Attack of the Cybermen ★★

Close encounters with Halley's comet, the Cybermen and my own brush with producer John Nathan-Turner...

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Season 22 – Story 137

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“A little gratitude wouldn’t irretrievably damage my ego” – the Doctor

Storyline
The Doctor decides to repair the Tardis’s chameleon circuit for the first time and ends up back in the scrapyard at Totter’s Lane, in 1985. Halley’s comet is approaching Earth, and so is Mondas. The Cybermen are based in the sewers of London, where alien mercenary Lytton joins them in their plot to prevent the destruction of their original home world. They seize the Tardis and take the Doctor and Peri to the ice tombs on Telos. The Time Lord encounters the Cyber Controller again, but it transpires Lytton is really working for the Cryons, the vestiges of a race indigenous to Telos. They plan to blow up Cyber Control and the tombs…

First transmissions
Part 1 – Saturday 5 January 1985
Part 2 – Saturday 12 January 1985

Production
Location filming: May 1984 at Gerrards Cross quarry, Wapsey’s Wood, Bucks; Dartmouth Castle pub, Hammersmith, London W6; London Scrapyard, 161 Becklow Road and Davis Road, W12; June 1984 at Cameron Scrap Merchant, 36 Birkbeck Road, London W3
Studio recording: June-July 1984 in TC6

Cast
The Doctor – Colin Baker
Peri – Nicola Bryant
Lytton – Maurice Colbourne
Griffiths – Brian Glover
Russell – Terry Molloy
Payne – James Beckett
Cyber Leader – David Banks
Cyber Controller – Michael Kilgarriff
Bates – Michael Attwell
Stratton – Jonathan David
Bill – Stephen Churchett
David – Stephen Wale
Rost – Sarah Berger
Threst – Esther Freud
Flast – Faith Brown
Varne – Sarah Greene
Cyber lieutenant – Brian Orrell
Cyberman – John Ainley

Crew
Director – Matthew Robinson
Designer – Marjorie Pratt
Incidental music – Malcolm Clarke
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Script editor – Eric Saward
Writer – Paula Moore

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
“Destroy her! Destroy her at once!” the Cyber Leader orders, as his minions storm the Tardis and close in on Peri for the kill in the cliffhanger. Am I alone in wishing they’d just get on with it? I imagine many fans can’t see past Nicola Bryant’s physical attributes – certainly John Nathan-Turner ensures that she’s packaged like a piece of meat in most of her stories – but Peri’s constant yapping and whingeing, the phoney American accent (“nyaa, nyaa, Dak-tur”), and the inexperienced Bryant’s inability to inject any colour into the character, other than the prating on the page, really wear me down.

Colin Baker, however, is a lot of fun in this. Just blank out the appalling costume, if you can, and he attacks each scene, each moment, each line with gusto, perhaps a little too much gusto. Strutting, posturing and declaiming, he’s never less than entertaining, and often very funny.

I hazily remember watching that Peri/Cyberman cliffhanger being taped at TV Centre (on 21 June 1984) and thinking, “Oh dear…” What I sharply recall is going to the filming at Gerrards Cross on 31 May with the wonderful Richard Marson. It was the early days of our friendship and he’d just started writing for Doctor Who Magazine.

Under a gorgeous blue sky we drove up a gravel track off the A40 leading to the quarry, and down in the golden sandy furrows we watched energetic battles between Cybermen and slave workers, Cyber arms and heads being lopped off. All that sunny footage would be bleached out for transmission to render the barren wastes of Telos, but it was fun observing the action for real, pacily directed by Matthew Robinson (in a baseball cap).

JN-T was there, too, in a pink Hawaiian shirt, bemused but not overly annoyed to spot these two intruding upstarts. (Richard and I were both still teenagers.) We got a frostier reaction from some fan friends from a rival mag covering the shoot.

I was steadily getting to know JN-T during this period, usually among older friends over a pint or two in the BBC club bar at TV Centre after the recordings. He was a moody beggar, sometimes venomous, often charm itself. A few days after that quarry trip, on 2 June, Marvel Comics organised a signing for DWM readers at a Comic Mart in Westminster. I met JNT at the door and led him through the throng. Now in a blue Hawaiian chemise*, he greeted me warmly but also fixed me with those narrowed eyes: “How did you get to my location shoot?”

A year later, when this season was on air, Doctor Who was back in its traditional Saturday-night slot for the first time since Tom Baker’s departure. However, in a break with tradition, a 45-minute duration was imposed upon the production team. In March 1985, JN-T told me: “I don’t think it’s ideal when you change format on something that’s been established such a long time. The show is suited to 25 minutes but thanks to Eric [Saward]’s terrific work we’ve managed to slip into the new format, and writers find it easier to build to one cliffhanger rather than three. I think we’ve got it right.”

Authorship of Attack of the Cybermen has long been a bone of contention. Paula Moore has never been quoted on the matter, but my old chum Ian Levine, an überfan and JN-T’s unofficial continuity adviser on 80s Who, insists her name was used as a smokescreen so that John wouldn’t know the scripts were a collaboration between Levine and Saward. Saward, for his part, has given conflicting accounts of Ian’s involvement.

To me, the notion that anyone would haggle over credit for these cumbersome scripts is unfathomable. Logic, coherence and motivation are lacking, and the bare plot reads like a retread of the Cybermen’s greatest hits.

Considering the story’s 1985 transmission, Levine was keen to reference the destruction of Mondas in The Tenth Planet, a Hartnell story made in 1966 but set in 1986. He also wanted to use the imminent arrival of Halley’s comet as a portent of doom. The London sewers recall The Invasion (1968), and while the continuity overload also harks back to The Tomb of the Cybermen, Marjorie Pratt’s set design eschewed Martin Johnson’s classic tomb look from 1967. “I was massively disappointed by the ‘Scores on the Doors’ set. Hated it!” fumes Levine.

Surely only dear old Ian would have given this line to Colin Baker: “I am known as the Doctor. I’m also a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous.” Yet surprisingly, the Tardis’s return to the Totter’s Lane scrapyard from the very first episode in 1963 “was something Eric threw in, not me,” insists Levine. Lytton, his mercenaries and the emphatic Cybermen bear Saward’s stamp. He also introduced the Cryons. Luckily, Matthew Robinson chose to make them a female race, otherwise Attack would have had an all-male cast, bar Peri.

JN-T made his mark on this story by agitating fans – and stoking publicity – with the threat of ditching the Tardis’s police box exterior. For the first time, the Doctor gets his chameleon circuit working and the outer shell becomes an ornate dresser, a battered pipe organ and a mausoleum doorway.

Attack of the Cybermen is nowhere near as wretched as I remembered it. Part one is markedly more eventful and involving than part two, but there’s plenty of amusing lines and well-shot action. Matthew Robinson fought the lighting crew to keep the sewer scenes dark and effectively creepy. Malcolm Clarke reuses rumbling music cues from Earthshock to establish the presence of the Cybermen.

The Doctor’s second-best enemy are on good form, not quite as impressive as in Earthshock and still as easily mown down as they were in The Five Doctors. In a nice touch, Michael Kilgarriff is brought back after 17 years to reprise the role of their Controller. Sounding more like the giant robot he played in Tom Baker’s debut story, he gives the Fat Controller jerky, robotic movements, and clearly has eaten a few pies since 1967.

The stunt casting of Sarah Greene, Faith Brown et al is wasted under the Cryons’ rigid mask, but the macho casting works well – Terry (Davros) Molloy as an undercover cop and Brian Glover funny as a thug struggling to grasp the sci-fi milieu. His line to Lytton, “You said you were from Fulham,” always makes me smile. Maurice Colbourne (just before fame in Howards’ Way) is resolutely severe as the alien mercenary, returning from last year’s Dalek story.

Shots of Lytton’s hands being crushed are strong but don’t put me off my teatime bangers and mash; it puts 21st-century Who’s bloodless approach to shame. And I don’t entirely buy the Doctor’s soul-searching pay-off: “I don’t think I’ve ever misjudged anybody quite as badly as I did Lytton.” The Doctor may not have realised which side he was on, but Lytton was still an unpleasant, unsmiling, death-dispensing nut-job.

On balance Attack of the Cybermen is a brash start to season 22 that would benefit from another polish.

Here are some of my snaps from the quarry location shoot on 31 May 1984. Sorry, I didn’t have a great camera back then…

Shooting a Cyberman

Positioning Cyber Control model

Long shot of slave works

Lining up decapitation

* John Nathan-Turner at the Comic Mart in June 1984

RT archive material

Part one billing   paper original

Part two billing   paper version

Promotional material

Back Pages feature on Sarah Greene and Cybermen

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[Available on BBC DVD]