The Doctor attempts to fix the TARDIS chameleon circuit at 76 Totter’s Lane in 1985, where the Cybermen are planning to change history by having Halley’s Comet crash into Earth.
With so many references to past episodes of Doctor Who, Attack of the Cybermen rarely has time to form a coherent story of its own. The story also seems to be symbolic of the major problems of Doctor Who of this era – script editor Eric Saward’s bloodthirsty storytelling, as this is a story in which no-one other than the Doctor and his companion survive. This being said, it is still quite an entertaining episode, bogged down perhaps by too many ideas, especially when it comes to the second part of the story and it does feel like, whoever wrote it, struggled dealing with the new format of 45-minute episodes.
My main issue with this story would be the violence and the nastier tone. Littered throughout the episode are moments of such sadistic cruelty and they feel quite troubling. The most horrific incidence of this comes towards the end of the story, where the Cybermen crush Lytton’s hands, which just feels gratuitous and wrong. The Doctor is not exempt from this as he urges Peri to shoot Russell and brawls with one of Lytton’s policemen in the sewers. The fact that the fight takes place off screen and finishes with the Doctor saying that the policeman is “having a little lie down” feels all the more problematic. This is symbolic of the new direction the production team were trying to take Colin Baker’s Doctor away from the affable Peter Davison incarnation, but they overstep on too many occasions. I feel so sorry for Colin Baker because he is giving it his all but he is let down by decisions by the production team to make this Doctor darker than his predecessors. All this whilst wearing a multicoloured dream coat. Fortunately, Baker has had his chance to shine through working with Big Finish in more recent times, which has been seen to redeem his Doctor in the eyes of many fans. However, Colin Baker does deliver a good performance. Eric Saward is well known for saying that he does not rate him as the Doctor, which is something that bothers me as Baker is clearly doing the best he can do with some pretty ropy material at times. The dynamic between the Sixth Doctor and Peri is really well played by Baker and Nicola Bryant, and I really like their relationship. They both seem to get on the other’s nerves, but there is a shared fondness for each other.
The story also suffers from evoking nostalgia a bit too much at expense of doing anything new. When it comes down to it, the Cybermen’s scheme is actually a pretty good one. They plan to alter the course of Halley’s Comet to crash into Earth in 1985, which would in turn prevent the events of The Tenth Planet and the destruction of their home planet, Mondas. This is quite a good “timey wimey” idea but it is sadly not allowed enough time to develop properly. It only really gets introduced halfway through the second part, and due to other subplots like fixing the Chameleon Circuit, which doesn’t really serve any true purpose to the plot except ensuring that the Doctor and Peri don’t have an easy escape. It does feel as though the writer struggled with the reduced running time, as they had thirty minutes less to play with. That being said, the heist set-up is quite well done but also ultimately feels broken up by scenes with the Doctor and Peri, which really kill the pace. Elements like the scrapyard that they land in being 76 Totter’s Lane or the quarry being the same one that was used for Tomb of the Cybermen end up just feeling like fan-baiting cameos that add nothing to the story.
The Cybermen return after we last saw them in Earthshock, where they killed Adric. The highlight of any Cybermen episode in the 1980s is the performance of David Banks as the Cyber-Leader, and he doesn’t disappoint here. However, as the story is designed to tie into Tomb of the Cybermen, it also sees the return of Michael Kilgarriff as the Cyber Controller, which feels unnecessary as the actor has sadly put on weight since the 1960s and it looks a bit bizarre to have a portly Cyberman. There’s also a Cyber Lieutenant, which also makes this story feel overcrowded with Cyber leadership, especially when Banks is so capable of leading the Cybermen effectively. The Cryons also look fantastic and as they are a race of all female aliens are worthy of note, but the voices are really irritating! The plot with Bates and Strutton on Telos attempting to escape also feels as though it was a distraction from the main plot, and I never really felt any empathy for these characters or their plight.
The story does benefit from some great direction by Matthew Robinson, who previously directed Resurrection of the Daleks, and the scenes in the sewers in the first part particularly stand out as establishing a good creepy tone. The best moments demonstrating this are when the Cyber-Leader emerges in the sewer scenes, and the cliffhanger at the end of part one is also quite good. There is a good jump scare moment towards the end of the second part when Lytton’s ankle is grabbed by a Cyberman, which really made me jump. Additionally, the story does benefit from a strong performance from Maurice Colbourne as Lytton, playing him as a suave and canny operator. It does bother me that the story seems to make more of their prior relationship – the Doctor seems to know a lot about Lytton despite the fact that they don’t spend much time if any actually directly interacting in Resurrection of the Daleks. It’s strange that this episode closes with the Doctor regretting the death of Lytton specifically considering the death count in this story.
Despite the story’s issues and the fact that it seems keener about the idea of recycling plot ideas from stories like An Unearthly Child, Tomb of the Cybermen and Resurrection of the Daleks, I have to say I did enjoy Attack of the Cybermen. It’s by no means a classic story, and not one that I will be racing to revisit any time soon, but I think it is better than its reputation suggests.
Verdict: A well-directed episode with an interesting idea for the Cybermen, but the reliance on strong stories from the show’s past really damages this one. The overly violent story is also problematic. 6/10
Cast: Colin Baker (The Doctor), Nicola Bryant (Peri), Maurice Colbourne (Lytton), Brian Glover (Griffiths), Terry Molloy (Russell), James Beckett (Payne), David Banks (Cyber Leader), Michael Kilgarriff (Cyber Controller), Faith Brown (Flast), Sarah Greene (Varne), Michael Attwell (Bates), Jonathan David (Strutton), Brian Orvell (Cyber Lieutenant), John Ainley (Cyberman), Stephen Churchett (Bill), Stephen Wale (David), Sarah Berger (Rost), Esther Freud (Threst)
Writer: Paula Moore (A pseudonym – disputed authorship)
Director: Matthew Robinson
Behind the Scenes
- This is the first episode to be produced as 45-minute episodes, a practice which finished with Revelation of the Daleks.
- The story sees the return of Lytton, played by Maurice Colbourne, who had appeared in Resurrection of the Daleks, as well as marking the only time Terry Molloy appeared not under the prosthetics required to play Davros. Michael Kilgariff also returns as the Cyber Controller, a role he originally played in Tomb of the Cybermen.
- Authorship of this story is highly disputed by Eric Saward, the script editor, and Ian Levine, a “fan advisor” to the show at this time. Eric Saward would have been forbidden from commissioning himself to write a story under contemporary BBC rules, so he commissioned Paula Woolsey to write elements of the script and submit them to him. Another theory states that it was a collaboration between Levine and Saward, submitted under a pseudonym, while yet another states that Woolsey wrote the story using plot ideas from Levine and Saward aided in the development and rewrote elements. Ian Levine himself claims full authorship of the story.
- This story introduces the sonic lance, a successor to the sonic screwdriver, however, it never reappears on television after this series.
- Following on from the poor response to the new Doctor after The Twin Dilemma, the production team decided to bring back an old foe to test the Doctor. Gerry Davis was initially commissioned to write a script but this was deemed unsuitable.
- Director Matthew Robinson went on to create Byker Grove and cast Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, launching their careers.
- Michael Attwell previously appeared as Isbur in The Ice Warriors.
- Brian Orrell also played a Cyberman in Silver Nemesis.
The reveal of the Cyber-Leader in the sewers beneath London.
Who are you?
I’ve already told you. I am known as the Doctor. I’m also a Time Lord from the planet of Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous.
That’s debatable.Russell and the Sixth Doctor
Previous Sixth Doctor Review: The Twin Dilemma