Harry Sullivan is an imbecile!
Arriving on Space Station Nerva in its distant past, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry find its crew threatened by a mysterious plague. Discovering that things are not what they seem, they stumble upon a plan to commit genocide devised by the Doctor’s old enemies, the Cybermen.
Revenge of the Cybermen is a bit of a bizarre story really and a lacklustre end to Tom Baker’s largely strong first season. Having held a cult statement due to being the first story to be released on VHS, it demonstrates some poor writing and feels like a 60s era story. The direction is largely strong from Michael Briant and generally, the story feels as though it has quite high production values. I really struggle with this story, especially the Vogan Civil War element, which really failed to grab my interest.
I will start by talking about the positives of the story. I feel like the direction, is for the most part, quite good and Briant is very competent in his shots. I particularly like the contrasting uses of light on Nerva Beacon and on Voga, as it makes the scenes on the planet feel significantly different to those on the space station. This is not to say that everything works well, although the blame cannot solely be laid at Michael Briant’s door. The writing and some of the performances do him no favours and small things like the Cyber Leader having his hands on his hips when interrogating Sarah seem like contributing factors as to why the story doesn’t really work for me – the Cybermen seem to have too much emotion. Additionally, scenes like the fight between the Cybermen and the Vogans lack any kind of visual flair to keep them interesting, which feel especially necessary when they drag like they do here. Like I say, it would be unfair to blame the director solely for this, and he does do the best he can with an admittedly poor script. Briant does a good job considering the fact that he is working with a limited budget and it is fair to say that I think that Spielberg, or, to use a more achievable director for the modern series, Rachel Talalay, would struggle to make scenes involving that Cybermat look good.
As this story featured the return of the Cybermen after a seven-year absence, it does seem as though both Gerry Davis, one of the creators of the Cybermen, and Robert Holmes seem not to understand how they work. I think that Holmes, like his predecessor as script editor Terrance Dicks, did not like the Cybermen and so his interest was probably not too high when he came to do his extensive rewrites on this story, but there are some really ridiculous moments that smack of laziness on both men’s behalf. The Vogan Civil War is really uninteresting, rather extraordinary when you consider the calibre of actors under the prosthetics, and just feels like padding to get the story up to the required length. Each part feels as though it has a massive amount of exposition in There are also massive plot holes in this story, the most irritating of which being that the Vogans at no point consider using the gold as a weapon against the Cybermen, despite it being one of their weaknesses and Voga is the planet of gold. I really dislike the idea of gold being a weakness for the Cybermen anyway as it adds to a list of weaknesses for this supposedly continually upgrading race established over the course of 1960s Doctor Who, but this plot hole bugged me, especially as two Cybermen slaughter a load of Vogans in the overlong battle scene.
Sadly, unlike other stories of this era where the elements feel a bit lacking, this story suffers from coming early in Tom Baker’s era, and it is clear that he has not got to grips with the part during the production of this story. There are hints of the direction that Baker would take his incarnation and he isn’t helped by the fact that this story feels as though it was written for any of his three predecessors. It’s hard to say for certain, but the moments that feel most in character for this incarnation of the Doctor are likely ad-libbed moments and reactions. Equally, Sarah Jane feels very poorly written and lacking any agency. The scene where she is interrogated by the Cybermen in the concluding part really shows how disinterested Holmes was in this story, and it is a shame Sladen doesn’t have more to sink her teeth into. I do feel that both Sladen and Baker deserve a huge amount of credit for getting through the scene talking about heading towards the “biggest bang in the universe” without absolutely corpsing though. The only one of the TARDIS team who feels well written in this story is Harry, continuing to show his usefulness to the Doctor, combined with his occasional bumbling.
Verdict: The return of the Cybermen is really rather underwhelming, with a poorly written story which doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. It does contain some lovely direction and the use of Wookey Hole Caves does raise it slightly. 3/10
Cast: Tom Baker (The Doctor), Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), Ian Marter (Harry Sullivan), Ronald Leigh-Hunt (Commander Stevenson), William Marlowe (Lester), Jeremy Wilkin (Kellman), Kevin Stoney (Tyrum), David Collings (Vorus), Alec Wallis (Warner), Michael Wisher (Magrik), Brian Grellis (Sheprah), Christopher Robbie (Cyber-Leader) & Melville Jones (First Cybermen)
Writer: Gerry Davis
Director: Michael Briant
Behind the Scenes
- The symbol hanging in the Vogan audience chamber would be re-used in The Deadly Assassin and would be retrospectively named as the Seal of Rassilon.
- The story was largely rewritten by Robert Holmes. The original story was set on a deserted space casino and Davis rewrote it to be set on the Nerva Beacon. This story carries Gerry Davis’ only writing credit on his own.
- Terror of the Zygons was originally shot as the season finale for Tom Baker’s debut season, but was held over to start the following season.
- The first Doctor Who story released on VHS.
- The location filming took place at Wookey Hole Caves, where production was beset by bad luck. An electrician broke his leg and Elisabeth Sladen’s motorboat went out of control. Terry Walsh rescued Sladen, but was taken ill shortly afterwards.
- First major appearance of the Cybermen since The Invasion. They had previously made a cameo appearance in Carnival of Monsters, their only appearance in the Pertwee era.
- During the transmission of the story, William Hartnell passed away.
- This story marks the reappearance of the TARDIS, which was last seen on screen in The Ark in Space.
- The first occasion where the Cybermen’s voices are provided by the actor inside the suit.
The entrance of the Cybermen at the end of the second part is one of my favourite parts of this story.
Then what is it? You’ve no home planet, no influence, nothing. You’re just a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship.