Doctor Who reviews: Attack of the Cybermen

I have always felt Colin Baker was one of the most underrated actors to have portrayed the Doctor.  A lot of this had absolutely nothing to do with Baker himself, but was due to outside factors beyond his control.

First of all, Baker’s debut Doctor Who story “The Twin Dilemma” was not particularly well-received.  I personally think it was a decent effort.  Most other fans have a much less positive view of that story, though.  The main problem with it was the decision by the production team to have the Doctor experience a traumatic post-regeneration crisis which causes him to behave in a dangerously unstable manner for the majority of that story.  One especially ill-considered aspect of this was having the Doctor, in a fit of paranoia, attempting to strangle his traveling companion Peri, portrayed by Nicola Bryant.  Even though the Doctor was not in control of his actions, and he quickly realized that he’d made a dreadful mistake, I think this one particular scene left a really bad first impression of the Sixth Doctor with many viewers.

Second, as I understand it, Baker wanted to play his incarnation of the Doctor as a darker, more alien figure.  Accordingly, he had hoped to have a somber, austere outfit to suit this characterization.  Instead, the producer of Doctor Who saddled Baker with the opposite: a tacky, tasteless, multicolored monstrosity of a costume.

Third, in the mid-1980s, the then-management of the BBC apparently had little confidence in or love for Doctor Who.  The show was not receiving the support it needed to function as an effective production.

Nevertheless, despite all these obstacles, I believe Colin Baker did the very best he could, and I look back quite fondly upon his all-too-short tenure as the Doctor.

“Attack of the Cybermen” is Baker’s second serial, and it is a tremendous improvement over “The Twin Dilemma.”  Really, a very strong argument could be made that “Attack” should have been Baker’s debut story.

Doctor Who: Attack of the Cybermen DVD
Doctor Who: Attack of the Cybermen DVD

The credits for “Attack of the Cybermen” list “Paula Moore” as the author.  In reality, it was written by script editor Eric Saward, with a plot assist by continuity advisor Ian Levine.  The reasons for Saward not getting credit are complicated, and are covered in “The Cold War,” a making of feature on the DVD.

The plot of “Attack of the Cybermen” is, admittedly, a bit complex.  The Doctor’s old foes the Cybermen have traveled back in time to 1985 to prevent the destruction of their home planet Mondas, an event chronicled in the 1966 serial “The Tenth Planet.”  Crossing their path is the alien mercenary Lytton (icily portrayed by the very effective Maurice Colbourne), who had previously been stranded on 20th Century Earth in the Saward-penned “Resurrection of the Daleks,” broadcast the year before. Onto the scene come the Sixth Doctor and Peri, who have detected Lytton’s distress beacon.  The Cybermen capture them all and take them back to their base on the planet Telos, last seen in the classic 1967 serial “Tomb of the Cybermen.”

As you can see, there are a lot of references to previous Doctor Who stories in “Attack of the Cybermen.” I guess a newcomer to the show could be confused.  Luckily, I had already read the novelizations of “The Tenth Planet” and “Tomb of the Cybermen,” and seen “Resurrection of the Daleks” on television.  So I was pretty clear about what was going on when I first viewed “Attack of the Cybermen” in the mid-1980s.

Admittedly, there are a couple of confusing plot points that didn’t get cleared up for me until a few years later, when Saward novelized “Attack of the Cybermen.”  But that’s minor, and this story is a lot more straightforward than, say, “Time-Flight,” which is nearly impenetrable.

In any case, I do like Saward’s writing on “Attack.”  His dialogue is cracking and clever, containing very memorable, often humorous lines.

Doctor Who: Attack of the Cybermen novelization by Eric Saward
Attack of the Cybermen novelization by Eric Saward

One odd thing about “Attack of the Cybermen” is the animosity the Doctor has towards Lytton.  The two of them barely met in “Resurrection of the Daleks.”  But in “Attack” the Doctor acts like he knows Lytton well, and cannot stand the sight of him.  Admittedly, the last time the two saw each other, Lytton did take a shot at the Doctor, barely missing, so that could explain some of the Doctor’s anger.

Baker does a good job as the Doctor in “Attack of the Cybermen”.  He has mostly settled into his new incarnation, although, as Peri puts it, he is still somewhat “unstable” from his recent regeneration, prone to the occasional mood swing and temporary absentmindedness.  Baker’s Doctor is brash, egotistical, flippant, and sarcastic.  But on several occasions we see that underneath all the bluster, he is a caring, sensitive individual with a burning desire to set right injustice and oppression.  And, when confronted with his mistakes, he is contemplative and remorseful.  From this story, it is apparent that there was tremendous potential to Baker’s Doctor.

The relationship between the Doctor and Peri is also better written here.  It is still a bit too adversarial, perhaps, and Peri is on the whiny side.  But Baker and Bryant are given much better material to work with here than in “The Twin Dilemma.”  You can start to get a slightly better indication that, despite the dramatic changes to the Doctor’s persona, these two are still friends and do like to travel together.

The direction on “Attack of the Cybermen” is top-notch.  Matthew Robinson, who also worked on “Resurrection of the Daleks,” really has a good feel for action sequences.  He also frames a great many of his shots in an incredibly striking, inventive angles, really helping to drive home the drama and tension.

It is also to Robinson’s credit that he was the one who suggested making the alien Cryons female.  Despite Saward’s arguments against it on the DVD making of feature, this was a clever decision, as it really puts them in contrast to their towering, emotionless cyborg foes.  There were very few female non-humans seen in classic Doctor Who (fortunately that unbalance has been somewhat rectified in the current-day show) and so the Cryons really are striking.  In spite of their apparently delicate appearance, they’ve been waging a relentless guerilla campaign against the Cybermen, making them one of the series’ most admirable alien races.

I like that in “Attack of the Cybermen” Saward brings back something that really had not been addressed in the series since the 1960s.  The Cybermen were once human, but they allowed themselves to be overcome by their own technology, becoming emotionless cyborgs, and now they seek to do the same to other organic life throughout the universe.  In this story, the danger of being killed by the Cybermen pales in significance to the possibility of being captured & converted, with death being a preferable alternative.  That is really what helps to make them horrifying monsters.

“Attack,” like a number of other stories by Saward, is quite violent.  A lot of people have complained that Saward’s violence is gratuitous.  Perhaps at times it was.  But a look at Doctor Who history shows that, from the very beginning in 1963, many stories had high body counts (especially the ones with the Daleks).  The difference is that typically characters would be killed off by a laser blast or disintegration ray, a bloodless death.  Saward, on the other hand, demonstrated in his stories that killing is a nasty, messy, violent business.

Another difference is that, before Saward’s tenure as a Doctor Who script editor and writer, most stories’ casualties were not particularly well developed.  This is especially blatant in the early 1970s, when numerous UNIT soldiers would be wiped out by whatever alien menace was invading Earth that month.  The majority of those killed were nameless grunts who would die ten seconds after coming onto the screen.  There was no real impact when they got killed.  In contrast, many of the characters Saward killed in his stories were developed beforehand.  They had names and personalities, and we would get to know them before they were dispatched in a particularly awful manner.  When they died, it often felt genuinely sad and tragic, a real waste of life.  Saward didn’t glamorize violence; he showed how brutal and ugly it really was.

Things get violent: Lytton (Maurice Colbourne) is tortured by the Cybermen
Things get violent: alien mercenary Lytton (Maurice Colbourne) is tortured by the Cybermen

There is some great incidental music in “Attack” by Malcolm Clarke.  He is one of my favorite Doctor Who composers from the 1980s, composing excellent scores for such Peter Davison serials as “Earthshock” and “Enlightenment.”  His work on “Attack” is just perfect.

On the other hand, the story has some very weak set design.  The Cybermen’s base on Earth looks too similar to their command center on Telos.  When the story cuts between the two, there’s some confusion over which location is which.

More significantly, the Cybermen’s tombs on Telos look nothing like they did in “Tomb of the Cybermen.”  In 1985, “Tomb” was missing from the BBC archives (it was fortunately re-discovered in the early 1990s) but there were photos of the sets available.  So if the designers wanted to, they could have easily checked to see what the Telos tombs looked like.  Instead, they re-designed them completely.  It’s very jarring, especially nowadays when “Tomb” is easily available for viewing.  Besides, the 1967 sets look much better than the 1985 ones.

The DVD of “Attack of the Cybermen” has a lot of great extras.  Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, Terry Molloy, and Sarah Berger provide an entertaining audio commentary.  The aforementioned “The Cold War” feature is an informative half-hour behind-the-scenes piece.  “The Cyber Story” is a 23 minute history of the Cybermen, with plenty of clips.  I enjoyed being able to view a couple of minutes of “The Tenth Planet.”  I’ve never been able to watch that serial, because (as far as I know) it has never been broadcast or commercially released here in the States, as the final episode is missing. Maybe one of these days it’ll finally be recovered.  Either that or the BBC can redo it in animated form, as they did very effectively for the missing episodes of “The Reign of Terror” and “The Invasion.”

In any case, while not perfect, “Attack of the Cybermen” is a very good, entertaining, intelligent story.  The acting is top-notch, and Matthew Robinson’s direction is solid.

As far as Colin Baker goes, in addition to this story, also check out “Vengeance on Varos,” “Mark of the Rani,” and “Revelation of the Daleks” to see him in top form.  And, if you have the opportunity, pick up some of the Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays he has starred in.  I plan on doing write-ups on at least a couple of those in the near future.  They really do demonstrate what Baker can do as the Doctor when given very well-written material to work with.