Doctor Who Project: Attack of the Cybermen

This looks familiar.

John Nathan-Turner takes no chances with Season Twenty-Two, rolling out those crafty bio-mechanical cyborgs as the marquee attraction to open the Sixth Doctor’s first full season in Paula Moore’s “Attack of the Cybermen” (Story Production Code 6T). Indeed, the entire story, told in the new format of two forty-five minute episodes airing weekly in the once-traditional Saturday evening time slot, bespeaks an attempt, at times seemingly desperate, to appeal to Doctor Who‘s roots, with scarcely five minutes passing between references, both oblique and obvious, to the series’ history. The resulting tale succeeds quite resoundingly at integrating Colin Baker’s recently regenerated Doctor into the fabric of the show, but as with prior attempts by producer Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward to reward long-time viewers with moments of in-group recognition, the excessive reliance on audience awareness of key moments and figures from the Doctor’s past mutes the effect for more casual viewers, who are more likely to be confused than thrilled at the mention of Telos…

A puzzled Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) peers outside the TARDIS

The Doctor’s more immediate history comes into play from the start, with a very familiar face planning a diamond heist in central London, circa 1985: Lytton (Maurice Colbourne). Last seen escaping to 1984 London via time tunnel from the chaos of the exploding Dalek ship in “Resurrection of the Daleks,” with two Dalek-enslaved bobbies in tow, this mercenary from the planet Vita 15 sets up an interplanetary distress beacon that draws the TARDIS to Earth. No expository set-up to his prior role occurs during the first episode, and while Colbourne plays Lytton with an ominous air, the full impact of seeing him only affects those who remember that prior story, which aired almost a year earlier.

Lytton (Maurice Colbourne) scheming again

And where, indeed, does the TARDIS land? Oh, just 76 Totter’s Lane, a nondescript little junkyard owned by one I.M. Foreman. This return to the series’ birth feels so on-the-nose that, frankly, one wonders why it took twenty-two seasons to happen. While it would take a cold heart indeed to not smile at the moment, it’s sadly played here as a one-off, just a visual name-drop in a story filled with knowing nods to the past. In short, there’s reference, but no reverence, as though simply showing the place itself should suffice to convey meaning. The Sixth Doctor and Peri leave as quickly as they arrive, without a word said about the location’s significance.

The Sixth Doctor and Peri (Nicola Bryant) come full circle

The general lack of respect for tradition goes somewhat further in the case of the TARDIS, whose chameleon circuit the Doctor has finally “fixed,” after a fashion. Upon materializing on Totter’s Lane, it takes the form of a painted Victorian cabinet, and later appears as a pipe organ and a wrought iron gate. Even though the chameleon circuit returns to its “broken” state by the end, it’s a discomfiting change from the familiar blue police box, done for no reason other than that it hadn’t been done before. Too, the prior inviolability of the TARDIS has, under Nathan-Turner’s aegis, fallen by the wayside; from being blown up in “Frontios” and invaded by inter-dimensional imps in “The Awakening,” it’s a small step to being easily opened and occupied by Cybermen later in the plot. Entire stories once revolved around Daleks and other ne’er-do-wells laying siege to the previously impenetrable TARDIS doors.

The, erm, TARDIS?

The story’s first episode establishes Lytton’s efforts to lead his heist team into the sewers, with the opening scene showing two workers killed by a mysterious figure whose identity is fairly easily guessed given the cybernetic fuzz of the first-person camera work, should the tale’s title not have sufficed. (And, of course, long-term viewers will remark to their less-than-impressed friends that the Cybermen set up shop in London’s sewers back in the 1970s as well.) The Doctor and Peri track Lytton’s distress signal to a workshop with an entrance to the sewers, and they follow him down below, though not before knocking out Lytton’s two faux-police guardians, who, like the intergalactic rogue himself, are not explained at all for viewers lacking familiarity with “Resurrection of the Daleks.” When the first episode reaches its midpoint, or what would be the normal cliffhanger for a “standard” length episode, the Cybermen finally make their grand entrance, appearing from behind a hidden door in the sewers after Lytton calls to them, suggesting that Moore originally wrote the story for a four-episode format. Old habits die hard…

The return of the Cybermen

And then the focus changes entirely. Lytton, now a prisoner, asks to see the Cyber Controller, to which the haughty Cyber Leader (David Banks, reprising his role from “Earthshock,” despite that version of the Cyber Leader dying at the Fifth Doctor’s hands) points out that the Controller is on Telos, a planet last visited by the Second Doctor in “The Tomb of the Cybermen” sometime in the twenty-fifth century. Several scenes then play out on the misty surface of Telos—shot in a quarry now, as then—with two partially Cyber-converted humans, Bates (Michael Attwell) and Stratton (Johnathan David), breaking free from a work detail, killing several Cybermen in the process. Their attempts to break into Cyber Control, to access the Cybermen’s stolen time vessel, serve mostly as padding, with as much time spent on their violent internecine quarrels as with the Doctor getting up to speed on just what the Cybermen are planning.

Bates (Michael Attwell) and Stratton (Johnathan David), newly free from the Cybermen press gang

To call the plotting of “Attack of the Cybermen” both rushed and haphazard is, perhaps, an understatement. Per Howe and Walker’s Doctor Who: The Television Companion, Moore, only the second woman to write for the series (after Barbara Clegg’s “Enlightenment“) lacked any previous professional writing credits, leaving Eric Saward to tinker with the script heavily. The various characterizations all feel solid, from Lytton’s bold and charismatic menace to the innate superiority of the Cyber Controller (Michael Kilgarriff, resuming his original role from “The Tomb of the Cybermen” some seventeen years earlier in a costume that scarcely fits); the massive convolutions in the series’ established timeline, however, cause consternation with exactly that group of viewers the story ostensibly tries to please, the long-time viewers.

The Cyber Controller (Michael Kilgarriff)

In short, the Cybermen, using a time vessel they commandeered from some off-script entity, plan to divert Halley’s Comet (scheduled to reach perihelion in 1986 and already a topic of public discussion in early 1985, when the story airs) in order to destroy Earth before Mondas reaches it later that year. The Doctor very briefly sketches out the events of “The Tenth Planet” for Peri (and for viewers who missed the only airing of that story in 1966), wherein Mondas tries to drain all the energy from Earth but the process goes wrong, destroying the Cybermen’s home planet. Their resulting diaspora leads them to Telos, because the original inhabitants, the Cryons (with a name only Terry Nation could love) possess amazing cryogenic technology needed to hibernate the entire Cyber race to sustain their dwindling energy supplies. “Attack of the Cybermen” picks up after the events of “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” with an incredulous Sixth Doctor discovering that the Cyber Controller was merely damaged by the lethal electric trap the Second Doctor rigged up after re-freezing the tomb (after he helped un-freeze them originally).

Peri, slightly worried about Halley's Comet

By the end of the first episode, the Doctor and Peri, accompanied by Russell, an undercover police officer who joined Lytton’s gang (Terry Molloy, seen here without the heavy make-up needed to transform him into Davros in “Resurrection of the Daleks“) retreat from the sewer tunnels to the TARDIS after encountering (and killing) a Cyberman. The Cyber Leader and his cronies, along with Lytton and his unwilling henchman Griffiths (Brian Glover) have beaten them to the time traveling pipe organ, though, and in an effective (and frankly frightening) scene, the Doctor is assailed from off-screen by a Cyberman. Director Matthew Robinson engages in jump scares several times, something of a departure from the usually more staid camera work in the series. Russell dies in the fracas, the fourth death (so far) in a story that racks up quite a body count.

Russell (Terry Molloy), taking aim at a Cyberman

And then nothing really happens for thirty-five minutes once the TARDIS lands deep in the tombs, redirected there by some legerdemain on the Doctor’s part. Another jump scare, of a “rogue” Cyberman bursting from its hibernation chamber and maddened by its long cryo-sleep, knocks out the guard on the Doctor, Peri, Lytton, and Griffiths, allowing the latter three to escape. Lytton and Griffith make their way to the surface, where they encounter Bates and Stratton, while Peri is saved from a Cyberman scout by some of the few remaining Cryons, who have hidden in the tombs because they cannot survive temperatures above freezing (hence their development of cryonic technology). The Doctor, alas, is re-captured quickly, and for reasons surpassing all, well, reason, he is locked in a room with a giant bomb.

Flast (Faith Brown), one of the few surviving Cryons, in a chamber full of explosives

Many, many, giant bombs, in fact, as the the Cybermen plan on destroying Telos once they have saved Mondas, for vague hand-wavy reasons of studying the effects on the atmosphere, but mostly to establish a massive storehouse of Vastial, an explosive mineral that becomes unstable above freezing. Flast (Faith Brown), another surviving Cryon, also hides in the chamber, the better to express her deep desire to see the Cybermen killed for their genocide of the Cryons. The Sixth Doctor minces no words, agreeing that the Cybermen need to die—oh sweet summer Doctor, where have all the flowers gone? To that end, he grants Flast her wish and gives her a sonic lance, capable of heating, and exploding, the vast stockpile of Vastil in order to destroy the Cyber Control center above the tombs. It’s grim stuff.

Flast's final act

As it turns out, Lytton, quite against type, works for the Cryons, enlisting in their cause after they answered his intergalactic distress call, which he also hoped would draw the Doctor for reasons unexplained. (There might also be the small matter of diamonds being as commonplace as dust on Telos, but Lytton needs to be seen as reformed for plot purposes.) His efforts to get back to Telos center on gaining access to and either taking or destroying the time vessel, to prevent the destruction of Earth via comet collision. Though the destruction of Earth would spare Telos from being invaded in the first place (thus, unmentioned, obviating the need for the Cybermen to destroy it before leaving), the few remaining indigenous inhabitants prefer to spare Earth, so strong is their desire for revenge.

Lytton in a spot of bother

Griffiths, Bates, and Stratton do make it to the time vessel, only to be gunned down ignominiously, their entire sub-plot serving merely to up the futility on offer in the story. Lytton himself undergoes partial Cyber-conversion after a gratuitously bloody torture sequence, and the Doctor, having regained access to the TARDIS with help from the Cryons, feels a strong desire (also, it must be said, against recent type) to rescue the erstwhile mercenary upon learning his new allegiance to the Cryons. Materializing in the Cyber Lab, the Doctor tries to reverse the conversion, only to be interrupted by the Cyber Controller. Lytton lunges at the Controller with a knife slipped him by the Doctor, and as the two wrestle, the Doctor guns down another Cyberman before turning the weapon on the Controller himself, finishing (?) what the Second Doctor started. With no chance to save a now-grievously injured Lytton, Peri urges the Doctor into the TARDIS just as the cache of Vastial rigged by Flast explodes.

The Sixth Doctor blasting the Cyber Controller once and for all (?)

Despite the air of what today might be called “stunt casting,” the use of established series actors in Maurice Colbourne, David Banks, Terry Molloy, and Michael Kilgarriff pays dividends, as the four bring intensity and energy to their scenes, Colbourne in particular. His Lytton remains inscrutable throughout, rendering viewers uncertain as to whether his turn-of-heart from gun-for-hire liberator rings true or is just another skin-saving scheme; too, the air of mystery with which he portrays Lytton helps viewers unfamiliar with his prior turn in “Resurrection of the Daleks” feel an otherworldliness that the script waits almost fifty minutes to fully explain. As for David Banks, he seems born to play the role of Cyber Leader, with just enough hauteur in his voice to counterbalance the otherwise emotionless Cyberman visage he shares with every other cyborg on screen.

Cyber Leader (David Banks)

Though not to the same degree that Barbara Clegg gave Janet Fielding’s Tegan a fully-realized role in “Enlightenment,” Paula Moore does imbue Nicola Bryant’s Peri with far more depth of character than other writers to date. Most significantly, Peri holds her own against a Doctor who still veers from stable to manic, and her rejoinders to him often serve to put him in his place. She embodies a voice of reason as often as an audience stand-in, and even as the target of some elaborate exposition, she manages to make clear that she’s not dense—the things happening just don’t quite make sense, and she’s not afraid to let that truth be known. Though she is rescued by the Cryons, of note she is never quite captured, her interlude with the Cryons serving to spool out more details about Lytton’s secret mission. More so than the Sixth Doctor, Bryant’s Peri has remained the sole constant through the turmoil of the past few stories.

Peri in dialogue with the Cryons

Last seen at the end of Season Twenty-One scolding the audience to get used to him, Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor softens his demeanor slightly in “Attack of the Cybermen.” There’s still an inherent irascibility to his character, one that Baker pulls off effortlessly, and much like his namesake in the role, Tom Baker, Colin Baker has a real gift in shifting his facial expression fluidly from irate to innocent to match the Sixth Doctor’s ever-shifting moods. Though he declaims, “At this very moment I am as stable as you will ever see me,” there’s still a hint of instability, but at this point it’s broadly so he can be accused of calling Peri by a litany of mostly familiar names: Tegan, Zoe, Susan, Jamie, and even Zodin. (The latter figure occurs as a very brief name drop in “The Five Doctors,” when the Second Doctor notes that the Brigadier hadn’t encountered her yet, as obscure a reference as any in the story.) But still, even as the Sixth Doctor rails against the notion that the Time Lords maneuvered events to place him on Telos in order to stop the Cybermen from violating the “Laws of Time,” there’s a sense by the end of the story that he bends towards the more universal Doctor-y traits of justice and mercy, though tempered quite severely with a helping of vigilante violence. As he and Peri leave the scene of the carnage at the end, he ruefully notes:

Sixth Doctor: “Didn’t go very well, did it?”

Indeed, it did not. Following on the heels of the Season Twenty-One opener, “Warriors of the Deep,” Nathan-Turner and Saward present yet another story where everyone dies, save the Doctor and companion. But where the Fifth Doctor follows that event downwards on an arc towards dissolution (and regeneration), the Sixth Doctor takes a moment to mourn the personal failures even though, as Peri cheerfully points out, he did save Earth and the sanctity of the historical timeline. Such an introspective moment feels at odds with the Doctor that the end of “The Caves of Androzani” and “The Twin Dilemma” condition the audience to expect, but it’s a welcome shift nonetheless, a return, perhaps, to a more grounded Doctor who still hopes to save individuals as well as universes.

A defiant, if slightly chastened, Sixth Doctor

In its eventual redemption of the Doctor, then, “Attack of the Cybermen” can be considered successful, but as a narrative whole, it suffers mightily due to Nathan-Turner and Saward’s efforts to lard the tale with call-backs and references and knowing asides. To then convolute the already complicated Cyberman timeline by undoing the events of “The Tomb of the Cybermen” and giving them time travel capability to attempt to re-write history by destroying Earth—particularly when a far simpler means of stopping Mondas from being destroyed is to go to Mondas and tell them not to drain Earth’s energy without a limiter in place—exposes the pandering for what it is: a cheap attempt to placate, and retain, long-term viewers. Indulging in nostalgia is one thing, but upending decades of established lore and tradition seems unlikely to please those few viewers who can tell a Zygon from a Zodin in the first place. Lose them, and even the return to the coveted Saturday evening time slot can’t save Doctor Who

(Previous Story: The Twin Dilemma)

Post 143 of the Doctor Who Project

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.