Cybermen Vs. Daleks

I have a guest post up on the Popgun Chaos site. I argue that the Cybermen are better villains than the Daleks. Let the controversy resound!

And be sure to check out Big Finish today. In celebration of this year’s anniversary they are having a sale of The Sirens of Time, Jubilee, and The Harvest for $1.00 as a download or just over $5 for CDs. The Sirens of Time is a multi-Doctor story (5, 6, and 7), Jubilee is a 6th Doctor and Daleks story, and The Harvest is a 7th Doctor and Cybermen story. So in a way, this sale goes along with my post, although I’m sure it is just a coincidence.

Doctor Who – Silver Nemesis

Doctor Who Story 154 – Silver Nemesis

The Nemesis statueSilver Nemesis is certainly a mixed bag. It was preceded by two excellent stories, one which was compelling, exciting, and challenging, another which was thought-provoking, visually striking, and socially aware. In contrast, Silver Nemesis seems the most backward-looking story of the season, one which plays around with old ideas of Cybermen and gold (to an absurd degree) and costume drama. And Nazis. Wedded to these elements, however, are further explorations of the changing paradigm in Doctor Who with the Doctor’s mysterious nature and references to ancient Gallifrey. In a way, the new style is interacting with the old style, and they don’t quite gel.

In fact, this story almost seems like a bit of kitchen-sink storytelling. Tossing Cybermen, a medieval witch and warrior, Nazis, a dumb American, an ancient Time Lord weapon, and jazz. And given that this story has the most “Doctor Who-esque” trappings of any other McCoy era story thus far, and that it doesn’t work, one is aware of how much the show has changed since the 1970s. That mold has long since shattered and we can’t put Doctor Who back in it without it being a conglomerated mess, which Silver Nemesis is.

Perhaps it is because I’m currently studying Daoism in my Religions in China and Japan class, but I’m tempted to give this story a pseudo-Daoist reading. In part because Silver Nemesis attempts to superimpose old ideas onto a show that has grown and changed in striking ways since those ideas were last used successfully. Nemesis, then, illustrated resistance to change, which is a crime in Doctor Who as well as an indication of someone who is not living in harmony with the Dao. Since the Dao is the abstract, all-encompassing force that permeates existence, and the Dao is always changing, embracing change is the greatest act a person can do. Active inaction. Not imposing your reality onto reality. And so, imposing Doctor Who on Doctor Who creates bad Doctor Who.

***

I have heard it said before that bad Doctor Who is better than no Doctor Who. I disagree with this statement, but in the case of Silver Nemesis I grant an exception. The story fails and is bad but not through lack of ambition. I would rather see Doctor Who be an ambitious failure than see it play by-the-numbers. Oddly, Silver Nemesis can’t seem to make up its mind which it wants to do as it vacillates between ambition and by-the-numbers. However, it errs on the side of the former, which redeems it significantly in my eyes.

Doctor Who – Attack of the Cybermen

Doctor Who Story 137 – Attack of the Cybermen

Written by

Paula Moore

What’s It About?

Cybermen and Telos and Litton and a lot of walking around.

Attack of the Cybermen DVD cover
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.

The Doctor showing his library card.

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?

My Rating

1.5/5

Doctor Who – Earthshock

Doctor Who Story 121 – Earthshock

Written by

Eric Saward

What’s It About?

An archeological team disappears in a recently exposed network of caves. A military investigation looks for answers and finds the Doctor, Nyssa, Teagan, and Adric, who have materialized in the cave after the Doctor and Adric had an argument over whether or not it was possible to return to E-Space. The team falls under attack by two mysterious androids who are guarding something alien.

Eating a Well-Prepared Meal

adricI’m trying to decide what I think of the title “Earthshock.” While I suppose it works to refer to the shock wave from the collision of the freighter and the earth which this story posits is the reason for the extinction of the dinosaurs, it more accurately seems to refer to the two major shocks in this story, both of which are rather muted due to modern marketing and information-obsessed internet culture.

At the time, the two shocking moments in this story were the return of the Cybermen at the end of episode one and the death of Adric at the end of the story. Neither of these was revealed to the press ahead of time. Neither was used for marketing. And so, the shock was very real and unexpected. However, any copy of “Earthshock” on DVD or VHS has a Cyberman on the cover, thus negating the first shock, and any casual research into Doctor Who story developments or companions reveal that Adric died. There is no shock.

But is the death of Adric really so shocking? Sure, from the standpoint of character death in a fairly light show which has not had a major character death since the 1960s, yes, it would be shocking. But was Adric liked enough to elicit a moment of genuine surprise? As the story stands, I think Adric’s death is nothing more than trivia about the show; why is “Earthshock” important? Because Adric died. But Adric has not been an interesting character since season eighteen. This could be due to the current production team and script editor. This could be due to having too many companions in the TARDIS. Regardless, Adric’s death is not very meaningful (he had a way out), and many fans of the show didn’t like him anyway. His death is now marked by the question of whether people cry or cheer. But is it Adric’s fault that his character hasn’t been written well for this entire era? Is it Matthew Waterhouse’s fault that there were too many companions that the writers didn’t really have a way to handle them well? None of the companions at this point are interesting. They have potential, but that potential is never achieved, but the hate falls disproportionately on Adric, I think, because falls into the child-identification trope and because stories about Waterhouse on the set painted him in a bad light.

But stories are stories. In the commentary of “Earthshock,” the cast complains about Peter Grimwade’s directing, but the results of the directing show that Grimwade knew what he was doing. “Earthshock” is extremely well direct. From a production standpoint, “Earthshock” is nearly flawless. And I genuinely think that is what works in this story’s favor. The direction is great. The pace is perfect. This is Doctor Who at its action-packed, suspenseful best. But apart from these production points and the well-handled shocking moments, there isn’t really much to this story. If given to another director, this story would have fallen flat because there is nothing below the surface of the story. “Earthshock” is base-under-siege revisionism, putting it more firmly on the “Visitation” side of the season as opposed to the “Kinda” side of the season. “Earthshock” looks backward rather than looking forward.

For me, I really enjoy “Earthshock.” It is a lot of fun, although I admit that I now find Adric’s death a hindrance to the story. But when it comes to Doctor Who that fires my imagination or fills me with joy at having watched something brilliant, “Earthshock” doesn’t satisfy. It is fun, but it is consciously formulaic, attempting to connect with the distant past of the show in a way that feel superficial in a we-can-do-that-type-of-thing-better-than-they-did way.

My Rating

4/5

Doctor Who – Revenge of the Cybermen

Doctor Who Story 079 – Revenge of the Cybermen

Cybermen with the Cyberleader.
Plotting revenge. (Source: Wikipedia. Copyright 1976 by BBC.)

Who Wrote It?: Gerry Davis

What’s It About?: The Doctor, Harry, and Sarah return to Nerva, only at a different time. While they wait for the TARDIS to catch up to them, they discover the station is quarantined due to a virus. A skeleton crew is keeping the station operational to help ships navigate around a newly-discovered satellite orbiting Jupiter, a satellite which turns out to be the planet Voga, the Planet of Gold.

The long fall of The Cybermen begins here. They go from being frightening, emotionless cyphers to blundering robots. And why is gold suddenly lethal to the Cybermen? While I am willing to suspend some amount of disbelief—due to an oversight of design, one incarnation of The Cybermen left their breathing apparatus susceptible to gold dust—I refuse to believe that the Cybermen would see the destruction of a planet as a more expedient solution than redesigning to eliminate the gold weakness. Cybermen are about adaptation and improvement. Refusing to fix this weakness is somewhat out of character. While Gerry Davis wrote the original script for Revenge, I know that Robert Holmes did an extensive re-write. I’m curious which of them introduced this weakness. (Although, having now consulted Shannon Sullivan’s excellent website A Brief History of Time (Travel), it seems Gerry Davis was responsible for the gold weakness. Perhaps the absence of Kit Pedler is the problem. Again, as a one-off, this wouldn’t bother me, but we will see this exploited again and again.)

There are some things the story does well: the atmosphere of the scenes on Nerva during the first episode is good; the cliffhangers are very good; the location work is effective (is it truly praise to say something is “effective”); I like that Kellman was a double-agent. It was a nice twist; and I like the idea of returning to a location we have already seen, only in a different time (which was also done in The Ark and will be done again in The Long Game and Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways). But overall, the story is slow, a bit dull, doesn’t make a lot of sense, and introduces elements that will hinder the effectiveness of the Cybermen (gold weakness, emotional Cyberleaders) for decades to come. In all, it was a poor ending to an inconsistent season. But this isn’t too surprising since the stories were commissioned by a one producer (Barry Letts) and managed by another (Philip Hinchcliff). We’ll see if next season has a more consistent feel.

My Rating: 2/5

Doctor Who Story Number 046 – The Invasion

Written by Derrick Sherwin and Kit Pedler
Directed by Douglas Camfield

After dodging a missile, The TARDIS materializes in a compound owned by International Electromatics, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer. The Doctor decides it is time to visit Professor Travers, but soon becoming involved in a military investigation into the operations of Industrial Electromatics and its mysterious owner Tobias Vaughn.

“Packer!”

Normally I try to take a few notes on each episode and compile my final thoughts from there.  This time around, however, my notes are quite sparse and end partway through episode two.  I really enjoy this story.  It has my favorite Who director, my favorite Doctor, my favorite recurring villain, some great music, and Kevin Stoney as the human face to the alien invasion.  Honestly, I’m not sure Doctor Who ever produced an actor who played the antagonist as well as Kevin Stoney.  He sets the standard for villains.  He was great in The Daleks’ Master Plan and he is great as Tobias Vaughn.  Pairing him with the bumbling sadist Packer helps to lighten the tone.  The two make a great double-act.  Packer’s anxiety as plans start to crumble at The Doctor’s interference is wonderfully contrasted by Vaughn’s cold calm.  The implication that his body has been partially cyber-converted is downright creepy.  And his characterization holds throughout.  Vaughn is a brilliant mastermind.  He anticipates the eventual betrayal by The Cybermen.  He has prepared for it.  When it finally comes and he loses control, Vaughn sides with The Doctor, not for the good of humanity, but for revenge against his former allies.  For me, Tobias Vaughn is the real villain of the story.

This isn’t to discount The Cybermen.  I feel like The Cybermen have never been better than they have been in the 60s.  They weren’t played for humor as they often have in Cymru Who.  They were meant to scare.  Scenes of an insane Cyberman in the sewers, the invasion in the streets of London, The Cyberman who appears when Vaughn calls for Packer, these are all chilling moments.  Sadly, after the death of Vaughn, it all falls apart a bit.  The Cybermen are dealt with quite systematically and with little challenge.  It is a shame that after seven great episodes, the ending unfolds by-the-numbers.  I think this is probably the only weakness in the story.

Episodes one and four are missing from The Invasion.  For the DVD release, Cosgrove Hall’s animation team was commissioned to provide animated visuals for the soundtrack.  For the most part, I love the animation, but I feel that the work in the first episode is perhaps the best.  The arrival on Earth, combined with Don Harper’s music, is eerie.  The tone that is set is quite ominous and paranoid.  In all, I think the animation works well for this story and I think the idea of animating incomplete episodes is wonderful.  I’m excited to see further animation (from Big Finish) for the Reign of Terror DVD release.  It is worth pointing out that now that Galaxy 4 is incomplete (rather than completely lost as it once was) it would now qualify for animation status.  Just a thought.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that this is the first story where UNIT appears.  Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart informs The Doctor and Jamie that the para-military organization was created following the Yeti invasion.  We see here the format for season seven and beyond.  The Invasion is basically a preview of the Pertwee era.

Final Verdict: There is very little about this story that fails to work for me.  Eight episodes of Doctor Who will rarely fly by as fast as these.  If I were going to pick one story from the Troughton era to show to a new fan, it would be this one.

 

Coming Up Next: The next story is, of course, The Krotons.  The only problem is that I don’t have it.  The Region One DVD release is scheduled for some time in 2012, but no exact date is set at the time of writing.  At one time the serial was available for viewing on the BBC Worldwide Channel of YouTube, but for some reason it is no longer available for viewing in the United States.  I’m pretty sure I could get the story on iTunes, but I don’t know if I want to pay money for the digital copy, then more again for the DVD.  I could change my mind in the next few weeks if I start getting desperate for more Doctor Who content for the site.  Otherwise, expect a bit of a break from the classic series reviews for the time being.

And if I don’t see you here before then, a very Merry Christmas to all you at home (yes, I went there).

Doctor Who Story Number 43 – The Wheel in Space

Written by David Whitaker from a story by Kit Pedler
Directed by Tristan de Vere Cole

Having left Victoria on Earth, The Doctor and Jamie arrive on an abandoned space ship.  The only crew, a solitary robot.  What happened to the humans on board?

“That’s marvelous isn’t it. ‘The Doctor told me to protect it’.  But don’t give them a reason and leave me to get you out of trouble.”

If fan consensus is anything to go by, I’m not supposed to like this story.  And yet, there is something undeniably appealing to me about 1960s Cybermen stories.  The Cybermen of this era are the best because they are cold and emotionless.  Sure, sometimes their plans were convoluted and didn’t make sense, but the same could be said of Series Six and people seemed to enjoy that.  Okay, possibly an unfair shot there, but still, I would take a 1960s Cybermen story over just about any televised appearance they have made in the intervening years.

By no means do I think this story is perfect.  It is slow, which at times conveys an ominous atmosphere and at times boredom.  I wasn’t too big on the space corridor that The Cybermen pranced along, but I’m sure none of the actors involved knew how to convey walking along a space corridor.  It still looked silly.  Indeed, the faults of this story probably do work better in audio than visually, but I was grateful for both the episodes that still existed.

There were some great images in this story, which is not to say that they were conveyed well on screen.  I’m using the word “images” the way my college poetry teacher did, which basically means a striking picture in your mind.  The images that stick with me from this story: An abandoned ship with a solitary robot keeping it running, metal spheres (which are Cybermats) ejected into space that eventually burrow into The Wheel space station, Cybermen stored in giant, metal eggs for deep space travel.  No, we never saw The Cybermen like this before nor do we see them like this again, but at least it was something new and different.  I loved the episode where Duggan finds a Cybermat, whom he nicknames Billybug, and thinks it is a cute life form of some sort.  He puts the Cybermat in the closet, only to discover later that it has been consuming metal.  I loved the interactions between Zoe and Jamie as she constantly puts him down, which The Doctor likewise does to her.  There is a definite hierarchy of intelligence between the three, and The Doctor sees it his duty to break Zoe’s dependence on pure logic.  In the end it works since she does something decidedly illogical: she stows away on The TARDIS.

I realize many male viewers enjoy the cat suit Zoe from The Mind Robber, but for some reason I think she looks better in space gear. Not sure what this says about me.

I had been dreading this story because I had heard so many bad things about it (largely that it was bad), but in the end I enjoyed it.  It was a fitting end to a season that went from one base under siege to another.  It also provided a nice bookend, starting and ending the season with Cybermen stories much like Troughton’s first season started and ended with Dalek stories.  But on the whole, I have to say I wasn’t really taken with this season.  It felt incredibly repetitive as all stories save one repeated the same scenario with slightly different details.  Almost all the stories felt too long.  It felt as if I was reading old issues of Ultimate Spider-Man where you would get to the end of the year and find that despite having twelve issues, you only had two stories.  This season had, what, 40 episodes and only seven stories?  This was honestly the first season where I thought about just letting the project drop and never returning to the blog.  Sure, I love Troughton, but this season felt a bit stagnant to me.  No wonder the ratings were beginning to drop and producers started thinking about changing the format.  As for me, I have The Dominators to look forward to.  However, I think I need some time to purge a bit after this season . . . and to wait until I have money in the DVD budget.  Hopefully the wait won’t be too long.