Doctor Doctor Who Guide

After the diabolical 'The Twin Dilemma', Colin Baker really needed a good, strong story to open his first full season. What he got was 'Attack of the Cybermen'. To be fair, it is better than its predecessor, since it benefits from decent direction from Matthew Robinson and generally fine acting; the sewer scenes in Episode One are especially creepy, as a mysterious figure stalks people in the dark brick-lined tunnels. The revelation that the mysterious figure is in a fact a Cyberman is an extremely exciting moment for anyone who isn't aware of the title of the story that they are watching (Okay, okay, it's a problem common to many Dalek stories, but I couldn't resist the cheap shot…). Unfortunately as the story progresses, a variety of factors conspire to betray the promise offered by the opening scenes and 'Attack of the Cybermen' swiftly degenerates to a point where it becomes one of my least favourite Doctor Who stories. 

There are things to enjoy in 'Attack of the Cybermen', but most of them are in Episode One. Maurice Colbourne is once again excellent in the role of Lytton, recapturing the air of restrained menace that he brought to the role in 'Resurrection of the Daleks'. Brain Glover is also very good as Griffiths, an underused but memorable character; he is essentially a thug, but surprisingly likeable nonetheless, and he works well as a foil for Lytton. Glover's sharp delivery of lines such as "No I'm not!" when Griffiths is accused of being allergic to nylon work to the character's benefit, as does his increasingly bad tempered but rather stoic reaction to aliens. In addition, the idea of the rejects of the Cyber conversion process is rather effective, and serves as a reminder of the most horrific aspect of the titular creatures; indeed, this aspect is illustrated throughout the story, with various luckless humans undergoing conversion, as well as Lytton. The Cybermen's crushing of his hands, often criticized for its brutality, is nevertheless an effective indication of the inhuman nature of the creatures as well as their monstrous strength. Then there is the Doctor and Peri, who as in 'The Twin Dilemma' continue to bicker incessantly. Again, whilst this is not to everyone's taste, their spiky relationship works for me, and I continue to find it entertaining. The Doctor dismisses most of Peri's cares and worries, increasing her tendency to worry, and this is reflected in her mounting bad temper throughout Episode One, typified by the sequence in which the Doctor emerges from the sewer entrance wearing the helmet of one of Lytton's policemen; Peri angrily snaps "Never do such a stupid thing again! I could have killed you!" to which the Doctor glibly replies, "I believe you", eliciting a sharp "Don't patronize me" from his companion. Baker and Bryant handle this very well, showing the tension between them but maintaining the impression that beneath it all they are still friends. I also rather like the daft sequences with the chameleon circuit, which rather than being an intrusive and alienating example of excessive continuity is if anything a timely reminder to the casual audience of why exactly the TARDIS is shaped like a police box. 

A note here on the subject of continuity; one accusation often leveled at 'Attack of the Cybermen' is that appreciation of this story depends far too much on knowledge of past stories which the casual viewer would not have. In fact, this is untrue; the main stories referenced by 'Attack of the Cybermen' are 'The Tenth Planet' (the destruction of Mondas) and 'The Tomb of the Cybermen' (the tombs on Telos and the Cyber Controller), but any information derived from those stories and relevant here is adequately reiterated. Additionally, references to I. M. Foreman and various companions are gratuitous, but unlikely to actually alienate anyone new to the series. Ironically, one of the most obvious uses of continuity in 'Attack of the Cybermen' is the return of Lytton. I say ironically, because casual viewers might indeed remember Lytton from the previous series and might therefore realize that script-editor Eric Saward completely buggers things up, since Lytton didn't actually meet the Doctor in that story. Fan revisionism has suggested an untelevised adventure to bridge the gap, but it would have to take place before 'Resurrection of the Daleks', but whilst Lytton is working as a Dalek Trooper (the Doctor claims that he was working for the Dalek taskforce the last time they met) which would be something of a contrivance and the fact remains that it is obviously a whopping great mistake. The most offensive nod to continuity is the casting of Michael Kilgarriff as the Cyber Controller. He is recast simply because he played the role nearly two decades earlier, despite not having spoken in the part and despite having been completely encased in a costume, as is also the case here. The only possible reason that I can think of for such a ludicrous piece of casting is that it allowed unofficial series advisor Ian Levine to pleasure himself at the thought of the painfully anally retentive link to the past that it represented. For the viewer, the benefits are rather lacking, as the result is of course the Fat Controller. Defenders of 'Attack of the Cybermen' have tried to claim that the Controller's copious girth is to accommodate additional processing power and data storage: if so he must literally be a smart arse. 

The main problems I have with 'Attack of the Cybermen' concern the Cybermen and the actual plot. After being restored to their former status as a credible threat in the flawed but effective 'Earthshock', here the Cybermen continue their decline back down to the depths plumbed by 'Revenge of the Cybermen'. They may not be used as mere cannon fodder as they were in 'The Five Doctors', but their effectiveness is undermined by a number of things. For one thing, the fact that they can now be killed by bullets is very disappointing; admittedly, Russell's shots are into a Cyberman's mouth, but it still adds yet another vulnerability to them. Then there is the Cyber Controller; as mentioned above, the return of Michael Kilgarriff to the role is utterly unnecessary, and the result is a Controller that lacks any of the impact it had in 'Tomb of the Cybermen'. In that story, the Controller was an imposing figure, filling the role of leader of the Cyber race and thus acting as a focal point for the creatures. Here, it looks ridiculous due to Kilgarriff's girth, and the design of its head, a nod to the enlarged cranium it displayed in its debut story, creates the impression of a balding pate. As a result, the supreme leader of the Cybermen looks like a fat, bald old man. Furthermore, it steals the limelight from David Banks' emotional but watchable Cyber Leader, and yet seems superfluous as a result of the presence of the Leader. Episode One focuses on the Leader, but as soon as events move to Telos it is discarded in favour of the Controller; I can't honestly find a logical objection to this (it is obvious that the Controller is supreme commander, with many Leaders subordinate to it), I simply get the feeling that one or the other, preferably the Leader, would have focused the story more. 

In addition to all of this, the Cybermen continue to display a ridiculous amount of emotion; Banks' can just about get away with this as the Cyber Leader, as 'Earthshock' proved, but Brian Orrell is embarrassingly bad as the shrill and vocal Cyber Lieutenant, and the Controller is little better as it bellows orders and gets angry. A particularly bad scene concerns the resolution of the cliffhanger; having decided to kill Peri, the Cyber Leader is persuaded otherwise by the horrible contrivance of the hitherto unseen TARDIS self-destruct system. This in itself smacks of bad writing, although it could be a bluff on the part of the Doctor; what really annoys me about the scene, is the fact that Cyberman, a creature supposedly of pure logic rather than, say, honour, not only gives its word but also keeps it, Peri's execution not mentioned further. The Cryons are a further sticking point; their dependence on sub-zero temperatures for survival is potentially interesting, although in practice they are almost as dull as the Vogans were back in 'Revenge of the Cybermen'. But what I object to is what they represent, as it transpires that the Cybermen are apparently unable to build their own fridges. It isn't a plot hole, it isn't even inconsistent with past stories, but it does further cheapen them. 

And then there is the plot. The Cybermen have stolen a time ship and want to crash Halley's Comet into Earth so as to prevent the destruction of Mondas. Let us charitably ignore the fact that a race dependent on logic should be able to spot the obvious paradox that would result if they succeed and instead ask, what are they actually doing in the sewers? How can this possibly aid their plan? Do they perhaps want to convert as many humans as they can before Earth is destroyed? If so, why lurk in a sewer converting the odd workman? Speaking of which, how do the Cryons communicate with Lytton when he's in the past? Ah yes, Lytton; much of the finale of 'Attack of the Cybermen' concerns the Doctor's fretting over the fact that he's misunderstood which alien race Lytton is working for purely in return for money. Lytton, a man responsible for several cold-blooded killings in 'Resurrection of the Daleks' and a couple here (oh, of course - they didn't meet in 'Resurrection of the Daleks', so he wouldn't know about those…). Why does he think that he's never misjudged anyone as badly as he did Lytton? Why does he care more about Lytton than, say, Russell? Erratic the Sixth Doctor may be, but this just seems like dodgy writing and a certain script-editor's obsession with mercenaries. 

In short, 'Attack of the Cybermen' is a mess. In addition to all of the above, we have the sudden deaths of Stratton, Bates and Griffiths, which lends credence to the theory that Saward wrote most of this because as in 'Resurrection of the Daleks' the impression is created that in the last twenty-five minutes the writer suddenly remembers that he or she needs to do something about the characters that he or she has forgotten about or can't think of anything interesting to do with. And of course to top it all off we have the crowning flatulence of the Cybermen locking the Doctor in a room filled with high explosives. Fans of this story argue that since vastial is safe at sub-zero temperatures this isn't really a problem, but if even if that was a convincing excuse for locking a notoriously resourceful prisoner up with, in effect, bombs, it should be obvious even to an imbecile that locking someone in a room full of the stuff without searching him for, say, something that might possibly be used to warm it up, is NOT EVEN REMOTELY LOGICAL!!! AARGH! It is a horrible excuse for a plot contrivance, a sloppy and unconvincing way for the Cybermen to be finished off and for the story to end with a bang, and just the worst example of why 'Attack of the Cybermen' is so bad. Fortunately however, the next story is a considerable improvement…

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