And so, after over two years of watching every Doctor Who story in order from ‘100,000BC’ onwards, I finally reach ‘Survival’. Despite it’s status as the very last broadcast story of the original series, ‘Survival’ if often overlooked in favour of Season Twenty-Six stable-mates ‘Ghost Light’ and ‘The Curse of Fenric’; nevertheless, it is a well-written and largely well directed story that forms a fitting end to a mammoth twenty-six year run.
The plot of ‘Survival’ is adequately described by the story’s title; it’s about survival on the planet of the Cheetah People as the humans transported there struggle initially to stay alive and later to remain human, whilst the Master also strives to survive without giving in to his bestial side. It’s also about survival in the urban wilderness of Perivale, a depressing concrete suburb where Ace’s friends and contemporaries have little to do except learn to fight in Sergeant Patterson’s testosterone crazed self-defense classes. There is also an element of the repulsive concept of social Darwinism, illustrated by the joke about a man trying to outrun his friend when they are chased by a lion shared by Harvey and Len; the Master epitomizes this, as he uses and discards Midge to facilitate his own escape, and later literally makes use of the concept to encourage the self-defense group to kill Patterson. Ironically of course, Patterson is himself a proponent of social Darwinism, and it comes back to haunt him with terminal consequences. And ‘Survival’ is perhaps also about other aspects of human nature; Ace and Midge both start to transform into Cheetah People, but for different reasons. Ace’s is attracted to the savage beauty of the creatures and begins to change after she saves Karra, whereas Midge gives in to his darker, animalistic side, needlessly killing a Cheetah Person in fear and anger. The Doctor’s cry of “If we fight like animals, we die like animals” is an attempt to appeal to the Master’s reason and to the better qualities of humanity, as he seeks an alternative to combat. Of course, neither life nor the plot of ‘Survival’ is ever that simple; despite the Doctor’s best efforts, sometimes there is no alternative, and it is Ace’s transformation that allows her friends and her to return home. When she refuses to fight in Episode Three, knowing that doing so will change her forever, she faces death until Karra intervenes.
In addition to this engaging and fairly thought-proving plot, ‘Survival’ also benefits from some great scripting, which includes some rather witty lines and scenes, including “That’s what they said, either you were dead or gone to Birmingham” and the Doctor being caught in Ace’s noose trap, prompting the deadpan response “How many times have I told you about playing with fire?” as she runs screaming towards him with a burning branch in her hand. Impressively, this is the only story from this era that contains absolutely no lines that make me cringe; Ace usually gets saddled with at least one, but writer Rona Munro avoids this recurring problem here. The story is well structured from the opening scenes, as something hunts people on the streets of Perivale and people vanish, and although we have often seen the Doctor in a contemporary setting, this is the first time he has ever been placed into the tedious banality of such a suburban setting, which is both effective and rather comical. A man who has toppled empires, overthrown tyrants and defeated monsters is suddenly inconvenienced by an irritated homeowner who glowers at him as he hides in her garden trying to trap cats. Munro also scores well with both the Cheetah People and their planet; the Cheetah People are animals, but they are lethal predators, not domestic cats. Ace tries to unhorse one of them and the Doctor juggles in an attempt to distract them from Patterson, but both fail, having underestimated the creatures. Later, Ace befriends Karra after a fashion, but the Cheetah Person retains her lethal edge, making it clear that she would kill Ace if there were no other food available. Finally, in a story in which humanity’s relationship to nature is important, the planet of the Cheetah People is not just another alien planet, but rather a living force of nature inextricably linked to its inhabitants.
‘Survival’ benefits from some great acting. It is often said that Anthony Ainley gives his best performance as the Master here, and it is easy to see why; bereft of ham, he reigns in his usual over-the-top tendencies and gives a subtle, restrained and weary performance appropriate to the fact that here, the Master isn’t engaged in yet another bid for power, but is simply trying to survive. Stripped of the usual bickering, his relationship with the Doctor is far darker than usual; he seeks the Doctor’s help early on, but later, as he comes to believe that he will never be free of the Cheetah planet, he becomes more obsessed with killing his old foe than he does with surviving. Aldred is also rather good here, proving that she plays the character much better when Ace is allowed to be more adult, which is probably understandable as she was always hopelessly miscast as a sulky teenager. She sounds genuinely terrified when Ace screams for help in Episode Three, for example. McCoy is not quite on his best form however; his anguished cries of “If we fight like animals, we die like animals” don’t quite ring true, and he becomes very stilted on occasion, especially during the “Don’t run!” scene in Episode Two. For the most part though, he’s very good; he conveys the Doctor’s contempt for the Master just as well as his predecessors, and he gets small moments of brilliance, such as when he dismisses Patterson with the simple “Oh do shut up”, a quietly delivered line which nevertheless sounds surprisingly forceful.
The guest cast also performs well; none of them especially stand out, but this is largely because none of them are noticeably bad. Julian Holloway’s performance as opinionated buffoon Sergeant Patterson, a man who obviously thinks that he can cope with anything but copes less well than Ace’s “dropout” friends, is alarmingly convincing, as is William Barton’s as Midge, a seemingly once cocky young man who is lead astray first by his own nature and then by the Master. Sakuntala Ramanee’s Shreela and David John’s Derek also provide reliable support, both representing likeable innocents caught up in a battle for survival. Then of course there’s Lisa Bowerman who is fine as Karra, giving a largely vocal performance due to the limitations of her mask, which hides any facial expressions. She has of course spent a good part of the last few years endearing Doctor Who fans by giving a more prominent vocal performance as one of my favourite companions, but more on that in later reviews. I should also mention Hale and Pace, arguably the least funny comedy double act since records began, who’s long and relatively successful career is both baffling and distressing. Nevertheless, credit where credit is due; they are perfectly cast as a pair of utterly banal shopkeepers who share an unfunny joke.
In production terms, ‘Survival’ is variable. Dominic Glynn’s incidental score is superb, and always makes me wish guitars had seen wider use in the scores written for the series. Alan Wareing also does a great job of directing ‘Survival’, proving that he can handle location work just as well as he did studio sets in ‘Ghost Light’. The logical step of shooting the scenes set in Perivale actually in Perivale works very well, and although the Planet of the Cheetah people is obviously a quarry, gravel pit or similar locale, this retrospectively seems highly appropriate for the series’ final story. Wareing also handles his actors well; the “Don’t run!” scene in Episode Two that I mentioned above treads precariously close to embarrassing, but he pulls it off thanks to fast cuts and shots from above the actors’ heads, which keeps a certain momentum going. Despite all this praise however, ‘Survival’ does suffer in places; the oft criticized motorcycle crash is truly appalling, as the subsequent shot of the Doctor face down in a rubbish tip (surprisingly, McCoy refrains from his occasional tendency to clown around, and actually claws back some dignity here by sounding genuinely angry as he dusts himself off and fumes about the Master). The biggest problem however, is the cats. I’m veering into hypocrisy here, given my prior defense of ‘The Web Planet’ on the grounds that special effects aren’t important, but the animatronic kitlings look awful and the Cheetah People infamously look like Puss in Boots. I don’t really mind this, but I can’t help thinking the animatronic cats aren’t really necessary (all they do is snarl as their eyes glow red), and there must surely have been a better way to realize the Cheetah People than by using inexpressive masks and fake fur leggings. Fake teeth, contact lenses, half-masks and leather garments might have been more effective and within budget; to the production team’s credit however, the decision to mount them on horseback was inspired, as they look far more impressive when they are on the horses than they do off of them. It doesn’t really matter though; the script works and for the most part ‘Survival’ papers over its less impressive aspects with ease.
And that’s it; suddenly, and to my horror at the time, my favourite television series came to an abrupt end. A slightly cheesy voice-over tacked onto the final scene of ‘Survival’ suggests that, whilst the series might be ending, the Doctor’s adventures would continue, somewhere, somehow, but the television series died. The corpse however, wouldn’t stop twitching. Some two years later, Virgin Books began publishing a new range of full-length original Doctor Who novels entitled the New Adventures. After a fairly pedestrian start, Paul Cornell’s ‘Timewyrm: Revelation’ suddenly opened my eyes to a new world of stories and what followed quickly became (and has remained) one of my favourite eras of Doctor Who and one of the most controversial. Soon, the Missing Adventures joined the New Adventures; with Virgin publishing two novels a month and Doctor Who Magazine (and of course it’s popular comic strip) keeping the flame alive, my appetite for the Time Lord’s adventures continued to be satisfied. Despite this, my desire for a new television series remained undiminished but it wouldn’t be until nineteen ninety-six that Doctor Who next returned to our screens…
Survival, despite being over-shadowed by some of its season 26 neighbours, is remarkable in many ways. Rona Munro's story is a complex tale, unusual in its tone, and full of unexpected juxtapositions. We see a grandiose, debonair Master plotting first in a dark, fur-lined hut and later in a grotty, mundane high rise flat - his civilised (albeit evil) nature disintegrating in the face of chaos; Perivale, oddly disconcerting in its somnambulant suburban dullness, and the hot, dusty planet of the Cheetah People.
Perhaps the most refreshing contrast, in a story exploring diverse themes and deepening the characterisation of the regulars, is the streak of humour in the script and performances. Although predominately in episode one, the light, naturalistic touch of the comedy resonates through the story, giving a realistic sheen to the tragedy and drama. The Doctor's cat-baiting, while flatly ignoring Ace, is wonderful, as is his shooing off of the lady whose garden he uses as a hiding place; and Hale and Pace, in retrospect, are suitably funny in the context.
Humour aside, Survival is a powerful story about, appropriately, surviving, and surviving in such a way that you don't harm others, or yourself, by losing your humanity. Even the Hale and Pace sequence, with the joke about the two friends and the lion, highlights the dilemma - can the animal instinct within us sit comfortably alongside our human urge (our human need) to help others, to stick by our friends? It could be viewed as a critique of Thatcher's Britain, Midge in episode three, a caricature of the 'successful' individual; the fittest has survived. But it doesn't require a socio-political reading - Survival is effective, thematically, on a more universal level, and the themes serve to make Ace an even more nuanced character than she already, at this point, is.
Just as in Remembrance of the Daleks, Ghostlight, and The Curse of Fenric, the Ace we meet is an immensely strong-willed individual - a survivor. It is inevitable that she (the companion who has always wanted to be 'free' in many senses) falls in love with the experience of running wild. But the presence of the Doctor controls her, keeping her selfish will to survive in check. A classic moment in Survival, easily missed, is the a split-second look on Ace's face - when the Doctor retrieves his hat - that speaks multitudes about the faith Ace has in the Doctor, no matter what happens. And in return, the Doctor has immense faith in her - her wild, aggressiveness will always be there, but while travelling in the TARDIS she is part of a team.
It doesn’t all work. The bike-duel; the scene where Karra and Ace run, in slow motion, across the open plain; and the cats – furry soft-toys or peculiar mechanical moggies – that were never going to convince. But the cast take it in their stride, each character believable and interesting. There are only very, very rare instances of truly bad acting – and the excellent final confrontation, with McCoy screaming out the pained, anguished cry of a century-weary Time Lord, isn’t one of them. Even Anthony Ainley brings a measured reverence to the Master in this atypical appearance. There is no hint of world-domination or crude, hammy megalomania here, it is purely a portrayal of the man, the Doctor’s enemy, who wants to survive.
Survival has both style and substance. It is thematically rich, but comes together, as a cogent, three-part serial, because it has eerie atmosphere, oddly believable. The decision to put the Cheetah People on horse-back; the care taken to make the planet look truly alien; the music – all things that mark Survival out as something worth watching, and something you wouldn’t worry about showing to your friends. And now we know Doctor Who is coming back, the final voice-over is all the more poignant.