Revenge of the Cybermen
The popular gospel prescribes that the ‘60s Cybermen were where it was at, and anything that arrived subsequently besmirched their memory, to a greater or lesser extent (the lesser extent being a cameo in Carnival of Monsters). And, design-wise, I’ll give you that the pre-Invasion, Troughton models possessed a suitably impersonal, imposing factor. But, crucially, they weren’t interesting. Okay, first time out of the gate they sounded freaky, and in The Moonbase they were given to the occasional winning bout of sarcasm (“Clever, clever clever”), but the reason I favour the subsequent Telosians is the same reason they’re often on the receiving end of opprobrium: personality. And leader of the pack for charismatic Cybermen is undoubtedly the magnificent Cyber Robbie. HE IS GOOD!
Stevenson: But surely, Doctor, the Cybermen died out years ago?
It’s self-evident that, this being the only complete Cybermen story at the time, it’s where Eric Saward took all his cues for their ‘80s incarnation, from “Excellent” (Cyber Banks picked up emotively where Cyber Robbie left off), to gold dust (as dubiously variable in effectiveness here as it is when Ace is ploughing down Cybermen with her catapult, so there isn’t any real regression, or progression, to sneer at; a gold-fuelled Cybermat can snog a Cyberman to death, but a billion-carat planet has no effect on them), to the human agent in cahoots with the Cybermen (even if he isn’t really, Kellman’s still a thoroughly bad egg; at least the Doctor doesn’t profess to having misjudged him, though), to the desire to use a great big bomb to blow up a planet, to an oppressed species wanting to get their own back on their cybernetic intimidators (Vogans, Cryons).
Vorus: You have the philosophy of a cringing mouse, Tyrum!
Saward liked the Cybermen, of course, whereas Robert Holmes really didn’t, but that disdain only yields positives for the story (aside, perhaps from referring to them as robots, but hey, even Terry Nation was making that mistake with the Daleks four years down the line). Indeed, easily the weakest facet of Revenge of the Cybermen is the society on Voga, which has been plundered wholesale from the Hackneyed Alien Handbook, lacking the humour Holmes brought to, say the Inter Minorians in Carnival of Monsters.
Vorus (David Collings) has a Holmesian line in colourful descriptive passages, sure (he wanted Vogans to be free, living on the surface, “not cowering like worms in the Earth”), and Tyrum (Kevin Stoney) supplies occasionally endearing absent-mindedness (“Hmmm? To the coal mines”) and has a winning thing for carrying bags of gold dust around with him (perhaps he uses them as leg weights?), while Michael Wisher (Magrik, resembling a very grey Ringo Starr) displays some fine prop acting, dabbing away at his nasty cough (gold lung?), but the Vogans are fatally dull (and don’t even have a few glitter guns in storage, by the looks of things), and their political bickering banal. Unforgivably so for such a fine bunch of actors assembled under the latex.
And those on Nerva aren’t much better. Ronald Leigh-Hunt evidences that his soporific barking in The Seeds of Death was no fluke as he returns here for more, moving from ‘60s futurism to ‘70s flares like he’s a Chuck Heston adrift from his rightful era, struggling manfully from Planet of the Apes to The Omega Man. If only they had gone for Ronald over Michael Craig’s similarly textured cardboard for Terror of the Vervoids, we’d have a RLH trilogy to be proud of. One might, as such, see Revenge as a forerunner to Blade Runner, the TARDIS crew excepted; a machine, thanks to the mastery that is Cyber Robbie, is the most alive character, fittingly following up his amazing portrayal of the Karkus in The Mind Robber.
Kellman: Commander, I’m afraid you’ll have to kill these people. They’ve brought the plague in here.
The Doctor: Who’s the homicidal maniac?
Well, okay, I’m overstating it a little. Aside from the main trio, the reason to watch the first two episodes is Jeremy Wilkin’s hugely enjoyable (and he’s evidently hugely enjoying himself) performance as Kellman. His disdain for and mockery of Stevenson, Warner (Alec Wallis) and Lester (William Marlowe) almost justifies their being pure cardboard (“You’re not frightening me, Commander. You won’t shoot”). And he is quite the ruthlessly self-regarding homicidal maniac, not thinking twice about wiping out the crew of Nerva as a means to profit (not that Vorus comes over at all well either, possibly even less so, since he stoops to finding moral justification for his actions).
Cyber Leader: Eight minutes. In eight minutes the accursed planet of gold will be utterly destroyed. Annihilated. Vaporised. It is good.
Even Revenge’s title gets stick (although, it’s only the Vogans who actually use the word: “I wonder, has Vorus in the madness of his vanity brought down the vengeance of the Cybermen upon us again?”), again preceding an ‘80s example; Cybermen, like the Jedi, cannot take revenge. Maybe not in theory, but Cyber Robbie can give it a damn good try. Cyber Robbie is also why there’s a considerable uptick in quality halfway through the story. Before that, it’s “okay”, but there’s a simple reason the third episode is the best: Cyber Robbie delivers all the speeches.
Cyber Leader: You two are especially privileged. You are about to die in the biggest explosion ever witnessed in this solar system. It will be a magnificent spectacle. Unhappily, I will be unable to appreciate it.
He’s absolutely the key to making these flared, discotheque Cybermen a success, whether standing hands on hips, mocking his prisoners through a Canadian burr (“Oh, you are mistaken. When the beacon crashes into Voga, we shall be watching from a safe distance, but you will have a much closer view”). As the Doctor says, “Nice sense of irony. I thought for a moment he was going to smile”. Even the Cybermats (no longer cute) get in on the dancefloor moves.
While Revenge is to be feted for its humorous elements, that doesn’t mean it falls into the “So bad, its good” category, or that it’s “a horrible mess” (as About Time puts it), “A contradictory, tedious and unimaginative mess” (The Discontinuity Guide) that has guilty-pleasure redeeming features. And, while I’m part of the second wave nostalgia that came with it being the first video release, I’m not an easy target for that reason (The Seeds of Death, the fourth video put out, is a snooze however you cut it; and who exactly at the BBC was a RLH fan in ’83-4?)
The Doctor: 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.
Yeah, a whole lot of Revenge doesn’t make perfect sense, mostly on the part of Cyber Robbie’s ruses. But he’s an eccentric sort, isn’t he, and most schemes of most villains break down when looked at closely. I prefer the position of the Cybermen here, very much prefiguring the budget-conscious Zygons, as “just a bunch of…” Even the Doctor draws attention to the fact their ship looks like shit (the idea that there are enough parts for a Cyber army in there suggests the Leader has brain rot).
I don’t really buy into it being victim to the much-stated problems of a ‘60s writer (Davis) trying to tackle ‘70s formatting. If you want to go that route, The Android Invasion is far more problematic, because, crucially it doesn’t have sufficient self-consciousness or sense of fun. Or energy. That’s probably why, although this has just as many plot failings as The Moonbase (well, okay, maybe not quite as many), the failings are to be celebrated whereas Moonbase’s just grate.
The Doctor: And that was the end of the Cybermen. Except as gold-plated souvenirs that people use as hat stands.
Lester: Watch it Doctor, I think you’ve riled him.
Holmes actually does the Cybermen a service here, even if the gold weakness is injudicious; as in Tomb, he succeeds in mythologising them (the ‘80s equivalent of this is the Earthshock flashback sequence, which is really mythologising the series for viewers of the series, so something else, but nevertheless, both are illustrative of the stylistic/visual gulfs between eras, with the seven years from Invasion making the their last appearance black and white story ancient history – it may as well have been Flash Gordon – while another seven years until Earthshock was the difference between Logan’s Run and Star Wars – immense).
He details in a few sentences how their once mighty force throughout the galaxy has been decimated in the Cyber War, thanks to the invention of the ludicrously named glitter gun. The Doctor also drops in tasty (golden) nuggets about Cyber bombs being banned by the Armageddon Convention (“Cybermen do not subscribe to any theory of morality in war, Doctor”), albeit as has been pointed out, their effectiveness is highly variable. Perhaps that’s why they were banned; if they can blow up a planet when placed at its core but barely leave a scratch on corpses when detonated elsewhere, they’re presumably difficult to a get a grip on, megaton-wise.
Patchy kind of sums up Revenge’s production on all fronts: redressed scripts and redressed sets. Michael E Briant tended to make a virtue of location shoots, less so studio work (much like the later Michael, Robinson), but Wookey Hole rather does for him here. Not only is the marriage of studio and location Voga very obvious, the caves footage lacks dynamism. There’s the occasional nice shot (the Cybermen standing all silvery in the half-light, taking out Vogans), or sequence (the rock fall is very well done), but it has a tendency to plod as much as the Vorus-Tyrum arguments.
It probably isn’t coincidental that the best parts are where Peter Howell’s augmented Cyber-groove kicks in, rather than Cary Blyton’s attention-wondering kazoo and rattle-attack. The Cybermen boarding Nerva is a standout at the end of the second episode, and Briant also pulls off the occasional stylistically bravura shot (the Doctor leaping from Kellman’s booby-trapped quarters, landing in the corridor in a haze of smoke and overhead studio lights). I even rather like the spinning loo roll used for the climactic approach to Voga, much derided as it is.
What really sees Revenge along, though, is the main crew. I think this season’s might be my favourite line-up, closely followed by Season 16, even though the twelfth is far from my favourite and Sarah solo with the Doctor can be sometimes on the grating side. It’s the alchemy Harry provides that’s key, a well-meaning plodder who is instantly the butt of his companions’ jokes. The Doctor’s at it at once here, taking the piss out of him for wanting to keep a rapidly-vanishing time ring (“You knew that was going to happen, didn’t you?”)
Sarah: Harry, will you just shut up about your rotten gold!
The banter between Sarah and Harry is to be particularly relished. Obvious, certainly, to have Sarah’s feminist clash with Harry’s old school tie chauvinist, but the chemistry between Ian Marter and Elizabeth Sladen makes it work gangbusters: the scene where he beams down to Voga and she indignantly wakes up in his arms (“Well, that’s marvellous, isn’t it? Here I am, trying to save your life…”), or she’s laughing at his flight of fantasy about a solid gold stethoscope and “a quiet practice in the country”, or reproaching him for his comments on “Tibias, or rather fetlocks like a carthorse” (“My ankles aren’t thick!”)
The Doctor: Harry, were you trying to undo this?
Harry: Well, naturally.
The Doctor: Did you make the rocks fall, Harry?
Harry: Er, well. I suppose I must have done.
The Doctor: (laughing, then) HARRY SULLIVAN IS AN IMBECILE!
Tom, in his third appearance, has thoroughly found his feet, both in moral rectitude (“I’m sorry gentlemen, I can’t allow it” in response to their wish to shoot Warner) ruthlessness (“After you’ve been bitten, Kellman, you’ll have just ten seconds to remember where that Pentalion Drive is, if you want to live”), establishing the contents of his pockets (jelly babies, fine, but an apple core… if Kellman had continued rooting around, he’d probably have found a filthy snot rag next), and improvisation (“Fragmentise? Ah well, I suppose we can’t expect decent English from a machine”). And then there’s the story’s most famous exchange (above); Baker got on with Marter, but even if Holmes had held sway and persuaded Philip Hinchcliffe to keep Harry (heartening to note Hinchcliffe later admitted Holmes might have been right), I suspect the star would gradually have whittled the numbers down, certainly if he was of a view the Doctor didn’t need anyone at all, besides a talking cabbage.
Revenge of the Cybermen may be a mess, but it isn’t a dull mess. Well, the bits that don’t involve Vorus and Tyrum aren’t. It has the best of TARDIS crews, the best of Cyber Leaders, and a Holmes rewrite where he can’t help but let his flair shine through. My Revenge of the Cybermen! My glory!
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.