Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Earthshock


Chapter The Fourteenth: Adric, we hardly knew ye.

Plot: 
In the year 2526, the Cybermen have (somehow) hidden a bomb in some caves on Earth, guarded by anonymous androids as the the Cybers don't want to give away their presence (they even turned down the front cover of the Radio Times to keep their plan secret). They're aiming to blow up the planet remotely once an anti-Cyberman summit of planetary leaders starts there. Unfortunately, the caves are invaded by a group of palaeontologists, then a group of troopers, and finally a group of smelly time travellers who never change their clothes. These last are the Doctor and his too many companions: Tegan, Nyssa and Adric.

The Doctor defuses the bomb, and traces the remote control signal to a space freighter on its way to Earth, where the Cyber-Leader and his squad are hiding in the hold. The Cybermen take over the freighter and aim it at the planet as a replacement for the bomb. Adric is left on board, while the others leave in the TARDIS and an escape pod. Adric manages to save the Earth by (somehow) making the freighter travel back in time 65 million years, so it's only the dinosaurs and himself who are killed. Which is a pity, as people like dinosaurs. 

Context: 
Me and the kids watched the DVD over a couple of weekends: two episodes, then a week's break, then the following two. So, actually, not that much faster than it was broadcast originally (see First-time round).

When the randomiser had suggested this story, I'd ensured it was prepared correctly. Before the youngsters were in the room, the disc was already in the machine, the episode already cued up, and the box was hidden. The boys have watched pretty much every Doctor Who DVD at one time or another, but Earthshock was a long time ago and I was sure they'd forgotten the shock reveal at the end of episode 1. The Better Half was watching their faces when the Cybermen appeared, and each of the three children - boy of 9, boy of 6, and girl of 3 - was mouth agape in happy astonishment. The eldest pretended he wasn't surprised afterwards, of course. None of them were upset by Adric dying as much as they were confused that there was no music for the credits of episode 4.

First-time round: 
I first became hooked on Doctor Who watching a repeats season on BBC2 called The Five Faces of Doctor Who that ran for a few weeks before the start of Earthshock's 1982 season. So this was one of the first stories I ever watched on its original transmission. Half-watched, I should say: episodes in 1982 were - for the first time ever - moved from the traditional weekly Saturday slot to twice-weekly on Mondays and Tuesdays. And on Monday, I had cubs.

After a brief moment of hope in the first week that the Tuesday episode was a repeat from the night before (it wasn't), this scheduling quickly became a major source of conflict in my house. There'd been a long waiting list for getting me into cubs in the first place, and my Mum wasn't going to let me give it up just for a TV show. So, there were a number of sickies pulled that year. I remember having 'headaches' two Mondays running which got better just in time for me to watch the odd-numbered episodes of Kinda (my first full Doctor Who story watched 'live') but usually I had to miss at least one episode of each story. For Earthshock, that was episode 1; so, after all the effort that the producer expended to keep it a surprise, I would have only found out about the return of the Cybermen in the playground the next morning. It would have been wasted on me anyway, as I'd never seen nor heard of the Cybermen. But I was 9 years old, and they were cool silver robot men, so they anyway had me at "Destroy them, destroy them at once."

[An aside: I've told this story in my other blog, but this was the same cub pack that on one Monday night held a survey on what everyone's favourite TV programme was. There was only one vote - mine - for Doctor Who. The winner by a landslide was T.J. Hooker. T.J. Hooker? Google it, and feel sympathy for the plight of the Doctor Who fan in the 1980s.]


Reaction:

Eric Saward's script for Earthshock has a reputation for being one that doesn't bear close scrutiny: a string of set-pieces and shocks that hangs together sufficiently for an enjoyable initial watch, but with diminishing returns thereafter. Viewing it now for what must be at least the tenth time, though, I'm loving it as much as I ever did. Compared to most of the batshit crazy schemes the Cybermen have had over the years, their plot here is - go on, I'll say it - logical. Their costume design is the best they ever had too, and director Peter Grimwade's pushing of the envelope of multi-camera studio direction injects a much needed velocity. The need to keep intercutting causes some oddities, mind: there's three inserts in episode 1 of Adric in the TARDIS talking to himself, where surely none would have been better.

Many of the other flaws people have perceived over the years don't trouble me. It's an odd structure where the bad guys switch to a contingency plan halfway through (which happened previously this same season in Castrovalva). This is the sort of thing that would happen on Who when there were six or more episodes to fill, but it seems excessive when there's only four. They get away with it, though, as it moves so fast. The only issue is that the audience has to go through two dull sets of scenes where the guest cast distrust the Doctor before realising he's telling the truth. This is doubly annoying as the Doctor has brought with him to the freighter a plausible authority figure in Lieutenant Scott.  He might not have been much use though: his entire planet is on red alert because of a looming war with Cybermen, but he doesn't appear to know about this, and doesn't recognise a Cyberman when he sees one. Maybe he missed a memo, or maybe his squad just deals with missing persons cases.

There is no reason either why Beryl Reid couldn't or shouldn't play the hard-boiled captain of a space freighter. She gives a show-stealing turn as a world-weary spy in the BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, after all; she wasn't in any way limited to playing lovable grannies. If one's going to do it, though, it should be the point of the piece, or else it's not worth the distraction. Again, it doesn't really matter as there's so much else going on.

Earthshock was a big success, and set the template for the next few years of Doctor Who: action movies on a shoestring. It would all come crashing down eventually, but first time out it's very effective. The seeds of destruction are sown here though; there's a line Tegan has about the Doctor: "Guns are not his style at all". But this is followed about five minutes later with the Doctor picking one up and waving it around. Welcome to Saward country!

Connectivity: 
Both stories are structured around the surprise reveal of an old enemy, and contain sequences set in subterranean areas.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Surprise versus Suspense versus Mystery. In a brave move, the editor of Doctor Who Magazine has this month been tentatively critical of production and marketing decisions regarding the latest series opener. His theory is that The Magician's Apprentice might have attracted more viewers if its pre-publicity had made more of the appearance of the Daleks, made anything of the appearance of Davros, and if it hadn't had such a gnomic title. 'The Father of the Daleks' would have been my first choice. Imagine that title popping up at the end of the Christmas special. You'd want to tune in nine months later, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you?! Well, I would anyway.

Why didn't this happen? A bizarre decision was made to keep Davros's return a secret, despite this being revealed within the narrative in the first scene, before the opening credits have even rolled. When the word 'Davros' is first spoken in
The Magician's Apprentice, it is a great moment; but, I know it would work just as well if you knew what was coming. I know this because I saw what was coming a mile off, as would any fan of a certain age bracket (a bracket that includes Steven Moffat and me) the minute they saw bows and arrows, gas masks and atomic weapons being used together in the same war. It's a whopping great reference to Davros's first ever story, Genesis of the Daleks, which is one of the most popular and most repeated Doctor Who stories of all time. Quite frankly, if the [spoiler] in that scene had said any other name but Davros it would have been much more of a twist.

So, why did they do an 'Earthshock' and hold back information, even though it left them with nothing but the same old same old to crow about in their pre-broadcast trailers? Lately, it seems, the people making Doctor Who are obsessed with surprise. This is why they dislike leaks and spoilers with such passion. But surprise is not the only form of dramatic tension. Screenplays tend to disseminate a fair bit of information, and - broadly, in the Robert McKee Screenwriting seminar way of looking at things - there are three ways that this can be managed: surprise is when the audience and protagonist find out the information at the same time, mystery is when the protagonist is ahead of the audience, and suspense is when the audience is ahead of the protagonist.

Mystery is great in an Agatha Christie - Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot never let anyone know until the end, however soon they twig - but can get annoying in any other genre, as we don't tend to like smart-arse protagonists playing "I know something you don't know"; so, it normally comes down in the writing to finding the best balance between suspense and surprise. Suspense is always better, in my humble opinion (and  - you know - Alfred Hitchcock's too, he swore by it - so there!). If the bomb is under the table then for goodness sake pan down and show us it ticking, don't just have a big explosion. This is really what Earthshock does: the reveal of the cybermen at the end of episode 1 is to the audience, not the Doctor, he doesn't find out for ages. Also, suspense crucially is repeatable - too much worry about someone spoiling the surprise means at some level you don't think your story bears rewatching, doesn't it?

So, maybe I shouldn't have worried too much about the disc already being in the machine, the episode already being cued up, or the box being hidden from the kids. I know who Professort Yana really is, but that doesn't stop me getting chills each time I watch and he starts looking at his pocket watch funny. I know Hamlet dies, I know what happens when Marty McFly tries to drive at 90 mph to escape his pursuers, and I know Marwood gets the lead role and has to leave London - that doesn't stop me from watching those stories again and again. Ask my poor suffering Better Half, if you don't believe me!

In Summary: 
Keep moving fast, don't dwell, and you can get away with murder.

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