Feb 12

Time Reconsidered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Who Eps: #17 EARTHSHOCK

FT6 comments • 966 views

or “You Will be Very Crumpled”

… being a show-by-show TARDIS-esque (ie in effect random) exploration of Doctor Who Soup to Nuts, begun at LJ’s diggerdydum community, and crossposted at FT.

aka the Sorrows of Young Adric, in which everyone’s favourite wooden doughy doe-eyed teen brainiac hatemonkey Adults Up and Takes One for Evolution, cleverly time-slipping an otherwise entirely unremarkable production-line Cyberman planet-bomb into the actual original Alvarez Impact… At this most traumatically significant transition-time for Likeable 5ive and his Famously Too-Numerous Pals, why not mark/muffle/muddle the Breaking of the Fellowship with the first starring role in kid’s pop culture for the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event? Anyway, EarthSoXoR was an ep I’ve heard a LOT, but never seen: SO NOW READ ON

i: These days the Silvery Juggheds are quite dead to me, which is a pity. I think there are three reasons I turned against them. First, they really did scare me when I was a wee meatspace tiny myself on Old Mars/Telos/Mondas/London Underground/I DON’T REMEMBER OK, as they stumbled spongily through dark b/w tunnels killing killing killing: and the residue of terror vanished is often contempt. Third and recent, the Nu-Who protocols of UTTERLOGICWAR are primarily feebly stampy gags across the clichés of easycopy post-digitial computer discourse (“Delete!” and ect and ect and zzzz) which are as soon-to-be-dated as they’re dreary. But second middle and most, there really was often something spookily poetic about the pre-hardbody ‘Bermen. They looked half-formed; they battled their confused mass-larval way out of shrink-wrap cocoons at the end of the first ep; there was something genuinely alien about them, somehow, their humanoid form more an organic pod-production than a factory-line metal macho. Or something (for more on this, see my comments on THE INVASION pt 2 at Helix 8b, at para iii. And of course maybe the middle reason find itself more part of reason three than not: hauntology, as we know, is the soft shift of today’s stupid technology-habit back towards yesterday’s anxious unspoken future-threat dreams blah blah beebaw bleugh. All of which is mainly just to set the scene for my not being v.blown away by this v.famous story…

ii: … Not that 5IVE seems terribly impressed either. In fact he’s distracted from the off: he seems fed up, world-weary and enough not his cheerful easygoing self that viewer unease breeds. The whole section of the first ep where he’s elaborately tormenting Young Adric by telling him nothing about anything — kind of a BadBaker Throwback Obnoxion Tic — is actually quite odd, even as a dramatic-irony set-up for later grief and guilt (if this is indeed what is later depicted). And then when the Juggheds turn up, his exasperated fed-upness doubles. Genuine WhoSchoolers will correct me here, but I believe they’d been absent from DW for quite a while, perhaps because writers had got written them off — absent since old HoboDays possibly, except didn’t BIG HEAD briefly skirmish with a forlorn handful late in the ‘Hed timeline (at which point they are declared scattered and diminished and laughable). None of the companions recognise them whn they first appear in EARTHSHOCK, and 5ive does nothing to clue them in to nature of danger: you’d think Who’s ancient war with the Juggheds (how they see each other; how they joust) is worth a bit more than this backstory insertion than this — if 5ive’s mug is a guide, this is just more boring pest control, just more unending admin, bottling up stupid not-really-robots, protecting stupid self-regardless humanity, shepherding and staving off stupid whiny LOGICBOY…

iii: … who (doctoral unkindness notwithstanding) is a good deal of any stumbling block, is he not? See, once there was Sherlock H, and today there is Sheldon C, and in-between — mightier far than either as a science-fictional archetype — is of course SPOCK: and Matthew Waterhouse was a very young unpracticed semi-non-actor required to realise all kinds of facets of the “reason vs emotion: which will win?” type storyline, NARRATIVE AND THE DIALECTICS OF hem hem PURE LOGIC if you will: facets he was simply not suited to (especially when poorly served by the script). (ps by no means a new topic for me to be picking at, in Helixterms: cf also THE INVASION Part 1 and Part 2 (feat.Cybermen), as well as FOUR TO DOOMSDAY (feat.Adric).) Indeed EARTHSHOCK actually skirts (tho doesn’t really resolving into) a kind of high-level Comi-tragic Logic-Off — Logicboy vs the Top Local Botman in Charge — with inadvertent solo self-sacrifice defeating trollingly psychotic mass exterminationism (hurrah). But (certainly compared with linked eps) not in a way you learn anything much from (unless you’re learning how not to write a moral fable). (Or how to write, period.) Primarily because this may be because JugHead-in-Chief is actually a terrifically pompous — and really NOT very rational — fellow, giving his speeches strangely over-emphatic readings and constantly re-improvising a poorly controlled plan to to destroy a planet to disrupt a conference so that he can humiliate and torment the fleshly (“That’s sadistic!” squeaks Tegan at one point. “No, it’s scientific!” declares the Jugghead serenely… ) (Adding: I’m advised by wikipedia that the actor, David Banks, recapped this performance several times and became cultishly beloved for the way he says “Excellent!”…)

[UPDATE INSERT (guide to cliffhanger-structure):
a: Danger in the cave! It’s latex pervobots with a bomb
b: Bomb defused but NOES! It’s invading cybermen offplanet, and the Doctor is being framed for one of their murders
c: he’s now onside with the (good) crew members but the freighter is itself a massive flying bomb
d: adric will save the day but oh at what cost?

iv: Sadly, 90% of Real Actual Proper Good Drama is how deftly you get yr heroes and villains on and off-stage, and into the binds and conflicts youwant them in. <--- if this isn't a well-worn dramacraft apothegm it bloody ought to be, if only to underscore why eps like this -- with quite simple cliffhanger structures -- are so tiresomely underwhelming. The cast is both numerous and diversely teamed: all teams ceaselessly splitting up, often quite unnecessarily. The Juggheds we encounter are of course part of a vast army united in vast strategic purpose, but an intricate localised part of this army, with much to do, little of it on point (viz why have they been busy murdering crew members if they want the vast plan to remain secret until too late? Why leave scary homicidal android guarding a defusable bomb instead of ACTUALLY HIDING THE BOMB BETTER etc); the cave-exploring team of course split up, to make it easier for the homicidal kinkybots to pick them off; the freighter crew somewhat ditto but this does give a sense of the sheer SCALE of this ship (=15,000 containers-worth); and the Doctor-Companion dynamics entail their (apparently) not even wanting to move around as a gang, in despite of the demands of the circumstances. To the point where the TARDIS-team atmosphere seems downright haunted and peculiar -- especially when you recall this ep comes after BLACK ORCHID aka NYSSA’S DREAM, with its rich oneiric foreshadowing of doom. There’s a very little bit of me tempted to argue that the Doctor is so distracted and distanced with Adric because, in some intuitive pre-cog subconscious fashion, he *knows* that the puir wee prodigy is not long for this world, and already subconsciously blames himself (I don’t believe this really, I think it’s just muddle-headed scriptwriting)…

v: Anyway time for a direct and simple positive yip yip: Beryl Reid! As a bored and cynical but actually totally competent captain of avast merchant vessel of space, well aware of the dickishness of her crew and the general uselessness of regulations. This includes an excellent reveal-surprise at the first appearance (SPOILER: you’re totally not expecting the ship’s captain to be a woman, let alone this woman). Beryl have made a good quasi-companion actually, Lethbridge-Stewart-style (ie a constant character over a longer arc; not necessarily a TARDIS inhabitant).

vi: various unrelated observations. 1: It’s merely anomalous and quaint given that the ep’s set centuries in Earth’s future, but the various computer tracking technologies, in the cave and on the ship. are also all quite poetic in their blinky bleepy simplicity (= more Hauntology 101 of course). 2:
i liked the bogus time-science round the ship’s engine — that it’s anti-matter contained by a flickeringly reconfigured matter shell, rebuilt every micro-second by “computer controlled electronics”. 3: wai oh wai when we encounter a human traitor the Juggheds have suborned do we never see the anomalous charm and guile they must have put into the seduction? How on earth do traitors ever fall for it? (They’re not all dimwits — cf The Invasion — though this one is. 4: I am a bit fascinated by the sociocultural relationship the ‘Heds have to their blackly clad Latex pervodroids . And (related!) 5: why does the droid-killing technique leave such a slimy — and recognisable — mess?

vii: Writing this up has been of a sluggish slog — partly bcz I’m getting back into the rhythm after a too-long lay-off, but also because I find this quite a hard ep to get to grips with. It’s a BIG IMPORTANT STORY (in long arc terms) without being a particuarly good one: certainly not a well told one. Ideas-wise, it’s potentially really rich — actually probably TOO rich for one four-parter — but I *really* feel I’m projecting an awareness of this richness onto the writers (except it seems very unfair to withhold it: none of this is especially subtle stuff, and — see Helix-Eps already linked — it’s all over early Who, much better grasped). Just to bring focus back to DINOGEDDON to make the point: I genuinely can’t decide if I want them to have made more of this underlying idea, or kept it as a (ideally more deft) Amazing Reveal. The latter allows us to get maximum impact from the Cretaceous-Traumatic Adric Event; but the fact of all the mass-produced JuggHeds struggling out of their shrink-wraps as they power up — satirical metaphor ahoy! of human extinction by container-freighter carbon-footprint white-goods consumerism! — would have been very hard indeed for a NuDoc overseer to overlook.

Plus also:

(^^^this exciting aspect — Robot vs Dinosaurs! Fite!! — is a kind of buried conceptual easter egg, except to no apparent purpose)

Putting a lot more thought into this issue than I suspect they ever did — no there is nothing at all wrong with this imbalance, plz to bug-off — I think there’s two aspect to the Matthew Waterhouse problem. First is that logic vs emotion — whiskered as it is in DW terms — gains a lot of potential once a major character is a mathematically brilliant child, in terms of big-question SF and in terms of sit-com misunderstanding. (What Jim Parsons brings to Dr Sheldon Cooper is a layered awareness of different modes and speed and qualities of intelligence, types of thinking and awareness and knowledge that aren’t necessarily transferrable, sensibilities associated with distinct age-groups that not everyone is well attuned to. There’s a constant in-body comedy of incongruity, as if the adult has to catch with the small boy in him, or vice versa: types of “getting it” that pass across a face at different speeds, or pull a body all the different different clownish ways.)

Second is sadder, really: MW actually has a very sweet and engaging face. When he’s not speaking or acting, you quite often really really want to like him (sometimes to hug him). Which possibly powers the abreaction (though others are know get very protective… )

NEXT DAY UPDATE: I say above that the “latter allows us to get maximum impact from the Cretaceous-Traumatic Adric Event” but realised as I was bit-by-bit tweaking this entry that this over-compressed reference to the climax actually indicates why the story doesn’t work — which is that it has two Amazing Reveal climaxes combined into just one shock ending, except one is pure Daft Robo vs Dino Thrill Power WHHHEEEE!, and the other is an emotionally important milestone in the long-game unfolding of DW’s understanding of himself, his behaviour, his responsibilities, his failings, his contradictions… The two trample all over one another, in tone and resonance and usefulness.

SECOND UPDATE: I’ve been tweaking piecemeal for two days to clarify and amplify — apologies to anyone reading while this was happening, it’s very unprofessional! The untweaked version is hereat LJ if you want to check what I first wrote. Though it has a slightly different nose there. I feel like there’s more to say, but I’ve leave it for comments.


  1. 1
    Tom on 10 Feb 2012 #

    Part of the Adric Problem is that even if the character had worked as designed (w/a better actor) he’d have been a little near-the-knuckle for Who fandom (AFAIK he was a deliberate attempt to create a viewer-identification character, but perhaps “badly dressed bratty pedant” misunderstood how closely said viewers WANTED their identification).

    Though of course at the time he was created “viewers” was meant to mean “almost everyone”. It’s interesting that he turned up just as the series made its most dramatic lurch away from the mainstream (intentionally or otherwise) as ratings collapsed – relatively speaking – and the production team rediscovered the supposed virtues of ‘proper’ SF. The final Baker season and first Davison – the Adric Years – were the peak of my childhood Who adoration, but I never liked Earthshock much and appreciated that Adric was the weak link in an overstuffed TARDIS.

  2. 2
    Tom on 10 Feb 2012 #

    (in fact story for story EVERY ADRIC EPISODE is a winner! OK ppl argue the toss about Four To Doomsday, and The Visitation is dumb but flashy entertaining dumb) (with a haughty space lizard).

    Earthshock is in fact the weakest story he was in – the best ones of the Adric Years (Warriors Gate, Logopolis, Kinda) are all-timers for me.

    Not much thanks to Adric I grant you.

  3. 3

    (i will tidy this up a bit over the weekend, it was written in fragments at work and posted in a hurry to get it out of the way as a large blob of proofing loomed; as you can see, i had none to spare!)

  4. 5
    Billy Smart on 14 Feb 2012 #

    The casting of Beryl Reid makes a BIT more sense once you know that John Nathan-Turner’s first choice for the role was Pat Phoenix.

  5. 6

    haha awesome — but I think his second choice was a LOT BETTER

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