Monday, June 6, 2011

"Attack of the Cybermen"

What could be more appropriate for this blog than to start a foray into reviews of the Classic Series by looking at none other than the second ever Sixth Doctor serial? For some reason over the ages the Sixth Doctor has received an absurd amount of stick from some people for one reason or another and I cannot fathom why. I am certainly a Colin Baker fan. He's definitely the best of the Eighties Doctors, and while some would argue that's not saying much I'd have him up with the first four, P McG and the Smith in terms of Doctors who are more or less unimpeachable in my mind. People will have a big whinge about how his personality's too bombastic or his outfit is too ridiculous but you know what? His personality's that of the Doctor. So's his dress ensemble. Honestly he doesn't go wrong, and his performance in this serial is absolutely spot-on. He captures the sense of magnanimity, which is to say 'justified pride' as it were, perfectly, for which his appearance and expressions are completely perfect, yet he's also deeply compassionate and deviously clever. I'll get to all that.
Anyway, the Doctor and Peri show up on Earth and devious deeds are afoot. There's a lot of stuff about trying to find some kind of alien signal which might be a distress call and might not and isn't coming from where they think it is and it's being relayed and someone's watching to see who shows up and so on and it's not very well explained but it's covered up by lots of excellent banter between Peri and the Doctor as they stride about looking around which is rather funny and touching and does a good job of making you feel like something important's probably happening. I think it's meant to be that Lytton had been stealing stuff to build a transmitter for... some... reason...? It has something to do with sending a distress call to the Cryons for whom he was working but I'm not sure why he was doing it since they lacked the means to rescue him anyway. I'm not going to lie, the plot's pretty messy. There are these guys who want to steal the time ship the Cybermen have captured but it hasn't actually turned up yet, there's stuff about Cybermen wanting to blow up Telos as part of a science experiment and there's a rather awkward continuity tie-in where the Cyber-Controller is trying to prevent the events of "The Tenth Planet" from happening and while it's implied at one point that doing so would cause a paradox no one seems terribly bothered about the whole issue and that really it's a matter of the Cybermen being up to no good and the Doctor having to save the day. These elements have their place though. The plot with the Cryons raises the stakes regarding Telos. Similarly the two prison escapees, Stratton and Bates, as unrelated and pointless as their plot seems to be especially since they never encounter the Doctor and get shot and killed without ever impacting the main plot in a serious way despite quite a significant amount of screen time, do permit a nice exploration of life under the rule of the Cybermen, where failed Cyber-conversions are forced to perform mine-laying work in quarries which, as the Classic Series always does, somehow manage to convey an inexplicable sense of extraterrestrial alien wasteland.
There are some pretty brutal moments in this serial, and I'm not surprised that it had people whinging back in the Eighties when people thought it was just a kid's show. The diseased, mad Cybermen who are covered in sickly green mold and stumble around attacking even their own kind are pretty horrific to watch and the scene where Lytton's hands are crushed by the Cybermen so that blood runs down his fingers and he collapses in pain is fairly intense. It's all very satisfying, actually. There's a pretty high body count and as usual any bit where a Cyberman gets killed is rather shocking. The effects of the green fluid squirting fountain-like from their bodies, the small explosions which break out everywhere along their limbs and torso and they way they moan, spasm and stagger about can be extremely grotesque and it all rather effectively conveys how much the Cybermen have made themselves into monsters. The bit at the end where the Doctor runs into Cyber Control and mows down about four Cybermen, including the Controller and Leader, on his own are pretty visceral and intense and it's disturbing to see a real situation where the Doctor's completely run out of options and it's kill or be killed.
The Cybermen are pretty well performed in this one, and with the addition of the black-coloured Cybermen along with the guards at the dig site, the operators on Earth, the corrupted ones in the Tombs and the ones in Cyber Control you get a feeling like this is a serious operation going on without needing to see masses of them all at once. The Cyber Controller and the Leader have plenty of good opportunities to say "Excellent!" and rub their wicket-keeper hands together with logical glee and the Cyber conversion process is made to look as unpleasant, undignified and degrading as ever. The bit where the Cyber Controller walks in at the end seemingly victorious and declaims without preamble that "Emotion is a weakness" to the Doctor is classic Cyberman behaviour and right on the money as far as the tone of the episode is concerned. Indeed I would have even liked more exploration of the issues surrounding Cyber-conversion but as such larger-than-life, self-assured villains they are perfect foils for the Sixth Doctor. It also only makes it funnier when, for instance, the Cyber Leader takes Peri away from the others for the express purpose of letting her get warmer clothing to wear on Telos or when, after discovering that the Vastial supplies are about to explode right at the end, one Cyberman makes the universally-recognised hand gesture to "leg it" to his buddy and they both plod out as fast as they can before an enormous explosion destroys Cyber Control. One thing which I found a bit confusing in the second episode is it's never entirely clear where the Tombs are in relation to Cyber Control. Are they directly underneath or connected by caves and tunnels over a certain distance? It all seems to depend on how quickly they want someone to get from one location to another.
Regardless the set-pieces are all done well, particularly the Doctor's frustration at the Time Lords for manipulating him into arriving and the scene where the Doctor and Peri take out the Cyber-converted Policemen, which is both funny and exciting. There was even a part when Lytton was grabbed by the Cybermen which genuinely made me jump. One thing I'll say about Lytton, though, is that while it's nice to have an alien on board and to have the Doctor thinking he's misjudged someone I'm not entirely sure how honourable Lytton's commitment to the Cryons was. I mean yes he was helping the underdog and not allying himself with the Cybermen the way he did with the Daleks but it's still implied that he was doing it for an absolute truckload of diamonds or access to the time ship, not just out of the goodness of his heart. I guess the point is that he stuck to his guns and was willing to help a noble cause for a price? Nonetheless it seems like helping the Cryons is a rather peripheral side-benefit to the fact that he's going to nab himself a time machine. Either way it was a very effective way of making the Doctor question himself and his normal behaviour. Lytton himself is well performed and manages to stop the fake heist scenes at the beginning from being too boring or annoying and he's a good addition to the episode.
As for other characters, I'm not sure how charitable I can be to the Cryons. I like their design, even if the costumes are a bit cheap-looking, and while I can imagine that people who lived in cold might move and speak rather slowly, at times they come across as kind of weird and inscrutable for no reason and it's not really clear what their motivations are. At times they seem kind of suicidal and like they've accepted the loss of their planet and the fact that it'll be blown up and at other times they want it back from the Cybermen. It's not really helped by the sheer complexity of the plot and the fact that it just doesn't get enough explanation. In spite of this you still have a reasonable sense of what's going on, and it does make me feel that the two forty-five minute parts is a good length for a story. That, however, is especially due to the complete change of setting from London in the first episode to Telos in the second which makes the scenario seem expansive and prevents the locations, especially the inevitably dull back streets and sewers, from becoming stale.
There's also Peri to be mentioned, and I really feel like there couldn't be a much more suitable companion for the Sixth Doctor. Although she fulfils the classic companion role of asking a lot of questions so that the Doctor can provide us with exposition her curiosity is well-lampshaded by the Doctor's occasionally exasperated responses and her conversations with the Doctor are, as I stated, very enjoyable to watch. She doesn't really have much of a role plot-wise besides as an observer but she does go above and beyond the call of duty by very generously being incredibly easy on the eye and working with the Doctor rather than complaining or second-guessing him too much. As I implied at the beginning, however, it's Colin Baker's performance as the Doctor which is the real stand-out and is what makes this episode so good to watch. The plot may not make too much sense but at least it's there and it's very watchable, and while the "The Tenth Planet" stuff is too much continuity the jokes with the Chameleon Circuit are nice nods to early concepts which were integral the show and grounded the Sixth Doctor well for his second adventure. I think that, rather than the obvious choices, and story issues aside, you probably couldn't go too far wrong with "Attack of the Cybermen" as a quintessential piece of Doctor Who and that it's a pretty strong indicator of how much more Colin Baker deserved in the lead role.

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