Companion: Sarah Jane, Harry
Written by: Gerry Davis
Directed by: Michael Briant
Background & Significance: Now that we're really rapidly approaching the home stretch of this blog, I think it's become terribly clear which eras of Doctor Who I enjoy and which I do not. I've come to find the Pertwee era one of the most fun eras while I've really come to dislike a vast majority of Troughton due to its lack of both ambition and originality (which is unfortunate, because I love his Doctor). But the era that I have to always mention right up front is the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. I went into it initally with my arms crossed and without any real desire to partake. "I'd like the comedy", I thought. "I have no taste for horror."
the lows are more than watchable and the highs are nigh untouchable and some of the best Doctor Who ever produced. What's here is the stuff of legend, and regardless of quality I'm always eager to jump back in whenever I need a Doctor Who fix because what's here is so good, if nothing else than aesthetically. Fortunately there's usually a bit more to go on than pure aesthetics more often than not, but other times? Shrug. That's what you got.
"Revenge of the Cybermen" is the black sheep of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. It's widely regarded as their weakest story and "a mess" to put it mildly. But why is this one singled out when "Android Invasion" is an equally impressive candidate? My guess is "Android Invasion" benefits from being buried in the middle of its season, in between two dynamite Robert Holmes stories whereas this story is tacked on at the end of a very strong season, estranged from everything else by what's been called the best Dalek story of all time. That's to say nothing of the pressure of giving the Cybermen a return after a six and a half year absence, nor the pressure of making it something of an informal sequel to "The Ark in Space". Of course, this pressure was only magnified by the return of former script editor and co-creator of the Cybermen Gerry Davis coming back after seven and a half years to pen their return.
Throw in a production haunted by a curse from a petrified witch and you've got yourselves a ball game.
So let's get to it.
Right off, there’s a lot to like here. For one, it’s nice to be on Nerva again. It’s a cool and great set and there’s a rich built-in history through which the show can explore so we get the same setting with a completely different dynamic. This isn’t the Nerva of “Ark in Space”. No, that was a giant space station filled with the last remnants of humanity for salvation now that the Earth has been deemed uninhabitable. Here we have a notably younger Nerva. This is a space station in the middle of the solar system that has its own functioning “ecosystem” as it were. There’s crew quarters and control rooms being used. No people in cryogenic stasis here.
All of this is really good stuff and totally Hinchcliffe/Holmes. The scene where the TARDIS crew comes across all of the dead bodies is stunning and impossible to convey without the image. Hell, compare it to the last time we saw the Nerva beacon with the completely empty corridors and the eerie haunting quality it had. Here it’s a completely new way that doesn’t quite leave you. It’s a moment of pure horror and designed to get your brain moving with the promise of mystery. Why are there so many dead people? Are our heroes in danger? Why didn’t they clean up the bodies? How horrible must it be to have no one around to do clean up on the bodies? Hell, they all died in the corridors. That’s jacked.
What does happen next is less than stunning. The goings on of the space station are far from living up to the promises of seeing dead bodies strewn about the corridors. The characters are poorly sketched out and interchangeable. The only one who’s terribly memorable at all is Kellman because he is both devious and clad in a white turtleneck and a black smoking jacket, and sports a silly haircut. But still, he’s engaging as of now because we have no idea what’s going on with him and where he’s going to end up taking us. He calls the Cybermen? That’s not good. He destroys the records and is spying on people? That’s not good either. And he tries to kill The Doctor. That’s his death wish right there.
Cybermats date back to the last story Gerry Davis wrote for Doctor Who, in which the Cybermen used Cybermats as proxies to get at the humans while they were stuck in their tombs. And in that story the Cybermats were little more than dish scrubbers with eyes and antennas. But they were remarkably effective because for all their small size there’s something tremendously sinister about them. Here Hinchcliffe and Briant go for a different interpretation of the Cybermat, one that’s long and snake like and jumps like older Cybermats. And I understand the decision, but at a certain point I don’t think that works. These Cybermats are so massive it makes it hard to believe they can get into small places or sneak up because they’re just… so conspicuous and hard to miss.
So so far it’s quite good. What’s here is quite enjoyable. It’s not perfect, but hey. I don’t hold Doctor Who to a standard of “perfect”. Certainly not after the first episode, and I don’t even apply it to Hinchcliffe/Holmes. As far as I’m concerned, this is good enough for now. I’m just worried about the fact that all judgment in this story is on the next three parts and not solely on this one.
Perhaps the slyest thing this story does is separate The Doctor from Sarah and Harry without making it feel contrived. I mean, “Genesis” is one of the best Doctor Who stories ever and it was never particularly subtle about the way it separated the three of them and it was often clumsy and because that’s what the story needed next or what have you. But here’s it’s notably different and sure, it’s contrived, but it’s papered over so well that you don’t really realize what’s happening until well after its happened, which is to be applauded as far as I’m concerned.
This leaves the opening beat of this story to resolving Sarah’s infection, which they do by Transmatting Sarah down to the planet Voga. It’s a thrilling sequence. Sarah dying in Harry’s arms while the Doctor races to get the Transmat pad working makes for compelling drama. And once it’s resolved we discover that the Transmat has no way of getting them back because it’s been sabotaged by Kellman. But it’s too late. The damage is done because Sarah and Harry have started to go out and explore Voga.
Unfortunatley, it’s all a bit of a muddle.
For starters, on the Nerva beacon nothing happens because The Doctor and everyone are essentially waiting for The Cybermen to show up, aren’t they? There’s nothing they can do with Kellman except do a really neat moment where they threaten him with a Cybermat because he’s a Cyberman tool who needs to wipe that smug smirk off his face. Even when they’ve managed to scare him into giving him what they need to fix the Transmat it turns out to be useless to them because Sarah and Harry are nowhere to be found because they left the Transmat circle and now are somewhere on Voga. So that storyline is a wash. And then the Cybermen are coming and as if the story isn’t going to let the Cybermen into Nerva, they kinda just break into the place, don’t they? So the whole thing is just massive filler while we wait for the Cybermen show up.
The stuff on Voga doesn’t fare much better. I mean, the Sarah and Harry stuff is entertaining and always welcome. It’s particularly funny to see Harry (who’s still a closet misogynist) tell Sarah Jane he thinks she has cankles. They make a wonderful team. And the location work on the caverns of Voga is really, really excellent stuff. It’s well lit and well-choreographed to maximize the danger and excitement of what’s happening. The levels and space are incredibly well defined and well put together to make Voga seem like a dangerous place.
I mean, the planet of Gold itself is interesting. And it’s hilarious that they talk about the prosperity they have because they have a planet that’s basically nonstop gold. As if that would be some sort of surprise or unseen consequence of having an entire planet with nonstop gold. Likewise, the show gets a lot of mileage out of the concept because it feeds on the human greed that’s such a Holmesian staple. Everyone wants the gold planet. Harry loves the gold. Kellman sure as hell loves the gold. The Cybermen want the gold (but for different reasons). Hell, it’s so bad even the Vogans are fighting over it within their own society.
So now at the end of this episode, halfway through we can see that this story is already heading in a not great direction. It’s far from unwatchable, but it’s definitely not the sort of thing you’d expect from Hinchcliffe/Holmes, and I mean that in a bad way.
It’s weird to see a four part story that is impossibly padded. Sure padding is going to happen in a story that takes a hundred minutes to tell. Likewise padding is most likely to happen in the third part, where the writer has already laid out all the relevant plot lines in the story but can’t quite start to wrap everything up yet because he/she has to save all that storyline for the final episode. Of course, if the story is a weaker story, part three is where that episode will inevitably start to fail. It’s also the point where the story can shine the most. Throw in some character development or some intriguing concept to spin the wheels for a little bit longer. That’ll get ya.
The vast majority of this episode features the Cybermen implementing the plan that they’ve been meaning to implement for the whole bloody story. Their plan is to destroy Voga, which they plan to do by strapping bombs to three folk (specifically The Doctor and two Nerva crew members) and send them into the planets core. Accompanied by two Cybermen guards, these Cyberbombs will detonate and crack the planet in two(?) thereby destroying Voga once and for all. Try to remove the Cyberbombs and they explode. Deviate from the desired course to the center of the planet, the Cyberbombs explode. So The Doctor and everyone are in a dangerous place.
First off, if the bombs go off in the tunnels and not at the center of Voga the Cybermen plan completely fails. So if The Doctor and the crew decide to stop walking at any point and the Cybermen detonate the bombs the whole plan goes to smithereens. Likewise, why not just remove the bombs at the top? Sacrifice yourself and stop the Cybermen plan? I mean, you’re dead anyways. And fine. You’re not going to do that. But seriously? The Cybermen decide to completely abandon the “we’re escorting them” plan in favor of a “let’s go on a rampage to snipe all the Vogans” plan. Which doesn’t make a lick of sense to me. Why are they doing that? So that we can get endless sequences of Cybermen shooting shit out of their heads? Ugh. Please. What a waste of time.
On top of all this Harry isn’t given a thing to do and Sarah returns to Nerva only to skulk around in the shadows and not accomplish anything. I know Kellman had an alliance with the Cybermen and one of the Vogan factions, but that whole storyline doesn’t go anywhere. And it’s all just running around with next to no substance. And yes, the caves are pretty and go a long way to making this story at the very least watchable. But that doesn’t save it. Not even close. This is weak sauce. Major major weak sauce. I don’t even care that Harry is loosening the strap of The Doctor’s bomb. The lack of storytelling about his meeting up with The Doctor was… insane.
To ice off the cake, this story started with the dead littering Nerva corridors. Look how it’s all just fallen apart and devolved into a boring Cybermen runaround.
As an image it makes me laugh, because it’s exactly what this story wants to have happen. By the time we’re at the end of this there’s so much happening and happening unintelligibly and in just a mash up of “THROW EVERYTHING AT THE SCREEN” that it feels like the story’s in freefall, heading for certain demise by crashing on Voga’s surface. But unlike its actual content, the story really just crashes and burns on the surface, leaving a hot streak of metal and story threads all along the planet’s surface.
And honestly, there isn’t a whole hell of a lot to like. What’s here is tremendously silly and laughably bad. The Cybermen’s capture of Sarah results in the Cybermen interrogating her about what she knows. In an effort to save her own skin (and the skin of Nerva) she blurts out the whole plan about the Vogan rocket that is around to blow the Cybermen to kingdom come. And that’s not the questionable part. Nor is it questionable to have The Cyberleader laugh in her face an say “you’re saying that just to save your own skin!”
It’s this level of insanity that just doesn’t fly for the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. It’s an era known for strong, believable characters and tremendously tight plotting. It’s not got a whole lot of what I like to call “Doctor Who insanity”, which is tacky B-movie stuff like The Doctor dressing up like a Welsh milkman. This Cybermen beat is total cutesy old school madness Doctor Who and doesn’t fit in the oeuvre of this era at all, especially not this budget.
It’s just sloppy and I can’t say anything more about it because there’s nothing left to say. It’s just completely insane.
Really, it's not just a bad Cybermen story, it's a bad story. The Cybermen are entirely inconsequential to the plot. Their whole plan is to gain revenge on Voga because it's a threat to them. There's nothing new or revolutionary about them. They have giant guns on their heads, but that's hardly a reason to bring them back and it's completely dropped later. The story itself is more focused on the internal politics of Voga than it is the Cybermen. I mean, there's not even a half-decent runaround involving the Cybermen in the middle of this story. It's just them marching (which is what you do with the Cybermen) and firing head cannon shots for no discernable reason.
If anyone comes out shining in this it's Tom Baker, who's on great form here. Of particular note is the time he speaks Shakespeare over the fallen Cyberman. Genius.
All this, though, would play completely differently if given a different production team. Sure, this story has tons of money thrown at it. Almost too much, really. It looks like the most frakkin expensive story in the entire season and all that is still not enough to save it. But if this had been a Graham Williams era story I feel like it would still have been better received. Drop the budget of this story and make it no real caves and all sets and we'd probably be having a different conversation.
I guess that says more about the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era than it does about this story. Can't win 'em all. Not even them.
Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! Global politics! Doubles out the wazoo! Weird Spanish accents! And a freaky-deaky double dose of Troughton! "The Enemy of the World!" Coming Next Tuesday!