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Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermen (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Revenge of the Cybermen originally aired in 1975.

Then what is it? You’ve no home planet, no influence, nothing. You’re just a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship.

– the Doctor pretty much sums it up

To be fair, the title should the first clue that something is not quite right here.

Tom Baker’s first season of Doctor Who contains two genuine classics in the form of Genesis of the Daleks and The Ark in Space, along with the quite good Sontaran Experiment, but it was bookended by two absolute clunkers. Indeed, Revenge of the Cybermen and Robot both feel like holdovers from the Barry Letts era of the show, and they’d both probably seem a whole lot more entertaining as vehicles for Jon Pertwee rather than Tom Baker.

Sadly, we’ve got what we’ve got, so let’s just try to work through this.

Sadly it's A bomb, not THE bomb...

Sadly it’s A bomb, not THE bomb…

You know you’re in trouble when the introductory notes on the DVD use the fact that it was the first adventure to appear on videotape as a selling point. “Furthermore,” these notes inform us, “Revenge of the Cybermen will always have a special place in the hearts of Doctor Who fans. When the BBC began to release older stories on videotape in 1983, this one was the first to be chosen.” That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that the reason that Revenge of the Cybermen made to video first was due to overwhelming fan demand. After all, you’d imagine that the BBC would have wanted to release an adventure that would have sold. As nice as that story is, the release of Revenge of the Cybermen was a technicality at best:

Nonetheless, Revenge Of The Cybermen earned a peculiar distinction in the programme’s history when it was chosen in 1983 to be the first Doctor Who story released for public consumption on videocassette. The honour was more than a little dubious, however: although touted as the choice of attendees at the Twenty Years Of A Time Lord event at Longleat House that April, Revenge Of The Cybermen was actually selected by BBC Video to replace the fans’ true choice: Tomb Of The Cybermen, which at the time was missing from the BBC Archives.

I really, genuinely feel truly sorry for those fans who had to settle for Revenge of the Cybermen instead of Tomb of the Cybermen.

Follow the Leader...

Follow the Leader…

Apparently, Revenge of the Cybermen had been kicking around for quite some time, and had gone through multiple iterations before the final version was pinned down. Indeed, the script is credited to writer Gerry Davis, but the author concedes that relatively little of his original idea made it to the screen:

With Revenge of the Cybermen, Mac Hulke called me and said he’d been asked to write this Cyberman thing, but he didn’t think there was enough material, so we talked and realised I was the one to do it. I did and was able to bring in some of my own background stuff. They asked me for more than I could supply, but I’ve fitted them in where I can. As for Revenge, which was the wrong title if ever there was one – mine was Something in Space – basically what happened was that they wanted a cheapie, so I wrote the whole thing as a sort of Las Vegas in space. It was a little like The Moonbase with the Cybermats. It was a kind of Marie Celeste space casino, at first, with these deserted roulette tables. The Cybermen were destroyed with the gold used there, gold being the only pure metal. Then they got more money and decided to write in a sub-plot, which I thought diffused the interest a bit.

Apparently the idea to bring back the Cybermen had been suggested in the wake of the success of Day of the Daleks during Jon Pertwee’s third season. The fact it took the script so long to make it to the screen must give an indication of just how troubled everything was.

I'm not sure even Tom Baker can get you through this one...

I’m not sure even Tom Baker can get you through this one…

Being entirely honest, I’ve never been fond of the Cybermen as they appeared in colour. I don’t think the villains ever really worked that well in the classic series after the show was first broadcast in colour, and I include Eric Saward’s Earthshock as part of that. I like Earthshock quite a bit, but the Cybermen had nothing to do with my fondness for the serial. Indeed, even the modern series has had a great deal of difficulty with the Cybermen. I’d argue that the revived series has yet to produce a truly classic Cybermen story, although Neil Gaiman’s upcoming episode gives me hope.

There was something decidedly ethereal about the classic design of the monsters in The Tenth Planet and Tomb of the Cybermen and stories like that. Of course, the plotting wasn’t always great, but they felt a lot more unnerving than they ever did in colour. I’ve argued before that the meagre production values of Doctor Who often looked better in black and white, and there was something quite haunting about the clothe-faced Cybermen, something that suggested the fabric was covering something truly grotesque and disgusting. The sing-song voices seemed somehow wrong, in a primal and hard-to-explain way.

Sadly, Nicola Bryant had to put up with worse...

Sadly, Nicola Bryant had to put up with worse…

The redesign in The Invasion, with the plastic masks, made the Cybermen look like they were fronting a children’s education programme, and that they’d hang out with Mr. Blobby. They didn’t look threatening any more, although the sight of a legion of Cybermen marching through London did a great deal to mitigate that problem. Unfortunately, in colour, and with only four Cybermen, the Cybermen of Revenge of the Cybermen look more pathetic than truly menacing.

I know that I’ll generate no small degree of controversy for suggesting this, but I actually think that the Borg in Star Trek do a better job with the core idea of Cybermen than the original creations on Doctor Who ever did. The design of them is much more horrifying but – even in their lowest moments in Star Trek: Voyager – the Borg still had a sense of threat about them, and there’s a much greater and stronger sense of body horror with the Borg than there ever was to the Cybermen.

Beam me down, Doctor!

Beam me down, Doctor!

What’s interesting about the Cybermen as a villain, and it’s something that really works to their detriment here, is the fact that they seem to be on the backfoot as often as they are a credible threat. Here, it’s very clear that the Cybermen are in decline. This is not the Cybermen at the height of their power. When they first appear, Stevenson seems ready to write them off as urban legends. “But surely, Doctor, Cybermen died out centuries ago.” The Doctor points out that he’s wrong, albeit only barely. “They disappeared after their attack on Voga at the end of the Cyber War.”

More than any other Doctor Who foe (with the possible exception of the Master), the Cybermen have to seem to fight to hold on to their dignity. To be fair, Tomb of the Cybermen did an exceptional job presenting a slumbering Cyberman army as a credibly and terrifying threat. Here, unfortunately, it’s just four blokes on a soundstage. It doesn’t help that Revenge of the Cyberman takes everything interesting and unique about the villains and then ignores it.

Everybody's dead, Dave.

Everybody’s dead, Dave.

The script was apparently heavily revised by Robert Holmes, who is undoubtedly one of the best writers ever to work on Doctor Who. However, it’s quite clear that the guy did not like the Cybermen. Which, to be fair, is a perfectly legitimate stance for a script editor to have. With the exception of Genesis of the Daleks and The Deadly Assassin, I think it’s safe to argue that Baker’s time in the TARDIS worked best with original adversaries and bold new worlds.

Reportedly Holmes once told Eric Saward that “they don’t work very well and [he liked] creating original characters…” Certainly, judging by Revenge of the Cybermen, Holmes had difficulty with them. The Cybermen are at their best as an unstoppable, unquestioning, unfeeling force of nature. “Cybermen do not subscribe to any theory of morality in war, Doctor,” the Cyber Leader warns the Doctor, and that should be freaking terrifying.

Sadly, not a pretty sick serial...

Sadly, not a pretty sick serial…

Unfortunately, Holmes doesn’t seem to write villains in a way the complements that world view. His villains are big and bombastic and loud and individualistic. Those are all great attributes in Holmes’ best scripts, but they really sink his work on the Cybermen. The story features ridiculously emotional Cybermen. “There will be no gold,” the Cyber Leader vows, chomping down on the scenery. “Voga is to be utterly destroyed, and this time we shall not fail.”

The Cyber Leader peppers his villainy with references to “glorious triumph” and other emotive language. Doctor jokes, after one speech, “I thought for a moment he was going to smile.” It was probably intended to be sarcastic, but it could just as easily be a genuine observation about our overly-emotive Cyber Leader. Even the title (Revenge) seems boldly out of character for the cyborgs. The Cyber Leader isn’t the face of an anonymous and overwhelming force. Instead, he’s just a paint-by-numbers villain.

"... And here's one I made earlier..."

“… And here’s one I made earlier…”

Sometimes camp can be charming, watching classic Doctor Who. I have a markedly high tolerance for the stuff. However, Revenge of the Cybermen takes it too far. Christopher Robbie camps it up as the Cyber Leader. He plays the character as something of a cybernetic prima donna. He even wears his belt at a weird angle, accentuating his hips in what should be an asexual Cyberman jumpsuit. Indeed, Robbie poses around the set, frequently placing his hands on his hips, something that seems out of place.

And then there’s the Cybermen’s allergy to gold, which came from the original script idea, but comes off as incredibly goofy here. If you ever doubted that Doctor Who was aware of how camp it was, the show has the Doctor defeating a Cybermat by flinging some gold confetti at it. We’re informed that humanity defeated the Cybermen by inventing a “glitter gun”, which almost sounds like they defeated the invading force by thinking happy thoughts. “Nothing stops a Cyberman invasion like party confetti!”

The would-be tomb of the Cybermen?

The would-be tomb of the Cybermen?

Of course, this camp element is out of place by itself, but it also causes some pretty basic plotting problems. When the Cybermen attack Voga, a planet made of gold, apparently the Vogans can only thing to stand around and fire their weapons at them for about twenty minutes. At this point, I’d believe that the Vogans deserved to be exterminated. If you’re being attacked by an alien allergic to the structure of your planet, it really shouldn’t be that difficult to fight them off.

Still, it isn’t as if this is the only problem with the Vogans, who really look like Pertwee-era aliens. The dialogue given to them is just terrible, full of cringe-worthy exposition. Vorus accuses his colleague, “You have the philosophy of a cringing mouse, Tyram.” Tyram responds in the spirit of this “state a character trait” game they are playing, “And you’re a gambler with a mad thirst for power.” The Vogan subplot is just terrible and seems to exist to eat up screentime. The Cybermen don’t arrive until the end of the second episode. Which, based on what we’ve seen of them, might not be a bad thing.

"We might be a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship, but we look fabulous!"

“We might be a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship, but we look fabulous!”

Revenge of the Cybermen was a series finalé from a time before the series finalé meant “bigger, loud, explosive!” and from a time when it meant “we have twenty pound and some bubble wrap… let’s make magic!” The decision to set the story on the Beacon was made to save money on sets. Apparently the subplot was developed when the production staff discovered they had more money than they thought, but obviously not enough to make it look in anyway decent.

The Vogan subplot features a random civil war involving a total of maybe five guys and stock footage from NASA that makes it look like we’ve suddenly tuned into Star Trek: Enterprise by mistake. Still, at least the behind-the-scenes stories about the location shooting are interesting, if not downright macabre. It makes the whole thing seem even worse – all those risks and potential losses of life were to produce this story. One wonders if the curse didn’t hit the production long before they entered the caves.

It's been a long road, getting from there to here...

It’s been a long road, getting from there to here…

We also get the Doctor’s surreal cold-blooded torture of the traitor Kellman. When Kellman refuses to cooperate, the Doctor threatens him with a Cybermat. “After you’ve been bitten, Kellman,” he explains, “you’ll have just ten seconds to remember where that pentalium drive is, if you want to live.” Of course, he doesn’t follow through on it, but it’s a weirdly unnerving scene. Especially since Tom Baker is gleefully grinning throughout. It feels distinctly out of character. Indeed, I could only imagine the Sixth Doctor feeling comfortable making such a threat.

There are, as ever, a few interesting ideas here, but they are more thoroughly buried than in most stories. I like that Kellman is a double agent, and I like that his death isn’t poetic – I can’t help but feel things might be a bit more ambiguous if he’d survived, but I like the fact that he is more than just the weasel he appears to be when he first appears. Of course, Jeremy Wilkin doesn’t give an exceptionally ambiguous performance and Kellman isn’t an especially deep character, but at least he’s more than some stupid patsy for the Cybermen.

Anyone for reshoots?

Anyone for reshoots?

After all, it’s hard to imagine that former traitors to the Cybermen speak that highly of their former employers, given that they tend to fall into the genocidal and treacherous school of Doctor Who villains. (See further, the Daleks.) I can’t help but feel that a smarter script would have used gold as a stronger thematic element and made Kellman a more complex character. Still, at least he isn’t among the story’s weaker elements.

I also think that it’s an interesting narrative idea to focus the bulk of an entire season around one location. Although enforced by budgetary concerns, it is fun to see the Doctor visit the same place in multiple times. It gives a real sense of time travel – that the TARDIS isn’t just hoping around and impossibly vast universe, that it’s moving through time. Of course, the fact that this is set “thousands of years before” The Ark in Space suggests that these space stations are built to last.

Talk about a half-Baker'ed idea...

Talk about a half-Baker’ed idea…

And, unfortunately, that’s about it as far as recommending this serial goes. Revenge of the Cyberman might not be the worst Tom Baker serial produced, but it’s certainly the weakest one for his first few years. It’s poorly-judged, clunky, trite, awkward and doesn’t seem to have any interest in engaging its audience at all. It really is just bad television.

 

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