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.

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program.
To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.


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, and the furry design of this "essentially fun-loving species" is too cuddly. Grow up. The design of the Cheetah People 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 Cheetah people 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 the Cheetah People do here. I'll much sooner believe in the reality of the Cheetah people than in the Haemovores 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 Destroyer" 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 Cheetah People design blows him 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 Cheetah people here. On the extras, many of the team try to describe what they thought would work better for a Cheetah People design.... which to me sounds like a repeat of post-transformation Mags from "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy" (story no. 155), and that worked far less effectively than the Cheetah People 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 Cheetah people and the more common humanoid species found on Doctor Who, 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. If there's one scene that doesn't quite ring true here, it is in the middle of Part Two when the Doctor advocates standing still while every one else panics - 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, as McCoy himself hardly manages calm assertive energy here, or for that matter even calm energy. 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 Cheetah People operating at second or third density? It doesn't seem hard to build a case that they are of the animalistic second density throughout early portions of the story, until Karra begins speaking near the end of Part Two. Speech itself isn't necessarily an indicator of third density, and Karra definitely seems to be using it in a second density manner at first, allowing her rather simple trains of thought to be easily led by Ace's questions. But the line seems to blur during Part Three, and all the various transformations seem capable of dragging characters back and forth across the 2D/3D boundary. In the end, I think we get a mix of high second density and low third, with the elements of both clashing fairly solidly. We don't really see here the qualities of both 2D and 3D integrating the way they would need to for fourth density. However, the story may indeed remain helpful in triggering recognition of what needs to be integrated for fourth density in its audience, and so it actually earns itself a bit of spiritual credibility in that respect.


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.

TARDIS effects are disappointingly minimal this time around, with little more than a single external materialization to drop the Doctor and Ace into the story's Earth setting. No interior scenes again today, no opportunity for the vehicle to stretch its range to the story's alien planet setting, and no sign of the Master's TARDIS anywhere at all either. Though this is all very sad, it actually must be this way to make the plot work and bring the thematic material to the fore, at least through the bulk of the narrative.

And in that sense, the Master's often troubled motivations work very well in this story. It's easy to imagine that he landed his TARDIS on some far flung planet that we sadly don't see in this adventure, and got transported to the planet of the Cheetah people, where he was forced to adapt. Now he is primarily absorbed by a need to regain what he had before, namely the freedom of the galaxy via access to his TARDIS, and to ensure that he does not lose even more of himself to the animal ways encouraged by this planet's energy. Other concerns such as grand ambitions and revenge are completely on hold, and he eagerly unloads everything he has learned so far onto the Doctor's as-yet-unaffected mind, knowing his old adversary is more likely to come up with an effective solution in time than he himself is at that stage.

And we get a bit of the best of both worlds with this arrangement. The Master's explanations help deliver information and observations of this world to the audience far more quickly than extended visual scenes of the new protagonists discovering it for themselves could, helping the story keep up a decent pace. Plus, we also get a bit of rare character depth with the Master as we watch him tackle this unique struggle, and we go with him to a place we've never seen him in before. Very good. Anthony Ainley 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. And the fact that it is the Master we see in this condition also helps emphasize the stakes. So often in the past of this show, we have seen bizarre things affect human beings, while the Doctor is magically immune due to his alien nature - and the cop-out ending of "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" (story no. 71), is one of the examples that rankles me most. But by seeing how far down a fellow Gallifreyan can go, cut off from his vehicle for what may have been years, and losing the battle with his animalistic side, the audience can feel that the Doctor is, at least temporarily, quite vulnerable as well. Good stuff. Much of this is embodied in the scene at the ruins, one of my absolute favourites of the story, hinting at yet another alien culture that we only get slightly teased with. Nice.

Of course, most of this depends on the assumption that the viewer is already familiar with the Master. 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). In story-terms the situation is quite reminiscent of that in the William Hartnell era gem "Galaxy Four" (story no. 18). 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 alien Kitling creature, that can have powers and abilities (including instantaneous transformation to-and-from a more Earthly cat look) that we can't fully guess at. 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, and it is immediately creepy in its facial expression. 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 the question of curing the animal transformations. Though this struggle is still holding the final episode together, and gets a lot of poignant and poetic moments in various scenes, it's a little too indirectly related to the pretzel of logic that the plot turns into. A sense of revenge and "hunting" ambition creeps into the Master's motivations in ways that match his previous character yet believably branch off onto this new arc. Other things, like the motorcycle standoff, just plain don't make any logical sense going into it, or physical sense coming out of it. It is truly bizarre to find Karra without her Cheetah make-up during her final scene, without any character attempting to justify this. It seems logical to assume that she was originally a humanoid like Ace who let the animal instinct completely transform her, but this then raises a lot of other issues that should be tackled to some extent. To what degree are the Cheetah People a proper, indigenous race? Can they reproduce amongst themselves, or must they constantly recruit new members from other races like the Cybermen do? Or do they have both options, like the Borg?

The story's final fix is also a bit at odds with itself. On one hand, it seems appropriate to Part Three's thrust of curing animalistic urges for the Doctor to take up the attitude of non-violence, in which case he ends up simply sounding overbearingly preachy on a theme that got worn out in seasons 21 and 22, while his final return to Earth is at odds with the mechanisms so far established by the story. On the other hand, perhaps he succumbs to the animalistic enough to be able to start teleporting himself, therefore it is little wonder that his argument is so forceful and preachy - however, this lacks the clear sign in his eyes that would make the whole thing clear. Behind the scenes info suggests there was a last minute attempt to give him someone else's special contact lenses to suggest this, but between his squinting from the pain of sand behind the lenses, and the glowing yellow/red video effects on top of the whole picture, the state of his eyes is never clearly seen on screen. Though this latter explanation of events seems the less satisfying of the two thematically, it ultimately sits better with me now, as one can also imagine that after the Doctor disappears, the lone Master can come to his senses and, no longer resisting his animal side, teleports back to whatever planet he parked his TARDIS on. Does the destruction of the planet of the Cheetah People then cure everyone who was affected? 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.

Ideally, I think I'd have preferred Part Three's plot to involve a journey to find the Master's TARDIS on yet a third planet (hopefully a futuristic society), complete with proper scenes inside both Time Lords' vehicles, and a resurrection and continuation of some threatening plan that the Master was engaged in prior to his abduction by Cheetah People.... and the more related that could be to the themes and concerns of predators and hunting, the better. Too expensive? Well, don't blow the budget on things we'll only see in a shot or two, but using a good set in studio with a matte painting to establish it shouldn't be beyond the show at this stage. Perhaps it should have been a planet of a related high 3rd or 4th density Cheetah People, wearing a more civilized form of clothing reused from the BBC wardrobes...

As this is the last we see of Sophie Aldred's Ace and Anthony Ainley's Master in the official Doctor Who run, it leaves you wondering if either one of them ever found a cure, or if something from this adventure haunted them and continued to challenge them. And was the Doctor left unscathed, or had he partly turned as well? Perhaps it is good that some things are left to the viewer to decide.

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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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story:
"The Untitled 1996 Paul McGann TV Movie"



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