What Doctor Who series 8 can learn from Earthshock

Feature Andrew Blair 21 Aug 2014 - 06:35

On the eve of Doctor Who's new series, Andrew considers what lessons it could learn from classic Fifth Doctor story Earthshock...

1982's Earthshock casts a long shadow over Eighties’ Doctor Who.

After Tom Baker’s tenure – at best delightfully silly and dramatic, at worst glibly removing any hint of drama in a quest for a laugh – the show hadn’t exactly decided on what it was going to be.

Original Eighties’ script editor Christopher H. Bidmead firmly ushered in an attempt at a harder Science Fiction edge – with Tom Baker injecting some comedic moments – but this lasted one series, with Bidmead only returning to write Peter Davison’s first broadcast story after another script fell through.

At the start of the Davison era temporary script editor Anthony Root kept things ticking over with a variety of styles, some reflecting Bidmead’s taste in their commissioning, but the Davison era remained a curious amalgamation: veering in quality and tone between fantastic idea-saturated lyrical stories, twee and inconsequential historicals, tepid science-fiction jargon fests, and shouty people dying horribly in dark places.

Earthshock was partly the latter, but it was also designed to be simply exciting. Bluntly put, people die. Lots of people. It contains sustained peril. Sometimes people die in very moist and very green ways. Mainly, though, one of them dies because a planet hits him in the face. It’s very grim, it’s very tense, and it’s exciting enough to overlook the sheer nerve of the idea that it’s possibly to warp through time simply because a race of non-time-travelling cyborgs have upgraded your computer.

Really, anyone who says Matthew Waterhouse can’t act needs to look at the sheer conviction he states that line with. The guy had his moments.

The stakes, the returning (and unexpected) villain, the size of their threat all – nowadays – would be the stuff of season finales. That it comes in the second last story of the season is something that would – if attempted now – potentially be a rewarding surprise for viewers, assuming the coda was substantially more popular than Timeflight.

The format of a two-episode series finale is familiar to us now, as is the lead in during the preceding episode. What might be worth trying is putting a story with the consequences of Earthshock an episode early, leaving the series’ final episode to deal with the fallout.

Doctor Who in 1981 was not ready to do that. A companion death/departure now gets felt for longer, whereas after Earthshock the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa are briefly sad and then go on another adventure. It's very odd, almost as if the grieving has been demarcated to one scene only. So the first main thing to learn from Earthshock is that you can’t get away with high stakes and death without acknowledging the loss, and this lesson has clearly been taken on board.

Despite the lack of such a clear cut ‘Well, if the crash didn’t get him and the anti-matter engine exploding didn’t get him and the blotting out the sun didn't get him then being on a planet with ravenous, desperate carnivorous lizards probably got him’ definitely-a-death-death since 2005, the show has recently managed to upset people more than if they’d just merely killed characters off.

The other lesson is another obvious but an increasingly difficult one: maintain your surprises. The Cybermen are onscreen fairly regularly now, and will return this series, so you’re not going to get a seven-year break interrupted without warning, but still we’ve had surprise Oswin and Capaldi’s eyebrows. They can still sneak a few things past us, but a returning monster is probably too difficult.

The main lesson from Earthshock, though, is this: if something works, don’t just pursue further versions of it. In Earthshock's case, this was mainly a tonal influence, but the lesson extends to monsters: more new monsters, and the occasional revisiting. We don't mind taking a few Kraals for the team if it means we get the occasional Zygon.

Tonally, though, Earthshock is one of a number of popular stories that is unusually bleak for Doctor Who. Genesis Of The Daleks, Turn Left and The Caves Of Androzani also spring to mind. Yet, the fact that these are considered dark and gritty isn’t reason to say ‘Doctor Who should be like this all the time’. If it was, then these stories wouldn’t be as distinctive. One of the main reasons these stories are so popular is that they’re atypical, and if things were this grim all the time they’d lose potency (especially Turn Left).

However, Eric Saward got the job of Doctor Who script editor at a point when the show didn’t have a clear focus, rather a sprawl of styles. It wasn’t until Saward’s second full season that he started to really bring his ideas to the fore: the universe is a harsh, unforgiving place where the Doctor’s heroism isn’t always enough to save the day.

This is a marked change for Doctor Who, and it’s difficult to see how Earthshock’s success wasn’t a strong influence on the show’s new direction. Saward took up the script editor role on a full time basis after finishing this story, but it’s impossible to say what would have happened without Earthshock or if it hadn’t been well received. Certainly, if Saward was always going to move the show in a grimmer direction, Earthshock was a useful argument in favour of this approach.

Stepping back, though, it’s clear that Doctor Who can’t sustain prolonged grimness. In terms of the Fifth Doctor, his fallibility forms a character arc which culminates in The Caves Of Androzani, so there’s a natural stopping point to the approach. When it continued – and, if anything, got less light hearted – with a bombastic, confident and loud Doctor (who saved the day by steamrollering through everything in his path, at times) it was too much for some people. Saward was clearly influenced by Robert Holmes, but missed out some key ingredients: a fun Doctor/companion dynamic (see The Trial Of A Timelord Part One for how well the Sixth Doctor and Peri could work), an experienced pool of writing talent, and a supportive BBC.

The danger in attempting to emulate the Hinchcliffe/Holmes template (which Robert Holmes said wasn’t aimed at children) is that gritty darkness needs a balance when it’s coming out of a family show. The early Tom Baker stories still had a sense of fun, and of terror, and adventure. There’s less of that obvious in the stories which followed Earthshock.

So, if we’re looking forward to a ‘More Adult’ and darker tone, just remember: Torchwood was ‘More Adult’. Would you rather watch it in its entirety than The Sarah Jane Adventures? I reckon it’d be about forty-sixty on that one (and that's with some generosity to Torchwood, which is reminiscent of Eighties Doctor Who in terms of its drastic peaks and troughs). People watch Doctor Who because it has elements of both, not one or the other.

Put simply (and, in many ways, rendering all the words above pointless. Ah, journalism), Doctor Who can’t be like Earthshock all the time, because then it wouldn’t be Doctor Who anymore.

Every now and then, however, it pays to cancel that Radio Times cover, cancel some contracts and surprise us all.

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