Season 26 (Dec 19 - Dec 25)

December 19: Battlefield Parts One & Two
December 20: Battlefield Parts Three & Four
December 21: Ghost Light Parts One & Two
December 22: Ghost Light Part Three / The Curse of Fenric Part One
December 23: The Curse of Fenric Parts Two & Three
December 24: The Curse of Fenric Part Four / Survival Part One
December 25: Survival Parts Two & Three

December 19: Battlefield Parts One & Two

Battlefield marks the start of Doctor Who's 26th season -- and, it would turn out, its last until 2005.  (Not that anyone really knew that at the time, for reasons we'll get into when we reach Survival).  Battlefield Part One also bears the unfortunate distinction of having the lowest audience ratings ever for a debut broadcast of a Doctor Who episode, at 3.1 million viewers.  (This was a combination of three factors, it seems: the continued scheduling of the series opposite Coronation Street, the airing of a World Cup qualifier for England on BBC2, and the fact that John Nathan-Turner has decided to hold back publicity spending until The Curse of Fenric -- which means the public aren't really aware that the show is back on the air.)

This is something of a shame: I quite like Battlefield, and these first two episodes have a lot going for them.  On the one hand, it opens with a decent chunk of continuity, as we see Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (ret.) pottering around a garden center with his wife, reminiscing about his days in UNIT; on the other hand, this sequence doesn't really required a detailed fan knowledge to enjoy -- it acknowledges the links and moves on (as opposed to, say, Attack of the Cybermen, which does require prior knowledge and goes through a lengthy and tedious sequence providing the information for anyone who's not up-to-date).  All you need to know is that this guy used to be in UNIT, and now he's not -- and you don't even need to worry about what UNIT is, as we (sort of) get an explanation in the next scene with the modern version.  And like the '70s UNIT stories, Battlefield is set in the near future, so we get some futuristic details as well -- a lot like The Invasion in that regard (although no one seems to want to tackle the off-hand mention by the Brigadier of a King, despite seeing Queen Elizabeth II in both Silver Nemesis and "Voyage of the Damned").

Now, there are some awkward moments in these episodes, to be sure; the initial knight battle near the TARDIS is a bit weak, and Brigadier Bambera's use of the euphemism "shame" seems a bit forced.  And some of the special effects shots aren't quite up to par (such as the knight rising out of the crater, or the establishing shot of the castle that Mordred is in that I'm never quite sure where it's supposed to be in relation to everything else).  But these duff bits are overshadowed by all the good stuff: Ace's explosion at the dig site ("Ace?" the Doctor says quietly, after the nitro-9 goes off prematurely.  "I think the timer needs work," she replies lamely.  "One of these days we're going to have a nice long talk about acceptable safety standards," the Doctor responds), the embedding of the scabbard into the woodwork (even if the actual flight is a bit ropey), Ace and Shou Yuing's conversation about how Ace destroyed the art room (which is both entertaining on its own and fills in some backstory we heard about in Dragonfire), the Brigadier's encounter with Morgaine and her troops... there's quite a bit to enjoy about this story.

Ace and the Doctor discover King Arthur in an ancient spaceship
beneath Lake Vortigern. (Battlefield Part Two) ©BBC
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Battlefield is its use of the Doctor himself.  Now wearing a dark brown jacket, we're presented with a Doctor who has to deal with the aftereffects of events he hasn't experienced yet -- it seems that in his future he'll be known as Merlin, adviser to King Arthur and his knights and enemy of Morgaine and her soldiers.  It's a surprisingly original idea for a show that's been about time travel for 26 years, but although we've seen the Doctor deal with the effects of events he's previously caused in unseen adventures (The Face of Evil and Timelash, to name but two), this is the first time where his future catches up with him.  It's a really lovely idea that trickles down into the Wales version -- in particular stories by Steven Moffat (which have Battlefield in their DNA more than anyone seems prepared to admit), but it's used very well here.  Not only do we get fun scenes like the ancient inscription at the archaeological dig site ("No one's been able to decipher the carving."  "It says, 'Dig Hole Here.'" "Extraordinary.  What does it say that in?"  "My handwriting"), but we also get the sense of the Doctor wrong-footed as he works out what's going on -- which is something of a nice change for a Doctor who's recently seemed completely in control of events around him.

So far these two episodes have been very entertaining.  I can't wait to see how this wraps up.

December 20: Battlefield Parts Three & Four

All right, so these concluding installments aren't quite as good as the first two.  There's a bit of a muddled feeling about them, as if writer Ben Aaronovitch doesn't quite know how to tie all the disparate elements he's introduced together, and the ending is notably flawed as a result.

But there's so much that this story gets right (even if you have to look past a superficiality or two) that it's hard to be too upset about this.  The scene where Morgaine156 empties Flight Lieutenant Lavel's mind of information and then burns her body to ash is disturbing, and then when she immediately pays Mordred's bar tab by restoring the sight of the landlord's wife Elizabeth is rather magical -- thus providing us with an unusual juxtaposition for a villain and thus a more complex characterization for Morgaine.  Ace's emerging from the lake with Excalibur is well done (and look, you can see the cracks on the glass in the chamber she's in that almost led to a nasty accident -- they pulled her out just before the glass shattered and dumped hundreds of gallons of water onto a floor covered with electrical cables), and the Brigadier's first encounter with the Doctor is charming ("I just can't let you out of my sight, can I, Doctor?"  "Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.  So you recognise me, then?"  "Yes. Who else would it be?").

The Brigadier threatens Mordred's life. (Battlefield Part Four) ©BBC
And that's just in part three.  Part four has just as many good moments -- the Brigadier's defeat of the Destroyer ("Pitiful," the Destroyer tells him.  "Can this world do no better than you as their champion?"  "Probably.  I just do the best I can," the Brigadier replies, before killing the Destroyer with silver bullets), Mordred's taunting of the Doctor as the Doctor threatens to kill him (one senses the hand of script editor Andrew Cartmel here, as Mordred's taunt -- "Look me in the eye.  End my life" -- directly echoes the challenge the Doctor issued to the snipers in The Happiness Patrol), the way the Doctor walks between Mordred and Ancelyn as they fight (daft but charming)... there's so much right that it's difficult to be upset about what's wrong.

Battlefield is probably the least successful story this season, much how Silver Nemesis was the weakest last season -- although frankly that says more about how strong the rest of season 26 is than anything else.  And unlike Silver Nemesis, there does seem to be a larger point behind Battlefield's story; the problem is that that point (which appears to be equating unleashing the Destroyer to unleashing nuclear missiles) is somewhat confused -- there's no clear direct parallel, and while the Doctor is able to convince Morgaine that the use of nuclear weapons is horrifying and without honor ("Not a war between armies nor a war between nations, but just death, death gone mad.  The child looks up in the sky, his eyes turn to cinders.  No more tears, only ashes.  Is this honour?  Is this war?  Are these the weapons you would use?"), she seems to have no qualms about unleashing the Destroyer upon this world.  This argument seems to be at the heart of the story (else why bother having a nuclear missile convoy in this serial in the first place?), but it just doesn't come off.

Still, at least the argument's sort of there (even if it's rather jumbled), and once again, this story scores by presenting future events for the Doctor as something he has to deal with in his past -- most overtly in the note he leaves his past self (aka our Doctor) with Arthur: "Dear Doctor, King died in final battle.  Everything else propaganda. ...[signed] The Doctor.  P.S. Morgaine has just seized control of the nuclear missile."  And by bringing in elements of the past, in the form of the Brigadier, we get a feeling of a continuity between past, present, and future, and thus a sense of history (if you know what I mean).  In addition, the idea that the Doctor is Merlin feels inherently right somehow, and the way Morgaine speaks to him suggests a long-running conflict that other shows would have taken and run with for ages -- but here it's a background detail that adds to the feeling of some unknown history linking these two characters.  The whole idea is a fabulous conceit, and one that really makes this story work.  The failure of the nuclear analogy to click at the end is thus forgivable, because it's not the focus of the piece: this story is about the Doctor's future, in a way we haven't seen before, and that's what makes Battlefield succeed.

It's actually probably Ben Aaronovitch himself who's one of Battlefield's harshest critics, and while you can see how the suggestions he makes with hindsight as how the script could have been better would have improved things, the fact remains is that for three-quarters of the story Battlefield is a charming and imaginative piece.  It's only in the final resolutions that things start to fall apart, and it's hardly the first Doctor Who story to suffer from a problematic dénouement.  There's so much about this story that works, and so much that's clever and ingenious, that the final result is, on the whole, a success.  It may not be perfect, but it's definitely entertaining.

December 21: Ghost Light Parts One & Two

Somehow I've gotten this far without really talking about Ace.  That's a gross oversight on my part; Sophie Aldred has been one of the best things about these last few stories, as she makes Ace seem like a real person and a genuinely likable companion.  The character herself also works by being flawed -- she's not a perfect person the way Mel often seemed to be, but rather a teenager, prone to bouts of surliness and with a predilection for explosives.

Obviously I'm bringing this all up here because in many ways Ghost Light is Ace's show.  The Doctor brings her to the site of one of her more traumatic memories, a hundred years before she burned the place down, because he's intrigued by the feelings she felt while in the abandoned building.  There's definitely something alien at work here, even if it's not immediately clear what's happening -- and Ace is justifiably angry at the Doctor for bringing her here without telling her ahead of time (in fact, he sets things up as a puzzle for Ace to solve, which probably didn't make her feel any better when she learned the truth).  And while the Doctor might be running things, instigating events to see what happens, it's Ace that we tend to follow through this story -- note how we experience almost nothing while she's asleep in part two, but instead hear some of the things that the Doctor's been up to after the fact.

And look, I've gotten this far without discussing Ghost Light's (in)famous reputation regarding its story.  This story is well known as one that requires repeated viewings to fully comprehend (David J Howe described it as "Doctor Who for the video generation" in The Handbook: The Seventh Doctor) -- although to be perfectly honest I've never found the basic plot that difficult to grasp.  No, what repeated viewings do is give a greater insight into what's happening, as additional pieces fall into place to give a more complete picture of events.  Then the whole thing is wrapped in a dense layer of allusions, which both give a sense of pleasure when you catch them (so even if everything else is escaping you there's that at least) and contribute to the feeling that there's a lot going on here.

Like I said, the basic plot isn't too hard to follow: someone/something is running an experiment on evolution on Earth.  Josiah Samuel Smith is the experimental subject, who seems to be continually evolving into a version of the dominant lifeform on the planet (let's just set aside the human-centric idea that we're the most advanced species on the planet).  Control is (presumably) the control subject, but it's fed up with being locked away for such a long time, and it's ready to be released.  Meanwhile the story has a lot to say about arguments between evolution and creationism (for lack of a better word).  Or as Reverend Matthews puts it, "Mr Smith disputes man's rightful dominion over the forces of nature. ... Instead he maintains that mankind itself should adapt to serve nature or become extinct."  The whole story wants to be an examination of evolution in some form -- although at this stage there are still anomalous details (such as why all the insects start moving around -- this will explained (sort of) in part three).

Really, though, these two episodes are filled with enough to charm and entertain the viewers that even if you can't follow the story, there's still plenty to enjoy (anything with Nimrod or Redvers Fenn-Cooper, the way the TARDIS has materialized with the door against a wall -- a gag they'd somehow never done before, the intensely creepy way Gwendoline is ready and willing to send the Reverend Matthews to Java (aka do something horrible to him)...).  That said, it feels like there's still a lot to get through, and only one episode left to do it -- how will they manage?

December 22: Ghost Light Part Three / The Curse of Fenric Part One

It is rather unfortunate that you have to assume that Light is some sort of simpleton in order for his reactions to make sense; they could have run with the fact that he's been asleep so long that his catalog of Earth is completely out of date and therefore useless, and while this does seem to be in there somewhere it looks more as if he's completely shocked that things changed, as if this thought had never occurred to him -- although if this is the case then why would Josiah be around at all?  What use would a survey creature be if you never expected him to change?

Redvers Fenn-Cooper, Josiah Samuel Smith, and Ace at dinner.
(Ghost Light Part Three) ©BBC
Speaking of Josiah, his plan to rule the British Empire by assassinating Queen Victoria is rather daft, isn't it?  It makes sense from an internal plot point of view (Josiah needs to evolve into the dominant species, and what's more dominant than being a king?), but there's no clue at all as to how he would actually achieve this goal, as the stated explanation is ludicrous.

So those are the clumsy bits.  Fortunately everything else in part three (all right, with the exception of McCoy's clenched hand acting early in part three) is just as outstanding as the first two parts were.  The Victorian theme continues (particularly with Light in the role of cataloger, trying to pin everything down into neat little categories -- rather like all the insects on display in Gabriel Chase), and it's interesting to see how the evolution theme plays out and is then inverted with Josiah and Control.  Ace gets to let out some more angst ("No, Control, don't do it!  Please don't [burn the house down]!  That's what I did!"  "In 1983?  Ace, you didn't tell me that."  "You're not my probation officer.  You don't have to know everything"), and the ways the Doctor both arranges the downfall of Josiah's plans -- just by turning Control into a "lady-like" -- and convinces Light to destroy himself are quite masterful.  And that layer of allusions is still present too, just to make everything seem even better than it already is.

As it turned out, Ghost Light was the last story ever filmed in the original run (though obviously not the last screened -- that seems to have always been intended to have been Survival).  It's a fascinating story, one that rewards repeated viewings that allow for more character moments and allusions to be noticed each time.  It has interesting things to say about evolution and Victorian values, and it's fabulously written, acted, designed, and directed.  Not a bad story to finish up on then, eh?

But obviously we're not done with the season yet.  Now it's on to The Curse of Fenric and Doctor Who's first foray, after 26 seasons, into the second World War.  The Curse of Fenric also bears the distinction of being the only Doctor Who story that genuinely scared me as a child (something about the idea of vampires that would kill you if your faith wasn't strong enough).

Not quite at the scary bits in the first episode though, which is mainly a setting-up one.  Even though this is a story about the war, the actual fighting seems distantly removed from this setting.  No, here we have the efforts of a codebreaker named Dr. Judson at an isolated base in the north of England while Russian soldiers land on the beach nearby, apparently with the intent of kidnapping Judson.  All this and some stuff about ancient Viking runes and something Base Commander Millington calls "the curse of Fenric".

It's certainly an entertaining episode, with some intriguing moments (such as how something's in the water that's apparently killing Russian troops) and some amusing ones as well (the way the Doctor forges official paperwork for both him and Ace).  But at this point, all we know is that something sinister is going on -- what that sinister thing actually is will be for later episodes to reveal.  But this is certainly a good start.

December 23: The Curse of Fenric Parts Two & Three

In many ways part two is just as much of a set-up episode as part one was -- it's just setting up different things.  Millington is willing to use a truly horrendous poison to kill the Russians once the war is over and they're no longer allies, but he also seems to see things in terms of Norse mythology -- it's a mention of Hvergelmir in relation to the poison that convinces Millington that the Doctor can be trusted.  Judson is obsessed with translating the runes in the church crypt (but somehow doesn't seem to have noticed that a new batch has sprung up overnight), and Reverend Wainwright is having a crisis of faith at the thought of the British bombing German cities and causing innocents to die.

The two main things to happen story-wise are that Phyllis and Jean, the two teenage girls who've been evacuated from London, head into the sea and are turned into vampires (excuse me, Haemovores) that start terrorizing the locals, and that Ace tells Dr. Judson that the runes are actually a sort of logic diagram -- which leads to Ultima spewing out tons and tons of names, despite the efforts of the Doctor to stop it.

So there's not much in the way of action in part two, but what it's very effective at is creating an atmosphere of tension and dread.  (Much like part one in that regard.)  So although no one's really being attacked yet (other than Miss Hardaker, who's not exactly a sympathetic character, and Rev. Wainwright -- but he's saved by the Doctor), there's a sense of a gathering storm that's soon going to be unleashed.

The Doctor creates a psychic barrier to drive away the Haemovores.
(The Curse of Fenric Part Three) ©BBC
That storm looks like it begins in part three, as Ultima runs out of control, processing the runic logic diagram, while the Haemovores rise out of the sea (and, it seems, out of the cemetery) and begin to attack.157  Faith can repel them so long as that faith is absolute -- otherwise you'll be killed.  Close examination reveals that the Doctor's unshakable faith is in his companions (though you can't really make it out in the broadcast version -- Steven is the only name that's somewhat audible), while the Russian leader Captain Sorin has unshakable faith in the Russian Revolution.  Rev. Wainwright, sadly, doesn't have enough faith in the Bible, and thus the Haemovores are able to kill him.

So there's a storm being unleashed as the Haemovores (which are really nicely designed, by the way; the blue skin and barnacle-like deposits all over are strikingly memorable) attack, and while the Doctor seems to know what's going on (he wasn't surprised by the Viking runes, and he understood the translations enough to know that they'd be looking for an Oriental treasure -- a flask -- that the Vikings brought), he doesn't want to explain until Ace forces him to, in what's a rather wonderful scene:
ACE: You know what's going on, don't you?
ACE: You always know.  You just can't be bothered to tell anyone.  It's like it's some kind of game, and only you know the rules.  You knew all about that inscription being a computer programme, but you didn't tell me.  You know all about that old bottle, and you're not telling me.  Am I so stupid?
DOCTOR: No, that's not it.
ACE: Why then?  I want to know.
DOCTOR: Evil, evil since the dawn of time.
ACE: What do you mean?
DOCTOR: Will you stop asking me these questions?
ACE: Tell me!
DOCTOR: The dawn of time.  The beginning of all beginnings.  Two forces only, good and evil.  Then chaos.  Time is born, matter, space. The universe cries out like a newborn.  The forces shatter as the universe explodes outwards.  Only echoes remain, and yet somehow, somehow the evil force survives.  An intelligence.  Pure evil!
ACE: That's Fenric?
DOCTOR: No, that's just Millington's name for it.  Evil has no name.  Trapped inside a flask like a genie in a bottle.
Of course, that leads to the rather bizarre scene where Ace tries to distract a soldier by seducing him so that the Doctor can free Captain Sorin.  It's trying to be all mysterious and clever, and while it sort of works the conversation does sometimes feel strange and ungainly.

But really, that's the only duff moment so far in three compelling episodes.  They're tense, gripping, and engaging -- and that third cliffhanger, as the paralyzed Dr. Judson stands up, his eyes glowing green, and says, "We play the contest again, Time Lord," is really impressive, promising good things from the conclusion of this serial.

December 24: The Curse of Fenric Part Four / Survival Part One

This might be one of the best episodes Doctor Who's ever turned out.  The first three parts of The Curse of Fenric have been leading up to this climactic episode, when Fenric is finally set free, using the body of Dr. Judson and ready to unleash his evil upon the world.  "When it comes to death, quantity is so much more satisfying than quality," Fenric remarks.  To that end Fenric wants to release Millington's toxin into the waters and pollute the entire planet, killing everyone.  He's even brought the Ancient One (who appears to be the chief Haemovore) back in time from the distant future to help him achieve his goal.

Fenric agonizes over the puzzle the Doctor has set for him.
(The Curse of Fenric Part Four) ©BBC
This is a tense episode, as the soldiers fight a desperate battle first against the other soldiers (British vs. Soviet) and then together against their common enemy.  I also really like the scene where, after the Haemovores have broken into the room where the Wrens are hiding, soldiers come in to evacuate them, only to find that they've all been turned into Haemovores -- and they all descend on one hapless soldier who's apparently paralyzed with fear.  And meanwhile Fenric can't help but be pulled into the Doctor's trap: the same one that trapped him seventeen centuries ago.

But the best part is the ending sequence, where Ace inadvertently provides Fenric with the solution to the chess puzzle and then we get a taste of how long Fenric's been trying to manipulate the Doctor, by bringing one of his "wolves" (people descended from the Vikings who brought Fenric's flask to England) into contact with him.  It's actually a really brutal sequence for Ace, as the Doctor systematically tears her down in front of Fenric:
SORIN: Kneel if you want the girl to live!
DOCTOR: (quietly) Kill her.
SORIN: (laughing) The Time Lord finally understands.
DOCTOR: Do you think I didn't know?  The chess set in Lady Peinforte's study?  I knew.
SORIN: Earlier than that, Time Lord.  Before Cybermen.  Ever since Iceworld, where you first met the girl.
DOCTOR: I knew.  I knew she carried the evil inside her.  Do you think I'd have chosen a social misfit if I hadn't known?  She couldn't even pass her chemistry exams at school, and yet she manages to create a time storm in her bedroom.  I saw your hand in it from the very beginning.
ACE: Doctor, no.
DOCTOR: She's an emotional cripple.  I wouldn't waste my time on her, unless I had to use her somehow.
Turns out the Doctor's just trying to tear down Ace's psychic barrier so that the Ancient One can attack Fenric, but it still doesn't do much for Ace's psyche -- even if he does apologize afterwards ("I'd have done anything not to hurt you, but I had to save you from Fenric's evil curse.  Your faith in me was holding the Haemovore back").  But what's really nice about this scene is how it seems to tie together a number of disparate elements, to make them seem bigger and more important than they initially appeared.  (It also explains how both Ace and Lady Peinforte were able to travel from their own times to different ones.)

But then that's the real strength of this entire story.  The Curse of Fenric manages to take a number of different elements (vampires, early computers, British and Soviet soldiers in World War II, and eeevil evilsincethedawnofTime) and put them together to create a compelling, weighty story.  And not only that; it tackles things like the nature of faith (and how it doesn't have to be religious) and the futility of war ("War, a game played by politicians," one of the Soviet troops, Vershinin, says.  "We were just pawns in the game, but the pawns are fighting together now.  Eh, comrade?"), and it does it in a wonderfully subtle manner.  All this and some fabulous acting and direction to boot (and full marks to director Nicholas Mallett for convincing John Nathan-Turner to let him film this all on location).  Really, the DVD special edition is the way to go with this story (it adds in some needed scenes, reorders things, and regrades the visuals to make it look more consistent) -- one of the few DVD special editions that is actually worthwhile (as opposed to, say, the recut versions of Enlightenment or Planet of Fire, which are both entirely dispensable).  But even the episodic version is a tremendous success.  The Curse of Fenric is deservedly known as one of the best stories of the 1980s.

And now it's on to part one of Survival -- the final story in Doctor Who's original run.  It's something of a bittersweet moment; even though we know the show will eventually return, this still feels like an ending.  But, if this episode is anything to judge by, the show will be going out on a high note.

Even in this first episode Survival makes some of its themes clear.  There's definitely a number of criticisms directed at the "dog eat dog"/"every man for himself" culture of the late '80s.  Here it's stated (repeatedly) as "survival of the fittest", with the implications that you'd better be the fittest -- a position the Doctor clearly doesn't agree with.

The other interesting thing about this episode is the juxtaposition of the normal (contemporary Perivale) with the bizarre.  It starts out with some odd shots and disappearing people, and it ends with strange cheetah-like people transporting people to another planet (which looks surprisingly alien, dry, and dusty -- they've done an excellent job of differentiating the two settings) -- and yet this combination never feels forced or unnatural.  It's a logical progression of what we've seen: the Territorial Army sergeant is trying to teach survival of the fittest, but there's a species that's mastered this and the hunt, making them formidable.

Let's be honest; the cliffhanger's not that surprising, given that they've been showing us Anthony Ainley's distinctive eyes for much of the episode.  The surprise isn't that the Master's back (and it has been a couple years, at least, so there's not the sense of inevitability about this appearance that there might have been a few seasons earlier) -- the surprise is that he appears to have cat eyes and some form of limited control over the Cheetah People (as the Doctor will call them in part two).  And in a story with the theme of survival of the fittest, one wonders if the Master has become like the Cheetah People to become the fittest...

December 25: Survival Parts Two & Three

The Master is feeling the effects of the planet. (Survival
Part Two) ©BBC
The pointed critique of the "might makes right" culture continues in these last two episodes.  Sgt. Paterson talks a big game about being trained and knowing how to survive, but when push comes to shove he's useless.  Midge tries to become the stronger person by trying to kill Derek on the Cheetah World but ends up essentially enslaved by the Master.  And when Midge fails to kill the Doctor outright, the Master tells him to die ("Survival of the fittest.  The weak must be eliminated so that the healthy can flourish.  You know what to do, Midge").  It's not a story that has any sympathy for testosterone-fueled displays of force.

What Survival does have time for is a more overtly female approach.  Ace gets in touch with her feminine side and feels free as she starts to turn into a Cheetah Person (and the scene in part two, with the red moon reflected in the water, makes this connection clear), rejecting male ideas about what it means to survive.  From Karra the Cheetah Person's point of view, it's not about surviving or winning -- it's about the hunt, feeling the blood, satisfying the hunger.  But go too far the other way and you run the risk of turning into a Cheetah Person, of giving in to your base urges completely, of fighting with each other even though you're linked somehow with the planet and the fighting causes the planet to disintegrate -- and this risk seems to be heightened if you then turn those Cheetah Person tendencies toward male-dominated activities like war.  "If we fight like animals, we die like animals!" the Doctor shouts, refusing to give in (although the sight of the Doctor with cat eyes, as he prepares to kill the Master before he realizes what he's doing, is striking).

All right, so maybe this is taking things a bit too far, but the subtext is clearly there, even if it tends to remain a subtext.  But writer Rona Munro (the fourth woman to write for the series, after Barbara Clegg, Paula Woolsey (maybe), and Jane Baker), like all the best writers of the last few years, is using Doctor Who to explore topics that are meaningful to her while wrapping it up in an SF context.  The critique about "survival of the fittest" is definitely there, and in fact drives the whole episode.  The references to womanhood (the moon bit, the fact that the women turn into cats -- and note how Karra turns back into a human woman when she dies) are also definitely there.  Connecting the two themes takes a bit more work on the viewers' side.

But what's wonderful about Survival is that you can do this.  The pieces are there for you to interact with.  And what better way to explore these ideas of fighting and survival than with the Master?  This is probably Anthony Ainley's best performance in the role, and it's easily the best characterization of the character since his return.  Instead of giving him elaborate schemes to entrap the Doctor or take over the world, he's redesigned here to be the Doctor's opposite, with no more motivation needed than to use the Doctor to help him escape.  And if the Doctor dies or succumbs to the effects of the planet, so be it.  This is a Master operating on instinct.  The best thing about this is that the Master doesn't end up distorting the story around him; instead he enhances the themes, showing that using the Cheetah powers for selfish reasons is just as bad as giving into them completely.

Survival's an impressively layered story, and its strengths lie in challenging the audience while still providing an entertaining tale.  It confidently reasserts the basic principles of the show (as Terrance Dicks might say, "Never cruel or cowardly") and rejects the ideas of every man for himself.  It provides a new dimension for the show's ideas about the function of the companion -- no other story yet has brought the companion back to their home just to see what the old gang is up to, but that's a driving force here -- which will become a key part of the 21st-century version.  It provides us with reasons to think and reasons to cheer, all in a slick, self-assured package.  (And it manages to do this in three episodes, without the feeling that there are necessary explanations omitted in the interests of time.)  What better story is there for Doctor Who to bow out on?

The Doctor and Ace head off to new adventures. (Survival
Part Three) ©BBC
Because yes, this is the final story of Doctor Who's original run.  It's rather sad, that; this is a show that could have kept going for a good deal longer (particularly in its current incarnation, no longer slavishly deferring to the idea of "continuity" and what fandom at the time thought made a good story), and you get the sense that they could have gone anywhere from here.  Alas, it wasn't to be.

They had an inkling at the time that they weren't going to get a 27th season.  The reasons for this are a bit more complicated than you might think -- not only did BBC management not care for Doctor Who, but no one really wanted to produce it either (one of the reasons Nathan-Turner was producer as long as he was is because no one else was willing to be the producer).  Then add in the fact that a recent directive decreed that 25% of all BBC output had to be made by outside companies -- a situation which seemed to the BBC to be ideal for Doctor Who but which would take time to work out the details -- and you can see why the wind was blowing against another season of Doctor Who.   This is why Survival ends with that lovely little Cartmel-written speech from the Doctor (augmented by Dominic Glynn's gorgeously wistful little tune), because they thought it might be a while before the show was back:
There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream.  People made of smoke, and cities made of song.  Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, somewhere else the tea's getting cold.  Come on, Ace, we've got work to do.
It's a shame that they stopped when they did, though.  Season 26 has provided us with a run of stories even more confident and ambitious than last season's -- even Battlefield (the worst story of the season, which gives you some idea of how strong this year's stories have been) is full of good ideas and lovely moments, hanging on a narrative framework that's wonderfully overambitious.  Obviously the BBC's management weren't too keen on the series (or else they wouldn't have kept scheduling it opposite Coronation Street), and the ratings had been down, but in some ways that didn't matter.  John Nathan-Turner and Andrew Cartmel especially seem to have been delighting in telling audacious stories with complicated themes -- confident in the knowledge that they can be more adventurous and outrageous because no one in charge is paying them any attention.  (Cartmel once famously said after the fact that his goal as script editor was to bring down the government -- which gives you some idea of the sorts of things he was looking for and the commitment he was willing to give.)  They knew their days were numbered, but that didn't dissuade them.  It helped that they were aided by Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, providing us with one of the best Doctors and one of the best companions (respectively) ever -- it's a shame they didn't really get to leave on their own terms.  The result was a show that was back on the top of its game and ready to take on the world.  It's hardly their fault the world wasn't that interested anymore.158


156 I mentioned under Meglos that that story was the only time John Nathan-Turner had ever brought back someone who had played a companion in another role, but I'd forgotten about Jean Marsh, who'd previously been Sara Kingdom in The Daleks' Master Plan, playing Morgaine here.  Although let's sidestep the rather tedious "but does Sara really count as a companion?" debate and note that at this stage in the programme, she's on the official list.  (That said, if you do want to have said debate, you should start by noting that she shows up on UNIT's Black Archive companion bulletin board in "The Day of the Doctor", in a photo with Mike Yates of all people.)
157 Actually there seems to be some slight confusion regarding the Haemovores (or perhaps it's better characterized as insufficiently explained, as this does get made clearer in a cut scene (reinstated for the special edition)).  The Doctor describes them as "what Homo sapiens evolve into thousands of years in the future.  Creatures with an insatiable hunger for blood", but it's not clear why they're around now and have been for centuries (judging from some of the period clothing they're wearing) if they're from the future.  Is this because of Fenric's baleful influence, possibly related to the natural toxin that Millington is collecting?  Or did he bring them forward from the future and they've been waiting for the right moment to strike, converting others into Haemovores along the way?  (Actually, it seems to be because Fenric brought the Ancient Haemovore back in time from the future, but like I said, this explanation was cut from the broadcast version.)
158 After Survival Part Three I watched the 1990 edition of Search Out Science -- an educational show -- that features the Doctor, Ace, and K-9 (and can be found on the Survival DVD if you're interested).  To paraphrase About Time, it's proof, if nothing else, that children still wanted the Doctor around even if no one else did.