Well, we can’t just sit here glittering, can we?
They brought the Cybermen back for this? After lying fallow for almost seven years, the silver streaks return with a thud in Gerry Davis’ “Revenge of the Cybermen” (Story Production Code 4D). Gone is the sense of unstoppable menace from their last appearance, in Season Six’s “The Invasion,” much less the existential body horror of the original Cybermen that Davis helped Kit Pedler develop back in “The Tenth Planet.” The story on offer here suffers from the same diffused focus as Davis’ last story, the visually impressive yet narratively cluttered “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” which introduced his seminal contribution to Cyberman lore, the Cybermat. A key component of this story, it is cute, cuddly, and oh so carnivorous.
Following directly on from “Genesis of the Daleks,” this story sees the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry appear back on Space Station Nerva, the Season Twelve leitmotif. Only the current version of Nerva contains quite a few more dead bodies than the one they left way back at the end of “The Ark in Space.” The Doctor surmises from the technology on display that they have arrived thousands of years before their last visit, when the station was used as a cryogenic ark to safeguard humanity against solar flares. They await the arrival of the TARDIS, which is travelling through time (yet remaining static in space) to meet up with them after their Time Lord-imposed sojourn on Skaro. In the interim, they explore the now-familiar hallways, discovering that there are only three humans left from whatever fate befell the space station.
In short order, the viewer learns that one of the survivors, Keller, has orchestrated the deaths as part of an overly-elaborate plan to lure the Cybermen to Nerva Beacon, built to warn passing spacecraft about the presence of Voga, a rogue planetoid captured by Jupiter’s gravity fifty years prior. The bait for the Cybermen turns out to be Voga itself, a planet whose copious gold reserves turned the tide of the Cyberwars some generations in the past. As the Doctor helpfully points out, the non-corrodible metal coats the breathing apparatus of Cybermen, suffocating them, and the combined forces of humanity and the Vogans used “glitter guns” to end the conflict. In the long years since, the Vogans have hidden deep within their wandering planet, in fear of the remnants of the Cyber Fleet.
One faction of Vogans, encountered by Keller during his exploration of the planet, wants to end that threat, so in exchange for gold (of course), Keller somehow contacts the ages-lost Cybermen offering the location of their arch nemesis. The Cybermen (again, somehow) send him a Cybermat with instructions to kill all but four people on the beacon. Meanwhile, the Vogan faction builds a rocket that they will use to destroy Nerva once the last remaining Cybermen are on board. And why do the Cybermen want four humans left alive? Because Cybermen don’t do manual labor, apparently—they want the humans to carry the Cyberbombs (yes, really), complete with trapped explosive harnesses, to the heart of Voga to blow it up.
The Cybermen sport a slightly updated design from “The Invasion,” with the tubular head framing rounded off and given concentric ridges. The central headlamp has turned into a weapon sporting three short cylinders. We also meet the Cyber Leader for the first time, resplendent with black framing; gone is the towering Cyber Controller from “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” And with the shrunken leader comes an oversized Cybermat; the “originals” from Davis’ earlier story fit in the palm of a hand, while these have python-esque proportions. Ostensibly the Cybermen in the earlier story hail from before this one, given that the tomb was purported to be from shortly after the fall of Mondas and the attack on the moon, but the Cyberman timeline seems to have become hopelessly convoluted as the Dalek one, no mean feat indeed.
More substantively, their voices have also changed, no longer dubbed in after extensive modulation but instead spoken directly by the actors in the suits. One can now more readily understand the Cybermen, granted, but what was gained in comprehension has been lost in mystery. The frisson caused by the Cybermen, being so close to human and yet so far removed at the same time, has lessened with the vocal change. Combined with their generic desire for emotionless revenge and conquest, now they’re just Daleks who walk and with, somehow, worse plans.
For two species who have fought the Cybermen for at least a thousand years by this point, neither the humans nor the Vogans seem to remember how to defeat them. When two Cybermen appear on Voga, a planet literally made of gold, the Vogan militia attacks them using weapons made of gold but firing some other metal, a situation analogous to contemporary humans firing bullets made of…gold. The Doctor doesn’t seem recall his prior uses of electricity and nail polish remover to stop them, either, resorting to the old “fistful of gold dust in the chest” tactic that doesn’t work even once.
Nor, in fairness, do the Cybermen remember him. In every Cyberman story since their debut in “The Tenth Planet,” the Cybermen acknowledge their history with the Doctor, even across regenerations, but here, not even an inkling of recognition passes through the Cyber Leader’s processing unit. Even positing a long passage of time since the Doctor’s last known encounter with them (“The Wheel in Space” chronologically, judging from technology in each of the stories), one would think the Cybermen kept at least some records of their run-ins with this peculiar time-travelling scamp with a knack for foiling their plans.
No, the story simply doesn’t make much sense, from the humans mistaking the effects of a Cybermat attack for a “plague” to the Cyber Leader keeping Sarah captive rather than killing her in order to gloat at her, a very un-Cyber trait. It’s all in service of the plot, of course, but even for Doctor Who, there’s a limited number of times a sympathetic audience will accept plot holes and narrative hand-waves. In the story’s favor, keeping the action off of Earth yet again does make for a welcome change after several seasons of mostly terrestrial adventures, firmly re-centering the Doctor as a traveller in space and time. The recurrence of Nerva in many of the stories this season lends a nice proto-story arc effect, giving viewers the feeling of a continuous narrative; but again, the specifics of this story undo some story-to-story canon, particularly where the Cybermen are involved—one step forward and two steps back.
The ludicrous plotting culminates in the Vogan rocket being fired at Nerva, which is hurtling towards the planet as a makeshift bomb, the original Cyber-plan (sorry) to destroy Voga having been foiled by the sacrifice of a human who blew himself up after the Doctor’s futile gold dust attack failed. Turns out that the Vogan rocket can be guided, so it veers off from Nerva to destroy the escaping Cyberman spacecraft. At that rate, why not just launch the rocket at the Cyberman spacecraft as it approached Nerva in the first place? All the while, the Doctor and Sarah lurch this way and that as he struggles to keep Nerva from striking the planet, succeeding in the nick of time despite Harry interrupting them to let them know they’re about to crash.
In the end, the story possesses too many moving parts, particularly for a four episode yarn, relegating the Cybermen to a secondary role, much as the Daleks suffered in their return to the screen after five years’ absence in Season Nine’s “The Day of the Daleks.” Between Keller’s plotting (replete with a trap for an inquisitive Doctor), the Vogans’ squabbling, and the Doctor’s constant snipping at Harry, there’s little room for the Cybermen at all. The included backstory of the Cyberwars makes up for much wonky plotting, but there’s no payoff for bringing the Cybermen back with this story. Indeed, the implication is that they have finally been defeated at the end of the tale; bringing them back will require another narrative hand-wave. Since the Doctor immediately grabs Sarah and Harry into the tardy TARDIS at the story’s close, without a proper denouement discussing where events now stand, one just can’t tell.
Tom Baker, in this the last story of his debut season to be aired (and the next to last to be shot), feels right at home with the frenetic pace. His Doctor shows a far wider range of emotions than his predecessors, including a much deeper well of anger and ire. As noted, his interactions with Harry verge on the abusive, creating a bit of distance between the viewer and the Doctor. Though Harry may well be an imbecile, it’s jarring to hear the Doctor yell it. Contrariwise, the Doctor goes out of his way to care for and rescue Sarah, feeling completely responsible and despondent when she has been attacked by a Cybermat. If the intended effect is for the Fourth Doctor to be unpredictable, Baker has nailed it, and by this point, he’s snugly inhabiting the Doctor’s skin.
The companions fall broadly into the background in this story, being separated from the Doctor early on in order to further the Vogan component of the plot. Ian Marter doesn’t have much at all to do beyond getting yelled at and pointing out the obvious; Harry is not long for the series in a regular role, taking his leave of the TARDIS after a single (though much extended) journey in the blue box come the next story. Elisabeth Sladen has a bit more to do, and even gets to channel her inner Pertwee by driving a personal watercraft through the underground river location that served as the Vogan tunnels.
A short season by recent standards (twenty episodes as opposed to the usual twenty-six), Season Twelve ends somewhat abruptly, with the Doctor receiving a space telegram from the Brigadier summoning him back to help out on Earth. Several months will pass before viewers learn just what the Brigadier was worried about. Odds are good it will be more of the same, though—fast paced action with lots of monsters and fight scenes, the Doctor solving problems mostly just by being there and knowing what needs to be known. Though the stories themselves left something to be desired in this season, Tom Baker proved himself quite capable of filling Jon Pertwee’s shoes. More changed than simply swapping a scarf for a ruffle shirt, though—there’s been a lessening of nuance in the stories, oddly accompanied by an expansion of emotions in the Doctor. Not better or worse, necessarily, but certainly different.
(Previous Story: Genesis of the Daleks)
(Next Story: Terror of the Zygons)
Post 82 of the Doctor Who Project