Day 362 — December 28th 2021

Survival Parts Two and Three

Okay, so the cheetahs look far more cuddly than they do scary and that is one of the problems with this story. I know they’re supposed to be playful by nature, but you can’t get away from the fact that they’re that bit too cute to work. And yet I can’t help quite liking them! There’s something about the image of a cheetah riding a horse which just works, and it’s properly striking in that typically Doctor Who way where they meld things together that shouldn’t really go. It’s a shame we never get to see one riding down a residential street, because I think that would help to finish off the illusion.

Far scarier in this one is the moments when the more human characters start to become corrupted by the planet and transform into cats themselves. Midge looks suitably creepy, but it’s the cliffhanger moment with Ace which really sells the idea. It’s another one of those moments when I wish I didn’t know it was coming because I think it must be really exciting on a first viewing. It’s also telling that I completely buy the stakes here, in a way that I didn’t when we had scenes like Peri being transformed into a bird or having Kiv’s mind implanted into her. I think the idea here has been established well enough that I completely understand what the threat is, and maybe because there’s the added weight of this being the last ever story, you feel as though Ace might really fall to the corruption of the planet.

It helps that we’ve already seen it with the Master, and this is undeniably Anthony Ainley’s best performance in the role. He’s shed all the over-the-top pantomime stuff he’d become so used to by the last time we saw him, and is instead genuinely menacing here. I love the new costume, I love that he looks considerably older (it’s hard to believe it’s only three years since he last showed up), and the contact lenses help to make him look genuinely threatening. I love his howling, and the way McCoy reacts to him with a mixture of pity and contempt. I’d love to have seen them face off again.

Elsewhere I can’t decide if the alien world looks brilliant or a bit rubbish. There’s some genuinely brilliant moments — like when the red planet in the (entirely superimposed) sky is reflected in the (very real) lake around which Ace encounters a cheetah. It looks properly fantastic, and shows an attention to detail which I don’t think you always get — it helps to elevate this above just being another quarry. But then you get some other shots where there’s tyre tracks visible in the mud, and the ruins of a civilisation which are clearly made from concrete breeze blocks, which somewhat spoils the illusion.

My other problem is that you can see how hot it is. They filmed this one in the summer of 1989 during a heatwave (about a fortnight before I was born) and the special features on the Blu-ray go into great detail about just how warm it was. That’s clear on screen with everyone sweating like there’s no tomorrow, and it’s incredibly fitting for a planet on the brink of being torn apart. So… why does no one take off their jackets? Sophie Aldred must be sweltering in that leather, and McCoy just looks uncomfortable. There’s even a point where he has to stop and mop his brow, and I found myself shouting at the screen that he needs to lose the jacket, and probably the pullover too. It’s a tiny thing, but it took me out of the drama a little.

All the same, it’s nice to see the series do one last alien world in a quarry, and it feels like something that was almost a necessary inclusion for the final story. After all, it’s one of the things people most associate the show with, and it’s a couple of years since they last did it.

7/10

When it was announced that writer Rona Munro was returning to Doctor Who during Peter Capaldi’s time — still the only Old Testament Writer to return in the 21st century — I was properly excited. Her script for Survival is so beautiful, and there’s some seriously brilliant moments of dialogue in here, in this last episode even more than the other two. Her Capaldi story ended up being a bit of a let down, and I certainly don’t think it’s a patch on this one, but it’s nice to watch this again and be reminded of just how brilliant she is.

I love Ace’s reaction to hearing about the Master in Part Two (‘Do you know any nice people? You know, ordinary people, not power-crazed nutters trying to take over the galaxy?’) and this episode picks up on all the ‘survival of the fittest’ chat in the first episode and takes it to the extreme as Ace and Karra size each other up and establish their friendship.

Ace: ‘You kill people. You eat people.’
Karra: ‘When I’m hungry, I hunt. When I hunt, I eat.’
Ace: ‘Would you eat me?’
Karra: ‘There is meat here.’
Ace: ‘Yeah, but if there wasn’t, would you kill me?’
Karra: ‘How fast can you run, sister?’
Ace: ‘Fast enough.’

I was expecting to say that the cheetahs would be more effective if they didn’t speak — as has been the case with loads of monsters in the 1980s — but actually I really enjoy the burgeoning relationship between these two, and Lisa Bowerman puts in a brilliant performance which helps to sell it. Karra manages to walk the line between scary and seductive, and a lot of that is all in the script. I often think a bit much is made of reading a lesbian subtext in their interactions, but you can absolutely see where that comes from.

Karra’s death at the hands of the Master is suitably sad, which I think is testament to just how good a character she’s been. It’s also surprisingly ruthless of him to simply stab her like that — far more hard hitting than using the Tissue Compression Eliminator, and I think it’s probably the best moment he has in any of his stories. I wish he’d been allowed to play it this way — and been written this dark — from the start.

The Master: ‘You have no power here. This is not your place. I command here. I command you. You’ve no power over me. I can do anything I wish with you and you can do nothing — nothing — to me.’
Karra: ‘Do you bleed? I can always do something to you if you bleed.’

I was expecting to really like making the jump back to Earth, and there’s something really interesting in the format of having the adventure over — and the guest cast running off home — half way through this final episode. That said, I think it loses its way a little here. I want it to be Doctor Who and the Master charging towards each other on the motorbikes, and being transported back to the cheetah planet at the moment of impact. It’s a great explosion (of course it is, that’s their speciality at this point in the show’s history), but the stakes aren’t quite there when he’s facing down Midge.

I also can’t explain quite how disappointing it is when you discover that Doctor Who is laying upside down in the middle of some fly-tipped rubbish. They play the idea that he might have died really well — and Sophie Aldred is incredible in her reactions — and they keep the game up for ages. It’s several minutes between the crash and the reveal that he’s still alive. I can’t decide if, in cutting to a shot of the Master looking at Doctor Who’s bum, they’re trying to confound expectations or be funny. I don’t think they really succeed in either.

Oh but they make up for it with that ending, don’t they? I know they expected that this was probably the end so cobbled together the final speech as a way of giving a nice little send off, but it couldn’t be much more perfect. What a great way to bring 26 years to a close. I’m rounding this one out with another 7/10.

Doctor Who: ‘There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do!’

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Will Brooks

English Boy in Wales. Freelance Writer and Designer. Doctor Who Art for Big Finish, Titan Comics, Cubicle 7. TARDIS Fan. Pinstripe Counter.