Review [Doctor Who]: “Earthshock”

19×6. Earthshock
Writer: Eric Saward
Director: Peter Grimwade
Script Editor: Antony Root
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The TARDIS materializes in an underground cavern on 26th-century Earth, where a military team are searching for members of an archaeological expedition that came under unexplained attack. The Doctor disarms a bomb in the cavern and traces it to a freighter where a group of Cybermen are planning to sabotage an interplanetary conference on Earth where several species are likely to agree on a pact to fight the Cybermen. In light of the bomb’s failure, the Cybermen attempt to crash the freighter into Earth and cause a catastrophe that would likely wipe out humanity.

Review: “Earthshock” may be remembered primarily for Adric’s death, but it also deserves a mention for rehabilitating the Cybermen as a genuine threat after their last appearance in the disappointing “Revenge of the Cybermen.” While the purely emotionless Cybermen that we first met back in “The Tenth Planet” may be gone for good, this serial does at least portray them as more detached from emotion than humans or most of the other villains-of-the-week that we’ve seen on Doctor Who. What makes them most intimidating is that while they may not feel compassion or friendship themselves, they have clearly come to understand what these things mean for others and are more than willing to manipulate their enemies’ emotions. In one scene, they are accused of being deliberately cruel and their leader responds, chillingly, that they are in fact testing human emotional responses. The Cyberleader also explains that they are targeting the interplanetary conference partly for the psychological impact that it will have when their enemies’ leaders are killed. They may not be quite as emotionless as they claim to be (the Cyberleader seems to have a grudge against the Doctor, among other things), but the script successfully gives them an identity and viewpoint that differentiates them from Daleks, Ice Warriors, Sontarans, or any other prominent enemy.

As for Adric, both the script by Eric Saward and Matthew Waterhouse’s performance should be commended for not trying to soften the sharper edges of his personality in his swan song, instead letting him exit as the flawed but likeable person that he is. As the serial begins, Adric is actually asking to return to E-Space to rejoin his own people, feeling that he is too much of an “outsider” among the TARDIS crew. The Doctor initially responds somewhat dismissively, simply stating that returning to E-Space is too dangerous, but it’s clear that Nyssa and Tegan are actually partly on Adric’s side, and the Doctor does later concede that he could be more patient with Adric. All the same, Adric can, in fact, be annoying, immature, and whiny at times, and the script doesn’t shy away from that, such as when he insists that the Doctor explain his plan even when they are all scrambling to keep the Cybermen at bay. His death scene appropriately reflects his multifaceted personality. At once intellectually-driven, self-absorbed, and willing to risk his life for others, he had nearly completed a logic puzzle that would have let him unlock the ship’s controls when a Cyberman destroys the console. “Now I’ll never know if I was right,” he laments as he steels himself for the fatal impact and clutches his lost brother’s belt.

While “Earthshock” is an important entry in the Who canon, I wouldn’t quite call it a classic one. For starters, there are a few plot or character points that don’t make much sense or feel contrived. The ship happening to travel 65 million years back in time to cause the extinction of the dinosaurs feels like the script trying too hard to be clever, and the justification for it – that the Cybermen’s device somehow accidentally caused it – strains suspension of disbelief about as far as it can go. Ringway, the collaborator who betrays the freighter to the Cybermen, never has his motivations explained, and meanwhile Nyssa stays in the TARDIS for the entire second half of the serial and is so slow to accept that something may be going wrong outside that I started to wonder if she was under some sort of mind control. Finally, the leaders of 26th-century Earth are meeting with other species to form an alliance against the Cybermen, and yet Lieutenant Scott’s military squadron and the freighter crew don’t even seem to have heard of them – only the Doctor knows who they are when they emerge from hiding on the freighter.

Adric’s death also contributes to a sense of the Doctor’s real fallibility, which can be a good thing, except that the serial ends so abruptly that we’re not sure how this turn of events has actually affected him and his companions beyond the immediate shock and grief. It’s worth noting that he is pretty thoroughly outmaneuvered by the Cybermen in Episode 4, even to the point of  having to let the Cyberleader board the TARDIS. And what are we to make of the fact that he shoots the Cyberleader twice after he’s seemingly gained the upper hand by attacking him with the gold badge? Are we meant to see this as a more violent turn in his character? Did he see some sign that the Cyberleader was still about to try to kill him or one of the companions and thus feel compelled to fire in self-defense? Again, I’m not sure, because neither he nor Tegan nor Nyssa really have anything to say about it. I was left with the same uncomfortable feeling as I had at the end of “The Brain of Morbius” – not only had I seen the Doctor resort to more violence than usual, but I wasn’t sure if the creative team even realized what they were doing.

“Earthshock” is certainly flawed, and it suffers a bit from the action-heavy style of the third and fourth episodes that can’t help but look hokey by contemporary standards. But it has enough positive points for me to give it a recommendation, and the creative team deserve credit for a genuinely tragic ending even if they don’t fully address its implications.

Other notes:

– The theme of the more emotion-driven approach of the protagonists vs. the detached frigidity of the Cybermen is reinforced in the scene where the Doctor, having failed to disarm the bomb on Earth via logic, announces that he’ll try “blind instinct” next.

– This is nitpicking, but the script probably shouldn’t have had the Doctor use the term “spatial coordinates” to explain that the freighter was still on course for Earth after traveling back in time. Given that the Earth is in motion around the Sun, the Sun is in motion around the center of the Milky Way, and the galaxies are in motion within the universe, it seems literally impossible for Earth to have been in the same place 65 million years ago as it would be in the 26th-century timeline.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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