Even with its dying breaths, old school Doctor Who was taking us to strange, exotic worlds. Survival is set somewhere the series had never been, not in 26 years and over 150 stories: planet Surburbia.
It’s a world that has little to recommend it. It’s the boredom capital of the universe, according to Ace (Sophie Aldred). It’s a dump, says gloomy charity collector Ange (Kate Eaton). Even the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, wise and still a little wacky), a man who finds interest in everything, can’t stifle a yawn.
It’s a world inhabited by moaning shopkeepers swapping lame dad jokes, shrill NIMBY women complaining about cats and a boorish military wannabe, teaching boys to brawl. We see inside a dingy youth club, the dowdy corner store and a grim council estate. This is a place Ace’s friends want to escape from, but their options are unappealing; get a job as a window cleaner, marry a brain-dead plumber, or fall through an interplanetary cat-flap to a disintegrating world inhabited by carnivorous cat-people.
We’re used to the Doctor and his pals inhabiting suburbia these days. It’s a mainstay of New Who. But for nearly all of its run, the classic series was a strangely arch experience; it specialised in the bizarre tales from alien places, delivered in received pronounciation. It took to the end of the series for it to get to the street where you lived and to meet the people you know.
Perivale is a place of stasis and stagnation. The unnamed world of the Cheetahs is the opposite – a place of violent upheaval and transformation, with a pink sky and Spanish guitar music. Stay too long there and it turns you into an animal, hungry and eager to hunt. “This place,” says the Master (Anthony Ainley, in the performance of his Who career), “bewitches you.” It’s a phrase chosen carefully; not only is the planet’s transformative effect more magic than science, but the mention of witches reminds us that cats were traditionally their familiars of choice. And this is a story which celebrates femininity.
We see three characters physically changed by the planet. Two are men – the Master and young roughnut Midge (Will Barton). For both of them, the transformation is a base, animalistic thing. It seems to revolt the Master, that a Time Lord of his standing should succumb to such an infection. Only at the story’s end, when he’s past the point of no return, does he surrender to his new bestial urges. Midge puts up no such fight. In a Lord of the Flies moment, he skewers a dying Cheetah with a tusk, loses any remaining innocence he has, and goes all big hungry cat immediately.
The other victim of the planet is Ace, and for her, the transformation is a far more ambiguous experience. She revels in the strength and stamina it gives her. She too finds a Cheetah in trouble, and unlike Midge, nurses her back to health. This forms the basis for a powerful attraction to the feline, Karra (Lisa Bowerman), and so begins a proto-romance, Beauty and the Beast-style. Writer Rona Munro, has talked about this being the lesbian subtext running through the story, but in reality, there’s not much ‘sub’ about it.
Above the Cheetah people’s planet hangs an ominous moon, a potent symbol of femininity, as indeed are cats. Why shouldn’t this bewitching place be a world where women can control the magic around them and be invigorated by it? While men struggle and fight against the inevitable, Ace embraces her physical change. And learns to control it enough to deliver the Doctor and her friends back home. To the boredom capital of the universe.
The Doctor has undergone a subtler transformation. He has spent the rest of Season 26 being manipulative and bringing all manner of schemes to completion. In Survival he reverts to stumbling into a situation and working out what’s happening as he goes along. In Part One, he even seems to hark back to his clownish Season 24 persona, cackhandedly trying to lure cats and pratfalling off garden walls.
The exception comes in Part Three when, in an absurd stunt that undermines the rest of this stylish and lyrical story, the Doctor and Midge duel using motorcycles. They crash head on and there’s an unfeasibly large explosion. From which the two combatants are flung away long and unlikely distances. Midge is badly injured, as indicated by the smudges of charcoal on his face, and is talked to death by the Master. The Doctor is unscathed, and luckily lands on a strategically placed sofa and some bags of old rubbish. “Oh very good,” he says as he extricates himself. “Very amusing.”
I suppose that indicates that some unseen benefactor placed the soft furnishings in advance, anticipating the Doctor’s fall exactly. Presumably, it’s some future version of the Doctor and so, hooray, the master manipulator is back, this time with with bin bags. It strikes an odd note in this story, which has otherwise been made up of elements which fit thematically and logically together (if we ignore the bit when a horse clips a trip wire which somehow leaves the Doctor hanging from a tree).
But if the Doctor is in the business of leaving cushioned landings for himself, I see no reason why he should stop on the grassy slopes of Horsenden Hill. His fourth incarnation could do with a crash mat at the Pharos Project. His tenth with a foam pit in the Naismith mansion. And so on, throughout eternity.
In the end, the Master embraces his inner beast and returns to the Cheetah planet, his new home, a world of fire and chaos. Ace learns to control her inner beast, but loses her newfound soul mate, when Karra dies. The Doctor reaffirms his abhorrence of violence, refusing to fight, and thus finds his way home to the TARDIS. He finds Ace wearing his hat and clutching his umbrella, on her way to becoming a younger, more vital version of himself. They walk off, arm in arm, having changed Suburbia from being boredom central, to being the battleground between humans and aliens, and between reason and animal instinct.
That the old series ends here is almost incidental. No one intended it to end here. No one designed this to be the last Doctor Who story. Which is both apparent and ironic, because Doctor Who was rarely, if ever, so boldly and breathtakingly new as in Survival.
LINK TO Horror of Fang Rock: both stories feature women as key parts of the creative team (director Paddy Russell and writer Rona Munro). Pretty rare for Doctor Who.
NEXT TIME… It’s what I’ve always feared. We’re on the horns of The Twin Dilemma.