I’m playing a monster. They can’t see my face.
I’m a creepy dude from an emotionless race.
But I can’t show my face, not even my lips,
So I’ll talk deeply and put my hands on my hips.
Revenge of the Cybermen is an easy story to pick holes in. Let’s face it, there are plenty of holes already, before you start to pick. But let’s look at the positives first.
Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter are a fantastic team. By this time they are working brilliantly together and they could have made any script enjoyable. There are so many lovely moments between them: Harry’s gold rush fever, dreaming of a ‘solid gold stethoscope’; the Doctor getting his arm stuck in the sliding door (he says thank you to Sarah and then glares at Harry as if it’s all his fault! Favouritism?); the Doctor and Sarah’s system of whistling to each other to communicate in a dangerous situation. Best of all there is that classic moment when the Doctor realises that Harry has been trying to undo his buckle; Tom is the only Doctor who could have carried the moment off, descending into maniacal laughter before shouting ‘Harry Sullivan is an imbecile’ at the top of his voice!
The Cybermen are back after a long absence (sadly we never got a proper Third Doctor Cybermen story) and it is like everyone has forgotten what they actually are. They are played here as robots with an attitude, which is the opposite to what they are supposed to be: converted humanoids with their emotions stripped away from them. Out of those two polar opposites, which is the scarier? The costumes are not great either, continuing the move away from the 60s creepiness (converted humanoid) towards 80s techno-bling (man in a shiny robot suit). This is a 70s halfway house, and they are not half as good as their 60s counterparts, but fortunately not half as bad as their 80s look-at-my-chin brothers. None of the Cyber heads are particularly well attached to their bodies, but one in particular wobbles about all over the place in Part Three. But the main problem with them is the lack of modulation in the voices. And the introduction of their vulnerability to gold basically ruined them as a credible threat for the remainder of the classic series. The explanation of why gold is lethal to the Cybermen requires a considerable suspension of disbelief – how can a solid metal ‘coat their breathing apparatus’? The Vogans live in fear of the Cybermen and they know why – because their planet has so much gold, which is lethal to the Cybermen. So why-oh-why don’t their guns shoot gold bullets? You really do have to check your logic at the door when you watch this.
The redesign of the Cybermats is also dreadful. Basically they have been made bigger and had their eyes removed, neither of which works very well. They are included to serve one purpose in the script, which re-runs the Cybermen infection tactic from The Moonbase: Cybermats are performing the function of sugar cubes here.
There is just one moment of good scripting where the Cybermen themselves are really scary – when Sarah beams back to the beacon on her own.
Apart from the Cybermen the story is visually brilliant, reusing the original Nerva sets to great effect, and with some excellent location work. I have been lucky enough to visit the Wookey Hole caves a couple of times and can see exactly why they were chosen as an alien location. They also have a creepiness to them and a history of ghost stories, some of which you will find on the DVD of Revenge, including a brand new one experienced during the making of this story: The Mysterious Tale of the Ghostly Script Page. My title, sorry – you will have to forgive the bigging up of that particular anecdote, because I love it – get the DVD if you don’t have it and see for yourself.
Revenge is one of those stories that it is fashionable not to like – it’s not quite sophisticated or clever enough. But it never drags, never loses momentum and there is never a dull moment. If you are looking for a Doctor Who story to entertain you, then there are far worse choices than this. It also features at the end one of the most remarkable pieces of technology ever seen on screen in a Doctor Who story. When the Doctor opens the TARDIS door and goes in you can see in the black void (police box prop interior!) the hat stand with the Space Time Telegraph printout draped over it. The Doctor brings it out a few seconds later, saying that it is a message from the Brigadier. That’s a clever device that can take a message, print it out and drape it over a hat stand by the door. I would like an answer-phone like that. RP
The view from across the pond:
In the days before On-Demand, DVR, Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime… Long before RedBox adorned the walls of 7-11s and grocery stores everywhere… the video store was king. Victory Video was my local store, run by a kindly giant named Bob Rubin. Going to this video store above any other was largely because Bob carried Doctor Who episodes. Not many, but more than anyone else. He was a fan, and made sure to keep them in stock. I would record newer episodes off a UHF channel and bring them for him when I went to rent movies. Playhouse video released a handful of movie length stories on VHS. To see a full story without episode breaks was amazing at the time, but as I got older I realized it took something away from them – they were made to have those episode breaks, after all. The first one I rented was Revenge of the Cybermen, a title which should have warned me right off the bat that something was wrong… Cybernetic beings should not have emotion to even want “revenge”!
This episode, surprisingly, was a part of the Golden Era of Doctor Who, but I never felt that it fit the rest of the era. It’s mostly an opportunity to use the superb Nerva Space Station set again (The Ark in Space). It has the standard base-under-siege claustrophobia that works very well and the tension around the weird outbreak on the station really does instill fear. When Sarah is poisoned by the Cybermat is edge-of-the-seat stuff, especially when Doctor Who was so new to me! The visuals on the planet, set inside a cave, were equally claustrophobic but, much like the station misses crashing into that log… um, planet, this episode never seems to hit that target that so many others of the season did!
Let’s look at one of the biggest issues with this episode. To be clear: the Cybermen are basically allergic to gold, it’s lethal to them. We’re talking shellfish to people with a shellfish allergy; peanuts to someone with a peanut allergy… you get the idea! So why even bother going to Voga, the planet of gold? These computerized beings should have had some logic circuitry saying “run like hell”, not “this’ll be a place to invade!” It’s like the aliens in Signs deciding to invade Earth when water is lethal to them! (Special News Bulletin: Earth is 2/3rd water! You built a ship to cross intergalactic distances, and failed to notice that? Come on guys!)
And the Cybermen themselves look like they’ve hit an all-time low on their development. It’s no wonder they are looking for revenge. Their ship is very reminiscent of the Silver Carrier from The Wheel in Space, as Nerva is, in fact, another wheel in space… I thought the Cybermats were wonderful, but they were also my first experience with them. The earlier models (which I first saw in my Doctor Who Technical Manual) looked silly by comparison but I admit it made more sense to have smaller creatures for infiltration. Perhaps this too contributes to these Cybermen needing revenge! The Vogans are a bickering, annoyed people; not particularly likable either. And, worst of all, their halls bear the seal of Rassilon everywhere. I’d love a backstory where we get an explanation of why they use my favorite image in such a cavalier way! At least try to make sense of it, rather than taint Who-history with atrocity. Hopefully the Time Lords went there once to protect them, set themselves up in some god-like fashion and that could even explain the “pompous diplomat” mentality of many of the Vogan people!
For Revenge, Kellman (Jeremy Wilkin) is a better villain than the Cybermen. He’s a rotten character that is easy to hate. He has a smugness that you want to see crushed. (Think: Petyr Baelish -aka Little Finger – in Game of Thrones, but not having to wait as long for justice…) The Cybermen are all for a bit of shoulder-shaking when grabbing the Doctor. It seems to be less painful for him, more of an annoyance. Unsurprisingly, the Doctor and crew carry the episode. The chemistry between Tom Baker, Ian Marter and Lis Sladen is outstanding; this is the era that lured any early American fans to the show and it’s easy to see why! The Doctor has one of my favorite lines when trying to prevent his arm getting sliced off in a sliding door: “Don’t want to lose my arm. I’m rather attached to it. It’s so handy.” Harry is once again the likable gentleman traveler even if the Doctor does think that “Harry Sullivan is an imbecile!” (Though, really, how was Harry to know what would happen… be fair! Harry is not a bad guy!) And Sarah Jane will forever be my favorite companion.
It’s not a great episode. I’d argue that it’s the weakest of the Hinchcliffe era. But it’s a part of an arc that started with an Ark (in Space) and wraps up the Nerva storyline. Not one to ever ignore a story, I can’t say skip it, but I can say, don’t go into it with high hopes. As Roget says, check your logic at the door. It’s mid-range at best.
To complete the story, when I turned 16, I called Bob to see if he might be willing to hire me. I worked with him for 3 years until his store closed down, overthrown by larger video stores like Palmer and Blockbuster Video. When he was cleaning house, he allowed his staff to take whatever movies they wanted barring The Prisoner, which he reserved for himself and Doctor Who, which he reserved for me. Sadly, Bob and I lost touch and his face is little more than a ghost in my memory; no pictures exist from that time, either. I can only hope he finds this blog, reads it, and reaches out! Thanks for helping me start my video collection, Bob. That quest continues!
Now, if you’ll forgive me, I’ve identified an active volcano that I need to invade! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Terror of the Zygons