Saturday, 10 December 2016

Revenge of the Cybermen

Chapter The 37th, with Dalek delivery delayed from the BFI, a shipment of Cybermen instead.

A n'er do well called Kellman decides he wants to create a plan more crazy and convoluted than any the Cybermen have ever come up with (and they've concocted some absolute stone-cold beauties in their time). He'll show 'em. He colludes with a revolutionary hothead miner's leader on the planet Voga, which orbits Jupiter and is heavy on gold. The miner will create a rocket to blow up the nearby Nerva space station after Kellman has lured the Cybermen there, tempting them with the opportunity to destroy Voga for good. The Cybermen don't like Voga, as they have an aversion to gold that they've never previously mentioned up to now.

Kellman fakes a plague on the space station, murdering scores of people using Cybermats that inject the victim with poison, because... well, it's not clear. Perhaps to make sure the plan's not disturbed, but it seems a bit extreme just for that. The Cybermen order Kellman to keep three people alive, because they have got an interplanetary spacecraft and world-shattering bombs, but have not thought of any way to shoot them through space, so they need people to carry them and walk. Even though he doesn't want the Cybermen to blow up Voga, Kellman does as he's told and the Cybermen very nearly blow up Voga. Luckily, with help from the Doctor, Sarah and Harry, who drift in en route to and from better adventures, the remaining crewmen and the less hot headed Vogans blow up the Cybermen in their ship, and save Nerva from being destroyed. Kellman dies having failed to best the insanity of Cyber planning - he didn't hide any vital rods on a mysterious spaceship, or make a sun go supernova, or drug the sugar, or anything. Amateur.

The Better Half, me, and our daughter (aged 4) watched the episodes from the DVD roughly an episode a night mid-week. The boys (7 and 10) drifted in and out; but, when they were in the room, the story didn't grab their attention - they talked and fidgeted and finally gave up. The youngest loved it, although she was on the Cybermen's side ("I know they wouldn't kill me"), was rooting for them all the way through, and was very upset when they were blown up at the end.

First-time round:
Revenge of the Cybermen was the first ever official Doctor Who video release from the BBC, and the first official tape I ever saw (with the old BBC Video logo at the beginning accompanied by a synthesised marching band - ooh!). I don't know the exact date, but it must have been sometime between late 1985, when my family first got a VCR, and Summer 1987 when - as I've already relayed - I started collecting the videos properly. My best guess is sometime towards the end of 1986. A schoolfriend and fellow fan Dominic first lent me and then finally sold me his copy. I can't remember whether he ever got it back in between; maybe I just took it hostage until he named his price.

Legend has it that the decision to release this story first, despite its somewhat tatty reputation, was down to a survey done in 1983 at the 20th anniversary celebrations in Longleat (Classic Who's version of Woodstock) where Tomb of the Cybermen came top. Either the fans voting didn't know that story was missing at the time, or were just trying to will the film cans into existence (and it took 9 more years, but it actually did work, so don't knock it). BBC Enterprises presumably looked at the results and decided that Anything of the Cybermen would do, particularly if it was in colour and starred Tom Baker.

It's a bit ropey, but it's still lots of fun. The plot is riddled with holes, but I'm not sure it matters; they may even enhance the experience. For instance, it's cute and memorable that Kellman disguises his close-circuit TV monitor in a hairbrush, but his whopping great Cyber-morse transmitter is just allowed to sit in a drawer (unless it's supposed to be disguised as a photocopier or mainframe); he doesn't make any effort to hide his gun beyond sticking it in an unlocked wardrobe, and that set of electrodes behind a panel can't be standard issue, can they? What sort of space station is this? Clearly, he thought 'if I'm going to be a spy, I want something disguised as something else, dammit' but he could only afford the one hairbrush. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a criticism: he is a rubbish double agent, and I love him all the more for it.

Every character comes over as just a little bit endearingly pants. The crewmen are clearly knackered after trying to keep things running during an apocalypse - they put up a show of doing the standard Doctor Who trope of refusing to accept that our heroes are the good guys, but they can't keep it up for even a whole scene: two seconds after threatening Sarah with a gun, Commander Stevenson hands it to her politely so she can carry it for him. The Cybermen we see aren't supposed to be the elite troops anymore, they're the remnants of a once proud army; this lends a little more fun to their manner and actions which scream of over-compensation. ("Go Cybermens" said our youngest, every time they appeared on screen with their hands butchly on their hips.) Michael Wisher plays his Vogan with an effete cough, clutching a hankie all the time like an infirm aunt in a Jane Austen adaptation. These guys are clearly not an A-list Doctor Who cast of characters, but they're trying their best.

It's probably a misstep that the story revisits the same venue as The Ark in Space earlier in the year, to allow redressing of already built sets. Not the first or last time such a cost-saving measure was tried. But, alas, the latter story is by far the weaker of the two - it's something like having The Parting of the Ways early on in 2005, and saving The Long Game, set in the same place, for the finale. Every time there's an echo of a scene in Ark it shows Revenge up; for example, the Doctor and Harry are accepted as a new medical team when it was much more fun in the earlier story when the Doctor's degree was purely honorary and Harry was "only qualified to work on sailors". Much more successful are the exteriors - Wookey Hole is one of the best locations chosen for an alien planet in the history of Who.

There's some weak effects and the odd bad line of dialogue, but there's a lot of good in there too. The Better Half thought the plague make-up effects, using front axial projection to create the pulsating glow, were good, and also approved of the silver-clad Cyber-bums (it was like having Toyah Wilcox in the room). The journey to the centre of Voga, with the ever -present ticking of the bombs, is tense, and the twists and turns of the ending are exciting. Clearly, this was the only tape JNT could find when he was briefing his new script editor on bringing back the Cybermen in the 1980s, as essentially Earthshock is just a better run through of Revenge, even down to the plot holes. Though it never reaches the pulse-racing thrills of Earthshock, Revenge is hardly ever boring. The only truly dull scenes for this viewer are those of the members of different Vogan factions arguing about isolationism, but even these can be livened up by playing some kind of "how many Doctor Who stories has that Vogan been in" drinking game. It is fun, for this Doctor Who fan at least, to watch scenes where Chief Mover Poul is giving orders to Davros and bitching about Tobias Vaughn, while Megaphone Man from Snakedance is somewhere off in another cave.

The story is interesting historically, too, as it really feels like the final transition point where the Pertwee era style moves into full-on Baker. The plot, with its preoccupations of caves and miners and internecine alien groups, could have come from anywhere in his predecessors tenure, but Baker's little flourishes - staring at his hands in that weird way, shouting that his companion is an imbecile, declaiming cod Shakespearean dialogue over a dead Cyberman - make it his own.

Both this story and 42 feature a spaceship, and in both there is a companion accompanying the Doctor who's also a doctor.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Welcome back physical format? I'd probably never have predicted when I first watched Revenge of the Cybermen in 1986 that I'd still be collecting Doctor Who stories on physical media thirty years later. But seeing into the future is tricky: this time last year, I thought I'd bought my last ever official classic Who DVD release, and that prediction turned out to be wrong too. Instead of the range ending with the whimper of a cobbled together Underwater Menace, Classic Doctor Who on shiny disc is back with a bang: an animated version of wholly missing Power of the Daleks has been lovingly made for the 50th anniversary of the story's original broadcast, with the new pictures married to the still surviving audio.

Does this mean a possible future for releasing the missing 80-odd episodes of Classic Who that haven't turned up on disc yet either as an animation, recon or slide show? That would be fantastic. But the main driver for this animation wasn't predicted DVD sales, though no doubt they will be one measure of whether it's been a success (so everyone buy it, if you haven't already, so they animate some more stories in future!). No, the main driver was to have the animations for sale in the BBC Store. Just one of more and more online services becoming available for downloading or streaming content.

Another nail in the coffin is Class, the Doctor Who spin-off set in Coal Hill School, which finished recently. I watched it, and enjoyed it, and it is also getting a disc release after the fact, but it was delivered on a streaming service too - albeit it one that used to be a broadcast TV station. Clearly, it's only a matter of time before every show I want to own and hold is only available as a jolt of ether in a cloud somewhere. I'll still collect them, of course, but I doubt I'll enjoy it.

Mind you, that's another prediction, isn't it? Maybe I'll surprise myself. People can change. The Power of the Daleks may turn out to be the last ever classic Who DVD release, but it's been the first in a long, long while that I haven't preordered, received and watched on the first day it was out. This is not a sign of a new found restraint and maturity on my part, though, it's just because of a combination of events. I had it on preorder, as ever, but then I got a last minute opportunity to attend the BFI's Power screening and panel event early in November where the first three episodes were shown. As part of the ticket price, everyone attending got a copy of the DVD which would be sent out once it was released. They've only just been sent out, however, so I've had a little wait. It's no biggie. I'm very excited to see it, and blog about it and the event, very soon.

In Summary:
The liberation of the Planet of Gold; in other words... Karat's Lib.

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