classic ‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Earthshock”

Peter Davison Matthew Waterhouse Beryl Reid in Doctor Who Earthshock

(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: “Black Orchid”)
I’m sure I watched “Earthshock” four or five times, at least, back in the 80s and early 90s, and before I rewatched it just now, the most I could have told you about my overarching memories of it would have been:

• it’s the Peter Davison one with the Cybermen
• it’s one where Adric dies and wipes out the dinosaurs
• the captain of the freighter is a woman, which is awesome.

I don’t mean that I didn’t remember much much more about it, because I did. But looking at it again, in the light of distance and in seeing reflections of what Doctor Who has become since 2005, I realize there was so much more that impacted me, and that it’s so much richer than I realized at the time. Or perhaps it has become richer only accidentally. But that’s okay, too: that’s an indication of an opulent weave to the story that allows for layers of depth.

For starters, the story opens on personal matters, the stuff of which was hardly ever an issue at all in the classic series. Adric is sulking because, he says, the Doctor always has time for Nyssa and Tegan but never has any time for him. And apparently this has been an ongoing thing for Adric, and a conversation he has had with the Doctor before, because when the Doctor says he’ll make more time for Adric, we learn that the Doctor has promised this before and has failed to keep this promise.

What’s more, this conversation happens in Adric’s bedroom on the TARDIS:

Matthew Waterhouse Peter Davison in Doctor Who Earthshock

which is crammed full of mementoes of previous adventures.

Right here, in a few minutes, we get a peek into everyday life on TARDIS: how the Doctor and his companions actually live, the interpersonal squabbles and jealousies that underlie their relationships. Fans have often complained, when the TARDIS gets too crowded, that X number of companions really is too much; and certainly the writers must have struggled sometimes to invent something for everyone to do… but from the perspective of the characters, yeah, imagine having to vie for the Doctor’s attention. And of course the idea of seeing the living quarters inside the TARDIS apparently came at the behest of producer John Nathan-Turner, who was keen to let everyone know that his handsome young Doctor was not boinking his pretty young companions. (We see the bedroom Tegan and Nyssa share in other episodes. We never did see the Doctor’s bedroom, though. And even if we had, I’m not sure why we couldn’t presume that no one was sneaking into his bed at night.)

Then comes the big argument: Adric says he wants to go home, which surprises and hurts the Doctor, so the Doctor lashes out and says it can’t be done (what with Adric being from another universe and all), and Adric says yes it can and that he is the boy genius to pull it off, and then the Doctor storms out of the TARDIS just to get away from it all. Of course the TARDIS, which is always looking to get him into the sort of trouble he enjoys, has landed them right in the middle of a big ol’ mess… but it all starts because the Doctor and Adric have a pissing contest over, basically, interdimensional physics.

The Doctor can’t win, though, because, wandering around the cave system the TARDIS has materialized in, he instantly gets accused of killing some geologists and paleontologists who have gone missing while on an expedition, and he puts up the hackles of the soldier Scott, who is investigating, by not being a macho jerk about the whole thing:

Peter Davison James Warwick in Doctor Who Earthshock

(Scott turns out to be an okay guy, actually.)

So, this cave system is, in the 26th century, newly discovered and rich in dinosaur fossils, which is why the team of scientists was checking it out. Now, it gives the Doctor yet another chance to hang out with the girls:

Sarah Sutton Janet Fielding Peter Davison in Doctor Who Earthshock

while Adric watches from afar:

Matthew Waterhouse in Doctor Who Earthshock

while also allowing the Doctor to comment that he’s always meant to pop back and find out what killed the dinosaurs. He explains the theory to Nyssa and Tegan that something big collided with the planet… and it’s hard to imagine it now, but this would have been a new idea, at least in the popular consciousness. This episode, from 1982, came hard on the heels of the 1980 hypothesis, with supporting evidence, from Luis and Walter Alvarez about that very notion. New Doctor Who has been a lot more fantastical than the old, and I can’t instantly recall hearing any new science pop up in recent episodes.

Anyway, it turns out there is a huge bomb secreted in the caves that is being protected by two sentry androids, and the scientists were killed because they were getting too close. The Doctor disarms the bomb, but now he wants to find out who put it there, and why. (“It’s not our problem, Doctor,” Adric insists, but since when has the Doctor not made everything his problem? How does anyone travel with the Doctor and not know this?) But Scott insists on bringing himself and his team of badasses along, and Professor Kyle, the last surviving scientist, wants to come along, too. And the Doctor agrees! So there’s like a ton of people in the TARDIS all of a sudden, which is so unlike the Doctor, who protects access to his ship so jealously:

James Warwick Clare Clifford Peter Davison in Doctor Who Earthshock

And then there’s the implication that they all go off to have a meal together in the TARDIS while the Doctor works in the console room to track down the bombers. (There’s a signal he can trace.) Party in the TARDIS! More ordinary life in between the dangerous bits. Even if it is offscreen.

Cut out all the corridor running and stuff, and what it boils down to is there’s this freighter on its way to Earth on which an army of Cybermen have hidden in individual shipping pods. (We never learn how they managed to do this, but it suddenly struck me that they’re basically Fedexing themselves to their own invasion, which is pretty clever.) There’s “some interstellar conference” happening on Earth, so the planet is on red alert, but the Cybermen need to stop the conference, because it’s about everyone agreeing to gang up in the Cybermen. And now that the Doctor has ruined their bomb plan, they’re gonna use the freighter as a flying bomb, crashing it into the planet and letting its antimatter fuel go boom. It’ll be a “psychological victory” for the Cybermen, the Cyberleader says. (Prescient shades of 9/11!) The Cyber army on the freighter was supposed to be just the mopping-up crew, but now they’ll be sacrificed to the greater Cyber good. Which they would have been anyway, in the long run.

What’s really interesting is the little details that I’d never really noticed before. Like this: There are tons of women in this story. There’s Professor Kyle, who instigates the story on her end: she was clearly a leader of the scientific team in the caves — or, at least, she did have an assistant; she wasn’t someone else’s assistant — and it’s she who seeks help from the soldiers once the killings start. On the freighter the captain and the first officer are both women:

June Bland Beryl Reid in Doctor Who Earthshock

and there’s a male subordinate bringing them coffee!

There are lots of women among both Scott’s soldiering team:

unidentified woman James Warwick in Doctor Who Earthshock

and the freighter crew:

unidentified woman Alec Sabin in Doctor Who Earthshock

As in, like: more than one token woman in each team!

Now, some of these women are just spear-carriers, redshirts with no dialogue and nothing to do but get killed… but that’s the cool thing: it’s not interesting or notable to the people in this situation that there are women among them.

The funny thing is that I don’t recall taking notice of all these women, either. Oh, I do remember the captain and the first officer and Kyle. It’s not that I wasn’t already a raging feminist in my teens and early 20s. I think it’s that we’ve actually regressed in recent years in similar casual appearances of women onscreen — both in film and on TV — that it stands out more today than it would have then.

Or it could be that I’ve just seen a whole helluva lot more film and TV in the intervening years and have become more aware of the fact that women are often excluded from where they shouldn’t be.

It reminds me a lot of how James Cameron is so ecumenical in his casting of women in similar roles, like how he’s got multiple women colonial marines in Aliens. This, of course, is several years before that film, however… which I think bolsters my notion that we’ve lost some feminist ground in this regard in the decades since.

Speaking of… Alien was just a few years before this, and this could almost be a shot from that movie:

Janet Fielding in Doctor Who Earthshock

I didn’t recall how aggressively Ripley-esque Tegan gets here! She even shoots a Cyberman. Of course, she’s had a long hard day of getting shot at, running around in fear of her life, etc, and her hair and makeup are still perfect:

Janet Fielding in Doctor Who Earthshock

Oh well. At least she gets to wear practical clothes for a little bit.

I see an influence of Alien in this shot, too:

Doctor Who Earthshock

On the matter of guns: Tegan tells Scott at one point that guns are not the Doctor’s style, and we all know that… but here he does not hesitate to pick them up:

Peter Davison Doctor Who Earthshock Doctor with a gun

And with the intent to use them:

Peter Davison Doctor Who Earthshock Doctor with a gun

Peter Davison Doctor Who Earthshock Doctor with a gun

I’d forgotten all this.

The Cybermen really do piss him off, though.

See, when the Doctor finally discovers in Episode Three that he’s up against Cybermen, we get into some intriguing discussion between the Doctor and the Cyberleader about emotions. The Cyberleader is all, Emotions “restrict and curtail the intellect.” The Doctor is all, Emotions “enhance life”:

When did you last have the pleasure of smelling a flower, watching a sunset, eating a well-prepared meal? For some people small, beautiful events is what life is all about.

Which is very sweet, and sounds like something David Tennant’s Doctor might have said. (I’ve often said there’s a lot of Peter Davison’s Doctor in Ten.)

And then the Cyberleader demonstrates that all he has to do is threaten Tegan — whom the Cyberleader has sussed the Doctor feels affection for — to control the Doctor. Hence, emotions are a weakness.

There is some evidence to support this throughout the rest of the story.

For instance, there’s some chatter among the officers on the freighter about bonuses and making sure they make their scheduled arrival at Earth lest they lose them. The captain is very worried about getting fined for being late, which the Cybermen take advantage of: her ship has clearance straight through to Earth, even with the red alert in place, and she is playing right into their hands by refusing to deviate from her course even when she’s getting indications that something is amiss aboard ship (like the power drain the Cybermen are causing). Greed and pride make these humans easily manipulated by the Cybermen. (More prescient shades of Aliens: You don’t see the Cybermen fucking each other over for a percentage.)

On the other hand, the Cyberleader wants the Doctor to watch while Earth, his favorite planet, is destroyed. That’s not the act of a being who feels nothing. (It is, however, the act of the standard villain who refuses to take the best opportunity to kill the hero before he can interfere with the evil plan.)

And also, too: There’s Adric. He is forced by the Cyberleader to stay behind on the freighter once it’s on its unalterable collision course with Earth, and of course he instantly tries to disarm the Cyber device that is locked with a mathematical code that he, boy genius, might be able to crack. It’s his futzing with the device that causes the freighter to start phasing into different temporal dimensions, hence saving 26th-century Earth. (So much for “It’s not our problem.” Adric isn’t even from this universe, never mind Earth, so it’s really not his problem at all, yet he is desperate to stop the disaster.) Now, however, the freighter will crash into Earth 65 million years ago, dooming the dinosaur. Adric doesn’t know this, and continues trying to regain control of the ship, until one last rogue Cyberman shoots out the console, consigning the ship to its fiery fate.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s Adric’s pride as much as his desire to help — both emotionally responses — that make him push on the very end, to the point at which he will die in the attempt. If he had succeeded, then the course of Earth history would have changed because the freighter would not have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. But he could never have succeed, right? Because then everything would be different.

The kick in the gut: If Adric hadn’t been so stubborn and had evacuated the freighter when he had the chance, with the officers and the soldiers, it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference in the long run. His sacrifice is for nothing. Nothing.

So: Is emotion a weakness… or is it entirely irrelevant? Does emotion just make the ride along one’s fated course more pleasant, or at least more diverting? You know: feel, or not, you’re gonna end up in the same place?


On top of all that, and on top of the enormous body count of this story — wow, there’s a lot of dead bodies, and a lot of dead people who got dead because they acted selflessly and heroically (like Kyle) — Adric is dead. This is an emotion that Doctor Who didn’t often deal with:

Peter Davison Janet Fielding Sarah Sutton in Doctor Who Earthshock

Not just grief but shocked grief.

I do remember being shocked, too, at how it played out. Even though I knew beforehand that This Is The Episode Where Adric Dies.

The closing credits broke protocol for the show, with its simple scroll over Adric’s broken Badge for Mathematical Excellence, and no theme music. In some ways that added to the shock — in case you didn’t realize how wrong it had all gone, this solemnity punched you with it.

Doctor Who Earthshock closing credits

Random thoughts on “Earthshock”:

• Is it weird that part of my brain looks at this, the 26th-century Cyber console:

Cyber console in Doctor Who Earthshock

and giggles at the oh-so 80s idea of futuristic design — seriously, where is the touchscreen? — while another part of my brain still thinks, Yeehaw, the future is gonna be so cool!

Perhaps it’s a sense of nostalgia for how the future was supposed to feel. Because here I am living in the future now, and it’s really not that cool in lots of ways. I mean, part of my brain knows how awesome it is that my iPhone would have been a 1960s Bond villain’s dream, but it’s just, you know, my iPhone…

• Gosh, it’s pretty gruesome what’s left of a person after those Cyber androids get through with them:

gooey human remains in Doctor Who Earthshock

Oh, god, that soldier is stepping in it!

gooey human remains in Doctor Who Earthshock

Yup, for kids.

• Ooo, still in the original packaging!

Cyberman in Doctor Who Earthshock

They’re worth more that way. And you get that new-Cyberman smell. Aaaahhh.

• “You could hide an army down here and no one would find it”:

two redshirts in Doctor Who Earthshock

Famous last words from a redshirt.

• You can see what’s left of the human — a chin! — moving in the Cyber helmet:

Cyberman in Doctor Who Earthshock

I always found that so creepy.

• Emotions run really high in this story:

Janet Fielding Peter Davison in Doctor Who Earthshock

We rarely saw the Doctor get this angry with a companion — look how terrified Tegan is! — and certainly not physically so. Yikes.

• Gunfire in the TARDIS?

gunfire in the TARDIS console room Doctor Who Earthshock

Hey, what happened to the state of temporal grace that was supposed to prevent such things?

• Great quotes:

“E-space is another universe! There isn’t a taxi service goes back and forth.” –the Doctor to Adric, who has threatened to find someone else who will take him home if the Doctor won’t

“Where are we?” –Tegan
“Earth.” –the Doctor
“Oh, not again.” –Nyssa

“Welcome aboard, ma’am.” –Ringway
“Don’t call me ma’am on the bridge.” –Captain Briggs
(I always thought he was saying “Mom,” and I always thought that was hilarious. Not that the captain could be his mother, but that he was such a baby about it and that she had to remind him of protocol.)

“I’m just a mouth on legs.” –Tegan

“You never change. Always the perfect guests.” –the Doctor to the Cyberleader, after a Cyberman kills the human traitor Ringway

(next: “Time-Flight”)

share and enjoy
notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Bonnie-Ann Lynch Black
Sun, Nov 06, 2011 9:40pm

are you sure he says, “ma’am”?  because any time i’ve seen it, i swore he said “mom” too… and i loved that.  i’m a bit… let down, if it’s ma’am.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bonnie-Ann Lynch Black
Sun, Nov 06, 2011 9:48pm

The subtitles on the DVD say “ma’am.”

reply to  Bonnie-Ann Lynch Black
Mon, Nov 07, 2011 5:24am

It’s the British pronunciation. You can hear it in “The Wedding of River Song” too. British ma’am sounds like American mom and British mom sounds like American mum.

reply to  Thaddeus
Mon, Nov 07, 2011 8:21am

That’s ‘cos there is no British ‘mom’. We both say and spell it ‘mum’. Apart from our friends in the North, who say ‘mam’ (not to be confused with ma’am’).

Southern ‘My mum’ = Northern ‘Me mam’

reply to  Paul
Thu, Nov 10, 2011 8:19pm

i have heard “mum” and “mam” of course, but i guess television sound just sounded more like “mum” to me  and i was tickled by the thought of a mother having a son on board, having to call her “captain” on the bridge.  oh well… i’ve had *bigger* let downs in life…

Tonio Kruger
Mon, Nov 07, 2011 1:56am

I always suspected Cameron’s Aliens was a bit–ahem–inspired by this episode but alas, only James Cameron knows for sure and he and his lawyers aren’t talking.

And I for one did not know that this was the episode in which Adric dies the first time I saw it. Indeed, I still considered myself lucky to be seeing any Peter Davison episodes at all at the time.

Mon, Nov 07, 2011 10:39am

I suspect that part of the problem with Adric was that the writers didn’t really know what to do with him; he was basically painted as naïf, young, and a mathematical genius, but never really developed much in the way of characterisation beyond that. So he often ended up being the one who was left behind or did something silly.

The dinosaur-killing asteroid wasn’t a new idea back then, as far as I recall, but that particular bit of evidence for it was.

If this surprised you… consider how it played on first broadcast. (In an age without carefully orchestrated leaks to ensure that nobody was ever surprised by a plot twist!)

I rather suspect that there are more instances of weapons being fired in the TARDIS than there are of temporal grace being invoked (since I think it was only invented for The Hand of Fear)… but I haven’t checked.

reply to  RogerBW
Tue, Nov 08, 2011 12:16am

Eleven confirmed that the temporal grace was just a “clever lie” in “Let’s Kill Hitler”.

And, just letting my male gaze fly for a moment, I was always much more of a Nyssa man, but Tegan’s “practical clothes” in this ep raised her to “hot” status in my book for the first and only time.

reply to  innpchan
Tue, Nov 08, 2011 12:29am

I can’t regard the new series as canonical for the old one. :-|

Mon, Nov 07, 2011 9:38pm

It was refreshing at the time to see so many women as soldiers, but I also remember being very aware that the Captain was played by Beryl Reid who clearly didn’t have a clue what half of her dialogue meant.  As Beryl was better known for comedy, it was quite jarring at the time for those of us in the UK to see her in this role.  (It was similarly eye-twisting to see Nicholas Parsons later on in The Curse of Fenric, though he did it so well I forgot it was him after a few minutes).
One of the few benefits of being so studio-bound was that it was much easier to stop plots being leaked, though they went through a lot to prevent this one getting out (including finding a reason to include Adric in the cast list for the following serial Time Flight so that when the Radio Times hit the shelves, nobody would realise that Adric was deceased).

reply to  Jackiep
Thu, Nov 10, 2011 8:22pm

in some ways then, perhaps american audiences actually had a viewing advantage in that none of the actors trailed any baggage for us.  i might have been vaguely aware of beryl reid because my parents were huge fans of british comedies like the Carry On movies… but it wouldn’t have meant anything to me seriously.  the characters were just… the characters.

Mon, Nov 07, 2011 9:40pm

By the way, a bonus prize for spotting the floor assistant who ended up in shot with her clipboard, unnoticed by everybody until the broadcast!

Wed, Nov 09, 2011 12:15am

Can’t help reading this and laughing to myself on how much Dr. Who has changed since then. The various incarnations of the Doctor that I am familiar with are the ninth, tenth and eleventh, so it was interesting that you brought up how the earlier actors who played his character relate to that of the more modern ones (mentioned above). Love the whole retro feel of the pictures, yet part of me cant help thinking that the fear and unpredictability factor (ex. any episode featuring the ‘weeping angels’) may be lacking slightly in these early episodes…    

reply to  FootballGurl
Wed, Nov 09, 2011 10:38am

I think it’s worth bearing in mind that Earthshock is a relatively late story – by this point the programme had just started its long downhill slide under John Nathan-Turner*. As a programme nearly twenty years old, and because it wasn’t being made with an explicit eye to an export market where it might get chopped up and shown piecemeal, it didn’t have to spend all the time the new series has on establishing who the Doctor is, how the TARDIS works, and so on; the audience already had expectations of that.

And it’s those expectations that were rather splendidly subverted here. Yes, companions had died before – but that was in a show that most of the viewers of this one hadn’t seen, and unless they were reasonably dedicated fans had probably never even heard of. Adric was already being talked about as the companion that nobody liked (a slot later to be filled by Turlough), but actually to kill him off? Yeah, that was shocking.* I am biast.

reply to  RogerBW
Wed, Nov 09, 2011 10:41pm

I do agree with the factor that I don’t think anybody really predicted that one of the group was going to die, and that in itself establishes that as a very unpredictable moment within the plot line. I think, however, that in my opinion the fear element isn’t as prevalent as it is in the current series. (Although to give them credit, the media CGI and special effects for TV and movie productions have drastically improved since then.)

reply to  FootballGurl
Thu, Aug 06, 2015 12:50pm

I know you wrote that years ago but do you still feel the same way? Have you seem more of classic Who? I think the classic series was often incredibly frightening and much more mature than the new series.

reply to  RogerBW
Thu, Nov 10, 2011 8:25pm

i think the current “fear factor” is in keeping with how modern audiences view such things… the older shows did alright in keeping their audiences in suspense and shock and fear with the technology the viewing public was used to… and it was right there in their living rooms!  sometimes i think the new Who is almost *too* pretty… some old grainy type shockers wouldn’t go amiss.