Doctor Who #704: Survival Part 1

"There's no one around, is there? Nothing but tin cans and stray cats."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Nov.22 1989.

IN THIS ONE... Return to Perivale, which is fast turning into a ghost town thanks to a mangy black kitty and Cheetahs on horseback.

REVIEW: It's incredible how much Survival looks, reads and feels like a New Who episode. The Doctor brings his companion back to her lower-class neighborhood, which is less council estate and more like the streets used in The Idiot's Lantern and Fear Her. Crucially, it has the plots of those two stories, with people disappearing due to some malign influence. Doesn't Fear Her also have the Doctor trying to catch a cat? The alien, animatronic cat is, admittedly, the ropiest effect from this entire season and only my bias for Season 26 makes me want to defend it. Somehow, I still find it rather effective and creepy. This is one that, despite the potentially camp monster (and I could mean Anthony Ainley as much as the Kitling here) and Doctor managing to get every animal BUT the bad cat into his trap, and trading punchlines with comedy team Pace and Hale, the episode still manages a certain amount of disturbia. The empty streets, the mutilated corpse of the grocer's cat, cats eating the body of the car washer... And it's got some nice production values too, with a Cheetah on an actual horse, invoking the original Planet of the Apes' manhunts.

In many ways, this is about youth exodus, young people leaving communities with no future for a big city or lucrative Northern post in some oil refinery (at least, that's what they do here). Perivale's depopulation is caused by alien intervention, of course, but no one seems to question the disappearances. In this world, it is entirely normal for young people to fly the coop and never look back. It's notable that even after The Curse of Fenric's revelations, and being told here that her mom was heartbroken, Ace doesn't have a single thought about going to see her. She just wants to see what her old mates are up to, and is disappointed to find that, like her, they've all left. The only young person she knows is begging in the street. And despite hanging out in playgrounds, Ace has never looked so adult, in both dress and attitude. It's the very real feeling of going back to your hometown and finding your connection to it lost, everything you hated the same and everything you loved changed.

All this is wrapped into the notion of survival of the fittest, treating the outside world as a jungle (here an alien planet) where it's eat or be eaten. Will these kids turn on each other, like the tiger-beset characters of the grocer's joke? Survival is the twistedly ironic title of Doctor Who's last story (but it wasn't long in proving itself right), ties into the evolutionary themes of the previous story, and makes it into a lot of dialog via its main proponent, Sgt. Patterson. This character is a bit like Martin Kove's bad sensei in The Karate Kid, teaching young mean to survive through mercilessness. It's not enough that they know how to defend themselves, they must be capable of going a step further and inflict harm, pain and fear. "Show me a better way of surviving" he asks the Doctor, and that's what the Doctor is all about. In his final story, the Doctor may well have to reaffirm his credo.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Season 26 continues to shine thanks to its focus on the companion, and an approach that brings serious themes out of the action-adventure elements.


Madeley said...

You're completely right about Season 26 being the template for NuWho, and Survival is the NuWhoiest of all of them. As I mentioned on Twitter the other day, the eccentric way the Doctor is messing around with catfood is classic Modern Who- I could easily see Matt Smith doing similar scenes. Again, it's a shame that the New Adventures, in concentrating on the Doctor's dark side, often forgot that when he wasn't overdoing it McCoy's more humourous moments could be quite charming.

Have to say, I agree with you about the kitling puppet. It's not the best in the world, but far from Old Who's worst, and quite unsettling at times. I also think the Cheetah People costumes get a lot of undeserved stick- considering the budgetary limitations, the costume department did a pretty good job. And the horse riding scenes against the red sky of the alien world look suitably strange and epic.

I'll be interested to see your take on the Master's performance, too, as I know you're not a fan of Ainley. I find that he lays it on slightly less thick in this story, his most effective in the role.

Siskoid said...

He's not his outrageous self here, but that's because he's mostly a pair of eyes, occasionally shown.

I do like his prodding "Show me. Show me!"


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