Doctor Who: Earthshock

Doctor Who: Earthshock December 22, 2011

The episode “Earthshock” from the Peter Davison era is one the significance of which is well known to every fan. But watching it again yesterday and today, I was struck by the profundity of one of its major themes. It seems pointless to offer a spoiler warning almost 30 years after the episode first aired, but if you are reading this as someone watching classic Doctor Who for the first time and you have yet to watch this episode, it is best that you not read on. This episode is a game changer, and the post below reveals why.

The episode features the return of those old enemies, the Cybermen. In some respects they seem more menacing than Daleks, since for all their cyborg nature, they seem more human, and thus the respects in which they are not human and inhuman are all the more pointed. And that seems to make them all the more terrifying, and the cyberleader’s questions and challenges for the Doctor in this episode all the more powerful. As we see at a key moment, the Doctor is able to be manipulated by means of threats against his friends. Is the friendship and caring that allows one to be so manipulated not a weakness, he is asked, and so are we the viewers.

The element of continuity, which links scenes in the beginning, when the Doctor mentions that he always meant to go back and see what killed the dinosaurs, and the ending, when he finds out, is in a sense ridiculously implausible if it were meant to be realistic – but as I will suggest further below, Doctor Who seems more concerned with big questions and big ideas, or with having fun, than with narrative plausibility. One could argue that until one grasps that, one will inevitably find Doctor Who confusing, disappointing or frustrating – and after one grasps it, one might see it as brilliant and inspired.

The episode “Earthshock” devotes a significant amount of time to making Adric more likable than before, since he had previously been somewhat annoying, if simultaneously endearing. In “Earthshock” we got to see him really coming into his own, far less gullible than in “Four to Doomsday,” far more heroic and capable of not causing more harm than he prevents than in say “Kinda.” The Doctor and Adric quarrel, and the surprising immaturity of our favorite time lord is seen once again, a characteristic he had even in his younger days portrayed by the much older William Hartnell, as well as since then and down to the present. Adric, however, we see has been growing up. (I should note that I say this from an adult perspective. I don’t recall thinking negatively about Adric at any point when I watched the show when I was younger).

And so when Adric is willing to sacrifice himself to try to prevent the starship from reaching and crashing into earth, it was that much more profoundly moving. It would have been no matter what. But it was even more moving because this was the first time such tragedy had gotten so close to the Doctor. Even though the Doctor had said goodbye to many companions and at some point off screen we can assume that they died, Adric was the first of the regular companions to die on screen, in aired footage. And to make sure the point was not missed, the final part ended with what I believe were the only non-standard credits, featuring instead of the usual starfield a single broken star – the badge Adric had used to wear.

In confronting us with not merely a tragedy, but evidence that the Doctor would not always save the day, that his friends could be killed, the episode asks us what our answer is to the cyberleader’s provocative questions. And an interesting blog post at FlickFilosopher suggests not only that we are being forced to seriously consider the point of view of the Cybermen, but we are also being helped to find evidence that, if emotion does lead to suffering of various sorts, and to our inflicting suffering on one another, it also motivates our greatest feats of heroism.

Like religion, emotion seems to bring out the very best and the very worst in human beings. It is not surprising that some wonder whether we are better off without them.

In today’s post at IO9 about the classic Doctor Who series, we are told that

Steven Moffat said way back in 1995, in a semi-infamous round table discussion in which he declared the show “laughable” and “actually pretty shabby a lot of the time”, and roundly criticized the production teams for trying to do things they didn’t have the ability to pull off. (In fairness to him, he’s since retracted most of this.) He argued that the underlying concept of Doctor Who was so strong, and that sometimes stories would feature moments or ideas powerful enough in isolation that they could “dupe you into believing the programme was better than it really was.”

I think the show is supposed to be laughable a lot of the time – some of the scenes and some of the behavior of the Doctor in particular over the years make sense only if the show is comedy, however much it may also be other things, including even horror, at times. But in “Earthshock” I think that even in spite of special effects that are unimpressive by today’s standards, the story is one that is enjoyable on every level that Doctor Who has ever been enjoyable, and like at least some great episodes, profound in the questions about humanity and the meaningfulness of life that it gets us to ask – and helps us to answer. The show is not always great, but no show is, and it has moments of greatness, when it waxes philosophical and profound – and that presumably should be all that matters.

In this case, the question is the crucial one, whether life is better with emotion than without it, and if so why. It is crucial, because unless we figure out the answer, then the suffering that life brings us will continually surprise us, frustrate us, and lead us to take such measures to avoid it as to lead us to bring suffering and sadness into the lives of others.

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