Chapter 78. Doctor Who – Earthshock (1983)

Synopsis: After a brief encounter in a cave on Earth, the Doctor and his friends explore a freighter in space. When a crewmember of the freighter is found murdered, the Doctor becomes an obvious suspect. The captain of the ship, a stern woman called Briggs, remains unconvinced by the Doctor’s explanations but is more concerned with getting her cargo to Earth, unaware that each of her fifteen thousand silos contains a dormant Cybermen – and they’re about to wake up!

Chapter Titles

  • 1. Shadows
  • 2. Labyrinth of Death
  • 3. Uneasy Allies
  • 4. A Crisis Defused
  • 5. Stowaways
  • 6. Monstrous Awakenings
  • 7. A Siege
  • 8. War of Nerves
  • 9. Accidents Happen
  • 10. Triumph and Tragedy

Background: Ian Marter adapts scripts by Eric Saward for the 1982 serial.

Notes: All of the TARDIS crew receives a very good quick-sketch description in line with those of Terrance Dicks, so Adric is ‘snub-nosed’ and sullen and Nyssa is ‘aristocratic-looking’, while Tegan has an ‘efficient and determined air’. The new Doctor gets his best description so far: With his ‘long and tanned’ face and open collar with two embroidered question marks (their first mention!), he looks like he’s ‘dressed for a summer garden party or a regatta’. References to their failed attempt to get to Heathrow (The Visitation) and the book the Doctor is reading (Black Orchid) are missing.

The Doctor theorises that the bomb in the caves might be strong enough to blow the Earth apart if it were placed in a strategic position such as an ancient fault line. Without identifying them yet, Marter introduces two silver figures, one larger than the other, and it’s the most detailed descriptions of Cybermen so far:

The rigid mask-like faces had eyeless sockets and immobile mouth-like apertures, but no noses. They had no ears, but a network of wires and pipes connecting a bulging section on each side of their heads to a similar bulge on the top. The limbs were jointed like human ones, but were much thicker and more powerfully tubular, and the arms terminated in enormous hands like steel gauntlets. Tubes ran snaking over the hard metallic surfaces of their bodies from flat, box-like units protected by gratings which were fitted onto their chests…

The beings make hissing noises ‘like human breathing’ (so, just like Darth Vader) and their guns are clipped to their belts (utility belts like Batman? The Cyberleader pulls a key from his later). The Cyberleader is accompanied by a Deputy (which neatly avoids confusion with Lieutenant Scott) and their scanner is called a ‘holovisor disc’. The Cybermen are much more resilient than the TV versions toward the firepower of the troopers and freighter crew, until the Doctor suggests they focus their guns on the chest gratings. A mocking Ringway suggests that the Doctor and his friends should give in and the Doctor replies: ‘I never surrender, it’s too embarrassing.’

Berger is described as ‘a lean hard woman of about fifty’, while Captain Briggs is rather generously said to be about Berger’s age (rather than a decade older). As the Cybermen march him towards the TARDIS, the Doctor stumbles across their hidden control room; the entry hatch slams shut, accidentally sets the reactivation sequence running on the dormant Cybermen.

Nyssa removes the dead bodies of Professor Kyle and the trooper from the TARDIS Console room, which is possibly the single bravest thing a companion has ever had to do. Adric’s badge is used to attack both the Cyberleader and the Deputy; Tegan stands in wait as the Deputy returns to the console room and attacks him from behind, before the Doctor (not Nyssa) blasts him with the Leader’s gun. The Doctor picks up a surviving fragment of Adric’s badge and places it in his pocket.

Cover: A misleading photo of the Doctor pointing a gun. Davison looks rather heroic and dashing, and the cover at least maintains the surprise of the returning enemy. This even extends to the back cover blurb – for the first edition at least – which skillfully avoids spelling anything out. The 1992 edition states that the book ‘features the long awaited return of the Cybermen, the Doctor’s most lethal enemies.’ Alister Pearson’s cover has a half-length painting of a Cyberman with the Doctor, Adric and the Earth beautifully sketched in shades of blue in the background.

Final Analysis: Oh I’ve missed Ian Marter’s writing. I often wish he could have been published as a horror author, maybe with a selection of original short stories. The book begins with an evocative image of the landscape:

The towering cliffside resembled a gigantic human skull with the dark openings of caves gaping like empty eye-sockets and nostrils. 

… and it continues with the same dripping nastiness that made Ark in Space such fun. Marter’s violence is sensuous: Bodies shot by the androids collapse into a ‘gluey pool’ of ‘steaming, viscous liquid’; a ‘sickly smell’ hangs in the air, sizzling ‘like hot fat’; a Cyberman slices a trooper’s skull ‘like an egg’; when the Cybermen die, they leak ‘black oily pus’ and their ventilator units emit ‘thick black smoke’, ‘brown fluid’ or  ‘evil yellow and black bubbles’… the idea that Cybermen smell of anything makes them even more disgusting and repellent.

I recently criticised Christopher Bidmead for wilfully choosing to ignore the kind of stories the target / Target audience actually wants; Ian Marter’s approach might not be the literature their teachers or parents would chose for them, but this is exactly the kind of gloopy thriller a macabre teenage boy with a love of reading deserves. Earthshock was already the best Cyberman story (no really!) but Marter’s adaptation converts the familiar-but-generic invaders into something more disturbing than they’ve been. Best Cybermen ever!

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