In my review of Ark In Space, I mention how my deepest appreciation of the story stems from its ability to be so intensely involving that we see past how cheap or dated it may look. That we get so swept up in the story that a bad monster costume or a poorly-achieved special effect can't mar just how darned excited we are over what we're watching. I also mention how there is a second story in my Top Ten that also achieves this.
Earthshock is that other story. And, even though Ark In Space is a better-written story, Earthshock ranks higher in my book because it takes that core quality that both stories have and presents it better.
In the simplest of terms, Earthshock is the most intense story Doctor Who has ever produced. You have just a few minutes at the beginning of Episode One with Lieutenant Scott farting around outside the cave where you're allowed to relax ever-so-slightly and then, after that, it's just the biggest, scariest roller coaster ride that the show has ever provided us with. And, while there may have been a nasty plot hole or two and even some poor production decisions that were made, this story earns so many extra points because of its pure thrill factor. It is truly Doctor Who escaping from its own confines and giving us something that even the deepest hater of science fiction will still find too engaging to stop watching once they've gotten past those first few minutes of afore-mentionned cave-farting.
Earthshock is such an exhilarating piece of television to watch that I find myself mentally blocking out some of the problems it suffers from. They're there, I know. But so many other things about the story are just so wonderful that I find myself able to look past those few flaws - no matter how problematic they may be.
Consider Episode One all by itself for just a moment. It's brilliant, really. Saward is just trying to weave some story in until we can have the huge shocking reveal at the cliffhanger. Thankfully, our embittered script editor veers away from the usual tricks the show employs to mark time. Which is good since the show has never been all that subtle at achieving this trick. It seems that, whenever there is a need to stall things for a bit in a Who story before getting on to some legitimate plot and/or character development, things come to a complete grinding halt. Some of the worst examples of this were seen in mid-70s tales like Death to the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars and Hand of Fear where an entire episode gets eaten away as the Doctor faces a series of traps based on maze-solving and "odd man out" challenges.
But instead of blatant padding, we get a gripping 25-minute suspense/terror that stands alone as an almost complete story in itself. Never have two blokes in black uni-tards seemed more chilling! More impressively, we actually get a bit attached to all the different soldiers that are being slaughtered by those nasty androids and their deaths are all-the-more disturbing because of it. The whole staging of Episode One is masterfully-crafted. With our poor lad on the scanner forced to watch various teams of his comrads dieing over and over each time there's a flare. It's, quite possibly, the most solidly put-together episode of Classic Series Who that we've ever seen.
But a brilliant first episode has not always guaranteed a fantastic story all the way through. We can go as far back as The Space Museum to see that the next three episodes in a Who story can fall pretty flat on their asses after a really good Episode One. Hell, we might even say the same thing about Unearthly Child if we're feeling really mean-spiritted! But Earthshock assails this hurdle with ease and continues to deliver solid excitement for the next three installments.
Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the Cybermen of Earthshock is that after their shocking reveal at the end of Episode One, they actually live up to the hype they created. The Cyberleader, although a bit self-contradictory in his claims to being emotionless, is still an absolutely fantastic villain to watch. He is sinister to the core with his deep rumbling voice and superiorlistic stance. And we adore it every time he declares "Excellent". David Banks' return appearances would always fall a bit short of this original portrayal - but it is a very tough act to follow. Writing, directing and acting all line up beautifully for the Cyberleader in this story (It's almost like everyone is apologizing for the Cyberleader we got in Revenge of the Cybermen and are doing their best to make up for it) and getting lightning to strike twice in future Cybermen stories was just too tall of an order.
But it's not just the Cyberleader who makes the return of the Cybermen so triumphant. Nor is it merely the excellent support that the Cyberlieutenant provides. The fact of the matter is, this is the best story the Cybermen have ever had. They truly are at their most fearsome, here. Not only are they ably-represented as being brutish and powerful, but some excellent measures are taken to make their numbers seem overwhelming (barring, of course, that really bad blended shot at the end of Episode Three that is kept mercifully short!). The Cybermen almost seem to have infected the space freighter like a host of termites. Which creates an unparallelled sense of menace to the whole tale. You just know, at every turn, that a Cybermen is going to pop up in your path. Just look at how they handle Tegan's capture in Episode Four. It could have been a very quick and simple sequence with Tegan just stepping around a corner and running right into a patrolling Cyberman. But, instead, it becomes an absolutely wonderful "jump-moment" where we feel the insurmountable number of Cybermen in the hold closing in on her without a hope for escape. It's delightfully ominous and disturbing. So much so, that I have actually suffered a series of nightmares throughout my life where I suddenly find myself in Tegan's place, attempting to escape in a giant maze of metal corridors as the Cybermen are slowly, but surely, surrounding me. To this day, this dream still recurs from time-to-time. This, to me, is the strongest testament to the effectiveness of the monsters in this particular story. Years later, I'm still having nightmares about them!
Of course, there's more to Earthshock than big, nasty Cybermen. There's pace and astmosphere. More accurately, there's about twenty tonnes of pace and atmosphere! Lots of interesting andecdotes have circulated regarding Peter Grimwade's eccentricities during his directing of these four episodes. But, as many have also said, he got results. Amazing results, in fact. Saward, himself, admits to the horrifically cruel amount of quick, short scenes that he wrote into the script. But Grimwade understood what the author was trying to achieve and does a miraculous job of bringing it all to life. Earthshock moves at the pace of a magnificently-constructed action movie. The word "breakneck" tends to sit at the back of my brain every time I watch it. Everything really does move fast in this adventure. And, to be quite honest, no other story in New or Old Who ever quite achieves the speed that Earthshock moves along at. It is, perhaps, the greatest attribute to this story. There's never a moment to catch our breath. New complications and developments are being hurled at us all the time.
And then we have that wonderful "emotions are a weakness" debate in Episode Four. Not only a great moment for the show - but a really great moment for Doctor Five. Up until this sequence, we're not a hundred percent sure about this latest incarnation of the Doctor. After twelve years of Doctors who always seem to be in control of everything, it's difficult to see the Doctor being meek again. Unlike Pertwee and Tom Baker, he doesn't always win every argument he's in (including the one we just saw him have with Adric in Episode One). He doesn’t browbeat his enemies like his predecessors did, either. Instead, he just seems to get moody and upset with them. He even seems a bit timid.
But then, along comes that wonderful moment of verbal sparring with the Cyberleader. It's like Peter Davison has been storing up for this moment and he rips the Cyberleader a new one in a way no other Doctor has ever managed to do with a villain. And, suddenly, we know that this is the Doctor. The doubt in our minds is gone. It's also a wonderfully economical moment. No disrespect to New Who, but I can't help but think that an argument like this would've gone on twice as long and would've probably even dragged a bit.
As if a triumphant return of the Cybermen, one of the Fifth Doctors greatest moments, and an incredibly well-paced plot weren't enough - we get one of the most tragic moments in the series' history: a companion actually dies. Yes, this is not truly the first time a companion dies. And, no, we didn't like Adric much, anyway. But his death still means a whole lot more than fandom likes to let on to. Adric dieing at the end of Earthshock sent a clear and simple message to 80s viewers:
Nothing is safe.
The idea of a Doctor dieing was even something we'd all gotten accustomed to - but a companion who had put in a legitimate amount time travelling aboard the TARDIS getting killed was not something we thought would ever happen. Could you have imagined Jo Grant or Sarah Jane Smith being written out in such a manner? Or even Jamie McCrimmon? Hell no. If such companions didn't get a happy ending, they, at least, got one where their skin was still intact. But now, suddenly, the rules were changing once and for all. Anyone could meet a tragic end in Doctor Who. This is, perhaps, the biggest impact that Earthshock has. Its ultimate coup-de-grace. We've have this wild roller-coaster ride of legitimately scary Cybermen. We've enjoyed some great suspense and an awesome flashback sequence in Episode Two. But, as I said, none of that was enough. The shock and awe that washed over me as those silent credits roll over the broken star-badge was truly the most poignant moment of the whole story. Thanks to all the great stuff that led up to it, the moment was made all the more breath-taking. I can't think of a single other instance of television where I was as unsettled as I was at the end of Earthshock. And a story that can accomplish that, to me, deserves the status of "Classic" way more than some of the usual suspects that make the Top Ten lists of fan-favorites.
As the Cyberleader would, himself, say:
#10 - http://robtymec.blogspot.ca/2015/12/book-of-lists-top-ten-who-stories-10.html
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