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Audio Book Review
A group of palaeontologists have been savagely attacked while carrying out a study of fossilised dinosaur remains in an underground cave system on twenty-fifth-century Earth. A party of troopers and Professor Kyle, the only survivor of the attack, are investigating the deaths of her colleagues when they discover the Doctor and his companions at the site of the massacre. The time-travellers are immediately suspected. In trying to establish their innocence and find out who - or what - was responsible for the killings, the Doctor is confronted by an old enemy...
Ian Marter, who played companion Harry Sullivan during Tom Baker’s first couple of seasons and went on to write several Doctor Who novelisations, seems like an ideal candidate to adapt Eric Saward’s script for the 1982 serial Earthshock. Marter’s work is well known for being grim, gritty, sensationalist and often bloodthirsty - terms that can just as easily be applied to the work of Eric Saward and Earthshock in particular. Yet neither writer was happy with the result. Saward regretted not novelising the story himself, regarding Marter’s attempt as lazy and lacking in tension, while Marter felt restricted by writing for the emotionless Cybermen.
Both writers do the book a disservice. Marter’s prose, first published in print in 1983, is unnerving from the outset, signposting the death and danger to come with descriptions of a skull-like cliff face and its perilous scree. Later, vivid depictions of the Cybermen illustrate their physical might, the artificial nature of their life-support systems, which issue a regulated hiss like a hospital respirator, and even their smell: whenever human characters get close to a Cyberman, they detect a sickeningly sweet, oily vapour. The novelist employs a beautifully horrifying birth metaphor when the first wave of Cyber-troops is activated:
“They were not living, they were not dead. They were waiting to be born. ... Laboured gurgling sounds gradually settled into a rhythmic hissing breathing and eerie electronic clicks developed into a relentlessly logical chattering. The silo echoed with the savage infant movements as the Cybermen burst out of the chrysalids and took their first uncertain steps. Subdued shudders rippled through the freighter, almost as if it knew it was giving birth to the silver horror concealed in its bowels...”
Marter also provides a convincing explanation as to why the second wave is activated and seems weaker than the first. He adds to the heroism of Adric by making the boy’s decision to remain aboard the freighter a deliberate act rather than a last-minute thought.
Where the writer comes unstuck, as he would freely admit, is in his depiction of creatures that are supposed to lack emotions. Here the Cybermen seem even more temperamental than the gleeful Leader (“This is excellent news Doctor!”) and whining Lieutenant (“It is too soon Leader!”) of the televised serial, frequently expressing anger (when their plans go wrong), satisfaction (when their plans go right), and fear (of even the mention of gold).
The story’s abrupt ending, which cuts poignantly and dramatically to silent end credits in the televised version, is hard to pull off in prose. Marter makes a fairly good fist of it, but the Doctor’s “sad smile” seems ill-judged. Perhaps for this reading AudioGO should have inserted a minute’s silence at the end.
For the second month in a row (following January’s The Twin Dilemma), this unabridged audio book is performed by the actor who played the Doctor in the original serial, in this case Peter Davison. As ever, Davison’s measured tones are a delight to hear, though he mispronounces the First Officer’s name as “burger” a few times, and occasionally gets caught out when the tone of voice he uses for a particular character’s dialogue is contradicted by the novelist’s subsequent description (such as “he shouted”).
The reading is augmented by Simon Power’s incidental music and Cyberman voices by Nicholas Briggs. For the second month in a row, Power provides atmospheric music that is more reminiscent of Roger Limb than Malcolm Clarke, the composer who actually scored Earthshock and The Twin Dilemma. Briggs’s Cyber-voices are a little disconcerting, reflecting the sound of the new series Cybermen rather than the ’80s versions. I know that Briggs is capable of replicating the ’80s voices, because he did so in Sword of Orion. Sometimes there is an awkward pause between the end of the Cyber-speech and the resumption of Davison’s reading.
Thankfully, the CD pack does not use the book’s insipid original photographic cover (which is shown in miniature inside), but rather Alister Pearson’s striking illustration for the 1992 reprint. The running time of this four-disc set is somewhat exaggerated, though - it runs for 3 hours 40 minutes, rather than 4 hours 45 minutes as stated.
Despite a few dialogue-based discontinuities and several emotional Cybermen, this audio book is a suitably hard-hitting adaptation of the classic story.