Spoilers, says Tony.
21st century Doctor Who is much much harder to keep secret than the Classic series ever was, because a) there are far more fans these days, b) we all have smartphones, and c) there’s this lovely glittering Internet thing where news just fairly whizzes about. Nevertheless, there have been a number of times when the new series has actually managed to keep big surprises secret all the way to broadcast – Paul McGann, anyone? Tom Baker?
Back in the days of Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor, it was probably easier to keep plot points secret… mostly because unless they were Dalek-shaped plot points, or new Doctor-shaped plot points, the press tended to shrug and get on with annoying politicians.
But in 1982, John Nathan-Turner pulled off a secretive double – keeping not only the return of the Cybermen to Doctor Who quiet, but also concealing the shocking death of a companion in the same story.
Simply for those two things, Earthshock has a place in the halls of the fan favourites. But Earthshock is actually more than the sum of those two parts.
Eric Saward will always be a Marmite writer for Doctor Who fans – people tend to either love him or hate him. But in Earthshock he delivered the best of both worlds – a barmy, madly illogical plot for the kings of logic, in the grand tradition of… well, let’s face it, all their other plots in Classic Who; a cyclical storytelling structure that went from paleontology to an asteroid killing the dinosaurs, via androids, a bomb, a space freighter and the revival of the Cybermen; some kickass cliffhangers; but more than anything else, he turned a monster that had fallen long out of favour into one of the go-to villains of the 80s, by bending the rules that almost everyone before and since has said are unbendable, and giving the Cybermen personalities.
The utter lack of fanfare with which the Cybermen came back was masterful, so when they were revealed in all their then-new silver, complicated-looking glory, the hit of fan-adrenaline was absolutely massive. It was the kind of thing that drove you mad and jittery for a whole week, especially if you didn’t yet have a video recorder. They were back! And they looked and sounded superb, however briefly they’d appeared. But beyond all that, episode one dragged you in completely – a hatch in a network of dinosaur tunnels, with androids to guard it. What was that all about? The storytelling hooks were in long before the appearance of the Cybermen.
More importantly, the characterization of Lieutenant Scott and his team was superbly believable – as though they were being written by Robert Holmes on a day when he’d lost his sense of humour. Given the nature and the demands on writers of an over-filled Tardis, Peter Davison’s first season, once it escaped the overbearing seriousness of Christopher H Bidmead’s real science, had done extremely well in terms of building realistic, bickering, multi-faceted characters, and for all it’s probably overshadowed in those terms by Christopher Bailey’s Kinda, Earthshock’s first episode full of troopers with varying personalities comes a close second.
As the story goes on, the delights mount up – the Cybermen reviewing archive footage of the Doctor’s encounters with them, a necessity because they’d been off TV screens for eight years, and casual fans might not have understood how big they’d been, back in the day. More bickering humans on the space freighter, including Beryl Reid! The activation of the Cyberleader’s personal guard (again, for the show’s intended audience, who probably hadn’t seen stories like The Invasion, this was fantastic and frightening at the same time – that slow awakening, followed by the smashing of Cybermen out of tubes), the scale of the potential invasion, the march of the Cyber-army – these were moments of genuine thrill, and all before that ending. That ending that made you suck your breath in, wondering what just happened.
There are plenty of reasons to love Earthshock then. But the Cybermen. Ohhhh, the Cybermen. The reason they become again in the 80s what they’d been in the 60s – Doctor Who’s silver medal monsters, the second most exciting race of evildoers in the cosmos – is all down to Earthshock.
Building on ideas that had been seeded in their last appearance, Revenge of the Cybermen, Saward took the Cybermen both forward in terms of the way they spoke, and back to their very first appearance, when arguably they were more human than at any other time. He realized that while the Daleks had a monopoly on hysterical screeching and shooting you dead, if you wrote them right, the Cybermen could actually be a monster that could argue philosophy with you. They would kill you not just, as the Daleks would, because they believed they were superior to you. The Cybermen could explain to you in detail why you were wrong, and why they were justified in killing you. They’d done as much in The Tenth Planet, allowing William Hartnell a storming farewell speech about the power of emotions, and Saward channeled that straight into a new debate between the Cyberleader and the Doctor along similar themes, raising the 80s horror-factor by having the leader ‘prove’ his point about the weakness of emotions by threatening to kill Tegan.
The resurrection of the Cybermen as a serious threat is as much to do with these scenes with Davison, debating the realities of the universe, as it is to do with the shiny new Cyber-uniforms – Saward wrote them as that ultimate thing – a villain you wanted to understand more, one that piqued your curiosity while it sent you behind the sofa.
He also gave them a story in which the Cybermen were a cast iron threat with a sense of their own superiority, and brought them an opportunity to take plenty of lives, the body-count verging on the horrific and re-establishing them as a species with whom you disagreed at your peril. The fact that they were responsible for the death of a companion, which had only happened twice before, both as a result of the Daleks’ plans, and both in Hartnell’s time, boosted the Cybermen in the minds of viewers who were seeing them for the first time. To older fans, the Cybermen were well and truly back. To younger fans who hadn’t seen them before, Earthshock gave birth to a new, highly-defined and massively dangerous enemy. The Cybermen would be back, time and time again, because after Earthshock, they simply couldn’t be stopped.