One of the more controversial Doctor Who stories hits Region 2 DVD courtesy of 2 Entertain.
Since his departure from the role of the Doctor in 1986, the fan community seems to have taken Colin Baker to its collective heart due to his unbridled enthusiasm for the show and his appearances in some excellent Big Finish audio productions. But at the time, things weren’t nearly so clean cut. Some fans (including myself) loved his spiky and unpredictable take on the role, largely derived from the original performance by William Hartnell, but many others found him alienating, over-the-top and too much of a contrast to Peter Davison’s more relaxed approach. Unfortunately, the general public, and more importantly the BBC hierarchy, seemed to agree with the latter view and Colin was unceremoniously replaced after two full seasons. It’s true that his debut story, The Twin Dilemma, was something of a disaster and it’s hard to entirely erase memories of Timelash or the campier aspects of Season 23. But I think time has been kind to Colin Baker’s time in the role, and many of his shows, criticised as excessively violent and cynical at the time, look remarkably ambitious and unusual after the passage of two decades.
Attack of the Cybermen, the first story of Season 22 which was originally transmitted in January 1985, has attracted more than its fair share of opprobrium over the years but I think it has been rather seriously underrated. Critics have focused almost exclusively on its weaker aspects – basically an unnecessarily complex plot and a slightly unhealthy obsession with continuity – without acknowledging some undoubted strengths.
Fans of the programme will no doubt remember that the Cybermen made their first appearance in the mid-sixties as the main villains in William Hartnell’s final story The Tenth Planet. Set in 1986, that adventure saw the metal monsters attempting to save their home planet Mondas by draining energy from earth. They were, naturally, thwarted and Mondas was destroyed. In Attack Of The Cybermen, set in 1985, the Cybermen, who have developed their own time machine, hatch a plot to destroy the Earth with the aid of Halley’s Comet and thus avoid losing Mondas. The Doctor encounters a group of Cybermen in the London sewers, presumably left over from The Invasion which was set sometime around the mid-1970s, and is forced to return to Telos, the Cybermen’s current planet. He’s accompanied by his companion Peri (Bryant) and also the mercenary Lytton (Colbourne) who turns out to be working not for the Cybermen but for a race native to Telos, the Cryons.
If you’re a bit confused by the above then you’re not alone. There’s so much incident packed into the ninety minutes of screen time that anyone other than devotees of the programme must have felt a little bewildered. The aim seems to have been to cram in plenty of continuity references to please the more attentive fans of the show. So we have 76 Totter’s Lane (the location for the first Who story from 1963); the tombs of the Cybermen on Telos; the return of Lytton who first appeared in Resurrection of the Daleks; the Cyber Controller from Tombs of the Cybermen, played by the same actor; the references to Mondas and The Tenth Planet; the casting of Terry Molloy, better known as Davros, in a supporting role. However, few of these actually work to the advantage of the story. The tombs look completely different to those in the earlier story, the Cyber-Controller is tubby and ungainly and it’s not easy to see why the Cybermen want to bother saving Mondas when Telos is perfectly habitable and they are the dominating race.
Exactly who came up with this muddle is a moot point. The authorship of Attack of the Cybermen has always been a murky area to explore. The story is credited to a non-existent writer called Paula Moore. The writer known to producer John Nathan Turner was Paula Woolsey, a friend of script editor Eric Saward. The actual story seems to have largely been a product of the work of Saward with additions from the production team’s unofficial continuity consultant, Ian Levine. Needless to say, each man furiously questions the actual input of the other but there’s no doubt that the finished product contains many hallmarks of Saward’s writing as established in Earthshock and Resurrection of the Daleks; an unusually violent Doctor; a central role for a paramilitary force; sleazy supporting characters; pithy macho dialogue; and a bloodbath finale.
However, while there are legitimate grounds for criticism, I think Attack of the Cybermen is a much more interesting set of Who episodes than is sometimes acknowledged. The story is indeed complex but allows for some exciting set-pieces and this, in turn, gives a central role to Lytton who is one of the most interesting supporting characters in the history of the show. This is largely down to Maurice Colbourne’s superb performance and a sneaking feeling that, throughout this and his previous show, we never quite believe he’s as bad as he paints himself is redeemed as he goes out a hero. He’s a strong foil for Colin Baker’s Doctor and since such an overpowering actor as Colin needs people on his own level to do his best work, the combination is a fortuitous one. Colin Baker also works well with the Cybermen, his own abundance of emotion, indignation and sheer personality, contrasting beautifully with the metal creatures’ lack of the same. It’s a shame that the Cyber Controller is such a ludicrous figure – in every sense of the term – since it takes something away from what could have been a memorable final confrontation. Indeed, the presence of this figure is unnecessary since the excellent David Banks is more than capable of handling the villainy in his iconic role as the Cyber Leader.
Matthew Robinson’s direction also deserves commendation. Robinson went on to bigger things after his two stints at the helm of Who but his work on this story is an exemplary example of how to take a convoluted plotline and keep it moving – even if he doesn’t quite keep everything as clear as it might be. He doesn’t shy away from the more violent moments either and there’s one moment of sheer sadism – the crushing of Lytton’s hands – which made me look askance at the ‘U’ certificate the BBFC have seen fit to award. Robinson also coaxes fine performances out of a great supporting cast, amongst whom the irreplaceable Brian Glover stands out for his comic timing, and manages – along with the superb make-up and costume designers – to make the Cryons halfway believable.
So, in short, Attack of the Cybermen is a real curate’s egg of a story. Who fans will probably get the most out of it, although they’re the ones who will also be most annoyed by it. Worth another look though, especially in the light of the rehabilitation of Baker’s Doctor.
Attack of the Cybermen is released by 2 Entertain as part of their Doctor Who range. It’s presented in its original fullscreen format with a mono soundtrack.
The 4:3 transfer is excellent and a considerable improvement on the version released on video back in 2000. As the relevant article on the Restoration Team website indicates, the black levels are now correct and the colours are gloriously vivid. No serious problems with grain or excessive noise and the 16MM film material comes across particularly crisply. The mono soundtrack is also very good indeed with dialogue coming through clearly.
The commentary for this story is provided by Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant with an assist for the relevant parts of the story from Terry Molloy and Sarah Berger. All concerned are on good form with Baker particularly keen to defend the story against its critics.
The Cold War
A 27 minute featurette which looks at the authorship and making of the story. Given the running time, it’s rather lacking in substance but all the expected bases are covered and it’s good to get the definitive version of who wrote what from the proverbial horses’ mouths. The actors and some key technical personnel are interviewed and there are some great behind the scenes photos included.
The Cyber Story
After the excellence of The Dalek Tapes from 2006, this is a major disappointment. It concentrates on the invention and development of the Cybermen but is far too brief at 22 minutes and too much time is wasted talking to Professor Kevin Warwick, about whom more later. I’d have preferred to see more about Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, both of whom were very important to the series. Presumably a future DVD will devote more time to them.
More about the aforementioned Professor Warwick who is a Professor of Cybernetics at Reading University. He claims to be the world’s first Cyborg and states happily that “It’s a natural form of evolution!” Professor Warwick, in my opinion, has an unhealthy obsession with the replacement of flesh with machinery and could have stepped straight out of one of David Cronenberg’s nightmares. At one point he dons a green mask, a baseball cap decorated with what looks to me like Meccano and wanders around claiming that his ultrasonic sense has been enhanced. This has the advantage of making him look as daft as he sounds.
Along with the typically excellent and comprehensive photo gallery, we get a piece called The Cyber Generations which uses copious stills from each Cyberman story to demonstrate how the monsters evolved during the Classic Series.
Trails and Continuity
A highly enjoyable selection of period trailers and continuity announcements from the BBC 1 airing of the show in January 1985.
Also on the disc are the usual production subtitles, an isolated score track, a trailer for Image of the Fendahl and Radio Times listings in PDF format. These listings are joined by an interesting article by Dr Kit Pedlar from The Listener. If you look carefully, you’ll also find an Easter Egg which is, sadly, yet more of Cyberleader Kevin Warwick.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum