Skip to main content

I used a tangle Turk’s head eye-splice, with a grommets I picked up from Houdini.

Doctor Who
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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

I fear I’ve snapped his Gregory.

Twin Peaks 3.14: We are like the Dreamer.
(SPOILERS) In an episode as consistently dazzling as this, piling incident upon incident and joining the dots to the extent it does, you almost begin to wonder if Lynch is making too much sense. There’s a notable upping of the pace in We are like the Dreamer, such that Chad’s apprehension is almost incidental, and if the convergence at Jack Rabbit’s Tower didn’t bring the FBI in with it, their alignment with Dougie Coop can be only just around the corner.

Now you're here, you must certainly stay.

The Avengers 4.1:The Town of No Return
The Avengers as most of us know it (but not in colour) arrives fully-fledged in The Town of No Return: glossier, more eccentric, more heightened, camper, more knowing and more playful. It marks the beginning of slumming it film directors coming on board (Roy Ward Baker) and sees Brian Clemens marking out the future template. And the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship is fully established from the off (albeit, this both was and wasn’t the first episode filmed). If the Steed and Cathy Gale chemistry relied on him being impertinently suggestive, Steed and Emma is very much a mutual thing.

He’s a good kid, and a devil behind the wheel.

Baby Driver (2017)
(SPOILERS) Pure cinema. There are plenty of directors who engage in superficial flash and fizz (Danny Boyle or JJ Abrams, for example) but relatively few who actually come to the medium from a root, core level, visually. I’m slightly loathe to compare Edgar Wright with the illustrious likes of Sergio Leone and Brian De Palma, partly because they’re playing in largely different genre sandpits, partly because I don’t think Wright has yet made something that compares to their best work, but he operates from a similar sensibility: fashioning a movie foremost through image, supported by the soundtrack, and then, trailing a distant third, comes dialogue. Baby Driver is his most complete approximation of that impulse to date.

How dare you shush a shushing!

Home (2015)
(SPOILERS) Every so often, DreamWorks Animation offer a surprise, or they at least attempt to buck their usual formulaic approach. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised with how sharp and witty it was, fuelled by a plot that didn’t yield to dumbing down, and Rise of the Guardians, for all that its failings, at least tried something different. When such impulses lead to commercial disappointment, it only encourages the studio to play things ever safer, be that with more Madagascars or Croods. Somewhere in Home is the germ of a decent Douglas Adams knock-off, but it would rather settle on cheap morals, trite messages about friendship and acceptance and a succession of fluffy dance anthems: an exercise in thoroughly varnished vacuity.

Those dance anthems come (mostly) courtesy of songstress Rhianna, who also voices teenager Tip, and I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg fully appreciated what a box office boon it would be to have her on board. The effect is cumulatively nauseating though, l…

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
(SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell, as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick.

Evil Bill: First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted: Then we take over their lives.
My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reeves in the summer of ’91 (inflatio…

Cool. FaceTime without a phone.

Sense8 Season One
(SPOILERS) The Wachowskis do like their big ideas, but all too often their boldness and penchant for hyper-realism drowns out all subtlety. Their aspirations may rarely exceed their technical acumen, but regularly eclipse their narrative skills. And with J Michael Straczynski on board, whose Babylon 5 was marked out by ahead-of-its-time arc plotting but frequently abysmal dialogue, it’s no wonder Sense8 is as frequently clumsy in the telling as it is arresting in terms of spectacle.

I frequently had the feeling that Sense8 was playing into their less self-aware critical faculties, the ones that produced The Matrix Reloaded rave rather than the beautifully modulated Cloud Atlas. Sense8 looks more like the latter on paper: interconnecting lives and storylines meshing to imbue a greater meaning. The truth is, however, their series possesses the slenderest of central plotlines. It’s there for the siblings to hang a collection of cool ideas, set pieces, themes and fascina…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

A man who doesn't love easily loves too much.

Twin Peaks 2.17: Wounds and Scars
The real problem with the last half of the second season, now it has the engine of Windom Earle running things, is that there isn’t really anything else that’s much cop. Last week, Audrey’s love interest was introduced: your friend Billy Zane (he’s a cool dude). This week, Coop’s arrives: Annie Blackburn. On top of that, the desperation that is the Miss Twin Peaks Contest makes itself known.

I probably don’t mind the Contest as much as some, however. It’s undoubtedly lame, but it at least projects the season towards some kind of climax. If nothing else, it resolutely highlights Lynch’s abiding fascination with pretty girls, as if that needed any further attention drawn to it.

Special Agent Cooper: You made it just right, Annie.
I also like Heather Graham’s Annie. Whatever the behind the scenes wrangles that led to the disintegration of the Coop-Audrey romance (and it will be rather unceremoniously deconstructed in later Coop comments), it’s certainly the …