This Saturday sees Rona Munro return to the Doctor Who family with ‘The Eaters of Light’. So we thought it was a good time to look back at her very first classic series story, ‘Survival’.

Rona Munro is an award-winning Scottish writer with a long career writing for radio, theatre, television and film. After meeting Doctor Who’s then-script editor, Andrew Cartmel, Munro was hired to pen the final story of the twenty-sixth season. Her three-part story, ‘Survival’, aired in late 1989 and proved to be the last TV serial of the classic era.

It’s The Eye Of The Tiger

Sylvester McCoy - Doctor Who - Survival (c) BBC
Sylvester McCoy – Doctor Who – Survival (c) BBC

The Doctor returns Ace to her hometown of Perivale only to find that most of her old gang are missing. When the Doctor becomes suspicious of the local cats, he enlists Hale and Pace (ask your parents) to investigate. They discover that alien cats are abducting people and whisking them away to the planet of the Cheetah People. Ace and her friends must fight against their own instincts when they succumb to the planet’s strange influence. Meanwhile, the Doctor stumbles across an old enemy embracing his newfound animal side.

It’s The Thrill Of The Fight

Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred close out their third series together as the Seventh Doctor and Ace respectively. Much has been made of their rapport over the years and ‘Survival’ is one of the best examples. Both underwent a lot of growth over their time together and Munro clearly had a grasp on that. More than any previous episode, Ace more overtly takes on characteristics of the Doctor. She even dons McCoy’s trademark hat for a few moments, which really works for the character.

Rising Up To The Challenge Of Our Rival

We also have the final TV appearance of Anthony Ainley as The Master, a role he’d played opposite four Doctors since 1981.

The Master (ANTHONY AINLEY) - Doctor Who - Survival: Part Two (c) BBC
The Master (ANTHONY AINLEY) – Doctor Who – Survival: Part Two (c) BBC

While all of Ainley’s previous appearances have been shock reveals, this one’s a bit less of a surprise. It’s not even a spoiler to mention that he’s here, since his shadowy first appearance is instantly recognisable. But this lack of a reveal serves the story well. Ainley’s Master was always more theatrical than his predecessors. More a moustache-twirling villain than evil mastermind. Here, however, the silly disguises are thrown out along with the pantomime. The Master has been infected with the planet’s Cheetah virus that is causing him to turn feral. Ainley plays beautifully on the animalistic side of the character and gives his most chilling performance to date. Though Ainley didn’t appear in the TV movie, he would reprise the role in 1997 for the computer game ‘Destiny of the Doctors’.

And The Last Known Survivor

Lisa Bowerman makes her Doctor Who debut in this adventure. Fans of the spin-off media will know her better as Professor Bernice Summerfield, appearing in countless Big Finish audios. Here she plays Karra, a Cheetah Person who attacks and later befriends Ace. Save for one scene, though, Bowerman gets very few lines. Most of her performance is done through movement and facial expression, even though most of it is hidden behind the Cheetah mask.

Ace (SOPHIE ALDRED) - Karra (LISA BOWERMAN) - Doctor Who - Survival: Part Three (c) BBC
Ace (SOPHIE ALDRED) – Karra (LISA BOWERMAN) – Doctor Who – Survival: Part Three (c) BBC

In fact, the Cheetah costume is probably the weakest element of the episode. It’s not surprising, since they were working with a budget tighter than the ill-fitting teddy bear masks they produced. But it’s a shame that such a strong story is populated with moth-eaten Thundercats cosplayers. Munro has been vocal about her distaste for the Cheetah People costumes, which she’d envisioned to be subtler. More animalistic, less cuddly. In particular, she’s criticised how it got in the way of the lesbian subtext she’d crafted between Karra and Ace. With an openly gay companion on the TARDIS, it’ll be interesting to see Munro’s uses this in series ten.

Stalks His Prey In The Night

Being only three parts, this is a very tightly-written story that doesn’t waste a second. Its pacing and themes shows the embryo of what the new series would do sixteen years later. Modern-day London setting with development of a working class companion as the main focus of the story. Cartmel’s tenure as script editor, seeking out of young writers like Munro and Ben Aaronovitch, had been gradually revitalising the series. We’ve since learnt from Cartmel and others what a hypothetical season 27 would have included. You can really see the elements that would become staples of New Who starting to bud.

And He’s Watching Us Now With the Eye…

This is also true of the cinematography. One of the few classic serials to involve no studio filming, this story feels very different to the previous 154. But it feels very much like the 119 (and counting) that would follow. Director Alan Wareing takes full advantage of the location shoot, giving us longer takes and more dynamic shots than studio filming would allow.

The Doctor (SYLVESTER MCCOY) - Doctor Who - Survival: Part Three (c) BBC
The Doctor (SYLVESTER MCCOY) – Doctor Who – Survival: Part Three (c) BBC

By the late-eighties, the BBC was experimenting with new techniques to achieve video effects. Doctor Who was one of the first shows to feel the benefit. The Cheetah Planet, which could easily have just been another in the catalogue of quarry worlds, is beautifully rendered. The blood-red sky looming over the Cheetah Planet was a cutting-edge achievement by the BBC at the time.

…Of The Tiger

Shortly before broadcast, it became clear that the series was unlikely to return next year. Cartmel and executive producer John Nathan-Turner wrote a short monologue for the Doctor to cap off the story. The speech hints at more adventures to come, which of course it would in novels, audio dramas and eventually a highly-successful television revival.

So much has been said about the circumstances of Doctor Who’s cancellation, I won’t go into it. But ‘Survival’, in almost all aspects, demonstrates new heights the series was reaching for. Just when Doctor Who seemed gearing up to burst into the Nineties with new vigour, it went on hiatus. ‘Survival’ is a well-paced, clever fable about humanity’s darker nature and a high-note for the original series to bow out on.

Be sure to catch Rona Munro’s new episode, ‘The Eaters of Light’, on Saturday 17th June at 6:45pm on BBC One.

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If you want to pick up Doctor Who: Survival drop by your Amazon website.

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