Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Serial 137: Attack of the Cybermen

Doctor: Colin Baker (6th Doctor)
Companion: Peri Brown

Written by: "Paula Moore" (but really, Eric Saward)
Directed by: Matthew Robinson 

Background & Significance: We've talked about the controversy of the Colin Baker years plenty by this point. So know that I'm saying something when I say "Attack of the Cybermen" is one of the most controversial Colin Baker stories. Like, really really.

Colin Baker, as we all know, is probably the most widely unpopular Doctor for fans of the old series. That's terribly unfair, I think. Slap a dude with extremely weak stories amidst a new and wildly radical interpretation (which itself is dependent on slow growth over time) and of course people aren't going to like him. It's just not going to happen.

"Attack of the Cybermen" is the first story of Colin Baker's first full season. It's important to note, however, that this isn't the first Colin Baker story; it's the second. The first Colin Baker story, "The Twin Dilemma" (which we'll be talking about eventually and is widely considered to be one of, if not the, worst Doctor Who stories of all time) was tacked onto the end of Peter Davison's final season in an effort to get people warmed up to his Doctor and excited about the radical change brought about by the influx of a new Doctor.

Without going into it too much here, people hated "The Twin Dilemma" and they hated Colin Baker and they hated his portrayal of The Doctor. So now he had even more to prove moving forward and "Attack of the Cybermen" certainly couldn't have helped anything.

I'll have more thoughts as we go through, but "Attack of the Cybermen" is widely criticized for its violent content, something which I thought I could handle because I'm not exactly the squeamishest or flinchiest of persons; I've watched and relished in my fair share of violent movies, be they over the top or not. Turns out I couldn't, and you'll see why. I mean, there's a line, and "Attack of the Cybermen" WAY crosses it and people project that onto Colin Baker's Doctor, who, let's also point out, does in fact contribute to a fair amount of the violence in this.

Not only all that, but this story is also totally ghost written by script editor Eric Saward. As script editor he wasn't allowed to write any stories under the BBC guidelines, but he underhandedly weaseled his way into writing this using front men (like his then-girlfriend, but why she dated him god only knows) because he had a major major crush on the Cybermen. And the result is horrifically Sawardian in all of the worst ways. Saward, like Jonathan Nathan-Turner, is a man of ups and downs. I thank him for such gems as "The Visitation" and "Earthshock" but for every one of those there's one of these, and the stuff that's like "one of these" is rife with problems and I can't say I'm a huge fan. So ummm.... know that, I guess. Cuz I might not be kind to this story.

Honestly, this is where my (and most people's) criticisms of Saward and Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner start because... well... it's a poster child. (For some reason they think it's a good idea to "sequelize" the great "Tomb of the Cybermen", but more on that in just a bit). All the best and worst of their eras are neatly wrapped up in this story and it's at this point that their "themness" starts to stop helping the programme (because they're "new" and "revolutionary") and start to negatively impact the stories and show they're making, especially towards Colin Baker, who should have been legendary and well-remembered but instead ends up being derided, reviled, and something of a scapegoat on all counts. It's unfortunate, because Colin Baker is SO good, especially in this, despite being in this. He's the thing that makes it better.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

Before I start picking apart what I think doesn’t work in this story, I think I should start by talking about what I think really works in this story.

The most noticeable thing in this story (and this is an observation I had less than four minutes in) is Colin Baker and how utterly freaking fantastic he is. He is all things at all times, alternating and switching between various Doctor personas as he’s still coming off of what can only be called “An Androzani Hangover” (for more information, watch “The Twin Dilemma”), but doing so masterfully. His Doctor keeps me on my toes, always second guessing myself as to what, exactly, will happen next, or what he’s capable of.

Honestly, it’s like… a much more maniacal Tom Baker. And I know I’ve talked in the past about how I think Colin Baker is Tom Baker but taken to the ultimate logical extreme, and I think that’s true here.

Think about it. All through this, he’s caught in his own little world which, to him, makes every lick of sense and follows a logical (to him) progression and all that. Which is cool. I like getting this from him because Colin Baker is… so good. And… I know that he and Peri are literally talking circles around each other, almost bickering (although not quite yet), and accomplishing, well, nothing for the entire first half of this episode, but it’s… It’s really endearing.

And that, well, that’s the other strong thing about this. For some reason this is before the mad, inane bickering between our two characters starts.

Honestly, I think it’s still too early in The Doctor’s regeneration for them to start bickering. Any sort of issues Peri might be having with The Doctor are washed aside in light of him trying to solve the mystery of the distress beacon. And that’s good. It allows for a good appreciation of their relationship and focus on the other things that, well, really matter, like why Peri is running around in that outfit and those heels. But seriously, I do love the two of them in this. They do play off each other really quite well and it reinforces the notion that I love Peri, and I might be in the minority on that one, but hey. Screw it. I don’t care.

I also really like the concepts involved in this story, at least… the way they are now, I suppose. I mean, I love the notion of a bank robbery and the robbers in the bank (even if it is all a ruse from Lytton). And I do love the inclusion of Lytton, played very well by Maurice Colbourne. There’s something about him that is both devious and charming. Maybe it’s that I feel that he’s really well realized as a character, but…. I dunno why. I mean, maybe it’s the drive he has. Lytton clearly has ancillary motivation, which he hints at in this. He clearly wants to be near The Cybermen for something and even brought “sacrifices” or what have you. For what? I am intrigued. And that’s awesome.

There’s also something cool about The Doctor and Peri landing in London in 1985, but the story doesn’t do anything special with it so I see no reason why I should.

And now to the stuff that’s a problem.

First off: The Cybermen.

Okay. I love the Cybermen. I don’t make that a secret. I don’t pretend otherwise. I’m 100% pro-Cybermen, and I love the fact that they’re in this story and that we’re getting this story. There’s something ominous and promising about their presence here, these Cybermen who are traveling around the sewers and are clearly up to no good.

And I like that in theory, but when you get out of that…

This is where the Sawardian stuff starts to get to me a little. First off, the level of violence directed to and from these Cybermen is already completely absurd. I mean, the Cybermen body suits are supposedly made from a strong, durable alloy (to house the cybernetics). I know that the supposed idea was that the Cybermen were based in silver (hence the gold weakness; get it?), but that’s… I’m not a fan of that, I’m sorry. Why coat your body with such an imperfect metal?

Oh right. Because we have to show a Cyberman getting shot and gushing unnecessary fluids.


Okay, I’m sorry, but this is not the Doctor Who I’m interested in, especially because Cybermen… it’s just not supposed to be this way. The Cybermen get taken out by bullets? Please. The Cybermen’s first objective would be to have a body armor that neutralizes bullets, and that’s not a nitpick so much as it is common sense. Making the Cybermen so outrightly weak makes them far less scary and intimidating as villains.

And for what? So you could show a little gore cuz that’s what you always wanted?

It’s this level of violence that makes me despise this story. There is no reason for the Cybermen to bleed like this when they’re shot. There’s no reason for the close-up of the guy putting his gun to the Cyberman’s mouth and firing it off, shooting it at such an angle that you see the bullet go into and out of the Cyberman’s head. The only reason to display that is to display violence of that level or caliber is… what… exactly? To make Doctor Who seem more mature and adult? It can’t be because you’re trying to appeal to children because while children might love that level of violence (as children do), I can’t say I’d condone it or show it to my kid. Hell, I’m in my twenties and I still don’t think I can stomach it. Does that make me a wimpy flop? Sure, I guess. But at that point I don’t even care.

No, now I’m just to the point where I don’t even feel like watching.

What we’re left with is stuff that is violent simply for the sake of it. And there could be the argument that Saward is taking a step to show that “violence happens” and… yeah? Okay. But violence has happened in a lot of different stories of Doctor Who. There’s been tons of stuff that’s criticized as too violent (Mary Whitehouse), but even that… All of it was firmly ensconced in a fantastical, nonrealistic context. The violence in the Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories (as that’s where most violence happens) is only ever implied or done by supernatural forces. Mummies squish the guy (off screen), action happens in The Matrix, lasers shoot people…..

All of that is different than this. This is someone shooting a Cyberman in the chest and the Cyberman juicing places (like a person would). This is someone shooting a Cyberman in the mouth and watching it come out the other side. This is a Cyberman taking its fists and applying excessive pressure to a mercenary simply to get him to acquiesce to a request. That last one, by the way, let’s call a spade a spade and remind everyone that that’s literally an example of torture in Doctor Who. “Well that’s okay. It’s just the Cybermen doing it”. No. Not really. You’re not showing the Cybermen cyber-converting him or jacking him in the face or even shooting him with a  fantastical laser gun. You’re showing a Cyberman squish a dude’s brain for… well… no reason.

And that. That is why I don’t like the violence here. It’s violent simply to be violent, not enhancing the story or anything. It’s just a veneer to paint on this story to “make it cool.” It doesn’t accomplish anything. I mean, even in “Vengeance on Varos” the story is a dark, dark satire on the horrors of human beings and about how violence is horrible, and while I disagree with Varos, I have to say that I at least understand that as a rationale or something. Proving that violence is bad by being excessively, completely over the top violent makes sense to me.

Granted, I don’t believe that violence belongs on Doctor Who because you’re showing it to kids who aren’t capable of understanding the commentary you’re providing. They just see the violence and they see The Doctor perpetuating it.

Which he’s also doing here. At least in other stories The Doctor makes an attempt to say “violence is bad”, but The Doctor jumps into a pit after a police officer (whom we never see again) and implies that he knocked him out. How? No idea. He just did. But I doubt he did the violent action pacifistically (give me a reason to think he didn’t) because later in the same episode he takes his sonic lance and KILLS A CYBERMAN BY STABBING IT IN THE CHEST.

Really. Someone PLEASE defend this to me.

It’s shit like this that gives Colin Baker’s Doctor a bad rap. And that’s just because… my god does Eric Saward not GET IT. This isn’t The Doctor. It’s certainly not the one who’s been around for twenty seasons NOT acting this way. It’s certainly not the one in “Caves of Androzani”, which is likewise excessively violent towards everyone except The Doctor. It’s just… It’s insane that Doctor Who has come to this and is RELISHING in it. It’s disgusting because this is… this is not the Doctor Who I enjoy watching or an iteration of Doctor Who to which I subscribe.

Sigh. Deep breath. Cleanse.

To add insult to injury we have the needless fanwanking of Mr. Nathan-Turner and the lovely contributions of continuity advisor Ian Levine.

I mean… why are we doing this again? Why is The Doctor fixing his chameleon circuit? What does it accomplish? I mean, I guess it’s funny and a fantastic knee-slapper, but why on earth does it need to happen? Why change something that has worked, is working, and forever and always will work. Why “fix” the TARDIS? It doesn’t need fixing? And why do the “76 Totter’s Lane”? What on earth does that accomplish except to say to the people who get the reference “we got ya”. It’s NEEDLESS continuity schtick and it interferes with the story especially because it’s meditated on and never utilized. Ugh.

Which brings me to Telos and… God. Do I just not like this. This is the problem. It’s bad when your fan service interferes with the quality of your story. You mention Telos, but Telos hasn’t been mentioned except in passing in “Earthshock” and it hasn’t appeared since “Tomb of the Cybermen”, which, at the time of broadcast of this story, aired almost twenty years ago. So who is this for? The people who remember "Tomb of the Cybermen"? Does it really matter that you got the same quarry used in “Tomb” or the same Cyber-Controller as appeared in ‘Tomb”? No. Those really don’t matter. I mean… why not do the BEST things to help your story? Find the BEST quarries! Find the BEST guy to play the Cyber Controller. Don’t get stuck with a guy who’s been getting a little paunchy and older after twenty years.

Likewise, it’s this stuff that’s also needlessly violent and has a visual/design aesthetic that I reject with a visceral response or whatever. I hate the greys of Telos. I hate the two guys we’re following (Bates & Stratton who are assholes and I hate because it’s not like they get any better) and the stuff they’re involved in is needlessly violent (lopping off Cybermen heads--TWO of them, no less--with baseball bats? And with such savagery and anger) and I don’t like… it just doesn’t FEEL like Doctor Who. And that’s not even me saying that Doctor Who needs to be all bright colors and puppiesrainbowsunicornsyay. No. Not even that. This just feels like Doctor Who trying to squeeze into a particular aesthetic/tone that it doesn’t fit into.

That’s saying something. I’ve had tons of conversations about how Doctor Who is infinitely malleable as a premise, squeezing into just about every genre or tone you can imagine. But for me to say that it doesn’t work here means… it doesn’t. These greys make me hate everything and… ugh.

This is just where the troubles begin for me in the Nathan-Turner time. The Doctor doesn’t even get involved in events until WELL into this episode, not fully coming up against Cybermen until almost the very end. And that’s… that’s sad and pathetic and means we’re left on a horrible, awful cliffhanger that doesn’t work for me because it’s just lame.

And the worst part? This is a squander of semi-interesting things. It’s just that this package is not something I like. At all. And it’s only about to get worse.

Part 2:

Dear God, where to start. I guess with the good.

Again, for my money Colin Baker is the best thing in this story. There’s something about his empathy that sells the moment despite the moment not making any sense. The biggest moment for this is Lytton, who is suddenly and inexplicably the final keynote of this story. Since when did The Doctor give two craps about Lytton? Because he was helping out the Cryons? Sure, I suppose. That works, I guess. But even then I don’t quite buy it. Suddenly he’s made a complete 180 on the guy? I’m sorry, but at a script level it doesn’t make sense.

And yet Colin Baker makes it so convincing I almost forget that this beat is total total bullshit, thrown in simply because we’re supposed to care about Lytton’s death, which… we already do.

It’s because of this that I like Colin Baker. He’s such a great, great actor and even his pantomime screaming to the skies of “Why me, god? Why me?” is convincing if not a bit over the top. The empathy he has for his fellow people and species is palpable and strong and totally on his sleeve, which is awesome, especially when you consider that this Doctor supposedly doesn’t give two sh*ts. His remorse at the events as they happen should be endearing and yet… they are not. Which, you could honestly blame on the script, but why bother because I’m not complaining about that yet.

Also good are the Cryons. Undisputedly Saward's creations, They’re not like anything I’ve ever seen (they’re played by all women, for a start) and there’s a really cool design, concept, realization, and execution to them. It’s something about the way in which they act and behave that makes them mysterious and endearing and such. I like that.

But then you start to look at it and it all falls apart. I mean, if their genetics are such that they can’t survive in temperatures over a certain degree (over freezing, really), how did they come to exist on Telos in the first place, especially when Telos isn’t exactly Hoth or anything? So they designed refrigeration units to aid them in survival on the harsh surface of Telos? But how? And wouldn’t that be incredibly draining in terms of power? Refrigeration is expensive, people.

Also they serve a function that… well… I pet peeve about. And that’s to explain the stuff that doesn’t need explaining (also known as the George Lucas effect). See, according to this it’s the Cryons who built all the freezing units for the Cybermen, and that’s all well and good. And I guess that’s a good explanation, but honestly DOES IT REALLY NEED EXPLANATION IN THE FIRST PLACE? Seriously. Know what matters in “Tomb of the Cybermen”? That the Cybermen are encased in Ice Tombs because they’re in hibernation. I don’t give a shit how they got to be there or where they came from. Isn’t it just badass that they did that themselves?

Ugh. I hate it when that sorta thing happens.

If I can also point out a thing, it’s that there’s really sweet multiple plots going on at the same time. There’s what’s going on with Lytton’s crew who are trying to get into the time vessel (aptly named; seriously can anyone just make a commitment to the things that matter? Shouldn’t we just give this ship a name rather than something so on the nose?) and what’s going on with the Cybermen (nothing) and what’s going on with The Doctor (nothing) and what’s going on with Peri (nothing). So I like this in theory. Except for the part where for being an action packed story (or a story with an action packed reputation WHICH to be fair IS deserved because there still is quite a lot of action in this story) there’s an awful lot of sitting around here.

And that’s unfortunate and WHY I so dislike this era of Doctor Who. It’s almost as if Saward is TRYING to bench The Doctor because he feels The Doctor isn’t up to this story or its violence (which is weird because the end of this is just a giant shootout but more on that in a minute)...

I mean seriously. The entire major part of this involves The Doctor held by the Cybermen in a cold storage room while they just…. wait for him…. to… uhhh…. Yeah. Honestly, I don’t know why they don't just put him through Cyber conversion. I mean, wouldn’t that mean they get his knowledge and information and anything and everything they’d ever need to know about The Doctor and they could turn this Gallifreyan against his own kind with him as a Cyberman?

It’s this level of thinking that, again, makes me think that Eric Saward just didn’t understand the Cybermen. For one thing, one of the things of what makes Cybermen scary is that whole “One of us” thing. They’re a hodgepodge of body parts (“Spare Parts”, really) and they take people, people who are compatible (so most people) and use them for Cyber conversion. And yet here we are with the Cybermen just wantonly killing people and leaving the bodies behind or even keeping them around when really they could probably just steal the brain and use the brain to their full advantage. Or, if THAT's too difficult for you, there's also the notion that the Cybermen is humanity gone to its absolute worst. The people of Mondas were [for all intents and purposes] humans, so the Cybermen become the ultimate logical extension of what humanity might one day become.

But I don’t even need to dig that hard to find a misunderstanding of the Cybermen.

No. These Cybermen are… Okay. Yeah. Really? They torture Lytton and watch him get tortured? Seriously, you can almost feel the smile curling up underneath the Cyber Controller’s faceplate. And really? This is what the Cybermen are? I don’t understand why this is happening. I don’t understand why they’re crushing Lytton’s hands. I don’t understand why they’re bloody (cuz they’re crushed, but still). I don’t understand why the Cybermen are watching and okay with torture? And besides! They’re Cyber converting him anyways! Doesn’t all this NOT matter? He’s gonna be a Cyberman soon enough, so whatever.

But admittedly, it’s all just lost in the shuffle.

Like I was saying, there’s a lot of stuff going on in this story, but honestly… it’s… it’s hard to really know what’s going on. Basically the plan is for the Cybermen to go back in time to divert Halley’s comet so that it destroys the earth before earth can destroy Mondas in the adventure “The Tenth Planet”, and they want to do that by utilizing this time-ship that the Cybermen have (how do they have it, how do they plan to use it, no idea, not explained, not important, DON’T QUESTION THE PLAN). The Cryons are against this because the Cybermen want to mount up all their troops and leave, destroying the planet when they do (again, why? No reason? Why would the Cybermen destroy Telos in the first place when it’s been so good to them?).

For that matter, why haven’t the Cybermen done this plan already? They clearly have the timeship. I guess they’re just waiting for more of their forces to unfreeze? But honestly, there must be a hundred plus Cybermen running around Telos at this point. That’s not enough for a small, temporal operation?

Normally you gloss over these plot points, but the less you buy into one thing, the harder it is to buy into the others. Stuff like this has to be shiny and clean. It has to grab you and make you not question (hence why “Earthshock” is so loved despite having plot holes the size of this) lest you start to question the internal dynamics of this story. And while I do believe deep down that they have done a lot of work to make sure that you understand all the dynamics of the internal continuity of what’s going on (that there’s Cybermen on Telos, that the Cybermen come from Mondas, that Mondas was destroyed), wouldn’t it be more effective to just have a story about the Cybermen wanting to blow up the Earth because the Earth sucks? Or better yet: make all of Earth subject to a bunch of Cyber control so they can make new Cybermen.

Basically: Earth should become New Mondas.

Why this has to involve Telos or Mondas at all is preposterous to me. It’s this level of continuity circle-jerking that makes people not want to watch Doctor Who. Can you imagine if they did something like this in the current series? People would just turn it off. Or even if they went back into their own six year history and dug something up to explore it. I mean, that’s not as egregious as stories that are over twenty years old, but the point still stands, especially when you consider that the vast majority of Doctor Who viewers probably hadn’t even seen "Tomb" OR "The Tenth Planet" (nevermind the Cybermen in the sewers reference from "The Invasion" or the Moonbase reference from "The Moonbase" (my question? What about "The Wheel in Space"? What happened to that?), so we’re left with… what exactly?

And finally the violence:

Dear god this is violent. And needlessly so, I might add. Do we really need to watch a Cryon boil to death in front of us? Or the aforementioned Lytton torture sequence? Or have an endgame which is The Doctor ducking and rolling around Cybercontrol, brandishing a weapon and firing it at anyone? Or (perhaps even most offensive) have Lytton stab the Cyber Controller in the arm and have all his fluids gush and spray all over, simulating blood but it’s okay because it’s Cyberfluid?

No. I have to put my foot down and say that that it’s not. And I’m all for saying that children can handle more than the majority of us adultish people think they can, but… not this.

And fine. So it’s violent. But that violence does nothing to enhance the story, because what’s here isn’t exactly strong to begin with. I mean, yes. There are many subplots and a lot of things going on, but none of it is what I would call interesting. The Doctor isn’t exactly involved in what’s most interesting about this second part (which, to me, is getting to the time vessel or being actively involved in the Cybermen plot to do whatever it is they’re convolutedly doing). No, the characters I hate most are doing that part which is most enjoyable. The rest are sidelined (Peri and The Doctor are utterly unutilized in this) and for what?

Again, Eric Saward, that’s my problem. Why are you writing for Doctor Who when you clearly aren’t interested in the actions or storyline of The Doctor and his companion? Or better yet, why are you giving them such utterly crap material? It’s amazing Colin Baker’s as good in this as he is and it’s a testament to him as a quality performer and Doctor that he’s able to stand out as much as he does because what’s here is not strong, especially not for him. And why would a writer be writing so passive aggressively like this? I mean, Saward made no secret that he didn’t think Colin Baker was a good Doctor. So why even bother continuing? Especially when it only helps illustrate how not good of a writer you actually are?

Were you a good writer, you would make me care more about Lytton's death, or make me buy Colin Baker's performance on more than just Colin Baker. This story leaves with a bleak outlook for no reason other than to just end there. But this ending is in no way deserved or built up or anything, so I can't even say that this was good in that respect, cuz it wasn't.

Such a waste of awesome things. Such a sad sad waste.

Final Thoughts: And so it goes that I appreciate this story more this time, but it's still far, far from perfect.

As a big Colin Baker cheerleader, it's unfortunate that this is the level of quality we get from this era because I want to like it so much more than I possibly can.

All of my dislike comes from a place of both personal taste and a general demand for higher quality. For one thing, the level of writing on this story is nothing I would ever describe as "Good". It's textbook convoluted and unnecessarily mired in continuity simply because it can be to the point where it actually hurts the story being told because it's so referential to what came before. Why bother telling a story this buried in continuity at all is my real question, especially when so many of the stories that you're referencing just flat out don't exist anymore (or didn't exist at the time). Wouldn't it be more beneficial to just remake the stories that don't exist, Terry Nation style? I mean, that probably woulda been just as cool. Colin Baker going through Tombs of the Cybermen. Maybe slightly modified, but remade.

That, of course wouldn't quite allow for the level of violence present though, which is a problem.

I can't ever get past the level of violence in this story. I don't think I ever will. It's gratuitous and over the top and doesn't ever give a reason to be. I mean, I'd argue in the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era that the violence was to enhance the evil of the bad guys in the situation. Sutekh's army is evil beyond the violence portrayed, as are the Robots and the agents of Magnus Greel. These villains are more than their violence, but the Cybermen here are nothing without it. They don't really have a nefarious plan (Halley's Comet will never not be far fetched) but are dangerous because they get violent at times, but they're also kicked around a lot, which lowers their strength as villains. Way more Cybermen die in this story than anything else, so I'm supposed to take them seriously?

It's amateur writing, is what it is. And Doctor Who, while simple in premise, is incredibly difficult to write and write well. So to have stories like this that are so subpar is less than stunning and unbecoming a show as awesome as it is.

So that's why I come down on this era and come down on it hard. It replaces flash for real substance, violence in the place of strong, solid story telling. So much of this story is weak and not good. Action packed? Sure, I suppose. But what else does it have going for it? Countless continuity references? Fuck, I could do that: Ice Warriors, Yeti, Autons, Yates, Morbius, Gallifrey, Mondas, Telos, Terrible Zodin. It's earning these references or servicing them that makes them work if at all. Honestly, it just throws me into the Robert Holmes camp of "stop referencing anything" because it cripples good writing and replaces it with stuff that doesn't work.

Why bother in the first place? That's my question. It doesn't help anyone except the long term fans, but even then they'd probably be more happy with a big ol' awesome story starring their favourite characters than getting pandered to over and over. Or at least, they'd tell you they want the latter but really, what brought them in to start was not the references, but the good storytelling with good stakes and clear plots and strong characters and great emotion and cleverness and all the other great and magical sorta fantastic things that Doctor Who brings to us all with its innovation and great, great stories and such.

And Matthew Robinson really does a great job directing this. He pulls an excellent performance out of Colin Baker and does a great job shooting and pacing this story and does a decent job of trying to cover up the holes, but when it's this weak... It helps, but it's not enough.

The violence, though? I'll never get over that, and I know that's my own hangup, but I'm okay with that. Doctor Who is allowed to be fun and violent and action-packed and stuff, but it should be wary that its primary protagonist is first and foremost a thinker and a pacifist, thinking his way out of situations and bad times instead of using a gun to shoot his way out. I know that's the in vogue American thing to do, but let's be honest: Doctor Who is not an American show, it's a British show, so the focus is different. If you want to write a story about something else, go write it elsewhere. Just keep the spirit and the focus of the show where it belongs and needs to be.

Because that spirit and focus of where the show should be? It's not here, and this story is far, far worse off for it.

Next Time!: 7th Doctor! Ace! CLOWNS! Ragnarok? Metaphors galore! Some dark, dark stuff, a great mystery, a big tent and even bigger explosions! And did I mention the Clowns? "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy"! Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. A very fair review.

    I hate the violence of this story. Quite unacceptable stuff.

  2. the "new" violence scared me, on my original pre-teen viewings. It gave the feeling of terribleness & loss i think is intended. Eric Saward may be overzealous in killing characters, & brutally, but his efforts affected me emotionally. An emotional reaction is what leads to a memorable experience. A memorable experience is a positive for a story, isn't it? Even if controversial.

    You want needless violence? Event Horizon. A film that gives psychological horror & then ruins it with purposeless physical violence. i've had such a hate-love-hate relationship with that film since seeing it in theaters. Great visual design, tone, mood, mix of scifi & horror. Such a failure to think any further that that, tricking the audience into thinking it's one thing when it's another. You know what, though? Its tricks owned so much of my brain time that i have to say the film succeeded.

    Doctor Who has always had lots of violence. Implied or otherwise. i'm re-watching early Doctor Who with a companion. She & i are observing it from the perspective of childhood experience re-experienced as adult (me) & vague childhood memory mostly experienced for the first time as an adult (her). i'm constantly being surprised at how much "new" Doctor Who really DOES have precedence in old Doctor Who & how much violence & needless death there always was in the show. In fact, wasn't the majority of the death & conflict actually CAUSED by the Doctor's meddling in Tomb of the Cybermen? i was shocked to watch, as an adult, to see how the Doctor was the one that opened the tomb (among other things), causing the cascade of violence afterward. There was a lot of that in the first 2 Doctors, wasn't there?

    i find the implied violence (& the anti-social violence of horrible acts that affect others) to be almost worse because they don't honestly demonstrate the horror. People can gloss over it easily. A death here, a death there, 34 deaths over there; it's like it means nothing. People need to remember how fragile fellow human beings are. We hide the fact that we are made up of spillable blood & breakable bones. The idea that we can be physically damaged is flirted with, but not given honest respect. For so long in many sci-fi series that attempt to "appeal to family audiences," blood is a no-no. You can kill people off by disintegration, blunt trauma, deathray, strangulation, explosion (wow, did you see that one soldier go kablooey in the Claws of Axos??), etc. But when body fluids are revealed (even non-human!), the anti-violence people get up in arms. Yes, we bleed. Truth. The easiest way to walk head on into danger is to forget that fact. i was actually shocked to see the reveal of the dead UNIT transport driver in Spearhead from Space because he was shown to have gone through the windshield & there was much blood. i hadn't remembered that, & since then, no blood. Not till the JNT era people deride so much. i get the impression that censors banned blood after Spearhead.

    Even within the last decade: Stargate SG-1 DVD commentaries revealed that executives in the production greatly frowned upon blood (the few instances where it was visible were all the more notable for its regular absence), yet there is constant slaughter in that series (as well as several stories with outright torture). i think SG-1 is solidly a story-driven series & succeeds for that reason (despite having the ability to show off on visuals). It's one of my few complaints about SG-1: i feel the bloodless violence downplays the reality of violence.

    i'm kind of losing my point here. See next comment (sorry)

  3. (continued)

    For most of Pertwee's era, so many people die without much meaning. Especially UNIT soldiers. The ones i reacted to were the more shocking ones. When you don't develop characters as much as you should, the violence compensates a bit in making you feel the danger. i'll get back to that in a bit, but first: isn't the psychological stuff more horrible? How about the stalking & killing of the plastics factory worker in Spearhead from Space? It was particularly notable because of how heartless the character's treatment was. Displaced by his employer without explanation, in his absence, then hunted down for being a witness. On top of that, he was supposedly under UNIT protection while being murdered. Not even a corpse was left behind to mark the fact that the man ever existed (he was shot dead & then shot again! Kinda comedic but also horrible!). That kind of violence, while not bloody, is still violence. Unlike fearing getting converted to a Cyberman or having your body crushed by one, i can more easily acquire paranoia from the Autons to real life: being stalked by a remorseless killer & being murdered while under protective custody. Isn't that more damaging to "kids watching" than a more clear-cut case of physical bullying? How about the inn keeper in Terror of the Zygons? That was a brutal strangulation on screen, by an alien initially disguised as a figure of trust & compassion (well, sort of). No Saward involved.

    These things are very characteristic of Doctor Who: terrible things happening to people that don't deserve it. i find it a bit weird to go on rants against one type of violence (the one that's on screen, up close &/or showing fluids or parts of cybermen knocked off) when there has been a norm of violence in the very same series, largely a part of the nature of the program itself. If you're appalled by violence, recognize it in all its forms, not just where it elicits appropriate visceral revulsion. All violence should produce that response, but there is an abundance of it reduced to off-screen suggestion, implication & ridiculously "clean" deaths. These "clean deaths" are passed off as almost meaningless & required by the nature of telling a story. Really? If that form of violence is "ok" & "necessary," why is it that an unsanitized, messy death is suddenly unacceptable? i think a critical re-examination of ideologies is in order, if one type of violence is more acceptable than another. These things *should* elicit negative emotional reactions. That's the point (unless it's gore porn). The fact that we, as a society, have had to step up the intensity of violence on screen is indicative of how passive audiences are to the violence that ran rampant prior to the "messy" violence people rant against. Maybe Eric Saward was trying to make a point of how terrible death really is in a way that you can't easily shrug off because, in his examples, you feel it more.

    i'm no Saward fanboy. i had no idea there was so much hate leveled at him until this year. i have resented that, in many stories of my favorite era of Doctor Who (JNT's, flawed as it is), it seemed the only characters spared from needless death were the Doctor & companions. But, you know what? i think that's the POINT. i SHOULD feel terrible.

  4. sorry, one more bit re the Doctor's participation in violence:

    In Terror of the Zygons, the Doctor GLEEFULLY destroyed the Zygon space craft, killing 5 crew members still on board. i'm not exaggerating when i say "gleefully." My friend & i were quite appalled at the hypocrisy.

    Is that violence "ok" because they were bad guys and non-human? Was it "ok" because he didn't shoot them, up close and personal?

    There's so much more of that in Doctor Who, long prior to Saward & JNT; this story is merely one i've watched recently.

    (ok, a bit more):

    i bought into the pacifist character concept of the Doctor as a kid, too. When Peter Davison's Doctor wielded weapons in Earthshock and Resurrection of the Daleks, i was kind of stunned. But i got the message: he had been pushed to it and sometimes violence is an act of survival. To choose pacifist ideals in a situation where that gets you (and, more importantly, other people) killed, would be far more enraging to me about the Doctor's character. i respect the Doctor MORE for not being so pacifist that he allows the violence of the bad guys to win BY DEFAULT. That's the thing in my country (USA): if someone approaches me with a gun, they win by default. It's an imbalance of power & the feeling of impotence it generates is great. Being bullied as a kid? Same feeling. Watching your pacifist hero occasionally wield violent means isn't just a boy fantasy lived through the telly. It's also a realistic perspective on such things as life & death situations.

    Is it more interesting to see the Doctor work things out without violence? Maybe. But tv/film/books have proven that it doesn't make the most engaging storytelling.

    More to the point, in comparing Attack of the Cybermen to earlier Doctor Who: there's far and away MORE violent acts by the Doctor than i myself previously remembered. My rose colored glasses weren't just broken by the new series apparent departure from classic DW ideals; re-watching (sometimes watching for the first time) *classic* DW has broken those rose colored lenses by showing me just how much the new show IS the old show. It's not the new show that did the damage to my early beliefs of what Doctor Who is. It's the original show. It has ALWAYS been (in turns & combinations) violent, silly, ridiculous, foolish, clever, smart, thoughtful, dumb, simple, etc. Some people think this is the magic of the series, to constantly shift and change. Most viewers have their favorite era, as opposed to adoring all of it. How can it be any other way, really? It changes with the times and that's why it survived (survives?).

    The Doctor Who i would make would be the fan wank you complain about. i admit this. That's because the stories i would mimic affected me strongly. i hadn't seen "Tomb" prior to seeing "Attack." In fact, the references to it made in Attack of the Cybermen made me feel like the show was so much bigger than just the immediate story. i was bitterly disappointed at the foolishness of Tomb of the Cybermen when i finally saw it a decade or so later, because Attack left me with such an impression of "epicness." That's kinda cool, actually. So, i admit it: my ideal Doctor Who would be in SG-1, Farscape, Babylon 5 format (complicated depth, needing to really know what's been going on in all the stories, complex character development, huge concepts, an investment in your time, etc). It would also be extra violent at times, and have as little silliness & BS as possible. Everyone would hate it. But that's me. :-)

    Sorry for all the ranting. Your rant impassioned me a bit, so consider it a good thing. You got me to react.

  5. Hello and thank you for the response. Apologies if this comes out long. You talked about a great many things. Regardless, here we go....

    First off, I'll mention that we talked about this in the comments on "Pyramids of Mars" fairly extensively (and I recommend you check that one out because we bring up the things you do), but there's a real difference between types of violence depicted on television, especially in genre work. The best example I can come up with is Buffy the Vampire Slayer: it's one thing to have Buffy stabbing people who look like dudes in the heart and it's an entirely different thing to have Buffy stab a vampire-looking creature and have said vampire creature thing explode.

    Moving on, though... One of the things I will never like about Saward's run on Doctor Who is his willingness to have The Doctor resort to violence. I see the appeal. This is action adventure. This is science fiction. Guns, ammo, and violence is par for the course. How many times have we seen in it Star Trek or Stargate? Hell, one of the biggest franchises of all time is called "Star Wars" and is all about the macho testosterone wham bam shoot 'em up that people love in the blockbusters.

    And the argument that Saward made (and still makes) is (to put it prosaically) that when life gives you lemons, you have to pick up a lemon squisher and squish out the lemons. So yes, you see it in Saward scripts. You see The Doctor picking up guns over and over again to shoot the bad guy into submission. He does it in The Visitation, Earthshock, Resurrection of The Daleks, Attack of the Cybermen, and Revelation of the Daleks... Those are specifically the stories where The Doctor picks up the gun and says "this is the solution to the problem."

    And to be fair and in his defense The Doctor does indeed save the day with his quick and witty gunplay.

    But why can't The Doctor be better than that?

    It's essentially the Batman argument. Batman won't kill (or at least he won't now; that's a thing that he does now. Chris Nolan's "Dark Knight" is basically built on that dilemma) because it makes him no better than the people he fights. You disagree with me, but I believe The Doctor needs to be better than the people he fights. The Doctor (or at least The Doctor as I see him, anyways) doesn't kill people. He doesn't relish in genocide. He values the lives in front of him. Those that are wasted are those he laments losing.

    And this means that I'm in direct conflict with not only stories I love (specifically The Ark in Space, Terror of the Zygons, and Seeds of Doom are especially egregious in this respect) but portrayals I love (I'm a big fan of whenever Pertwee or Tom Baker bust out the kung-fu), but there are excuses for these. Usually The Doctor really DOES have no choice. It's between humanity and the Wirrn; he chooses the Wirrn (Robert Banks Stewart wrote the other two stories I mentioned, but his is a different problem I'll mention when I cover those stories)...

  6. But the point stands. Sometimes The Doctor does get violent. Fine. He does it in self-defense. To keep himself moving through the story. To save the day (and notice that his self-defense almost never results in him killing someone with his bare hands). This is at least understandable.

    Him picking up a gun, though? First of all, it's never an elegant solution. Second of all there (to be frank) is nothing so horrid as a gun (For more on this, I'll point you to Joss Whedon's wonderful commentary on "Objects in Space" which is basically MY thoughts on guns, but shared with the masses via DVD commentary) and the thought that such a wonderful man with such a brilliant, unbeatable mind would need to resort to such a base, crass, crude solution for a problem that he could probably just as easily think his way out of... it's not The Doctor to me. It just isn't. And clearly this is The Doctor that Saward wants. This dichotomy is not something I'm ever going to be able to reconcile, so I'll just leave that point where it lands and say that Saward's Doctor Who is not and can't be *my* Doctor Who.

    And this is never more clear than in this story, where we have a story ostensibly written by Saward and one that has all the hallmarks of his stories in an era that is (because he's been in the job for several years at this point) the pinnacle of him as story editor. Like I say in the entry, this story is highlighted by tons of violence, including bodily fluids splurging from the Cybermen.

    I did a small bit of this over at the Earthshock post, but I'll say that making the Cybermen "gory" (because the whole thing where the Cybermen juice fluids is "gore" in a very real sense) is a way of humanizing the Cybermen in a way that makes the violence more noticeable and horrific because it drags the Cybermen (who, I'll just remind in case we've forgotten are cybernetic humans) into reality.

    Compare the difference like this: in other stories, when the Cybermen are attacked or injured, a giant shower of sparks flies out from said injury (usually the chest). But here, they are injured and then their fluids (a surrogate for blood) flies out as it would in some R-rated movie.

    And for what? Because it's "cool"? Because it gets the point across? The horror of violence? Is this the best way to go about this? Hell, a better question: is this even the best platform for this discussion or to talk about this or to bring this up?

    Because the second Saward has the Cybermen get hurt like real people, he has breached the unspoken, never-talked-about contract with his audience: that Doctor Who is not real life. And because of the first things you see in the show (An alien planet, not-humans, and a magic blue box that can do just about anything) we're told that this is not real life and because of that the people making the show given license to do all sorts of things: Batty trash cans with evil plungers and whisks that shoot laser bolts, a character who can change his appearance and be played by a series of different actors, humanity that's been corrupted by technology and turned into Cyborgs. Is this really the place to bring up violence? I suppose you could argue that it is. I suppose you could make the point that the future and science fiction doesn't have to be all roses and peace signs. But I don't watch Doctor Who to watch a shoot-em-up gore fest. I watch it because it's family fun (and it's been intended as family fun since its inception).

  7. And the show has a long and sordid history with "what it can get away with". And yes, tons of Doctor Who is remarkably violent in brutal and shocking ways. Who'da thought the 1st Doctor's era would be as shockingly violent as it is (especially in Marco Polo, The Myth-Makers, and others), but it's always about skirting that line between reality and fiction. That's the sweet spot. That's where Doctor Who tries to be and that's usually where it remains.

    The Mummies in Pyramids of Mars can squish that dude, and it's gruesome violent in the extreme, but at the same time it's also done by wire-frame robots who are dressed up as mummies.

    The Autons of Spearhead are a perfect example of this. They're made to look like mannequins. Instantly, that places them in OUR world. It's fucking terrifying in Spearhead to see them walking down the streets because it's OUR streets they're walking down. And it's terrifying to see them break right into protective custody because this thing in our world has breached the realms of safety and marched right in and killed us.

    But Holmes gets away with it (or almost, if you think he doesn't) because he's constantly reminding you that you're in a fiction. The Autons are after this big weird glowy orb thing. When the Auton murders the dude in the tent, the fact that he's vaporized (and specifically blinked out of existence by his life running backwards) is a reminder to the folks at home that we're in a fiction and we're not dealing with something out of reality.

    They're making pretend.

    And that's why people tend to not sympathize with the characters they see on the screen. Because almost INSTANTLY you recognize it as "That's Liz Sladen" or "Oh do I love Nicholas Courtney". Even if you don't know the name of the actor/actress, it's true. The people on screen are just (for lack of a more graceful term) "NPCs". Much like with people, you can't really instantly identify with characters. You have to know about them. You have to grow to love them. You have to grow to hate them. No one gives a shit about UNIT Soldier #2. He's so completely irrelevant they didn't even bother to name him.

    And that's why Doctor Who (and other shows) can just turn characters into cannon fodder so easily: because they don't matter to the viewer. We don't care about UNIT Soldier #2, even when one of the giant spiders bites his head off. We don't care about him. But the characters do (because he's real to their world) and his life is important.

    That doesn't always convince us. In fact, I think it rarely does. The only time I can think of it working in Doctor Who off the top of my head is in "Warriors of the Deep" when The Doctor said "There should have been another way." It brings out The Doctor as a character and grounds him in our reality (we have empathy like The Doctor, we connect with him) and that connection allows us to feel remorse for all the people whose lives were just wasted in this needless carnage.

    Hope that foddered some discussion. I'd go on or something but it's late and la la so I'm out for now.

  8. The worst thing is that in the UK. The DVD release only got a 'U' certificate! It should be a 12 easily.

  9. ...or to add a point in the context of the time that this story was written, the writers knew the show was on it's last legs and decided to see what they could get away with. It was a 50/50 chance....? If it brought in more viewers, then hey, that's a win. The fact that they got away with such violence in one storyline, I feel, were the writers trying to see what they could get away with, seeing as how they had nothing to lose.

  10. And the line at the end of the story about The Doctor misjudging Lytton....complete nonsense. The mercenary Lytton just happened to be on the right side of THIS battle. Who knows what he would have done if he had survived after this story? His services went to the highest bidder. Good or evil.