Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Imagine if you can the most annoying, pedantic, anally-retentive fan you can: the kind who harasses strangers when they hear their kids humming the theme tune, whose heads explode every time WOTAN calls the Doctor “Doctor Who” and who have to shield their eyes from the Seal of Rassilon in the Vogan control room. Now imagine what happens when you give this fan a degree of creative control in how an episode is made. Alternatively, instead of imagining it, you could just watch Attack Of The Cybermen. I know that Ian Levine bashing is so commonplace now that it can be boring to read, but I’m not letting that deprive me of my share – it’s really the writing and Levine’s insular continuity references that bring this episode down. It’s generally well made (apart from the score), as with the case with any episode it’s the writing that’s make-or-break.

When not wallowing in its own filth, this episode borders on the average. The introduction is well shot (even though the Cybermen’s P.O.V. shots are so heavily distorted it makes them look nearly blind) and the sewer set is large and impressive, although very often characters are brightly illuminated even when their torches are switched off. Oh well, I’ll put it down to creative licence and dramatic necessity.

The location filming is also good, and it also introduces the terrific Maurice Colbourne as Lytton, the one continuity reference I’m actually happy with (he had only been in it the last season, after all). Terry Molloy is reasonable outside of his Davros mask and Brian Glover puts in a good performance that saves his comic-relief character. Payne’s comment that Griffiths is allergic to nylon is funny, an example of the flash of wit that occasionally permeates the episode. 

The regulars come off less well though, having to endure the same self-conscious banter that the Davison team had to endure as introductory material. The Doctor’s comment of “here we go again” is ironic, but Colin Baker’s overacting is rescued by his final, sweet coda to Peri of a promise not to hurt her. In general though they are very poor; I don’t know if it was Levine or Paula Moore responsible for their scenes, but they come off as being written by amateurish fans. While original characters get some decent lines the Doctor is portrayed as the self-conscious eccentric that we (OK then, I) used to be when playing Doctor Who when we were little. His pompous, facetious dialogue sounds like Adric’s from Earthshock, and the worn-out ‘distress call’ routine is the oldest cliché in the book.

The policemen serve no function other than to look mean; their purpose is never explained either here on in their previous story Resurrection Of The Daleks. The Totters Lane scene is extremely annoying, potentially a nice nod to the fans ruined by the fact that the Doctor actually has to make something of it – his excited “look!” when pointing to the sign must have come off to the casual audience like a child showing off their snappy new socks. Also, Malcolm Clarke’s awful score grates, here sounding like an electronic version of the Steptoe And Son theme. There is no point in changing the TARDIS either; Levine was simply indulging himself. The Doctor referring to Peri by a multitude of other companions’ names must have also seemed very odd: “why would he call her Jamie?” asks Mr. Jones from down the road. This is so annoying, as parts of this episode have real potential.

Payne’s death is quite creepy, scary without being too intensive (that comes later). It is shortly followed though by the Doctor gleefully duffing up a fake policeman; the Doctor goes against the series ethos so much I wonder if it was worth having that ethos in the first place.

There is little point in hiding the Cybermen from shot as their name appears in the opening credits (in capital letters, no less) and I would imagine that they were what the 8.9 million viewers were there to see (a significantly higher figure than the rest of the season). However, there is some seriously nifty direction keeping them out of sight and that’s always good to see, however worthless it may be. Their proper introduction is very good, as one is seen coming towards Lytton and his team Tenth Planet style – although the ‘March Of The Cybermen’ theme from Earthshock seems a bit cheesy and melodramatic when there’s only one of them on screen. There is a sense that this was written for the ordinary four-part format, as their reveal comes about halfway through the episode and would make for a good cliffhanger. Bullets kill Cybermen here, but this can be reconciled with the knowledge that they are being severely weakened by Cryon interference. In any case, it’s better than their usual aversion to gold which is one continuity reference mercifully absent. Their voice modulation here muffles their speech, and Brian Orrell is annoying as the Cyber Lieutenant. Their ship on the dark side of the moon is a smug nod to The Invasion (as is their presence in the sewers in the first place) but at least in this case not one that affects the understanding of the story.

There is a pleasing interlude with some good location shooting for Telos, and Stratton and Bates are a good duo that provides some actual quality for a moment. After that though we come to probably the worst derivative indulgence of them all: Michael Kilgarriff as the Cybercontroller. Nobody considered that even though the character had been great in The Tomb Of The Cybermen (and that was due more to Sandra Reid’s costuming and Peter Hawkins’s voice) that hiring a middle-aged actor with a beer gut (no disrespect) as opposed to an actor actually suitable for the role twenty years on. They hired a person no longer right to play the part of a Cyberman and all because he’d been in it before – and what makes it doubly pointless is that The Tomb Of The Cybermen was at the time completely missing, making Kilgarriff’s prior performance entirely irrelevant anyway. Back on Earth though, there is some reasonable back-history delivered and I have to say that the black Cyberman looks incredibly cool.

I’ve always said that the great thing about a good cliffhanger is that you get to see it twice, while the dreadful thing about a bad cliffhanger is that you have to watch it twice – and this is the worst cliffhanger I’ve ever seen. An amazingly inept scene shows Russell shooting at a dummy Cyberman, followed by him shouting a half-hearted “no!” and making no effort to dodge a Cyberman’s fist. This is followed by Peri’s appallingly-delivered final words, although in fairness to Nicola Bryant I don’t thing even Meryl Streep could have made the line “no! NO! NOOOOOOOO!!!!” work.

After the break, it goes on to talk about The Tomb Of The Cybermen as if all the people watching had seen it. Such a busy story necessitates here a large expositions scene and while it does help a little in explaining what is going on to the audience – and it’s the non-fans who are the show’s bread and butter – what is going on, although it does create a rather boring plot for them as the Cybermen’s plan revolves around rescuing a planet that is only ever mentioned in passing. I feel that they would care more about the idea of it attacking Earth in one year’s time; in fact they’d be better off just avoiding this story altogether and watching The Tenth Planet instead.

The rogue Cyberman is again from The Invasion, but it isn’t so bad as it doesn’t have to be to work – and the scene where its fist bursts through the doorway decapitating another Cyberman is a genuine jump moment; one thing you can’t call this story is badly directed (apart from that cliffhanger, obviously). The Cryons sound good and have some nice lines but are conceptually clichéd, and they would have been less cheesy if they were simply called Telosians. A good theme in this story though is the aliens’ difficulty with Griffiths’s Cockney dialect.

The hatchway taking Lytton and Griffiths to the surface is an old fork-lift truck pallet that I used to carry about when I worked at B&Q, which spoils the illusion slightly. I’d also say that the hatchway echoes the one in The Tenth Planet but it might be a coincidence and in any case I’m getting bored of all these continuity references. 

The Doctor has a decent scene with Flast, even if it does concern that stupid plot. The revelation that the Cybermen can’t time travel properly is interesting despite meaning very little. Also Rost and Varne have a good rapport, the line “you never were very bright” reminding me of the twins Cora and Clarice from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels.

The Cyberman that flaps aimlessly at its burning arm damages their credibility still further and shows how far they fell outside the black and white years. The hand-crushing scene is undermined by the old cut away – cut back directorial trick and by the fact that the blood is very obviously painted onto some undamaged hands – but it’s the thought that counts and the thought is very unpleasant indeed. Thank you Mr. Saward, shining light of narrative justification. The other surplus characters are polished off in quick succession, showing Saward’s stupid philosophy that if there aren’t x number of deaths per episode then it won’t be any good. While I’m on the subject the mortality rate in this story (not counting Cyberman extras or the regulars) is 85.7%, which is very excessive considering the numbers involved; it’s not that they die (Horror Of Fang Rock had a mortality rate of 100% and was superb), but that they die pointlessly through a sense of requirement that it should happen regardless of circumstances.

The TARDIS changes back to a police box (why change it in the first place?), and Lytton’s death is actually quite poignant. The action scene with the Cybercontroller is reasonable but standard, and I’m getting tired of seeing empty Cyberman suits exploding. The end is very annoying also, as the sonic lance (why get rid of the sonic screwdriver if you’re just going to replace it with something else that does the same thing?) being used to detonate the vastial – to reiterate, a made-up gadget is put into some made-up powder and everything goes boom. And the lead Cyberman’s gesture of “run, lads!” doesn’t help either.

When I was young I used to like this; I’d seen the stories it references so that didn’t worry me, and I just rode the wave of pyrotechnics. Looking at it objectively though this is a silly, inward-looking and very anal episode that probably put more nails into Doctor Who’s coffin than any other. The Cybermen can be such good monsters when written well, but when put in the hands of people who forget that the programme’s audience might not be as knowledgeable as them they become what any other monster would be in such circumstances: mediocre at best.

Filters: Television Series 21 Sixth Doctor