What’s It About?
Cybermen and Telos and Litton and a lot of walking around.
It’s all there, but in a pile of unrelated bits and pieces
My wife has been reading this blog off and on since I started it. But about a year ago she got behind. A month ago, she committed to get caught up. (And no, I didn’t pressure her in to this; it was her own decision.) Despite not being caught up on the blog, she still gets to hear my occasional comments about whatever episode I am watching or theoretic lenses I want to try out on a story. I’ve been complaining about Eric Saward to her quite a bit. This past week, she said it was interesting and sad that she was currently reading my posts on season 18 and the vision of Christopher H. Bidmead. These posts are hopeful and filled with excitement about what is to come. But when I talk to her, it has been from a late/post-Peter Davison perspective, and that hope and excitement have been dashed against the Sawardian approach to Doctor Who.
Sadly, things have not gotten much better. But I want to turn away from nursing the annoyance at Saward and focus instead on what is now called “fan service.” There has been a lot of criticism leveled at Steven Moffat for inserting things into Doctor Who just for the sake of exciting the old fans of the show. Russell T. Davies got similar complaints. But in a way, what these two men have done is quite different from what was done in “Attack of the Cybermen,” which isn’t merely make reference to the past, but try to comment upon it and continue it. Under Jonathan Nathan Turner and Eric Saward, Doctor Who became self-aware in a very different way. It developed an in-universe continuity across the spectrum of Doctors rather than just with the current Doctor. And this continuity wasn’t based only around the Doctor’s character, but around other races and plotlines. This was developing in the Davison era and is revealed most obviously in “Resurrection of the Daleks,” but in the Sixth Doctor era it hits the ground running with “Attack of the Cybermen” in which numerous plot elements from other stories and eras are revisited. Litton from “Resurrection of the Daleks” has returned. The tomb of the Cybermen from Telos is revisited. The incident with the Doctor and Mondas is implied to have a major impact on why the Cybermen are on Telos to begin with. It is quite possible that “Attack of the Cybermen” is the most continuity-heavy episode of Doctor Who thus far, and it refers to stories that hardly anyone watching the show would have seen or remembered since this was an era before DVD.
Although, I must point out that Doctor Who started to be released on VHS in 1983. “Attack of the Cybermen” aired in 1985. And, according to a bit of research, the fan-favorite desired release for the first story on VHS was “Tomb of the Cybermen,” which was not in the archives at that point. Is it possible that “Attack of the Cybermen is so continuity heavy and so referent to “Tomb” because of the perception that fans wanted more of that story? It would go a long way toward explaining aspects of this story. But it also illustrates something that must always be held in tension with Doctor Who: the tension between long-term fans and newer fans, and the impact these segments of fandom have on the final product. Or, to put it another way, how much do you appeal to your audience and how much do you try to tell a compelling story. Naturally, the latter is always the first goal, but with any long-running storyline there is a pressure to pay attention/tribute to people who have been following you for a very long time. Add to that the sci-fi stereotype of detail-oriented continuity analysis, and there is a huge amount of pressure on the writer. In general, Doctor Who seems to do best when it ignores the continuity adherence, in large part because most of the show’s history never bothered with it to begin with. But sci-fi television has evolved since then, and in-universe continuity is the name of the game at the moment. How does Doctor Who navigate this?
(And it isn’t just Doctor Who that is dealing with this. Both Marvel and DC have been taking this challenge on in recent years. Star Trek has been rebooted for a new audience. Even James Bond has been reconfigured for a new era.)
The answer given by “Attack of the Cybermen” is to embrace the perceived past. (“The memory cheats,” as JNT is quoted as saying, meaning we never remember things as accurately as we think we do.) The problem, however, is that “Attack of the Cybermen” quickly becomes evidence that embracing the past is the wrong way to go. A story which embraces the continuity is then required to get it right, else it undermines its case. And given the lack of a primary source at the time (“Tomb of the Cybermen”), this was probably a bad idea. On top of that “Attack” is a fairly dull story. It is the first of the 45-minute stories of the Colin Baker era, and the pacing was still being worked out. Part one is uninteresting and more of a runaround with occasional moments of Cybermen pontificating. Part two develops an interesting plot with the Cryons, but by this point it is too late. This type of pacing may have worked with the old 25-minut format, but it fails here. Granted, they were trying something new, but there were plenty of examples of 45-minute sci-fi drama that worked by this point. Rather than using Star Wars as the model, JNT should have been watching Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, or The Outer Limits. At its core, classic Doctor Who is much closer to an anthology series. Rather than a linking narration, though, it has a linking main cast.
In many ways, the new series by RTD and Moffat improve upon what “Attack of the Cybermen” was trying to do. It jettisons far more plot-continuity in favor of character-continuity. But it is unfair to say that RTD and Moffat and JNT and Saward are working from a level playing field. They aren’t. RTD and Moffat have decades of sci-fi television examples to draw from. RTD is very Buffy inspired. Moffat is a little more Lost/continuity-heavy American sci-fi inspired. (Although, in fairness, Moffat’s influences are a little harder to pin down than RTD. Moffat has a little bit of Lost and a little bit of RTD Who. I’m still trying to get a good reading of his basic approach. Feel free to chime in in the comments.) But I believe both were/are doing the best with the pieces they had. But where “Attack of the Cybermen” attempted to concretely engage with and continue the stories of the past, RTD/Moffat Who tends to reference them with a wink and a nod. Is this wink and nod enough? Or should Doctor Who even bother?