Survival: Doctor Who's last classic adventure revisited

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Jun 27, 2017

On November 22, 1989, the Doctor Who serial "Survival" aired its first of three episodes. And on December 6 that same year, Survival would go on to mark the end of Classic Doctor Who's 26-year run.

And though the show officially returned in an ongoing capacity in 2005, it wasn't until the 2017 10th series (and the final season for showrunner Steven Moffat) that a writer from the classic series would return.

That writer was none other than she who authored that final classic story, "Survival": Rona Munro.

It's poetic, then, in the context of Moffat's farewell and Munro's return that we revisit Classic Doctor Who's final serial, "Survival."

WHAT'S IT ABOUT?

The Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, takes his current companion Ace back to her old stomping grounds at Perivale. As Ace tries to track down her local friends, the Doctor becomes convinced that a cat is up to something. Yes. And I'm with the Doctor on this one, and not just because my cat is, at this very moment, up to a specific something that has taken the form of screaming in my ear over food he isn't due.

No, the mechanical puppet cat the Doctor is chasing is a scavenger alien called a Kitling, which can warp between Earth and an alien world on the eve of its own destruction. The evil cat (who, again, is not as evil as my food-demanding feline) is warping humans to this alien world which is full of ... Cheetah people.

Also, the Master is there. And is turning into a Cheetah person. As you do.

The Master is trying to get off the alien world (which is dying) and also stop being a cat person. Once both the Doctor and Ace also get trapped on the alien world (which has to happen, otherwise there's no story), the Master entreats the Doctor to work with him in order to escape.

Surprise! The Master betrays everyone.

There's a major plot element in "Survival," which is that anyone who is on this alien planet long enough will forget who they used to be and become a Cheetah person. This happens to some of Ace's friends and then also starts to happen with Ace (more on this later).

The Doctor convinces Ace not to go full Cheetah, gets all her friends back to Earth and has one final battle with The Master, which finds the Doctor's greatest foe trapped on the alien world as it breaks apart.

The End.

WHAT'S IT REALLY ABOUT?

Fun fact: Monro's new series episode, "The Eaters of Light," is about children at war against each other, a feud that places the world in grave danger ... and "Survival" is basically about the exact same thing.

Ace is a real Whovian favorite, mostly because she isn't a flighty fool who gets the Doctor in trouble (looking at you, 98% of Doctor Who companions) and she also uses bombs called Nitro 9.

But Ace is still a companion of the Doctor, and while the Seventh Doctor was a darker figure in his final series, he's still the Doctor, a guy who is not too big on the violence. So it was kind of inevitable that someone would write a story wherein Ace's violence gets her into some trouble.

Perivale (or the fictional version of it, at least) is a bit of a desolate place where there's a fair amount of crime, so self-defense courses are commonplace. Those classes have a survival-of-the-fittest ethos, which brings us to what Monro was really writing about.

Thatcherism.

And if you are not intimately aware of UK politics from the 1980s, the short version is that the PM at the time was Margaret Thatcher, and she was like a British lady version of Ronald Reagan ... or, juxtaposed to today, Thatcher was the Theresa May to Reagan's Trump. And Rona Munro was not a fan.

So the whole "culture built around the hunt, the abuse of animals, and survival of the fittest above all" thing that Thatcher seemed to be pretty cool with was something Munro wanted to call out in her fiction. And, apparently, she really wanted to write Doctor Who ... which, really, is often a liberal-leaning program.

So there's Ace, who feels compelled to join the hunt because she's got a bit of a violent edge; there's the Master manipulating others to violence for his own personal gain, who was meant to represent right-wing politics of the time; and then there's the Doctor, who represents ... the Doctor, basically.

And that's what it's really about. Really.

FUN FACTS

Rona Munro planned for the Cheetah people to have contacts, some face paint, big teeth ... and that's it. And when they went full furry, she was not pleased. No, not because she hates furries. Furries weren't really a huge thing yet in 1989, as they were only just coming into being thanks to Gadget from Rescue Rangers. Munro was mad because the actors had a hard time emoting through the masks.

Karra, one of the Cheetah people who befriends Ace, is meant to have some good old-fashioned lesbian subtext, but it was ... cut? Kind of? I mean, it felt pretty sexual to me, but my eyes are always peeled for the gay.

The actress who played Karra, Lisa Bowerman, went on to play a character very familiar to fans of the Doctor Who Big Finish audio dramas: Bernice Summerfield (also a companion of the Seventh Doctor).

"Survival" is the final, official televised appearance of Anthony Ainley as The Master. Ainley appreciated this performance because he felt the Master was more subdued and complex during the events in "Survival" when compared with his cartoonish villainy in previous stories.

The final speech the Doctor gives to Ace at the end of "Survival" was tacked on when it became clear Doctor Who was finally being canceled for real. The speech was written by script editor Andrew Cartmel.

IS "SURVIVAL" ANY GOOD?

Some people like it! I ... do not know that I would consider myself one of those people. I like the continued exploration of Ace's past very much (which had become a big part of Doctor Who's final series), and queer subtext is always swell, but over the course of three episodes, things feel kind of ... aimless.

Basically, you have to be willing to accept that "Survival" doesn't make a lot of sense. Why are there cats with interdimensional transport powers? Why are people turning into Cheetah people? Why is the Master doing ... anything he's doing, really? Why did someone script a scene where the Doctor buys cat food?

There are many mysteries to "Survival," and some of them don't get answered. And, yes, the fur suits on the actors are not exactly high-quality stuff, as Doctor Who had the teensiest of budgets by the end of its run.

But the political stuff that Rona Munro brought to the table was interesting, and if you enjoyed watching "The Eaters of Light," then I think "Survival" is a perfect companion watch.