User login

Doctor Who - Cybermen Boxed Set

Review by: 
Release Date: 
2 Entertain
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Michael E. Briant
Chris Clough
Tom Baker
Elisabeth Sladen
Ian Marter
Sylvester McCoy
Sophie Aldred
Bottom Line: 

The Cybermen are the second most iconic Doctor Who monster after The Daleks, and like their illustrious pepper pot predecessors, have returned at regular intervals to do battle with their Time Lord foe throughout the programme’s continuing chequered history.  Making their debut in the first Doctor, William Hartnell’s final ever story near the start of the series’ fourth recording block, the Cybermen were the creation of then script editor Gerry Davis and the show’s ‘scientific adviser’ Kit Pedler.  Peddler had originally been drafted in by producer Innes Lloyd in 1966 to add scientific plausibility to a Hartnell story called “The War Machines”, in which a giant supercomputer called WOTAN, situated in the newly built Post Office Tower, attempts to take over the Earth by communicating with other computers worldwide through international phone lines.  Having recently ditched its historical adventure strand, the show was starting to address contemporary issues revolving around automation and the development of new technology – a subject which had become a major cultural preoccupation during the sixties, what with the new Labour government’s ‘White Heat’ agenda of supporting British technological innovation, and the increasing fascination with the so-called Space Age, which was becoming ever-more apparent in all areas of British art, design and fashion.  But stories such as “The War Machines” and the concept behind the Daleks and the Cybermen, reminds us of the fear and mistrust which was all the while intermingled with the love of the new and the technologically innovative, during this transformative decade.

While the Daleks represented a kind of militaristic super-race made invulnerable, but also that much more fascistic, through a shell of roboticisation, the Cybermen reflected the developing concern at the time about recent innovations in medical technology involving organ replacement -- particularly heart transplants. There is something even more invasive and troubling about the Cybermen concept as it was originally envisioned: inhabitants of Earth’s ‘twin’ planet Mondas, whose commitment to efficiency and the elimination of all human weakness has resulted in them gradually replacing human limbs and organs with robot parts, and supressing their emotions with drugs, until there is little humanity left in them. In the first Cyberman story broadcast by the BBC, “The Tenth Planet”, they have a kind of stuck-together, bandaged-up look about them; bits of them, like their hands, are still relatively human – and serve to remind us of what they once were -- while their voices have been drained of all human character and emotional concern, becoming nothing but a dreadful, flavourless roboticised buzz. The Cybermen seemed to capture the imagination of sixties audiences, and were to return as frequently as the Daleks throughout Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor, making their final appearance in the 1968 adventure “The Invasion”.

There was though, quite a long gap until they were to appear again, in the four part 1974 story from Tom Baker’s first season, “The Revenge of the Cybermen” – one of two later Cybermen adventures included on this two-disc box set of classic Doctor Who adventures.  The story had been commissioned by Barry Letts before his role as producer had transferred to Philip Hinchcliffe, and had come about really as part of Letts’ ‘insurance policy’ for the new season, before the identity of the actor who would be taking over from Jon Pertwee had been decided upon. To make sure audiences tuned in to see the new Doctor, whoever he eventually turned out to be, (what became) the first Tom Baker season included both the Daleks (in the now classic origins tale “Genesis of the Daleks”) and the Cybermen, in stories that were eventually broadcast back to back. The Daleks had returned regularly throughout Pertwee’s tenure, but this was to be the first genuine Cyberman adventure since 1968.  Gerry Davis, co-creator of the monsters, was commissioned to write “Return of the Cybermen” and Hinchcliffe and his story editor Robert Holmes inherited the story when they took over from Letts and previous script editor Terrence Dicks. Even after Robert Holmes substantially rewrote Davis’ work in the now renamed “Revenge of the Cybermen”, it remained a story that very much harks back to Troughton era ‘base-under-siege’ tales of invasion from the ‘60s. In a cost-cutting move, the space station set that had been used in the story “The Ark in Space” was reused, the conceit being that the Doctor and his companions are re-visiting the same location, only thousands of years earlier in time when it was a communications beacon rather than the space station storage facility we saw in that now classic story, storing the remnants of the human race in suspended animation.  The story was filmed back to back with “The Ark in Space”, but is meant to follow on from the previous “Genesis of the Daleks”.

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companions Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) are transported back to the Nerva Station in search of the TARDIS, but find that they have arrived thousands of years in the past. In this period of its history, the station is being used to relay communications while monitoring a new planetary satellite called Voga, which has mysteriously appeared near Jupiter. The time travellers discover that the fifty-man crew has been reduced to just three by a strange ‘plague’ that has forced the Nerva Beacon into quarantine. An unidentified ship appears and seems determined to dock with Nerva despite the quarantine warning. The Doctor soon realises that the plague symptoms are really the result of a cybermat bite (robotic snake-like creatures that inject their victims with a lethal toxin) – and wherever cybermats are found, the Cybermen can’t be too far behind! 

When Sarah is bitten by one of the creatures, the only way to save her is to have Harry beam down to the planet Voga’s surface with her, using the Beacon’s transmatt teleportation facility, which will remove the alien toxin from her bloodstream when it reassembles her atoms. The discovery of sabotage on board the Beacon leads the Doctor to suspect that the planetary surveyor Kellman (Jeremy Wilkin) is in league with the cyber-ship which is rapidly approaching the Nerva Beacon. While on the planet surface, Harry and a revitalised Sarah Jane Smith are taken prisoner by the Vogans -- a race of jowly, turnip-featured humanoids who live underground surrounded by huge amounts of gold. It soon becomes apparent that there is a profound division on the planet Voga between the Vogan Militia: wizened, bearded elders led by the ancient, avuncular Vogan leader Tyrum (Kevin Stoney); and the armed guardians of the planet’s gold mines led by guild leader Vorus (David Collings). While Tyrum believes that Voga should remain insular and avoid contact with other species that might wish to make war and take their gold, Vorus wants to make the planet rich through trade again.  In order to do this, their greatest enemy the Cybermen must be destroyed.

Gold – a non-corrodible metal -- is lethal to Cybermen, since it coats their breathing apparatus’ and suffocates them; this has made them determined to wipe out Voga for good. So before Voga can emerge again as a trading planet, Vorus knows he must eliminate the Cyberman threat. Meanwhile, Kellman, while apparently working for the Cybermen, has wiped out his Nerva Beacon colleagues with the Cybermats and helped the Cybermen board the troubled vessel. The Cybermen plan to destroy Voga by using the Doctor and the surviving two Beacon crew members as human bombs with cyber-bombs strapped to their backs. However, Kellman is really a double agent working for profit with Vorus in order to lead the Cybermen into a trap. It is Vorus’s plan to destroy the Nerva Beacon while the Cybermen are on-board, with a ‘sky striker’ rocket aimed at the stricken orbiting craft. But the plan has gone wrong and the planet is now threatened with imminent destruction as the Cybermen invade the planet’s surface, while a trapped Doctor and crew await their deaths in the bomb blast in the gold mines.

“Revenge of the Cybermen” has all the hallmarks of a salvage job, with Robert Holmes adding the Vogan sub-plot to make the story less old fashioned in character and to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity to extend the budget with the inclusion of some location filming. Thus, despite being a somewhat uneven, even confused story, with numerous inconsistencies and plot holes, it is a fondly remembered adventure for me; with many classic moments that have emblazoned themselves on my childhood memory. Sarah being attacked by the cybermat at the end of episode one is such a moment, as is the eerie appearance of the gleaming Cybermen in the caves on Voga’s surface, filmed at Wooky Hole in Somerset  and forever commemorated in the League of Gentlemen’s  ‘Stumpy Hole’ Cave Guide sketch  (‘In 1974 you couldn’t move down here for Cybermen. In fact there was a rather amusing incident in which Tom Baker sprained his ankle on that rock over there!’). The Cybermen have retained the look they were first given in their previous Troughton appearance, although, this being the seventies, they appear to be wearing slightly flared cyber-trousers this time. The story also marks the first appearance of the black helmeted Cyber Leader.

The conceit that the Cybermen can be killed by exposure to gold dust is mentioned for the first time in this story, and would go on to play a big role in future adventures featuring them. Another more controversial first is that, unlike in previous stories, the Cybermen now speak with the voices of the actors playing them, rather than a dubbed-in electronic voice. This makes them seem rather more like generic robot monsters than they had previously, and Holmes’ re-written screenplay gives them human characteristics which seem out of keeping with their background. The Cyber Leader has a habit of putting his hands on his hips in rather a camp manner, for instance, and expresses emotions like anger and pride – not really qualities one previously associated with Cybermen. Nevertheless, this was to become the standard way they were represented in future stories after they began to appear in the series much more frequently during the eighties, right up until Russell T. Davis brought them back to their roots (although with a much more Robocop-meets-Metal-Mickey design) in the 2005 series. This being Tom Baker’s first season as the Doctor, the story also features the classic Baker interpretation of the role – all yo-yos, jelly babies and half-eaten apple cores in his pockets – well before the cynicism and self- parody set in. The rapport between Baker and Elisabeth Sladen is becoming more and more evident in this early story, which was filmed before the public had actually yet seen Baker’s performance.  The story takes a dip in the third episode but gets going again at the end and although it can hardly be said this is an all-time classic Cyberman adventure, it comes from one of those periods when even weak Doctor Who seemed somehow to exist on another plane and has a special atmosphere which elevates it above some of its clumsy plotting and unsuccessful attempts to re-create Wooky Hole in the studio with CSO backgrounds.

This disc comes with some fantastic extras led by a breezy commentary track featuring Elisabeth Sladen, actor David Collings (who played the part of Vogus), designer Roger Murray-Leach and producer Philip Hinchcliffe. The context within which the story came about is related, on-set anecdotes are laughed over, and strange tales of the so-called ‘curse of Wooky Hole’ are told, the main ones here relating to Elisabeth Sladen’s near-drowning while filming a scene with the sizzler skimmer boats which were used in the streams that flow through the cave system. Legend has it that a huge stalagmite in one of the caves in which the crew were filming is a calcified witch from medieval times, and many accidents and strange happenings plagued the crew while they were on the location shoot. The weirdest one, related by Elisabeth Sladen on this commentary track, concerns a strange scene between herself and co-star Ian Marter (who played Harry Sullivan) which mysteriously appeared in both their scripts while they were sitting beneath ‘the witch’, only to magically disappear again later! 

“The Tin Man and the Witch” is a twenty-five minute ‘making of’ featurette in which director Michael E. Briant, incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe and outgoing one Barry Letts (now sadly passed away) go into even more detail about the pre-production and the writing and filming of the adventure. It turns out Briant is well into the whole ‘curse’ mythology and has his own ghostly tale about a late night meeting with a phantom potholer while examining potential locations in the caves after being locked in alone for several hours.

“Cheques, Lies and Video Tape” is a marvellous thirty-three minute documentary which takes us back to the days when video was in its infancy and Doctor Who fans had to work hard to get their fix of their favourite show, chiefly because the BBC so very rarely repeated anything in those days, and quite often wiped the tapes, at least of the earlier series during the sixties. However, in Australia it was a different matter, and the almost constant repeat showings down under of Pertwee and Baker era Doctor Who sparked an illicit trade in black market Doctor Who videos in the UK. This film features fans from those far off days who remember paying upwards of forty quid for a tenth-generation copy of Day of the Daleks with both horror and affection and sometimes pride. There are amusing tales of fans gathering to watch with religious reverence blurry, colourless pirated tapes through a storm of tape hiss, replaying and replaying them over and over again to try and understand the dialogue underneath all the noise; and the documentary tells how “Revenge of the Cybermen” became the first official Doctor Who Video cassette to be released after a poll,  held among the attendees of the Longleat House Twenty Five Years of a Time Lord Convention, to find the adventure the fans would most like to see. Retailing for a neat £40.00 and featuring an anachronistic cover with an “Earthshock” era Cyberman on the front, the release was really a BBC compromise because the true choice of the fans, “The Tomb of the Cybermen”, was at that time still believed to be lost. This is a fantastic little film that will make younger fans count their blessings and older fans feel slightly wistful for a vanished time when every chance to see an old episode of Doctor Who was a major event in their lives.

A location report from 1974, filmed for a West Country regional news programme, turned out to be Tom Baker’s first ever interview relating to his role as the Doctor, and the public’s first chance to see what the new Doctor Who actually looked like. Filmed during a break in the filming at Wooky Hole, this short film is a wonderful piece of nostalgia and ends with a shot of Tom Baker, in full Doctor Who costume, entering a country pub with several Cybermen in tow – a bemused patron does a double take as he leaves!

The second disc in this set takes us forward in time to 1988 and the final instance of the Cybermen appearing in the classic version of the series, opposite Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor. It’s the three part adventure called “Silver Nemesis” – in many ways the perfect summation of the kinds of forces which were heavily at work in the conception of the programme in the late eighties: John Nathan-Turner’s publicity-thirsty showmanship in the gimmicky way the show’s real-world twenty-fifth anniversary is incorporated into the title and the story (the only real reason the Cybermen are actually in it at all – because of the ‘silver’ anniversary connection); script editor Andrew Cartmel’s postmodern comic book aesthetics and his continuing quest to make the Doctor a much more shadowy and enigmatic figure, even to the point of rewriting some of the most well-established facts about his origins; a hugely ambitious story by first-time writer for the show Kevin Clarke which, after constant rescheduling, the ubiquitous low budgets and hurried rewrites, and Nathan-Turner’s habit of shoehorning guest cameos into episodes  for no real reason, ends up turning it into an unholy, confused mess on the screen.

Clarke’s tale is in part a pastiche of Jacobean theatre (even to the extent that some dialogue was written in iambic pentameter), a ballsy sci fi action flick with loads of fully fledged battle sequences between the Cybermen and their foes, which manages to work in a bunch of paramilitary Neo Nazis in search of an occult object which will help them implement the Fourth Reich, and a ridiculously portentous attempt to re-cast the Doctor as some sort of reincarnated divinity whose secrets could destroy the world if they were revealed. The story doesn’t work too well overall and all the elements never come together. In fact it’s quite hard to make any sense of it. The scheduling cock up meant that the actors had no time to run through the script before shooting, hence rather mumbled performances from McCoy and Sophie Aldred as his assistant Ace, which don’t help when it comes to trying to catch the exposition that’s meant to explain what the hell is meant to be going on.

The story revolves around a statue called Nemesis, fashioned from Validium – the living metal first made by Rassilion on Gallifrey as the ultimate weapon intended to defend Time Lord power. This immediately links back to the Doctor and the backstory Cartmel was trying to forge incorporating Rassilion, Omega (characters which were part of previously established Time Lord mythology in stories such as “The Three Doctors” and “The Deadly Assassin”) and one ‘Other’. All three were meant to have established Time Lord civilisation and time traveling technology way back in the mists of Time Lord history, and the unspoken insinuation was that ‘the Other’ was the Doctor. In this story Nemesis is fashioned from three parts: the body of the statue itself, a silver bow and the arrow which accompanies it. When all three parts are joined together, awesome destructive power is unleashed. The Doctor tells Ace that he once managed to shoot the statue into space on an asteroid, but that its orbit returns it to circle the Earth once every twenty-five years, when it has previously been responsible for terrible events in Earth’s history, including the Second World War and John F. Kennedy’s assassination! Now its decaying orbit threatens to cause it to crash-land, and a host of competing forces are out to capture it and re-unite it with the other two elements which will bestow its power. 

Those factions include the Lady Peinforte (Fiona Walker) – a seventeenth century sorceress, and her loyal servant Richard (Gerard Murphy). Peinforte has engaged the services of an eccentric mathematician who has calculated that the asteroid will crash to Earth on November the 23rd 1988. Using a potion concocted using her Black Magic powers (and the mathematician’s blood!) she and Richard transport themselves through time to 1988, where they wander amongst the apparently little concerned residents and tourists of Windsor. Meanwhile in South America 1988, a Nazi renegade called De Flores (Anton Diffring) has also come into possession of the date, thanks to Peinforte’s old scrolls, and has assembled a crack team of soldiers to reunite the silver bow which is in his possession with the statue, and wrestle the arrow from Lady Peinforte in order to bring about Hitler’s Wagnerian dream of world domination. The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace (Sophie Aldred) cut short a pleasant sojourn in Windsor listening to Courtney Pine’s Jazz quartet perform, to make sure these two evil forces never manage to come into possession of the full Nemesis statue and all its paraphernalia. Unfortunately, there is one other factor none of the other parties have considered: the dreadful Cybermen have also learned about Nemesis, and a Cyber-patrol unit has also been despatched to sunny Windsor while the massed forces of the Cyber-battle fleet congregates above the Earth, waiting to launch its invasion plan!

Not surprisingly, with all these elements in play, any one or two of them would have been enough on their own to make a fairly decent story, but all of them together leads to a cluttered, confusing plot in which none of the competing story lines seem to hook up in a satisfying manner: in fact everybody ends up strolling around Windsor, hardly ever interacting with each other. Peinforte and Richard have some curious and unnecessary encounters with two clichéd skinheads who try to mug them, and an American heiress in a limousine, as they wander aimlessly about for nearly three full episodes; Anton Diffring in his last screen role playing yet another Nazi, spends most of his time waiting around for something to do; even the Doctor and Ace seem curiously disengaged in this adventure – wandering around some picturesque Windsor countryside, nearly meeting the Queen and her corgis at Windsor Castle and getting Courtney Pine’s autograph – before everything finally livens up a bit in the last episode. The Cybermen are still rather emotional (as established in “Revenge of the Cybermen”) and can still be killed by contact with gold. This time in fact, they only have to come into contact with an ounce of the stuff and they explode in a blast of budget BBC pyrotechnics. At least there are a lot more of them this time (although no authorities seem all that concerned about the weird events taking place on the streets of Windsor. Where the hell is UNIT?) – and they do have to wave their hands about each time one of them speaks so that you can tell which one is talking though. There is rather an impressive blaster battle between the Cybermen and the Nazi army at the start of episode two, and another fairly decent chase sequence with Ace acting as a decoy to lead the Cyberman Patrol Unit away from the Doctor in the final episode.

All this stuff about the Doctor’s mysterious past doesn’t ever really come to mean that much, though. The business about the Doctor playing chess with an unseen adversary in 1638 and Lady Peinforte’s claim that she knows who he really is and will destroy him when she reveals his secrets, just never convinces or establishes the enigma that it’s intended to: for me Sylvester McCoy, whatever you think of his portrayal of the Doctor, just doesn’t suggest ‘enigma’ or ‘mystery’. If anything, his is a homely, gentle interpretation of the role, with one of the best things about it being the paternal relationship between the Doctor and Ace, which, despite her similarity to the new series’ Rose Tyler as a character, recalls more the relationship between the first Doctor and his Granddaughter, Susan. One of the things we learn on the commentary track though is that this is precisely the kind of thing Andrew Cartmel wanted to get away from: he wanted the Doctor to become more alien and unfathomable, not more accessible. The problem is, McCoy is just about the last actor who has played the role who is best suited to convincingly creating such an impression.

“Silver Nemesis” features a commentary with Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Andrew Cartmel and director Chris Clough. Clough seems embarrassed about some of the flaky special effects while McCoy appears curiously quiet and frequently has to be prompted by the talkative and enthusiastic Sophie Aldred, who seems to have enjoyed every moment of her time on the show, apart from a scene in this very story where she was forced to share a room with some pentagrams and Black Magic paraphernalia.

The featurette “Industrial Action” is the traditional and thorough making of documentary, featuring contributions from all the main cast and crew, as well as writer Kevin Clarke (who reveals his ‘plan’ for the Doctor’s hidden back story – and frankly it’s just as well it was never revealed), stunt arranger Nick Gillard and musician Courtney Pine, who reveals that getting to be on Doctor Who was the fulfilment of a childhood dream.

There are a host of deleted and extended scenes for this story because the screenplay was too long to get all the dialogue and scenes into the finished episodes. There is some good stuff here, including the Doctor and Ace’s escape from security at Windsor Castle and a reference to an unseen adventure when Ace stumbles on an 18th Century painting of herself in Georgian attire hanging on the wall of the castle. There are loads of continuity announcements and BBC 1 trails from 1988 (Call My Bluff was on BBC 2 at the same time) and a photo gallery running for seven minutes. This disc also includes a 5.1 audio track and an isolated music score for you to get an earful of the cheesy 80s mini synth-orchestra.

Both discs include the usual text commentary tracks and subtitles plus a trailer for the forthcoming McCoy debut adventure “Time and the Rani”. PDF files of Radio Times listings are also included.

Neither of these Cybermen stories are examples of Doctor Who at its best, but they both have their moments and will undoubtedly find a welcome place in all fans’ collections.

Your rating: None