I wasn’t sure what to make of Earthshock by about half-way through. The trouble with the Cybermen is, since Tom Baker encountered them in Revenge of the Cybermen, they’ve been a bit rubbish. For all their talk of lacking emotional weakness, they clearly display emotions themselves, from sadistic glee at watching others die, to frustration at being foiled. They’re just regular evil villains with a regular evil villain boss, and voices that somehow lack the creepy synthetic monotone of the 60s versions. Ironically, then, a downgrade.
But in this case, I can forgive the slightly rubbish Cybermen, as the setup is one of the best. Unlike The Invasion, where Cybermen are already overrunning the Earth, here we have a classic isolated environment, a ship full of dormant Cybermen on a collision course. This potential doomsday scenario raises the stakes without over-egging the threat. Part 1 is a creepy little adventure in itself, as two of the android servants skulk around in a dark cave, picking off the squad of troopers, before the adventure is whisked off into space, troopers in tow. This is quite neatly written, with those fossils in the caves foreshadowing the explosive events at the conclusion, and the argument with Adric foreshadowing his ultimate demise.
This is not the first time a companion has been offed, but I wouldn’t count Katarina as a “main character”, so this is definitely a bold move. Admittedly, I never liked Adric, but I honestly didn’t expect him to die. The Doctor could be planning to go back in time and rescue him or something, but that would be pretty cheap. Besides, the silent end credits kind of said “this is final, be sad”. I applaud the bravery of finally doing this, of not simply concocting a last-minute rescue like every other story seems to do.
That’s one of the good things about Earthshock, how utterly powerless the Doctor is. He is completely at the mercy of the Cybermen, forced to do their bidding as officers and crew are killed around him. The conclusion is particularly clever, then; it’s not that the Cybermen failed to wipe out life on Earth, it’s just that they chose the wrong time to do it. Or the right time, depending on how you look at it. The rise of mammals are all thanks to them. Not content with simply burning down London, the Doctor is now responsible for sentient life developing on Earth. That’s pretty cool.