Judge Eric Profancik rambles on for over 3,000 words in his adoring review of this Doctor Who episode. Maybe we should go back in time and delete a few paragraphs?
"This one calls himself The Doctor and does nothing else but interfere."
The fair-haired fifth Doctor (Peter Davison, All Creatures Great and Small) had some big shoes to walk in, both literally and figuratively. After seven highly successful years with Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor, how would Davison distinguish and differentiate himself and his tenure from the man who gave us teeth, curls, long scarves, and jelly babies? As any fan knows, it came in the guise of his youthfulness, his openness, his love of cricket, and a stalk of celery.
But something happened in the first season of the fifth Doctor (which is also the 19th season of the show) that was completely unprecedented and unexpected. Something happened in "Earthshock" that would cement Davison's place in the great pantheon of Who history and shock the audience. Though it concerned more the Doctor's companion and not the Doctor himself, this episode would shatter 19 years of precedent.
This review assumes that you've already seen the show. I don't consider it a spoiler if you haven't seen a television program that aired over twenty years ago and has been in some form of syndication since then.
Facts of the Case
The TARDIS once again lands on Earth, this time in a cave in the 26th century. Inside, Adric and the Doctor are fighting. Adric feels the Doctor ignores him too much and believes he's the brunt of far too many jokes, and now he wants to go back home. Normally that wouldn't be a problem for the Doctor and his time machine, but Adric is from E-Space (the normal universe exists in N-Space) and traveling back there through a charged vacuum emboitment is far too dangerous. The argument gets very heated, and the Doctor decides to go out and take a walk.
Outside in the caves, a group of eight geologists and paleontologists has just been attacked. There's only one survivor, and she calls the military in for help. She leads the group into the caves to where her group was slaughtered. Unbeknownst to them, they are being watched, and, soon enough, they too are attacked. They manage to defend themselves and repel the androids that have attacked them. Shortly thereafter, the group finds the Doctor, who is immediately blamed for the attack.
But the Doctor is just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he has to prove he is innocent. That is quickly done when he helps the military destroy the androids. But why are there androids in this cave? Because they are defending a massive bomb that has been hidden there by the Cybermen! The Cybermen are out to destroy Earth, as it is hosting a galactic conference where dozens of worlds are about to sign a pact to join together to rout the evil of the Cybermen.
The Doctor is also able to diffuse the bomb. He then uses the TARDIS to trace the location of the Cybermen, who have taken over a cargo ship on its way to Earth. With the help of a turncoat on board the vessel, the Cybermen have a backup plan to attack Earth. They are going to ram the massive vessel right into the planet, immediately killing billions and causing a new ice age. The 15,000 Cybermen in cryo-sleep aboard the vessel will eliminate any remaining survivors.
Earth has always been one of the Doctor's favorite planets, but he could never stand by and allow the Cybermen to cause such immense destruction to any world. The Doctor, along with his companions Nyssa, Tegan, and Adric, will use every ounce of their strength to defeat the Cybermen's plan. In the end, someone will pay the ultimate price to save Earth.
Doctor Who is an acquired taste. The show is infamous for its cheesy special effects, men in rubber suits, clunky dialogue, and sometimes bad acting. But there is some odd charm underneath the layers of goofiness. And the stories of a man (er, Gallifreyan) gallivanting across time and space in a 1960s British police box are certainly unique and charming. Toss into the mix the ever-changing cast of characters, from new companions to new Doctors, and you get a show that is fun, intriguing, and fresh. And that's what kept it around for so many years…and why it's coming back in 2005 with a ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston, 28 Days Later)!
I've always had a soft spot for the fifth Doctor, for he's pretty much the first Doctor I really got to know. When a friend first turned me on to the show, it was in Tom Baker's era, of course. In fact, the first show I ever saw was "Horror on Fang Rock," which I thought was so perfectly awful that I didn't watch again for some time. I was finally lured back during the "Key of Time" operation but still only watched it sporadically. Then Tom regenerated into Peter, and I was hooked. What a clever concept.
I distinctly recall not being especially impressed with "Earthshock" when I first saw it. And, now that I think about it, the Doctor has never consistently impressed me. In spite of that, I consider myself a Whovian and enjoy watching the Doctor's antics. The big shock of "Earthshock" wasn't the return of the Cybermen but the death of Adric. This was astounding, one of the Doctor's companions dying. Such a thing had never happened before. Companions come and go, sometimes getting their memories erased, but they never die. The good guys don't die in Doctor Who, at least not the main characters. It was a bold move to get rid of Adric in this way.
Why did they get rid of Adric? The obvious: one companion too many. With Nyssa and Tegan also on board, there were too many people to utilize fully during each episode. So, someone had to go. But why kill Adric and not let him stay on some random planet or even find his way back to E-Space? Simple: Adric was never liked very much on the show. He suffered from Wesley Crusher syndrome—he was just too young to be that smart and to help out the Doctor that often. Adric rubbed people the wrong way and never clicked with the audience. So how do you instantly turn a mediocre character into one who will forever be remembered in the pantheon of the show? In a stroke of genius, you kill him off via a noble sacrifice. Adric selflessly stayed behind to try to save Earth. He wasn't from the planet, and he had a chance to escape, but he sacrificed himself for the greater good.
Of course, we'll overlook the fact that his sacrifice wasn't necessary, since the ship had already slipped back in time thanks to some technobabble with the Cybermen's logic key and the cargo ship's computer.
"Earthshock" is one of many episodes that isn't particularly strong. Still, I found myself instantly pulled into the story. Something just clicked with me, and I had a great time. There was a constant smile on my face as I watched everyone try to save Earth from destruction. I enjoyed the bad effects, the silly outfits, the reuse of multiple shots, the long corridors that aren't all that long, and a man wearing celery trying to save the world. This is classic Doctor Who at its best.
There is a group called the Doctor Who Restoration Team that is dedicated to bringing Doctor Who back to the masses. These talented people unearth the original film stock of each episode and lovingly work to make the show look and sound better than it ever has. Going frame by frame, they clean up and wash away the years of dirt. They use the latest technology to transfer the old stock to computer or new stock, and do all types of technological magic that I can't understand. What I do know is that without these people, we wouldn't have these DVDs today. (That may be an overstatement, but I think they deserve a lot of credit for getting the Doctor in the fans' hands.) Because of their hard work, we get DVDs that are full of solid transfers and excellent bonus materials.
Let's talk about the transfers for "Earthshock." As I mentioned earlier, the Doctor has never looked so good. Still, that must be taken with a grain of salt. Doctor Who, though immensely popular, always seemed to not have enough money. (In the bonus features, it is mentioned several times how especially tight the funds were on this show.) I believe that extends to the filming of the show. Though not well versed in the type of film used or available in the early '80s, I get the impression that the BBC didn't use the best stuff, nor did they store it very well. As a result, in the past twenty years, the show—along with all the others—has decayed. The Restoration Team had an enormous job to clean it up, but there was only so much they could do with the original source material. The show looks its age, and it lacks the sense of depth and realism we are getting more and more used to with each new TV show that comes to DVD. While Doctor Who is old and looking it, the picture is clean, the colors are accurate, and there aren't any significant transfer errors that pop up. But you have some real problems when you get to the blacks and the details/sharpness. In the bonus features, it is mentioned that this show had a lighting director who "knew what he was doing." He created a moody atmosphere with more subtle use of lighting. Thus, the detail and sharpness is lost and the blacks all run together. This isn't a grievous problem, as we don't expect perfection from the Doctor. It's just that if you pick up the disc, you'll get great Doctor but not the greatest full frame picture. Just keep your expectations in check. On the audio side, the team cleaned things up again and you get a nice Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that is crisp and clean. There is no hiss or distortion to interfere with the dialogue and corny special effects.
As with most Doctor Who DVDs, there's an impressive assortment of extras:
• Audio Commentary with Peter Davison (The Doctor), Janet Fielding (Tegan), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa), and Matthew Waterhouse (Adric): Mostly amusing and informative, these four are frank and open about the good and the bad of the episode. It's an entertaining listen with all the main characters from the show. There are a few topics I wish they would have focused on a touch more, but you just can't have everything. I guess they were having too much fun at Beryl Reid's expense.
• Text Commentary: An interesting production commentary that fills in some of the technical blanks from the episode. There's also some nice trivia, but it sometimes repeated things from the audio commentary.
• Putting the Shock into "Earthshock" (32 minutes): A brutally honest and highly informative featurette that taught me a lot about the show. Though a Whovian, I've never really delved into the history of the show, especially its individual episodes. As a consequence, everything in this piece was new and fascinating to me. Great stuff!
• 40th Anniversary Celebration (3 minutes): Basically, this is a music video of photos of all eight Doctors. Alas, I wish Paul McGann's (Alien3) foray as the Doctor wasn't canon. The best part of this quick piece is the new version of the Doctor Who theme. It has a great techno beat, and you can dance to it!
• Film Sequences (9 minutes): Normally called deleted scenes, this feature shows extensions of scenes from episode one. This is the lamest bonus item.
• Did You See? (10 minutes): Did You See? is actually a show that aired in Britain in 1984. In this spot, they examine the Doctor's greatest villains and monsters. It's tongue-in-cheek adoration of the cult fave.
• CGI Effects Option: In cleaning up the video, the Restoration Team also decided to give the viewer the option to turn on newly created CGI effects for the episode. The default option is off, allowing the viewer to watch the original '80s effects. Switching it on, the viewer will discover that the new effects are very limited, blend seamlessly with the episode, and actually augment the impact of the show. Specifically there are two new effects: the military weapon beams and the crash of the cargo ship into Earth. With the new laser beams, the original "candy cane" effects have been overlaid with a shimmering purple beam. The new beams add a spot more realism to the weapons, but don't appear as new effects. But the new crash of the cargo ship does stand out a bit because it is drastically different from the original effect; however, this is not a bad thing. The original crash effect was simply a static shot of the ship—obviously a model—that glowed a little bit and then blew up in a flash of white light. That was pretty lame but all they could do with the limited budget. It gave no sense to the viewer that this ship crashed into Earth. Further, there's a quick cutaway showing Adric watching the ship's viewscreen as it plunges toward India (I believe). This too was painfully bad, as it reflected Earth of the present and not the large land mass of 65 million years ago. The new effects sequence by the Restoration Team shows the ship enter the Earth's atmosphere, turn into a ball of fire, and cause a massive explosion on the planet. Further, "India" has been replaced by Pangea, the "fused continents" of the time. This replacement is a very smart improvement, bolstering the tension and pain of the scene. I highly recommend turning on the CGI option.
• Photo Gallery (4.5 minutes): This one moves on its own, so you don't have to use the remote's arrow key. I'm not a big photo gallery fan, and this doesn't change my mind.
• Episode 5 (1.5 minutes): Did I mention that Adric wasn't especially liked as a companion? Well, in this fan-created fifth episode of "Earthshock," Adric survives the ship's crashing into Earth, but he doesn't quite get to live happily ever after. The addition of this type of item, that clearly pokes fun at the show, is a brilliant addition. This goes to show that the BBC has a sense of humor about the good and bad of Doctor Who.
• Who's Who: Text-based information on all the major characters from this story.
• Easter Egg: Hidden on the disc is one quick Easter Egg. This egg is absolutely the funniest thing I have ever seen related to Doctor Who. Because of this, I'm breaking my normal rule and telling you exactly where to find it: Go to the bonus items, highlight the 40th Anniversary feature, then click left. A green Doctor Who logo will then appear. I hope you find it as amusing as I do.
If only everyone single episode of television were so well represented on DVD…
The Rebuttal Witnesses
He must be found and destroyed.
It bears repeating that Doctor Who is not for everyone. And, Doctor Who is not the best science fiction on television. Further, "Earthshock" is not one of the best Doctor Who shows created. If you're not a fan, you may end up bewildered at why someone would want to watch this episode. It's all rather silly and fake when you watch it. You need that vested interest in the show to appreciate what's going on.
But if you are a Whovian, I think you will get a kick out of this disc. It's a classic Who episode with lots of nonsense and the return of the dreaded Cybermen. Toss in the demise of Adric, and there's much to celebrate and enjoy. All in all, the episode holds up remarkably well after twenty years. The disc is lovingly crafted with the best transfers possible, and the bonus materials and thorough and varied.
Before I give it the thumbs up, I have to air my only real complaint about the Doctor Who discs: the MSRP. The average price for a single disc release is $24.98, and they quickly escalate from there. Keep in mind that this is for one story. (Each story comprises multiple episodes, with four being the average. In Britain, one episode is shown a week. So, in a typical year, you get six stories comprised of about twenty-four episodes.) The high price is due to the slow release schedule and the amount of work necessary to clean up the stories. The only full season available is Tom Baker's fifth, the "Key to Time" series. These six stories will set you back $124.98. That's pretty steep, and it puts all other TV on DVD to shame. I can almost commiserate, but these high prices keep even me away. If the prices could come down a bit, fans around the world would rejoice.
One of the little things I like about living in Cincinnati is the fact that our PBS station is one of only a handful of stations that still air Doctor Who in the United States. Back in the glory days of the Doctor, they aired it in the "Americanized" fashion were the story was shown in its entirety. Now, we only get two episodes per week. At least we still get them here, and we don't have to worry about paying those high prices.
With all of this in mind, I give a full recommendation to buy this disc. Fans will delight in the story and the great bonus features. I just hope you can find it on sale.
"Earthshock" is hereby found not guilty of altering the history of Earth. Brave heart, Tegan.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Audio Commentary with Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, and Matthew Waterhouse
Review content copyright © 2004 Eric Profancik; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.