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Survival ★★★★

It's pussy galore in Perivale – as Doctor Who reaches the end of the 1980s and concludes its initial 26-year run

Published: Sunday, 28th October 2012 at 11:00 pm

Season 26 – Story 155


“I felt like I could run for ever. Like I could smell the wind and feel the grass under my feet and just run for ever” – Ace

The Doctor returns Ace to 1980s Perivale so that she can hook up with her old mates, but most of them have mysteriously vanished. Feline Kitlings have been transporting humans to the planet of the Cheetah People, where they are hunted down – only the fittest will survive. Some people, including Ace and the Master, who is also on the planet, develop cat-like fangs and yellow eyes. The Doctor realises that the only way to survive this dying world is to refuse to fight his oldest enemy. Making it back to Earth with some of their friends, the Doctor and Ace head home, to the Tardis, for new adventures…

First UK transmissions
Part 1 - Wednesday 22 November 1989
Part 2 - Wednesday 29 November 1989
Part 3 - Wednesday 6 December 1989

OB recording: June 1989 at Horsenden Hill and various locations in Perivale, west London; Warmwell quarry, Dorset

The Doctor - Sylvester McCoy
Ace - Sophie Aldred
The Master - Anthony Ainley
Sergeant Paterson - Julian Holloway
Karra - Lisa Bowerman
Harvey - Norman Pace
Len - Gareth Hale
Midge - William Barton
Shreela - Sakuntala Ramanee
Derek - David John
Stuart - Sean Oliver
Ange - Kate Eaton
Woman - Kathleen Bidmead
Squeak - Adele Silva
Neighbour - Michelle Martin

Writer - Rona Munro
Designer - Nick Somerville
Incidental music - Dominic Glynn
Script editor - Andrew Cartmel
Producer - John Nathan-Turner
Director - Alan Wareing

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
With Survival being only the second time in 26 years that a woman has gained a legitimate, solo writing credit on Doctor Who, maybe it’s tacky but it is hard to resist looking out for a feminine slant or sensibility. However, apart from a pop at machismo (via the martinet Sergeant Paterson who runs a self-defence class) and the bond that forms between Ace and Cheetah woman Karra, the writer Rona Munro just gets on with telling a good story in a wonderful set of scripts.

I haven’t watched Survival since its BBC1 debut in 1989. Now it’s definitely up there with a small band of brothers (perhaps I should say sisters) from late-80s Who that I plan to see again.

I can’t think of another story that takes one theme – survival – and explores it so deftly, so efficiently. It’s the title. It’s the impetus of the drama. It’s also, unwittingly, a message of hope for the future, as Doctor Who finally ceased production after a 26-year run.

“Survival of the fittest” is the key phrase uttered throughout, first by Paterson at the Perivale gym, then by two shopkeepers who use it in terms of high street competition. Ace’s mates trapped on the Cheetah planet are obsessed with it. And, of course, more than mischief and megalomania, survival has now become the Master’s imperative.

If this seems heavy-handed, what’s lovely is that the Doctor cuts through the “law of the jungle” mindset. He chides Ace’s chums: “Yes, very clever, if you don’t mind losing your friend. But what happens when the next lion turns up?” He realises the Cheetahs are “essentially a fun-loving species” and can be evaded by keeping still. Ultimately, he refuses to wrestle with the Master (“If we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals!”) – a decision that saves their lives.

More broadly, Survival is about running: running in fear, running free, runaway teens, running for ever. No wonder Survival is the most fiercely energetic adventure in ages. For once, there’s good reason for a lot of running around.

As a production, Survival is lean and lithe. It’s shot entirely on location. The video look caught by OB cameras (instead of film) is unforgivingly harsh but it works in director Alan Wareing’s favour. Perivale has the stamp of reality, while the Cheetah planet quarry is enhanced by lustrous composite skylines with a moon, jets of gas – and this era’s umpteenth pink sky. The mood is amplified by Dominic Glynn’s score: mournful electric guitar and tortured violin.

Wareing also uses subtle slow motion when Ace is running with Karra the cat-woman and for the thrilling moment when Ace turns round to the Doctor with her eyes turned yellow. The planet has possessed her. It’s a superb cliffhanger – and Doctor Who’s last until Aliens of London in 2005.

What hadn’t occurred to me until now is how Ace as a disaffected teen, her ennui with suburban London and that whole housing estate milieu were closely mirrored in Russell T Davies’s relaunch 16 years later. Reformatted, Survival would easily fit with Christopher Eccleston’s muscular Doctor and Rose Tyler, the estate escapee.

Survival isn’t all peachy, of course. Hale and Pace, then a popular comedy duo, are only just bearable as the Perivale shopkeepers. And, yes, the animatronic Kitling is risible. (“When is a cat not a cat?” asks the Doctor, helpfully.) But then 20th-century Who is littered with unconvincing effects, best overlooked. Besides, the costumes and masks for the Cheetah people are fine.

Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy excel themselves in their final pairing, and leave me wanting more. Ace is maturing rapidly and for once McCoy is allowed to be just “the Doctor”, abandoning this period’s unconvincing “darker Doctor” rot – inevitable in a story featuring the Master.

Anthony Ainley is back after a three-year interval for his sole encounter with McCoy and probably his most successful outing as the villainous Time Lord. Then almost 67, he looks elderly under his dark toupée and, with a span from 1981 to 89, has become the longest-serving Master.

The other old-timer is of course John Nathan-Turner who’d held onto the producer’s reins for an entire decade – the 1980s being the most turbulent period in Doctor Who’s history. His production office on Shepherd’s Bush Green finally shut down in August 1990, but it was known long before then that Doctor Who’s day was done. Season 27 was unceremoniously cancelled, putting the programme's future on hold. Indefinitely.

The closing shot of the Doctor and Ace walking into the distance was taped at Warmwell quarry on 23 June 1989. Months later, JN-T realised he needed a stronger end for the series. He asked McCoy to come to TV Centre to record a final voiceover the day after Part One had aired. It was 23 November 1989, Doctor Who’s 26th birthday. I’d like to believe the date was carefully chosen by JN-T – if never an admitted fan then certainly someone with fan-like sensibilities, a man who’d had a love/hate relationship with the series since it began.

“The final speech of the final story was written by Andrew Cartmel,” said JN-T in his memoirs, “and even now it brings a lump to my throat. It was the end of my era.” Beautifully phrased by script editor Cartmel, the Doctor's words are quoted all over the place but are worth quoting again...

“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep and the rivers dream. People made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger. Somewhere there’s injustice. Somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do!”

For several years Survival marked the end of the road for the Time Lord. It seemed that Doctor Who would not be running for ever after all. Frankly, I remember not particularly caring. Call me a fair-weather friend but, then in my 20s, I felt the series was no longer made for me. Yet watching that poignant parting shot so many years later, I suddenly feel a sharp pang just like JN-T.



Radio Times archive

Survival billings

The letters page (RT 25 Nov 1989) contained bitter responses to reports of Doctor Who's cancellation, with a somewhat galling response from Peter Cregeen, the BBC's Head of Series, Drama.

Survival letters

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