Review [DW]: “Survival”

26×4. Survival
Writer: Rona Munro
Director: Alan Wareing
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor brings Ace to her home town of Perivale to catch up with old friends, only to discover that it has become the hunting ground of the “Cheetah People,” who capture prey and bring them back to their home planet – which is experiencing an increasing instability driven by the aggression of its inhabitants, and where the Master is now trapped. The two Time Lords square off again, as it emerges that humans who remain too long on the planet risk becoming transformed by it into a more “wild” state of being.

Review: After a run of serials that experimented with unconventional narratives and styles and introduced new questions about the Doctor’s character and history, “Survival” finds us back in slightly more traditional territory, with the Doctor’s investigation of some mysterious disappearances leading him to another planet with strange properties where the Master holds sway over a group of potentially dangerous aliens. What emerges is a serial that functions well as a series finale even though it may not have been conceived and designed as such. While Doctor Who has a “mythology” surrounding the Doctor and Gallifrey and draws upon its own continuity, it remains at heart an episodic series centered around individual adventures in space and time, and it feels right for the show to sign off with another individual adventure rather than with some sort of big revelation about the Doctor and the Time Lords.

The trend of strong character development for Ace continues with “Survival.” Even after her reunion with some of her old friends from Perivale, it’s clear at the end that she now considers the TARDIS her home, and it’s not hard to see why when we catch a glimpse of what exactly she’s leaving behind. I mentioned that “The Happiness Patrol” didn’t really do much for me as a supposed satire of Thatcherism, but the social commentary is a little clearer in “Survival,” where we get the sense of a modern-day Britain that has become a somewhat callous and ungenerous place. Retired Sergeant Paterson preaches a philosophy of “survival of the fittest,” chiding a student in his self-defense class who doesn’t want to slam his already-defeated opponent to the ground and viewing the dangers on the planet of the Cheetah People as a test of strength and willingness to fight. Meanwhile, the local grocers in Perivale are lamenting having to stay open on Sundays to compete with the larger chains and sharing a disturbing joke about the man who does not need to outrun a hungry lion to survive as long as he can outrun his friend. Just as a hungry lion might devour a slow-footed human, the lions of modern capitalism threaten to devour the small store, while its proprietors find themselves unwittingly embracing its values.

The way in which Ace is affected by the planet – and initially likes it – not only makes for a compelling turn in her character, but it also works as a metaphor for the more atavistic, primal urges that still exist in human nature and which underlie an uncaring attitude towards anyone who can be written off as weak, unimportant, or somehow deserving of misfortune. Several of Ace’s friends have disappeared along with some other local youth, and Paterson seems only mildly concerned about their welfare, instead assuming them to be runaways and condemning them for supposedly leaving their parents to worry. To take the metaphor further, just as some of the bonds of human society seem to be fraying, the planet of the Cheetah People is literally falling apart as a result of its inhabitants’ aggression. It’s to the credit of Ace’s own character and values that she refuses to let these urges gain control over her even though something of the Cheetah planet remains within her. When Karra, the human-turned-Cheetah Person with whom she had formed a bond, lies dying at the Master’s hand, it’s Ace’s human side, not the eyes-glowing-yellow Cheetah side, that leads her to comfort Karra and try to save her.

The Doctor, of course, has never subscribed to the idea of pure survival of the fittest, on practical or moral grounds. After overhearing the “joke” between the grocers, he poses the question – to which they have no answer – of what the survivor would do when encountering the next lion. More to the point, his humanitarian values preclude it. When Ace begins to change under the planet’s influence, and thus acquires the ability to teleport them back to Earth, he does not coerce or deceive her into using her newfound powers even though she might represent the only path of escape. Instead, he warns her that she could lose control of herself and leaves the decision to up to her. The Master, meanwhile, adapts all too easily to the mindset of a hunter, and there’s little truly separating his “rule or serve” philosophy (as expressed all the way back in “Colony in Space”) from the social Darwinism on display here. In contrast to the Doctor’s concern for Ace, the Master is more than willing to use her friend Midge (who has also begun to transform) for his own purposes. And when he and the Doctor square off on the Cheetah People’s planet, he gives himself over completely to the killer instinct, whereas the Doctor refuses to kill him and famously declares that “if we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals!”

I find myself judging “Survival” as a series finale even though I know that it probably wasn’t written as one – aside from the last line of dialogue, which was added in post-production and perfectly captures the Doctor’s enthusiasm for exploration and for righting wrongs – and in a way I think it actually holds up better as a finale than it does simply as a self-contained serial. (In fact, I might have rated it *** if taken in isolation, but this is the last serial and I’m allowed to be sentimental.) As has been the case in numerous McCoy serials, we’re presented with a somewhat bizarre situation as a fait accompli, with little to no explanation of how the planet’s physical instability is linked to the Cheetah People’s behavior or how their teleportation powers work, and there’s a scene at the end where the other self-defense students seem almost zombie-like in the way they are following the Master and Midge. Meanwhile, the Cheetah People themselves never manage to look like anything other than people dressed as giant cats. But then I find myself thinking, would an extra minute of technobabble and pseudoscience have really added that much to the proceedings? And aren’t subpar special effects and cheesy monster costumes part and parcel of classic Doctor Who? And so perhaps it’s appropriate that the final serial is not only inventive, thematically relevant, and true to the series’ values, but also a little bit contrived and silly in places.

This Doctor Who reviewing project began nearly twenty years ago, and what I thought at the time would only take a few years instead ended up lasting almost as long as the original run of Doctor Who itself. I also used to think that, when I’d finished with the original series, perhaps I’d continue on by reviewing the 1996 Fox TV movie and subsequently the new series currently airing on the BBC. For better or worse, however, I simply don’t think I have the time or energy to do that, and I still hope that some day I might be able to start watching the new episodes as they air along with the rest of fandom. The extra obligation of writing reviews would only make it more difficult to play catch-up, so it’s at this juncture that I’m closing the book on the reviews over at http://drwho-reviews.tripod.com, though it’s possible that I’ll still occasionally write about matters Doctor Who-related on this blog in the future. Many thanks to everyone who has tuned in at one time or another, and I hope you got as much out of reading these reviews as I did out of writing them.

As for final words on the series, I think I’ll let the Doctor take it from here with his own closing line: “There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep and the rivers dream, people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice. Somewhere else the tea is getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do.”

Good job, Doctor.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)

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