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Saturday, 9 December 2006 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Earthshock is one of the most dramatic and exciting stories the original series ever put out, and yet it makes a fatal mistake: where The Caves Of Androzani tempered its thrills with fleshed-out characters and an engaging story, this seems to think that action and dramatic tension are all that are needed for a good story. While they certainly don’t hurt when done right (and they are, with Peter Grimwade at the helm), they just aren’t enough by themselves.

For the first episode though it’s possible to enjoy the story simply on its own terms and in that sense it’s a corker, all about atmosphere and dramatic tension; the caves are well lit – although they never escape the studio-set feel – and the shots of the androids slinking around in the darkness are some of the most iconic visuals of the Davison era, and rightly so. They look so good that at this stage it’s easy to dismiss how little sense they make to the plot (more on that later).

The opening TARDIS scene isn’t great, but they rarely were in this period anyway. This time, as well as the usual charmless “performance” from Matthew Waterhouse we have to contend with an explosion of continuity, with I think six previous stories alluded to either visually or by word within a few minutes. In faint mitigation none of them would have been overly obscure to viewers of the time, but that isn’t really the problem: the scene, with the Doctor and Adric having a blazing row, is a rather heavy-handed attempt at foreshadowing the future events of the story. This would have passed unnoticed with viewers at the time, which is very telling: this story relies on surprise and tension for the entirety of its power, and is therefore held back by the simple fact that it’s no longer March 1982. Buying the story on DVD, with its cover art of a Cyberman and a wistful-looking Adric, sucks the wind right out of its sails. However, it is refreshing to see Davison unusually authoritative here.

Back in the caves, and another spadeload of atmosphere arrives with the flaring scanner. Critical of the TARDIS scenes I may be, but it’s difficult not to like the rest of the first episode. The androids’ killings are all the more affecting for happening off-screen, and melting the humans down is a good scary touch – it’s only the way the androids manage to leave their victims’ name badges intact that detract from their believability. Unfortunately we also have to put up with the fossil scene, where the knowledge of the story’s ending makes it seem like very unsophisticated storytelling and a throwback to the Hartnell years’ preoccupation with teaching people basic facts.

The confrontation between Scott and the Doctor is tense and exciting, even though it shows up how basic the characterisation is with the butch soldier shoving round the vulnerable Doctor. It’s followed though by an amazingly shot action sequence, with only the barber’s-pole laser beam special effects failing the test of time. The cliffhanger is another example of Grimwade’s directorial mastery (how can someone so knowledgeable about how to construct the show have such a stupid idea as Time-Flight?) but also serves to represent how the story sabotages itself. Why, for example, do the Cybermen use the androids to guard their hatch if they’re “too valuable to waste”? Since there are apparently 15,000 Cybermen on board the freighter, why not send two of them? There isn’t really a satisfactory answer to that since the androids have no plot function at all; they are simply a narrative device to delay revealing the Cybermen and to construct the cliffhanger. The first time round the sheer shock of the sight of the Cybermen would have been enough, the story’s failure to hold water makes it hard to believe it in the cold light of subsequent viewings.

On the subject of the Cybermen, these new ones are fairly impressive; although they were never as good as they were in the Troughton era, these certainly beat the pretenders from Revenge Of The Cybermen. Unfortunately, they are rather misconceived as characters and while David Banks undoubtedly gives a good performance the impassioned dialogue he is given misses the point of the Cybermen – especially since their lack of emotions is something that will later be afforded some prominence in the script.

The Doctor manages to defeat the androids with logic, which shows some real and convincing thought put into how to resolve this problem; sadly, as far as Earthshock goes this is an exception rather than a rule.

One thing I’ve noticed is that this story, for much of its duration, allows the viewer to be streets ahead of the Doctor, who doesn’t find out about the Cybermen until the end of part three. This is something of a double-edged sword as while it adds to the tension of waiting for the Doctor to work out the problem for himself it also takes away any sense of mystery that might have remained beyond the first episode. However, this criticism pales when compared to the masterpiece of suspense that is the Doctor’s attempt to deactivate the bomb, and it isn’t until the action transfers to the freighter that the story’s limitations begin to detract from it in a really meaningful way.

The replay of clips from previous episodes is fannish; unlike the similar (and longer) one in Mawdryn Undead this doesn’t have the excuse of being necessary to the characters experiencing it, as the Cyberleader knows about it already and its lieutenant doesn’t particularly need to know.

The crew of the freighter are, like most of the guest cast, well acted. However, they are also an equally clichéd bunch of characters in writing terms: grizzled, blue-collar space-bums, just like 90% of all spaceship crews since Alien came out three years earlier. The exception to that is Beryl Reid as the captain, one of the weirdest pieces of casting the programme has ever had (and yes, I’ll repeat the age-old assertion that she is indeed brilliant). This helps though, as the science-fiction dialogue is so po-faced in these sequences that without Reid it would quickly sound silly. In this context, Berger sounds ironic telling Ringway not to be so earnest. However, it is this seriousness that lends the second cliffhanger its impact, even if Alec Sabin plays the campest security guard who ever lived.

The third episode features the Cyberleader’s order that the Doctor “must suffer for our past defeats”, the line that almost single-handedly removes all the credibility that the Cybermen ever had, going completely against the whole idea of the Cybermen; this wouldn’t be so bad if elsewhere Saward didn’t try to engage with this concept. Their mass activation is a brilliant sequence though helped immensely by the music, which is unusual as elsewhere in the series Malcolm Clarke wrote a whole lot of rubbish.

It’s dispiriting to see the Cybermen’s weakness to gold, one of the programme’s very worst ideas, wheeled out again; and to add insult to injury there’s the contrivance of having Adric’s badge made of the stuff. Also, there’s the inconsistency of the Doctor explaining how gold kills Cybermen by suffocating them, and then two minutes later telling Berger that they don’t need air.

The Cyberman becoming stuck in the door is a great scene in visual terms but overly technobabbly; it seems that every great moment of production has some shaky piece of writing to cancel it out. There’s an unusual lapse in production when the Cybermen blow the door in one of the least spectacular explosions ever recorded, and this also highlights yet another deficiency in the writing: why didn’t the Cybermen just blow the doors in in the first place? The story is so light on proper storytelling that moments like this – and also the way the bomb has to be deactivated by the Doctor twice – really feel like ways of procrastinating and killing time until the hundred minutes are up.

The Cyberleader’s comment that “it [“fondness”] is a word like any other – and so is “destruction”, which is what we are going to do to that planet” is of the show’s clunkiest lines, and the cliffhanger is no more exciting or dramatic than anything else that’s happened in the preceding twenty-five minutes. This is turning out to be such a negative review that I should point out that the story is never really bad, but just massively flawed, and it’s a crying shame that something that initially had so much promise can have fallen so far by the third episode.

The killing of Kyle is an early sign of the violence that Eric Saward became notorious for; Nyssa acts all upset, but the scene isn’t really about emotions – it’s a cheap way of writing out a character who’s ceased to have any real function since part one and has spent the intervening time stuck in the TARDIS whining about things. It is this cynical attitude to violence that, scaled up, would make Resurrection Of The Daleks one of the most depressing episodes of all time, but since in this story it happens in isolation it’s not so bad and on the whole the story’s high mortality rate (not including Adric, who is a special case) of over 71% seems fairly appropriate to it.

The “emotions” debate is unusually preachy but helped by being a genuine exchange between the Doctor and the Cyberleader rather than being one big speech. What completely ruins it though is how blatantly emotional the Cyberleader is: when it claims that “these things are irrelevant” it sounds, paradoxically, genuinely disgusted.

The Cybermen’s machinery sending the freighter back in time is a contrivance of monumental proportions, and Adric’s death – while another superbly made sequence, as Peter Grimwade can do no wrong as a director – is let down by advance knowledge of it since the foreshadowing of it, including the “goodbye” scene, feels inconsistent with the idea of a shock twist. The Cyberleader’s death though is satisfyingly brutal, although I can’t help but wonder if a theoretically emotionless creature should evoke such a response in the viewer. This is followed finally by the silent credits, television’s equivalent of removing its hat. Many have criticised it; in principal I can live with it, although Adric is such an unpopular character that it sometimes feels like a mickeytake.

Despite being the best colour Cyberman story, Earthshock is a major disappointment – not because it’s bad, but because it had so much potential which it squandered. I can see why it was so successful the first time around, but equally – despite remaining the traditionally popular episode of season nineteen – it’s right and proper that in the years to come it would take a severe blow from Kinda. While it’s thrills and tension dazzle the viewer on first viewing, it cuts too many corners to really hold up afterwards. I would compare this to Rose in that, when taken out of the context of its original broadcast, it’s enjoyment value is severely limited.