Earthshock is a Doctor Who serial from 1982. I have chosen to write about it to conclude my Alien (dir. Scott, 1979) related posts. Like The Ark in Space, Earthshock is another Doctor Who serial with similarities to Alien. However, unlike The Ark in Space, its similarities are merely superficial, and it was broadcast after the release of Alien, meaning there is nothing exceptional about them. Earthshock mainly takes stylistic inspiration from Alien and tackles none of its deeper themes.
Like Alien, Earthshock features a spaceship with a downtrodden industrial look; common in post-Alien sci-fi. There is also a tense scene using a motion tracker, and an isolated crew under siege from an alien menace, namely, the Cybermen. The Cybermen are a race of cyborgs who convert humans into their kind; melding man with machine, violating their flesh and stripping them of their emotions. This aspect of the Cybermen, which some consider their most terrifying, is oddly overlooked in Earthshock. With barely a reference made to their cyborg nature, they could easily be mistaken for nothing more than powerful robots. This is especially strange considering Alien’s focus on the dangerous effects of technology superseding nature and violation of the human body; proving the superficiality of Earthshock’s plundering of its ideas.
In early scenes, the ship’s crew, like that of Alien, is seen to bicker and worry about their wages. In Alien, this is part of a larger theme, a criticism of capitalism, as the crew is betrayed by the company they work for, who consider them expendable commodities. Earthshock seems to be setting out to criticise humanity’s greed, with Captain Briggs (Beryl Reid) being more concerned with her bonus than the crew’s safety, and Security Officer Ringway (Alec Sabin) being revealed as a traitor, working for the Cybermen for financial reward. Sadly, there is no effective payoff to these criticisms. The Cybermen could act as the perfect monstrous embodiment of capitalism, with their goals of expansion and replication, but no connection is drawn thanks to the lack of reference to their conversion of humans. There are many ways an imaginative writer could develop these criticisms. Perhaps the Cybermen could turn out to be in league with the crew’s company superiors, who hope to profit from a deal with them. The Cybermen could have offered to convert the crew for the company, making them stronger and more efficient cogs in the machinery of capitalism. This scenario would see Briggs face being used as a commodity by her superiors – just as she used her crew – superiors who are willing to sacrifice the Earth for their profits, just as she is unwittingly doing when she refuses to believe the Doctor (Peter Davison) and stop the ship. But no, this possible critique of capitalism is set up and quickly forgotten about, making these early scenes appear like a result of Earthshock’s writer, Eric Saward, copying Alien without putting any thought into what it’s actually about.
Earthshock is often lauded for its emotional maturity, as at its conclusion, one of the Doctor’s companions, Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), dies. However, this is merely cheap soap opera dramatics, as there is no thematic weight or purpose behind his death. The Cyber-Leader (David Banks) threatening Tegan (Janet Fielding) to gain control over the Doctor and criticise his emotional attachments seems to be set up as a crucial scene, but again, there is no payoff. Perhaps if Adric saved the day due to his emotions, the story would have something to say, but he doesn’t, so the Cyber-Leader isn’t proven wrong.
Adric dies for no reason, other than his arrogant desire to prove his intelligence, as he stays on board to attempt to unlock the ship’s computer; his final words being, “Now I’ll never know if I was right”. Instead, the day is saved by the ship randomly travelling back in time sixty-five million years, crashing into Earth, and destroying the dinosaurs. This is an attempt at clever plotting by Saward, another sci-fi explanation for a historical event, repeating the formula he used in an earlier script, The Visitation, which saw the Doctor accidentally starting the Great Fire of London. However, it’s not clever at all; it’s a ridiculous plot convenience. The explanation for the ship travelling back in time is absolute gobbledygook, which has no setup at all (it jumps time warps because it has an alien machine overriding its computer. What?). Earthshock fails to develop any of its ideas satisfactorily or provide effective payoffs for its suggested themes; recurrent issues with Saward’s writing, which I plan to cover further in future posts.