Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between. This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.
Revenge of the Cybermen
Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor
Companions: Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith and Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan
Written by Gerry Davis. Directed by Michael Briant. Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe. Script Edited by Robert Holmes.
Format: 4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired: April – May 1975 (Episodes 17-20 of Season 12)
There are a handful of classic Doctor Who episodes that I have never seen, at least not properly–maybe I’ve seen half an episode or watched them with some crumby UHF reception back in the 80’s. Well, up until recently, Revenge of the Cybermen was one such story, but now thanks to Britbox and a bit of time with my kids, I’ve finally made my way through the one and only Fourth Doctor adventure to feature the Cybermen.
And getting through it took a bit of work, as it’s not terribly interesting. The story features the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry having just left Skaro (and Genesis of the Daleks) and shown up again on Nerva space station. In a great budget-saving trick, they return to the same location (and sets) as The Ark in Space, but much earlier in the local history for a completely new adventure.
In this time period, Nerva is functioning as a beacon in space to make travelers aware of the planetoid Voga. However, as the TARDIS arrives, they find Nerva quarantined with most of their crew dead from an apparent plague. Of course, the whole thing turns out to be a Cyberman plot, with the goal of destroying Voga becuase it’s full of gold (revealed now to be the Cybermen’s debilitating weakness).
In general, with the Cybermen in this adventure, there is not a lot that feels fresh and new. They are once again refugees and scavengers, struggling to survive, and forced to resort to subterfuge to reassert themselves. They again work through a collaborator that they plan to betray (like in Invasion) and even use a plague to thin out their enemies (like in The Moonbase). The biggest innovation that we see with the Doctor’s second most popular enemy is their physical re-design, including the advent of the “handlebar” headgear that they sport.
Actually, there are other things from a narrative perspective, which come with mixed results. The story has the first reference to the Cyber-Wars, which continue to be a big part of the Cybermen’s backstory to this day. On the other hand, it’s revealed that the Cybermen lost the war because of their vulnerability to gold dust, of all things, which just seems silly. It’s unfortunate because that would have simple to deal with. If their weakness was something like “Ferminite” or “Goldium-19” (ie an alloy created two hundred years ago which is harmless to humans, but deadly to Cybermen, and Voga is full of the stuff) it’d be a lot easier to buy.
The Cybermen are also pretty emotional in this story, with elements of mockery and cruel pleasure in their personalities. This isn’t exactly novel–the Cybermen get like this from time to time–but it always comes across as strange.
Actually, the story doesn’t seem terribly interested in actually doing things with the Cybermen–when they finally get into the story properly they spend a lot of time just standing around the station looking at a screen. Instead we get a lot of to-do about the internal power struggles and politics of the Vogons.
There’s some effort with the Vogons’ design and characterization to make them distinct and compelling, but it never really comes across. In spite of the talents of stalwart guest actors like Kevin Stoney, David Collings and Michael Wisher, they are just not that interesting or memorable. And they are useless in a battle–in spite of their whole deal being that they have unlimited access to the Cybermen’s main weakness, they just get gunned down like total punks.
Slightly more engaging–but only slightly–are the human characters: Commander Stevenson, Lester and Professor Kellman. Kellman in particular has got the potential to be extremely interesting. He at first just seems like a straight villain–one of a long line of collaborators who were duped by aggressive aliens to help them achieve their goals of conquest. But then in the story’s one good twist, we discover that he has a secret agenda–that he’s actually working against the Cybermen, and for the Vogons.
But almost as quickly as we’ve had this reveal, Kellman is killed off, with no real time given to going deeper with the character or the ideas in play, or even making sense of them (suddenly, he behaves a little heroically, even though he still allowed the Cybermen to kill off most of the Nerva crew as part of his plan). There are a lot of things about Revenge of the Cybermen that I’m disappointed by, but certainly the underdevelopment of Kellman is the story’s greatest missed opportunity.
On the positive side, Tom Baker, Lis Sladen and Ian Marter are all as fun to watch as ever. (Actually, it should be said that I like Ian Marter as Harry, even though in truth the Fourth Doctor and Sarah worked better without him). The caves where much of the story takes place make for a novel setting for the series. And the cliffhanger to Part Three–when Harry is about to unknowingly blow himself and the Doctor up by removing a booby-trapped bomb–is extremely effective.
But beyond these few bright spots, the serial is a drab affair (and also features some very silly looking Cybermats), and certainly the weakest spot in relatively decent quality Season 12 of the series.