|I can’t decide if the weary and kind of bored expression on
Lytton’s face is funnier than the way that the Cyberman
helmet makes the one on the right look like a perplexed
It is January 5th, 1985. Band Aid are at number one with “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” a song that will have spectacularly unfortunate results for Doctor Who in a few months’ time. They remain at number one through the story, with Wham! at number two with another Christmas song. Foreigner, Madonna, Paul McCartney, Tears for Fears, and Ray Parker Jr. are also in the charts, the last, of course, with the theme from Ghostbusters.
So in the news, since last we looked at a story, The Soviet Union decides to boycott the 1984 Olympics essentially in protest of the US boycotting the 1980 ones four years earlier. So that’s another thrilling series of events. The Indian government storms the holiest site in the Sikh religion to remove Sikh separatists, killing 2000. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, is assassinated by her Sikh security guards a few months later, which, you know, there’s something to learn there. The other JN-T, John Napier Turner, becomes Prime Minster of Canada. And is ousted three months later. The UK agrees to return Hong Kong to China.
While on television… The obvious putdown of Attack of the Cybermen is that it finally and demonstrably shows just how bad both Ian Levine and Eric Saward are, in that both of them take credit for this story instead of frantically trying to shift the blame onto the other. But denouncing Attack of the Cybermen is almost too easy. And anyway, I want to take a different line on Season 22.
In writing this blog I have found that eras of the show tend to work in one of two ways. The first category are eras whose aesthetics are relatively straightforward, in which case readings of stories tend to be based on exploring the particulars of those aesthetics and pushing readings a bit further. Much of the the 1960s, along with the Hinchcliffe and Bidmead eras, worked like this. The second are what one might call the problem eras – chunks of the show where how the show works is contested and I have to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to read the show in the first place instead of getting on with it. The Pertwee, Williams, and Davison eras were all like this, with entries having to go back and forth on questions like “what is the show actually trying to do here” for large swaths of it.
The Colin Baker era is something else – an era that doesn’t work, but that doesn’t work in such a consistent and straightforward manner as to not require a lot of explanation. The era’s flaws have almost completely been sorted out with The Twin Dilemma. This story adds continuity porn to the list, but that’s a flaw we largely sorted out during the Davison era. The same logic applies to most of the era. I try to write this blog so that someone who isn’t intimately familiar with the history of Doctor Who can follow it (part of why I did opt to retrace much of the existing critical consensus on the Davison era), but in this case there’s almost no point. For every story this season you can safely assume that everything that went wrong in the Davison era happens about twice as much, and everything that went right happens at best half as much. You can take for granted that references to the past abound for their own sake, that the stories take active pleasure in violence and pain, and that Baker is interminably unpleasant due to writing that has the childish tendency to assume that less likable characters are inherently edgier and thus more dramatic. You can also assume that the switch to 45-minute episodes was poorly handled and that the pacing is screwed to hell and back. So I’m mostly not going to reiterate any of that unless there’s something particularly interesting about it. Take as read that the next six stories are not very good and that most of the existing criticism of them is at least vaguely on target. So that’s all sorted then.
Similarly, having done “The Agony and the Ecstasy of John Nathan-Turner” over the course of the Davison era, I want to put the travails of the production team aside for most of Season 22, especially since the behind-the-scenes aspect has been hopelessly overdetermined with a wealth of partisan accounts. It won’t be completely possible – I don’t see how to talk about The Two Doctors without some behind the scenes chatter, for instance – but for the most part I want to focus on what’s on screen in Season 22 and not on the sausage factory.
With Attack of the Cybermen there’s an additional issue. I took my pot-shots at the last two universally despised stories, but as one of the things people say when they’re saying nice things about my blog is that I come up with counter-intuitive and innovative readings of stories. So let’s break the streak and ask a harder question, which is what a redemptive reading of Attack of the Cybermen would look like.
Interestingly, the angle of Attack of the Cybermen that most lends itself to redemption is also the one for which it is most infamous, namely its, shall we say, somewhat dense use of continuity. The most interesting aspect of this is the confirmation of the original role of Mondas in terms of the Cybermen. Much of the history of the Cybermen has, after all, been a matter of ignoring what they originally were, both in their role as Qlippothic others and, more basically, in the sheer ludicrousness of their original premise as a race that drove their planet up alongside the Earth and then exploded. Mondas has been mentioned since then, yes, but the actual original event of the Cybermen has been largely obscured.
Except here it’s brought back, and in its full and original weirdness. When, in 1966, Pedler and Davis posited a 1986 arrival of Mondas it was an understandable move – yes, it was sure to look silly in twenty years, but worrying about how your 1960s science fiction television was going to look in twenty years would have been ridiculous at the time. But come 1985 the little detail of when the Cybermen arrived on Earth would seem ripe for ignoring – as, let’s remember, most details of the past are even in these continuity-obsessed days. Instead, however, the fact of Mondas’s 1986 arrival forms one of the centerpieces of the story.
The whole story, of course, is about the evocation of the past. But in most of these cases the past is evoked, not used. The Cybermen lurk about in sewers, because that’s classically what Cybermen do. We’re back on Telos among the tombs because that’s where Cybermen go. And, of course, we’re in Totter’s Lane for no reason other than the fact that we can be. There’s a token attempt to link this all together into a “Whoniverse,” a term I think I’ll just repurpose to refer to the basic idea of even having that sort of coherence. But the real effect is a miasma of evocations of the series’ past.
For all that one of its major influences is The Invasion, this story makes little move to take place in a London comprised of real and recognizable landmarks. It is telling that the shot the story slavishly reproduces is not the Cybermen marching down the steps of St. Paul’s but rather the Cybermen bursting from their tombs, a shot removed from reference to reality, originally conceived of in terms of the genre tropes of mummy films. The only London landmark invoked is an imaginary one – Totter’s Lane. Haley’s Comet may loom over the story along with 1986, but the world of the story is manifestly not ours. This is a story that takes place among the series’ past.
So in amidst the iconography of the series’ past we unleash the idea of the original Qlippothic Cybermen. Not the things themselves, of course – these are the puissant action villains of Earthshock through and through. But the Qlippothic Cybermen are perhaps more unsettling as ideas than they are as actual presences. This story is consciously haunted by the 1986 run-in with Mondas, and thus the Qlippothic haunts it as well.
This is asking for trouble. The flawed fetishization of the series’ past risks obscuring the fact that this past has always held more power than its worshipers give it credit for. One is not on solid ground when walking amongst the rubble of Doctor Who’s past, and the illusory terra firma of the Whoniverse presents little real protection against exposure.
Can we make a redemptive reading that still acknowledges the story to be rubbish? To some extent, at least, that’s the plan for this entire era – a misbegotten wreck of television that nevertheless seems to crackle alchemically. In one sense, after all, we have the ultimate narrative collapse story here. The Cybermen oversee a sudden hemorrhage of a quarter of the viewership week over week and then the series gets cancelled. There is no narrative collapse quite as thorough as the series actually getting taken off the air. And here are all the makings of that metatext. The Cybermen are allowed to run riot through Totter’s Lane. It’s fitting that this should come so early in the terminally long stretch of non-classics, particularly given that the next unambiguous triumph of the series will return again to this place with newfound alchemy.
All narrative collapses are averted at a price. It’s tempting to say that this one’s is that it comes too late – that the wound is mortal and an 18-month break in transmission, followed not long thereafter by a 16-year one, are inevitable. But perhaps a better option exists. It is notable that Doctor Who inflicts upon itself a symbolic wound right at the moment when, in a real, material, ratings sense everything goes off the rails. What, then, if we treat this era as a sort of Fisher King of Doctor Who? If Colin Baker’s tenure is the cursed land ruled over by the wounded king created by this Qlippothic distortion of the very fabric of the series’ identity?
The result is an era of exorcism. An era where the show rips itself to shreds in the name of excising its own weakness. In this reading, for all of Attack of the Cybermen’s flaws, it is in some sense a more interesting story than The Five Doctors, where all of Doctor Who’s history seemed at last to be enmeshed in grotesque stasis. This is, perhaps the price of escaping that. What follows The Five Doctors? What ideas come after Longleat? It’s not an easy question, given that both events strove towards a totalizing, definitive statement of what Doctor Who was.
The price paid for the escape from this narrative collapse is, perhaps, Attack of the Cybermen itself – or, more broadly, the Colin Baker era. To unshackle the history of Doctor Who from the grotesque chains of the Whoniverse may not be a task that can be undertaken by quality. After twenty years perhaps the program has no way forward beyond tearing itself apart.
There’s an odd parallelism to the overall cultural situation. As the miners’ strike winds down to its crushing and deflated denouement we reach a point where the phrase “creative destruction” seems glaringly apt. For all that the moral arguments stack against it – the firm insistence that one cannot simply dismantle communities for profit – there is eternally an allure to burning it all down. This is the odd alliance between Thatcherism and mercurial anarchy. At the end of the day, both want to tear down the world. ??For all the horrors of Thatcher, it’s difficult not to point out that in areas other than Doctor Who Britain is in a bit of a cultural renaissance here. It’s musically on top of the world, for all the flaws in Doctor Who there are all-time classics of television being made in this period. The British invasion of comics is in full swing, with Alan Moore making his transformative impact on the American comics industry. And much of this, albeit not all of it, is in direct reaction against Thatcherism. There’s a compelling, if unintended, argument to be had here. This isn’t the creative force the right wanted out of its creative destruction, but really, that’s for the better. At some point we have to admit that hating Thatcher is something of a fetish – that she is the symptom we most enjoy.
There is a moment of logical sloppiness here that we ought resist, however. The arc of history is not a moral force. That something happened and its consequences approached progress does not mean the thing was right or good. This howling exorcism of Doctor Who – this self-inflicted wound to claw the Whoniverse out of the concept of the show – is not a good thing. It is not a necessary thing, except inasmuch as it happened and so, tautologically, must have happened. But it is a thing – a price paid. As, perhaps, is all of the Colin Baker era.
To be clear it is not that this is a bad story on the way to a good result. We’ll save that defense for Season 24. This is something subtler – a bad story that nevertheless constitutes a plunge into alchemical depths and starts a process that will begin to remove the flaws it represents – flaws which predate this story by some margin. I sometimes describe William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury by saying it is a book I love having read, even if I hated reading it. The Baker era was a disaster, but it was, perhaps, the right disaster.
At the heart of this is the character of Lytton, who rather unexpectedly finds himself thrust into the role of moral center of the story. The Doctor’s final comment, taken superficially, is incoherently stupid – the fact that Lytton was working as a mercenary for the good guys surely does not constitute the worst misjudgment on the part of the Doctor given that he was previously and uncomplicatedly working as a mercenary for the Daleks. What, then, is the nature of this misjudgment?
Again, let us set aside what we know went on behind the scenes here and take the events on their own merits, reading not what we know Saward meant here but what appeared. There is no way to seriously suggest Lytton’s redemption from what is on screen. The alternative, then, is that working for the Daleks is not so bad.
It is helpful here to turn back to earlier versions of alchemy, most specifically The Ribos Operation, which was an extended meditation on the problems of dualisms. A key part of that story was that differing levels of the system did not have 1:1 correspondence with each other. The true maxim turns out to be “as above, so below… more or less.”
The Cybermen, of course, are the new Daleks – the classic Cybermen stories of Seasons 4-6 are primarily about the fact that Terry Nation took his ball and went to America. In this regard they are differing iterations of the same system. But the Doctor’s misjudgment of Lytton requires that we see a difference between them. Working for the Cybermen would have been unforgivable, but finding out that Lytton only worked for the Daleks means that he’s OK. This is not the only time this judgment is made in the Colin Baker era either – jump ahead and consider his monologue about the corruption of the Time Lords in The Ultimate Foe. He lists three monsters that are not as bad as the Time Lords – Daleks, Sontarans, and Cybermen – and delivers the line as if to suggest that being worse than the Cybermen is the real accomplishment here. Even in their first appearance, when we take them as the thing that persuades the Doctor that there are monsters that need to be fought, we are forced to realize that the Daleks were not sufficiently persuasive in this regard. The Cybermen have always been worse than the Daleks, both in the sense of being the second choice and in a diegetic sense.
The Daleks are merely the Doctor’s opposite – the representation of death that threatens narrative collapse. But the Cybermen are the Doctor’s corruption. They offer a living death – the possibility of continuing endlessly in a hollowed out, qlippothic state. In recognizing that Lytton is not that the Doctor attains some measurement of knowledge – the ability to distinguish the qlippothic from the real. But this knowledge comes, in a sense, too late – the qlippothic has been unleashed amidst the core of what the program is. This, then, is the true nature of the Doctor’s bad judgment – he’s been so unable to differentiate the qlippothic from the real that he’s allowed the very narrative foundations of the series to be infested. The only remaining option is an exorcism, and likely a painful one.