Doctor Who complete reviews: Attack Of The Cybermen
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
A reasonably thrilling - if occasionally gory - start to the Colin Baker era proper...
1985 is something of a year of guilty pleasures. Take some of the offerings on the big screen. A View To A Kill. Clue. Weird Science. Not really movies that I'd bring up in the middle of a conversation about all-time classics, but in their own gormless way, they're actually quite enjoyable.
Ditto Attack Of The Cybermen, not really a story you'd admit to enjoying out loud. After all it's mindlessly violent, obsessed with pointlessly fannish continuity, and has a plot that might as well be written in hieroglyphics, since when you ponder on it, it makes little to no sense. It may not boast Cybermen wearing bras on their heads or Tim Curry frantically playing Lytton as a last-minute replacement, but nevertheless, I still quite like Attack Of The Cybermen.
It's the story that kicks off season 22, something of a turning point in Who history for a number of reasons. It begins Colin Baker's first proper season and also sees a return to the traditional Saturday night slot. And then it takes inspiration from the previous year's Resurrection Of The Daleks in a couple of ways. For one thing, like that story, season 22 tales are told in blocks of 45 minutes rather than 25. That's common practice nowadays, but back then, it was something of a novelty. The other crucial element is that, like Resurrection, most season 22 stories are steeped in brutality, violence and death. Don't forget that the early to mid 1980s were the years of the video nasty, and so, deliberate or not, Doctor Who followed this trend to the max in season 22. Most of the guest casts are bumped off in gruesome fashion. There's a higher quota of snarling bully boys and grunting humanoid monsters. And to cap it all off, the show's headed by a less compromising Doctor.
Doctor Number Six has admittedly mellowed after the manic wake-up call of The Twin Dilemma. There's a rather sweet scene in the first few moments of part one when he tries to reassure Peri that he wouldn't harm her. He's also rattled by the events of Attack, in particular lamenting the loss of Lytton, who inevitably bites the bullet by the time the credits have rolled. And yet he's still willing to bash in one of Lytton's policemen buddies, shoot the Cyber Controller at point blank range and carry on in his usual abrupt, shouty manner ("A RATHER ANGRY ONE!" he bellows at the top of his voice after Flast asks if he is a Time Lord). Put it this way, Brian Blessed's up against some stiff competition here.
"Colin Baker's settling into the part of The Doctor very nicely"
But Colin Baker's settling into the part of The Doctor very nicely. He's got the mix of arrogant alien weirdness and understated compassion down to a tee already. It's just a shame that the scriptwriters haven't quite got the balance right yet - there's still way too much pointless bickering and petty sniping with Peri, for instance. Again, like Teabag, travelling in the TARDIS isn't a particularly enjoyable experience at the moment, since despite the underlying trust and respect that Peri and The Doctor have for each other, the scriptwriters evidently thought that the two arguing with each other would make for more entertaining TV. Wrong answer. And poor old Peri is, more often than not, reduced to a screaming bimbo. The cliffhanger histrionics at the end of part one are particularly painful, despite the best efforts of Nicola Bryant to make "No! NOOO! NOOOOOOO!!!!!!" sound halfway believable.
So Attack Of The Cybermen itself - another action-packed and violent thriller that runs along the tried and tested lines of Resurrection Of The Daleks. Like that story, Attack has so many kisses to the past that it becomes a full-on tongue sandwich with the programme's history. So apart from going all the way back to the first story, An Unearthly Child, with a trip to Number 76 Totter's Lane, we have a whole host of Cybermen classics for inspiration. Mondas from The Tenth Planet. The Cybermen in the sewers from The Invasion. And a return for both Telos and the Cyber-Controller from The Tomb Of The Cybermen. In fact, you could, if you were so inclined, regard this as a loose sequel to Tomb, to the point where you have the original location and a return for Michael Kilgarriff, the original Cyber Controller actor.
The downside of this is that some fans have commented that the end result cheapens the original Tomb. Because the plot is convoluted and at times, difficult to follow (basically, the Cybermen are planning to crash-land Halley's Comet into Earth and so stop the destruction of Mondas, if that makes any vague sort of sense), it does, to a certain extent, reduce the impact of the original 1960s classic. And the Cyber Controller is much less effective this time around too, and without wishing to sound like a bastard, he now looks like he's been entering an annual pie-eating competition for the last 17 years. It's just self-indulgent fanwank for the sake of it rather than for a constructive reason to move the plot along.
"It's a pity that the Cryons weren't destined for future encounters, but their sole appearance marks them out as one of the most original alien races of the 80s"
At least there are some new elements which work quite well. The Halley's Comet reference was a clever move, especially since it was all the rage in the mid-1980s - even Spock lookalike John Craven raised an eyebrow when discussing the phenomenon on Newsround. The Cryons are quite a neat race, if a tad Trek-ky. Their appearance, mannerisms and speech are both unusual and alien enough to make an impact - and surprisingly so, considering that there's one or two light entertainment gals behind the masks. Comedienne and impersonator Faith Brown does a very good job as the noble leader Flast, as does Blue Peter and Going Live legend Sarah Greene as the more headstrong Varne. It's a pity that the Cryons weren't destined for future encounters, but their sole appearance marks them out as one of the most original alien races of the 80s.
It's also a nice twist to have Lytton as an independent mercenary rather than an out and out baddie. At first you think, he's sold everyone out to the Cybermen, when in fact, he's done a clever deal with the Cryons to get rid of the evil legends. That's a neat bit of writing, and even if The Doctor's overstating the case a bit by saying that he's badly misjudged Lytton, it's good to have a returning demi-baddie who's painted in shades of grey rather than broad strokes of black and white. Maurice Colbourne turns in another fantastic performance, although I'm not quite so sure why The Doctor's taking his death so badly at the end. It's not as if he and Lytton were good buddies, or even common acquaintances - the two never met in Resurrection for a chinwag of doom, so it's a bit of a mystery. After all, the 3rd Doctor didn't stand around moping over the inevitable extermination of The Controller. The 5th Doctor couldn't care two hoots over Sharaz Jek's switch to the greater good. So the ending just seems a bit false, and totally out of keeping with the new tougher Doctor.
"This is no namby-pamby thwacking over the head with a copy of Roget's Thesaurus, this is full-on, gory hand-crushing"
Of course, Lytton's days are numbered as soon as he reveals his duplicity, but what's so shocking is the way in which he's broken down. In order to get the information they want, the Cybermen torture Lytton. And this is no namby-pamby thwacking over the head with a copy of Roget's Thesaurus, this is full-on, gory hand-crushing. Yes, the hapless mercenary's hands are reduced to bloodied pulp - and on screen, which is pretty grim for a programme going out before 7.00pm on a Saturday. What's even more baffling is that both the video and DVD releases only got a U certificate. A U?! Were the classifiers blindfolded? Or drunk? Bizarre, especially when you consider that lightweight fluff like The Chase or Black Orchid got a PG classification on video and DVD releases. Seems that a bit of torture and a high body count won't upset the kiddies, apparently.
Lytton's not the only one to meet a violently sticky end. Flast's demise is quite sadistic and nasty, seeing as she's flung out into a (for her) boiling temperature and steamed to death. Russell receives a nasty clump around the earhole at the end of part one, but when it comes to needless and pointless ends, the ridiculous three-in-one death of Bates, Stratton and Griffiths takes the cake. And there's the rub - it just feels like that the secondary characters are again killed because - well, just because. It's just random killing for the sake of it rather than to progress the narrative - wow, Steven Moffat would be proud.
Even so, I still found Attack Of The Cybermen to be really enjoyable. It certainly would have made for a better story to kick-start the era of the 6th Doctor. The story, despite its obsession with continuity and the convoluted narrative, is at least fast-paced, exciting and in places, quite scary for the kids. The scenes with the Cyber Scout in the sewers are great, a return to the claustrophobia that Doctor Who does so well. Director Matthew Robinson also makes the shrewd move of hiding the threat with subjective, video-synthesised POV shots - the opening shot of worker Bill coming to grief is really effective because of this.
Robinson's direction is just as good as his work for the Dalek adventure, with some fine location filming, well-judged set pieces and very good casting. At the time, there was more of a trend for light entertainment casting, so there's a higher proportion of famous faces. Apart from Faith Brown and Sarah Greene, there's also Tetley Tea voice Brian Glover, who's excellently dry as Griffiths, cartoonist and one-time Hotel Babylon doorman Michael Attwell as the thuggish Bates, and Terry Molloy, who's distinctly un-Davros as Russell. The cast add much to the end result, playing it totally for real.
About the only production blip is the annoying theme for Lytton and his buddies, which sounds like a tinny version of 'Baby Now That I've Found You' by The Foundations, as played by Kajagoogoo.
Attack Of The Cybermen isn't particularly original. Or clever. Or logical. But it does meet the requirement of being an action-packed, exciting adventure to launch the brand new season. It may still be something of a guilty pleasure, but for switching off the brain, stuffing your face with popcorn and enjoying a bit of escapist hokum, it's just the ticket.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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