Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Doctor Who: in defense of "Attack of the Cybermen"

The sixth of seven neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences here, with "Terminus," then continues with "The Ark," "Delta and the Bannermen," "Death to the Daleks" and "The Wheel in Space."

Instead of beginning this essay by launching into reasons "Why I Like Attack of the Cybermen," let's indulge in a bit of fan fiction. Recall, if you will, the end of the Fifth Doctor's final serial, "The Caves of Androzani." Having obtained enough serum to counteract the poison that's killing his new companion Peri (and himself), the Doctor tracks her down at Sharaz Jek's lair and carries her back to the TARDIS, where he administers the cure. But he's committed the ultimate sacrifice, as there's not enough left for himself -- and as memories of his former companions and his oldest enemy swirl around in his brain, he expires and regenerates, and in his place, the next Doctor, Colin Baker, rises to announce "change, and not a moment too soon."

And we all know what happens after that: "The Twin Dilemma," one of the most disastrous stories in the history of Doctor Who, a serial that serves neither the lead character nor the actor who's assumed the role. The Sixth Doctor, suffering from a regeneration crisis, bullies Peri, threatens her, and finally strangles her, leaving her (in her own words) "frightened half to death, and that's only because I'm not dead already." He then announces he's holding her hostage for an eternity on Titan Three, where (in his own words) "it shall be your humble privilege to administer to my needs." By serial's end, he's done almost nothing to ingratiate himself with her or us; when Peri points out how obnoxious he's been, he couldn't care less, announcing that he's "the Doctor, whether you like it or not." Clearly Peri doesn't like it; why should we? The miserable, misguided "Twin Dilemma" gets the Sixth Doctor's relationship with Peri off to such a disastrous start that it's arguable that it never recovers, infusing it with elements of Stockholm Syndrome that -- in the decades since, as we've learned more about what victims of abuse go through, and the survival strategies they develop -- seems nastier and creepier with each passing year. And Baker is asked to indulge in a virtuosic style of playing for which (at that time, at least) he has no affinity, missing the mark with alarming regularity. During his "mad scene," he tries too hard; when it's time to convey the Doctor's anguish, he's unable to make it sympathetic. His cowardice isn't funny; his pomposity isn't entertaining. And his work in the final reel is flat and amateur; as the serial comes to a close, he looks like a deer caught in headlights.

So yeah: a disaster. But let's double back and try something else. How about this instead: we get to the end of "Caves," and the Sixth Doctor emerges and says his line, "Change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon" -- and when we pick things up in the next episode, it's not "Twin Dilemma" at all, but the following serial, "Attack of the Cybermen." We don't change a single scene or even a single line -- we just insert that serial instead, intact. (Oh, OK, we change one line: instead of the Doctor referencing "the bleakness of Jaconda," a reference back to "Twin," we just make it "the bleakness of Androzani.") There's the scene up front with the two Thames Water employees exploring the tunnels beneath Fleet Street, and then we cut to the TARDIS interior (as noted, with no deviations from "Attack" as it aired), getting our first glimpse of the Doctor since his regeneration. And there he is in a new costume, hard at work repairing the TARDIS's chameleon circuit. Peri enters the room munching on an apple, and cautions him:

Peri: Look, Doctor, do you really think you're up to this? I mean, you've only recently regenerated and yet you've undertaken so much work. (The Doctor takes a bite from her apple and continues) Well, what I really mean to say is, you still seem a little unstable.
Doctor: Unstable? Unstable? This is me, Peri. At this very moment I am as stable as you will ever see me.
Peri: Oh dear...
Doctor: You must forget how I used to be. I'm a Time Lord. (Exiting into the console room) A man of science, temperament and passion.
Peri (Following after him): And a very loud voice!
Doctor: Yes. Yes, that too. But not unstable. This is the real me, Peri. But don't be afraid. I won't hurt you. I promise.
Peri: I still think you're doing too much. You need to rest.
Doctor: Rest? Nonsense. Rest is for the weary, sleep is for the dead. I feel like a hungry man eager for the feast!

It's the first scene we've have of the two of them since his regeneration, and it's lovely. Time has passed since we saw the Doctor change; maybe it's a few hours later, maybe a few days. The series didn't feel the need to put us through four episodes of a "regeneration crisis," because they'd already done that with the Fifth Doctor in "Castrovalva," and weren't going to do it better. They didn't even feel a need to put us through the requisite "Doctor picks out a costume" bit, because how were they going to top the Fourth Doctor's fashion show in "Robot"? We've avoided the strangulation scene, and everything that gets our opinion of the Sixth Doctor and his relationship with Peri off to the worst possible start. Instead, we instantly see the beginning of a promising pairing. This new Doctor can be pompous and irascible -- setting him firmly apart from his predecessor (as Baker and the creative team desired) and giving him room to grow over the next few years (as Baker and the creative team anticipated) -- but Peri isn't terrified by him: she's equal parts concerned and amused. And able to put him in his place, when necessary:

Doctor: I suddenly feel conspicuous.
Peri: I'm not surprised, in that coat.

And through the course of the serial, we come to see the new Doctor at his most demanding and outrageous, but we accept and maybe even appreciate those qualities, because Peri does. She laughs at his failed attempt to fix the chameleon circuit when the TARDIS, having landed in a junkyard, disguises itself (poorly) as a ornamental dresser; she grins when it tries again, turning itself this time into a pipe organ. ("I'm not saying a word," she informs the Doctor, saying everything she needs to by not saying a word.) And when they start out on their first adventure, they do so as equals, as when she prods the Doctor in the back, making him jump:

Doctor: Don't do that!
Peri: I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were so scared.
Doctor: I'm not scared. I was thinking.
Peri: Well, I was thinking too. You know that man we found back there, do you think the alien killed him? And if he did, how do you think it'll respond to us?
Doctor: With gratitude. After all, I do have the means of getting it off this planet.
Peri: I only hope it believes you.
Doctor: Well, if it doesn't, I shall beat it into submission with my charm.

She smiles at the Doctor's boast that he'll "beat it into submission with my charm." She doesn't roll her eyes; she smiles. This new Doctor has a lot to learn, but down deep, Peri likes him, and if he's a little rough around the edges, well, she can work with that. His self-adoration could be annoying, but she's entertained and even charmed by it. And she's quite willing to put up with his bullheadedness and more exasperating idiosyncrasies, because he clearly appreciates having her around:

Doctor: Our alien is being ultra-cautious. He's bouncing the signal off several relay points around London. It could take days to find out where it's coming from.
Peri: Giving him plenty of time to move on.
Doctor: Hmm. You are brilliant, Peri. Absolutely brilliant!

He values her advice:

Peri: Look, Doctor, this isn't some deserted planet in the middle of nowhere. You don't have to play the Lone Ranger.
Doctor: Hmm? Yes. Yes, you're absolutely right.

And he knows she's a force to be reckoned with:

Peri: Never do such a stupid thing again! I could have killed you.
Doctor: I believe you.
Peri: Don't patronize me.
Doctor: I wouldn't dare. You did very well. I'm impressed.

And Peri -- in keeping up with this new Doctor, and putting him in his place, and even, at one point, disarming a policeman -- gets to show the same pluck and initiative that made her so appealing in her debut story, "Planet of Fire." She's quick-witted and game for adventure; he's self-absorbed but sincere. And like so many of the best TARDIS teams, they use chiding and gentle bickering as a means of conveying admiration and affection. Could we ask for a better pairing -- or a better start? How much better might the Sixth Doctor era have looked if this is how it had begun? And how much more excited about the future might viewers have been if this new Doctor's first adventure had been a stylishly-helmed Cybermen story instead of some dreary nonsense about adolescent twins?

How much better a first impression would the Sixth Doctor era have made if it had given us a debut story in which both Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant are at their very best? I am not a big Colin Baker fan (at least, not of his performances during his original run on Doctor Who), but he's marvelous here, nailing every subtle shift of emotion. As opposed to "Twin Dilemma," here's a script that plays to everything Baker does best, and he imbues the proceedings with a remarkable blend of untamed energy, self-reflection and light-footed charm. All the annoying mannerisms that proved a blemish on "Twin Dilemma" (and will once again resurface in the following serial, "Vengeance on Varos") are absent here: the constant pursing of his lips, his annoying tendency to over-enunciate, and his unfortunate habit of barking his lines -- all in an effort to appear commanding. Here, he feels fully in command of the role simply by inhabiting it, in a way he won't again until "The Two Doctors." And Bryant is a wonder. You see Peri choosing her words carefully -- constantly self-adjusting and self-correcting to better adapt to this new Doctor -- but she's not the timid mouse she'll become in the serials to come. Bryant runs the gamut of emotions, too; we see her compassion, her thirst for excitement, her deductive powers and her keen survival instincts. Bryant, like Baker, nails everything that's asked of her -- and then some. Had this been their introductory serial, they might well have seemed like one of the most promising pairs in the series' long history.

And most important, how much better would the Sixth Doctor era have fared if, in developing the rest of the stories to fill out Season 22, the writers who were hired -- Philip Martin, Pip & Jane Baker and Glen McCoy -- had had this serial to refer back to, to get a sense of the Doctor and Peri's relationship, instead of "Twin Dilemma"? Because when you watch "Vengeance on Varos" and "Mark of the Rani" and, in particular, "Timelash," and you see the Doctor heaping verbal abuse on Peri and her recoiling in clear terror, it seems pretty clear that the freelancers were using "Twin Dilemma" as their point of reference. (It was, of course, the only Sixth Doctor story that had aired when their stories were commissioned.) Here they are at the top of "Timelash" -- five full serials later -- and their relationship is stuck in the same pattern of him being abusive, her petrified, and both of them resentful:

Doctor: I was contemplating taking you to the constellation of Andromeda.
Peri: Why?
Doctor: I haven't been there recently, that's why.
Peri: Well, what about me? Don't I ever get a say in our destination?
Doctor: Oh? Where would the First Lady suggest?
Peri: Well, I don't mind.
Doctor: Ha! (He walks away angry) Does nothing please you?
Peri: Yes. Purposeful travel, not aimless wanderings.
Doctor (shouting): Aimless? You see our time together as aimless?
Peri (stammering, staring at the floor): No, no, not exactly. I guess not.
Doctor (threatening): I should hope not. Or perhaps you're trying to tell me you've had enough. In that case I can easily set the coordinates for Earth, 1985.
Peri (shamed): No, no, that won't be necessary.

It's horrible -- as if Peri has been held hostage for months, and has grown too terrified to imagine life outside the TARDIS. And the Doctor has no affection or use for her at all. (At one point during "Timelash," he's shown, via monitor, an image of Peri chained to a wall, a monster mere feet from her face, and he reacts with bland indifference. At the end of the serial, when they reunite aboard the TARDIS, he insults her intelligence, then informs her, with regard to the threat of danger, "The only dangerous thing is having you on board to distract me." Boy, does he hate her.) But of course, that wasn't how script editor Eric Saward (who wrote "Attack" in consultation with Who continuity adviser Ian Levine) intended their relationship to remain beyond their first serial. Saward scripts their exchanges in "Attack" as playfully combative and mutually respectful, where at any time either of them could gain the upper hand. But in the four serials after "Attack" -- up until "Revelation of the Daleks" (Saward's next script) -- the Doctor and Peri resume the abusive dynamic forged in "Twin Dilemma," no doubt because that's all the writers had to use as a template. And Saward, with his "don't get too involved" demeanor and "blame the author if it's bad" approach, didn't bother to make the necessary corrections. Had "Attack" served as the Sixth Doctor's debut, it would have avoided all the issues that proceed to plague the era -- in particular, the troubling relationship between its two leading characters.

End of fan fiction. Somewhere among my Doctor Who fantasies, there's a version of Season 21 that ends with "Attack of the Cybermen" instead of "The Twin Dilemma" and transforms Season 22 as a result. (It's up there with the fantasy in which I imagine director John Black becoming a regular contributor to the Fifth Doctor era, and tackling all the serials that were ultimately handed to the pedestrian Ron Jones, but that's an essay for another day.) I think I can make the case -- and hopefully already have -- that the Doctor and Peri are infinitely better served in "Attack" than in "Twin." I'd now like to make the case for "Attack" as an under-appreciated, solid serial in its own right -- but that's a harder task. Not harder because I don't care for it; I do, very much. Harder because although it's -- in many circles -- a much-slagged serial, I don't truly know what folks object to. With the first five entries in this series of "neglected and maligned serials," I understand the reservations: the bleak tone and undernourished look of "Terminus"; the Monoids' ridiculous get-up in "The Ark"; the frivolity of "Delta" (frivolity not being a quality that lots of Whovians take to); the lightweight treatment of the Daleks in "Death"; the missing episodes and lack of a real Cybermen presence in "Wheel in Space."

But I truly have no idea why folks object to "Attack." Oh sure, there's the continuity porn: the obsessive need to reference aspects of Doctor Who history that newcomers might not easily grasp, and the efforts to make sense of the Cybermen's mystifying backstory. But none of it's done oppressively. The Doctor and Peri land in Totter's Lane apparently because the TARDIS has a delightful sense of humor, but it's not lingered on, and if you're unfamiliar with "An Unearthly Child," it flies right by without causing any disorientation. And although the exposition devoted to giving the Cybermen a semi-consistent backstory could conceivably trip up the Who neophyte, Peri is used expertly in these scenes as a viewer surrogate, absorbing the information as we might and asking the questions we no doubt would -- and it all goes down rather easily. And oh sure, the Cybermen's latest plan -- which tries to tie together "The Tenth Planet," "Tomb of the Cybermen" and the 1985 appearance of Halley's Comet -- doesn't bear scrutiny, but when did they ever? If you're going to discard all the serials in the Classic Who canon where the villain's plan sounds a little off the beam, you'll end up eliminating half of them.

The graphic violence in "Attack" comes under fire as well, but really: it's a man getting his hands crushed, and it's bloody and disturbing, and it's over in 15 seconds. And it's not gratuitous: it's part of Lytton's redemptive arc, demonstrating just how far he's willing to go to protect the Cryons. And Lytton himself is one of the triumphs of "Attack"; Maurice Colbourne remains every bit as charismatic as he had been in "Resurrection of the Daleks," but now he has a character to portray, rather than merely a presence to bear -- and he rises nicely to the challenge. And although Brian Glover, as his colleague and stooge, only gets to use about a tenth of his talent, it's Brian Glover, for Pete's sake. He's beyond reproach. (Saward had intended to kill him off at the halfway mark, but grew to like the character so much, he decided to keep him around. He therefore serves no real purpose in Part 2, but Glover without purpose is better than no Glover at all, and when they get the chance, he and Colbourne show the makings of a fine double act.)

And "Attack" is easily one of the most stylishly directed of the '80s serials; Matthew Robinson outdoes his earlier, expert work in "Resurrection." It all looks marvelous and, when appropriate, moody: the London streets and sewers, the wastelands of Telos, and the Cyber headquarters. As in "Resurrection," the locations are defined in distinct visual styles, meaning each time you jump from one to another, the serial instantly refreshes itself. (It's unfortunate only that the Cyber Lair in London looks so much like Cyber Control on Telos; there are spots in Part 1 where it's difficult to know which Cyber-base you're at.) "Attack" is also one of the few times that the Sixth Doctor, in his technicolor bad-dream coat, and Peri, dolled up here in a hot pink leotard, don't look like fashion eyesores. Robinson keeps the settings muted -- the grisly grays of the London sewers, the off whites of the TARDIS and the Telos tombs -- so that the Doctor and Peri stand out naturally and effectively. Instead of aspiring to new levels of garishness, as if to match the Sixth Doctor's attire (as several later serials will do), Robinson mutes everything except Baker and Bryant, and it serves them well. And in addition to looking after his stars and his settings, Robinson makes the most of the pyrotechnics; both the humans getting zapped by Cybermen and the Cybermen getting defused by humans are carried out with flair and assurance. And although some bemoan the plotline with Stratton and Bates on Telos (that admittedly goes nowhere), when the two go commando decapitating a couple of Cybermen, using the sloping Telos terrain to give themselves the advantage of velocity, it's a boost of primal energy, indelibly staged.

The crystalline Cryons could have been just another generic indigenous race, but by making them all-female, Robinson provides the perfect contrast to both the Cybermen and the unbridled machismo that pervades all Saward scripts. And although the efforts to give each Cryon a distinctive personality don't pay off as planned, what does work is how the various Cryons react to the visitors from Earth -- and how the Earthlings respond in return. (Peri is particularly sharp-witted in picking up on their relationship with Lytton.) The conception of the Cryons, in fact, feels like a nice nod to the Hartnell era: the all-female race reminiscent of the Drahvins, their balletic gesturing evocative of the Menoptra -- and a nod to an earlier era isn't such a bad thing when you're rebooting a series for the fifth time.

It's only in the final quarter that the quality takes a nosedive, as the serial dissolves into the sort of shoot-it-out, blow-'em-up finale that had become a Saward trademark. But even as a sort of willful incoherence takes over, you take heart -- as you did in Saward and Robinson's last effort, "Resurrection of the Daleks" -- in recognizing that incoherence trumps blandness. And Whovians are traditionally forgiving of final episodes that run off the rails -- from "Pyramids of Mars" to "Hand of Fear" -- and final-act bloodbaths were standard fare: from "The Daleks' Master Plan" to "Colony in Space," from "Horror of Fang Rock" to "Warriors of the Deep." "Attack of the Cybermen" was merely the latest in a time-honored tradition. And through the more feeble final stretches, the sturdy playing of Baker, Bryant and Colbourne does a lot to redeem it.

For me, "Attack of the Cybermen" remains the highlight of the Sixth Doctor era, an era so hobbled by its introductory story that it never recovers. And perhaps one of the reasons that "Attack" has never enjoyed the popularity that it deserves is that once "Twin Dilemma" has set up such a mean-spirited premise, the breezier tone of "Attack" can't easily and instantly undo it. After such a dour kick-off to the Sixth Doctor era, "Attack of the Cybermen" -- with the Doctor and Peri as the most delightfully bickering screwball couple the series has seen since the Fourth Doctor and Romana I; with the mock-martial "Lytton's Theme" punctuating seemingly every third or fourth scene; even with Stratton and Bates and their hillside game of whack-a-monster -- seems a little too lightweight to command respect. It's not until the next adventure, "Vengeance," which continues -- in tone and characterization -- down the dark path begun in "Twin" (and adds the sting of satire) that many fans begin to take the era "seriously." But that darker path proves, in the end, sour and unsustainable, perpetuating a toxic relationship between the lead characters that sullies the series. The bad taste left by "Twin Dilemma" all but assures that much of the Sixth Doctor era will remain resolutely earthbound. Had "Attack" been the template for the stories to come, who knows how the era might have soared.

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Next up, the Fourth Doctor's "The Leisure Hive." Want even more Doctor Who? I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials here; take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era (including a 10-best list); and take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years. And of course, if you haven't yet read my appreciations of "Terminus", "The Ark," "Delta and the Bannermen," "Death to the Daleks" and "The Wheel in Space," check 'em out!


  1. Might have to watch this one again. I remember enjoying it back in 1985 but it kind of blurred into the horror that was Season 22, a run my 15 year old self despised mostly. Having seen it since, I can see more merit to it (though the Cryons look farcical). I dislike the nihilism of it, a typical Sawardian quality that doesn't feel like Doctor Who to me. The show is steeped in death, I know, but there should always be hope and always 'another way'.

  2. By the way, the layout spruce up looks great!

    1. Thanks! I figured it was time I update the blog to look a little more like 2018 and a little less like 1918...

      Your 15-year-old self and my 58-year-old self share a similar dislike for Season 22. But do take another look at "Attack" if you get a chance. As noted, I don't see it steeped in nihilism -- or at least, I don't see that as its overriding impression; on the contrary, what I appreciate most about "Attack" is its buoyancy -- and how many Sixth Doctor serials can you say *that* about? Oh, absolutely, as you say, Saward liked his violence, but there's something enormously appealing about Six and Peri in this particular serial -- something that, for me, is never recaptured in any of their other adventures (except, perhaps, for the opening scenes of "Mysterious Planet"). As I say, if this had been the template for their relationship, and for their exploits, who knows how much more palatable the whole Sixth Doctor era might have been.

  3. Interesting read, Tommy. It's strange to think that Saward's two stories were the two with the best characterizations of The Doctor and Peri, given Saward's less-than-flattering comments on Colin's suitability for the role.

    Also, my own fan-fiction is that when The Doctor re-booted the universe at the end of The Big Bang, he carefully edited out The Twin Dilemma, figuring that was the least he could do for Peri.

    1. Well either way, we're in agreement: "Twin Dilemma" needs to get gone! I absolutely feel that, in Season 22, Six and Peri are best served in "Attack" and "Revelation" (where else would she have dared call him "Porky," as she does in the latter serial?), and given – as you say – that Saward had no enthusiasm for Baker's casting, it's rather a miracle that he wrote for him so well. So much of that era is a mystery to me. I postulate that the freelancers wrote Six as abusive to Peri because that's all they'd seen, in "Twin," and Saward didn't bother to correct. But that's supposition. I hope someday we get more answers than the usual "we wanted to do a darker Doctor, who'd mellow over time," because that oft-repeated story doesn't, for me, clarify all the story-telling oddities and inconsistencies of the Colin Baker era.

  4. Good article!

    Attack sure has its flaws, yet it's one I do enjoy returning to. Among other worthy parts, Attack is also, sadly, about the only time I can say actually like the Sixth Doctor on tv. The only other ones close are Revelation (Saward again) and Terror of the Vervoids, although I accept with Vervoids that's a Sixth Doctor with all the sharp edges filed off. In Attack it's the Sixth Doctor as intended, his usual pompous and arrogant and rash and rude self, but importantly that self-importance is often punctured and the energetic, crusading, actually witty and morally inflinching elements allowed to come through, as you detail so well. I love him charging up and down the London streets, determined to find the truth and save the day.

    It's a balance that almost none of the writers were able to hit, and it is indeed pretty believeable that the shadow of The Twin Dilemma was what helped to inform all of that. Definitely put me in the camp that feels like Attack would've made a much better intro for Colin's Doctor than Twin, and it's unfortunately about the only glimpse at what the Sixth Doctor could've been on tv, rather than what he usually was instead.

    1. Hey Damon, so glad you enjoyed. We are very much on the same page about the Sixth Doctor on TV -- "Attack" is really the only serial of his I keep returning to, although (just like you) I do like him in "Revelation" and "Vervoids." I came to Classic Who late -- I didn't watch my first serial till I was 52 -- and I watched the serials in pretty much random order. I have no idea what my first Sixth Doctor serial was, but I didn't take to him at all -- I couldn't get over how badly drawn the character was. I had by then heard all the apocryphal stories about what Baker and the creative team hoped to do with the Doctor, but there are ways to make a character (as you put it) "pompous and arrogant and rash and rude" and STILL make him admirable and entertaining. But they couldn't manage it. So watching "Attack" (probably the fourth or fifth Sixth Doctor serial I saw) was a revelation -- and a mystery, as I thought, "Why couldn't they manage this anywhere else?" I know others who respond to the Sixth Doctor far more than I do, but for me, "Attack" stands as a template for a marvelous era that never happened.