strictly accurate depiction of someone who is willing to risk much for those she cares about. And they both demonstrate quite some fondness for Adric in this story, trying to help him reconnect with the Doctor after the falling-out between the two that leads to the Doctor parking the TARDIS in the fossil-filled cavern to cool off in the first place. Their anguish as they realize that Adric has died is equalled only by the Doctor’s.
Matthew Waterhouse finally gets a story to call his, and Adric’s, own, and while the script still plays him as wet-behind-the-ears and overzealous, Waterhouse manages to make viewers care about this scruffy kid whose badge isn’t the only thing made of gold. The character was never utilized well, and though the notion of an ethically slippery scoundrel who might just work for the other side, as in “State of Decay,” made for an appealing prospect (and will set the groundwork for another companion of similar scope some four stories hence), Adric just never clicked with the Fourth Doctor and Romana and feels quite surplus to requirements by the time Tegan and Nyssa arrive. His ending, in some ways, reflects the character—well-meaning but a bit pointless. One sees Waterhouse struggle to make the character work, but through no fault of his own, Adric’s time has certainly come and gone when “Earthshock” ushers him out.
While “Earthshock” may be Adric’s swan song, it’s the Fifth Doctor’s nadir—and Peter Davison’s high point. He runs through the full gamut of emotions in this story, from hauteur and anger with Adric at first, as he’s accused of ignoring the boy’s needs and interests, through to abject fear and unrestrained fury as he is under the thrall of the Cyber Leader, unable to save those he loves. It’s a bravura performance, restrained yet full throated, haunting for its portrayal of a vulnerable, failed, defeated hero.
For yes, ultimately, the Doctor remains a hero. In the grand scheme of things, Doctor Who does not work if the title character is not successful almost all the time. He will go back to saving the day, the planet, the universe, and all that. But, from this moment on, the Doctor knows—and we know—that there is consequence. He can close the TARDIS doors and dematerialize, leaving the clean-up to others as often as he wishes, but he can’t run away from what he lost when Adric stayed aboard the freighter “The Doctor won’t thank you for throwing away your life,” Nyssa says to Scott and the soldiers, but she might as well have said it to Adric. And indeed, he will not. For all the times the Doctor has risked his life for others, the greatest threat to him is the lives of those close to him, a failing we may well categorize as human.
“Earthshock” takes away the audience’s certainty about what might happen in Doctor Who, about whether the Doctor really will always win, and going forward, the series will be at its best when it addresses the Doctor’s desire to protect with the need to save, the two not always being the same, and seldom being compatible.
(Previous Story: Black Orchid)
(Next Story: Time-Flight)
Post 126 of the Doctor Who Project