Survival In Perspective

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Guest contributor William Shaughnessy on the final story of the classic era.

When Doctor Who was torn off the schedules and cancelled in 1989, it bestowed an impact upon the fans of Doctor Who, and casual viewers alike.

At the heart of all this discord was the final serial of the classic series of Who, Survival, written by Rona Munro.

The story is an interesting one -- the Seventh Doctor and companion Ace (more on her role later) arrive in contemporary Perivale at Ace’s request (her desire to see the “old gang” once again). The Doctor and Ace soon discover that some of the inhabitants of Perivale had been going missing around that time. They end up being transported to the planet of the savage Cheetah People (who admittedly didn’t look great from a design standpoint, but I’m not here to scrutinise all the little details), and must fight for -- as the title implies -- survival.

It is set in two main places: contemporary Perivale and the Cheetah Planet. Connections can be drawn between this and the first story, An Unearthly Child (i.e. beginning the serial in contemporary England, eventually being transported to a time period/planet inhabited by savages).

As the story progresses, Munro continues to insert a tense atmosphere (aided by the score from Dominic Glynn), especially when the action shifts to the Cheetah Planet (official name not given), with its red skies and dried landscape, giving the planet an almost apocalyptic setting -- indeed, this is suitable; the planet is facing imminent destruction, and fits in with the overall tone of survival.

Another tone relating to this is that of pacifism. It is well-known that the Doctor is a follower of this (more so in the revived series), and it shows. It is especially brought into light near the end of the serial, with the Doctor retaliating from violence. A large chunk of the brutality shown in the story is unwillingly; via the transformation into the Cheetahs, put under hypnosis, et cetera.

The secondary characters benefit in reflecting this tone; Paterson, an uncommissioned Territorial Army sergeant, proves as a guardian figure over the gang (though technically, these attempts become futile by the end), as well as one who can fight and defend for himself. The gang represents exactly what they are -- they are normal teenagers rooted up from their normal habitat and easygoing lives, forced to fight for themselves.

The Master returns in this story, once again portrayed by Anthony Ainley. He is controlling the Cheetah People and the Kitlings (who transport people to the Planet), but as a side-effect, he is transforming into a Cheetah Person himself. Whilst the Master has always, for the most part, been malevolent, he is shown in this serial as being savage as well due to this (this would later be reflected in The End of Time with the Master hunting for food, even if humans constitute towards this).

Ace was undoubtedly the classic series companion with the most character development, but I shan’t go into detail about her arc as this article is only about one story in particular. There are allusions to some of Ace’s previous stories, such as with her initial disappearance in Dragonfire.

There is even an underlying tone of homosexuality between her and one of the Cheetah People, Karra, who was previously human. After Ace begins to help her after throwing a rock at her, she begins to develop feelings for her. This, however, begins Ace’s metamorphosis into a Cheetah Person, bringing her closer to Karra but making her more savage at the same time, as the two go off hunting together. Karra is cared for by Ace as she is dying, and turns back human for a second in her dying breaths.

Being the final story of Doctor Who for a long time, Survival has its references to the past, be it intentional or not. As mentioned earlier, its structure resembles that of the first story. Of course, the Master returns. There are some other subtle references, such as the Doctor brandishing a rock, ready to hit someone, but retaliating at the last moment, as seen in An Unearthly Child. Whether these are intentional or not is disputable, but if not, the fact that they resemble the first story, bringing the series full-circle, are astonishing coincidences (but for now we shall ignore these; I’m busy writing this article and you’re probably busy reading it).

Survival is a marvellous story. It’s amazing how far classic Who had come, and we were left without it properly until 2005 (with the movie in the middle, of course). Here’s to a programme whose legacy will continue to live on.

“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning; where the sea is asleep and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace. We’ve got work to do.”