“Earthshock” was the story that finally made me root for Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor. After a fairly sedate season that I found bland and dull in the absence of Tom Baker, “Earthshock” livened things up at long last, and did so in a big way.
The story dives right into the mystery of a missing archeological expedition, and the military unit sent to find out what happened to them. The expedition was exploring some caves deep underground when they were attacked by unidentified assailants and all killed, apart from Professor Kyle, who escaped to alert the military. A small squad of soldiers, led by one Lieutenant Scott, follows Kyle underground to investigate the attacks. This storyline is juxtaposed with scenes on the TARDIS where Adric decides that it’s time to return home and has a falling out with the Doctor.
The storyline in the caverns is appropriately dark and moody, with subdued lighting and mysterious android attackers who pick off wounded soldiers using weapons that turn the victim into a pretty nasty mess of fluid and fabric. When the TARDIS lands in underground caves, it is readily apparent that it’s arrived in the same caves as the military unit and the killers, and will soon run into trouble with both. This is indeed the case, as Scott initially appears to be one of those close-minded antagonists that crop up in Doctor Who from time to time, who is utterly convinced that the Doctor and friends are guilty of murder based on nothing but thin circumstantial evidence. This is an old Doctor Who cliché, where the Doctor arrives in the wrong place at the wrong time and is presumed guilty, and thankfully it’s disposed of quickly as the androids attack the squad forcing everyone to take cover. This leads to the reveal of the true villains of the story, the nicely redesigned Cybermen.
Now while the first episode is possibly the strongest of the story when it comes to tension, it’s blatantly obvious that the androids only exist as a plot device to hide the reveal of the Cybermen until the end of the episode. Despite the Cyberleader’s protest that the androids are too valuable to waste, they are dispatched rather quickly by the military early in episode two and not referred to again. How the Cybermen got them to Earth and down into the caves with their massively destructive bomb is never explained, and it should have been. Nevertheless, the episode works very well and the appearance of the Cybermen is an almost iconic moment after their long absence. The episode is greatly improved visually on the DVD by virtue of retransferred exterior film sequences and optional CGI effects to replace the ‘barber pole’ laser beams from the military weapons. The soldiers still can’t aim though.
From here the story shifts focus to the space freighter that the Cybermen are hiding on and attempts by the Doctor to determine who planted the bomb and the androids. One of my favorite moments in the story is the Cyberleader’s statement while reviewing battle footage that “I know that object!” in reference to the TARDIS, and his subsequent review of the Doctor’s history with the Cybermen. This puts the Cybermen one step ahead of the Doctor and allows them to effect his capture and imprisonment while they put their backup plan to destroy Earth into motion. There are some great scenes hearkening back to “The Invasion” as the Cybermen burst from cold storage when activated as they did in that story, ripping plastic off and smashing out of silos. During firefights with the crew of the space freighter, the Cybermen appear all but invincible as they shrug off the weapons fire and kill the crew one by one. The Doctor temporarily keeps them off the bridge with some technical wizardry, but only few a few seconds as the Cybermen resort to brute force to gain entry.
All well and good, but it’s here than plot questions begin to crop up again. The Cybermen plan to replace the bomb with the freighter, and crash it into Earth as a preemptive strike against an anti-Cybermen alliance. It’s implied that there are 15,000 Cybermen on board, though that’s never confirmed by the Cybermen themselves. However if true, it would mean that thousands of Cybermen would die needlessly when the freighter crashes into Earth since only perhaps a few dozen are seen to be activated. Even after the Cyberleader and all but his personal guard leave the ship, it’s clear that others remain in storage and are activated to attack the bridge, possibly in retaliation for Adric and Berger’s interference with their control box. Would the Cybermen really be so wasteful of resources? And how exactly does the device they attach to the ship’s navigation cause the freighter to go back in time? A few lines somewhere would have cleared all of this up, but as it is the viewer is left to accept events that badly need a reason for happening. The story works despite these questions, but too many pieces of the puzzle are frustratingly absent.
Since this is Adric’s final story, the character deserves some comment. Adric is an upopular figure within online Doctor Who fandom, who apparently all forget that he’s meant to be both a teenage boy and a mathematical genius. If he’s annoyingly immature and yet brilliant at the same time, that’s to be expected from the mix of character traits. I’ve always been a fan of Adric, who comes across as a young man who looked to the fourth Doctor and Romana as role models, only to lose both and end up as a ‘fifth wheel’ to the regenerated Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan after he’s sidelined during the events of “Castrovalva”. All of that comes to a head during “Earthshock” when he asks to go home, only to admit that there’s nothing there for him and he did it all to make a point. It seems as though this repairs the breach of trust that’s existed between him and the Doctor since “Four to Doomsday” and renews their friendship. Adric risks his life and ultimately loses it trying to save the Earth from the Cybermen, showing that when it comes down to it, he had more character than was often revealed by his teenage behavior in other stories. I’ve always found the scenes depicting his death to be very effective and moving, and the optional replacement effects on the DVD illustrate the sequence of events far better than the original SFX as we actually see the burning freighter plunge into the Earth’s atmosphere and explode. The character’s death really does put the exclamation point on an already emotionally charged and dramatic episode, and the silent credits seal the deal.
Overall, “Earthshock” is a great action story that makes good use of the Cybermen, but the plot could stand to be ironed out here and there. None of the plot holes sabotage the story to the extent that it doesn’t work, but they do raise questions that detract from the dramatic impact of events. Still, in my opinion “Earthshock” is the strongest serial in season 19 and one of the highlights of the Davison years.