Attack of the Mediocre

Review of Attack of the Cybermen (#138)
DVD Release Date: 07 Jul 09 (Out of Print)
Original Air Date: 05 - 12 Jan 1985
Doctor/Companion: Six, Peri Brown
Stars: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant
Preceding Story: The Twin Dilemma (Six, Peri)
Succeeding Story: Vengeance on Varos (Six, Peri)

After I posted my last review, which was for the Peter Davison audio adventure Spare Parts, one of my regular readers pointed out that I haven't reviewed all of the televised adventures, and suggested I consider doing more. Given that my focus has generally been on the more-readily-agreed-to-be-canonical TV run, I thought that was a great idea—especially since it also makes it easier to come up with something to post about.

So I went and made a list of the DVD reviews I've already done, and the stories covered on in Nu-Views and Retro-Views, and proceeded to make a convoluted spreadsheet. I decided I should begin with ones I've never touched on at all, and try to even out the proportionality of reviews to available serials across all the pre-Hiatus/Classic Doctors.

Colin Baker turned out to be most slighted in this sense, in that only two of his eleven serials (counting the Trial of a Time Lord as four serials) have been reviewed, and one of those was a Nu-View. That means 82% of C. Baker's run is untouched (T. Baker is at 62%, Davison 60%, McCoy 50%, Troughton 50% (of existing serials), Hartnell 47% (existing), and Pertwee 33%). I seemed obvious, then to start with Ol' Sixie. But which serial?

It didn't take long for me to pick one, and several to come after. Having just witnessed the ultimate beginning of the Cybermen last month, and realizing that three more Doctors also had unreviewed Cybermen stories, I settled on a theme. First up, then, is Six's encounter in Attack of the Cybermen.

One of the advantages of reviewing less familiar stories (I'd only seen this one a couple times before) is that I can still be a "new" fan to a certain degree. Because I didn't grow up watching Doctor Who, I still come to it from the perspective of one who believes post-Hiatus/NuWho is just as much "proper Doctor Who" as the pre-Hiatus/Classic stuff. And since I couldn't remember off the top of my head what the story was about—even when looking at the DVD cover art—I didn't have many pre-conceptions, despite it not being entirely new to me.

For the previous three seasons—the entirety of the Fifth Doctor's run and the first serial of the Sixth's—the BBC had been broadcasting the serials in 25-minute episodes aired on subsequent days (Mondays and Tuesdays, or Tuesdays and Wednesdays for Seasons 19 and 20; Thursdays and Fridays for Season 21) such that any given adventure was completed within two weeks. (The exception was Resurrection of the Daleks, which aired as two 45-minute episodes a week apart.)

When the Sixth Doctor came on board, the format changed once again. Not only did Season 22 return to Saturdays, but every story was presented in 45-minute episodes. It seems obvious in retrospect (as it may have at the time; as I said, I wasn't paying any attention then) that they were experimenting with different formats to see what that would do to their viewing numbers.

The season opens, then, using an unfamiliar structure, with a Doctor the audience has only seen through a single adventure so far and a Companion only barely more seasoned. Further, the rather rocky start to that relationship is still troubling poor Peri, and doubtless many viewers. I can't imagine all of that instilled confidence in fans at the time.

You'd think that those concerns wouldn't be an issue from today's perspective; after all, those 45-minute episodes should feel familiar to someone like me who started my viewing with the modern era. Sadly, that change from previous seasons was only skin deep (more on that below).

The Doctor's vaguely erratic behavior leads him to attempt to repair the Chameleon Circuit, allowing for some comedy relief along the way as the TARDIS either struggles to comply or decides to take the mickey out of the Doctor by choosing a couple of really awkward forms (a gaudily painted wardrobe (or some such) and a pipe organ) before settling into something more useful (a gated doorway) during the adventure and reverting to her preferred police box form by the end.

The story starts off sluggishly, with the various threads mostly making the script confusing and difficult to follow. Cutting back and forth between the TARDIS crew at home and the sewer tunnels under London where the more sinister action was taking place kept the two parallel plot threads moving forward in a way necessary to get them to converge later, but there is little connection between them until nearly twenty minutes into Part One.

On the up side, we get a recurring henchman. Lytton, whom the Doctor (and the audience) encountered in the previous season just before Peri came on board (during the aforementioned Resurrection of the Daleks), now apparently has nothing to do with his former employers the Daleks. Instead, he seems to be masterminding a diamond heist. Of course, this lack of continuity does nothing to help the audience get a grip on the plot.

Given that the pacing takes its cues from a 25-minute episode format, it is perhaps unsurprising that things only begin to make some semblance of sense at that time marker; the story beats are unchanged despite the doubled length. Thus it is halfway through Part One that the connection between the two threads finally begins to make a modicum of sense, just as we get the first in-story reveal of the Cybermen's involvement.

Frustratingly, the pacing trend continues, and as we move quickly past the resolution of the would-be cliffhanger, a new plot thread is woven into the narrative. It was not until the early stages of Part Two (which would have been Part Three of a standard four-parter) that the details clicked. Of course, by then yet another thread (a species called the Cryons) has been introduced, not to be fully resolved until what would've been Part Four.

This serial uses plenty of common Who tropes, from the aforementioned story structure to the presence of the Cybermen to the baddies' attempt to change history in their own favor. For some viewers these may have felt comforting among all the strange newness of this TARDIS team, but for me they were just pedestrian.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this story; it's perfectly serviceable, falling in neither the best nor worst columns. By the same token, though, it is—for me, at least—not terribly memorable. The main highlight, as far as I'm concerned, is the way the TARDIS chooses to disguise herself. I believe she wanted to show her Time Lord that she'd noticed he had tried to adjust her Chameleon Circuit (so he couldn't complain that she'd ignored him completely) before going back to doing things her own way.

I set out to watch a story about the Cybermen, but I came away with an impression of this story that had very little to do with that old adversary. When I think back on this one, the highlights are the Chameleon Circuit, Lytton, the Cryons, and then the Cybermen. If you're looking for Cyber-stories specifically, I recommend starting elsewhere, but if all you want is a standard, mediocre Doctor Who adventure, this one has most of the hallmarks.

We'll see if the next selection can rise above the "meh."

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Comments

I so wanted to like Attack but apart from a few moments of light relief, such as Brian Glover character impersonating a cyberman, I came away with a feeling of meh but also concern that the denouement had shown the blood when Lytton was tortured. I suspect was part of the what I suppose I should refer to as the Saward agenda, i.e. to show that violence had consequences. In itself not an unreasonable pov, but suitable for essentially a family tv show?

Other bugbears included:
* using a sonic lance (because the sonic screwdriver no longer existed)
* casting the actor from Tomb to play the Cyber Controller. The character looked different because of the design and sounded different because of the technology now being used, so apart from a few fans obsessed with continuity, why on earth bother with that particular casting, unless you are obsessively focussed on continuity?
* Being able to knock the head off a cyber an with a decent smack to the head. It kind of picks away at their invincibility a bit.

In retrospect it seems that the start of S22 was a portent of things to come. After the positive reaction to the gritty realism of Caves in S21 I reckon that gritty realism was the default approach for too much of S22 much to the detriment of the programme. CB gets a bad press briefing but I have a soft spot for his portrayal although i never understood why Peri stayed after the volatility of the Doctor in Twin Dilemma.

C- for the production on this one!

By Wholahoop
mrfranklin's picture

I guess that explains why the Cyber Controller was a little on the pudgy side (compared to most Cybermen).

Any of the things you pointed out could be considered problematic to one degree or another, depending on the viewer. None of them (besides the physique of the Cyber Controller) particularly stood out to me, so as with everything in Who, YMMV.

I do think Colin gets a worse rap than he deserves. This isn't stellar, but it's certainly not the worst of the bunch, either.

By mrfranklin

Thank you for taking my suggestion. I don't think I've seen this episode (I haven't seen too many of the Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy episodes).

What I've seen of CB hasn't thrilled me too much. They like to make different incarnations of The Doctor different from eachother. While Peter Davidson may have been a little too nice, they contrasted it by making CB totally obnoxious.

Fair enough. The Doctor can be obnoxious. But I never found it endering.

It doesn't sound like Attack of the Cybermen was one of their best episodes. But I think your idea of reviewing several episodes that feature the same villian (in this case the cybermen) has merrit. Contrasting the same villian through different eras and different Doctors is a fine idea. I look forward to seeing more.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

The Sixth Doctor is the incarnation it took me longest to appreciate. I think in part the writers let Colin down. He did the best he could with what they gave him, but they forgot to include any sort of mellowing or character growth, so he had to wedge that in himself as he went (especially in regards to his relationship with Peri).

I'm glad you like my Cybermen plan. :)

By mrfranklin

I agree that the writing let CB down. Also his costume. It was hard to take him seriously when he was dressed like a clown.

Generally, the writing is very important in Doctor Who. Frequently the situations The Doctor finds himself in are so rediculous that you really need to concentrate on writing a consistent character to make the show plausable.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Colin often says the best part of his costume is that he was on the inside looking out. ;)

Yes! Consistency—and growth—are key. I don't think poor Ol' Sixie got those. :\

By mrfranklin
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