Earthshock *****

The most thrilling tale in years sees the shock return of the Cybermen, the death of Adric and Beryl Reid camping it up

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
Earthshock *****

Season 19 – Story 121

“The tall one with the fair hair. Even under the threat of death he has the arrogance of a Time Lord” – Cyber Leader

Storyline

In caves on Earth in 2526, a team of palaeontologists, troopers and eventually the Tardis crew come under attack from two deadly androids that are guarding a powerful bomb. The Doctor deactivates the device and traces its operators to deep space. The Cybermen – concealed en masse in the hold of a freighter – are forced to rethink their attack plan and put the ship on a collision course with Earth. The freighter jumps time warps by some 65 million years and becomes the explosion that wiped out the dinosaurs. The Doctor is unable to save Adric who is still trapped on board.


First transmissions
Part 1 - Monday 8 March 1982
Part 2 - Tuesday 9 March 1982
Part 3 - Monday 15 March 1982
Part 4 - Tuesday 16 March 1982

Production
Location recording: October 1981 at Springwell Lock Quarry, Rickmansworth, Bucks
Studio recording: November 1981 in TC8



Cast
The Doctor - Peter Davison 

Tegan Jovanka - Janet Fielding

Nyssa - Sarah Sutton

Adric - Matthew Waterhouse

Captain Briggs - Beryl Reid
Lieutenant Scott - James Warwick
Professor Kyle - Clare Clifford
Cyber Leader - David Banks
Cyber Lieutenant - Mark Hardy
Walters - Steve Morley
Snyder - Suzi Arden
Sergeant Mitchell - Ann Holloway
Berger - June Bland
Ringway - Alec Sabin
Crew members - Mark Fletcher, Christopher Whittingham
Troopers - Anne Clements, Mark Straker

Crew
Writer - Eric Saward
Designer - Bernard Lloyd-Jones
Incidental music - Malcolm Clarke
Script editor - Antony Root
Producer - John Nathan-Turner
Director - Peter Grimwade

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
“Earthshock was an absolute nightmare to make,” producer John Nathan-Turner told Doctor Who Magazine. “There were so many scenes – more than 300 – and they had to be recorded at break-neck speed.” “Hundreds and hundreds of camera set-ups,” says writer Eric Saward on the BBC DVD, admitting, “What I more or less asked Peter to do with the script was make a movie in six days.” Director Peter Grimwade didn’t endear himself to any of his cast with his haste and precision but, boy, does his tenacity pay off.

Even today Earthshock packs a punch and I’ll never forget the visceral thrill – a proper knotted stomach – of seeing this story on first transmission. It was easily the most exciting serial since director Douglas Camfield had left the Doctor Who fold in 1976, only matching perhaps Inferno (1970) and The Web of Fear (1968) for almost unbearable tension.

Saward’s script and Grimwade’s direction work in unison, delivering pace, momentum, atmosphere and the eponymous shock. Part one is a masterclass in slow-build anxiety and claustrophobia, with shadowy caves, glimpses of android silhouettes, macabre molten human remains and a rattlingly eerie score, leading to the wham-bam reveal of the Cybermen at the climax.

The Doctor’s second-worst enemy have never looked better, with excellent masks and Perspex shields showing the actors’ silver-painted chins behind. One could complain that the supposedly emotionless Cyber Leader displays a tad too much pride, pleasure and annoyance: “I know that object” (re the police box), “My army awakes, Doctor!” and, of course, “Excellent!” But David Banks gives a strident guest-star performance that it would be churlish to fault.

So many thrilling images linger in the mind. The Cyber Leader replaying bleached-out clips of Messrs Hartnell, Troughton and Baker; cellophane-covered Cybermen waking and smashing out of their silos; the Doctor ingeniously fusing a Cyberman into a bulkhead, before the Leader blasts through a second entrance; various Cybermen storming into the Tardis, one getting wedged between its doors; Tegan bravely grabbing a gun and shooting a Cyberman, and later being seized by a Cyberman that emerges, brilliantly, from in front of camera. (“Tegan doesn’t scream very often,” notes Janet Fielding on the DVD.)

A superb scene follows when the Doctor and the Cyber Leader challenge each other about the merits or otherwise of emotions. Leader: “They restrict and curtail the intellect and logic of the mind.” Doctor: “They also enhance life! When did you last have the pleasure of smelling a flower, watching a sunset, eating a well-prepared meal? For some people, small beautiful events is [sic] what life is all about!”

The Leader trumps the Doctor when he realises the Time Lord has feelings for Tegan and orders another Cyberman simply, “Kill her.” Companions have been in this situation before, but for one incredibly tense moment in 1982 it really seemed like it might happen and showed, for the first time, that the Doctor (and I) cared about Tegan.

Earthshock also pulls off the previously unimaginable feat of making us care about Adric. His forced severance from the Doctor and Tegan and then his self-sacrifice/demise aboard the freighter (“Now I’ll never know if I was right”) are charged with sorrow. Adric will always be an annoying twerp but the much-maligned Matthew Waterhouse acquits himself well throughout. And the silent credits (one minute 20 seconds!) rolling over the image of Adric’s broken badge is an extraordinary measure from JN-T.

There’s a concerted effort to cast women in parts that in other eras might have all been played by men. We have Clare Clifford as archaeologist Kyle, lots of female troopers getting gunned down (four years before Aliens); and you can bet that when Saward first crewed his space freighter, he never envisaged Briggs, Berger and Ringway as two butch old dears and one less-than-butch chap.

This harks back to my claim (see Kinda) that JN-T and Peter Grimwade brought a gay/camp sensibility to their choices. And there’s nothing camper than Beryl Reid, then 62, in a strawberry-blonde wig, leather jacket, trousers and gloves, tottering bewildered across a flight deck. “Beryl had absolutely no idea what was going on,” Peter Davison remembers fondly on the DVD. But that’s really the point.

JN-T and Grimwade wanted to decant cantankerous lesbian June Buckridge from The Killing of Sister George – an iconic role for Reid – directly into Earthshock, and she’s just perfect for such lines as: “Don’t call me ‘ma’am’ on the bridge,” “Seven hours they kept me waiting. Seven hours! I’m exhausted!” and, my favourite, “You’re beginning to bore me” (to the effete Ringway). Dear God, how I love Beryl Reid in this story.

Fan critics have latterly seized upon plot holes and logic leaps, but I’m happy to gloss over them. Earthshock is a career highpoint for JN-T, Saward and Grimwade. Besides a few model shots and one day’s quarry filming, everything was achieved in one studio at Television Centre over just six days. Astonishing.

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Radio Times archive material

RT (13 March 1982) had a back page article on the return of the Cybermen, tied to that Saturday's Did You See..? 

RT billings and letters In the mailbag (RT 3 April 1982) producer John Nathan-Turner responded to complaints about Adric's death and plastic bags. 

[Available on BBC DVD]