Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermen (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros see if this Cybermen story is either solid-gold or tainted brass
The Doctor, Sarah and Harry escape the clutches of Davros and the Daleks, T-matting away from Skaro back to the safety of the Nerva Beacon, where they must sit tight and wait for the TARDIS to catch up with them. Little do they realise that an old enemy is initiating the final phase of a master plan, and they don’t like Timelords interfering with their business. So much for the Doctor’s grasp of time…
A plague is running rampant through the crew of the Nerva beacon, but not the station as our heroes knew it: the time is many years earlier, and what is eventually becomes the Ark in space is serving as a warning to protect space-traffic from the uncharted planet of Voga. The source of the plague seems to be less than naturally occurring, serving as a diversion for something much bigger. The surviving crew of the beacon have a turncoat in their midst, but why are the Vogans so interested in the fate of a mere warning buoy?
It’s not letting the cat out of the bag to say that the Cybermen are involved in the proceedings, with forces being joined to combat the cybernetic foe. Naturally, the destruction of a planet of gold would be desirable for a race to whom it is a lethal substance, and its’ residents plan to strike back with deadly force, with no conscience for the humans (and Time Lord) who get caught in the crossfire.
Given that Revenge of the Cybermen always figures in the bottom quarter of all-time Doctor Who rankings, it’s safe to say that it isn’t a popular story. This is unsurprising considering the amount of rewrites it had to undergo to get Gerry Davis’ story into a workable shooting-script. The result is an ineffectual mess, but most folks reading this are well aware of this fact. Let’s rake over the coals.
The Cybermen have always held a fascination for us, as there is something more inherently menacing about them than Daleks. Many criticise how they appeared in their debut story The Tenth Planet, but we always saw this design as ghostlike, and indicative of a species trying to survive through augmenting their bodies with whatever it took. OK, we really didn’t go for the voices, but could live with them. It was during Pat Troughton’s time that we feel the Cybermen found their best, with creepy, Peter Hawkins-supplied voices. They really did look like an extension of Nazi ideology, a point of view too quickly attributed to the Daleks. Both suffered when they made the transition to colour, with a good chunk of their menace left firmly back in monochrome. Revenge of the Cybermen leaves our boys in silver with little in the way of fear-factor.
Having said that, Revenge of the Cybermen does see the introduction of the Cyber-Leader’s catchphrase, that of exclaiming ’excellent’ when things are going his way. This is a really visceral, lusty example of how you can give a ‘faceless’ enemy something to say which establishes a strong personality. This is another area where they win over the Daleks, as yelling ’exterminate’ only means one thing.
Staying with more positive things, the three-sided story has hints of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly about it, where the relationships between the three parties shift and change throughout the run of the story, until their real motivations are revealed. We have to be honest in saying that there is a Hell of a lot wrong with Revenge of the Cybermen, but at least the factions written into the plot take their time to develop, which is different to a lot of other Doctor Who tales, where the baddies are the enemy just because they are.
To keep the praise rolling for the writing, there are some decent concepts at play, which hold up to this day—not to mention still being used. The whole element of the ‘plague’ being removed from the body by means of separation through a matter transport (T-Mat) system has become a staple of Star Trek, with the de-con process used as standard, or conveniently malfunctioning where scripts need it.
What sinks the good points mentioned above is the A-B plotting and machinations once the ingenious ideas of the first two episodes are rolled out. You end up thinking ’OK, we’ve been in the caves long enough. Bet it’s going to go to the Vogan chambers now. Right, we’ve had the expected amount of political ramblings, so it’s now time to go back up to the beacon’. This is a show which thrives on the average, almost relying on Tom Baker to improvise a little life into proceedings. Jesus, it even blows the reintroduction of the Cybermen by merely depositing a shot of them in screen with no build up or fanfare. For a show called ’Revenge of the Cybermen’, they really didn’t care about trumpeting their return. Just compare that to the covert tactics employed to keep their appearance secret for Earthshock.
Whilst examining the good things, Peter Howell’s Radiophonic music makes for a very welcome addition, as it underpins Carey Blyton’s original material to take the campy edge off of it—which contained far too many xylophones to be credible. Best of all is an instance where the Howell’s work really gets the chance to shine: towards the end of episode three, the Cybermen and Vogans go head-to-head in the caves, Howell’s score moodily creates an oppressive throb to the ensuing slaughter, and is a prime example of how electronics can work when creating a soundtrack. We’ve all experienced some of the awful examples during the Pertwee era, where it sounds like a cat dancing on the keys of a synthesiser, so Howell scores a number of points here.
The location of Wookey Hole is effective, and so far removed from the studio that it functions well as an alien environment. Our problem is that the lighting could have been so much better. As it stands, it has the appearance of being shot by a news crew, with the traditional one-camera-one-light policy that reinforces the reality of what you are seeing being on TV, shattering the illusion. OK, you can argue that it could be read as ‘documentary reality’, but let’s close the door on that one. The Jon Pertwee story The Mutants saw some subterranean filming at Chislehurst caves, and we’d bet that in spite of all the problems, the Revenge of the Cybermen shoot was easier, if just for not having to put up with geeks in costumes running around brandishing foam weapons.
Let’s really get the constructive claws out, and to that end, we have to say that the Vogans are one of the most singularly unappealing races not only during Baker’s time on the show, but during the entire original run. Pertwee said on many occasions that it was only when the ‘half-masks’ were brought into the makeup process that he really started to buy into the show’s aliens, but the Vogans threw all the good work firmly into reverse. Their brows are not strong enough to remain motionless, an area where the Draconians triumphed, and the lone expression sported by the Vogans is a very smug, smackable one. There is virtually no attempt to blend the eyeholes in the mask to the face of the actor underneath, not to mention the mentality of the Vogans is deeply annoying. It’s a shame that the Doctor didn’t just implode the planet, taking both the Cybermen and the Vogans with it. Oh, did we also mention that the Vogans don’t look so much gold in hue as the colour of a particularly bad case of the splats.
Kevin Stoney has such a wonderful, world-weary face that it’s almost criminal to bury it under a load of makeup as Tyrum, chief council leader of Voga. He was so great as Tobias Vaughn in previous Cybermen story The Invasion, but could be just about anyone here. Poor old Michael Wisher is - once again, like Stoney—buried under a mask which consumes the majority of his face, so it’s no wonder that he had to come up with gimmicks and gesticulations to give Magrik enough character to differentiate him from the rest. It’s almost as though Douglas Adams based a certain character in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on them. The third member of the Vogans is Voras, who has an unhealthy obsession with his ‘sky striker’ missile, intent on blowing up the Nerva Beacon at all costs. You’d be hard-pushed to pick him out of a crowd, either.
There is an inescapably cynical air to the writing, but time seems to have rendered it even more so than it really was… or was it? What the Hell are we talking about? Well, anyone can tell you that gold is deadly to a Cybermen (the original variety, at least) and what could be a more perilous environment for one of them than a planet of AU? Boy, isn’t that a coincidence. What you have to remember that Revenge of the Cybermen was the first time gold was established as being a lethal substance to the metallic monsters. Whilst it tempers cynicism from those who know what can kill them, you can argue that creating the planet Voga in order to present their Achilles’ heel seems even more contemptuous. This argument is a classic example of a serpent swallowing its tail, but with characters as central to the fandom of Doctor Who, it’s worth debating some time.
The years between appearances were not kind to the Cybermen, firstly with the tweaking of the costumes. There is just something inherently wrong with the new suits, making them unnecessarily camp, and not just because they don’t photograph as well in colour as they do monochrome. We’ve never liked the premise of the ‘gun-eye’ in the forehead of the helmets, as it seems like something a child might have come up with, not to mention rather impractical. The only sensible element is choosing to implant energy weapons without a kickback when discharged, as the Cybermen would have looked as though they had nerve damage. We’ve always liked the original Cybermen, with their cold logic and controlled emotion almost making them a cybernetic version of Vulcans, and not the campy, mindless, Borg-inspired ones seen in Nu-Who. The problem here is that this time around, Mondas’ finest are too emotive, stripping them of the cold ruthlessness which makes them so very appealing. They have never been worse during the original run of the show. It might have been worse, as the Nu-Who ones always seem to beg the accompaniment of ’Y.M.C.A.’ as they march along.
The big element of danger during episode three always seemed to be rather synthetic to us, and it was rather gratifying to learn that it was indeed just that: an addition to increase the sense of danger to the protagonists. When the script was submitted, it was decided that there needed to be further peril in keep the amount of incident to a satisfactory level, so what did they do? Strapped bombs to the heroes and sent them down into the caves. Aside from the obvious, it also stops any niggling questions as to why they didn’t just rebel at the first opportunity. A similar thing was added to a sequence in Total Recall, when Arnie’s amazing cybernetic disguise was redrafted to also be a bomb, papering over holes in the script whilst keeping the sustaining suspense. In the case of Revenge of the Cybermen, it doesn’t work very well, as it is akin to strapping some TNT to a donkey and having it casually saunter towards Blackpool beach.
The reusing of the space-station sets from The Ark in Space was a stroke of budget-saving brilliance, and the money-men must have been really chuffed to keep the costs down on another outer-space Doctor Who adventure, but in our opinion, it backfires. Sure, it’s a nice idea that our heroes arrive at the same space station at a vastly differently point in time, but there is always something scratching in the back of your mind like a maddened cat that it’s purely a financial decision. The sets—particularly the corridor gazing out into the depths of space—are really impressive, and you can see why they wanted to get the most mileage out of them, and look amazing in The Ark in Space. Something seems to have happened during the intervening stories, or maybe when in storage, but the very same scenery looks rather drab and almost cheesy the second time around, in spite of Revenge of the Cybermen taking place a couple of millennia before, when you would expect it to seem fresh and shiny.
We have a soft-spot for the Cyber-Mats, and have never liked the redesign inflicted upon them for this particular project. The original ones were very cute, the kind of thing every kid would want running around their floor, but the phallic-like appearance comes across as comical, and the decision to use CSO for their more athletic manoeuvres really doesn’t work. We’ve all chuckled at old Tarzan movies where our guy in the loincloth wrestles with a patently rubber snake in a vain attempt to bring it to life, and Revenge of the Cybermen manages to bring the same principle to a whole new generation when the Cyber-Mats attack.
OK, it’s a minor thing, but mention of the ‘glitter-gun’ brings an unintended smile to our collective lips every time, particularly as the Cybermen are a little camp this time around. It sounds like a weapon created by the pro-gay lobby to brighten up the homes of homophobes in an attempt to make their world fabulous. Still, it sounds a lot like the ‘tinsel-pouch’ worn by Kenny Everett’s gay superhero Tinsel-Man, so is it any reason why the concept of the ‘glitter-gun’ can sound so amusing?
Well, what about the work of the stars? Ol’ Grinning Tom, whilst still finding his feet, delivers another solid performance, without a load of the extravagant tics and mugging which got on a lot of fans’ nerves later on. He eventually ended up becoming a one-man dissertation of the mechanics of Steptoe and Son, where skilful, measured, sophisticated humour for the smarter viewers was sharply contrasted (and undermined) by exaggerated comedy which would appeal to the great unwashed, who would ignore the more cerebral material.
We’ve always liked the character of Harry Sullivan, and he is one of the best things about this story. He is almost a companion version of Patrick Troughton, where he will bumble, make mistakes and any sign of his ego being inflated leads to his pomposity quickly being pricked. With the addition of a GP, the scientific side of the TARDIS is complete, and is always a treat to see Harry step in when life is in the balance. Next to Frazer Hines, Ian Marter is the best of the male companions, and proves to those too used to the standard one-Doctor-one-female formation that two civilians can really play off of each other, conveying information to the audience without having to have the Doctor rattle off yet more dialogue.
As for Elisabeth Sladen, well, she spits thespian outrage whilst presenting a jolly-hockey-sticks air of things being so very unfair. You want to slap her. You want to kick her in the arse for every time she is going to say the line ’Mr Smith, I need you’ in the future. Business as usual, in other words. Suppose you can read that as ‘reliable’.
Just for the record, let’s reiterate the largely-confirmed rumour which helped to rocket Revenge of the Cybermen to the top of most fans’ shit-list. When the BBC decided to dabble in the LaserDisc market in the early 80s, attendees at the big Twenty Years of a Time Lord event were asked which story they wanted to see released, and coming out on top was Tomb of the Cybermen. The BBC panicked when they realised it had been wiped, so substituted it for the similarly-titled Tom Baker story. That’s like unwrapping a present on Christmas day expecting to get a nice present, but its contents being that of dog-shit, human hair and broken glass.
OK, Revenge of the Cybermen is not very good, but how have 2Entertain left it looking for posterity? Let’s take a look.
There is a uniformly good look to most of Tom Baker’s time on the show, and Revenge of the Cybermen doesn’t buck the trend. Everything is clean and looks better than it has on any other format, including our hallowed LaserDisc, and that’s not to mention the Phillips Video2000 release! It is fairly obvious that the original film elements no longer exist, so the Restoration Team has cleaned it up as best they can. There is nothing much else to report, as it’s an accurate, faithful presentation of the story, and yet another sterling example of what can be done with some loving attention.
The same thing goes for the 2.0 mono soundtrack, with a clean presentation devoid of pops and other possible distractions. The music is forceful, which considering how awful Carey Blyton’s score is, might be a good thing. All credit where it’s due, as this is archive quality, and will be the way the audio to Revenge of the Cybermen will be remembered from now on.
The Tin Man and the Witch: Revenge of the Cybermen dared to film in the haunted recesses of Wookey Hole, and the weird occurrences are laid out for your ultimate judgment, along with the other trials of bringing back everybody’s favourite silver nemeses. Phillip Hinchcliffe’s first main series on the show was a trial by fire, having to drastically improve Gerry Davis’ already approved script whilst trying to keep the budget down, with Revenge of the Cybermen being the sum of its production parts. The consequences of making fun of Wookey Hole’s resident witch are detailed, sporting more than a whiff of coincidence about them, with our favourite being the time the world was nearly spared The Sarah Jane Adventures. Everybody is very open about the shortcomings, with Mr Hinchcliffe more willing than most to point out faults, and it’s all the better for such honesty. Any chance to see interview footage with the late Barry Letts is welcome by us.
Audio Commentary: Phillip Hinchcliffe, Elizabeth Sladen, Rodger Murray-Leech and ’David Collings… I played Voras - in a mask’. The group clearly like each other, and there is a good repartee between them. Collings relates how wearing the mask was great for hiding blushes as he went soaring over the top, and Sladen ponders at what point she ditched wearing her false eyelashes. Hinchcliffe is quick to point out the inadequacies in the writing, taking particular trouble to pick up on lulls in the pacing. One spooky tale not told in the above documentary is when Sladen and Ian Marter sat together going through a troublesome scene between the two of them, waiting until the end of the day to discuss it with the director. Come the end of filming the two actors were astounded to the find no traces of the sequence in their scripts—no existence of the piece at all!! At this point one of the commentary’s participants performs the theme to The Twilight Zone. You’ll have fun!
Cheques, Lies and Videotape: This might well be our favourite extra ever to grace a Doctor Who DVD. This is the story of the fervent trade in the show which started in the 80s, blossoming into a cottage industry in the 90s. This is a labour of love, and absolutely bottles the feeling of the time, when video offered fans a chance to see old episodes which had previously disappeared into the ether. Witness how lazy programming allowed UK fans to see a variety of tales which had no chance of being seen again! See the ludicrous sums Whovians shelled out!! This is terrific stuff, and we can honestly say we enjoyed every second of it. We have vivid memories of hawkers in the mid-90s selling nth generation copies of stories from UK Gold at the Westminster movie fair, and trade was certainly brisk. We showed this documentary to a friend of ours who was a member of a local Doctor Who club and had pretty much lived every experience on this documentary, he even mentioned one or two juicy experiences that weren't touched upon here, but our lips are sealed! Well done to all involved in this excellent documentary.
Location Report: It’s really nice that (possibly) the first on-camera interview with Tom Baker is included for posterity, but it’s not the most entertaining of experiences. The interviewer is a little too twee, trying to project a mildly humorous tone to the piece, but talking down to both the audience and Baker. Tom is as close to caught in the headlights as he could ever become, clearly captured before he developed his comfortable, kid-friendly ’Haven’t we met before? Behind the sofa, wasn’t it?’ persona he kept for dealing with the attention it brought him. Do note how poorly the alien costumes are shot, with every line in the makeup glaringly obvious, and not a seam left hidden. You can even see straight into the mouth of a Cyberman to reveal his nice pink lips within. Still, to end it with Baker and a couple of Cybermen walking into a pub was a nice touch, but it comes across as forced, as though filmed by the That’s Life crew. A nice inclusion.
Info-Text: Always a superb accompaniment to every Doctor Who DVD, this one is no exception. With the huge changes made with the rewrite, there is no shortage of material to detail where the scripts diverged. Couple this with more production tales than you can shake a stick at, a good dollop of humour and the pointing out of every flaw you never knew about all meld together to produce an exemplary specimen. Our favourite accompanies a crucial explosion in space: ’Spaceship models were often filmed from beneath, sideways even upside down to conceal the effects of gravity’. Cut to: shot of mediocre prop dropping to earth like a stone after a pyrotechnic explosion. ’But not always’.
Photo Gallery: A large selection of production stills are yours to be had, to the accompaniment of futuristic sounds from the show. Or at least we think it is, as it’s of the electronic variety, and difficult to distinguish from the electronic music score! The photos are much of a muchness, especially ones in Wookey Hole, but will bring back memories for those of us who read far too many issues of Doctor Who Monthly in our former years.
PDF Materials: The usual TV listings can be found here, and is always a welcome inclusion to be transported back to the time when Doctor Who was on TV, and the word ‘spoiler’ meant something to make your car more aerodynamic.
Coming Soon: Time and the Rani. Yes. Well, at least it can truly be said that the guys at 2Entertain can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as even this turd cuts together into a half interesting trailer. Nice to see the office-chair special effects present and correct, whilst even the merest glimpse of Bonnie Langford is enough to reassure doubters of her status as ‘worst ever companion’. Good grief, Jo!
Keep an eye out for the customary Easter egg, even though its inclusion is a curious one. Once you watch Cheques, Lies and Videotape, you’ll probably agree with us.
Well, there you have it. Revenge of the Cybermen. There have been worse Cybermen stories, not to mention more violent tales—hell, at least one them encompasses both, but to be bland and uninteresting is just unacceptable. It’s a disappointment to see some of the likeable Ian Marter’s too few episodes squandered on mediocrity like this, but Baker's only Cyber tale has become curiously iconic in a strange way. The presentation here is solid, with extras worth your time, but personal taste decides the rest. As part of the box-set, we can't deny that it represents good value, though.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 9th August 2010
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Subtitles: English, Production Subtitles (English)
Extras: Audio Commentary, Cheques, Lies & Videotape, Location Report, Production Subtitles, Photo Gallery, Coming Soon, PDF Materials
Easter Egg: No
Director: Michael Briant
Cast: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter, Kevin Stoney
Length: 97 minutes
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