Survival

Posted in Episode by - February 06, 2016
Survival

Aired 22 November – 6 December 1989

What would become the final season of the classic run of Doctor Who boldly and purposefully brought the franchise back to contemporary or near-contemporary Earth, anchoring the franchise with a sense of familiarity for the first time since the start of the Fourth Doctor era and putting the focus as much on the companion’s development as the Doctor’s in the process. After two serials of tremendous personal growth amidst the Doctor’s manipulations, Ace returns home to Perivale to reconnect with her past as the aptly-titled ‘Survival’ draws to a close twenty-seven seasons of adventures.

It’s actually quite interesting to see the Doctor engage in such a personal trip for his companion, as up to this point human companions returning anywhere near home marked an end to their time in the TARDIS. Ace simply wishes to see what her old friends have gotten up to since she left, and the Doctor obliges her as the community of Perivale comes to life wonderfully around them thanks to a large supporting cast and deliberate pacing that puts focus on the background homes, shops, and parks perfectly. Yet it’s Ace’s own insecurities that take centre stage as she continues to try to discover who she is and to reconcile her past with her present, and this contrasts perfectly to the Doctor who amusingly finds himself seemingly helplessly out of his element when surrounded by life in the suburbs. It’s notable that this is the first time that a companion disappearing- albeit for Ace by time storm rather than by the Doctor- has real repercussions, and the fact that her mother listed her as a missing person and her friends thought here dead again grounds the entire serial and universe of Doctor Who with a familiar context.

Still, Ace returning home is not by itself enough to sustain a three-part story, and ‘Survival’ once more uses the issues underlying the politics and social norms of its time to bolster the return of the Master among the Cheetah People. Doctor Who has had no qualms deriding the philosophy of survival of the fittest over recent serials, and while it’s easy to simply experience a tale of the Cheetah People stalking the Perivale landscape and taking people, the run-down state of the community and abounding allegories about each person needing to look out for him or herself first and foremost set the scene with a realistic grimness.

The Doctor is, of course, an advocator for individualism and social justice, and this brings him in direct conflict with the Master, culminating in an iconic, if ultimately short-lived, battle upon a mountaintop as chaos reigns around them. The Master has for far too long simply been a stock villain with generic motivations to suit whatever needs the plot of a given story required, but here the base greed for power is a strong enough driving force that much of the pantomime nature of the character is thankfully overridden. The story brazenly states that the Master is simply a sociopath who revels in the subjugation of others but who also doesn’t know when to stop even when he’s ahead, a sort of personification of the survival of the fittest motif as he acts out his sense of entitlement to the universe and all of its belongings. Nonetheless, more telling is the Master’s recruitment of individuals whom he turns into killers; while the comparison to the Doctor in some instances turning individuals into soldiers of sorts can be made, the comparison at a time when Ace has become so prominently developed as the pacifist Doctor continues to expand her horizons to enable her to make the proper choice in any given circumstance takes on a more virtuous tone.

The structure of ‘Survival’ is a bit off, meaning that the Cheetah People thread is ended quite early on in the final episode without leaving quite enough room for the expanded denouement with the Master. Still, as a reflection of what Doctor Who had become under script editor Andrew Cartmel and a hint at what it would become in the future, ‘Survival’ is a wonderful story that certainly stands the test of time.

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