A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2009.
Attack of the Cybermen gets off to a flying start. The opening scene, as two workmen are attacked in a London sewer by an unknown menace, is double-distilled Doctor Who. It’s timeless stuff, and we could imagine cutting from there to any Doctor in the TARDIS, from Hartnell to Tennant and beyond. But then it all goes wrong. Grotesquely and shamefully wrong.
The storyline is like a fraying sweater. Pull on any of a dozen loose threads and the yarn unravels entirely. It doesn’t help that the pacing of the story is all to hell. Doctor Who’s 22nd season was gifted with 45-minute episodes, but nobody knew what to do with them, least of all the script editor – and writer of this adventure – Eric Saward. Attack, as with every other story from this year bar perhaps Timelash, sees the TARDIS land well away from the action, requiring the Doctor and Peri to hike miles in search of the drama, sniping every step of the way. Here, they are obliged to chase a distress signal broadcast in a madly complicated way, for reasons never made clear, by alien mercenary Lytton. After 17 minutes, they return to the TARDIS to discuss it further. By the 33rd minute, after more wandering about, the Doctor decides to go back to the TARDIS again, and only then does he finally collide with the plot. To be fair, in the meantime the Doctor and Peri do meet Lytton’s two policeman lackeys, one of whom the Doctor beats up before he has any reason to suspect he’s not a real copper. They capture the second officer but, bizarrely, make no attempt to question him. It’s almost as if the Doctor’s read the script and knows it’s too soon for him to find out anything interesting.
Meanwhile, the Cybermen are up to no good beneath Fleet Street. They’ve been there for a little while, converting sewage workers and building walls – which leaves us with the appealing image of a Cyberman carefully mixing sand and cement, and tapping bricks into place with the back of a trowel. Later we learn these are Cybermen from the planet Telos in the far future (as seen in Tomb of the Cybermen) who have shuttled down via the moon, somehow, as part of a plot to smack Halley’s Comet into Earth (you may want to pause for a breath now) in order to alter history and save the other Cyber world, Mondas (as seen in The Tenth Planet) from destruction. Blimey. To understand how insanely inappropriate this story is, imagine watching Doctor Who in the year 2027, and the next 22nd series launching with a story where some Cybermen who escaped the destruction of the Cyber King (as seen in The Next Doctor) find a time machine and use it to alter history to prevent the rest of the race from crossing from their parallel Earth (as seen in Army of Ghosts). It’s the kind of story that breeds in the darkest corners of the internet, and should never be broadcast at Saturday teatime on BBC1.
Attack of the Cybermen would be just about acceptable if it was played out in the company of charming characters, but this certainly isn’t the Doctor Who your reviewer signed up for. The cruelty and brutality leave a nasty aftertaste. By halfway through episode one, both the Doctor and Peri are carrying loaded pistols in their pockets. At the end of the story, the Doctor employs all the wit and ingenuity for which the character has become famous by shooting the Cyber Controller in the chest. That’s not merely bad Doctor Who, it’s the opposite of Doctor Who.
To prevent this review being an entirely joyless rant – by someone who hates joyless rants – let’s give some praise where it’s due. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant do their best with the material they’re given, and so no blame to them. The guest cast are, without exception, brilliant – and special mention must go to Maurice Colbourne and Brian Glover as Lytton and Griffiths, who deliver one of the most interesting supporting partnerships of the era. And the Cybermen are never less than adorable. You can only love the one who discovers a roomful of explosives in the story’s closing minutes and selflessly waves to his friend as if shouting: “Run, Jeremy, run! Save yourself!” Also, watch the scene in Cyber Control at 32’26” into episode one to enjoy the Cyber-extra who picks his way tentatively across the back of shot, clearly trying to remember which arm to move with which leg. He’s so sweet. It’s like having Adric back.
The Cold War, from producer John Kelly, is a masterclass in how to deliver an informative and intelligent behind-the-scenes documentary. For your reviewer, it’s even a piece of interactive television, as he thoroughly enjoys shouting ‘WRONG!’ at every pronouncement by Eric Saward. Discussing the appalling scene where Lytton has his hands crushed by the Cybermen, Saward is unrepentant. “I don’t feel at all guilty,” he says. “It’s what would have happened.” What a specious argument. Yes, if a robot monster with the strength of ten decided to punish an upstart mercenary from Riften V, the result might well be a couple of handfuls of bloody pulp. But such a thing will never happen because this is just a TV programme, so the brutality is entirely Saward’s gift. A Cyberman might equally well decide to rip out Lytton’s large intestine and festoon it about his ear-lugs like tinsel, but only if Saward wanted him to. A line must be drawn somewhere, and it’s the production team’s responsibility to stop violence becoming gratuitous. In Saward’s defence, we learn that producer John Nathan-Turner wanted even more gore on display. The mind boggles.
The Cyber Story, a trip through the history of the monsters, comes with a shocking script. “The first step in the history of the Cybermen was their appearance,” blithers the narration. Producers of these extras wouldn’t employ a cameraman who doesn’t know how to focus a camera, so why use a writer who can’t focus a sentence? Happily, the interviewees prove more engaging. Sandra Reid, genius designer of the 60s Cybermen, explains why the ailing population of Mondas came to style themselves first as rather startled-looking sock puppets before learning to embrace the couture possibilites of three-inch Hoover hose. Other key players from the Cyberman stories offer a few words, but it all rather peters out after discussion of Tomb. The remainder of the documentary is given over to Kevin Warwick, professor of Cybernetics at Reading University, who claims to be our first “human cyborg”. Sadly, this doesn’t mean he likes to lurk in sewers making unlikely plans for Halley’s comet – unless he does that at weekends. Professor Warwick has a computer chip implanted in his wrist that allows him to control electronic gubbins via his own nervous system. What does this mean for the future? Soon, he might be able to order an oven-ready lasagne by daydreaming about Tesco.com. He could cook it merely by narrowing his eyes at the microwave. This Cyber-conversion process may well signal the end of the well-prepared meal.
There’s more – too much more – of the electric professor in both an ‘easter egg’ and a further extra, where he reveals that hundreds of eager volunteers write to him every week asking if they can be upgraded. He should give them a shock by posting back a grey balaclava and a couple of wire coat hangers. In modern Doctor Who, John Lumic had to throw the homeless into meat grinders to produce his Cybermen. It appears all he really needed was a spread in Wired magazine and a million nerds would have rushed for the chance to beta-test Human 2.0. Although Lumic’s conquest of Earth might have been thwarted after his army stopped every 10 yards to Twitter about it.
The commentary features Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant with guest stars Terry Molloy (Russell) and Sarah Berger (Rost) taking an episode each. It’s a rather dry affair, and the participants seem uninspired by what they’re watching, though we do learn that Bryant’s underwear was regularly stolen from her dressing room during her time on Doctor Who. What wretched behaviour. Couldn’t the thieves have popped next door and taken the Doctor’s coat instead? More informative is an excellent set of ‘info text’ subtitles, full of fascinating production trivia. The least-glamorous and unsung DVD extra, these tracks must take months to research, compile and synchronise to the action on screen, and this is a particularly good offering. “Colin Baker wanted to begin as an unlikable Doctor whom the audience would grow to love as the years rolled by,” reads one caption, reminding us of the central tragedy of this incarnation. The audience didn’t appear to want a hero they couldn’t like – a not unreasonable response – and so this risky idea backfired. However, with a warmer and more welcoming Sixth Doctor proving popular on audio 25 years later, Baker must take some comfort from the fact he fulfilled his goal in the end.