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Classic Who: Earthshock, The Invasion

Well, I haven't posted a Doctor Who write-up here since August, it would seem. What with Belfast, and then Vienna, and then term starting, I haven't had much time for anything but memes and cut 'n' paste lately. Which isn't to say that the last month or so hasn't been enormous fun. Just not conducive to writing about cult TV.

Now, however, I have a whole weekend to myself and nothing in particular to do - for the first time in about six weeks. So it's time to start catching up!

Fifth Doctor: Earthshock
I actually saw this one back in late August, when the Sci-Fi channel held a Doctor Who marathon. The story is famous for being The One Where Adric Dies, and probably mostly for that reason it was screened during my days at OUWho. At that time, I'm not sure how much familiarity I had with his character - though I know I've seen at least bits of Black Orchid at some point, so theoretically I should have had some clue who he was. This time, I know him rather better: in fact, checking over Wikipedia's list of Doctor Who stories, I see there's only four of his stories I haven't seen now (even including Black Orchid). And since, as previously established on this journal, I don't hate him (though would hardly count myself a massive fan), I was interested and touched to see how he was written out.

Earthshock is all about Adric - just as a parting character's story should be, really. Death is in the air from the opening scenes, as we watch a palaeontologist reacting to the deaths of her colleagues, while the tension between Adric and the Doctor on the TARDIS does a good job of redefining their relationship and bringing out the common ground and the potential for happy collaboration which actually exists between them. By the time the ending approaches, it would be a hard-hearted viewer indeed who hadn't been sufficiently softened up to feel a pang at the demise of a character whom the Doctor values so much - especially when the script makes it so clear that his death is unnecessary. Indeed, I actually found myself getting kinda teary-eyed at the end - and that in spite of the utterly insensitive Sci-Fi channel continuity announcer who had the nerve to TALK over the silent closing credits. GAH!

The whole issue is handled in a very self-conscious manner, which is something I always enjoy. Adric's argument with the Doctor creates the opportunity for his marvellously tongue-in-cheek complaint that he is 'tired of being considered a joke' (for which much kudos), while references to the last two companions to have been written out of the show make it clear that his departure is being seen in the light of a wider continuity. Adric talks directly about Romana, pointing out to the Doctor that she is still in E-space and will be able to help him if he can go back there. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane is evoked by the general trope of having Adric sulk and threaten to leave the TARDIS, only to change his mind shortly before circumstances beyond his control conspire to force him out anyway, and also by a specific scene in which he hands tools with mysterious, technical-sounding names to the Doctor while he defuses the Cyberbomb - just as Sarah does when Four is mending the TARDIS console in Hand of Fear. In fact, arguably another very self-referential line in the first episode - 'Why do we always have to materialise underground?' - is in itself a pointer towards both Sarah Jane and Romana, who both made cracks about 'rotten gloomy old tunnels' in their time.

And all this isn't just for the sake of it, but is put to the service of some very interesting characterisation. There's a lot of stuff about who you can trust, and who's double-crossing you (which is actually fairly common in Doctor Who - but not the less to be appreciated for all that), an enjoyably bolshy and characterful captain in charge of the Cyber-infested space station, and of course most importantly of all the Doctor's 'snap' moment, when he actually kills the Mr. Burns-esque Cyberleader with Adric's gold badge for Mathematical Excellence. It's not easy to take the Doctor's character to new places, since the format of the show depends on his essential motivations and modus operandi remaining consistent. But here it is achieved - and it's exciting.

All in all, good stuff - and I look forward to seeing more of the stories which precede and follow this one.

Second Doctor: The Invasion
And this one I saw at the very end of August, on the Sunday morning of Mecon. It was the DVD release, with the two missing episodes reconstructed from the soundtrack with an absolutely brilliant animation by Cosgrove Hall. While I was watching it, someone told me that although The Invasion had been one of the best-selling Doctor Who DVDs ever released, the cost of producing the animation had still been such that plans to reconstruct any further missing episodes in the same way had been shelved. If so, that's a real pity, because watching the animated episodes was as much of a pleasure as watching the surviving original ones - and for all that reconstructions from stills allow you access to a story which would otherwise be lost, you can't really say of them that they are just as good as the originals. By contrast, even though these animations lacked the visual performances of the original actors, I felt they entirely made up for it with their gorgeously stylish and suitably Sixties visuals. I liked, too, the way they made their own subtle contribution to the story by taking occasional opportunities to improve on the special effects, or insert 21st-century elements: notable examples of the latter being a glimpse of Isobel's knickers as she climbs a rope-ladder, and apparently also a Bad Wolf reference on a wall full of phone numbers in her flat. (I missed it, but damien_mocata assures me it was there).

The story itself is great, and yet another example of how New Who is massively enhanced by a knowledge of Old Who - I now have an entirely new understanding of the New Who Cybermen episodes. Of course, it's an important one in the canon for establishing UNIT as a fully-developed institution and pointing the way towards the early Pertwee era (not that I think that's an entirely good thing, but still...). For me, it's also the first Two story I've watched since starting my Who Odyssey, so it opened up a whole world of character discovery. Although I have seen Two and also Jamie in action before, it's been a while, and I don't think I've ever seen a story with Zoe in it at all. All three are ace, but I think Zoe was my favourite discovery. With her sassy self-confidence, and particularly her ability to reduce computers to a smoking mess via the power of her gigantic mathematical brain, she is a great example of early Who's willingness to present positive female characters to its viewers, and engage directly with issues of gender stereotypes.

That isn't quite to go as far as saying the story is a beacon of feminist ideology, though. It passes the Bechdel test very easily, because Zoe spends a lot of the story in the company of an aspiring photographer named Isobel while Jamie and Two are off having separate adventures, and the two of them talk a lot about where Zoe comes from, Isobel's career, and the various developments of the plot. But strong female characterisation isn't everything. There's also a sub-plot involving Isobel and her photography which made me feel markedly uncomfortable. By episode 5, there are Cybermen loose in the sewers of London, but the Brigadier is having trouble convincing the Powers That Be that Earth is genuinely under attack by an alien species. Isobel offers to go and take photographs of the Cybermen in order to provide proof, but the Brig refuses the offer, saying it is far too dangerous a job for a girl. Isobel and Zoe are furious about this, and as soon as the Brig has left, they persuade Jamie to go with them into the sewers anyway, and get their photographs. So far, so good, and in fact at this stage the Brigadier's attitude is being shown up as priggish and old-fashioned in a very feminist-positive manner.

My problem, though, comes with what happens next. In the sewers, Isobel, Zoe and Jamie find themselves attacked by a Cyberman, and only escape thanks to a (male, of course) UNIT rescue party, one of whose number gets killed in the process. What's more, Isobel's photographs are then deemed useless anyway, as they look too much like fakes. The sub-plot winds up with Isobel penitently making tea for the remaining UNIT soldiers, saying how sorry she is for being so stupid and asking the Brigadier to forgive her. In other words, girls - listen up when a man tells you not to do something, because he knows best, and you will cause danger and death if you disobey. Also, brew us up a cuppa while you're about it. Pshaw. Black marks all round for everyone involved in putting that on the nation's television screens. :-(

That aside, though, the rest of the story is a real epic, with a plot that builds and grows beautifully over the course of the eight episodes, a very effective soundtrack, and a great balance of tense atmosphere and comic relief. I particularly liked the scenes when the TARDIS crew arrive on Earth to find a suspicious, haunted population under the control of the Company, the genuinely powerful spectacle of a Cyberman driven mad by fear, and of course those iconic shots of the Cybermen marching out across London. Also worthy of note are:
  • A spoof of automated telephone menu systems that is years before its time
  • Really quite a lot of Jamie and Two clutching at each other in the face of peril
  • The Doctor explaining that 'There's a totally illogical factor in the TARDIS circuits'
  • The Brigadier announcing 'Full penetration of red sector imminent'
  • The cliff-hanger at the end of episode 4, when we finally find out who is actually behind the invasion
  • The UNIT team responding to the prospect of Earth's total annihilation by making tea
  • Zoe's sequinned catsuit, into which she suddenly changes part-way through the story with no explanation whatsoever

Overall verdict - a real classic with some brilliant moments. Just a pity about the feminist failure surrounding Isobel's venture into the sewers.

What's more, with those two stories written up, I do believe I can allow myself to actually start watching Doctor Who again now, rather than getting by on old episodes of Poirot and Sex and the City in an attempt to stop my write-up backlog growing even larger than it already was. Hooray!

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 5th, 2008 10:26 am (UTC)
Back in 1982, before the advent of t'Internet and the inevitable "spoilers", unless it was announced that, for example, a particlar monster was re-appearing (ie "Destiny of the Daleks" was more than likely to be featuring Daleks), you tended to only find out what the story was about by watching it. Imagine the teenage Daz-squee at the conclusion of episode one of Earthshock then!

The Adric death thing was covered up well too as he appeared as an "apparition" in the next episode and therefore got credited in the Radio Times for the following week.

I don't know how I managed to miss the 'Full penetration of red sector imminent' line, but I would imagine there was lots of sniggering on set when it was being filmed :-)

Edited at 2008-10-05 10:27 am (UTC)
Oct. 5th, 2008 11:42 am (UTC)
Yes, I can only imagine how brilliant the cliff-hanger at the end of episode 4 of The Invasion was for the same reason. Epic stuff!
Oct. 5th, 2008 07:23 pm (UTC)
Yes. I have a lot of affection for Earthshock because of the end of episode 1, which was a complete surprise. It's almost the last time that such spoilers could be kept under wraps, at least for anyone with any connections with fandom.

Edited at 2008-10-05 07:27 pm (UTC)
Oct. 5th, 2008 07:27 pm (UTC)
a glimpse of Isobel's knickers as she climbs a rope-ladder

That's not a 21st century bit, but a deliberate recreation of a fondly-remembered moment from the original episode. Invasion is rather notorious for that.
Oct. 5th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
Seriously? That was really there in the original episode? Surely not as blatantly as in the animation, though - it is practically a full-screen close-up!
Oct. 5th, 2008 10:18 pm (UTC)
"and that in spite of the utterly insensitive Sci-Fi channel continuity announcer who had the nerve to TALK over the silent closing credits. GAH"

Have I told you about the version with 'Happy Days are here again' dubbed over the end?

- K
Oct. 6th, 2008 08:53 pm (UTC)
Ha, yes - I think you did mention it once! I must have a poke around YouTube for that. :-)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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