Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Doctor Who: 1982

Episode 572: Earthshock, part 1
First broadcast: 6.55 pm, Monday 8 March 1982
<< back to 1981

"Ah! We're not the only ones to have a facelift!"
Earthshock, part 1
The return of the Cybermen for the first time in seven years! The producer of Doctor Who would surely want to shout about that. Their return would thrill fans and entice more casual viewers to tune in, ensuring a bumper audience. Wouldn't it?

Yet in 1982, producer John Nathan-Turner declined an offer to put the Cybermen on the cover of Radio Times so as to maintain the surprise when they showed up at the end of part one. That might seem an odd thing to do: rewarding the fans already watching instead of trying to draw more punters in front of the telly. But rewarding your audience isn't a bad thing, and I suppose there's an argument that they will generate excitement, so more punters will tune in to see what they're missing - in time for the shock ending of the story as a whole.

(At least in theory. The audience dropped slightly from 9.1 million for part one to 8.8 million for part two.)

Teasers and spoilers are a tricky business. There are those who try to avoid all details of any forthcoming episode; their are those who devote every spare moment to deducing what's to come. Even when we don't try to find things out, details get out anyway.

Unless we've been extremely diligent, we already know some of the guest cast of the 50th anniversary Doctor Who which won't be on for another five months. We probably know the name of a monster that will be in it, might have seen pictures - even video - from the filming. The darker regions of the internet can probably furnish us with elements of the plot of whole lines of dialogue. There are leaks, errors... and even carefully mounted publicity.

The producers of the show walk a difficult line in wanting to keep the surprises secret but knowing that a tantalising hint of what's to come will build interest in this creaky, long-lived series and ensure people tune in. They have to assume scenes shot on location will get papped and put on the net. But they also need to think about what to reveal in publicity and trailers - and how close to transmission to show them.

Even now, with the internet and what seems a whole industry devoted to ruining surprises, there are still some brilliant shocks. For a week in 2009 it seemed the whole nation was thrilled by the ending of The Stolen Earth - when nobody seemed to know if the Doctor was going to regenerate (and those who knew kept silent). For that week, there seemed no distinction between "fans" and ordinary people who watched the show.

Things were different in the early 1980s. There was no internet to share insider gossip quickly, while the producers of the show were only starting to get their heads round an organised fandom that was getting much better at finding things out. I wondered how much the return of the Cybermen was a surprise to those who were very involved in fandom at the time.

So I asked three of my friends.

Nicholas Briggs:
Ah, well, you see, the surprise got spoiled by the fact that the Cybermen were featured in a small comic strip thingy at the back of the Radio Times, which came out in the week before the episode was aired. I didn't know before that, though.
Cyber-spoilers in the Radio Times
Even so, not everyone knew. Peter Anghelides says:
I saw that episode in a university student hall of residence. Much grumbling from the non-fan student audience (still watching it, of course) about how the show wasn't as good as they remembered it. Me sitting quietly watching, not making a fuss but slightly aggrieved that they were TALKING DURING THE BROADCAST!! And then the big surprise at the end. The next day in the hall dining room, the non-fan conversation was all about "the Cybermen are back!"

I may have heard a rumour in fan circles that the Cybermen were returning some time in that season. But I certainly wasn't expecting them in that particular story. So it was a delightful surprise for me as a viewer, and as a fan seeing the reaction from others watching the show.
Gary Russell:
I knew but for a while thought the silly Androids were the Cybermen while watching that first ep. I was therefore very pleased by the cliffhanger, simply cos I realised that was the new Cybermen!

That night I went to my drama school and everyone was talking about it. That was the point I realised how disappointing being an in-the-know fan could be. The Sontarans in Invasion of Time and Davros in Destiny had been such brilliant surprises for me, and although I knew about the Master in Traken, I had assumed he was Tremas (not just the anagrammatic name but because I knew Ainley was him in Logopolis). So the Melkur thing was a surprise. But Earthshock was my first experience of seeing a group of peers genuinely shocked and excited, and me realising I wasn't – that I was missing out on that thrill because I was "in the know". This year's 50th anniversary special will be the first time since Season 17 where I'll be completely unaware of what the story is beforehand.
Next episode: 1983 


Paul Rhodes said...

I think the RT was the edition for the following week, but as Ep.1 aired on a Monday, maybe early copies were already out. We never saw RT until midweek, so I was thoroughly surprised. And delighted.

0tralala said...

Ah! Good fact!