Reviewed by Nicholas Withers
It was highly ironic that the final story of Doctor Who before the seven-year hiatus was called Survival; a skill in which the programme suddenly found itself lacking. Even Season Twenty-Six, with its array of guest stars and high quality stories (both in plotting and screening) could not rescue the show. Because of its position at the end of the British run of Doctor Who, Survival must be reviewed as not just a Seventh Doctor story, but as both the last adventure of the Seventh Doctor and of the original Doctor Who series.
'If we fight like animals, we die like animals!'
Rona Munro's script is influenced heavily by Darwinian and Nietzschian concepts. It is a battle for survival (the oft-repeated line 'survival of the fittest') where those who survive are those who are prepared to undergo change (to evolve). The Nietzschian element comes in with the idea of becoming what you are fighting against. The major letdown in the script is perhaps the way climax follows climax at the end of the final episode. Following the battle on the Cheetah planet between the Master and the Doctor, we end up with a dual between the Doctor and (indirectly) the Master, and also see the death of Karra. Perhaps a single, tighter conclusion would have worked better (and preferably one without the motorbike duel).
Where Survival does score bonus points is in the atmosphere and build-up (especially in the first episode). Perivale feels boring to Ace because it is empty, but it is ominously empty. The disappearances are handled well, keeping the enemy carefully hidden. The prevalence of the cats and cat imagery also adds to the atmosphere. It is easy to relate to the Doctor's feeling that something is wrong. Even though the Master is readily recognisable despite the shadows, there is still a feeling of revelation when the Doctor pulls back the tent-flap. Although possibly a questionable casting decision, the comedians Hale and Pace manage to make their appearance without destroying the atmospheric build up. In fact their performance is surprisingly restrained (and they even resisted using a microwave on any of the cats). The pacing is a bit slow at times. It is fortunate that this was a three part story, as it struggles to fill three-parts and would have failed to fill four.
Survival, as with Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric, is a shining example of why the BBC's excuse (not enough money to produce it at a competitive level) for not making any more is in fact a fallacy. Despite the budgetary restrictions, the quarries in Survival finally feel like they are another planet, with the bizarre skyline occupied by an alien moon and streams of smoke from the volcanic breakdown of the planet. The Cheetah Peoples' costumes are effective, as are the eyes and teeth of people 'possessed' by the planet. Perhaps the only slight let down is the infamous animatronic cat, which from a distance looks suitably frightening and alien. However close up it looks like a cheap animatronic cat.
The soundtrack is variable. Some of the incidental music echoes the music from western movies, and in doing so almost seems to be poking fun at these scenes. While most of the music is definitely atmospheric, the occasionally repeat guitar sounding screech is ultimately more annoying than anything else.
The performances from the main characters are very good, particularly from Anthony Ainley, who for the first time in the show's history, gets to play a version of the Master that he, and not Delgado, is more successful at. The animal and desperate nature of this Master shines through brilliantly in Ainley, something that may not have been possible in Delgado's gentleman villain.
Sylvester McCoy's portrayal of the Doctor is not as dark or manipulative as the previous two stories of the season. Perhaps the most interesting facet of the characterisations is the mature relationship between Ace and the Doctor. Ace is no longer unwittingly manipulated, but rather the Doctor explains the dangers of the possible paths and leaves the choice to Ace. This is in sharp contrast to the Doctor-Ace relationship prior to this story, and also vastly different to the New Adventures. It is a good conclusion to the Ace story arc running through the season. Patterson's obsession with survival is suitably conveyed, and its ultimate impact on Midge is also well done. The transformation from the mostly civil Midge to the animal is handled well, with his gradual adoption of the feral survival ethos.
The final scene, with the Doctor reappearing, reassures us of the immortal nature of our Time Lord: he always survives. The final speech is a suitable nice swan-song for Sylvester McCoy's Doctor, capturing the comedy, seriousness, and whimsical nature of the Doctor in one. It was a shame the series had to end here, but at least it did so on a high note.
This item appeared in TSV 50 (February 1997).