I am afraid that my ongoing review of the classic series does not make good reading for fans of the Seventh Doctor. As mentioned on the twitter feed, it will be number 116 on the list before we escape the 1980s.
So with that I mind – I want to be slightly more positive about Survival, the final serial of the classic 26 season run. By this stage the production crew knew that the show’s days were numbered, and they were looking to finish well. Added to this is the problem that the show never really got the shot in the arm that they needed after the post Season 22 hiatus. I will opine later on exactly what should have happened after The Trial of a Timelord – but suffice to say for now, the principal reason that many McCoy episodes appear so low on my list has less to do with the talents of McCoy and Aldred (and in this case the excellent Anthony Ainley as the Master), and much more how the show was conducted by the 1980s.
Why then does Survival rate so especially low in this cohort? Partly, it is because it was the very last episode – carrying such a mantle added a pressure it just could not live up to. It should have been a showstopper, and instead one felt the series ended with a whimper. The biggest reason for this is that the story itself is not one of the strongest ever run. The Master is trapped on another world inhabited by cat-like ‘Cheetah people’ – and it transpires that if you spend time on this world, in innate animalistic nature within all of us (including apparently the Master) takes over and makes it impossible to leave. He establishes a link with Earth – or to be more precise, Perivale, the estate in London that Ace grew up in. His hope is to steal enough people to appease the power behind the world and escape.
Interesting enough concept, and three episodes is about right – but it never really grabs one’s attention. It would have been wonderful to see how this story would have looked had the producers had the guarantee of another season (or better yet, a full 26 episode season) and a much better budget. Instead of which, I was struck when watching the DVD that nothing really happens over the three episodes. There is a lot of strange goings on and running around but there isn’t really a strong story to hold it together – and the meme of ‘survival of the fittest’ from which the serial takes its title doesn’t really manifest itself that well – the Survival Group in Perivale is nothing more than a rather cringeworthy distraction.
Which is a shame because there a number of positives. This doesn’t deserve to be the Master’s worst story – Ainley was allowed to tone down the Hooded Claw element of his character, and his subdued character comes across extremely well. Compared to The Kings Demons or Time-Flight the Master is much more believable and enjoyable as a character. McCoy is fully in his prime and Ace’s character development is at its absolute apogee. It would have been fantastic to see these themes develop in Season 27, and to give Ace a better send-off than a voiced-over walk to the TARDIS, and McCoy a better send-off than a botched operation. And that’s why the serial gets the mark-down – it cannot carry that weight of expectation.
And of course, we cannot escape the awful production values. In any other season this would have been a perfectly acceptable filler episode exploring a number of good themes – comparable to episodes like Terminus or The Time Monster where the execution didn’t quite live up to the original idea. As it is, it is a rather weak story from an era of the show that I don’t especially enjoy or think was well produced.