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01 June 2018 @ 07:41 pm
The Randomiser: Attack of the Cybermen  
I think it would be fair to say that I'm not really a fan of Eric Saward's violent and black humoured vision for Doctor Who. However, having said that I think both of his stories for season 19 (The Visitation and Earthshock) are good to very good and while I don't much like Revelation of the Daleks (and suspect I will be less enamoured of Resurrection of the Daleks, when we get to it, than I once was) that's more because the style is not my cup of tea. I can see that it does what it does very well and can understand why many fans consider it the strongest story of its season.

Attack of the Cybermen, on the other hand, doesn't really work, but it's difficult to figure out quite why. It's the first Doctor Who story to be intentionally written as two 45 minute episodes and it is one of the few in that season which really tries to make use of the format with episode 1 set in the London sewers and episode 2 on Telos, both with quite a distinct atmosphere and feel to them.

Episode 1 feels like an episode of some kind of cop show, with Lytton (Saward's favourite space mercenary) and his gang of jewel thieves (plus the mole working for the police) encountering the Cybermen while attempting (or so most of them think) a diamond heist. The dialogue is good. The atmosphere - well the atmosphere around the thieves - is also good. Unfortunately, as with so many Eric Saward stories, the script isn't that interested in the Doctor and Peri and so has them spend 45 minutes running around the streets and sewers of London chasing a distress beacon Lytton has set up. Where the sections with Lytton are all dimly lit in muted colours, the Doctor and Peri in their garishly bright outfits seem preposterously out of place in the story. In Revelation of the Daleks, Saward creates the world of Tranquil Repose and its population of grotesques and while the Doctor and Peri again spend an awful lot of time running around doing very little, they seem much less out of place in that setting, than in something that appears to be emulating The Bill. The 1980s stories have a reputation for being overlit. Lots of Attack of the Cybermen is very well lit and yet, somehow, it still feels overlit and I suspect part of it is just how out of place the Doctor and Peri feel in episode 1.

In episode 2 the action moves to the ice world of Telos. Once again this is aiming for a particular and distinct atomosphere, with the ethereal seeming Cryons and haunting evocative music. The Cryons are one of the 1980s better attempts at an alien race, with distinct personalities and distinctive hand movements. It is also interesting that they are coded as female rather than male. In retrospect the decision to place them all in masks was a mistake. It makes it much harder to distinguish between and identify the characters and so the differences between them are not so obvious as they might have been.

I think it is episode 2 however that things really start to go wrong. There is a sub-plot in which two cyberisation rejects, Stratton and Bates, team up with one of the erstwhile diamond theives (Griffiths, excellently played by Brian Glover) in order to try to steal the Cybermen's Time Ship. As with a number of Saward sub-plots this proves ultimately futile with nothing achieved and while Stratton and Bates are largely non-entities as characters (or at least, I didn't care less about them), Griffiths managed to be sympathetic to an extent and the character feels wasted. Lots about this sub-plot also makes very little sense - Lytton suggests that his plan has been to link up with Stratton and Bates all along following information from the Cryons, but it is far from clear how the Cryons could have known that Stratton and Bates were about to make a bid for freedom. Equally, the heart of this part of the story is the tragedy of Lytton, ultimately partly cyberised and sacrificing himself in an attempt to kill the Cyber-controller. But the story makes it clear that Lytton isn't helping the Cryons through any sense of altruisum, but because they are paying him. At the end the Doctor ruminates that he never misjudged anyone as much as Lytton - but he never thought Lytton was anything other than he was, a space mercenary who worked for hire - the fact that this time Lytton was working for the Doctor's allies doesn't seem to me to make that much difference. There is a lot of event in episode 2, but the core of the story is that the Cybermen lock the Doctor up with a Cryon to whom he gives the means to blow up the base. Everything else is a distraction and while that's not immediately obvious on watching, I think the viewer nevetheless gets the feeling that there is little of actual substance going on.

I think the direction takes a fair bit of the blame. While I've praised the atmosphere and the Cryons, there are many parts of the story where I know what is happening now, but I remember being unclear when I first watched as teenager. The deaths of Stratton, Bates and Griffiths is a case in point, Stratton moves to open the door to the time ship, there is an effect, he falls over the door opens a Cyberman appears, Bates and Griffiths run, there is another effect and they fall over. It all happens in the space of a few seconds and leaves the viewer in a state of "wait? what?". Even Lytton's torture - where the Cybermen crush his hands (and with so much of Doctor Who of this era one wonders who thought graphic crushing of someone's hands was appropriate tea time family viewing) - is somehow muddled. As a teenager I recall it wasn't clear to me that he was even being tortured until after he was lying on the floor with hands covered in blood. The final result is graphically gory, somehow without managing to be horrific, ending up just feeling rather tasteless. Other bits are just wierd. In episode 1, the Doctor and Peri are held at gunpoint by one of Lytton's henchmen, disguised as a policeman. They overpower him and hand-cuff him to a railing. Throughout the policeman says nothing, and the Doctor and Peri do not attempt to get any information out of him. It's as if the budget had run out of money for an extra speaking part.

It's such a shame. There is excellent acting, some great dialogue, a lot of effort being put into creating interesting aliens and atmosphere (though one could perhaps argue that the final effect of Telos is a little too evocative of twinkly Christmas), and a strong idea around the redemption and tragedy of Lytton (even if I think the execution was flawed). I don't think it is a story I'd have ever been fond of, but it should have been one I could respect for what it was. But it just doesn't work and you come away mostly thinking it is another of the 1980s stories which tries to compensate for a flimsy plot and cheap sets by being loud, violent and garish.

This entry was originally posted at https://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/504417.html.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on June 2nd, 2018 10:31 pm (UTC)
I agree with most of what you wrote here. It does feel like a waste in a way that, say, Timelash doesn't. Seeing the sixth Doctor in contemporary London is refreshing, at least in retrospect (probably less so at the time as Davison had had a few contemporary stories, but this and the Seville bits of Two Doctors are Colin's only contemporary stories) and most of the heist stuff is done well. Like a lot of mid-eighties stories, it feels a bit like they had a good idea for an innovative story about an alien mercenary stranded on Earth and carrying out crimes as part of an escape plan and then decided they needed a lot of familiar stuff (old monsters and characters and discussion about continuity points, but also old tropes like rebels vs oppressors) making the end result feel over-familiar.
louisedennis: Who:Sixlouisedennis on June 3rd, 2018 02:07 pm (UTC)
I've just looked up the authorship for this since I recalled it was a confused story and was originally credited to "Paula Moore". The story seems to be very confused so I suspect part of the problem is that too many people were involved in the writing of the tale including, it would seem, heavy involvement from Ian Levine.
daniel_saundersdaniel_saunders on June 3rd, 2018 02:20 pm (UTC)
Saward says it was basically written completely by him with slight input from Levine. Levine says he co-wrote it with Saward. Neither thinks Paula Wolsey aka Paula Moore had anything to do with it, other than being a way to avoid Saward commissioning himself. I don't think anyone has ever asked Wolsey.