Earthshock came along at the tail end of Peter Davison's first series as the Fifth Doctor and really is the end of the era of the crowded TARDIS. But there is plenty to enjoy in Earthshock, beginning with Davison's always engaging performance, to the tense direction from Peter Grimwade, which draws out the best elements of the action heavy script from Eric Saward. But it is also a story where plenty of elements don't work, mainly some things which the show was struggling with at the time anyway. There was a superficial focus on nostalgia and shock, plenty of poor characterisation and some very slack plotting. What Earthshock was notable for at the time was the shock return of the Cybermen who had been off the screen since 1975. But nowadays, the story is memorable for one more element: the death of companion, Adric.
By this point of the show in 1982, cast changes were never going to be anything new. The TARDIS should just have had a revolving door, since almost every other series had a main character either appear or leave and more than one complete overhaul of the whole series. But the killing off a main character was something else. As sophisticated as Doctor Who was trying to be at the time, it was still considered by everyone involved, to be a children's show, with a large fan-base and pressure on the producers not to do anything which would alienate their audience or their parents, with material deemed too mature for them. So in that case, Adric's death was something shocking. You just didn't do something like that in those days. Sure, a couple of William Hartnell's companions were killed off but to call them fully fledged companions would be cheating: one had only joined the Doctor on his travels in her previous story, while the other never actually met the Doctor at all. Adric's death was the first time that a familiar character who had been with the Doctor for some considerable time was given the axe.
The producer at the time, John Nathan Turner, had a perchance for publicity, casting stars and delivering shock twists which weren't always motivated by solid dramatic reasons. And even though Adric's death is certainly an example of that superficial calculation, it certainly had some good reasoning behind it. Firstly, the production team behind the scenes where keen to show that even the Doctor wasn't infallible and thus, give the show a much needed sense of threat to the group's space travels. This was an element that really worked in the show's favour. Even after the death of Adric, this darker tone stuck with the show, with increasing grey areas, two of his companions where secretly working for his enemies and there was a level of violence that boarded on nihilistic. In its dark and claustrophobic cave tunnels and spaceship corridors, there is a sense of Ridley Scott's Alien and there was a group of solders who were massacred by an unstoppable inhuman force, something which would happen four years later in Aliens.
Another reason to kill off Adric was that, with four main characters, there was often not enough for each character to do, which lead to watered down storytelling. Of course, there had been four travellers in the TARDIS in the past, William Hartnell had The First Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan, followed by Vikki. And in more modern times there have been four travellers, most notably, The Eleventh Doctor, Amy Pond, Rory Williams and River Song. All four characters don't need to be the centre of attention and the story rightly puts the focus of the story on the relationship between the Fifth Doctor and Adric. What does matter is that each character needs to have something to do with advancing the plot, this is somewhere where the stories of this time often fell flat. Look at this story and you will see Adric helping the Doctor, Tegan fighting Cybermen while Nyssa is left side-lined in the TARDIS.
In the end, someone really did have to go and it made a lot of sense that it should be Adric. Matthew Waterhouse, at the time, was an obviously inexperienced actor, it really showed on screen and Adric's personality was a really big problem for fans at the time. He was the obnoxious maths whizz and was a walking nerd stereotype, which either hit too close to home for some fans or just really irritated others. But looking at the trio of companions, Tegan, Nyssa and Adric, you could argue that anyone of them could have been pulled from the show and the story would have worked. Both Nyssa and Adric where teenage geniuses in different fields and both had lost their families with the Doctor kind of adopting them who probably felt responsible for them in a way he hadn't felt since Susan. Tegan and Adric where both rash risk takers, who could advance the plot by arguing with people and constantly getting in over their heads, something which the Fifth Doctor was less likely to do. Writers often struggled to juggle all those conflicting personalities. Of course, you could always do what they did and push Nyssa to the side, like they did in Kinda where they came up with this stupid sub plot which made her have to nap for the entire story. It is entirely possible that Nyssa would have been the best choice of companion to kill off, mainly because Saward and Turner where comically inept in giving her things to do. In the later episodes of Earthshock, Nyssa is left in the TARDIS, with just a few brief scenes which she explains to the audience why she is sitting this one out.
As previously noted, Earthshock really revolves around the Doctor and Adric. What I particularly like about this story is that all the personality traits which made Adric's character so irritating are given in an argument between him and the Doctor where he asks to go back home in E-Space. There is quite a bit of continuity which pops up in this argument but the emotional resonance is left perfectly clear: Adric has a serious case of the younger brother syndrome and wants some respect from the Doctor, who he sees as a surrogate father. Of course, his demand to go home is silly and foolhardy, given he is from another universe, but it does feel like an argument one might have with their parents where you are insisting that because you are eighteen, you can make it as a rock star. What saves the scene from becoming another instance where Adric is mind-numbingly annoying, is the Doctor's insistence that it can't be done. Adric isn't as stupid as he first appears, he just wanted his new family to notice him. And at the end of the day, was that so wrong?
With the TARDIS crew struggling with family dramas, the main plot is kicking off in the caverns where the TARDIS has landed. We meet a group of soldiers who have a palaeontologist in tow. They want to find out what happened to the previous archaeological team. It works out that the first episode is almost a separate story entirely from the next three, which is partly because of the placeholder villain who are used to reveal the new Cybermen. But this is one of the chief problems with Earthshock, both parts of this story don't fit well together, two Cybermen related problems which don't gel well.
But the cave and cavern sequences are wonderfully tense and mysterious. The lighting remains dim and shadowy, serving as both a way of giving us a foreboding atmosphere and giving us just enough of a look at the black suited androids without revealing to us that they are men in suits. These androids are far more creepy than the actual Cybermen, well, until you actually see them and then the androids look dodgy. But the loom around the shadows, reducing their victims to vomit coloured puddles. And while it isn't new for the Doctor to turn up at the wrong time, Earthshock brilliantly makes this old trope feel new, with the Doctor being flung around and questioned at gunpoint. There is a genuine sense that the calm-Fifth Doctor might not be able to be convincing enough this time. Luckily the androids attack before things can get too violent for the Doctor, when they discover a metal hatch that they were put there to protect. Let's skip the big reveal for the moment, as the characters don't find out who is behind the plot until the later episodes and move ahead to the opening of the hatch. The hatch reveals, shock and horror, a bomb. Normally, defusing a ticking time bomb scenes can be quite dull and boring, but it is worth noting how this script takes cutting the yellow wire and turns it into a strange game of tug-of-war with an unseen enemy.
Sadly, it is when the action shifts to the space-freighter that the story is bogged down in its own implausibility's and that Saward had written more characters than he knew what to do for. What certainly doesn't help is that his secondary characters are really dull and uninteresting. Beryl Reid, in the role of the freighter's captain, really underplays the role but it makes for one of the standout performances of the story, despite her casting being another attempt to get some publicity for the show. Reid fares a lot better than Claire Clifford as the very-winey scientist, Kyle, who winds up being stuck in the TARDIS with Nyssa, complaining and spouting lines about the size of the Cybermen!
Now, lets look at the Cybermen. First of all, I think it is fair to give the story a historic pass for their shock reveal at the end of episode one. In 1982, it would have been a big deal and their return paved the way for many more old villains to return to the series but nowadays, the shock of their reveal has long since worn off. But there is a much deeper problem with their return. Nothing is made of what made them great monsters in the first place. Here, they are portrayed as an unstoppable robotic army, when really what they want to do is convert the entire universe into their own, like a crazy robot/zombie cult. There are a few lines thrown about how they don't have any emotions but nothing to describe how they were anything other than emotionless machines. One can contrast this to their first appearance in the new series, Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, which managed to successfully show them as both an unstoppable army and an undead cult. These stories even managed to give their unemotional parts of their creation some horror, while they are suppressed, Cybermen do have emotions and they are in endless horror about what has been done to them.
Earthshock uses several other elements which make some of their other appearances iconic. They seem to have a tradition of working with a human traitor as their way inside a base or spaceship. Saward also uses their rather silly, allergy to gold, using Adric's badge as a way to kill a number of them and their need to smash their way out of hibernation, a direct reference to Tomb of the Cybermen. It is such a shame that their almost vampiric tendencies were all but forgotten about, their only goal here seems to be to destroy the Earth rather than converting all the humans on it into Cybermen. They have their bomb in a cave on Earth but have a freighter full of sleeping Cybermen, waiting to conquer the Earth. Both these plot points contradict each other, did they want to blow the world up or convert it?
And watching this story, one might almost forget that the Cybermen are supposed to have no emotions. From their first line, "Destroy Them! Destroy them at once!", the Cyberleader shouts in triumph! This might have worked if Saward was trying to show that these creatures had somehow managed to evolve. But as soon as the Cyberleader and the Doctor meet, they throw jabs at each other about the pros and cons of emotions. Even Tegan gets used by the Cybermen of showing us how emotions make us weak. In truth, these Cybermen change between emotional and emotionless because Saward couldn't really be bothered to go back and make sure everything matched up with what we already knew about the creatures.
It really is a waste of material, because if the production team were looking for a way of giving the audience a sense of nostalgia using a villain that people hadn't seen in years, then this story should have been the perfect fit. If you really need a group of militaristic, angry and sneaky aliens whose plans involve the subjugation of other species, then really you're talking about the Daleks. Hell, even the Sontarans would have fit into this story. It does make a hell of a lot more sense for this to have been a Dalek story. Maybe it is best to imagine there was some mix up in the costume department, the Dalek casings were being cleaned and they decided to use some silvery suits hanging up instead!
It isn't until the midpoint of the final episode, that the story delivers its biggest curveball. Completely by accident the freighter starts to travel backwards through time, setting up nicely the surprise that the Cybermen were responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs. Unexpectedly traveling through time is nothing new to the world of Doctor Who but it is how it does it accidentally that is mind-boggling. We don't get an explanation about how that should even be possible. Adric tries to explain it to using some technobabble about interference between the Cybermen's computers and the freighter's guidance system. Wait, say what?! I can see how that might fry a panel here and there or even blow up the ship. But going back to the time of the dinosaurs?! That would be like hooking a Windows laptop up with a Mac and causing a volcanic explosion in your living room. The only that would work was if the ship was made of left over pieces of Doc Brown's DeLorean or the Waverider from Legends of Tomorrow.
But all this leads up to Adric's death at the end of the episode and like the father/son argument at the beginning of the episode, it displays what made the character both interesting and irritating. From the moment he jumps out of the escape pod, so damn sure he cracked the final code that he is willing to risk his life for it, he doesn't need to because the audience know what the crash is going to cause. But Adric doesn't know about the dinosaurs and what happened to them. But it makes his sacrifice all the braver, out of anyone it was Beryl Reid's character who should have stayed, it was her planet after all. Adric wasn't even from this universe...