Doctor Who: Earthshock Review
The mysterious disappearance of an archeological team is merely the prelude to a deadlier threat for the Doctor and his companions - the Cybermen want to destroy Earth, and will use any means at their disposal. The Doctor's ingenuity is stretched to its very limits as he battles to defeat the Cyber army at any cost. But even he does not realise just how high that cost will be... (DVD jacket blurb)
Doctor Who circa 1982 had just undergone one of its periodic rejuvenations. New producer John Nathan-Turner had avowed to bring the series firmly into the new decade and had already taken drastic steps to update the theme tune, incidentals and title sequence, swirly psychedelia and tape-looped sounds gave way to crisp, post Star Wars space-scapes, neon lettering and synthesised tones - eighties modernism ahoy! With the start of the new season an increasingly tired looking Tom Baker faded away to be replaced by Peter Davison's more youthful, energetic portrayal of the title role. In its new twice-weekly early evening slot, the series was now embarking upon what would arguably be its last grasp at mainstream popularity. In Earthshock, the production team had two trump cards to play - the surprise revival of old adversaries the Cybermen (unseen on television screens for seven years) in a sleek new form, and an action packed script from Eric Saward that would dramatically re-emphasise the flawed aspect of the Doctor's heroic persona. He might be able to defeat the Cybermen, but could he keep all his young travelling companions alive?
I first saw Earthshock as a five year old kid, and I recall being gripped by it from start to finish. Twenty one years later, how well does the production stand up? There's a phrase in Doctor Who fan circles known as the 'giant rat factor': this refers to the way some of the series most successful productions appear to be let down by a certain badly executed element, and stems from the large, cuddly gerbil that nibbles most unconvincingly at Louise Jameson's legs in the otherwise superlative Talons of Weng Chiang (out on disc earlier this year). Earthshock, I'm glad to report, is remarkably free of such clangers. In fact I would argue that production wise it stands head and shoulders above most of its immediate Doctor Who contemporaries.
Instead of flood-lit studio sets, there's moody low key lighting a plenty. There's some excellent design work, the cavernous hold of the space freighter that conceals a slumbering Cyber army being neatly enhanced by decent modelwork for high angle shots (in fact I didn't even realise a model had been employed until the ever-informative Production Subtitles told me - how often can you say that?). The redesigned Cybermen are a suitably menacing adversary, with the transparent jaw plates of the new costume that reveal a moving organic part within being particularly effective: these aren't just faceless robots, they're converted people. Most crucially, Peter Grimwade's direction is superb throughout. Even after shifting from the cat-and-mouse murder games of the first episode to the remaining entirely studio bound instalments he keeps his cameras and actors moving, successfully avoiding the stagey feel of many similar multicamera videotape productions. Grimwade also succeeds in eliciting high tension performances from a largely excellent cast. Davison is on top form here, creating a passionate, impulsive characterisation of the Doctor who defiantly champions the 'small, beautiful pleasures' of human existence to the emotionless Cyberleader. Main guest star Beryl Reid as the Freighter Captain is also a delight, her waspish put downs of her subordinates being particularly entertaining. Young companion actor Matthew Waterhouse, often cruelly thought of in Who circles as a bit of a recurring 'giant rat factor' himself is also coaxed to a fairly dignified departure. The passage of time may well have diluted the suprise elements of the story - I no longer burst into tears at the conclusion as my five year old self did! - but as an exercise in pacey, sci-fi television drama Earthshock still retains the power to impress.
Menus and Extras
The house style Doctor Who DVD menus are used as usual, dressed with clips from the serial. It's an extremely minor niggle, but negotiating my way through the extras menus in order to select a combination from the many viewing options I was treated so many times to the Cyberleader beginning to intone 'this one calls himself the Doctor...' that I was almost tempted to start searching for some gold dust. Could we stick to music samples instead, please? Such Cyber-grating aside, there's a very impressive array of extras on offer:
Commentary by Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton and Matthew Waterhouse (the Doctor and companions Tegan, Nyssa and Adric): Davison once again proves himself to be the king of comedy Doctor Who commentaries, leading his co-stars here in a lively piss take and nit pick of the episodes. As if every so often becoming aware that he's being just a little too naughty, Davison makes the odd comment about the successes of the production but it's not long before the light hearted approach returns. It's a shame that more could not have been done to lure Waterhouse out of his shell - he largely evades questions from his co-stars regarding his thoughts on his forced departure from the series - but by and large this makes for highly entertaining, if not very informative, listening.
Striking a more balanced approach is 'Putting the 'Shock' into Earthshock', a new half hour documentary produced for this release. Interviews with those involved in the Earthshock's production - including archive footage of the late Peter Grimwade - are presented alongside celebrity fans such as The League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss and Coupling writer Steven Moffat discussing the impact of the story had on viewers on its original transmission. For me, the variety of opinions canvassed and the fast editing of this featurette made for great viewing, offering an interesting, lively variation from the more sedate style of interviews that have featured on previous Doctor Who DVDs.
Location Film Sequences: the fresh transfer of the original film sequences for part one are presented in full here, complete with production sound.
Did You See?: In this extract from a BBC2 review show presenter Gavin Scott attempts to wittily deconstruct the appeal of Who monsters past. 'Appalling behaviour. But highly watchable!' he quips at one point, introducing a clip supposedly showing the Daleks' attempts to set back female emancipation. The same comment could easily apply to this sequence as a whole. Unintentionally hilarious.
CGI Effects: The story can be watched with CGI replacing some of the more dated visual effects, specifically the trooper's ray gun beams and the freighter crash sequences. These new effects are nicely done, and blend sympathetically with the style of original production (in contrast to those prepared for the earlier Ark in Space DVD in which the new CGI space sequences seemed rather at odds with the decidedly low-fi interiors).
40th anniversary celebration: Montage of Who clips cut to the Orbital theme tune remix. Nicely done, and offers the potential for a fun party piece to amuse and horrify your non fan friends: How many clips can you swiftly identify as they flash past? Not that'd I'd have tried something like that. Oh, dear me no...
Information Text: Lots of behind-the-scenes info, quotes and production statistics.
Photo Gallery: Collects together images from the story and the recording of the commentary track into a short featurette.
Music-Only Option: Malcom Clarke's score can be listened to in synch with the pictures, offering you the chance to enjoy lots of wonderful radiophonic sounds unencumbered with people talking.
Episode 5: an animated short epilogue. To say more would spoil it, but it certainly brought a smile to my face.
Finally, there's an Easter Egg to be found as well.
Picture and Sound
The episodes are presented in their original 4:3 aspect ratio, with good, clear two channel mono sound. The picture is very good throughout, with the dimly lit studio cave scenes handled well. The film exteriors shot for part one benefit from a fresh new transfer, offering a leap in quality in terms of colour and lack of film dirt over the version previously released on VHS.
An excellent Doctor Who story receives an extra packed release. Highly recommended.