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Doctor Who: Attack 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.

Attack of the Cybermen originally aired in 1985.

We realise this must be confusing for you.

– Threst tells it how it is

There is a tendency, these days, to be more sympathetic in appraisals of the Colin Baker years. Everybody – including Baker – accepts that his tenure could have gone a lot smoother. Watching Attack of the Cybermen, I can’t help but feel sorry for just about everybody involved. Rewatching Colin Baker’s first season, I can’t help but feel that the problem with this period of the show wasn’t that the production crew were making new mistakes or deviating from good ideas. It seems quite apparent that a lot of the major problems were embedded during Peter Davison’s time in the role.

The problem with Colin Baker’s first year on the show was that the writers and producers allowed those already significant flaws to attain critical mass.

A crushing blow...

A crushing blow…

Attack of the Cybermen has quite a few problems. Among the most obvious is the fact that it plays so desperately into continuity, existing to tie various fan-favourite classic Cybermen stories together. This wasn’t a problem unique to Colin Baker’s tenure, although Attack of the Cybermen ramps things up to eleven. Every story in Peter Davison’s second year existed as a sequel to some earlier adventure. The first story in his final year, Warriors of the Deep, existed to tie two Jon Pertwee stories together.

However, Attack of the Cybermen takes that dependency on continuity and ramps it up dramatically. This seems ill-advised today, when I have a shelf full of Doctor Who DVDs, but 1985 was a very different place. Even at that stage Betamax was still competing with VHS. The first Doctor Who video tape, Revenge of the Cybermen, had only been released two years prior. And that story didn’t even feature in this mess of Cyberman-related continuity.

There's blood on his hands...

There’s blood on his hands…

In contrast, at the time, Attack of the Cybermen borrowed heavily from several serials that didn’t even exist – at least in their full form. The Cyber Controller and planet Telos are taken from the classic The Tomb of the Cybermen; that story was presumed lost, and only recovered in 1991. The planet Mondas and 1986 attempted invasion by the Cybermen is originates from The Tenth Planet; that story has yet to be released on DVD, and the final episode is lost. Even the Cybermen in the sewer are inspired by The Invasion; an eight-part serial missing two episodes that were animated in 2006.

It seems rather dodgy to have your episode hinge on that sort of detailed continuity from episodes that weren’t even in circulation at the time. In fact, one would hope that the average viewer of Doctor Who in 1985 would not have been alive in 1968, when The Invasion aired. The fact that the programme is actively targeting people with relatively detailed memories of a serial that aired nearly two decades earlier is not a good sign. Doctor Who is at its best when its open and accessible, and locking out your audience doesn’t seem like a very smart move.

Testing their metal...

Testing their metal…

Looking back at the Colin Baker era, I think that was the biggest problem. The show became something produced by and for hardcore Doctor Who nerds, with little or no interest in whether the casual viewer could tune in and be entertained. The authorship of Attack of the Cybermen is still an object of contention, but arch-fan Ian Levine claims to have done a great deal of work on it, and it often feels a bit like fan fiction. It exists to paper over holes that don’t exist, and that nobody but obsessives notice.

Indeed, the episode seems structured to lock out anybody but an obsessive. A die-hard fan might know why there are two Cybermen planets, but those tuning in for some entertainment are likely to be perplexed. It’s one thing to include a sly nod to older fans that doesn’t distract those casual viewers, but Attack of the Cybermen seems to literally point at its own continuity in-jokes without explaining them.

Feels like going home...

Feels like going home…

“Look, Susan,” the Doctor remarks to Peri when he sees a sign for I.M. Foreman. Those who were watching An Unearthly Child will know that this is the place where the Doctor began his tour of the universe, and eagle-eared viewers will spot that the Doctor just referred to Peri as his granddaughter. However, this just confuses anybody without that sort of in-depth knowledge is going to feel like they don’t get the joke. More than that, though, that the joke is actively being kept from them.

And, of course, the biggest problem with all the continuity porn in Attack of the Cybermen is that it is completely pointless. There is a way to tell a story relying on continuity that is interesting and accessible. The Daleks tend to do better than the Cybermen when it comes to stories, and Remembrance of the Daleks is a far stronger trip down memory lane. Not least because it explains itself, but also because it tells its story on its own terms.

"Occupation of the Cybermen" was not a bad title...

“Occupation of the Cybermen” was not a bad title…

Attack of the Cybermen exists to square away the Cyberman invasion predicted in The Tenth Planet. Apparently the Cybermen were due to show up on Earth’s twin planet, and only the First Doctor’s intervention stopped them. It goes without saying that The Tenth Planet was written in1966. Setting a story in 1986 was just a more specific way of saying “the future.” If you had told Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis that Doctor Who would still be on the air in 1985, they would have laughed.

There’s no need to explain it. Like the eugenics wars on Star Trek that were due in the 1990s, just accept that the show was written a long time ago and the writers didn’t foresee this. Or pretend that it’s an alternate universe. The problem with Attack of the Cybermen is that it raises more questions than it answers. Why does Earth in 1985 in Attack of the Cybermen look nothing like Earth in 1986 in The Tenth Planet? Why do the chambers on Telos in The Tomb of the Cybermen look different than those seem here?

Brough to you by 1985-vision!

Brough to you by 1985-vision!

In another story, we’d shrug it off and go “it’s just a production glitch, as a result of writing and filming stories in the real world years apart.” That doesn’t work with Attack of the Cybermen. Since it sets itself up to tie together something we’d dismiss as a production glitch, it opens itself to stronger scrutiny. If it exists to close a few continuity loopholes, it seems pretty dodgy that it serves to open a few more.

That inconsistency also makes the original conceit feel kinda pointless and makes it all self-defeating. The fact that John Nathan-Turner observed that nobody would notice the difference between the catacombs as seen in The Tomb of the Cybermen and Attack of the Cybermen calls into question the logic of building a whole story around a whole bunch of loose continuity threads. Once that basic premise of the episode falls apart, the whole thing seems pointless.

He almost fell into a plothole...

He almost fell into a plothole…

There’s also the fact that it seems like script editor Eric Saward does not like Doctor Who. It seems like the mercenary killer Lytton is more of a hero than the Doctor. The fact that Lytton is a murderous psychopath doesn’t stand against him. It just means he’s cooler and edgier, while the Doctor spends most of the adventure on the back foot and laments the passing of the sociopath at the end of the story. Lytton is portrayed as a martyr and the Doctor as a bumbling idiot who survived through luck – having to improvise an explosive device when the Cybermen locked him in a cupboard with explosive material.

Again, this isn’t anything new. Lytton himself is carried over from the previous year’s Resurrection of the Daleks. However, Peter Davison’s entire final year seemed constructed to argue that the Doctor is less than useless and the most heroic thing that he could do is die. I’m a bit more forgiving of that final year, despite the terrible stories it contains. I like the idea that the Fifth Doctor was too optimistic and too innocent for a darkening universe, making his depth inevitable. It would almost be poetic, had it been executed with even the most basic level of craftsmanship.

Blowing his brains out...

Blowing his brains out…

The problem is that the trend continued into Colin Baker’s tenure. The Sixth Doctor was louder and more commanding than his predecessor, so the statement seems stronger. It’s not just the gentle Fifth Doctor who finds the universe has become too rough, the Doctor in general just isn’t hardcore enough to handle this new extreme universe. Like the continuity stuff above, I suspect this viewpoint is routed in the act that the show was essentially being run by fans at this point.

Fans don’t tend to like the insinuation that their television show is in any way less than adult. Unfortunately, during the 80s – and, sadly, to the present day – many people trying to offer “adult” drama simply respond by amping up the cynicism, violence and nihilism. It’s something very evident in comic books following the publication of Watchmen, when violence and sex became the short hand for “mature”, ignoring the fact that adult storytelling was more than a willingness to include blood and boobs.

The eighties, ladies and gentlemen...

The eighties, ladies and gentlemen…

The Sixth Doctor’s tenure feels a bit like that – desperately trying to be more mature. There’s one scene where the Cybermen crush Lytton’s hands. Another sequence sees the Doctor beating up a man disguised as a police man (complete with a kick to the face), only to wear his hat like a trophy. The same scene sees Peri brandishing a gun. “Even I couldn’t miss from this range,” she warns her target, and we take for granted that she can operate a gun. This is where I should probably make a cheap shot about Peri being an American, as it’s probably what the show wanted us to assume.

That’s before we get into all the blood on display, as we find bodies lying in the sewer. The Cybermen spray green liquid whenever wounded, a very clear way of getting around the censor’s rules regarding bloodshed. Even keeping that in mind, I have difficulty accepting that this adventure earned a “U” rating in Britain. The Irish Film Classification Bureau rated it PG, and I would argue that it is a somewhat lenient PG. And I say that as somebody who isn’t too squeamish.

Cop yourself on...

Doctor Who works best when it is self-policing…

If Mary Whitehouse had a problem with plastic policemen in Terror of the Autons, one can only imagine how she would have reacted to the Doctor brutalising a pair of Cybermen drones in police uniforms. The show had always self-censored after Terror of the Autons, with Hinchcliffe pushing the envelope a bit. However, Colin Baker’s first full year sees the show veering excessively into disturbing and unsettling imagery – often without the artistry or nuance that defined its earlier application. Look back with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to imagine how the production crew thought the public would react.

And again, while this had been a problem during the Davison era, it Attack of the Cybermen pushes it well past the logical limit. You could argue that Lytton is as much a hero here as the Doctor is. This is despite the fact that his first scene in the serial ends with him instructing a henchman not to worry about a new recruit’s complaints, “If he lets me down, he’ll have reason not to. You, Payne, will kill him.”

Because it just isn't a Season 22 story if Peri isn't molested...

Because it just isn’t a Season 22 story if Peri isn’t molested…

The Doctor, in Attack of the Cybermen, is presented as a character who doesn’t carry a gun – but who occasionally needs one. It fits with other scripts from Eric Saward, like Resurrection of the Daleks. It makes him look less effective than Lytton. While Lytton also needs a gun, at least he carries his own around. There’s almost something romantic about the Doctor’s description of Lytton to Russell. “Tall, lean, dark, dark, well-spoken?” (He all but forgets “rough and tough and strong and mean.”) Even the caveat (“the sort of man who might shoot his mother just to keep his trigger finger supple?”) is presented almost in exaggerated jest.

So while the Doctor and Peri bumble around London looking for the Cybermen, Lytton finds them almost immediately. While the Doctor is locked in a freezer, Lytton endures torture from the Cybermen to make him talk. It’s revealed that Lytton is still a mercenary, but this time he’s working for “the good guys” – the Cryons. The Doctor takes the loss of Lytton rather hard, and it’s clear that he blames himself. (And the script agrees.) “Why didn’t he say something?” the Doctor demands. Peri cuts in, “You never gave him a chance.”

"Are you sure he doesn't know we're talking about him?"

“Are you sure he doesn’t know we’re talking about him?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever misjudged anybody quite as badly as I did Lytton,” the Doctor muses at the end of the episode, and it really seems like Lytton is the episode’s headline casualty. He’s the only dead person of note, despite the script’s kill-’em-all tendencies. You’d imagine that Russell, the cop Lytton threatened to murder, might merit a mention. Of course, the Doctor didn’t really misjudge Lytton. Lytton just happened to be paid by the good guys this time.

Attack of the Cybermen naturally, as you might have guessed, includes Cybermen. I just haven’t mentioned them yet because… well, they’re sort of there. Even the duller Dalek stories (Resurrection of the Daleks and Destiny of the Daleks) tend to say something about those monsters, but the Cybermen have wandered around relatively listless since the end of the Troughton era. Even the new series has struggled to figure out what to do with them.

The Doctor's on fire lately...

The Doctor’s on fire lately…

Again, owing a debt to continuity, Attack of the Cybermen hired Michael Kilgarriff to play the role of the Cyber Controller. It was a role the actor played in The Tomb of the Cybermen, which was a long time ago. Even in a suit he doesn’t look like a spring chicken. And it doesn’t help that he looks like he’s doing the robot. It looks ridiculous. It might seem surreal and weird and wonderful, except that Kilgarriff is the only actor who is doing that stilted portrayal. Looks like the Cyber Controller needs to be oiled.

While nowhere near as emotional as those seen in Revenge of the Cybermen, there’s no sense of the Cybermen as some sort of collective identity-stripping menace. Instead, each actor has a different interpretation and style. The Cyber Controller moves like a drunk relative doing the robot, while the Cyber Leader tends to like clenching his fist and remarking “excellent.” At the climax, another makes a frantic “run away” gesture before a large explosion.

Silver bullets...

Silver bullets…

Being entirely honest, I wonder – as I have in every Cybermen story since Troughton’s time in the role – what the point is in bringing these iconic monsters back, if you strip them of any collective identity. The answer, as alluded above, is to appeal to the excessively nerdy continuity-obsessed fanbase. And even then, none of these creatures seem to share any identifying qualities with the machine men who first appeared in The Tenth Planet.

Then there’s just some dodgy plotting. How did the Cybermen ambush the Doctor in the TARDIS? Did he leave it unlocked? I know this is the Sixth Doctor we’re talking about here, but there’s the point where even that character’s instability and unreliability become unsustainable. One might also wonder about the chameleon circuit. John Nathan-Turner apparently milked it for PR, but the notion the show would change the iconic appearance of the TARDIS is just incredibly stupid. And, sadly, not something I would put past this team.

Heading to a dead end...

Heading to a dead end…

Which brings us to the Doctor and Peri. The introductory TARDIS sequences were a low-light of the Davison era, and the trend continues. Quite frankly, the relationship between the Sixth Doctor and Peri is downright toxic. We spend so much time worrying about how Colin Baker got screwed that we forget how deeply and thoroughly Nicola Bryant got screwed over by this year of Doctor Who. The relationship between the Doctor and Peri seems like a disturbingly effective portrayal of an abusive domestic environment.

Peri is terrified of the Doctor. And it’s not Bryant’s fault. It’s the only way to play that scene. She’s timidly trying to look out for him, but afraid of being subjected to his temper. When she suggests that he might be “unstable”, he lashes out, “Unstable? Unstable? Unstable! This is me, Peri. At this very moment I am as stable as you will ever see me.” That’s not reassuring. Peri got into a blue box with a stranger who seemed like nice gentleman, but turned into a raging monster. Now she’s trapped with him.

Work in progress...

Work in progress…

“But don’t be afraid,” he assures her. “I won’t hurt you. I promise.” The very fact he has to make that promise is worrying. We’re not entirely sure if Peri accepts this, but we certainly don’t. Even if Peri is smart enough to be sceptical, she still stays with him despite his mood swings. While there’s no indication he is physically abusive after The Twin Dilemma, he is certainly consistently emotionally abusive. “I’m scared, Doctor,” she tells him. “You don’t seem to understand that.” And yet she stays with him. Until she dies… no, wait… leaves him for a violent misogynist… whatever really happened in Mindwarp.

Attack of the Cybermen is Colin Baker’s second story. However, any hope that his Doctor will settle down is explicitly dashed by the script, which explicitly confirms that he is here to stay. The Sixth Doctor seemed to actively challenge the viewer’s sense of taste, refusing to compromise. The character repeatedly observes that he is there to stay, as if to point out that there’s nothing we can do about it. Which is a very stupid argument to direct at your audience, because there is one thing that they can do about it. They can turn off. And they did.

Six of one, Baker's half-dozen of the other...

Six of one, Baker’s half-dozen of the other…

“This is the real me, Peri,” the Doctor assures his companion, in case anybody had tuned in after The Twin Dilemma hoping that the character had mellowed or that mistake might be written off as “regeneration trauma” or some variation of that. It has become quite common to hear arguments that the character was meant to grow and develop, to evolve from anti-hero to a more heroic archetype. Unfortunately there’s nothing to support that argument here.

That’s not to doubt the integrity of those claiming they wanted to develop the Sixth Doctor, but let’s concede that character beats had never been the show’s strongest points. After all, Nyssa never seemed to raise the loss of her people or the fact that the Master had effectively hijacked her father’s body after Logopolis. Shepherding the Sixth Doctor from douchebag to charming lead was never likely to be executed with particular finesse.

Dead wrong...

Dead wrong…

This is the point in the review of a terrible story where I generally look for something positive to say. No matter how small. And, even though it takes some effort, there are some half-decent ideas here. The thrust of Attack of the Cybermen sees the Cybermen using time travel to re-write their own history. Doctor Who, for a show about a time-travelling alien, hasn’t really explored that type of meddling before, and it would be great to see the repercussions of the Cybermen using time-travel to wage their war.

Of course, there are literally an infinite number of things that they could do that would be more interesting than using time travel to connect various old adventures that don’t need connecting. They could, for example, travel back to the dawn of time and shape the universe in their image. They could – as they tried in Earthshock – attempt to re-write the development of Earth. They could move to the far future, build an army, and then march backwards through time. Literally any idea involving time travel would be more interesting than watching the Cybermen connect The Tenth Planet and Tomb of the Cybermen for continuity-obsessed fans.

A raygun of hope...

A raygun of hope…

I also like the idea that the Cyber-conversion process isn’t always effective, and that some people would reject it. It would work a lot better if the Cybermen were portrayed as believing that their conversion was in the best interest of the universe (rather than acting as generic villains), but there’s something interesting in the idea of failed converts existing as slave labour. It suggests a social machine that has developed to allow for a minimum of waste. Even then, though, Attack of the Cybermen bungles the idea.

Attack of the Cybermen is pretty dodgy but – sadly – it’s not the worst episode we’ll see this year. Which is damning with faint praise, but it’s all that I have.

2 Responses

  1. Minor point : it was Michael Kilgarriff who was in both Tomb and Attack rather than David Banks.
    Good review though 🙂

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