Survival

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(Doctor Who Story No. 159, starring Sylvester McCoy)
  • written by Rona Munro
  • directed by Alan Wareing
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Dominic Glynn
  • 3 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: The Doctor takes Ace back to her home town to visit her friends, only to find that half of the town has gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Why is there an unearthly black cat prowling the scene just prior to each disappearance? What dark alien minds are seeing what he sees, relaying instructions? The Doctor's hunt for the truth takes him to an alien wilderness, where he soon becomes the hunted.... Can he survive the vicious lifestyle of the indigenous creatures and the old enemy stirring them up? Is it already too late for his companion Ace?

DVD Extras (on 2 discs no less) include:

  • Full length audio commentary by Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), and script editor Andrew Cartmel.
  • "Cat Flap" making-of documentary (62 min. total, in 2 parts) adding Lisa Bowerman (Karra), Will Barton (Midge), Sakuntala Ramanee (Shreela),
    Adele Silva (Squeak), director Alan Wareing, composer Dominic Glynn, costume designer Ken Trew, and visual effects assistant Mike Tucker.
  • "End Game" featurette (44 min.) on how this became the last story of the classic series,
    and what might otherwise have been in store for the following year....
  • "Little Girl Lost" featurette (16 min.) on Ace's character arc, with Aldred, Cartmel, and series writer Ian Briggs.
  • Deleted and Extended Scenes, alternate edits (9 min.)
  • Bloopers & Outtakes (16 min.)
  • Isolated music by Dominic Glynn
  • Audio Options: Original stereo or new 5.1 surround sound
  • Photo Gallery music montage (9 min.)
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • clips from the computer game "Destiny of the Doctors" (14 min.), written by Terrance Dicks and
    featuring Anthony Ainley's last performance as the Master
  • "Search out Science" juvenile mock game show (19 min.), featuring Sylvester McCoy's Doctor, Ace, K9, and Cedric
  • Additional fan audio commentary for part three only, with Doctor Who Magazine editor Clayton Hickman and three contest winners.

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)


Now approaching the end of its initial, classic run on television, you may assume that Doctor Who had exhausted its possibilities and had nowhere new to go. Not so, as the story "Survival" here strikes a new tone and goes for an idea that has truly not been done before or since. Part "Planet of the Apes", part "Dog Whisperer", part "Rebel Without A Cause", it also contains a sublime, Zen-like poetic feel, and remains fascinatingly unique in the Doctor Who canon, or elsewhere for that matter.


For the first time, the story's opening feels more like it belongs to the new millennium version of the show than to the 1980's, giving us a slightly cheesy, friendly neighbourhood scene that could have kicked off a story like "Fear Her" (and definitely would have been an improvement on that story). All this actually reminds one that the Earthbound stigma that will soon badly plague the show actually began at the start of season 26. Not to worry though, because "Survival" actually turns out to be the only season 26 story to break the Earthbound mould, and do it very excellently.

Why all "Apes" are created equal...

In part, this story succeeds for many of the same reasons that the original "Planet of the Apes" film did. Make-up and costume design collaborate to create an undeniably alien humanoid species that features heavily throughout and in significant numbers. Considering the limits of Doctor Who's 1989 budget and television schedule, this is a significant achievement. I am, however, aghast at all the flak thrown towards this design by the cast and crew on the DVD extras. There seem to be two main points to their griping. The first is an unfortunate psychological trap that Doctor Who makers, viewers, and city-people in general fall into, which is that the mere sight of a well-designed alien creature should send you running behind the sofa all on its own. Grow up. The design we get here has the inherent neutrality of real animals, and will come off as either scary or cuddly based on what it does and how it acts. And in that sense, give the director and his team of actors their due, because they work well with the advantages and limitations of this design to ensure the members of this species induce the right amount of trepidation or sympathy in their scenes - better in many cases than some of the actors playing humans. The much more enthusiastically maligned Mandrells of "The Nightmare of Eden" (story no. 107) could well have done with getting as good a balance of character from writing, acting, and directing as this species does here. I'll much sooner believe in the reality of these creatures than in those of the previous story, or the Vogans of "Revenge of the Cybermen" (story no. 79), or the bear man from "The Androids of Tara" (story no. 101), or most of the CGI cartoon creatures now thrashing around in the New Millennium version of Doctor Who without sufficient motivation, such as in "The Lazarus Experiment" (story no. 187). Even other good make-ups like the one from "Battlefield" (story no. 156) still wind up looking too much like a product of man's mental fear machine, and as far as I'm concerned this story's creature design blows the one from "Battlefield" out of the water.

The team's second concern is fair, particularly if they want to continue pushing the envelope, which is that they felt too limited in allowing movement and facial expression through the mask. This doesn't seem to hinder the story much though, as they work around this and keep the creatures quite expressive. Watching the original "Planet of the Apes" again, one notices immediately how much better the lip sync is on the cretures of "Survival" here. On the extras, many of the team try to describe what they thought would work better for this design.... which to me sounds like a repeat of one specific one from "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy" (story no. 155), and that worked far less effectively than what we get here, no question. In short, the team would do well to not advertise their troubles so much. Just as in "Planet of the Apes", there is character balance in the prolific make-up design here, and it deserves to be labeled an equally valid success.

The story's musical score is somewhat humble in its ability to disappear into the background, helping the narrative enormously without calling attention to itself with any easily noticeable recurring themes. Although I found this disappointing on first viewing, attentive listening is highly rewarding (and helped by the isolated score on DVD), as the story's music turns out to be far less random than it may at first appear, and reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith's enjoyable experimental work on the original "Planet of the Apes". There are themes and recurring motifs, although much of the time a few simple notes on well chosen instrument sounds build tremendously correct atmosphere and mood, which is the most important thing to do. I have to say, Dominic Glynn's increase in musical sophistication is noticeable here, and this score is growing on me enormously....


"Good Hunting, Sister!"

But even as "Survival" appears to contain many elements similar to "Planet of the Apes", the story here is far, FAR different. Rona Munro has successfully carved out her own territory with this tale, less about evolving intelligence, and more about a hypnotic and Zen-like appreciation of the predator/prey dynamic and the poetry of being at one with nature. And where other stories of the McCoy era are densely complex and often difficult to follow, this one is a bit more sparse, more leisurely, and far more clear on what its central themes and conflicts are about. Visuals have huge priority over dialogue here, and manage to carry much of the drama, while once more director Alan Wareing is highly creative and fills the screen with appropriate levels of tension wherever possible.

Both the central conflict and main themes of this story derive directly from the cultural differences between the various species participating in the story, and these differences are suitably explored across all three episodes. As this material leaves dialogue behind and settles on visuals, it moves away from "Planet of the Apes" and more closely resembles a show like Cesar Millan's "Dog Whisperer", where concerns of body language, energy, and other non-linguistic communication are explored and celebrated. "Survival" offers a lot of good stuff in this area. There is perhaps one scene that doesn't quite ring true in that sense, and though the writing here is decent, the director and his team of actors would probably have needed to see some "Dog Whisperer" to properly wrap their heads around it. However, the scene still manages to work somewhat, and is much, much better than the key scene that got messed up in "The Happiness Patrol" (story no. 153).

It is also a bit of a pity that the story was retitled "Survival", because it emphasizes some of the less complex and less interesting aspects here, and suggests a more one dimensional plot than what is actually delivered. "Cat-Flap" was probably a slightly better title, despite its problems. Personally, I think something with the word "hunt" or "predator" in it would have been best. "Planet of Predators", perhaps?

2D or 3D?

For those who try to see this story through the framework indicated in my articles on "Fourth Density" and "Animal Whispering", a fascinating question to ask is: Are the main guest creatures of this story operating at second or third density? I'll save the details of my opinion, spoilers and all, for the in-depth analysis version of this review, for those who have seen the story and had a chance to form their own opinion first. I will say, though, that I think the story may indeed be somewhat helpful in triggering recognition of certain ideas in its audience, and thus actually earning itself a bit of spiritual credibility.


Where Is Everybody?

The plot is, quite thankfully, easy to follow as one gets into "Survival" here. It is in fact quite reminiscent of the pilot episode of "The Twilight Zone", aptly titled "Where Is Everybody?" Part One sets up a bit of a mystery with this, and in the vein of Aunt Lavinia's disappearance in "K9 & Company", there's some doubt as to whether the explanations will turn out to be normal or extraordinary. Additionally, we get a character in Sgt. Paterson who is keen to argue for one side of the debate on the story's main theme, triggering the discussion where it might not otherwise easily apply, or occur to the viewer. Smart move.

The middle portions of the story deliver a lot of great stuff, but as with "The Ark" (story no. 23), the audience isn't really given much reason to anticipate the good bits before they happen. Though director Alan Wareing's creativity somewhat makes up for this, the writing has crafted what appears to be on the surface a grand and very unique capture-and-escape routine that one easily anticipates will take up the rest of the story. This is a bit of a negative point, but a minor ghostly one that vanishes as one moves through the story.

Our old enemy's often troubled motivations work very well in this story. Plus, we also get a bit of rare character depth as we watch the character tackle this unique struggle, and we go with him to a place we've never seen him in before. Very good. The actor knows the character inside-out by now, and is able to sink his teeth into this new material with relish and really deliver something special here. Of course, most of this depends on the assumption that the viewer is already familiar with this old enemy. This isn't really an ideal story in which to encounter him for the first time, and I think it's really a bit up in the air as to whether or not he will either be an understandable character to new viewers, or will make a good first impression.

This story also earns many positive points for its alien planet, which comes alive with a lot of creative video effects work. The end result here is much cooler and more believable than the new CGI-version of "Planet of Fire" (story no. 135). This story certainly earns its keep in expanding the cultural scope of the Doctor Who universe. Let's hope we get more planets as interestingly thought-of and executed as what we got here.

Also in terms of visual effects, I think the animatronic cat is also getting too much unwarranted flak from the production team as well, for one very important reason that they all seem to be forgetting. It's not playing a normal everyday Earth-born cat in the story. It's playing some kind of unknown creature, that can have powers and abilities that we can't fully guess at, and it's doing a very successful job of it. There is never any reason for the viewer to expect that this is supposed to be a real cat. The fact that it obviously isn't a real cat actually sparks a good level of intrigue. The director gets a good performance out of it that works well in the story, which is all you can ask for.


Part Three enticingly enters fresh territory, but the plot gets a bit more muddled up here than elsewhere. On the good side, there remains a good central thematic sturggle, which still holds the final episode together and gets a lot of poignant and poetic moments in various scenes. However, it is a little too indirectly related to the pretzel of logic that the plot turns into. The story's final fix is also a bit at odds with itself. As always, I'll save the more detailed discussion for the in-depth analysis version of this review. Part Three leaves a lot to the imagination, which isn't always a bad thing, but perhaps in this case it's a bit too much.

On the DVD extras, cast and crew seem to like to hope that what they accomplished on television with the character of Ace laid the groundwork for upcoming companion Rose.... as if Rose was somehow the superior way to go. Don't be so modest. Ace is miles ahead of Rose and every other companion of the Eccleston/Tennant eras. She's far more interesting than any of them, and doesn't slow down the usual Doctor Who adventures with excessive trips home to examine the domestic side of her own navel, although season 26 could have done with another alien planet or pan-galactic story instead of "Ghost Light" (story no. 157).


Well, though this story is a little rough in some places, and may create anticipation of a slow pace even while delivering a fast and interesting one, it deserves a lot of points for worthy subject matter, creative execution, and above all a truly unique tone and atmosphere that make it something special. Highly recommended for those looking for good Sylvester McCoy stories.


The End of Doctor Who?

That unique tone also segues very nicely into the melancholic realization that this is the last story of the classic Doctor Who television series. A very moving, slightly disguised departure speech was kind-of tacked onto the ending, but doesn't really feel out of place at all. Doctor Who has a format that can continue to explore exciting new sci-fi ideas and adventures forever, and the closing speech plays very nicely to the enjoyment of that continuation, whether it is shown on television or not. And so many of us faithful viewers temporarily said good-bye, without knowing when, if ever, the good Doctor would grace our screens again.

Though half-hearted cameo appearances in the odd non-fiction special or TV spoof would sometimes occur, there was but one truly significant adventure during that long 15-year wait for season 27, and it came in 1996....



Season 26 Rankings:

Best Story:

  • The Curse of Fenric
  • Survival
  • Battlefield
  • Ghost Light

Best Director:

  • Alan Wareing (Survival / Ghost Light)
  • Nicholas Mallett (The Curse of Fenric)
  • Michael Kerrigan (Battlefield)

Best Music:

  • Mark Ayres - The Curse of Fenric
  • Mark Ayres - Ghost Light
  • Dominic Glynn - Survival
  • Keff McCulloch - Battlefield

Best Writer:

  • Ian Briggs (The Curse of Fenric)
  • Rona Munro (Survival)
  • Ben Aaronovitch (Battlefield)
  • Marc Platt (Ghost Light)

Best Video Effects:

  • Survival (Dave Chapman)
  • The Curse of Fenric (Dave Chapman)
  • Battlefield (Dave Chapman)
  • Ghost Light (Dave Chapman)

This story is available on DVD and VHS video.
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for the U.K.
VHS Video
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NTSC B in the U.S.
NTSC A in Canada
NTSC B in Canada
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Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story:
"The Untitled 1996 Paul McGann TV Movie"



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