Attack of the Cybermen
(SPOILERS) For some, Attack of the Cybermen is a low point of 80s Doctor Who, the moment when continuity finally ate itself and heaved up a glob of indigestible Levinised cyberbile. It’s an entirely reasonable position. As About Time acidly pointed out, it’s a sequel to just about anything you can think of and then some. It also represents Eric Saward – whose influence on the show I don’t, in contrast to the consensus, see as entirely negative – at his most brazenly nihilistic, almost to the point of self-parody. Even with that, there are a lot of things l like in Attack. Unfortunately, they’re almost all in the first episode.
Because Attack of the Cybermen is all set up and no payoff. It’s quite clear from about ten minutes into the second episode that Saward – I mean, Paula Moore – had no idea what to do with the everything he put in motion. Which is why he locks the Doctor up, introduces some of the most useless aliens the series has ever seen to reel off multiple threads of exposition, and has everything his mercenaries/criminals/hard guys have planned come to naught when he can’t be arsed with them anymore. I mean, really, would it have hurt to let them escape in the time ship? It’s not as if Saward was averse to loose ends in his other scripts. Additional to which, of which more later, killing off Brian Glover is a crime from which no good can come. As David Fincher later discovered. Eric later suggested the deaths represented a “poignant moment” but he struggles to sound like he believes it himself.
And yet. Episode One is pretty good, and pretty well paced in respect of the sometimes-patchy switch to forty-five minutes. True, there’s one of those extended filler TARDIS sequences that were a bane of early to mid-80s Who (whatever you can say about the McCoy era – and I can say a lot – Cartmel largely ditched them). It’s particularly suspect for foisting entirely unbelievable dread of being hit by Halley’s Comet on Peri. Despite that, and the character dynamic generally working against them, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant have a natural chemistry that just sometimes is able to come through (Peri’s reaction to the now working chameleon circuit).
And Colin’s great fun here. Yes, I know, some of you checked out immediately at my even suggesting as much, but he’s energetic and engaged, and I rather like the aforementioned farting chameleon circuit and his tussle with Lytton’s fake plod cohorts (his rising from beneath the garage floor wearing a policeman’s helmet always makes me laugh). “Shoot him, Peri” only doesn’t work because Peri seems to take the instruction seriously. But yes, he’s very keen to destroy stuff, which he’ll be doing a lot more of. To wit, when the Doctor uses his sonic lance on a Cyberman, the expression on his face is alarmingly close to the fake Trial evidence when he’s exultantly holding an axe over the Hyperion 3’s wrecked communications room.
Much of the first episode is also on location, and Matthew Robinson, one of the better directors of the era, is clearly in his element. He wasn’t the all-rounder that, say, Michael E Briant could be (Exhibit A: The Robots of Death), as we can see in his staging of action interiors (most notoriously the Doctor’s venture into Cyber Control at the climax of the Episode Two). But the Sweeney-lite of Lytton and his crew of felons (with a suitably cheesy theme from Malcolm Clarke), of the Doctor and Peri being trailed around London side streets, and particularly the Telos sandpit are commendably delivered. Indeed, the Telos material constitutes first-rate action staging and some of the series’ best matted model work.
Griffiths: How thick is it?
Lytton: Less than you.
The various elements here, before the air is let out of the balloon, intrigue for how they will be brought together. Lytton with his bank job. Stratton and Bates. For all that the JN-T era could fall foul of casting disasters – there’s at least one here – this collection of Saward hard men are perfectly pitched. Michael Atwell (Bates) would end the year playing a particularly memorable Bill Sikes in a particularly high-rated Sunday Classic adaptation of Oliver Twist. His unsuppressed rage at everything, especially Jonathan David’s Stratton (Blake’s 7’s Sand), is very funny (“You moron!”)
Brian Glover’s Griffiths, meanwhile, makes for the perfect mismatch with Maurice Colbourne’s Lytton. Although, he has a nice rapport going with James Beckett’s Payne before the latter is Cyber-ised (“He’s allergic to nylon”: “No, I’m not”). That Glover is granted probably the best Cyber put down ever (“Getting a bit rough is it?”) is evidence enough that Saward’s negativity was out of control at this point, such that he should see fit to bump him off. There’s a modicum of justice that Glover should team properly with a prior Doctor a few years later in Campion.
The Cybermen, revealed near enough at the point the usual first episode ends, are much more of a mixed bag than in their previous appearances. I don’t blanche too much at the ease with which they’re dispatched (although I do draw the line at a catapult). The bigger problem is that, with Cyber Banks somewhat side-lined in favour of the fat Controller, built up before his appearance as if he means something, they’re instantly asking to be ridiculed. There’s some reasonably strong thematic content here in terms of attempting to add weight to the “pathetic bunch of tin soldiers” they’d become, even if it’s by way of Sawardian viscera, but it’s continually undermined by production failings. A potbellied leader is never going to inspire, even less so when he appears to be attempting an impression of Christopher Benjamin’s “I say, I say, I say” routine from The Talons of Weng-Chiang’s final episode.
There’s also the dreaded botch of continuity. Yes, the Ian Levine influence ensures everything is dragged in here, from Invasion Cybermen in sewers to Telos to Mondas. There’s even a Moonbase, although it’s about a century early and belongs to the wrong side (as opposed to the ship hidden on the dark side). The idea of the series own continuity catching up with it – 1986 – has merit in theory but is entirely weightless and bereft in practice.
Cyber Leader: When you become as we are, you will serve the Cyber race well.
Lytton: Oh no, as myself.
Nevertheless, Attack of the Cybermen drops in a transhumanist theme that will run throughout the season in one way or another, something not seen, perhaps appropriately in terms of Eric’s influences, since the fourteenth. It would be reasonable to suggest that the conceptual fear represented by the Cybermen had never been effectively depicted by the series. The Tenth Planet incarnations were undoubtedly freaky, but not in an especially unnerving or relatable way. After that, despite aesthetic advances in the designs, they become even more generic and lacking in elemental potency.
Bates: This is what the Cybermen do to you.
In many ways that isn’t a bad thing – I may be Cyber Robbie’s biggest fan. But even if it’s an ultimate failure, there’s an attempt by Attack to address and restore this inherent potential of corrupted humanity. RTD’s answer to depicting this was – surprise, surprise – to emphasise their lack of emotion in the tritest way. His Cybermen still have emotion, but it’s switched off. What could be more powerful than a Cyberman crying… if you’re entirely shallow?
Really, though, being Cyber-ised is more fundamental. It’s about the loss of the soul (for Russell, that likely is emotion, but there you go). When Lytton tells the Doctor “The drug is altering my brain – irreversible damage”, he’s saying there’s no going back. There’s no Kroton-esque chance of continuance here. Rather like the (apocryphal?) vaccine test subject reported to have testified “I can’t feel God anymore; my soul is dead” there’s only recognition of what has been lost when the part held most dear but least acknowledged has gone. As with Bates’ rather twisted display towards Griffiths, the purpose of Attack, rather lost in the muddle of its competing threads, is to get across that this is what the Cybermen do to you. Indiscriminately hacking off of limbs and plucking out organs and then setting to work those who don’t “take” (like tissue rejection in organ transplants… or those impaired by vaccine: “The conditioning process doesn’t always work”). Still, look on the bright side. You can bet the Cybermen have universal credit.
It may be no coincidence that, in a season full of characters losing their souls – and bodies with them – this Doctor is at his most spiritually flawed and simultaneously aware of the same. He is, after all, in a permanent existential crisis (The Two Doctors, Revelation of the Daleks) and even embraces such concepts as would have been laughed out of town in previous incarnations (“There’s no such thing as time on the astral plane” – and not much chance of going there when you’ve been cyber-ised).
Attack’s emphasis on action, machismo and mutilation also serves to highlight how different Season 22 is to another version of Doctor Who being “broadcast” at the same time. One that stands as a legitimate contender for the best story the series has ever told in any medium. The Voyager series, penned by Steve Parkhouse and illustrated by John Ridgway, warned (and embraced) very much of the Luciferian tack as opposed to Saward’s impulse towards Ahrimanic forces exerting on the physical in their most materialist form.
Parkhouse wilfully shuns the series’ nominally “scientific” and plausible approach (and let’s face it, it’s only ever nominally so). In so doing, he pulls the rug from under the Doctor in a manner rarely seen (the likes of The Mind Robber, Warriors Gate, The Deadly Assassin push that way, but not as pervasively). In Voyager, the binding cords of reality are entirely flexible in the face of godlike powers. The Doctor is informed “Logic tells you the world is round. But logic is a new toy”. He finds himself unable to fight this with overarching reason (however anarchic and aloof or separate the Doctor may like to present himself, he still invariably falls in line with establishment thinking, simply because the fabric of his universe is about preserving predominant paradigms rather than puncturing them). The tale culminates in the wonderfully inventive Once Upon a Time Lord, in which antagonist Astrolabus flees into a realm of fiction, one that acknowledges the artifice of the storytelling medium itself. One might suggest it’s the Fall Out of Doctor Who stories.
The Doctor: But surely, it must have occurred to you that if Mondas hadn’t been destroyed, the Cybermen never would have come here.
Of course, such discussion and asides fail to address Attack of the Cybermen Episode Two, which quickly goes tits up. Eric might not have been responsible for the gender identity of the Cryons – Attack’s like a proto- Mad Max: Fury Road – but even if they hadn’t been so poorly realised, they’d still be a witless, redundant disaster. It isn’t really fair to point the finger at any of the performances, since Saward kills the story stone dead when he introduces them, rather than actually bothering to develop the already over-abundant story threads he has.
As a result, his only recourse is to blow things up – and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s earned, which it most definitely is not here. There are some not-so-bad things here. The new tombs are rubbish in a plastic, Iceland kind of way, but you do get the sense they go on and on a bit. And punching a Cyberman’s head off is quite funny. It also gives Cyber Banks his “hero” moment as he (cyber) manfully tackles the rogue Cyberman. Oh, and yes, ratings did walk off a short cliff after Episode One, but one can try to argue ratings as proof of almost anything. The show lost two million viewers permanently – give or take – after Time-flight, and yet they were willing to give it another chance after The Twin Dilemma? Meanwhile, those with it in for the season will claim ratings only improved due to the cancellation publicity. As opposed to ratings always being variable and Daleks always attracting viewers (unless it’s Season 25).
Again, I don’t particularly have a problem with the Doctor going kill happy with a cyber gun, but the broader issue is the execution (ahem). You can’t have a close up of Lytton’s bloody hands one minute and a Cyber Controller disco the next and expect the sequence to hang together. I’ve also never really felt the time period differences in the story are effectively translated. In Day of the Daleks, say, you’re never in any doubt, but I expect the average person watching Attack would simply assume the Telos scenes are contemporaneous with those on Earth (About Time even discusses the pros and cons of the logic that this might be the case).
The Doctor: I don't think I've ever misjudged anybody quite as badly as I did Lytton.
And there’s also the allegation of the greatest besmirching of the Doctor’s judgement in respect of his final evaluation of Lytton. Well, maybe Eric meant it sincerely, I don’t know (“I don’t approve of people like that” he testifed of the Commander). But this is a Doctor want to overstatement and the florid. It's not as if he was buddying up to Chairman Mao. It seems entirely in keeping that his characterisation of Lytton’s behaviour would be completely out of proportion with whatever it was he was actually doing.