Doctor Doctor Who Guide

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03 Jul 2003Revenge of the Cybermen, by Alex Wilcock
02 Sep 2003Revenge of the Cybermen, by Paul Clarke
15 Nov 2005Revenge of the Cybermen, by Ed Martin

"Why should we remain forever underground, cowering from the memory of things that happened centuries ago?"

Revenge of the Cybermen was one of the first Doctor Who stories I saw (at the tender age of three), so it always retains a special place in my heart. I never fail to enjoy watching it, but even I have to admit that, on many levels, it's actually rubbish. Yes, there's atmospheric shooting in Wookey Hole, the Cyberdesign looks good in photos and Kellman and Vorus shine as characters amid the cardboard, but so much just doesn't work. The Earth people are tired, the effects are risible, the music is irritating, the Vogan masks are ill-formed and characters dull - even Kevin Stoney delivers the line "It's going to hit!" not with the terrified panic of the novel, but in a tone of faint disinterest, apparently playing his role as Father Christmas. Gold is introduced as the Cybermen's nemesis, yet undoubtedly gold-firing Vogan weapons are useless against them. Above all, the script and the Cybermen themselves fail dreadfully - ironically, neither displaying much in the way of logic. 

So what went wrong? How did it so stunningly fall short of any other Hinchcliffe and Holmes story's themes or quality? All real fans know they were the new masters of innovation after the stale old season that preceded their work, that they could do no wrong. It's a *fact* that they made the Golden Age of Doctor Who. We know they were brilliant. We know they can't have got tired or uninspired. We know that, if this was the result, it must have been *somebody else's fault*.

At last, the true story can be told.

REVUE OF THE CYBERHAMS

In the midst of a production run of quality drama, usually dwelling on gruesome 'body horror', possession and lurking, subterranean ghouls, one story stands out as really not seeming like a Hinchcliffe / Holmes story at all. You've all wondered about it. What on Earth was Revenge of the Cybermen doing in Season 12? I have the answer. Hinchcliffe and Holmes had nothing to do with it. 

Picture the scene, back in 1975; the new production team is about to start work on their masterpiece, the triumphant conclusion of a trilogy of stories stamping their own, distinctive universe-view on the Doctor's past foes and establishing the new Doctor in the process. Yet, lurking in the shadows like a Bob Holmes underground megalomaniac are the twisted figures of the old guard, waiting for a last stab at glory.

That's right. Suffering Who withdrawal symptoms, Letts, Dicks and Pertwee committed a hideous crime. Falling upon the new team in an unguarded moment, they knocked their successors unconscious and bundled them into a cupboard (unknown ‘til now, the real reason why Terror of the Zygons was delayed). They then took their places, to produce a final 'Season 11' story. Pertwee had always wanted to face the Cybermen, and his team were confident they could make a 'top monster' return story every bit as dramatic and successful as Death to the Daleks. Pertwee donned a dark wig and used his famous talent for silly voices to impersonate Tom, and managed at least to be more convincing than 'the Doctor' at the end of The Monster of Peladon part 4.

So embarrassing did the BBC find this incident (they weren't the only ones, I hear you cry, but hush!) that it has remained a secret until now - although many must have guessed. Across three decades, details of the storyline as originally amended by Robert Holmes have been lost, but his settings can now be pieced together. They make for a story rather different to that overseen by the men who brought us ‘classics’ like The Eight Doctors and (whisper it) The Ghosts of N-Space. . .

To set the scene, it's perhaps best to consider the two great Hinchclomesian themes. First comes what might be termed the dastardly, demented, devious, disfigured, deformed, deadly, depressive denizens of the dank, deep dark. Or, if you prefer, 'something nasty in the cellar'. The brooding, not to say unhinged, physically limited villain buried down below is a staple in most stories of the time, seen most clearly in the characters of Davros, Sutekh, Morbius, the Master and Magnus Greel (and infesting other Holmes scripts from the Krotons and Linx to Sharaz Jek and Drathro).

Second, there is the much-remarked-on gothic / Hammer horror theme of possession and 'body horror'. Again, these ideas run through virtually every Hinchclomesian story (and most other Holmes-influenced scripts). Within this theme, an extraordinary number of stories really stand out - just look at The Ark in Space, Planet of Evil, Pyramids of Mars, The Seeds of Doom, The Masque of Mandragora, The Hand of Fear and The Face of Evil.

Now the background is fresh in your mind, I'm sure it takes little prompting to realise that Revenge of the Cybermen was to have been Hinchcliffe and Holmes' early masterpiece. In their rewrite of the script, the Cybermen were far more than mere joke robots, fit only for clumsy fight scenes (which Terrance later let slip he'd written by using one of them – the monstersÂ’ storming of the spaceship / space station - again, with a more professional production team, in Shakedown - the Return of the Sontarans). 

Imagine how sinister the Cybermen would have been as the 'walking dead' of The Tenth Planet reborn, with the higher production values and greater willingness to go for outright horror of the mid-70s. You don't have to look to the more recent Borg for inspiration; the human shape corrupted by chillingly wrong body language and an utterly inhuman way of speaking that marked the Cybermen in their first appearance is the best prototype you could wish for.

In Holmes's version, perhaps better titled Last of the Cybermen, the Cybermen are far into the future of their previous appearances. Worn out and alone in the wake of the Cyberwar, without spare parts or reinforcements, this Cybership's crew is near termination point. Their human parts are, at long last, starting to decay, their cybernetic parts malfunctioning. They must survive.

The Cybermats are introduced to the Beacon to inject humans with a form of paralysing agent, a neural inhibitor that also forms the first stage of the cybernisation process (much as we saw in The Moonbase). Their aim is to have the Beacon in quarantine long enough to convert its facilities into a Cyber-factory. This makes perfect sense; after all, the human bee-hive of The Ark in Space showed where Holmes's thoughts at the time were leading. Just as Holmes followed The Deadly Assassin almost immediately with a thematic sequel to explore the same ideas, so this story was to have been Season 12's equivalent of The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

Graphic body horror reaches its heights as the ancient Cyberleader, having been unable to hibernate and now literally rotting to death, is restored with the voice and body of the much-loved crew member who apparently copped it in episode one. It's a shame we had to wait until Frontios for ideas like this to reach the screen (now there's a story that's out of place - an odd mixture of Quatermass, Hartnell, Hinchcliffe and Holmes, and precious little like the surrounding tales).

However, this story isn't just an unmade masterpiece through its lost depiction of the living dead. The other Hinchclomesian theme, of the lurking fiend, was also well to the fore. While the Cybermen's cold, clinical, scientific corruption of humanity was perfectly suited to raising the goosebumps with body horror, the Vogans were created as the ultimate in twisted underground-dwellers. Like living dead themselves, the Vogans are 'pallid, devious worms' who have hidden in the dark for so long they have become as deformed and demented as any Hinchclomesian mastermind. With the Vogans, Holmes designed an entire race of Magnus Greels.

Voga was to have been a darker, more claustrophobic, paranoid ruin of a world. In the tame 'Season 11' story that we've all seen, we are drawn to Vorus only because he's the one Vogan that's remotely interesting – though we generally see him as a mad glory-hunter who endangers all those nice old dodderers, he was originally a much more tragic, almost heroic, figure. 

The Vogan civilisation is scheming, twisted and repressive, with paranoid manipulators always jockeying for a bigger position in their tiny planet. Vorus was a misfit mirror image to that, a glorious anti-hero with a real motivation to raise his world and his people out of their cancerous existence - not just to stir up a load of happy old cowards for the sake of it. David Collings could have pulled off a prototype Sharaz Jek, too. As it was, the state of Kevin Stoney's performance matched the Cybermen's deterioration since his last appearance with them... If it *was* Kevin Stoney. Records are unclear, but I wouldn't be surprised if Pertwee had also spirit-gummed on an unconvincing beard to play Tyrum, as Stoney's proven abilities would surely have produced a performance much closer to the devious, sinister, embittered Vogan leader of the Holmes draft.

So there you have it. The Hinchclomesian masterpiece that was never made, thanks to the terrible crimes of Dicks and Letts. The basic story of Revenge of the Cybermen is quite sound - it takes little imagination to convert it back into the 'Season 12' version, now that you know how Holmes and Hinchcliffe had planned it. Yet without understanding and delivering on the themes that brought it together, it just collapsed back into the pile of clichés that Holmes' extraordinary talent was normally able to fashion something magical from. Instead of a logically desperate group of Cyber-survivors in conflict with their sinister enemies, we had a romp. Tough and gritty it was not; desperate, but in quite the wrong sense. At least even the old production team had the sense not to let Gerry Davis anywhere near it after his first draft.

The lost draft still leaves the Cybermen with that ludicrous vulnerability that was to plague them for ever more, of course, but what can you expect? Not everything even Bob Holmes touched turned to gold, you know.

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Allow me to quickly dispel any doubts about the tone of this review: I would sooner eat my own spleen than watch 'Revenge of the Cybermen' again any time soon. After a largely excellent first season (for all its faults, 'Robot' works reasonably well as an introductory vehicle), it is painful to see Baker saddled with such drivel as this, and on top of that I find myself trying hard to forget that my favourite Doctor Who writer had a fairly large hand in scripting it, since Gerry Davis' scripts apparently needed considerably reworking. 

There are two good things about 'Revenge of the Cybermen' (three, if you include the regulars); firstly, if you are a continuity obsessed fanboy you can amuse yourself by thinking up imaginative theories for why the Seal of Rassilon decorates Voga that amount to more than just "Roger Murray-Leach was the designer on 'The Deadly Assassin' as well". The second is that the Nerva Beacon sets are pretty good, but since I said that about them when they were used in 'The Ark in Space', this is hardly news. I should also mention the regulars; Harry and Sarah get comparatively little to do, but the Doctor is generally on form, and I do like the scene when he bellows "Harry Sullivan is an imbecile!" He gets some other good moments too, such as when Sarah tells him that it is good to see him and he looks her wide eyed and asks "Is it?"

Regrettably however, everything else is utter shite. The plot is mind-bogglingly unoriginal, consisting in large parts of a sort reprise of Gerry Davis' greatest hits. Or to be more accurate, 'The Moonbase' and 'The Wheel in Space'. Thus, we have Cybermats infiltrating a space station and killing people with a virus that produces a network of lines beneath the skin, before the Cybermen turn up half-way through. Despite their own flaws, both of those stories managed to be memorably creepy, due to decent direction and the fact that they didn't have the phrase "the Cybermen" in their titles. Having thus eliminated any sense of surprise whatsoever, the writers seem to decide not to bother with suspense (it would still have been possible - a Cyberman puts in an appearance in Episode One of 'The Moonbase', for example). Despite a promising early sequence of the corpse-strewn Beacon, the plot becomes mind-numbingly banal after five minutes, the Doctor explaining that the threat facing them is the Cybermen in a manner that suggests he's breaking the news of impending light drizzle. Kellman's villainy is so obvious from the very beginning, that the viewer might be forgiven for expecting a twist to reveal that he is actually entirely blameless and a really nice chap. Even the fact that Kellman is a double agent, secretly working for the Vogans, is signposted early on. Jeremy Wilkin is almost reasonable as Kellman, but seems to have got bored with the script, and decided to abandon subtlety, smirking in a naughty way throughout, just in case we haven't worked out that he's a villain. Absurdly, even his costume is villainous, prominently featuring a trim polo neck that creates the impression of a feeble attempt to impersonate a James Bond villain. And just to make certain that the viewer won't be traumatized by the shock of any interesting developments, we get a tepid cameo of the Cybermen on board their ship in Episode One, with the Cyberleader amusingly giving hand signals to two Cybermen who are looking in entirely the opposite direction. 

Once the Cybermen actually appear, the first time viewer might be expecting things to improve. Think again, novices; Christopher Robbie has other ideas! There have been lapses in the portrayal of the Cybermen as emotionless creatures before (witness the sarcastic Cyberman in 'The Moonbase'), but Robbie just takes the piss. His posing Cyberleader with his hands on his hips struts arrogantly about, displaying almost every emotion known to humanity and delivering dodgy lines in a strange (but crap) accent. Any sense of intimidation that the Cybermen once had goes out of the window as the Cyberleader talks of impressive spectacles in a booming and extravagant tone of voice and playful tickles the Doctor's collar-bones in Episode Four (perhaps Tom hadn't fully recovered from the broken collar-bone he received during the filming of 'The Sontaran Experiment' and asked Christopher if he knew anything about physiotherapy. Or perhaps not). The other Cybermen are almost as unimpressive, the Director foolishly having elected to let the actors themselves provide the voices, which are the most awful of any Cybermen voices from the entire series. The Cybermats also suffer; once visually effective (albeit not very scary) radio-controlled props, they have been replaced by CSOed sock-puppets that hump actors' chests like overexcited dogs. 

Having recycled large chunks of plots already, Davis decides to give the Cybermen a weakness just like in 'The Tenth Planet' and 'The Moonbase'. The explanation for why gold is lethal to Cybermen (it plates their breathing apparatus) is a bit silly, but just about passable; unfortunately, Davis then seems to ignore it and gold quickly becomes to Cybermen what garlic is to a vampire. Suddenly, gold affects their radar, and small pieces of gold thrown in the general direction of a Cybermat will quickly disable the little fella. Luckily for the Cybermen, although the Vogans remember that their planet was blown up because gold is fatal to Cybermen, they are too stupid to actually exploit this fact when Cybermen visit Voga, and just get themselves shot instead. The Cybermen shouldn't get smug though; they're stupid enough to let the Doctor tie Sarah up in Episode Four without checking the knots themselves

The Vogans are not a particularly impressive race, except for the fact that despite having fairly limited technology they can maintain atmosphere and gravity in small lump of rock, and the masks provided don't help matters. Vorus and Tyrum don't look too bad, but the actors playing the other Vogans are given static and tacky masks that give a look of perpetual surprise. Amusingly, the city militia Vogans also wear dressing gowns and have unkempt hair, diverting attention away from the plot by allowing one to ponder exactly what surprised them. They are such a dull race that it is very difficult to care whether they get blown up or not (bit like the Dulcians in fact). To add insult to injury, the two most prominent Vogans, Vorus and Tyrum, are played by a pair of highly accomplished actors, in the shape of David Collings and Kevin Stoney (who, like the Cybermen, last appeared in 'The Invasion', where he was far more impressive), who seem to be half asleep throughout. This seems to be a recurring theme here, since William Marlowe, who was very impressive as Mailer in 'The Mind of Evil', also seems bored as Lester, as does Ronald Leigh-Hunt, who last appeared in 'The Seeds of Death' as Commander Radnor, as Stevenson. 

In short, 'Revenge of the Cybermen' is crap. And I haven't even mentioned the massive plot hole of the transmat's miracle cure, which as The Discontinuity Guide points out should, if it can expel poison from people, leave them stark-bollock naked and mangle Cybermen. And remove the millions of beneficial gut bacteria present in humans. And, just possibly, remove the plot.

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Revenge Of The Cybermen is a story that fandom just canÂ’t seem to make its mind up about. People slate it to the high heavens, but it has enough supporters to keep it from the depths of turkeydom wherein lurks The Twin Dilemma and suchlike. Coming after the programmeÂ’s definitive episode (not best, mind) itÂ’s bound to come across as a bit of a comedown, but I wouldnÂ’t say it was terrible. In fact, the only thing in it really worthy of sustained criticism is the portrayal of the Cybermen themselves.

For one thing, the special effects are generally very good and miles better than those of The Ark In Space; I know everything was fine with Ark in part four once it shifted to film-recorded models, but there was a load of rubbish to put up with before that. Here itÂ’s 16mm all the way and it looks really good. However, the studio scenes are considerably less atmospheric, possibly because of the different director or possibly because the thought of a space station acting as a giant refrigeration unit for the lat survivors of humanity is a slightly more enigmatic than a space station warning ships about flying into a tiny moon thatÂ’s been around for half a century anyway. However, the scenes set in the main corridor are amazingly spooky with dead bodies lying scattered disregarded - although the stars outside are behaving rather oddly, swinging around and winking on and off.

I wouldnÂ’t say any of the acting is particularly bad in this story, although Ronald Leigh-Hunt seems to be capable of nothing more than cloning the role he played in The Seeds Of Death. William Marlowe is likeable as Lester and Jeremy Wilkin is suitably (initially, anyway) smarmy and evil as the ostensible villain. However, as is a problem with a lot of stories, the writing of the opening scenes seems forced and a bit artificial and the exposition between Kellman and Warner is very simplistic.

There is some slapstick on display with the Doctor’s arm trapped in the door, but the scene is rescued for me by Tom Baker’s sullen glaring. After this we head down to the planet’s surface and meet the locals: Michael Wisher is wasted a bit in a minor role (then again he had just done a major role that would see him remembered forever so I’ll not be churlish), but Kevin Stoney and particularly David Collings perform wonderfully. Collings is especially good as Vorus when you think how different his other roles were, as the genial Poul in The Robots Of Death and of course the melancholy Mawdryn. However, while Kellman’s status as double agent turned triple agent is interesting and clever the twist is undermined by the Vogans mentioning their agent and the presence of gold in Kellman’s quarters, which could clue in an attentive viewer. On the subject of gold this story is of course the beginning of the end of the Cybermen’s credibility; even though they’d been given one weakness per story up to now none had been as utterly stupid as this – and which one did they stick with? Right. At least here a bit of thought has gone into how it works – it has to be gold dust ground into the chest unit, easier said than done – whereas by Silver Nemesis we were seeing truly appalling scenes with gold coins being pinged off their helmets with a catapult. We only get a few bits of silliness such as gold affecting radars, although since this isn’t a great leap from being underground affecting radars it’s not a big problem.

The Cybermat, however, is utterly pathetic and while I might be able to forgive the whole hold-it-to-your-neck-and-pretend-it’s-attacking-you routine once to see it done I think four times is asking a lot of the audience. This leads to a naffer-than-naff first cliffhanger. The lines on the face, a mark of the Cyberman virus, show how derivative of each other the Gerry Davis-written Cybermen stories were, but I suppose you can’t fault the continuity. However, the audience is expected to believe that nobody at all noticed the snakebite effects, or the scratched metal, or anything – now that I think about it Davis’s stories contain gaping plot holes actually quite often. Kellman communicating with the Cybermen through Morse Code is seriously stretching it and is the wrong kind of amusing, but the model work of the Cyberman ship is excellent and the score (featuring contributions from Peter Howell, one of the better composers of the 1980s) is wonderful.

SarahÂ’s infection is a good dramatic sequence simply through the intense performances of all the cast, foremost of course being Elisabeth Sladen. They beam down to Voga leading to some excellent location work at Wookey Hole caves (I visited them as a child, and was bloominÂ’ scared). The scenes with Harry and Sarah together show the rapport between Sladen and Ian Marter, and how underrated Harry was as a companion.

The Doctor states that Voga is “hated and feared” by the Cybermen, so scratch my earlier comment about faultless continuity. However, the scene where the Doctor threatens Kellman with a Cybermat is amazingly cool as are the (Robert Holmes-penned) politics of Voga, even if the latter does smack of padding.

Really now, the Cybermen are no worse than they were in the 1980s. Christopher Robbie is supposed to have some sort of accent but I can’t hear it, and while some of their dialogue does come across as somewhat emotional, there’s always the “he [the Doctor] must suffer for our past defeats” line from Earthshock. Robbie struts around hand-on-hips; David Banks shakes his fists and rants like a lunatic. It’s all the same really.

Sarah refusing to let Harry introduce her is a nicely subtle example of her feminism (the words “subtle” and “feminist” so rarely appear in a sentence together without a prefix of “un”), and is far superior characterisation to her “if you think I’m the sort of girl who makes the coffee…” jive when she first appeared in The Time Warrior.

The studio sets of Voga are pretty poor, and let down even further by a ridiculous photographed backdrop (itÂ’s not even in focus for crying out loud), but when we get the genuine location filming there is more very good material and the silent Cyber-drones do look effective in them.

However, hereÂ’s where it starts to get really B-movie, with Sarah learning of plot developments by eavesdropping on the monsters. With this, and talk of climbing through cross-shafts to intercept bombs, itÂ’s all getting a bit Dalek Invasion Of Earth. That story wasnÂ’t bad, but such simplistic plot elements barely work once let alone twice.

The rock fall is a mixture of the good (location) and bad (studio). It makes an appropriate death for Kellman – how do you kill someone who has to die to justify the narrative but who kind of is and kind of isn’t a villain? Answer: natural causes, although here that means getting whacked by a piece of painted polystyrene. And since we see the Doctor take a couple in the gut himself, how come he gets off without a scratch? The cliffhanger is still quite fun though.

The attack on the Cybermen with gold is quite well directed and edited, and Lester’s death is poignant and noble: the story’s mortality rate of 70%, while high, is totally appropriate to the story. Back on Nerva however the silliness is increasing exponentially with a plan to crash the station into Voga. That said, it isn’t bad silliness and it’s a great laugh. While the stock footage of Saturn V launching is just plain lazy, it is a fun scene where the rocket is redirected away from the station (in the nick of time, no less). The destruction of the Cyberman ship is a good special effect even though the debris has a definite downward vibe to it; I’d have hung the model upside-down myself and shot it that way. “The biggest bang in history” could have come from Douglas Adams although he probably would have realised how it could be interpreted; however, stupid as it is, I could watch that rolling-drum effect of Voga on the scanner all day. Call me mad, but I love the effects in this story.

And with that, it’s over. Answering an emergency call from the Brigadier is a good way of keeping tension over the season break, but the “space-time telegraph” is whimsy worthy of Russell T. Davies. Still, it’s nice to see the TARDIS again for the first time since The Ark In Space.

Revenge Of The Cybermen is a deeply silly story that is still a long way from being a true dud, possibly because Robert HolmesÂ’s witty script-editing prevents it from being too serious for its naff moments to be forgiven, like Warriors Of The Deep. Season 12 is a short season with two classic stories; even a hit rate like that doesnÂ’t mean that basic fun like this is bad.

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