Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Serial 79: Revenge of the Cybermen

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
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."

I was wrong about that. Hinchcliffe/Holmes is almost definitely my favorite era in Classic Who. I'm always in the mood for one of their stories because they're just so damn enjoyable (if not flawless) and it really is one of the most consistent runs of Doctor Who in terms of sheer quality. The run of stories from "Robot" to "Horror of Fang Rock" is one of the most outstanding runs in all of Doctor Who history where 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.

With all that in mind let's talk about "Revenge of the Cybermen".

"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.


Commentary!:

Part 1:

Okay. So. The first time I watched this story I didn’t dislike the first part. This time? I don’t dislike it either.

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.

No. Instead we have dead bodies littering the corridors, an unstoppable plague virus, and the crew complement reduced to three with an extra civilian  survivor thrown in for good measure.

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.

This is the stuff that makes me love the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era as much as I do. Within the first five minutes my attention is captured, I am enraptured, and I need to know what will happen next.

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.

Right behind him is Tom Baker, who’s lovely in this. Absolutely lovely. I love the way he interacts with all of the different characters as he pieces together all the extraneous elements of this Nerva mystery he finds himself embroiled in. Apparently Gerry Davis wasn’t sure how to write him and chose to write 2nd Doctor rather than trying to figure out how to write for a still-new Doctor. And it works. You have The Doctor running around, getting into silly physical comedy bits (like the arm through the door scene) or running off to investigate another lead, his brain working in overdrive to put all  the pieces together before it’s too late. And even amidst all this there’s him being tremendously silly (the time ring stuff) while also being able to turn out some tremendously clever stuff (the three talking points about the virus). It’s really fantastic Doctoring and really helps cover up the cracks where this episode might not work so well.

Where it doesn’t work so well is with the Cybermats. Because for some reason they have to be snakes.

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.

That said, the cliffhanger is remarkably effective. We know that the Cybermats are responsible for this plague and for Sarah to get bitten puts a real clock on what happens next. It’s the worst thing that could happen at this moment in time so it makes for a strong cliffhanger moment and sets us up for at least some excitement in the next episode.

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.

Part 2:

So it’s not that this story is bad, it’s just a little haphazard. At least, that’s how it appears in this episode.

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.

At the end of the last episode Sarah was jumped by a Cybermat and it infected her with its deadly venom (the plague from the previous episode). The solution (as The Doctor also pointed out in the last episode) was to run the victim through a Transmat, which would separate the native genetics from the invasive biological agent.

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.

Six minutes in and we have our A-story and our B-story.

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.

Speaking of The Cybermen showing up, did anyone else ever notice that the Cybermen often don’t make their entrance into the story until the “middle” cliffhanger of a given story? Just me? Okay.

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.

Where the story fails, as far as I’m concerned, is in the Vogan conflict. To be honest, I don’t really about what’s happening. We have two factions on Voga who are both something or something and one is making a power play something something and it’s all just… not clear.

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.

But it’s nowhere near as engaging as it should/could be. Davis makes a point to attempt to explain away what’s happening, but I wish he waited, to be honest. Exposition is better delivered as late as possible. All that matters is Sarah and Harry stuck in the middle of this conflict they don’t understand. I don’t need to understand that they’re dropped in the middle of a giant turf war. I don’t need to understand the leaders or the players, especially when they all tend to look incredibly similar. I mean, for god’s sake, it’s not even helped by Kevin “Mavic Chen/Tobias Vaughan” Stoney, who gives a very restrained performance because his character is not a bloody psychopath. And that’s all well and good I suppose, but I don’t love Kevin Stoney in his other Doctor Who stories because he seems like a sane person.

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.

Part 3:

Oh man did this fall apart.

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.

Unfortunately, this story can’t possibly do any of that. Because there’s nothing to this story.

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.

But this whole thing is full of holes. If you stop to think about it for two seconds the whole thing falls apart.

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.

And the whole Cyberbombs plot line basically descends into set pieces about walking. It’s like watching Lord of the Rings all over again.

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.

Part 4:

At the end of this episode, there’s a sequence in which The Doctor flies the Nerva beacon towards Voga and pulls out of the dive, spinning around and around the small planet at incredible speed. It’s the lowest orbit I’ve ever seen and still at the end he manages to pull out of the spectacular maneuver and propel the Nerva Beacon out into space.

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.

To add insult to the injury of a disaster of pretty epic proportions, it’s clear that Robert Holmes realized how much of a fustercluck this is. Once The Doctor has rescued Voga and the Cybermen have been destroyed Harry somehow manages to Transmat up to Nerva, only to be rushed into the TARDIS and onto their next adventure. There’s no wrap up. All that happens is The Doctor shouting “Come on!”, because he cannot possibly imagine being stuck in this trainwreck for another second.  It’s damn hilarious because it’s not a mistake at all. It’s a sprint out the door to see how fast they can get out of there. Amazing. And that’s…. I just don’t see it as a mistake, especially given how heavily Robert Holmes rewrote this story based on Gerry Davis’s original script.

That’s the biggest amazing thing about this. This is what it looks like after Robert Holmes rewrites the shit out of it.

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!”

What’s laughable is that Sarah then name drops Kellman and suddenly the Cyberleader panics and realizes this was all a setup and oh my god there IS a rocket.

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.

Because what else happens in this episode? One of the Cyberbomb dudes kills himself to kill some Cybermen. The Doctor gets a hellacious back massage from the Cyberleader. The Vogans launch their rocket. The rocket misses the station and instead is flown into the Cybermen’s spaceship. The Doctor slingshots a bloody space station around a bloody planet. There’s a coup or something on Voga and the one Vogan is killed or something but not before he launches his legacy rocket of legacy. The Doctor manages to Cybermat virus a Cyberman and there’s no taking out any Cybermen with any gold despite that that’s the key major plot point of this story. So. That’s a thing.

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.

Final Thoughts?: It's a story that's completely deserving of its reputation, although with caveats.

The biggest problem with this story is it was commissioned by the outgoing production team and foisted upon the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era and they weren't able to do anything about it because it'd already been commissioned. They were burdened with a subpar writer and a subpar throwback story they couldn't do anything with. At least with "Genesis of the Daleks" Terry Nation was attempting something new and revolutionary with his creations. That story had a rich mythology to build off of, a devious new character in Davros. It had a rich moral quandry in The Doctor allowing the creation of the Daleks.

This story has none of that.

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.

It's a waste. Sarah and Harry are sidelined for the whole story, replaced by the one Vogan and the other Vogan getting more play than either of them.

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.

But the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era has never been allowed to get away with this. It sticks out like a sore thumb, especially because it's Tom Baker's one and only confrontation with the Cybermen. If you're a Cybermen fan and a Tom Baker fan you're totally shit outta luck because this is what you got and these Cybermen are barely Cybermen. the costumes are terrible. The voices are terrible. The characterization is off. And all of that adds up to the only real blemish on what's a pretty frakking perfect record. And because the rest of the era is so miles ahead of this one and never REALLY collapses into an unintelligible mess this gets slammed.Put this up against most other Doctor Whothough and it probably stands up as exceedingly average.

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!

3 comments:

  1. To be honest I think the original storyline would have served this story better. It was Robert Holmes who added the ridiculous Vogans, originally there was to be the much more interesting concept of a group of miners left down there by Kellman for 25 years, the finale would have been the destruction of the Cybermen by having their respirators clogged up by gold dust fired at them from the Cybermats re-programmed by the Docy. If only Mr Holmes had tightened up the story instead of adding gratuitous story elements like the Vogans this story could have worked...

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  2. I having read the Gerry Davis original script for this story and the plot of the Cybermen taking over the space station to destroy the nearby asteroid of gold populated by human miners is better than what appears on screen in billions of ways. I also think the vogans were ghastly and I would have happily never have missed them if they had not be brought in to replace the human miners, this story for the Cybermen was appalling and it is no wonder we do not see the Cybermen again for nearly seven years until Earthshock with dr 5 and also Earthshock is a rehash of old cyberstories.

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  3. I think this story's original script with the concept of the Cybermen taking over nerva space station to destroy the asteroid made of gold was in my view millions and billions better than the broadcast story. I also do not think, the rewrite was necessary and the vogans were bloody ghastly. I think the human miners were a much better concept all round and I heard Gerry Davis was very annoyed with Bob Holmes rewrites of his script

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