Attack of the Cybermen Retrospective
Guest contributor Gustaff looks back on the 1985 Colin Baker story.
Back in the 80s, this story was the poster child along with Vengeance on Varos and The Two Doctors for being too-violent. This and other factors started a chain of events that would ultimately cancel Doctor Who until its brief resurrection in 1996. However, this story, if given the chance, is actually one of the better episodes. Let’s see why…
Why it’s my favorite!
“If it doesn’t, I shall beat it into submission with my charm.” – Sixth Doctor
This might sound outlandish, but this was my first Classic Doctor Who story and indeed, became one of my favorites for so many reasons. Actually, this IS my favorite Classic! It’s up there, topping Castrovalva, Black Orchid and Ghost Light. It introduced me to Colin Baker’s Doctor, who was so radically different to David Tennant’s that I wondered if I was indeed watching the same show. Colin’s portrayal was loud, jerk-ass and so egotistical. How could I not love him? This story alone made Baker my favorite Doctor and I wouldn’t even be born for another five years!
Most of the first episode also takes place either inside the TARDIS or the outdoors. This element is one of the reasons I fell in love with this story. The cheap sets Doctor Who was famous for didn’t play up as much and I like stories set outside.(Hence State of Decay, Battlefield and Castrovalva.) The second episode defaults back to the cheap 80s set, this time on Telos and this is where the story loses momentum. That much I admit to.
The changes to Doctor Who
First thing you notice is that every episode of Colin’s first full season was doubled in length, which means instead of three cliffhangers, we got one. This is more in tone with how the New Series deals with things and that made me feel like this is Doctor Who. Cliffhangers have, especially in the Classic Series, been one of the most important aspects and taking this away was a gutsy change I learned later on. Another big conversion was the timeslot. Doctor Who was back to its prime spot on Saturday nights.
This story is famous for trying to add too many shout outs to continuity. This is both a good and bad thing. The references to past companions created a great joke, even if I didn’t know who any of these people were at the time. The story also revisits the famous 76 Totter’s Lane, Cybermen coming back, trying alter history so that their planet Mondas from The Tenth Planet isn’t destroyed, Commander Gustave Lytton from Davison’s Dalek themed serial Resurrection of the Daleks shows up again and has a surprising Heel Face Turn moment, and of course the Cybermen’s spaceship on the dark side of the Moon. Lastly, to spice things up, we hear more about the Terrible Zodin, a woman of rare guile and devilish cunning. Now why don’t we make Zodin the leading Big Bad for the 50th? I’d like to see what she looks like!
Attack of the Cybermen was targeted for being too violent. In the Classic Series, gratuitous acts of violence and death resulted in a rewrite. In the New Series, it earns an award, but this is Classic Series, so adding scenes of Cybermen butchering people with their bare hands snuck past a rewrite, but couldn’t escape the lot in charge (Perception Filter or maybe they were just thick!) Due to this scene in particular, the story was awarded a ‘M’ rating in Australia for its mature content; the scene with the Cybermen crushing Lytton’s hand and the blood vomiting left a bad taste in the people’s mouths, except fans like myself who grew up in the nineties with action orientated entertainment like Power Rangers, Beetleborgs and Captain Planet.
It doesn’t stop there folks. There is one more subject we need to deal with. You all know (except those who don’t) what I’m talking about – that incredibly heroic, utterly badass part at the end of this story where the Doctor grabs hold of a gun (I’m sorry, grabs hold of the G-word) instead of saving the day with his brain. As a WWE fan myself, I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed that minute of carnage, but fans and parents at the time were all simultaneously meditating “how could a pacifist do such a thing?” into a powerful psionic wave that reached the BBC. Nevertheless, this demonstration of passion was another adjustment to Doctor Who that wasn’t new, but was used less shrewdly in later stories such as Vengeance on Varos, The Two Doctors and Timelash.
What were they thinking?
We’ll start with the bad bits first, so we can end on a high note. This story is not without faults and the Cryons, a species of female only aliens who hire Lytton and his men to help take out the Cybermen, starts off the list. Design of the Cryons were pretty standard for Doctor Who in the 80s, but I admired their The Ends Justify The Means attitude towards everyone. It helped convince viewers that they were really beleaguered and on the edge of extinction. Their voices on the other hand, big NO NO!
The Cybermen in this story I thought was an utter let down as well. I watched this serial right after the Cybermen revival in 2006, so comparing the two was like a calculator trying to stand up to a supercomputer. I am in a very small part referring to how 80s Cybermen actually looked, but mostly to their inactivity in this story. They didn’t do much except talk and make emotional responses (or at least I found emotion in them) and wait for the Doctor to show up and defeat them.
One of the things I noticed that was carried unruffled with Colin’s Doctor was the fact that his Doctor usually only discovered the plot after about half the story had been transmitted. This made his incarnation appear slow on the uptake, but we now know it was just sloppy writing.
Probably the worst thing about Attack of the Cybermen that doesn’t actually have anything to do with it is the nine months gap between The Twin Dilemma and this story. The last time people viewed Colin’s Doctor; he was acting like a selfish coward and trying to kill Peri. This idea grew and managed evolve into an unfair disliking that led to the audience distancing themselves from Baker’s Doctor. To those of you who fail to understand the meaning: a Lesson in Psychology. In general, people tend to identify the truth with the first version of events that they are given, rather than listening to all sides of the story before making up their mind. This is also called the Mother Hen effect. Without a doubt, had The Twin Dilemma been the opening story to Colin’s era within the same season as the rest of his stories, the series might not have been attacked as ferociously as it did. Dilemma wasn’t the best start-up, but it’s all there in the psychology.
What were they thinking!
The chemistry between Colin and Nicola here is on top form. Great friends in real life, but proficiently playing characters who constantly get on each other’s nerves reflect their acting faculty. Every Doctor-Companion relationship is different and has to be exceptional in order to stand up to the fans’ endorsement and Colin Baker’s first season was all about being unique. From the coat, to the violent content, to the incompatible relationship – this was a different kind of Doctor Who. While Peter Davison’s era was back to basics, Colin’s was more about turning Doctor Who and everything we know on its head and going off on a new set of adventures. In a lot of ways, this parallels Moffat’s era to the Davies era. At the time, Tennant’s Doctor was just starting out and I found the Tyler family drama thing a bit dull, even if I understood the reason behind it; so to see a Doctor Who purely about monsters and corridors, it gave me a sense of what Doctor Who was really about. Peri, as a character, is also given great dialogue and action sequences. Even though she shared only two stories with Davison, by Attack of the Cybermen, it felt as though she’d been around for far longer. I found her banter with the Doctor more entertaining than watching Rose hanging on every word the Doctor uttered.
Another thing, the whole serial is supposed to be dark. That much is obvious from the opening scene in the sewer, but strangely enough, the amount of humor; be it in the witty dialogue or the odd musical cues played during Peri and the Doctor’s outside stroll, actually adds to the horror the story is supposed to possess.
The diamond heist angle adds a contemporary atmosphere to the story, as well as linking us to the fact that this is Earth with humans who do human-esque bad things such as robbing banks or jewelry stores. We also have Peri wielding a shotgun and the Doctor beating up an imposter cop before turning the tables on a real undercover cop and ordering Peri to shoot him and the gag of the Doctor actually ‘fixing’ the Chameleon Circuit and it turning into all sorts of even more conspicuous objects still has me busting a gut every time I see it.