I vividly remember watching Earthshock on first broadcast in 1982, at the age of fourteen, and, like many viewers, being pleasantly thrilled by the appearance of the Cybermen in the first episode, and then traumatised by the demise of Adric in the last. This was only a few months after Blake’s 7 ended with the entire team being mown down by the bad guys. BBC science fiction was getting brutal. (It always had been, but it was possible to pretend otherwise.)
When I rewatched it for the first time in 25 years in 2007, I wrote:
As it happens I’ve just been reading Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles on the first two Cyberman stories, The Tenth Planet and The Moonbase, and it’s interesting that Cyberman stories seem particularly lacking on plot plausibility or scientific credibility (particularly as the scientific credentials of their co-creator Kit Pedler were widely touted by the BBC). I think the Cybermen are particularly naff here (but I haven’t seen Silver Nemesis, so there may be worse in store for me). Their plan makes no sense at all, they are less strong than their android slaves, and their failure to shoot all their enemies when they have the chance is totally illogical. In addition the Cyber-controller comes very close to displaying emotions (“Excellent!”).
Another annoying thing about the story is the way in which the troopers and scientists all merrily crowd into the TARDIS, which has normally been the private space of the Doctor and companions (indeed, we see Adric’s own teenage private space in the first episode – he likes decorating it a lot more than Susan did). Once Cybermen start wandering all round the TARDIS shooting people (like the unfortunate Professor Kyle, played by Clare Clifford who was later to try and seduce Anna/Daniela Nardini in This Life – and wouldn’t you?) it almost feels like just deserts for being over-hospitable to armed earthlings. Earlier Doctors would never have allowed it. (When Salamander violates TARDIS sanctity in The Enemy of the World, he gets sucked into the vortex.)
One good thing about the story, and a striking contrast with The Tenth Planet and The Moonbase, is the number of women in leadership roles – Professor Kyle, Beryl Reid as starship captain, plus numerous others. And unlike some commentators I thought both Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton turned in good performances in their roles.
I remember at the time, when the first episode was broadcast, being slightly startled by Adric suddenly developing a personality after a year and a half of appearing without one. Of course this was build-up to him being killed off in the last episode, and that sequence, the credits being rolled in silence over a picture of his gold star for mathematical excellence, is still effective now; shame they didn’t spend more time on building up the character over the previous months.
When I came back to it in 2011 for my Great Rewatch, I wrote:
Earthshock is a different matter [to Black Orchid]. It has brilliant bits and terrible bits. The bits I don’t like: the adolescent spat between Adric and the Doctor, a bolted on bit of inconsistent characterisation to make us feel more interested in Adric before he dies; the androids, which make no sense; the Cybermen’s plan, which makes no sense at all (though that at least is traditional for Cyber-stories); the Cyber-Controller’s emotional glee; the Tardis becoming not only a taxi but a battleground, which runs against all the history of pre-JNT Who. (I’m glad that New Who has kept it as a place of refuge on the whole.)
But there are a couple of brilliant bits as well. The Cybermen’s watching of clips from The Tenth Planet, The Wheel in Space and Revenge of the Cybermen is actually rather reassuring that this is still Doctor Who, despite the full turnover of cast in the last year or so and the new style of the JNT era, and equally reassuring that these Cybermen (despite the personal peculiarities of the Cyber-Controller) are the same as the ones we saw before – this is the first returning villain who actually looks the same as last time they appeared since Destiny of the Daleks two years ago (the Master doesn’t count). It may be a new-look show but it is still our show.
The other brilliant bit is the killing off of Adric. Purely in dramatic and strategic terms, it’s a masterstroke; this may still be our show, but we shouldn’t think it is safe any more. One of the weaknesses of the end of the first (but not the second or third) series of Torchwood was that we rather felt that the regular characters who were killed would probably come back, and to be honest I feel that way a bit about the current Who season; but from this day on one could never feel that about Old Who. Yes, of course we’d been there before in The Daleks’ Master Plan; but one can’t really call Sara Kingdom or Katarina (and I’d argue for Bret Vyon to be in the same category) long-established characters, and anyway that story had been broadcast before many first-time watchers of Earthshock (myself included) were even born. One can forgive Earthshock a lot for its dramatic success of killing Adric.
Poor old Adric, anyway. At the time I didn’t deeply dislike him, but there was certainly a feeling that the Tardis was too full – I had never seen the older stories with more than two companions, and the dynamics were unfamiliar to me, and frankly not all that well worked out. It got a bit tedious that in a majority of his stories, Adric appears to defect to the bad guys, particularly since Waterhouse’s acting abilities really weren’t up to it, but with three companions there’s not a lot else for them to do. He does have one or two good moments – his awe of Tom Baker in Logopolis (definitely not reciprocated) and his final words (which only on this time of watching did I realise referred to his inability to return home). But he will be well down most people’s list of memorable companions, apart from the manner of his passing. (I do recommend the Big Finish audio, The Boy That Time Forgot, where Andrew Sachs plays an older insane Adric who is taking over the Earth with mutant scorpions. Peter Davsion comments, “So imagine my surprise when I saw that they had brought Adric back, only this time he is being played by … an actor!”)
Rewatching it this time, I did feel a real thrill when the archive footage of previous Doctors was shown, and the ending retains its tension even if you know what is going to happen. But I was even more annoyed than on three previous viewings by the Tardis’s role as killing ground, and by the narrative disconnection; what the heck are the Cybermen doing in the space freighter in the first place? Still, the two high points do outweigh the negatives. Just.
The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation, by Ian “Harry Sullivan” Marter, is:
The Doctor stopped in the entrance. ‘Wait. I have a feeling we shouldn’t go any further,’ he warned them.
I did a long piece on Ian Marter’s novelisations for Strange Horizons long ago, and said this about Doctor Who – Earthshock:
The 1982 Fifth Doctor story Earthshock famously, shockingly, killed off the Doctor’s companion Adric in battle with the Cybermen. While the descriptions in early chapters of people being melted into puddles of liquid by androids seem like yet another gruesome addition of detail by Marter, in fact for once his novelization, published in 1983, stuck pretty closely to the original broadcast version—indeed more so than for any of his other novelizations. Unfortunately this does also emphasise the numerous flaws in the plot—not, of course, Marter’s fault but among many crimes which must be laid at the door of the television script’s author, Eric Saward. Why are the Cybermen hiding on the spaceship? Why aren’t their weapons as good as their androids’? How did they get the bomb onto Earth in the first place? Faced with this material, Marter did a barely adequate job of the novelization.
Rereading it, I found no reason to vary my opinion. Marter did a couple of very good novelisations, but this was not one of them. The cover is a photo still of the Doctor about to shoot something, which grates for several reasons. You can get it here.
The other important and relevant source that I have read since 2011 is Matthew Waterhouse’s autobiography, Blue Box Boy, where he is frank about the reasons he was written out.
The Black Archive on Earthshock, by Brian J. Robb, has only three chapters, but they are long and it is one of the longer books in the sequence.
The first chapter, “Everyone Loves Adric”, looks at how the character evolved, rose and fell, with brief reflection on other teen genius characters (eg Wesley Crusher), and plenty of detail on the strategic choices made by the production team and the reasons for them, starting from Tom Baker’s last season.
The second chapter, “The Saward Imperative”, looks at the specific roles of writer Eric Saward and director Peter Grimwade in writing the story, and considers Saward’s attempt to be true to previous Cyberman stories and Grimwade’s directing technique (good with lighting, less good with actors). The Christopher Priest affair is touched on, but I have heard all about that from a more reliable source. (This is the chapter that deals most with the actual topic of the book.)
The third and longest chapter, “Nostalgia and Cynicism”, looks at the success of Earthshock at the time, but also at how the wrong lessons were learned from it, empowering Nathan-Turner and Award to delve back into the show’s history as it went forward, which in the end killed a lot of the potential creativity. Its second full paragraph is:
There can be little argument that whatever other failings John Nathan-Turner may have had, he was a showman who understood publicity and the various ways to bring much-needed attention to an almost 20-year-old programme. His instinct for ‘gimmicks’, whether in casting (Beryl Reid) or the individual elements (Cybermen) that could make up a Doctor Who story, was unsurpassed. He was willing to take a chance on talent and to develop the skills of actors, writers, and script editors, although perhaps not always successfully. In Saward, Nathan-Turner found the creative talent that would define much of his period in the job and reshape the programme – for good and bad – for the 1980s.
This is not just a book about Earthshock, but a guide to the trajectory of the whole Nathan-Turner / Saward era, and it works very well. You can get it here.
The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44)| The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52)