Wednesday, May 21, 2008

view from the panopticon- earthshock

7-18-04 "Earthshock"

The second-to-last story in Davison's first season, and one of the better early 1980s Doctor Whos I think I've ever seen. I hate getting pulled onto any kind of viewing bandwagon where Doctor Who is concerned, but I'd like to think I came to the conclusion that this was a good story without the aid of other viewers' preferences. "Earthshock" has most of the elements that make up a memorable episode and generally few of the things that jar one out of the Whouniverse.

Written by Eric Saward, "Earthshock"'s story works well as a four-parter (any longer and it would have gone the route of
"Inferno”, any shorter and . . . has there ever been a story with fewer than four parts?). The story has a lot of elements I like, including bringing in the dinosaurs, a fairly elaborate plot that kept me (at least) guessing (cleverer people could have figured it out sooner), and a few introductions of strong new characters. One of them was Captain Briggs (Beryl Reid). I guess Beryl Reid was supposed to have been a famous actress elsewhere, and some were complaining she'd been miscast. On the contrary, I was so shocked to see a female captain of a certain age that she quite grew on me. The way her character was written was intriguing ("Why can't you just say 'caught'?" she quips tartly) and her colored hair, makeup and pilot's leather jacket were such a nice contrast with first lieutenant Berger, nicely played by June Bland. Ringway, on the other hand (a bland Alec Sabin) was obvious as a traitor from light years away. As I said in "Tomb of the Cybermen”, won't people ever learn that you never make deals with the Cybermen?

Scott (James Warwick) is the type of military man we see in so many episodes, stiff upper lip and reliant on weapons ("It could be . . . rough out there," he tells Tegan in what I'm sure Janet Fielding recognized as blatant sexism). Nevertheless, he was more efficient than some and even managed to keep himself alive. The first few sequences in the caves were among the most interesting of the story. Admittedly, my first thought was "oh, another gravel quarry," and the cave sets were less than convincing. However, there was something, at least for me (once quite the Paleophile), mysterious and gripping about the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa finding the dinosaur fossils. The androids, foreshadowing similar models in
"Five Doctors" and "Caves of Androzani," were particularly unique—I admired the director 's restraint in not showing when they attacked. Less is more as far as I'm concerned in drumming up fear, a maxim not followed in stories such as "Talons of Weng-Chiang" and "State of Decay" , etc.

Effects in "Earthshock" ran the middling range, with the dormant Cybermen emerging from their plastic wrap as an homage to "Tomb of the Cybermen," and not a bad one at that. One of the best moments was when the Doctor and those on the bridge were able to change the frequency of the warp field (I think that's what they were doing) and caught the Cyberman in the door shielding like Han Solo frozen in carbonite in Return of the Jedi. The beams of light from Scott's people's weapons and the Cybermen's were less than convincing, but there were several places where I was afraid Mary Whitehouse was having a cow. The ooze left behind by the Scott's people in the cave was disgusting and vivid, and the Doctor's long, drawn-out and almost brutal murder of the Cyberleader by crushing Adric's gold star into his breathing apparatus, with the accompanying horrible electronic sounds, was memorable.

Any drawbacks or padding from a story looming with plot holes (I do not understand why messing around with the freighter's navigational and warp drive systems could throw them back in time more than 65 million years) is remedied by the unique position emotion played in "Earthshock." The story begins with some unusually nuanced exchanges in the TARDIS between the Doctor and the companions, particularly a nettled argument with Adric. The tone was definitely father-son, and though by rote the Doctor is supposed to be a father-figure to the companions (and the viewers), I'd never seen it illustrated quite so well. The simple quarrelling between them weighed heavily on the minds of viewers in view of the last episode, as I'm sure it did on the Doctor's. Nyssa, as usual, had little to do in this episode, and notwithstanding her comment "mouth on legs," Tegan actually proved herself capable when she stole a gun from a wounded Cyberman.

The Cybermen themselves were kind of weird. Far from being emotionless machines, they seemed to show very clearly they were capable of gloating and cruelty. For this reason and something of a lack of gravity in their movements, they appeared much less menacing than in other episodes. I liked their flashback to the previous doctors, a nice and not "fan-wanky" touch. The Doctor's passionate extolling of the virtues of emotion was not for me at all cheesy, and instead reflected well on Davison's acting, and the complexities of the Doctor's character. The defense of emotion even at the cost of appearing weak (when the Cyberleader threatened Tegan) was a uniquely Davisonian reaction, and one of the reasons that I like this Doctor. If he is half-human, it makes his emotionality ("Time Lords are forbidden to interfere") more explainable.

More explicitly, "Earthshock"'s theme of sacrifice is a timely one. I'm not one to draw parallels between September 11th, but in this case I felt the connection was too clear: the Doctor and the crew, and particularly Adric, wresting away control of the freighter from the Cybermen to save other lives despite the certainty of death has a poignancy too apt to ignore. It only goes to show that Doctor Who is far more than an entertainment show, and its ideas and morals can go much further in influencing the way we think. I have always had mixed feelings about Adric as a companion. Sometimes a brat and an annoyance, sometimes a genius with his mathematical skills, "noble" was never one of the words I would have used to describe him. I was surprised and touched at how single-minded his determination just to get the right combination, even so far as to cause him to step out of the escape pod at the last second, almost as if just to prove himself right. The idea of death and self-sacrifice never seemed to occur to him until the very end. Matthew Waterhouse's disappointed "Now I'll never know" as the prehistoric Earth zoomed closer was disarmingly effective. A companion for about a season, Adric's final performance was his greatest—a sort of Sydney Carton of outer space. It almost made me cry; I loved it.

"Earthshock" was memorable, and, with the exception of minor quibbles, justifiably a fan favorite.

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