Imagine, if you will, a 1981 Doctor Who Convention in Chicago - groups of people gathered around with the movers and shakers behind the British cult hit. Producer John Nathan-Turner, wearing his deliberately tacky Hawaiian shirts; Sarah Sutton, charming many men present (including a 13 year old me); and Peter Davison, being just affable and swell. Imagine that, at this convention, the premiere of Earthshock...and the total coolness of what happened in the story: the end of the first episode, where an old enemy declares, "Destroy them! Destroy them at once!" to episode two's clever use of past episodes, to the death of a companion in episode four. We were blessed with a gift - Doctor Who, for once, taking its storytelling seriously.
Now, thanks to BBC Video, you can catch Doctor Who: Earthshock in all of its glory on DVD. Of course, now we know this is the first appearance of the Cybermen in seven years (looking a lot more menacing than the silver-painted-wetsuit versin), and that boy genius Adric is the companion who "buys it", dying in an explosion that (thanks to modern evidence) killed off the dinosaurs, paving the way for man's evolution. This is also a story that seems influenced by Alan Moore's work: pulling on then-radical theory, reflecting a more contemporary science-fiction influence (giving us an Alien-esque beginning), ingrating a more cinematic approach (as the documentary Putting the Shock in Earthshock states, there are more than 300 camera shots in this story), and reflecting a more "mature" approach to Doctor Who. It is the only time in the show's history where the final episode ended with silent credits. (There is much debate over this move - after the death of a companion, even Adric, charging off with the theme would seem...even more inappropriate). It's one of a handful of truly great stories during Peter Davison's turn as the fifth Doctor, along with Kinda, Caves of Androzani, and...well, you fill in number 3. (And no, I won't grant you The Five Doctors - it is somewhat over-the-top, but what anniversary program isn't?)
It's a story that gains from its historical context - now, in the era of Internet spoilers and hipper-than-thou fans (and you know who you are), we would learn that the Cybermen were the main antagonist and have public celebrations of Adric's death. (Compare this to JNT's efforts to block off the public gallery at BBC studios, as well as turning down a Radio Times cover to avoid spoiling the shocking surprises). It's also a story that, thanks to the performances, always hits the right pitches. (I'll grant you - Beryl Reid may have been slightly miscast, but even she manages to pull off a good performance). Even the relatively low-budget effects seem rather appropriate (although the DVD does have a CGI option, which helps...but not much). Also, it's a story that is high on action, low on plot...but, in a way, given the context of that first Davison season, it was what was needed.
It is also a sign of things to come in Doctor Who, and that isn't meant as a compliment. Gradually, during Davison's tenure the show began relying more on traditional/familiar monsters and characters. (Contrasted with a focus on new writers, this was bound to end up in a relatively messy procedure). It was contained elements that Eric Saward would repeat in his other DW stories. Instead of becoming a foundation from which to build the program, it became almost a story template - mix in one old enemy with one celebrity-guest star with a minimal plot, and enjoy! It is one of the better stories in DW, and yes, it's become fashionable to criticize...but it's a straighforward yarn, meant strictly to entertain and keep you on the edge of your seat, much like traditional Doctor Who.
One of the best Christmas gifts I received this year...and a gift well worth sharing.