January 13th, 2013
Earthshock is almost universally considered one of the very best Doctor Who stories of Peter Davison’s tenure in the role, with only The Caves Of Androzani offering it much competition. In Doctor Who Magazine‘s 2009 reader’s poll ranking the first two hundred televised stories, it was rated number 19, and was one of only three stories from the 1980s to feature in the top twenty (in contrast, a full ten of the bottom twenty were from that decade).
It’s therefore a good case study to look at exactly what went wrong with the show. This may sound counterintuitive at first, but it makes sense — if you look at a successful example of what they were trying to do with the show, then it may illuminate the unsuccessful examples.
There were three main creative forces (for some values of ‘creative’…) on Doctor Who during the early and mid 1980s, and all of them had very different ideas of what the show should be. The conflict between these ideas — and between those ideas and the nature of the show up to that point — is the main driver behind the various contradictory aspects of the programme at that time.
The first of these forces, and the most important, was John Nathan-Turner, who was the programme’s producer from 1980 until its cancellation in 1989, and who was also involved with the BBC in the show’s merchandising after that point. Nathan-Turner is hugely unpopular among a lot of Doctor Who fans, and the show’s failings in the 1980s get pinned on him exclusively.
This is somewhat unfair — while many of the more questionable decisions during the 80s were Nathan-Turner’s, he also made some extremely good choices, especially when it came to casting. When he was working with Christopher Bidmead, Anthony Root or Andrew Cartmel as script editor, the show had much fewer problems than in the 1982-87 period.
But it is true that Nathan-Turner wanted as far as possible to work exclusively with people who had no previous experience working on the show, which caused serious problems at times (there are only so many skills that are transferrable from working on, say, nursing soap-opera Angels to working on Doctor Who, and having more old hands on the programme would have undoubtedly helped). More importantly, he was not, at heart, a drama producer, but a light entertainment one.
Nathan-Turner’s idea of good television was rooted in a variety-show aesthetic, one that was already falling out of fashion at the time, but which had been a mainstay of family entertainment for decades. He believed that what people wanted was to see familiar faces from other TV programmes, in glamorous locations, along with scantily-clad good-looking women, characters drawn in broad strokes. To the extent he was interested in plot at all, it was in a soap-operatic manner — what will make the viewer keep watching next week? — but, as anyone who has read his autobiography will know, his main artistic interest was in pantomime.
By contrast, Eric Saward, the writer and uncredited script editor of Earthshock and the script editor for most of the 1980s, had an almost diametrically opposed view of what the programme should be. He admired, and attempted to emulate, the scripts of Robert Holmes and Douglas Adams, but where both those writers had a distinct moral centre (albeit one that is often masked by a bitter cynicism), Saward’s work is almost unique in pre-2005 Doctor Who in being not just amoral but often actively anti-moral. Inspired by action films, he put as much violence in his scripts as possible, and in Earthshock he has the Doctor shooting at Cybermen without the slightest moral qualms.
There’s a fundamental adolescence about Saward’s scripts — a combination of glorying in violence with an affected world-weary cynicism that would not seem out of place coming from a semi-intelligent sixth form student. Once the influence of Holmes took root, this would manifest as a kind of black humour that, in the hands of the right directors, could work quite well, but at this point it mostly shows in macho posturing. The Cybermen here, for example, are not emotionless, but are rather snarling, arrogant, angry aliens who spend most of the time boasting of their own superiority.
The third principal figure in the drama that is The Decline And Fall Of Doctor Who was unofficial ‘continuity advisor’ Ian Levine. One has to be careful when discussing Levine, as he is a notoriously litigious figure, who takes an active interest in how he is spoken about even on those corners of the internet he does not normally visit. So I am choosing my words carefully when I say that readers can probably make a fair assessment of the man’s personality when told that he claims to be the only person in the world with a complete collection of every single (non-promotional) comic book released by DC Comics, that he used to run a record label which only released new tracks recorded by people who had previously been signed to Motown, but that Doctor Who is his true passion.
Levine has a very specific view of what Doctor Who should be. Firstly, he believes that more is always better — that there is no such thing as a TV Doctor Who story that is too long, or that should never have been made at all (he doesn’t count any non-TV Doctor Who). As an example, the William Hartnell story Planet Of Giants was originally written as a four-part story, but was cut down to three parts during recording. Levine paid for the surviving cast members to record the dialogue from the cut scenes (along with impersonators for the dead cast) and for the ‘missing’ scenes to be animated, in order to ‘restore’ the story (these restorations are on the DVD release, along with the original broadcast versions).
He also believes that references to the series’ past are always a good thing, especially if they come in the form of returning villains or monsters, and even more so if they clear up a continuity error.
These seem to be the primary criteria by which Levine judges Doctor Who — and he is a very strong advocate for his view. He is so strong an advocate, in fact, that he was brought in as an advisor to the programme, in order to give the production team an idea of what the fans wanted.
Earthshock is, in many ways, the perfect synthesis of the three very different approaches. It’s a macho action-adventure whose plot is nothing more than the stringing together of a bunch of ‘surprise twists’ taken straight out of soap opera (returning characters, death of a main character) — so much so that the final shot of episode four, the credits rolling silently over a shot of Adric’s badge, after he died to save everyone else, was directly inspired by a 1960s episode of Coronation Street.
The big cliffhanger at the end of episode one was the return of the Cybermen, who had only appeared in the show once in the last thirteen years, and so would have been unknown to the majority of the show’s supposed target audience, but this was so big a twist that Nathan-Turner actually forbade the Radio Times to mention it.
But somehow, all this works. The most obvious example is in the character of Briggs. Earthshock is clearly hugely indebted to Alien, and the character of Briggs is intended as a Ripley-esque character, but thanks to Nathan-Turner’s keenness to cast light entertainment stars, the part went to Beryl Reid, a small woman in her sixties best known for playing befuddled elderly eccentrics and presenting children’s TV. This was casting so utterly wrong that it somehow became right.
But really, that Earthshock works at all is a tribute to the directorial skills of Peter Grimwade. Most of the directors hired during the 1980s to work on the programme were, frankly, incompetent — if not incompetent as directors, certainly incompetent as directors of science fiction. Grimwade manages to rise above the general level of mediocrity here by simply showing some sign of having been to the cinema in his life — actually composing shots, cutting with some idea of pace in mind, and other basics of narrative technique that seemed missing from work by the likes of Pennant Roberts or Peter Moffat. Admittedly, his shot composition could be a little idiosyncratic (he had a fondness for focussing on the bottoms of male cast members, for example), but those idiosyncracies were a small price to pay for the sense of a director actually directing.
Earthshock is an example of three different sets of faults balancing out so perfectly that a talented director could paper over the cracks that were left and turn it into something watchable (though it doesn’t stand up much to repeated viewings — but then it was never intended to). But this was a result more of luck than of skill, and not something that could be counted on for long-term success.