Friday, September 10, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "Survival"

Now here's a rather interesting one because "Survival" is one of the handful of Doctor Who episodes of which I had only seen a few clips from and never watch the full episode... before now. As such I had the rare experience of getting to sit down and go into the story with no preconceived notions.

"Survival" also had the dubious honor of being the last episode of what became known as the "Classic Series". What led to this happening is rather a long and strange trip...

The show had been bleeding viewers for a number of years by 1989. The cause was a number of things from uninspired writing to uninteresting characters to a perception that the show was catering more and more to an ever shrinking core of devoted fans.

Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner had been in the top position for about ten years as well -- far longer than any other producer on the series -- and he was understandably burned out but what amounted to blackmail from the BBC kept him from moving on. The powers that be at the BBC informed J N-T that no one else really wanted the producership for Doctor Who and so if he left they were simply going to cancel the series. As a fan of the program as well as it's producer J N-T could not stand to see this happen and so he opted to stay. By 1989, however, he simply could not endure any longer and was determined to leave but had hoped to increase the show's ratings and standings so that the BBC would be more motivated to find a producer to replace him.

As it so happened, however, a number of other things also came about at the same time period. Despite the show's weakness, the BBC opted to change it's time slot -- putting it up against the a new but immensely popular nighttime soap opera called Coronation Street. This was like sending a fly to destroy a fly swatter... and it got exactly the results you might expect.

Also during this time period the crew on Doctor Who got a definite impression of snobbishness from the rest of the BBC's drama department -- of which Doctor Who was a part. To this day some of the writers allege that other writers and producers looked down on the show simply because it was sci-fi and they therefore considered it not real or proper drama.

While J N-T and script editor Andrew Cartmel both believed that the show was headed for a hiatus at the very least and more likely would be cancelled, they chose not to share their fears much. They did let their script writers, crew and actors know that the show was likely to be put on hiatus for a year or so but they said nothing about the worst case scenario. Even with the almost certainty of a hiatus looming they continued to make plans for another season -- what would have been season 27 for the venerable show.

Meanwhile, "Survival" would not be last episode filmed for the season -- that honor went to "Ghost Light" -- but it would be the last episode to air. With that in mind, Cartmel hastily wrote a little final speech for McCoy to say which could be dropped in at the end just in case the show went on hiatus and the fans might need something to tide them over until it returned.

Meanwhile, at the BBC the decision had been made. The new head of drama decided that the show needed a "rest". His intention at the time was to merely see Doctor Who be put on the shelf for three or four years and then be brought back by someone with some fresh ideas. In an interview for the "Survival" DVD he expressed a genuine regret that his decision led to the show going off the air for 16 years.

It was only long after filming for "Ghost Light" had wrapped that the entire cast and crew found out about the show's fate. Many were sad and bitter and while Sylvester McCoy, who played the Seventh Doctor, and Sophie Aldred, who played the Doctor's companion, Ace, knew that they could and would move on to other things they were upset that they would not be allowed to give their characters any closure.

Even for the fans, "Survival" aired as the last episode of the season and it was some time before a quiet announcement came out of the BBC that Doctor Who would be put on "hiatus" indefinitely. There was never a formal announcement of cancellation but as more than a year passed with no news of any new episodes fans eventually came to realize that the show was gone.

Over time there is some sense that "Survival" became somewhat revered simply because it turned out to be the last glass of wine from the bottle but does it deserve that status, no matter the conditions surrounding it?

The Plot: The Doctor has returned Ace "home" -- the Perivale Council Estate (read low-cost housing for the working classes) -- at her request as she wants to see what has happened to her friends while she's been traveling with the Doctor. Upon arrival, however, the Doctor quickly senses something amiss. Ace discovers that several of her friends have simply gone missing... as have others in and around Perivale and the Doctor sees a black cat the seems to have a slightly otherworldly quality to it...

Ace finds herself transported to a strange, alien world populated by Cheetah People and the Doctor soon follows. Once there, however, he finds that there seems to be no way back. He also finds that an old enemy is there waiting. To make matters worse, the planet has a symbiotic relationship to it's inhabitants -- the more they fight the more the planet begins to break up and destroy itself. Also, anyone who survives being the Cheetah People's prey slowly succumbs to the plant's influence and starts to become an animalistic Cheetah Person.

When the Doctor discovers a way back to Earth the Master takes advantage of it and in order to follow him and rescue the other trapped Earthlings the Doctor just might have to sacrifice Ace's humanity... But the Master is on Earth and he has been infected by the planet as well -- enough so that he now sees all around him as prey for the taking....

My Take: Okay, let's get the bad stuff out of the way first... the episode used a mixture of real cats and one animatronic cat as the Kitlings -- the otherwise seemingly ordinary black cats which are actually alien creatures who find the Prey for the Cheetah people on Earth and then facilitate bringing those people to the Cheetah planet to be hunted. The animatronic cat that the special effects department produced was quite bad. Really, really bad. Even by Doctor Who standards. The thing ends up looking rather moth-eaten and less convincing than the animatronic figures at your local carnival. Supposedly the animatronic cat was not supposed to be used very much but the live, trained cats which were hired proved to be less than well trained. Either way, there is no way a person can look at the shots with that blasted fake cat and not laugh.

Then there are the Cheetah People costumes. Reportedly, the costume designer's original idea was that the Cheetah people should look more humanoid. They would have some wigs and hair pieces to give the impression of manes and ruffs of fur but otherwise the Cheetah effect would be achieved through body paint. J N-T, however, wanted the costumes to be more overt and so the actors playing the Cheetah people ended up covered in spotted fun-fur with these large masks which ended up being, well, honestly, more cute and cuddly than ferocious. To make matters worse, in several sequences one can see the gaps at the neck of the mask and see them wobble and shift on the actors' heads as well completely destroying what little illusion there was.

There was also a kind of motorcycle duel between the Doctor and one of Ace's friends, Midge, now Cheetah-infected, that ends rather badly. Apparently the parts which make no sense were a result of the fact that the budget could not be stretched far enough and so some sequences had to be rewritten at the last minute. There were also a few things which J N-T feared would be too violent or intense and would get the show in trouble.

These things aside, the script is actually quite ambitious and effective.

First of all there is the story's initial setting. Perivale is representative of it's time -- the British Council Estates were, by all accounts (and some still are apparently) rather dreary places. This really comes through in the story mostly because the crew chose to actually film in the real Perivale Council Estate.

But the story shows the kind of dead-endness of the life in these types of places. When Ace runs into one of her old friends the girl says in a rather blase tone that everyone thought Ace had died... or gone to Birmingham. The same is true of the other missing persons. No one really cares and no one is surprised that someone might run away and leave no word behind simply to escape the drudgery of life there.

There is also hints of a criminal element and violence. The character of Sgt. Patterson teaches a self-defense class to the people who live there and indicates that he believes these youths must become hard in order to survive... that they must show no mercy to their attackers because their attackers will show no mercy to them. In short, Munro does all she can to blur the lines between the primitive, animalistic Cheetah planet and Perivale.

It has to be said, though, that the themes of "Survival of the fittest" and "Law of the jungle" do get pushed around awfully hard. The audience is rather beaten over the head with the phrases and the ideas and it does not take long before you're tempted to yell at the screen "We know! We get it already!"

There is also another theme running through which is a bit more subtle -- the idea of the violence of the people impacting the planet on the Cheetah world. We see and are told that the more they fight and hunt and kill the more the planet breaks up but at the same time, 1989 was still the era of Margaret Thatcher and George Bush and the Cold War and there were still those threats in our own world -- that the more we fought or came close to fighting the more danger we put our own planet in with the threat of nuclear war.

Another theme which comes through is the idea of the loss of humanity. When Midge kills a defenseless Cheetah person he begins the transformation into a Cheetah person himself. Once he starts down a path of violence without conscience he begins to lose his humanity. Later on the Doctor stops Ace from feeding on a dead animal carcass as even this kind of animal-like feeding would indicate a loss of humanity. As Ace falls under the spell of the planet and the Cheetah woman, Karra, she does break free for a moment when she realizes that Karra and her people hunt humans -- sentient beings -- without compunction or compassion, and Ace realizes how inhuman this is.

And there is the idea of the struggle that humans go through -- even in our pretty little world -- to hide the savagery underneath. The Master, who considers himself a great intellect and a man with supreme control over his emotions must now battle the beast within himself. Even the Doctor's greatest enemy feels something creeping up on him that perhaps even he will not be able to control and that something is his own animalistic nature. And it needs to be mentioned that Anthony Ainley as the Master turns in one of the best performances of his career. For once the Master himself has vulnerabilities and Ainley allows those to show through cracks in the Master's usually smooth veneer.

Then there is the theme of "home". The Kitlings bring the prey home with them to the Cheetah planet to hunt. Only the Cheetah people have the power to cross between the worlds but they cannot go back to Earth because Earth is not their home. So in order to return the Doctor must find... or create... an Earth-born Cheetah person and send them home. For Midge and Ace Earth is home, Perivale is home but also, as Ace comes to realize and finally give voice to -- the TARDIS is her home, her place with the Doctor is her home and the TARDIS is back on Earth. Likewise, when the Doctor again must throw himself from the Cheetah planet back to Earth he ends up right outside his TARDIS -- his home.

And finally, there is the theme of growing up for Ace. In the last several stories of season 26 the writers made it a point to put Ace on a character arc with an eye toward writing her out of the series during season 27 but doing so in such a way as to place her on a totally new track in life. As such the stories "The Curse of Fenric", "Ghost Light" and "Survival" were written to have Ace deal with a lot of the pain of her past and coming to grips with her growing up in the present.

Here she comes home again only to find what once was home has changed drastically. Old friends are gone and the ones who remain have changed -- just as she herself has changed through her travels with the Doctor. This is what happens as one grows up -- you find that time marches on with or without you and that people and places change and sometimes those changes cause you to lose them. Ace quickly realizes that she no longer fits in Perivale.

In that same vein, we see Ace disobeying the Doctor at several points -- breaking free of her father figure -- but turning back at several crucial points and crying for the Doctor to tell her what to do. Of course, the Doctor cannot. She is growing up now; maturing and she must make decisions for herself here.

Another interesting thing about this story is seeing how much it seemed to influence the new series of the show when it returned in 2005. Ace is a tough, streetwise kid who grew up in a council estate and Rose likewise grew up in a council flat. Ace, however, come across as a lot tougher than Rose, there is also a much greater sense that if Ace hadn't met the Doctor she might have ended up at a dead end or even in trouble with the law. Ace also seems to carry inside her more trouble, heartache and pain which are manifest in a fascination with fire and explosions.

But there is a difference here as well. When the new series would visit modern day London it usually felt as if that was the "normal" world and it was the Doctor and the alien bits which didn't fit in. With "Survival" it is the exact opposite. From the start Perivale feels like the alien world and it is actually the Doctor and Ace who seem like the "normal" components here.

By this point in the series McCoy and Andrew Cartmel had also gotten permission to start making the Doctor a darker character and this comes through here as well. The Doctor takes some of the lighter jokes and statements made by the ordinary people living in Perivale and he shows them the darkness lurking just underneath.

For example, a shopkeeper tells his co-worker that old joke about two guys out on safari when they hear a lion outside the tent. One of the adventurers start putting on a pair of running shoes and the other says "You can't outrun a lion." To which his compatriot replies "I don't have to outrun the lion." -- the punchline obviously being that the man only has to outrun his compatriot. The joke loses it's humor, though, when the Doctor steps in and points out that it means one must be willing to sacrifice a friend in order to save one's own skin.

There is also a sense that, once again, the Doctor is manipulating Ace -- even if it is for her own good. He also manipulates others -- like the Sgt. Patterson of the self defense classes.

And McCoy really sinks his teeth into this. He had been pushing for a darker interpretation of the Doctor for some time and having finally gotten his wish he plays it with great relish. One sees how he feels at different points -- those he uses whom he feels bad about using and those whom he does not feel bad about using. Also, his decision to, unlike the Master, be able to control his darker impulses and not give in to violence -- even when facing his worst enemy -- then who has caused him and those he cared about such pain and hardship over the years.

Kudos likewise go to Aldred who manages to convey very well the struggles of a young woman who is moving from childhood into becoming a full fledged adult. And who also manages to convey the emotional baggage of a girl who was brought up in less than ideal circumstances.

As fascinating as the script is, however, it is not without it's flaws -- just like the animatronic cat.

I mentioned before the rewritten scenes which remove some impact. The Doctor's conflict with the Master -- particularly the final fight -- is entirely too short. There is little of the back and forth fans have become used to between the Doctor and the Master and few scenes between them period.

Also, despite all the themes Munro plays with throughout the story it still feels like it has been padded. Ace repeats a line of dialogue almost verbatim twice and a lot of the Master's machinations after returning to Earth seem unfocused, petty, pointless and tacked on to fill out running time.

Overall, though... "Survival" was a good, solid story. As a number of fans and professionals have written over the years, there were signs that the show had finally "turned the corner". They had found their footing, they had started tapping really good writers who had a handle on the characters and they were starting to craft new, interesting stories. The pity was that it came too late.

As a capstone to the entire series up to this point? Well, it is a little lacking. Munro produced a story that was essentially one, long, extended metaphor and there were many points where the dialogue was actually quite poetic as well. It was stuffed to the gills with interesting themes and subtle social commentary and character development but there were still missteps. In places the themes were hammered home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Dropped from the top of the Empire State Building. In other places the pacing lagged while somewhere else in the story things happened far too quickly.

"Survival" was a story with a message for it's time and place but there are elements which still ring true today and are just as relevant and fascinating and that makes it well worth the time for viewing even if it wasn't the sort of grand finale fans might have wished for the series.

And really, Cartmel's hastily scribbled speech for the Doctor was and remains lovely and there is good reason why fans still return to it over and over again. If anything it does somehow manage to encapsulate what was at the time 26 years of the Doctor...

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