Magic Bullet Productions


By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore


Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 308


Although "Earthshock" is a story which has incurred criticism over the years from a vocal minority, it has to be said that, although it is not one of the all-time best Doctor Who stories, it is not as bad as it is sometimes presented, and does contain some interesting aspects and characterisation. Where the story falls down primarily concerns elements being introduced to serve a plot function rather than arising from the natural course of the story.

1. Production

"Earthshock" is very much a pastiche of earlier Cybermen stories (archaeologists unearthing a Cyberman installation, a small group under siege, a radar-like device to track moving objects, etc.). In particular, the story's principal plot elements are drawn from "Revenge of the Cybermen" (itself a pastiche of 1960s Cybermen stories)-- placing the bombs at the centre of a planet which the Cybermen regard as inimical to themselves, attempting to crash a space vehicle into the planet when the first plan fails, the presence of a traitor, the use of gold to defeat the Cybermen, and so forth. There is thus little which is original about "Earthshock".

'I thought I was done with this when I left *All Creatures Great and Small*.'Perhaps surprisingly, however, the pastiche approach does actually work quite well in this case. Although the use of pastiche can cause a Doctor Who story to appear confused and/or derivative (see, for instance, "Attack of the Cybermen"), here, Saward does seem to have given some thought to which aspects of earlier Cybermen stories work and which ones don't. Furthermore, although there is some heavy continuity-referencing elsewhere in the story (principally with regard to Adric), it is well-handled, establishing backstory rather than causing the viewer to reach for his/her Programme Guide. The story's pastiche structure is thus, in this case, one of its greatest strengths.

Unfortunately, however, the pastiche aspects are also the cause of one of its biggest problems. One key point of the story is the fact that no one seems to know who the Cybermen are; however, this is patently ridiculous, as at the same time there is a conference going on over the Cyberman menace, and the rationale the Cyberleader gives for engaging in the whole bomb routine is to achieve "a great psychological victory" over their enemies, that will "confirm" the "strength and might of the Cyber-race". The reason for this discrepancy is because, in most of the earlier Cybermen stories, the initial situation is either that the Cybermen are an unknown force, or that they have died out so long ago that no one really considers them a threat. However, by introducing it into a story in which the premise is one of humans preparing a genocidal attack upon the Cybermen (an idea drawn itself from such earlier stories as "Revenge" and "The Tenth Planet"), the writer incurs problems of credibility.

It is also a common problem, when writing pastiche, to subconsciously pick up on the bad habits of the earlier writers. Much as Davis and Pedler have a tendency to write into their scripts material which makes no sense except in plot terms (e.g. in "Tomb of the Cybermen"), similar problems crop up with "Earthshock". For instance, the third time that the Lieutenant activates a group of hibernating Cybermen, there is no reason for him to do so bar giving the soldiers something to shoot at, and providing a Cyberman to blow up Adric's console, preventing him from diverting the freighter from crashing on the prehistoric Earth. This problem does not appear to stem from the material in and of itself, but from the writer's unconscious adoption of Davis and Pedler's style, and with it, some of its drawbacks.

As a side point, it is worth noting that the explanation of the demise of the dinosaurs is also somewhat confused. Saward's script suggests that the dinosaurs died in the decreased temperatures following the asteroid impact because, as cold-blooded creatures, they could not survive in those conditions, whereas it is more generally thought that the dinosaurs starved to death due to the decrease in temperature killing off the plant life (leading to the deaths of the larger herbivores, and the carnivores which preyed on them; smaller mammals could, of course, get away with eating far less, and survived). However, it has to be said that Doctor Who has seldom been noted for scientific accuracy, and this (despite the much-trumpeted involvement of Dr Kit Pedler) is particularly true of Cybermen stories.

More beneficially, however, "Earthshock" is also influenced by other contemporary action films, most notably Alien (a freighter crew who are more concerned about their bonuses than about the alien menace in the hold; strong women; the tracking device mentioned above, Tegan's manifestation of an uncharacteristic Sigourney Weaver-style toughness) and Star Wars (the look of the Cybermen and the ongoing quests and battles aboard a space ship). We also see female troopers years before Aliens was screened (although very much in keeping with the wave of feminist hard-sf of the late 1970s and early 1980s), which is a nice touch. Left without the direct influence of Davis and Pedler, then, Saward produces what is decidedly the best Cyberman story of the series' run.

'I must say I like your outfit, Leader. Who's your couturier?'Correspondingly, the production values are also high. The direction is imaginative, and the cave sets are good (with the only flaw being the fact that the dinosaur skeleton resembles a mounted museum specimen, rather than the more fragmentary remains which palaeontologists generally find in situ). The troopers' uniforms are quite effective (although one of the authors has previously tried on a helmet, and discovered that, when switched on, the side lights obscure almost all vision). One minor quibble is that it might have been better to pad one or two of the helmets out, as some worn by the women wobble visibly. The Cybermen are at their best, with the costumes being tailored to the individual actors; the casting is also very good, with David Banks, Beryl Reid and Alec Sabin deserving particular mention.

Overall, then, there is little to complain about with regard to the premise and production of "Earthshock", bar the fact that its pastiche nature means that it has inherited some of the problems of the earlier Cyberman stories.

2. The Doctor And Companions

'Don't make me do this, Eric...'The placement of the Doctor and his companions in the story is more problematic. While Saward has, thus far, not reached the stage where he is effectively marginalising the Doctor and companions in most of the script-- which caused problems in "Resurrection of the Daleks", "Attack of the Cybermen" and "Revelation of the Daleks"-- there are large sections of the story in which they are redundant. Although the Doctor does have some major plot functions, he is not always the central figure here, and is also showing the roots of the disturbing tendency towards violent and teleological solutions which will manifest itself fully in "Resurrection of the Daleks". While these are simply minor irritations at this point, they would later become some of the strongest drawbacks of Saward's scripts.

Here, however, it seems that the problem stems from a complex mix of factors rather than Saward's own preoccupations. Although it is plain that Saward enjoys writing for the militaristic characters in the story (particularly the Cybermen) more than for the regulars, and it is also true that the only other Cybermen story with such a large regular cast, "The Moonbase", has the last-minute-addition Jamie largely confined to the sickbay throughout, the main reason behind the Doctor and companions' periodic marginalisation seems to stem from the fact that there are too many people in the TARDIS. While John Nathan-Turner (with the backing of unofficial series adviser Ian Levine) had originally urged a return to the old setup of the 1960s stories, the reason for the large TARDIS crews of that era was mainly practical, i.e. so that the programmes could be easily shot as a unit, with the cameras switching between plots to allow the actors to position themselves on different sets. By the 1980s, when recording technology had become much more advanced, there was no need for such large numbers of regulars; stories had become correspondingly more fast-paced, and increasingly focused on the Doctor as the central character. Furthermore, the regulars of the 1980s do not have the clearly-defined niches within the programme that those of the 1960s had. The return to the larger casts seems to have been partly for reasons of nostalgia, and partly an attempt to remove the Doctor from the focus of the story for reasons of power and control. However, in the case of "Earthshock", the result is less one of returning to the old 1960s story structures, and more of having Nyssa hanging around the TARDIS doing nothing for much of the story (pressing up against the console in a way that suggests she misses her ion bonder); there is also a knock-on effect in that Kyle should really have been killed off at the end of Episode One, but she survives so that Nyssa can have someone to talk to. Consequently, even JN-T had to admit that the new structure wasn't working, and that one of the regulars would have to go. As Davison was adamant that Sarah Sutton (JN-T's first choice) should remain, the short straw was therefore drawn by Adric.

'Maybe if I look all poignant and wistful they'll let me come back as a ghost, or something...'As this story is Adric's final adventure, it focuses strongly on the character. As noted above, there are continuity references to Adric's origins, and echoes of the incidental music from "Full Circle", The setup with the Doctor and Adric at the beginning, arguing over whether or not Adric could get home by himself, parallels the perpetual sniping of the crew of the freighter in subsequent scenes. We can also see how the character has developed, due in part to the fact that Waterhouse was not particularly comfortable with the role; originally Adric was meant as a kind of "Artful Dodger" type, but by "Earthshock" he is a sullen, awkward youth, who doesn't fit in with the rest of the crew, in a move apparently paralleling the actor's role in the programme. The fact that Adric is male also means that his perpetual protestation seems whiny and immature rather than a sign of vulnerability. It is therefore appropriate that, having had so many problems of characterisation throughout his tenure in the series, Adric should get such a strong, poignant-and, indeed, shocking-sendoff.

The portrayal of the Doctor and companions thus, at this stage, suffers more from external problems than from Saward's own issues with the characters, although it is at the same time clear that Saward is less interested in the Doctor than in the Cybermen.

3. Cybermen

The return of the Cybermen is well handled. The Cybermen are not, whatever the Doctor says, emotionless, but then it is a fallacy that this is their dominant trait; in four out of six previous Cyberstories they have shown emotion, and, of the other two, one, "The Invasion", appears to have been originally written for the Yeti (the Doctor seems in any case to be confusing "emotion" with "compassion"). The Cyberleader seems to understand emotion, and yet is perfectly content to let 15,000 of his own kind perish on the freighter, and to watch dispassionately as one of his soldiers dies. He also seems to outthink the Doctor, principally in the scene in which he orders the Lieutenant to kill Tegan: the fact that the Lieutenant advances menacingly on her rather than simply shooting her, and then turns away at the Doctor's, rather than the Cyberleader's, order suggests that the Cyberleader has anticipated using this tactic on the Doctor and has discussed with the Lieutenant beforehand what exactly he should do-- or, alternatively, that the Lieutenant is astute enough to read the situation between the Doctor and the Cyberleader accurately. As such, the Cybermen in this story are an intelligent, ruthless foe with a good grasp of their enemies' weaknesses.

'...went to the therapist, and she says I should get more in touch with my feelings.'The Cybermen's plan to attack the Earth using an underground bomb is also well-thought-through. The androids are used because they can't be picked up on the military scanner, unlike the Cybermen who are partly organic. There is no reason for the androids to be male and female, but this does give them an attractive art-nouveau look. The android's guns, which liquefy their targets to destroy the evidence, are rather good (the sequence where Kyle picks up a colleague's coat, not realising that the liquid on it is all that remains of said colleague, is entertainingly gruesome). The bomb which they are guarding must have been placed on Earth before the conference and corresponding increase in security; it is not explained why the Cybermen have it put in that particular spot, but, given that the story is a pastiche, one can infer back from "Revenge of the Cybermen" (involving a similar scenario with bombs and the planet Voga) that it was placed there because it is near a fault or some other geological phenomenon that might severely damage the Earth once the bomb explodes in its vicinity). Although we never do learn how the Cybermen did find out there was going to be a conference, this is not necessarily a problem, as one cannot expect the scriptwriter to cover every detail, and as we later learn that there is at least one Cyberman agent among the humans.

4. The Humans

'Hang about, am I Ringway, Scott or Briggs?'Ringway, the Cyberman agent, is very much the same sort of person as Briggs, Scott and, interestingly, the Cyberleader himself. They are all militaristic, suspicious, argumentative and with an element of sadism (more problematically, the Doctor also shows tendencies in these areas); most of the specific characterisation seems to come from individual performances (Beryl Reid in particular imbues her role with surprising depth). Ringway is, however, the most interesting of the human characters, and it is therefore worth having a look at his portrayal.

Ringway's connection with the Cybermen is established early on; he talks like them, even, at one point, having a Cyberman voice distort when he appears over the Cyberscope speaker. He also incurs a couple of subtexts which demonstrate what a bastard he is; he must have made a prior arrangement with the Cyberleader in which he would find Vance and Carson and lead them into a Cyberman trap by running down corridors, pretending to be a stowaway; their screams would thus lure the Doctor and Adric, so that Ringway could then arrest them as murder suspects and lock them in the brig for the duration. Ringway also sends the crew to their deaths by kitting them out with weapons which he knows will not damage the Cybermen; this again seems to be by prior arrangement with the Cybermen, as implied by the conversation between the Cyberleader and his Lieutenant in which they state that they know exactly how many crewmembers are on board the ship.

The main question about the character, however, is his motivation. In his first scene he is telling Berger about how the disappearance of three men over the last two weeks really should be a cause for concern, as is the fact that the security scan in section fifteen is still nonfunctional. Berger’s reply is to say “everything will be all right,” that the crew won’t say anything as they would fear a delay in their journey would cost them their bonus and that low crew morale is probably down to Ringway's over-concerned and possibly paranoid attitude. Later Capitan Briggs appears on the Bridge and accuses Ringway of “panicking” and being a “bore” when he enquires as to whether there was any mention of the missing crewmembers during her interview with Earth Security. Later when Ringway asks Berger why the captain is “always running me down?” she replies, “I’ll give you a bit of advice. You shouldn’t sound so earnest all the time.” The twist is, not only that every issue Ringway brings up is correct (the Freighter’s cargo has been swapped for silos containing an army of fifteen thousand Cybermen, that the disappeared crewmembers were undoubtedly killed to hide this fact, and that the security scan in section fifteen has been deliberately sabotaged as that is where the Cyberleader and his Lieutenant have set up their base), but it’s Ringway who is behind it all, and what is more, he knows he is perfectly free to bring up these concerns about security over and over again, because he knows that Berger and the captain are greedy, lazy and stupid and that their bullying disrespect for him will stand in the way of any proper investigation, which, in itself, also provides Ringway with the perfect motivation for his betrayal.

Finally, we see another common Saward preoccupation within "Earthshock": the Utilitarian (in the philosophical sense) idea of survival of the fittest, and of the end ultimately justifying the means. In the conclusion, the humans triumph over the Cybermen, and also give their own ancestors a leg up by destroying the dinosaurs. The Doctor himself seems to endorse this teleological viewpoint, as he struggles to prevent the Cybermen from attacking the Earth of the future (and condones the idea of a genocidal war against them), but is content to sit back and let the freighter eliminate the dinosaurs. Consequently, the idea of predestination is strong: Adric will always go back in time, the freighter will always crash into the Earth, and consequently the characters must always have arrived on the freighter in the future. Furthermore, this has disturbing implications for the rest of the series, as it means that the Doctor must always have gone back through the CVE and encountered Adric on Alzarius, and must consequently have always had the series of adventures leading up to it; even his ongoing battle with the Cybermen must be effectively foreordained, as it is this which causes the Cybermen to keep him alive on the freighter, to suffer for the defeats which they have experienced at his hands. This allows no room for individual choice or action; whereas in "Inferno", free will is not an illusion, in "Earthshock", it is. Ultimately, then, a story which could have engaged in a complex discussion over predestination versus free will opts for the simple, Utilitarian answer, with disturbing moral implications.


"Earthshock" is thus the best Cyberman story, and Saward's best story for Doctor Who. However, it has a few problems, partly stemming from the fact that it is a pastiche of earlier serials, and partly from some of Saward's own preoccupations.

Images copyright BBC
Effects courtesy of Fiona Moore

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