Survival. The last ever 'classic' Doctor Who episode, the last ever episode of continuous 26 year Doctor Who, the last ever episode featuring Sophie Aldred, featuring Sylvester McCoy (apart from a brief stint in 1996) and featuring Anthony Ainley as an actually relatively sane Master. And the last classic episode to feature cats. I rewatched Survival for the first time in a while the other week, and it struck me how good it actually was. It has the 'contemporary' feel to it, which I've always picked up, and almost seamlessly links into Rose from 2005. But that link isn't why I see it as one of the best episodes ever, there's a great deal of other reasons.
A CONTEMPORARY DRAMA
I think my main mantra for Doctor Who is "it's drama with aliens in it". I wouldn't consider the very early adventures part of a Science Fiction show at all. An Unearthly Child is definitely a drama with cavemen and a time machine. The whole thing is done with total realism. The other thing about An Unearthly Child is that it captures 1963 as 1963 should be captured. It's not trying to mirror it as Remembrance of the Daleks does, it's actually from that era. And so that's one of the reasons why Survival is so good. It captures 1989 because it's made in 1989. It's a drama, that's realistic. I wasn't even on this planet in 1989, yet I can see it captures the era, I can see how much of a drama Survival really is. It takes street kids, effectively a gang, and sticks them on a rather believable alien world. There's no cheap sci-fi gags like giving the Planet of the Cheetah People a name - it is just the Planet of the Cheetah People. Perfect. It doesn't try and be a science fiction show, it tries to be real, and I think it succeeds. Survival is a drama with another planet in. It still has those Doctor Who elements, but without being an over the top sci-fi drama.
SCIENCE FICTION ELEMENTS
I think some stories have the problem of trying to be too sci-fi, and for me that's where Doctor Who kinda trips up. I prefer a realistic, authentic drama about the Doctor and some aliens, rather than a full blown sci-fi adventure. That's what Star Trek is for. Survival manages to keep these sci-fi elements present, like trips to another planet, but minimal. I love sci-fi concepts being used and made real, and it's good that it's only used occasionally in the show. Things like time paradoxes and parallel worlds are good on occasion and are thankfully kept to a minimum. But Survival uses another, a symbiotic link between animals and planet - and this is a great idea. It's (to my knowledge) not used in Doctor Who before, or at least not a lot, and so it's a great sci-fi idea to use and make real.
I like Doctor Who when you can read a bit of subtext. Yes it's good when Doctor Who episodes are a lot of fun, etc (depends on your definition of fun though I guess), but it's nice just to have an extra layer there. Survival has that. Though not as... picked up on or even explicit as the subtext in The Curse of Fenric about everyone wanting to come into the water (*coughs*), it is still there. There are feminine symbols (moon, cat) to notice and I think there's talk of Karra and Ace having some kind of lesbian relationship floating about on the internet as well. But that subtext is there, however much is intentional.
One of the original purposes of Doctor Who was to be educational. It's kinda lost that. Thankfully I think, in most cases. Pure historical adventures/episodes are another interesting idea best used sparingly. But Survival, though not a historical or particularly educational, does have those elements in it. It's more that it just uses clever themes I think. One such theme is the whole 'survival of the fittest' thing. It's just a theme that's picked up, but it's good that it's threaded throughout the script. It shows consistency, and it's good when Doctor Who can reference other ideas, concepts, theories or themes.
THE END OF AN ERA
This probably isn't one of the things I like about Survival, but certainly it gives certain things more emphasis and importance. It being the last episode, it's good to see the Doctor and Master FINALLY having a fist fight, in one of the more dramatic fights Doctor Who's done. It's also good to see the Doctor having properly good speeches, with the 'animals' shout at the end of his fight, and his departing speech about the tea getting cold. It is properly good, properly well written drama, and things were certainly being resolved. But not too resolved. That's how Doctor Who works.
CRITICISMS & CONCLUSION
I suppose on the logic of Survival being a contemporary drama, you could argue something like Rose would be the best episode ever. Or you could argue Talons of Weng-Chiang because it captures the Victorian era so well and authentically. Or The Deadly Assassin because it gives a believable portrayal of an alien world. For me, The Deadly Assassin is only as good as it is because of the scenes in the Matrix. And yes other stories do capture time periods really well, but Survival has something strange in it's favour. It's short. The story is perfectly fitted to the number of parts in the episode, and it goes along at a good pace, something Talons possibly slips up on a couple of times. You could also argue that Spearhead From Space captures a contemporary time well and.. actually yeah it does.
But it my eyes, Survival is one of the best Doctor Who episodes. It's not the most conventional Doctor Who story, and when stood up against classics like 'Tomb of the Cybermen' some may say they can't compare. After all, Survival only came (an actually quite respectable) 80th place in the top 200 episodes survey DWM did. Tomb came 25th. But some will probably think that this post, about subtext and eduction and clever themes and deep meanings, is a reason why not to like Survival. They may feel stuff like that isn't needed in Doctor Who. And it isn't needed - but in my eyes it's nice if it's there. It does ultimately come down to personal preference, and so to ask whether or not Survival is the best episode ever is a bit of a strange question perhaps. But for me, it contains the things I enjoy in a Doctor Who episode, it has good characterisation, and it's a good story. It has other layers for people to notice, and it keeps the spirit of the programme at heart. So it may not be a classic or a conventional favourite, but it is a favourite of a different kind.
And on the note of personal preference, it's worth saying my favourite episode will always be Spearhead From Space. That's realistic, well written, with good characterisation and the story is sustained for the right amount of time. But when looking for an unconventional Doctor Who to pick as a favourite, something a bit different - then Survival could just be the one.
So it is the best Doctor Who episode that tries to do something different, that tries to expand, while still keeping the heart of the programme alive.
Now come on Ace, we've got work to do.