31 March, 2020

Unearthing Earthshock

Doctor Who: The Collection - Season 19 blu-ray set was released in December 2018. I was commissioned to write the production information text for the season's penultimate story, Earthshock.

Eight minutes into the second episode of Earthshock, there’s a continuity error hidden in plain sight. It’s initially on screen for just four seconds and reappears in four even shorter shots over the next half-minute. Blink and you might miss it.

The Cybermen have remotely-activated their bomb hidden in the caves on Earth. The Doctor is inside the TARDIS frantically working to block the signal to prevent the bomb’s detonation. The tension mounts as the action cuts back and forth between the TARDIS, the Cybermen and the bomb.

But wait - there’s something not quite right about that bomb. Perched on top of the device is the magnetic clamp device from the TARDIS toolkit. An item that the Doctor is seen fixing to the top of the bomb just after the nine-minute mark. A full minute after it is first seen sitting on top of the bomb!

The Cyber bomb, with the Doctor's magnetic clamp in place on top.

Later, the Doctor places the clamp on the bomb.

I’ve viewed Earthshock a lot over the past three and a half decades. I think it’s one of Peter Davison’s best stories. Each time I've watched, the mistake with the bomb has completely passed me by. As it undoubtedly did for the production crew at the time and has subsequently done for countless viewers. I checked reference books, magazines and websites that contain lists of such things, and not one of them makes a mention of this error.

I only noticed it because I was paying exceptionally close attention to the story. I was making notes for the production information text commentary (or ‘info text’) I wrote for the Season 19 blu-ray set in 2018.

Info text is just one of the many special features included on the ‘classic’ series Doctor Who blu-rays, and the DVDs before them. The text appears on screen as subtitles, but rather than transcribed dialogue it provides a commentary about the story’s production. The text points out pertinent, specific details about moments in the episodes as they appear, as well as general information about how, when and where the story was made.

With all of the entertaining special features on the wonderful new blu-ray sets, the info text tends to get a bit overlooked. Which is a shame, because this feature delivers a lot of interesting new information that you won't find elsewhere.

In some cases, the text that originally appeared on the DVDs has undergone only minor revisions for the blu-ray collections, but certain stories have been given brand new info text subtitles. The Season 19 blu-ray has new info text for three stories: Four to Doomsday, Black Orchid and Earthshock. I was commissioned to write the text for the Cyberman story.

I previously worked on the Doctor Who DVDs, writing info text for eight stories released in the latter half of the range. I mainly covered 1980s stories. I’m particularly interested in this decade of Doctor Who as a researcher and as a fan of the series. When the DVD range wound down around 2013, I thought that I’d written my last lot of info text. I was surprised and delighted to be invited back to work on the blu-rays.

I approached Earthshock with a little trepidation. It had been five years since I’d last written a set of info text, and I had to re-familiarise myself with what was involved in the process. I was aware too that the story didn’t appear to have gone through any significant alterations during its development. I’d never before worked on a story with such a close match between what appears in the rehearsal scripts and on-screen. There were no early script drafts or major rewrites, and no deleted scenes. Such material offers a wealth of detail to discuss in the info text. Part of the challenge I faced with Earthshock was to find other aspects to discuss in the subtitles.

The work involves viewing the story with fresh eyes. I work using timecoded copies of the episodes in order to specify the exact moment a subtitle appears and disappears on screen. Because of the precision involved in placing subtitles around shot changes, my preferred approach (which I must add isn’t necessarily that used by other info text writers), is to start with a slow, close watch through each episode noting down the exact timecode (measured in 25ths of a second), when each new shot commences. Earthshock has an exceptional number of these per episode, ranging between 167 shots (for Part One) and 245 shots (for Part Two). It takes me most of a day to work through a single episode. I’m not just noting down timecodes. I also use this slow-time viewing to annotate a copy of the script with any observations that I think are worthy of inclusion in the info text. The benefit to this stop-start scrutiny is that otherwise overlooked details, such as the aforementioned continuity error with the bomb, tend to spring into focus.

It was while doing this slow watch-through that I noticed an error with the life form scanner that appears in Part One. While Lieutenant Scott and his party are exploring the caves, on the surface Walters is tasked with monitoring their progress. Each individual is represented by a dot of light, which winks out when that person is killed. When first seen, the screen shows a cluster of 13 dots, representing Professor Kyle, Lieutenant Scott and eleven troopers. Over the course of the episode smaller groups split off and are picked off by the androids, so the display changes accordingly. There are however a couple of shots of the scanner where the dots don’t correspond to the number of troopers. The number drops by two when there is no reason in the story for this change, and afterwards the scanner screen is once again displaying the correct number of dots.

Count the dots... there ought to be 11 in the cluster at the top right of the picture, but only 9 are displayed.

Those dots, when displaying correctly, are an accurate reflection of how many troopers are present in the story. By comparing various items of production paperwork, I was able to determine that there are 14 in total. Unusually for this era of Doctor Who, it’s an evenly balanced group, with an equal number of men and women. The cast lists initially caused some confusion, as they included six credited and 11 uncredited performers playing the troopers, making a total of 17. The reason for this became clear when I discovered that three of the walk-ons had to be replaced during production.

The troopers wear name tags on their uniforms but in all but a few cases, we don’t get a clear enough look at these tags to see make out the names. Most of the group never take their helmets off so it’s difficult to tell them apart. Some are named in the credits, and others are identified in dialogue, but a few remained nameless. Thanks to a scene breakdown document that lists the characters involved in each scene, however, I was able to put names to all of the troopers. New Fact! The non-speaking female trooper who goes to the freighter is called Austin.

Trooper Austin (left) played by Nikki Dunsford, seen here with Lieutenant Scott (James Warwick).

On the subject of unnamed characters, what about the Captain, memorably played by Beryl Reid. What’s her name? She's called Briggs in the script and on the closing credits, but that name never appears in the story itself. There’s evidence too that the story's writer Eric Saward might have had another name in mind for the Captain. At one point in Part Two, a scripted direction intended for Briggs instead refers to her as ‘Stien’. It seems likely that in the original version of the script this was the Captain’s name and this solitary mention was overlooked in revisions. Saward clearly liked the name enough to reuse it in Resurrection of the Daleks. In Part Three, there’s also evidence that the Captain may have originally been male, as the Cyber Lieutenant says ‘his’ rather than ‘hers’, a mistake in the script that wasn’t picked up on during production.

The unnamed Captain Briggs (Beryl Reid), or should that be Captain Stien?
The scripts also helped to get to the bottom of an anecdote concerning a familiar Doctor Who catch-phrase that first crops up in Earthshock. The Doctor’s “Brave heart, Tegan” interested me because in a 1984 interview for Doctor Who Magazine, Eric Saward claimed that “Brave heart” was something spontaneously ad-libbed by Peter Davison during the recording of the scene. The memory clearly cheats, as the line’s already present in the rehearsal script, prepared before the cast began work on the story!

Another Tegan-related phrase, “I’m just a mouth on legs”, stumped me. According to various sources, including most recently the Doctor Who – The Complete History partwork, this phrase was included in the story after an American fan had used it to describe Tegan. This struck me as unlikely given that fandom had only recently seen Tegan on screen for the first time when Earthshock was written. I checked with a number of people who were likely to be in the know, including Janet Fielding herself, but no one knew the answer. The info text must be as accurate as possible so, as I was unable to verify this particular claim, you won’t find it in the subtitles.

Researching info text can be an eye-opening experience. I go into each story thinking I already know it well, but after a close rewatch, and reading through the scripts and the production paperwork, I realise that I’ve learned so much more. The most enjoyable aspect of my work on the info text is getting to point out fresh discoveries to viewers. There’s a lot about Earthshock I haven’t touched on here, so pop in the blu-ray, turn on the info text and find out more!

This article was first published in issue 498 of Celestial Toyroom, the fanzine of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society.