Review By Paul Mount, 4 out of 5 1981 saw DOCTOR WHO riding on a bit of a crest of wave. Having successfully overcome two massive traumas – the loss of longest-running Doc Tom Baker and the loss of the show’s perennial Saturday night slot – a remarkable 9 million plus viewers were regularly tuning in to the Monday and Tuesday night screenings of fifth Doctor Peter Davison’s first season. The series was still at this point the people’s show, a science-fiction show which people who didn’t much care for science-fiction could enjoy because?ell, because it was DOCTOR WHO. It was also the point at which the programme’s production team – Producer John Nathan-Turner and script-editor Eric Saward – decided it might be a good idea to start getting self-indulgent and starting feeding off the show’s past a little. This was fun at first – as ‘Earthshock’ clearly demonstrates. But this four-parter’s success – particularly with the hardcore fans of the series – went to the heads of the producer and his chums and it led to a string of derivative, repetitive, poorly-plotted stories which brought back old monsters and bad guys in a desperate attempt to delight the fans. The fans however weren’t best pleased at seeing DOCTOR WHO’s past glories revived and generally defiled and the general public began to lose interest when the show started to resemble a private party. So in many ways ‘Earthshock’ sowed the seeds which would bring about DOCTOR WHO’s sad and untimely end just eight years later.
Its historical importance apart, ‘Earthshock’ in the cold light of 2003 is a curious beast. Far too ambitious for DOCTOR WHO’s famously tiny budget, it’s at once stagey and unconvincing and yet gripping and exciting. The Cybermen – updated and redesigned – make their first appearance on the show in six years and their surprise appearance at the end of episode one is a classic moment in DOCTOR WHO history for those who weren’t already in the know. The story doesn’t make much sense away from its bang and flashes; the Cybermen have planted a bomb in some caves in order to destroy the Earth. They leave some killer androids to guard it. Meanwhile an army of Cybermen are being smuggled to Earth on board a rundown space freighter. Then the Doctor and his pals Tegan, Nyssa and Adric turn up, join forces with some space troopers and lots of people are bloodlessly slaughtered before young Adric sacrifices himself to save his friends and the end credits roll in silence.
The years really haven’t treated ‘Earthshock’ too kindly. As the cast point out in their commentary, it’s a product of its time (even more so than other, older DOCTOR WHO’s already released on DVD) and acting and directing techniques have moved on in leaps and bounds since 1981. Some of the dialogue is cheesy and clunky, much of the acting is entirely unconvincing (Beryl Reid?? What were they thinking??) and some of the special effects are of the cut’n’paste variety. But as one who sat and enjoyed it at the time, I loved every creaky minute of it with none of the critical reservations that accompanied it first time around. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it until common sense prevails down at Shepherd’s Bush; the BBC wouldn’t know where to begin making a show like this today. Unless you’d care to prove me wrong, Auntie..?
THE DISC: A nice lean selection of extras accompany the pristine digital transfer of this four-part yarn. ‘Putting the Shock into Earthshock’ is Ed Stradling’s excellent 30 minute documentary about the serial – particularly its impact on its contemporary audience and some of its stars. There’s a ten-minute extract from a 1981 BBC show called ‘Did You See..?’ where Gavin Scott pompously analyses the appeal of DOCTOR WHO monsters via a string of judiciously-selected clips. Ah, I remember it well? The story itself has some nice new CGI effects sequences which can be seamlessly introduced into the episodes, there’s a photogallery, information text track, a ‘Real McCoy’ Easter Egg comedy sketch, location footage, a naughty but warm commentary by the TARDIS crew and other bits and pieces. My favourite, however, has to be a fortieth anniversary montage sequence played over a gutsy new version of the classic DOCTOR WHO theme. Watch this and you’ll remember just why you ever loved this most durable of television icons. Marvellous stuff.