|Some monsters appear and give an immediate sense of
terror and awe. Other monsters appear and make you go
“Oh. It’s them.”
It’s April 19, 1975. The Bay City Rollers are at number one with “Bye Bye Baby,” which lasts for two weeks before Mud overtake them with “Oh Boy,” an a cappella cover of an old Buddy Holly song, which also lasts for two weeks. Peter Shelley, The Goodies, 10cc, and, in the highest concentration of Tammy’s ever seen in the top ten, Tammy Wynette and Tammy Jones all chart as well.
While in real news, the Red Army Faction takes over the West German embassy in Stockholm, then promptly inadvertently blow themselves up, leading to West Germany changing to a “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” policy. That’s about all that happens in these four weeks. Well, that and the Vietnam War ending. But that’s nothing, right?
While on television, we have Revenge of the Cybermen. On the surface, this is straightforward – a story commissioned under Letts and made under Hinchcliffe, written by Gerry Davis, a writer who was frankly rubbish even in his prime, and thus desperately rewritten by Robert Holmes in a not-entirely-successful effort to salvage it, it’s a lackluster story of the sort new production teams do in their first year. And that’s not a completely unfair reading of it. But for once, it’s instructive just how this story gets snared between the Letts and Hinchcliffe approaches, and in particular how it follows (and fails to follow) from the doors blasted open by Genesis of the Daleks.
Letts, for his part, had been trying to bring the Cybermen back for a while. This is not surprising – one of the ways in which Letts dramatically evolved the show was in how actively and savvily it manipulated and engaged with audiences and audience expectations. Occasionally this backfired, as with the dropping of the dinosaurs from the episode title for the first part of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, or the shoehorned Daleks in Day of the Daleks, but more often it led to tour de forces like the reveal of the Daleks in Frontier in Space. So of course he would have gone for bringing back the “other classic monster.” And Letts was savvy enough to have a good angle on how to do it as well – hire back one of the writers who had done that monster last who was also still a respectable television man (Davis was only three years out from Doomwatch here) to do it so that it feels nice and nostalgic.
But neither Hinchcliffe nor Holmes are particularly enamored with nostalgia and classic monsters. In fact, after this and the next story, they basically don’t use nostalgia as a major story appeal again until The Deadly Assassin, and there it’s one of the most stark breaks with the past of the relevant concept imaginable. So it’s not quite a surprise that the Hinchcliffe era balks at doing a straight nostalgia piece. But all the same, they don’t get nearly enough credit for resisting the temptation.
Because, honestly, think about it – you inherit the brief to bring back the Cybermen. You have a writer who is familiar with Troughton-style base under siege stories. You have a new Doctor that is easily described by lazy people as being funny again like Troughton was (never mind that this was never actually what was going on with Troughton’s Doctor, nor quite what’s going on with Baker’s). You have a shiny space station set you built for The Ark in Space and are reusing here. And the show hasn’t done a proper base under siege since The Seeds of Death six years ago. The gravity exerted by the idea of just doing a straight base under siege nostalgia piece is enormous here.
And given that, it’s genuinely impressive that Holmes had the good sense to forcibly rewrite this script into something else. And that rewrite is what creates the central difference between this and Planet of the Daleks. I said that Planet of the Daleks was the most postmodern story of the Pertwee era because it was in part a critique of its own genre. And it was, but that’s still a long shot from being openly postmodern. Planet of the Daleks was a Dalek story that happened to also demonstrate an idea about the direction of the show. This, on the other hand, is openly postmodern. It’s a story about the idea of nostalgia in the show that happens to use the Cybermen to make its point.
Because the thing Holmes’s rewrite on the script is firmly aware of is that the Cybermen are crap. Because, let’s all be honest here, they are. Yes, they were brilliant in The Tenth Planet as Qlippothic parodies of humanity. But it’s basically been all downhill ever since, due in no small part to Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis deciding that the Cybermen would just get slotted in as “the new Daleks” when Terry Nation took the Daleks and went home. This was by far the worst thing ever to happen to the Cybermen, who were intriguing enough to have probably come back on their own otherwise. Because they were unambiguously replacement monsters. They weren’t the new Daleks. They were the half-assed replacements for the Daleks, and everybody knew it. This is what everybody who complains that the Cybermen are always poorly used misses – that’s been the case since 1967.
And the brilliance of Revenge of the Cybermen is that it admits it, writing a story in which rubbish b-list villains are a necessity. The characters openly talk about how they thought the Cybermen had died out years ago – which, in point of fact, they had, having not appeared since 1969. The Doctor calls them a bunch of pathetic tin soldiers. But, perhaps more importantly, the story does nothing to undermine the Doctor. The Cybermen show up with a ludicrously dumb scheme and the Doctor foils it without ever seeming to take the Cybermen even remotely seriously. None of this would work with any other monster, but because the Cybermen always carry a vague whiff of disappointment and of settling for the second choice, they’re perfect for this.
The result is a story that largely seems to be mocking the very idea of doing a Cybermen story in 1975, and attacking the idea of living in the series’ past. This is why it’s postmodern and a continuation of the themes raised in Genesis of the Daleks. Here the Doctor really is confronting an idea first and a monster second. The story doesn’t reduce into an allegory about politics or a practical moral lesson. It reduces to a story about stories, memory, and nostalgia. And this is interesting in several ways.
First of all, it’s the first time the series has been this brazen in telling fans of its history to sod off. Planet of the Daleks was a demonstration of how the show had moved on, yes, but it was still playing fair and trying to do a classic Dalek story with all the production values of its time. But really, it’s not since The Highlanders that the series has this actively done a story that is designed primarily to mock its own history. And this alone explains some of the flak this story gets. It certainly makes it a terribly inappropriate choice for an initial video release. (Supposedly it was chosen by a fan poll. Nobody actually believes this, with theories ranging from the actual winner of the poll being Tomb of the Cybermen, which was missing, to the probably more credible theory that the Cybermen featured heavily in The Five Doctors, which debuted a month after the VHS of this came out, so they wanted a Cybermen story. Frankly, I suspect it was process of elimination – they wanted to release a Baker story, and they wanted a classic monster. Genesis is too long for one tape, Destiny was too recent, and that basically leaves Revenge of the Cybermen.)
But a series wrapping up its twelfth season and airing its 397th-400th episode in total frankly has to decisively break with its past sometimes. Being beholden to nostalgia when there’s that much history to wax nostalgic about is a disaster. And before successful mining of the series past – including, let’s be honest, the Cybermen’s next appearance – can happen, the series first has to firmly show that it’s brave enough not to cling to its past. One way of doing that is to just break with the past and do new things, and after the stories filmed for Season Twelve, that’s basically what the series does for the next seven seasons, over which it revisits its past very, very rarely. And frankly, the abandonment of that practice is arguably the thing that ultimately dooms the show.
But there’s something to be said for the decisive and definitive break as well. Especially with a story like this, which begs to be dragged backwards into nostalgia. Left to their own devices, this isn’t a story that would appear in the Hinchcliffe era. Stuck with it, however, Hinchcliffe and Holmes take the other route – doing a story that shows why the by this point obviously happening ditching of UNIT doesn’t mean going back to the show as it was before UNIT came along. Which, after five straight years in which at least two stories a season were UNIT-based, is actually probably a good idea. Hedging against straight Troughton nostalgia makes a lot of sense.
The other thing to note is that while Holmes’s rewrite obviously declines to take the Cybermen seriously, that doesn’t mean he treats them unfairly. Actually, part of the cheeky thrill of this story comes from the fact that Voga is unrepentantly a wandering planet that has the same relationship with Mondas that Mondas has with Earth. Even the choice of gold for the substance that is fundamentally lethal to the Cybermen feels like an homage to their original alchemical roots. (Though the attempt to pretend that there’s a reason for this involving breathing is unfortunate, given that it is obviously actually the case that it’s unrepentant alchemy involving the solar power represented by gold to contrast the qlippothic silver of the Cybermen.) The story also consciously invokes both Tomb of the Cybermen (via the Cybermats) and the Moonbase (via the Cybermen plague). It’s unapologetically a greatest hits compilation of past Cybermen stories. Which only turns up the volume on the story’s steadfast refusal to treat the Cybermen seriously. It’s as if every idea of the Cybermen has been dug up, put on display, and found wanting.
The problem with this reading is that, ultimately, not even Robert Holmes can quite find a way to polish Gerry Davis’s writing into something that’s remotely acceptable. Even if he manages to slant the story to be an extremely bitter joke about how rubbish the Cybermen are, he runs smack into the problem that he can’t get Voga to work. Admittedly, Voga was as much Holmes’s idea as Davis’s, but it’s still shambolic. All of Holmes’s best aspects – his ability to paint interesting regular characters – desert him here, and he’s left with Vorus and Tyrum, who are just the same pair of interventionist/warlike and isolationist/pacifist aliens that apparently govern every planet in the universe and have since The Sensorites.
(The Silence wandered by again, so if this next paragraph seems different from how you remember it, that’s surely why, and not because I changed it after I posted this because some people helpfully clarified some details of British accents for me)
And this is a real problem. Skewering the Cybermen only works if you can present a credible alternative. In practice, the show does this with the stories on either side of it (though the next story is a “shaking off the past” story in its own right), but there’s not actually a credible alternative within this story. The only thing more rubbish than the Cybermen turns out to be the Vogans. The saving grace is Kevin Stoney as Tyrum. Stoney, having previously impressed as Mavic Chen and Tobias Vaughan, here gets his one shot at a good guy, and is as impressive with his face completely obscured by a prosthetic as he is without it. In particular, his decision to give Tyrum an accent that signals his age and experience. This is an obvious trait of the character, but the decision to communicate it via a detail of British culture, accent, as opposed to the more obvious choice of just playing the character as aloof and imperious, is a delightful one. It’s a rare case of using a non-received pronunciation accent for a character who is more powerful, as opposed to less.
But Stoney is about the only good thing that can be said of the Voga cast. And that’s still one more good thing than can be said of the Nerva Beacon crew. And with those elements gone on walkabout, the decision to turn on the Cybermen comes off not as a triumphant rejection of nostalgia that continues the thread from Genesis of the Daleks, but rather as yet another disappointing element of the story. It’s only when you look closely that you realize that the Cybermen are actually supposed to be rubbish – it’s just that everyone forgot to make sure that was a meaningful contrast with everything else in this story.
But even still, we’re faced with a story with its heart in the right place, and a show that’s trying very hard to find a way to simultaneously return to its past glory and avoid being a remake of a late 60s sci-fi show starring Patrick Troughton. And, of course, when considered in production order, it all makes much more sense – this story makes a lot of sense as the setup for Genesis of the Daleks. Having shown that it can turn its back on the past with this, moving into Genesis’s epic invocation of the past as a means to plow into a new future seems like the logical next step. Inverted, this is a bit of a damp squib – a lower key version of the explosive change ushered in last time. This is a story that establishes clearly that the show is on its way to something impressive. Unfortunately, that something impressive arrived before its herald.