Doctor Who: Survival Review

For many years Survival was weighed down by the burden of being Doctor Who’s Last Ever Story. This was a position it never asked for: not only was no one really aware, beyond the odd hint, that the series’ twenty-sixth year would also be its last, but the story itself was not even written as a season finale as such, never mind a series finale. Producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Andrew Cartmel often kept the running order of a season's stories flexible right through the commissioning and writing process, only deciding which was the best transmission order once they were in the can, with the result that Rona Munro's three-parter found its place in Who history almost by happenstance. Inevitably, it suffered more scrutiny than usual from fans as they came to realise the truth, but initially, the judgments were favourable - read any of the fanzines of the day and you’ll find that most reviewers thought that, if this finally was the end, that the good Doctor was going out on a high. This was a little kind of them (no doubt partially because of an understandable desire to see the beloved series finishing with a bang and not a whimper) for while Survival is a decent enough story, it is by no means worthy of the accolade of being the final end.

The story sees the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) taking companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) back to her home town of Perivale to look up some of her old friends. She meets up with former pal Ange, who tells her that over the past few months a number of their gang have simply vanished into thin air, a phenomena that soon extends to Ace herself who disappears during a nostalgic walk in her local park. The Doctor swiftly discovers that a race of Cheetah People are taking the youths back to their own world for food and manages to grab a ride on the back of one such abduction, only to fall into the hands of his perpetual nemesis the Master (Anthony Ainley). The Master, galactic twit that he is in this incarnation, has got himself stuck on the Cheetah People’s planet which is in the process of disintegrating, and he’s lured the Doctor there in the hopes that his rival will be able to get them all back. As Ace finds herself gradually falling under the spell of the cat-like creatures, and the ground shakes from the ever-more violent tremors of the planet’s death-throes, can the Doctor uncover the link between the Cheetah People’s actions and their planet’s demise, save Ace from becoming one of them, and defeat his most deadliest foe?

The sad thing about Doctor Who’s demise is that, after several years in the doldrums, the series was really beginning to find its form again. However one feels about the Cartmel Masterplan (a retroactive name given to the script editor’s desire to return an element of mystery and uncertainty to the Doctor) the quality of scripts during his tenure had sharply improved, progressing from the dire straits of Season Twenty-Four’s Time and the Rani to the almost flawless The Curse of Fenric three years later. Fenric is the jewel in Season Twenty-Six’s crown, but all scripts of that apparently final year were first rate, exhibiting a desire to expand the series’ format beyond simple runabouts to Buffy-style allegory (eight years before Buffy made it fashionable) and to infuse the series with richer, more complex characters, not just with the Doctor and Ace but those people they met along their travels. Of the four stories that make up the season, the latter three made up a very loose “Ace Arc” in which the companion took central stage. In Ghost Light the Doctor takes her back to confront her childhood fears and in The Curse of Fenric he guides her through adolescent angst and familial difficulties to help her reach the road of maturity. It’s this journey that, it was intended, should reach its end in Survival, a story in which she returns as a young woman to the place she knew as a child and finds that she really has moved on. Character progression that the likes of Sarah Jane Smith or Jamie McCrimmon could only dream of, the Ace arc is just another sign of the ambition Cartmel brought to the show, one which revitalised it and made this last season quite the best, by some margin, of all those seen in the Eighties.

However, Survival is not the highlight. The structure of the season meant that the two truly great stories, the aforementioned Ghost Light and Fenric made up the meat of the year’s sandwich, surrounded by two tales that, while packed with good ideas, don’t quite ascend to such lofty heights (with Battlefield coming in for particular opprobrium: this reviewer's opinion is that it's another great script hugely let down by many production issues). Much has been made of the fact that this story finally set the Doctor down in a contemporary council estate, laying the groundwork for the eventual revival (although in truth this isn’t a theory I particularly buy: RTD would have set the new series in the Powell Estate even if Season Twenty-Six had taken place entirely on an alien landscape in the far future), but it’s not a particular well-realised council estate. The script demands that it is purposefully quite empty, which is fine but misses the point that any area’s most defining characteristic is not its buildings but rather the people who live in them. Instead of having to negotiate past a group of youths loitering outside a chip shop or a bunch of well-inebriated ne’er-do-wells spilling out of the pub after closing time, the Doctor meets Hale and Pace - horrible at the best of times, but not particularly representative of the society at large - while the few friends of Ace’s we do encounter are so nondescript as to be virtually anonymous. The only real yoofs we meet are a group of boys at a self-defence class who unfortunately, given they end up being the Master’s heavies, look more like the recruits out of a mildly suspicious boy band rather than the toughened sorts they are supposed to be. (Poor old Anthony Ainley! The one time he gets to ditch his camp excesses and he’s still lumbered with this lot!) The whole lacks definition, with the result that this is a story that could have taken place anywhere. There’s even a surprising lack of emotional resonance for Ace, which is a real missed opportunity - we don’t even get to see her old home (or, for that matter, the site of Gabriel Chase).

The shame of it is that the other half of the serial, set on the Cheetah Planet, is far better. The central battle around which Munro’s script is based is one of nature vs nurture, the clash of savagery and civilisation. On the Cheetah Planet the former rules supreme, with the consequence that the planet is being literally ripped apart. The Cheetahs are animals hurtling themselves towards annihilation, a problem with both environmental and socio-political echoes today. Indeed, it’s pleasing to note that the themes are more in tune with the world situation today: whereas in 1989 the world was watching in shocked delight at the swift dismantling of Communism and had never even heard the term carbon footprint, today’s rapidly escalating problem of international terrorism and rising CO2 levels makes this story surprisingly modern (more so, one would dare suggest, than some of RTD’s efforts). This is where Munro’s script is at its most powerful, as the Doctor struggles to contain the instinctual behaviour of not only the Cheetah People, but his own companion. It’s good, atmospheric stuff, albeit rather blunt and not quite at Fenric’s level, and well realised by the production.

Which makes the Perivale segments so disappointing. Here is a perfect chance to contrast the two worlds, the animal and the human, but little is done as, crude comparison between the Master’s gang on the two worlds aside, it has nothing to say on the subject. If one was feeling generous, one could say this was a consequence of the story being only a three-parter, but there’s a fair bit of faffing around in that brief running length that could have been used more effectively. The last episode, in particular, is a mess. The climactic showdown between the Doctor and the Master is incomprehensible, with an ill-thought-through motorbike sequence just one of its problems (just how does the Doctor end up on that sofa?) Indeed, in its attempt to provide an action-packed finale the episode becomes an Eric-Saward-style cacophony of all style and no substance, with the only truly exciting moment of the thing, when the Doctor and the Master tussle on the Cheetah Planet, over far too quickly. The first episode is a little better, although the Doctor’s suspicions that something is going on are founded on far more flimsy evidence than usual, making him seem like a bit of a paranoid nut (not least for the sequence when he dollops out cat food on the pavement and goes to hide in a suburban garden, ready to pounce), which rather counteracts the balance.

The disparity between the two locations extends to the production values. Like Battlefield there are some moments in Perivale that have one hiding behind the sofa in sheer embarrassment. Midge, the Master’s lackey, is one problem: another is the fact that Ken Trew’s costumes for the Cheetah People, which in the alien setting are just about acceptable, looks daft in the urban environment. There’s a silly sequence in Part One in which Ace is chased around a playground, made absurd by the fact she makes life needlessly difficult for herself by clambering over every available ride rather than, you know, just running for the trees. Again the Cheetah Planet sequences are far stronger. Although shot in the usual quarry, it is lent a superb other-worldly quality by the use of CGI to give the sky a purple hue and fill the horizon with erupting volcanoes and lava flows. Although the computer imagery is crude by today’s standards, it does hold up remarkably well and creates a real alien atmosphere to proceedings.

Not only is it the most atmospheric of the settings, but it’s also the best directed. Returning director Alan Wareing, who had had to cope with a bit of a nightmare shoot on the previous season’s The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, had a relatively easy time of it and, while not all the staging works (the afore-mentioned playground chase, the mildly incongruous sight of the Doctor and the Master dancing around each other in some poor person’s front lawn), he conjures up some memorable images. He also manages to get quite the best performance out of Anthony Ainley. Up to this point, Ainley had been hampered with having to play a pantomime version of the Doctor’s Moriarty, a cackling buffoon who is about as threatening as a leaking water pistol. It’s a little sad that it was only here, in his last appearance, that the actor finally got to be properly sinister, even more so when he does it so well. Given a new, rather fetching costume to wear, he seethes with malice and menace, a villain properly villainous for once and one who ruthlessly exploits those he comes across to achieve his aims. For me, the real highlight of Survival is Ainley, and the lowlight the reflection that he didn’t get a chance to do similar things nine years earlier.

His fellow thespians are variable. McCoy, always the most haphazard of the Classic Who Doctors (and I say that as someone who lists him as one of two favoured Time Lords) is typically variable here. When he has to shout he gets it wrong, and I’ve always considered his reading of the final lines a bit off, but in other moments he has a quiet confidence, and the moment in which he entreats Ace to come back to him is perfect (it’s also great to see him on a motorbike again - don’t ask me why, it just looks fab). Aldred as Ace is her usual decent but unremarkable self - it’s notable that she is given a purposefully more mature look here which works well given the Ace arc (she looks considerably younger in Ghost Light for example, even though that serial was shot after this). Of the guest stars William Barton as Midge is terrible, an even camper version of Eric Roberts’s Master seven years before Roberts appeared, while Lisa Bowerman as chief Cheetah Person Karra is too hampered by her cat mask to make for a charismatic presence.

If nothing else, Survival is conclusive proof that dogs are better than cats - you never saw the Doctor taking on a race of vicious dogs (Tooth and Claw excepted). As a swansong it isn’t the payoff that the series deserved, but after twenty-six years it’s difficult to imagine what would be. Instead, it’s a sensible, intermittently effective tale, not the strongest of its year by any means but far superior to anything that could be seen at the beginning of McCoy’s era, with a high level of quotable lines. Like his young companion, the Seventh Doctor had matured over the three years from embarrassing clown to noble champion, something which is, ironically given its focus, reflected far more in this story than Ace’s similar progression. We get to see all aspects of McCoy’s legacy, from his clowning and pratfalls, through to his seriousness and on to his willingness to sacrifice it all for the sake of his companion. Survival might not be the final end - thank goodness it wasn’t - but one of it’s not often-noted aspects was that it was actually a pretty good end of the Seventh Doctor’s era - both story and star could be summarised as flawed but with great intentions. That’s the story’s real legacy, and one of which it should be proud.

But thank goodness its title didn’t turn out to be an oxymoron. Instead, we were just left hanging around for a few years...

Fittingly the story gets a two-DVD release. The format is the same as we’ve got used to over the years, with a Main Menu running clips from the story behind the Main Menu. The extras on the discs are broken up so that Disc One houses those pertaining to the actual story, while Disc Two gives a more general overview of the time it was broadcast in.

This isn't the greatest looking story you'll ever see, but that's almost entirely down to problems with the initial filming. Oftentimes the image is quite blurry and indistinct, while background detail is sometimes smudged. Countering that, a lot of the footage has been cleaned up and some effects shots improved which greatly help the Cheetah Planet sequences. Just a shame the source wasn't better.

There’s a bumper crop of different soundtracks to listen to. Not only is there an Isolated Music option, should you be a particular fan of Dominic Glynn’s score, but there are also separate options to watch with a stereo or 5.1 mix. This latter is by far the most atmospheric, with the Restoration Team’s regular sound wizard Mark Ayres conjuring up a particularly immersive track, one of the finest yet heard on a Who DVD.


Disc One

There are two commentaries this time around. The first is a standard one featuring McCoy, Aldred and Cartmel. Unfortunately the McCoy tracks are never as amusing as either the Davison or Baker ones, but it’s amiable enough in a lightweight manner, with some interesting titbits, although they do sound a little disappointed at times with what they’re watching. And, sigh, old Sylv never gets tired of telling the story about the water tank in Battlefield does he?

The second, on Part Three only, is a first for the Who DVDs, a commentary featuring three fans moderated by Doctor Who Magazine’s Clayton Hickman. Niall Boyce, Erykah Brackenbury and Tim Kittel all won a competition run in DWM to take part and, despite a little bit of scepticism from some quarters, the experiment has turned out to be rather a success. The three, gently prompted by Hickman, make jolly, amusing companions, happy to both highlight the episode’s strengths and take the mickey of its weaknesses, resulting in a genial half hour which will be familiar to anyone who has spent convivial evenings watching the series with like-minded friends over a few glasses.

Cat Flap (28:05 & 34:01)
A Making Of divided into two parts. The first, covering pre-production, is slightly the better, in that not only does it discuss the genesis of the story but also its effect on the new series which, together with the fact it’s pleasingly put together and edited, makes for an entertaining watch. The second is a straight-forward account of the shoot, with the usual on-set anecdotes and amusing stories which is fine, but does mildly outstay its welcome. Taken as a whole (and just why was this split into two?) this is another of the typically excellent documentaries we get on these Who discs, although the unavoidable absence of Munro, who was not available on the dates of filming, is a noticeable hole.

Deleted and Extended Scenes (9:18)
Coming with some alternative edits of scenes and pre-CGI shots that show just how big a difference that purple sky gives to the atmosphere of the Cheetah Planet, this is a goodly if unexciting collection of material.

Out-takes (16:26)
Sixteen minutes of fluffs and onset larks, the highlight of which is seeing McCoy dangling upside trying to swing round to meet his correct eyeline and his and Aldred’s impromptu Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em impressions. Overall though a little tedious.

Continuities (3:04)
I love these inclusions, they’re so nostalgic, and always throw up some surprises, such as the mention of long-forgotten magazine Fast Forward this time (as well as what I suppose you could call a “ferry” story for Bergerac.)

Photo Gallery
A usual collection with nothing very remarkable - the cast are exclusively featured with no sign at all of the crew.

Info Text
Richard Molesworth supplies the usual optional subtitle track with production information, the odd observation and other trivia.

Radio Times Listings
In .pdf format, these show not only the programme listings but an extra from RT’s letters page from the time featuring several correspondents anxious about the show’s future, together with Peter Cregeen’s assurance the show would return for another season. Which, in a way, was perfectly true.

Disc Two

Endgame (44:22)
About ten years ago, Doctor Who Magazine ran an excellent What If? article based around supposition of how the series would have developed had it not been cancelled in 1989. Extrapolating from the vague plans for the next season that Cartmel and his team had been musing over, the magazine had a marvellous time with it, the text accompanied by a raft of illustrations of future scenes and mocked-up video and book covers for stories that as it really happened never got off the drawing board. It really was one of the best pieces DWM has ever run, and now ten years later we get the moving pictures equivalent. After starting off by describing the events surrounding Who’s non-cancellation cancellation (the documentary opens with Peter Creegan stating “I was the person who cancelled Doctor Who”) Cartmel, writer Ben Aaronovitch and others talk about the stories they had in mind for Season Twenty-Seven, accompanied by some new mocked-up pictures (which don’t measure up to the DWM ones, but aren’t bad). From what is said here, and allowing for the fact that these were still early plans, Season Twenty-Seven would have had some marvellous moments but probably would not have been as stellar as its immediate predecessor. Overall, this is a very entertaining documentary, although it’s noticeable that the story of the series’ demise is told entirely from an insider’s perspective: there’s no comment about how fans felt at the time, or (more surprisingly) no mention of the New Adventure series of books which began in the early Nineties and bred the next generation of television Who writers.

Search Out Science (19:21)
The best schools programme there ever was was Super Badger. I remember almost nothing about it other than the theme, but that, and its title, is enough to convince me of that fact. Still, this is an amusing reminder of what these things were like. The Doctor and Ace (the former balancing on a rather dodgy-looking platform) guest star in a programme that explores such matters as What Shape The Earth Is and How Many Stars There Are (“billions and billions,” for those of you who were wondering). Everyone get out their copy books…

Little Girl Lost (16:33)
Sophie Aldred, with a few contributions from Cartmel and writer Ian Briggs, talk about the development of Ace over the course of her two and a bit seasons and highlight her most important moments. Okay.

Destiny of the Doctors (13:50)
Doctor Who has never translated well to computer games, and the most recent effort, 1997’s Destiny of the Doctors, was no exception. It was notable, however, for being the last time that Anthony Ainley played the Master. He filmed a series of sequences taunting players as they made their way through the game, and these are edited together in a compilation here. It’s quite nice to see Ainley hamming it up one more time, and there are a few amusing moments, but overall this is a rather tedious thing to sit through - almost as tedious as it was to play through all those years ago!

Given its place in history, it was inevitable that this story would get a detailed release, and the extras on display are well up to the task of chronicling this momentous time which are up to the usual high standard we’ve come to expect from the Restoration Team. Coupled with a reasonable story and a better-than-expected audio track, the whole is another quality release, worth buying even if you're not a fan of the main feature itself.

5 out of 10
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