Image Description: The Cyberleader from Attack of the Cybermen
By Jennie Rigg
My name is Jennie, and Colin Baker is my favourite Doctor. I say that as if I’m standing up in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, because that’s sometimes what it feels like when you say Colin is your Doctor: a confession of something transgressive. You can often tell this when you read something written by a Colin fan: we are apologetic about our love for him, because we know the majority of fandom doesn’t share it. And so we equivocate, we lovers of Old Sixie, and say things like “I know the criticisms of him say X, but I really think Y applies, and he’s not that bad really, if you give him a chance…” I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to argue why Colin “isn’t that bad”, because I think he’s great. So: my name is Jennie, and Colin Baker is my favourite Doctor, and one of my favourite of his stories is Attack of the Cybermen, and I am going to tell you why I think it’s fantastic.
The first reason I love Attack of the Cybermen is the modernity of it. The structure of this story is very close to a New Who two-parter – fast paced, multiple plot strands interacting in creative ways, and inexorably drawing together through part one until the whole thing pivots with the cliffhanger. In fact the only way I’d say it differs from New Who in structure is that in a modern two-parter the scene in the sewers right at the beginning would come before the credits and the guy’s scream would be blended into the theme tune, and the Doctor’s experiments in TARDIS gynaecology would have been the first post opening credits scene.
It’s also a remarkably feminist story. This is the second ever televised story written by a woman – yes, yes, I know her ex says he wrote it really, but… – and there is a palpable difference in how the female characters are treated. Peri gets to actually be useful and do things, which is a sporadic trait at best when she’s written by a man. The first episode is quite butch and manly, but the second, the crux of the story, is anything but, with the women getting gradually more powerful as time goes on. The Cryons, odd costuming aside, are fascinating aliens, feminine and feminised in their language and gestures, and the Doctor and Peri would not survive this adventure without them. In fact, the only surviving characters at the end of the story, apart from the Doctor, are women. The Cryons take back their own and only let the Doctor live under sufferance. To them, he’s just another one of these noisy, blustering men. They may use him, rather like they use Lytton, but he’s just as much of a nuisance – and, via his time machine, as much of a threat – as the Cybermen. In the end Lytton and his crew are dead, the escaped prisoners are dead, the Cybermen are destroyed and a chastened Doctor is reflecting on his mistakes. Unlike the other men, he has acted to help others, not for his own gain, and listened to what others – notably women – have to say about him; and that’s why he survives. This does not strike me as a classic Eric Saward conclusion.
On top of all that, for the first time since 1966, the Cybermen are written properly. They aren’t mindless robots in ignorance of a well-prepared meal, they are the true, body-horror-filled cyborgs they should be. The madness of the diseased ones is truly affecting, because you, as the audience, know that is where the human characters will eventually end if the Cybermen get their way. The story is littered with continuity references, but again, this is reminiscent of the way they do it in New Who. Often, when I watch new episodes, I do so in the company of someone who has not seen much Classic Who and when I point out continuity references he hasn’t spotted they are just texture in the story for him; it is the same here. The references are there, but they aren’t presumptuous: added value for a seasoned fan, but not intrusive for a noob. Another element of modernity in this story is its approach to violence. This was heavily criticised at the time, but it is no more violent than, say, Resurrection of the Daleks (the other story with Lytton in) the previous season. And there is a lot of violence – the two decapitations of Cybermen; the Doctor attacking the fake police officers, and killing the Cyber scout with his sonic lance; Brian Glover’s head being squeezed; Russell firing the gun directly into the Cyberman’s mouth, etc. etc. – it’s true. But none of it feels forced or gratuitous. It’s all in service of either plot or character development, and most of it is actually quite tame in comparison with most modern telly.
And it’s not all grim unrelenting violence: it’s forty minutes into Part One before the Doctor even sees a Cyberman, and most of what the Doctor is doing until then is exploration. The relationship between the Doctor and Peri is the chippy yet affectionate interaction of people who love each other despite their differences – the nine-hundred-year-old alien and the teenage human groping towards understanding of each other because they care. Her obvious concern for his post-regeneration memory lapses, and his attempts to be reassuring – for example, by booping her nose – are clearly born of affection. And he demonstrates boundless empathy for creatures other than himself, especially the alien he worries might be lost and alone in London – “the poor thing may be trapped here” – and the potential casualties in the sewers – “someone may be hurt; they might need our help.”
I love the mixture of styles, too – traditional Who story style is obviously there, but also noir crime thriller in Euston, dystopian far future brutalism on Telos, and the Doctor and Peri doing a very Holmes and Watson detective story in the first two-thirds of part one. I like that mishmash of styles in a story – one of my favourite films ever is Horror Express (1972), which is a scifi- comedy-detective-romance-horror movie, with a mad monk, and an alien, and dinosaurs, and zombies, and a detective with a really big moustache, and autopsies, and the Trans-Siberian Express (oh my) – so this is very much a plus point for me.
The one criticism I would make is that the incidental music is awful, sadly. But then so much of the music in eighties Who is awful, so that is not a peculiar criticism of this story. All in all I would say that Attack of the Cybermen is rich, complex, joyous and exciting. It’s filled with lovely little character moments, and a cast of actual characters.
It’s a great story, whether you like it or not.