There is something striking about the fact that the last episode of Doctor Who before its long period of non-production was called “Survival“. The DVD release of the episode includes a second disc with extras, one of which is a documentary “Endgame” about the show’s cancellation, about which I’ll say more after discussing the episode itself.
The episode “Survival“ features the last appearance of Anthony Ainsley as the Master on the show, although he did subsequently record clips for a Doctor Who video game, and those too are on the bonus DVD.
The story of the episode centers on the Master having become trapped on a planet inhabited by Cheetah-People. It turns out that the planet is alive, and as the Cheetah-People fight, it brings the planet itself closer to destruction. The Cheetah-People can teleport from world to world for the purpose of hunting, and that is presumably how the Master ended up there – and how eventually Ace and then the Doctor end up there.
The episode starts in Perivale, Ace’s home town, and so marks a major milestone in her own character’s development – the place she ran from and detested, she has come to miss as she matured, and her maturity as a result of her broadened experiences and her confronting her past is illustrated when she is placed side by side with her old friends once again.
The planet, it turns out, also has a transformative effect on those who end up there, turning them into Cheetah-People. The Master has begun to be transformed, and eventually so are others, including Ace. But it turns out that that transformation allows such people to teleport back to their homes, and provides a means of escape.
The deeper element of the story centers on the title, which is a single word from the famous phrase which is repeated multiple times in the episode: “survival of the fittest.” It is pondered from many angles – the need to be able to defend yourself by force if necessary, the need for a shop to open on Sundays because others do, the hunting or prey by animals. The Doctor stands as perhaps the only character in the episode who really questions the “glib generalization” that the phrase represents. And in the end, he indicates that the only way to stop the process of being transformed by the animal nature the planet bestows is to stop fighting. As he puts it, “If we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals.”
The episode offers a nicely nuanced perspective that goes beyond the Doctor’s own “glib generalization.” By the end of the episode, we learn that what the planet bestowed will remain in Ace, and they both seem to agree that that is not a bad thing. It is not as though we are not animals – it is just that as human beings, we have a far greater array of options than simply fighting for survival. We all have that animal instinct within us, and the Doctor makes good use of double entendre when he says about the pets people have – and at the same time about the “animal” within each of us – that we “try to keep them under control.”
It is worth considering that the episode’s ending, neither final nor a cliffhanger, filmed without the knowledge that the show would not be returning the next year, made the revival of the show possible. Had the producers and writers known that the show was ending, they might have written something more final – which could have prevented the show’s survival by later “regenerating.”
The documentary “Endgame” on the bonus DVD discusses a lot of interesting aspects of the show from that time, including the fact that the BBC did not at that time intend to “cancel” the show so much as stop production envisaging that it would in fact return (not anticipating that it would be as long as it was). It also discusses where the writers were heading (what is sometimes referred to as the “Cartmel Masterplan”), making the Doctor the show’s hero who is in control of what happens to him, rather than a perpetual victim of circumstance, and trying to make him more mysterious – which meant of course raising questions about the Doctor’s identity without providing answers that would simply put the show back where it was. That is worth considering in relation to recent seasons. The mystery surrounding the Doctor’s identity is an element that runs throughout the show’s history. If Steven Moffatt actually tells us the Doctor’s name, or why his identity is so mysterious and so important, where could the show go from there? It seems like the sort of thing that one ought to reveal only in the last episode ever.
The “Endgame” documentary also discusses the idea that the Doctor was one of three “godlike” beings who was around at the start of timelord history, before the timelords. There were hints of that on the show, as well as in novels that the same writers produced such as Lungbarrow in particular. John Nathan Turner was apparently worried about the possible religious reactions from viewers if this idea of the Doctor as in any sense a “god” were explored. As fans of the current show, it is appropriate to ponder how much of the “Cartmel Masterplan” has been incorporated into the “Moffatt Masterplan.” But certainly the notion that the Doctor has a mysterious connection with the earliest days of Gallifreyan history, so that a religious order might exist that focuses on his identity, is something that is clearly part of the revived show’s mythology as well as that of the Sylvester McCoy era, uniting the two even if current writers decide to take things in different directions than earlier ones might have.
Have you seen “Survival“? Is it an important episode for fans of the current series to watch? Is understanding the reasons for Doctor Who having stopped production back then helpful for fans of the current show?