Published on May 8th, 2009 | by Alasdair McKenzie
or Adric vs The Ground 27 Years On
Earthshock works best the first time you see it, preferably if you donâ€™t know about the two generous dollops of surprise in store. I was 13 when it first aired in the UK, and saw it in total ignorance (apart from the DWM preview, which mentioned palaeontologists being murdered in some caves. I thought The Palaeontologists were a new race of boring Who aliens, and looked forward to Time-Flight instead; mm, Concorde, eh?).
If you don’t know about the two shocks in Earthshock….
-Tegan pushes a painter and decorator off his ladder.
-We discover that the Doctor takes 15-minute tea breaks when heâ€™s in the TARDIS. We get to see the TARDIS tearoom for the first time. The Doctor (Peter Davison) eats a messy doughnut. You can see a ring of jam around his mouth.
There have been many better Who stories than EarthshockÂ¸ but few as remarkable or genuinely surprising. Not only does it reintroduce famous old foes unannounced (the Cybermen), but it has the sheer gall to kill off a companion (Adric). Young Who weasels in 2009 might ask: â€œBut why were those such big surprises? What about internet spoilers?â€ Well, in our day, not everyone had the Internet â€“and if you did, it took twelve hours to load it onto your Sinclair C5. Betamax emails were still sent by gas, thatâ€™s how primitive it was.
Could the current Doctor Who team spring similarly huge shocks on us? They came close with the last ten minutes of Utopia and the Army of Ghosts cliffhanger, but only if you avoided reading about Who on the web for several months before those episodes aired. John Nathan-Turner and Russell T Davies both enjoyed the â€˜showmanshipâ€™ aspects of producing, basically doing anything that would Get Dr Who Noticed By The Press and Public. However, both operated in different eras for the media and for Who. RTD will announce guest baddie details in order to get a Radio Times cover, whereas, if JNT had tried a similar route, he wouldnâ€™t have got a cover anyway, such was the comparative disinterest towards Who from the public and from the BBC itself back then. Instead, he kept things secret; Radio Times listed the characters played by David Banks and Mark Hardy as â€˜Leaderâ€™ and â€˜Lieutenantâ€™ â€“ no Cybermentions here.
Arguably the biggest genuine surprise in recent Who has been the sudden appearance of Rose in Partners in Crime. However, we knew she would be returning by the end of the season anyway â€“ we were just shocked by the timing of it â€“ and the efforts taken to keep such a small scene secret indicates how impossible it would be to have surprises as big as Earthshockâ€™s in modern Who.
How did 1980s series producer John-Nathan Turner keep the Cybermen under wraps before broadcast? Basically, by not telling or trusting anyone! And, letâ€™s be honest â€“ not as many people cared enough in 1982 to dig up closely-guarded Doctor Who secrets as they do now. There wasnâ€™t the same level of exposure via internet and Heat magazine spoilers. He was also canny by having the Cybermen filmed in a closed studio environment rather than outside on location where they might be â€˜leakedâ€™.
In comparison, RTD is probably unable to keep such reappearances secret; modern Who is a much grander production than its â€˜80s counterpart, requiring far more hands on deck, and despite confidentiality agreements, itâ€™s harder to stop at least one drunken fool blabbing trade secrets on a night out in Cardiff, so he might as well spill the beans before anyone else does.
The series now operates in an era of TV which is more ratings-led than ever before, and he might as well gain as much pre-publicity as possible by signposting the return of Daleks or Cybermen to increase the viewing figures. Also, monsters in modern, glossy Dr Who work well with some nice exterior location filming, so why keep them out of sight in a studio through fear of spoilers when you can have Cybermen marching around Victorian gravestones instead?
JNT tried a different approach with Earthshock; surprise viewers with returning monsters so that theyâ€™ll watch again in future. Arguably, the ratings success of Earthshock changed the series’ direction after 1982; we can see several other mid-80s stories that were shallow imitations, like Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks. The fact that these Earthshock-lites didnâ€™t set the ratings alight can be attributed – Daleks aside â€“ to the reuse of old foes who didnâ€™t mean diddly-squat to anyone outside fandom: Silurians, Sea-Devils, the Black Guardian and co.
At least nowadays RTD can relaunch a lesser-known foe like the Sontarans with the aid of Radio Times pieces or the official site, so that modern viewers can pretend to become excited at seeing 1970s monsters theyâ€™ve never heard of. But itâ€™s interesting to note that JNT didnâ€™t actually try the same â€˜shockâ€™ tactics again â€“ the returning enemies were usually announced to the fans during production from then on, perhaps trying to entice us with maximum pre-publicity.
Did any of us even know Matthew Waterhouse was leaving, never mind that heâ€™d be the first companion since Sarah Kingdom in 1966 to be killed off? It was standard practice for companionsâ€™ departures from the series to be announced in the press before their finales were broadcast, but the lack of foreknowledge made Adricâ€™s death even more shocking. He was never the most popular or sympathetic character â€“ Peter Davison described Adricâ€™s death as â€˜Better than Adricâ€™ – but they made it feel like it mattered.
RTD, on the other hand, has twice hinted at a companionâ€™s death without delivering; witness Satan telling Rose that sheâ€™d die in battle very soon, when we all knew Billie Piper was leaving, and hints that some terrible fate would befall Donna. On both occasions, Russell cheated us. Yes, I know that Donnaâ€™s fate turned out to be arguably sadder than a traditional killing-off, but it wasnâ€™t an actual physical death. RTD has said that he would never kill off a companion, as he sees Who as a positive, life-affirming show for children, but JNT and Eric Saward showed no such qualms.
Earthshock remains highly watchable and enjoyable today; â€˜80s production values aside, it stands up well to nuWho by being fast-paced and having some neat set-pieces. But if the threat had been posed by the Zaggrons instead of the Cybermen, and if Adric had left to work the dodgems in Margate instead of dying, it wouldnâ€™t have been so memorable. In other words, nothing much is shocking about Earthshock now, apart from Beryl Reidâ€™s wig and the lazy writing that sidelines Nyssa for 75% of the story.
Itâ€™s tempting to imagine what Earthshock would be like if made in 2009:
-DOCTOR WHO: The Caves of the Cybermen/Companion in Ashes
-The pre-credits intro to Part One shows the TARDIS materialising in the caves. The Doctor tells his companions that the bones in the caves belong to dinosaurs. â€˜I wonder why they became extinct?â€™ he muses, as the opening music crashes in.
-The Cybermen appear after five minutes. They donâ€™t just want to blow things up, theyâ€™re on a conversion mission. They even want to convert the dinosaurs (cue some ludicrous CGI Cyberhybrids), and ensure that Earthâ€™s past is changed so it becomes a Cyberplanet.
-Adric doesnâ€™t manage to follow Capt. Briggs (now played by Lesley Joseph) to the escape pod, and heâ€™s blown to pieces. Since the Time Lords arenâ€™t around anymore to keep things right, the Doctor has fewer qualms about changing events, and sends a temporal-funnel back through time to save the boy wonder from a fate worse than health. This changes events, so that the lad is captured by an escaping Cybergit and is converted to Cyberform. But heâ€™s a new breed of Cyberman, nice and kind, and he sets about changing those nasty Cyberways in honour of the Doctor.
-In that yearâ€™s Doctor Who at the Proms extravaganza, â€˜Adricâ€™s Themeâ€™ is played to a saluting, non-ironic audience.
Itâ€™s unlikely that Doctor Who could produce such a surprising story as Earthshock nowadays, because spoiler-proof TV is no longer on the agenda. If someone cares enough about what happens in a programme, they can find out about it before watching it; you just have to go on the web or read The Sun newspaper.
The returning monsters would probably be publicised well in advance of transmission, mainly for ratings reasons. Itâ€™s certainly unlikely that one of the companions would be killed off now; modern Who has a post-9/11 ethos of emphasising the survival of humanity, not its destruction.