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Sunday, 5 March 2006 - Reviewed by Adam Kintopf

People often complain about the contrivances and plot holes in ‘Earthshock,’ and first off I’ll acknowledge that they’re there. The suggestion that the Cybermen’s computer can be ‘code-cracked’ to make another vehicle travel in time is particularly bothersome, and I’m always troubled by the implication that the Doctor’s (and Adric’s) interference caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and set Earth’s history on a radically different evolutionary track. I’m reassured by fans that this is not actually a paradox, but it still seems to me to create a circular timeline (Adric crashes freighter, which causes Earth to evolve differently, which [presumably] causes the Doctor to become fond of it, which causes the Doctor to become involved in Cyberman gambit in the first place, which causes the freighter to travel in time and crash in the first place, etc.) that, if not technically impossible or ‘rule-breaking,’ is still more annoying than clever. In my view, anyway.

But I won’t say anything more about that, and truly, it’s not the plot holes that bother me so much about this story. Generally speaking, I’m much happier with a Doctor Who plot that *seems* to make sense when it doesn’t, as opposed to one that works the other way round, and ‘Earthshock’s’ storyline is definitely the former. But even with a tolerant attitude towards sloppy plotting, ‘Earthshock’ isn’t really all that good. Eric Saward’s writing is a big part of the problem here – his unrelenting ‘badass’ dialogue wants desperately to be serious and adult, but instead comes off as just macho and dull and comic-book-ish. Saward’s story is obviously influenced by ‘Alien,’ but in its scripting it actually more anticipates James Cameron’s (much-overrated, in my view) sequel ‘Aliens’ – like that film, ‘Earthshock’ is also dominated by mock-American war-movie clichés, and they’re not even well fleshed out or entertaining ones at that. It doesn’t help that the supporting cast is uniformly uncharismatic, with the obvious exception of Beryl Reid, who makes a surprisingly sporting attempt, despite being impossibly miscast. (It’s not really a successful attempt, but it’s appreciated for its sheer oddity, if nothing else.) And of course there’s David Banks’s booming portrayal of the Cyber Leader – how funny that this character turns out to be one of the script’s most human characters!

But even all this might not be such a problem, if Saward’s tough-as-nails style didn’t also extend to his characterization of the Doctor, both in terms of dialogue and concept. To be fair, Peter Davison, bless his heart, acts himself into a frenzy here – scowling, snickering, squeaking, and displaying all the little tics that make his Doctor unique – but it still can’t save a writing approach that seems so false to the character. For instance, when Adric asks the Doctor how much damage will be inflicted by the bomb, and he responds “Enough to make life intolerable for the few who survived,” it’s an odd moment: this is evidently Saward’s stab at Doctorish wit, but it almost makes the Doctor sound impressed, as if he’s bragging about the weapon’s capacity for destruction. Similarly, when he casually describes the victims not as dead but rather “finished,” he sounds more like a war-hardened general than an appalled humanist. And the sight of the Fifth Doctor pressing a gun into someone’s chest, even a Cyberman’s, and repeatedly firing, is extremely unpleasant, and justly criticized by some critics of this story. There really is no other way to put it, except to say that, at moments like these, one really does feel that the series is going horribly wrong.

That’s not to say that everything is bad here. Peter Grimwade’s direction is actually very good throughout, with the android scenes in Episode One being especially well handled – when those dark shapes approach from the shadows, we can’t be sure if they’re friendly troopers or something else, and it’s genuinely scary. Later on, things become more routine, but it’s all still well done enough, and there are occasional nice touches throughout (e.g. when the Cybermen’s shadows appear around the corner before they do). Matthew Waterhouse is a controversial figure, of course, but personally I don’t find his acting all that bad – I actually think a lot of fans project their dislike of Adric’s *character* onto the performer, and that’s never entirely fair. At any rate, I find him pretty convincing here, with his final moment as he breathes heavily while gripping the belt suitably underplayed. (What would people rather he did, start screaming for help, or banging wildly on the controls?) Tegan and Nyssa aren’t given much to do, but that’s appropriate enough given the story is Adric’s swan song, and at least Tegan provides the inspiration for that fine exchange between the Doctor and the Cyber Leader – it’s one of the few points in this story where the Doctor really seems like himself. 

And I suppose I must also mention that world events since this story have added a truly frightening resonance to the terrorist tactics attempted by the Cybermen here, and this fact, while accidental, undeniably contributes to the overall effect of ‘Earthshock.’ Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save the story.