Attack of the Cybermen

attackofthecybermenHere’s what the British Board of Film Classification has to say about their “U” certificate, which stands for “Universal – Suitable for All”:

A U film should be suitable for audiences aged four years and over, although it is impossible to predict what might upset any particular child.

I would respectfully suggest that a man’s hand being crushed until it bleeds is something that might be predictable as upsetting.  For threat, the BBFC says “scary or potentially unsettling sequences should be mild, brief and unlikely to cause undue anxiety to young children. The outcome should be reassuring.”

Well that must be why Attack of the Cybermen received a U certificate for its VHS and DVD releases then.  Because of the reassuring outcome of nearly everyone dying.

To be honest, all of what I have written so far is tangential to the story, but that’s a symptom of a problem I have with the Colin Baker era in general.  There are only so many ways to say something is rubbish before you run out of ideas.  Luckily there are a couple of decent stories, but by and large this era was a train wreck.  As a child I gave up after The Twin Dilemma, but those who persevered were rewarded with this.  After the worst ever season finale, they came back to watch the worst ever season premiere.

When a story really is this bad, I try to find what is interesting about it.  What really marked out The Twin Dilemma was that I drew a blank on that as well and it was barely even worth mentioning the plot, but here at least we have a step in the right direction.  And that step is represented by the Cryons.

Yes, that word looks a lot like “crayons”, and yes, we do get the impression that crayons were used to write the script, but the Cryons are actually quite an interesting idea, and if you are going to retcon something new into The Tomb of the Cybermen, the Cryons work reasonably well.

They actually provide quite an interesting contrast to the Cybermen.  Although the Cryons are physically cold, they are emotionally warm, with the Cybermen as the figuratively cold, emotionless killers.  They are also an entirely feminine race, in a rare example of sci-fi actually getting that right rather than using it as a twisted parable of women being incapable of ruling themselves (see Galaxy 4) and the point of that seems to be in opposition to the entirely male Cybermen (yes, they may not all be male inside there, but the clue is in the name).

Attack of the Cybermen is often criticised for its reliance on continuity, but I don’t think it is the actual problem here.  Doing a greatest hits of the 60s Cybermen is something that sounds on paper a whole lot better than anything that had been done with the Cybermen since the 1960s, and revisiting the origins of the Cybermen is not in itself a bad idea, as World Enough and Time ably proved.  If you look at what the story is trying to do, capture the glory days of the 60s, that could have been magnificent, particularly for viewers who had no access to the original episodes, and mostly no memory of them.  So why not have another go and Cybermen in the sewers, or descending from their tombs on Telos?

The problem is with the execution of this.  The sewer scenes fall flat, and there is no point recreating something if you’re not going to actually recreate it.  By all means make improvements, but why take an iconic location like Telos and then do it completely differently and boringly?  The attention to detail is in all the wrong places.  Why make no attempt to recreate the original Tomb sets, but go to the trouble of hiring the original Cyber Controller actor, Michael Kilgarriff, despite his role being non-speaking originally (a different actor did the voice), and the actor being entirely hidden inside the costume?  They recreated Totter’s Lane for no reason at all other than they could.  What kind of bizarre priorities would lead to that happening, and not the original Tomb set, in a story that is trying to recreate Telos?

To some extent I think this probably comes down to trying to do too much, rather than focussing tightly on one or two good ideas and concentrating on doing them well.  So we have a sub-plot with Bates and Stratton that never intersects with the rest of the story, and fizzles out with their pointless deaths, despite a huge chunk of the action being given over to it.  We also have something vague about Lytton being a misunderstood hero, which doesn’t really come over beyond the Doctor oddly saying he misjudged him, despite having little reason to come to that conclusion, which ends the story with the Doctor rather distastefully mourning a ruthless mercenary instead of all the innocent deaths.

So I think we are in the midst of an approach that infects the Colin Baker era in general, which we could term the mathematical approach to Doctor Who: take as many exciting things as possible, and the more of those you throw in the better the story will be.  Here we have: Cybermen!  The ice tombs of Telos!  The Cyber Controller!  Mondas returning to Earth!  Halley’s Comet!  Cybermen in the sewers!  Cybermen in the TARDIS!  Let’s bring Lytton back!  Totter’s Lane!  Mess with the TARDIS!  Gruesome Cyber conversions!  Half-converted people in silver overalls!  Icy alien women in tight costumes!

You can see how a writer might come to the conclusion that all of that stuff is bound to add up to an exciting story.  Well, you can see how a really really bad writer might come to that conclusion.  Script writing is never an exercise in mathematics.  Sometimes the whole is far less than the sum of its parts.   RP

The view from across the pond:

When television was new, shows were produced for entertainment and then discarded.  As time went on, we recognized that there was something about those shows from our youth that we wanted to experience again.  Memories had formed in our minds and we would go back to them as a source of happiness, maybe some security from our respective childhood.  So when it became possible to get old shows on VHS then DVD and Blu-ray, many of us picked up the ones we loved and watched them through adult eyes.  We showed them to our families now, eager to share that joy.  And sometimes those memories would be clouded by nostalgia that would be ripped away when viewed as an adult.  They were sometimes unrecognizable from what we remembered.  But some of those etchings were indelible and they were exactly as we remembered them.  The question is, is that automatically a good thing?   Attack of the Cybermen might be a good example of bad indelibility!

After the dreaded mistake that was The Twin Dilemma, the Doctor rightly decides to go somewhere aware from the dreariness of Jaconda.  Getting the message, Peri dons a hot pink outfit which is anything but dreary and we’re off to a bright start!  Going back to 76 Totters Lane, the Junkyard from whom we derive the name of our website, is the first hint of indelibility.  It may have been over 20 years since that first visit but many of us remembered.  There are Cybermen in the London underground like we’ve seen before in The Invasion.  Then Attack brings us to Telos, where we once encountered The Tomb of the Cybermen.  This is another story that is locked in our minds, having been such an amazing classic, one might be inclined to call it flawless.  So far, Attack has many hallmarks of a good story but is it trying to live off the positive memories we have of earlier adventures?  Still not ready to branch out on its own, Lytton returns from Peter Davison’s Dalek outing, Resurrection of the Daleks.  So what we have is nostalgia being mined in the hopes of making a good story out of reputation alone.  An Unearthly Child, Tomb of the Cybermen, The Invasion and Resurrection of the Daleks; an unlikely collection to pull from, but can it work?

The answer depends on what you mean by “can it work?”  It did work as far as creating something indelible.  Assuming your friend is not one to remember titles, you say “Oh, remember Attack of the Cybermen?”  To this, they reply, “which one was that?”  Now, how do you answer to guarantee a memory is triggered?  You can certainly take your pick, and chances are, the person you are talking to will remember it exactly, as if they watched it yesterday.

Option 1: Remember the one with the ice girls who moved by waving their arms all around, and melted by doing a bizarre sort of dance?  They had really long nails, crystal faces and spoke with a high pitched sing-song voice?  (In movement and voice they were reminiscent of the Menoptra!)

Option 2: Remember the one where the Cybermen crushed a man’s fists in their bare hands as the blood flowed?  Remember when the Cybermen crushed Griffith’s head with their fists causing him to spasm into submission?

Option 3: Remember the one where the Cyberleader is gunned down in cold blood by the Doctor, aiming a blaster right at his chest at point blank range?

Option 4: Remember the one where the Doctor got the chameleon circuit working again and changed it into a wardrobe, a pipe organ and a metal gateway thing?  He even played a bit of Bach on the organ…

Option 5: Remember the one where the Doctor, so overcome by prejudice, misjudged Lytton to such an extent that it cost him his life?

I don’t know about you, but I can still hear that Cryon in my head like I just watched it yesterday.  And while that might be the weakest of those memories, one cannot deny they are all indelibly etched in our memories.  So in that way, the writer succeeded in creating something people could not forget.  A thing can be good or bad, but if it’s forgettable, that’s about as awful as it gets.  Attack of the Cybermen is anything but forgettable.  And perhaps that was the magic of going back to Telos… but the original version of a lifeless planet was somehow eerier than what we had here and I’m not sure I agree with adding a race to a planet we’ve seen before without any other life evident.  In Tomb, there is a Cybermat that escapes at the end of the story; if there had been life on Telos at the time, wouldn’t they all be converted by now?  Or perhaps it was putting the Cybermen back in the London underground like we had back with The Invasion that helped people remember it, for that also was a truly iconic moment full of all the indelibility one could ask for!  But that’s probably the least memorable element of this story.  Or maybe it was just Peri’s hot pink outfit because that was hard to shake too!

But did audiences need their indelibility in the form of brutality?  When we see Cybermen crushing Lytton’s hands or Griffith’s head with their bare hands, it’s an image that is very hard to forget.  In fact, I can still see Lytton’s bloody hands as the Cybermen crush them.  This would end up being another nail in the shows proverbial coffin, claiming the level of violence was indicative of what the series was doing all the time.  Whether true or not, it was memorable and after 55 years with our favorite show, it clearly didn’t stop its success.  Yet the magic of those earlier episodes that created such lasting memories had nothing to do with violence.  Surely there’s no violence in An Unearthly Child (although some comes later).  The memorable qualities of Tomb really came down to that amazing music as the Cybermen emerged from their crypts.  The Invasion showed the power of the Cybermen coming out of the sewers.  Resurrection… well, it had Daleks!  But we didn’t have the level of violence displayed in any of them as we do here.

So… did it work?  Well, I guess that’s down to the individual.  And that’s ironic really, considering this is a story about Cybermen.  ML

Read next in the Junkyard… Vengeance on Varos

About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Doctor Who, Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Sixth Doctor, Television and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Attack of the Cybermen

  1. Mike Basil says:

    Lytton, thanks to Maurice Colbourne’s fine acting, was an intriguing link between a Dalek story that wasn’t a sufficiently newer kind of Dalek story and a Cybermen story with similar problems. But it’s the chemistry between Lytton and Griffiths played thoughtfully enough by Brian Glover that was the most watchable part of this one for me. Faith Brown also proved that even an acclaimed actress in an otherwise limited alien mask can make a characteristically unforgettable impact.

    It’s curious how Season 22 would start with a Cybermen story that relied too much on the familiarity of the Cybermen legacy, yet end on a Dalek story that so specifically new that it didn’t even have to be entirely a Dalek story, even with Davros as the main and dimensionally updated villain. Actually this is exactly why I’d like to see you both share your reviews here on Real Time which was a much better Cybermen story for C. Baker (quite agreeably chosen from Big Finish for BBCi) and with one of the best twist-revelations in Dr. Who where even familiarity with the Cybermen really paid off. In the sense of making an otherwise disappoint story a motivation to make a better one, Dr. Who may earn yet another point in its tradition for making imperfections into virtues.

    Seeing the TARDIS chameleon circuit work for once was nice, with C. Baker having his nice quote: “Well, she hasn’t done it for a long time. She’s out of practice.” If the TARDIS settling again at the end with the Blue Police Box enhances its synchronicity-themed role in the Doctor’s adventures, it furthers how the Whoniversal ingredient for synchronicity has been personally inspirational to me, both as a loyal-enough SF fans and as someone who’s come to appreciate synchronicity also as a vital ingredient of the real universe.

    Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

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