Earthshock is the start of what I loosely like to think of as the Saward trilogy [the other two instalments being Resurrection of the Daleks and Attack of the Cybermen]. These stories are probably the closest the original BBC series, if not the programme, got to being an action movie. Earthshock largely typifies this. It has soldiers, marauding meanies, and a gun-toting hero [albeit very briefly]. It's also fast-paced. There's a reason for this - there basically isn't a plot in the second half, and if things slow down enough for the viewer, they'll have time to think about things and realise this.
The story's marvellous the first time you watch it. The androids are an effective plot device for hiding the Cybermen from the viewer, and the early cavern scenes are rather suspenseful. Always pleasing first time round is that Scott believes the Doctor fairly quickly, though this is undone by Captain Briggs' stupidity. However, before Briggs completely stifle the story, the Cybermen themselves start their attack, as we have a traitor in the dodgy Ringway. From then until pretty much the end, it's a bit of a free-for-all with crew members, Scott's troopers and Cybermen themselves getting shot left, right and centre. It's jolly exciting, to be honest, and in places very well executed. There are some great visuals, such as the Cyberman who gets trapped partway through a door, or when they first start bursting out of their "eggs" in the hold.
And of course, there's a great exit for Adric. The character's one of the more derided companions - and guess what? I can't stand him either. That said, much like Mel, he gets such a superb exit, which, to be frank, adds more to the programme than anything else he managed to do. The best thing about Adric's death, from a narrative point of view, is that it's utterly futile. The ship has already been diverted from hitting the conference on Earth before Adric heads back - there's no real danger to anyone apart from him [though he wasn't to know that]. It somehow fitted the character that his teenage ego seems to cause his downfall, as he just wants to crack the computer. Considering the amount of pointless deaths there are scattered throughout the series, it's nice to realise that regulars aren't exempt from such mundane fates.
It's actually one of the few bits of Earthshock than doesn't rapidly diminish on subsequent viewings. If you know the Cybermen are villains, which to be honest most people likely to be viewing this any time since its original transmission will, the androids serve no purpose. Then there's the whole power drain thing. The Cybermen seem to be trying to sabotage the freighter, which is vital to their plans. If the captain was anyone but an idiot like Briggs, the freighter would have stopped to perform maintenance and their cover would have been blown. Ringway's also the one most worried by the power drains... but he's in on it! He knows there's something nasty draining their power! And in the last episode, vast chunks of the alleged plot simply stop making sense. The freighter just starts travelling back through time, because of, and I quote, "an alien computer". Which raises the question why the Cybermen don't just do this to a bunch of freighters, and lead a large force back in time to, I don't know, the Moonbase and ensure their victory there? Saward seems desperate to fit the whole thing in with dinosaurs because of the fossils in Episode 1... It would have made much more sense, really, if the freighter had stayed on course for Earth in the same time, and Adric had somehow caused it to explode, saving the planet heroically. There's also the minor problem that there's still a sizeable Cyberfleet on the way to Earth, something no-one really bothers about in the end.
Production values are pretty good, overall. The Cybermen look rather marvellous, even if they're a bit over-reliant on their rifles. They also get killed rather a lot - they're shown as generally easier to dispose of than in the past. Getting shot by their own guns is fair enough, but they lose them rather easily, and without their helmet weapons are actually pretty easy pickings for some of the human characters. The Troopers' costumes are decent, even if the laser effects are a bit unconvincing. The freighter crew's uniforms are a bit more mundane, but probably fitting, and the cave and freighter sets are adequate.
The performances and characters are a bit more mixed. The Doctor doesn't actually do a huge amount after he disables the bomb - he basically fails to convince Briggs, and is a spectator to later events. His readiness to use a gun is also rather bothersome - he's not done it before, so why suddenly now? Davison, as usual, gives it all he's got, and really nails the Doctor's single-minded attempt to get back to save Adric, and his subsequent failure. Adric's pretty much in character - a petulant, spoilt, stroppy, ungrateful teenager. Waterhouse's acting is about as good as he ever got, and the meagre demands the character places on him are something he's just about capable of managing. Also as usual is Sarah Sutton as Nyssa - it's very hard to gauge her performance as Nyssa is really given so very little to do. Tegan, conversely, gets to charge around the ship shooting Cybermen and pretending to be Ripley. Which would be wonderful, if her character had demonstrated any of the gun-toting traits she does here. That said, Janet Fielding's convincing enough that it somehow comes off if you don't think about it too much.
For the guest cast, after the horrors of Christopher Robbie [probably personally responsible for the Cybermen missing from the series since 1975], David Banks debuts as the Cyberleader. While he's still a bit more emotive than Cybermen should be, unlike Robbie he's actually rather charismatic. Banks takes the role seriously, which helps make the Cybermen exciting, and also gives them a mouthpiece. The humans fare less well. Briggs is a horribly stupid character - her repetitive babblings about her bonus just highlight how unrealistic it would be for anyone like this to be put in such a position of responsibility. The casting of Beryl Reid really doesn't help - she gives a deeply irritating performance. June Bland, as Briggs' rather more reasonable first officer Berger, and Alex Sabin as Ringway, are both pretty forgettable - though this at least means they aren't especially bad. Both suffer from being simply Saward ciphers - there's really little beyond them being the more reasonable first officer, and the traitor. Scott, commander of the Troopers, is unobjectionable in a "Just show me who to shoot" way, but again his character's hugely underwritten. Scott is in all four episodes, and gets a large amount of screen-time for a supporting character. And yet we learn nothing aside from him being a competent soldier. The only other real character is Kyle, the archaeologist, and once she's served her purpose of leading the viewer to the androids, and therefore the Cybermen, hangs around the TARDIS until she's killed off to minimal viewer reaction.
Overall, Earthshock is a respectable action story. Worth watching once for the impressive Cybermen and Adric's dramatic exit, it's easy enough to watch providing you leave your brain at the door, but hardly a tale that stands up well to repeat viewings.
Review by Tom Prankerd