Time has maybe not been too kind to Earthshock. In 1982 it was a clear fan favourite, voted as the best of the year in every story poll. But over the years its popularity has dipped a little, possibly because when you take away the impact of the Cybermen’s return the rest of the story does seem to be a little hollow.
The Cybermen’s last appearance was in Revenge of the Cybermen some seven years earlier. In 1981, Cyber co-creator Gerry Davis submitted a story outline on spec entitled Genesis of the Cybermen. There isn’t any evidence to suggest that the story was ever seriously considered for production, or that the submission was even acknowledged, which upset Davis.
Speaking a few years later, he expressed dismay at his treatment: “I’ve had one in mind for a long time which is a Genesis of the Cybermen story and I’d love to do it. But every time I turn around and go back to America I find Nathan-Turner’s commissioned another Cyber-script and I’m not even invited to do it. It wasn’t very pleasant to be snubbed like that.”
When Christopher Priest’s script The Enemy Within proved to be unworkable, this left a hole in the S19 schedule that was ultimately filled with a new Cybermen adventure. Eric Saward was keen to write the story and although the script-editor wasn’t generally allowed to commission themselves, a solution was found. Anthony Root, who had briefly worked as script editor earlier in the season, was credited as Earthshock’s script editor although there’s no evidence that he actually did any work on it.
The first episode or so is set in some very nicely lit studio caves and concerns what we later learn to be a bomb, guarded by two androids, who have been programmed to kill anybody who gets too close.
The bomb has been planted by the Cybermen who intend to use it to destroy the Earth. They aren’t too disappointed when the Doctor deactivates it though, as they have a back-up plan (a rather impressive back-up plan it has to be said, almost as if they knew the bomb wouldn’t work).
This transports the Doctor and his friends to a deep space freighter where they encounter a rum bunch of characters. Ringway (Alec Sabin) is a traitor who has sold out to the Cybermen and is cursed with poor dialogue, such as: “I’m tired of your snide remarks and bullying ways”. Given this, it’s not surprising that the character never comes alive, but he’s not the only one.
Scott (James Warwick) is a bluff, gruff soldier who is drawn pretty broadly. Warwick chooses to intone each line with such deadly earnest that the performance often teeters on the edge of parody.
And then there’s Beryl Reid as Briggs. Doctor Who has often cast against type, many times with great success (Russell Hunter in Robots of Death and Nicholas Parsons in The Curse of Fenric, for example). Reid is a little more of a stretch but she’s not too bad, even if she sometimes seems to be a little lost.
There’s no denying the impact that the return of the Cybermen had in 1982, but this is about all the story has going for it. The plot is a little wooly at times (something Saward could often be guilty of). Perhaps the best example of this is when the freighter starts to travel backwards in time in episode four. How is this possible? Anything’s possible, says Adric, when you have an alien machine overriding your computer. Hmm, okay.
There’s certainly a place for this type of story in Doctor Who. The Caves of Androzani managed to combine a high level of action/adventure but also had rich chacterisation. Earthshock has the action, but the characters simply don’t engage.
The story did make the brave move of killing off a companion, as Adric dies in a futile attempt to stop the freighter crashing into the Earth. This is another shock in the story, but like a whodunnit when you know the identity of the murderer, the shocks lessen when the story is watched again, so that ultimately Earthshock feels somewhat less than the sum of its parts.