Survival was the fourth and final story of season 26 of Doctor Who. As such it was the final story to be broadcast, although not produced, of the show’s original run. Following the airing of its last episode, the series would enter a period of wilderness years devoid of new televised adventures until an attempt was made to revive it in 1996.
It marks the final appearance of Sophie Aldred as Ace in a regular television serial, though she would reappear for the special 1993 Children in Need special Dimensions in Time. It was also the last time that Anthony Ainley appeared as the Master in a regular televised story; he appeared one more time in the video game Destiny of the Doctors. Ainley’s final portrayal of the Master in the original series is considerably different- subtle and darker than the often bombastic and forceful impression he had been told to give up until this final story, which he had wanted as his intended portrayal for the character.
Lisa Bowerman would ironically make her debut in Doctor Who during its final classic episode, as Karra. However, she would later become more widely recognizable for her portrayal as Bernice Summerfield, a character introduced in and adapted from the Virgin New Adventures novels which continued the series and the adventures of the Seventh Doctor in printed format.
Sylvester McCoy would return as the Doctor in the 1996 television film. Additionally, it is the last canonical televised adventure to feature Tom Yardley-Jones’s TARDIS prop commissioned by John Nathan-Turner, which debuted in TV:The Leisure Hive and remained in use for the whole of his time as producer. It saw one more brief use in the Search Out Space special Doctor Who crossover episode of Search Out Science and had a final outing in Dimensions in Time before being retired.
It was the last Doctor Who story to be completely broadcast in a videotape format. When the series returned in 2005, it was still shot on videotape, but was processed to give a film-like look, which was not done in 1989.
The Seventh Doctor brings Ace back to her home town of Perivale in the suburbs of North West London. A mysterious black cat is wandering around and humans are hunted down and made to disappear to another world. Ace grows worried; most of her old friends seem to have disappeared, but the Doctor is preoccupied with the behavior of the strange cat. It becomes apparent it is controlled by a strange being in the other world, viewing Perivale through its eyes and choosing which humans to chase and transport. An unhappy young man, Stuart, is his next victim. Ace follows soon afterwards, hunted down by a Cheetah Person on horseback, with a hunting affinity with the curious cat. The Doctor and a keep-fit instructor called Paterson are chosen and teleported to another world, bathed in a blood-red sky, where the Doctor finds his nemesis the Master greeting him.
The Master is evidently unwell. His eyes and mouth show feline characteristics and he uses the black cat, a kitling, to create a dimensional bridge for the Cheetah People to hunt prey on Earth. His reasons are unclear; he seems keen to keep the Cheetah People occupied. He tells the Doctor the planet is alive and has a bewitching influence. The indigenes bred the kitlings and had a great civilization, then regressed into animals. The Master is beginning to show changes and needs the Doctor’s help to escape.
Ace has seen some of her friends, Shreela and Midge, hiding in woods with a young man called Derek. The planet is clearly dangerous. Ace and her friends find the Doctor and Paterson. The Time Lord deduces they are on an ancient, dying planet. A Cheetah Person hunts and kills a terrified milkman, prompting a Cheetah pack to attack the Doctor, Ace and friends. During the fight, Midge kills one Cheetah person and Ace injures another, called Karra. Ace forms an attachment to Karra and tends her injuries. Karra is intrigued by Captain Sorin’s shiny cap insignia which Ace has on her jacket, (TV:The Curse of Fenric) and gently paws at it. This worries the Doctor. He says that the only way they can return to Earth is if one of them turns into a Cheetah and then brings his prey home. That happens with Midge and the Master uses him to return to Earth. Karra appears again and Ace’s eyes change and she begins to transform into a Cheetah herself.
Ace abandons the Doctor to go hunting with Karra but he eventually wins her around. Midge has fallen to the power of the planet and is turning into a beast. The Master seizes on this and has Midge teleport back to Earth, away from the dying world. He possesses Midge and goes with him to the youth club, using his hypnotic powers to enslave Paterson’s students. The Doctor persuades Ace to help him return to Perivale, also letting Paterson, Derek and Shreela flee the planet. Patterson insists nothing is amiss, falling back on his “survival of the fittest” mantras and self-defense classes. The Doctor and Ace roam Perivale in search of Midge and the Master. They find them at the youth club. They have killed Paterson for sport; Midge, too, is killed in the Master’s machinations. Karra’s arrival brings comfort to Ace, whose transformation continues, but the Master kills Karra too. The Doctor catches up to the Master, and finds him trying to pick the lock to the TARDIS. The Master gloats that he is capable of controlling the raw power given to him by the planet and declares that he will use it to destroy the Doctor, before grabbing him and taking him back to the Cheetah Planet for a final confrontation.
In the ensuring struggle, the Master starts out having the upper hand, but the Doctor, drawing from the planets power, manages to turn the tables on him, and soon has him at his mercy, and raises a skull to bash him with. But in a moment of clarity, the Doctor realizes what he is doing is wrong and manages to resist the planet’s pull, turning away from violence. The Master demands that they finish their fight, but the Doctor tries to convince him to let go of the violence too, pointing out that they will destroy both the planet and themselves if they keep fighting. The Master, however, rejects this and, grabbing the Doctor in a stranglehold, he spitefully tells him that he should have killed him while he had the chance. The Doctor screams out “If we fight like, animals we’ll die like animals!”, as the Master raises a club over his head to hit him with. But before the Master can strike him, the Doctor is teleported away. The Master seems doomed as the planet begins to break up.
The Doctor has gone back to the TARDIS and Earth, where he finds Ace. Her metamorphosis has reversed. He tells her she will have grown through the experience; the element of the Cheetah Planet, however, will remain within her forever. Ace is glad; it gave her a wonderful feeling. She then asks what happened to the Master. “Who knows?” answers the Doctor with a hit of sadness, before he asks Ace where they should go to now. “Home,” answers Ace with a smile, “The TARDIS.” The two walk off into the distance arm in arm, as the Doctor talks of adventures that await.