Revenge of the Cybermen/Silver Nemesis

DVDWhen I first submitted this piece, the preternaturally personable Peter Ware at DWM gently advised me I had to change the opening. I’d been bold, and slung in a wholly critical remark about something/someone (forgive me for being vague)… with the ‘joke’ being, later on in the piece, I’d recant completely. But, as the principled Peter pointed out, readers would possibly never get beyond that jibe. 

It was a good point, and so I rewrote. I’m glad I did, even though my pay-off in the second paragraph is now very flabby indeed. But the original draft would have haunted me forever,

This is from DWM #425.
DWM #425We might be heading for the biggest bang in DWM history. Because your reviewer is about to say something hugely explosive about this month’s release, which boxes together 1975’s Revenge of the Cybermen and 1988’s Silver Nemesis. Hold on tight…

The very first time I watched Revenge of the Cybermen I didn’t much like it.


Yeah, okay. Maybe I oversold that a little.

As the DVD extras on this month’s release point out, the four-parter – in which the cyborg sillies launch an attack on planet of gold, Voga – enjoyed a second lease of life in 1983 when it became the first in the Doctor Who VHS range. It’s in this format I encountered it, albeit not until 1986 – late adopters, the Kibble-Whites, contrary to our incautious experimentation with hyphenated surnames.

So there’s the 13-year-old me, fascinated at the prospect of an early Tom Baker. As the adventure begins, the Doctor, Harry and Sarah are disco-dancing their way through space towards Nerva Beacon. Upon arrival, Elisabeth Sladen bags the first line: “Thank huh-heaven for that! We’ve muh-made it!” It’s an odd delivery, with extra syllables breathlessly squeezed in. From this reading alone, I concluded I didn’t get Sarah Jane Smith. And the story hardly rocked my world either.

Now it’s 2010, and time to exact revenge on Revenge of the Cybermen. As I popped the disc into my player expectations were low. But some 100 minutes later, the conclusion your reviewer now makes is: Revenge of the Cyberman is actually rather good. I know, baffling, isn’t it?

Granted, it’s not gold-standard Who, but there’s a lot going for it. The first dead body turns up at one minute, 45 seconds, setting an impressive pace. From thereon in, we’ve got engaging bits of business with the Doctor nearly losing his arm in one of the beacon’s doors (“I’m rather attached to it, it’s so handy!”), a remorseless cybermat striking to the ratchet-like sound of a roughly rubbed güiro, and those impressively grim scenes of the travellers stepping their way through corridors of dead bodies.

Consensus says Revenge is a silly, spangly story; Gerry Davis’ script out of step with the literate DW of the mid 1970s. Yet, Alec Wallis’ scenes as Warner communicating with an Earth ship about the beacon’s plague outbreak are shot through with a pathos and loneliness, playing against the melodrama. Granted, this may have come from script editor Robert Holmes’ rewrite but – glitter guns and vampy Cybermen be damned – there’s drama here.

Alas, that dissipates when we cut to Voga. Despite the superb Wookey Hole location – low ceilings and long shadows – the Vogans are a race of old duffers. Not the most exciting template for a DW species, even less so when it becomes apparent they all possess the same balding pate and luscious locks combo keenly sported by American sci-fi novelists.

Stalwarts like David Collings and Michael Wisher are wasted with dull declamatory dialogue and bureaucracy. In fact, the latter is further diminished thanks to his character’s name, Magrik. Underneath the Vogan masks, this sounds like ‘Margaret’. When Vorus (Collings) baits him – “You feel fear, Margaret!” – it’s like we’ve dropped in on a Victoria Wood sketch. Beat me on the bottom with a Doctor Who Weekly, indeed.

But who cares about the Vogans? There’s the excellent, wriggling Kellman (Jeremy Wilkin) back on board the beacon. He’s got a hairbrush that dissembles into a video monitoring device, and that’s seriously cool. Plus, he looks great, with his Aryan hair flick and roll-neck sweater. When he spies the Doctor and co sussing out his traitorous status and hotfooting it to his cabin, he calmly tidies away his goodies before bringing out a machine gun.

Critics of the story may counter with the Cybermen. It’s true the titular tin men are hardly at their most imposing. In part, that’s due to the relocation of their guns to their helmets, which means they spend action sequences looking curiously inactive while director Michael E Briant does his best to sell their firepower with camera zooms into their passive, jug-eared faces.

The actors inside the cyber suits don’t help either, throwing a range of bow-legged, hands-on-hips poises as though trying to alleviate cyber-chaffing. However, I don’t have a problem with Christopher Robbie’s trans-Atlantic Cyber Leader referring to our hero as “Dackta” and spouting guff about being “destined to be rulers of all of the cosmos!” It’s kind of fun. Plus the snatches of back-story we hear about the race – which posits them as mythical creatures from an ancient era – doesn’t do any harm either.

In the final analysis, Revenge is solid. It’s an engaging caper with bags of incident. And Sarah Jane Smith? What was I thinking?! Sure, Elisabeth Sladen’s performance is heightened, but it fits the tale. This is Dan Dare stuff, you’ve got to bang home the lines and play the jeopardy. Nonetheless, she still finds an opportunity for subtlety. Reunited with the Doctor on the beacon in part four, she tells him, “It’s good to see you.” The Time Lord’s on the back foot. “Is it?” he says, then affectionately punches her arm. A pure Doctor-and-Sarah moment.

It’s nearly 25 years since I first saw Revenge and jumped to all the wrong conclusions. I think I’ve got it right this time, though. Thank huh-heaven for that!

The keen-eyed reader (and DWM editor) might notice I’ve not left a huge amount of room to talk Silver Nemesis. That’s because I’m adopting the ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say…’ battle formation. The show’s 25th anniversary tale – in which the Seventh Doctor, Cybermen, Nazis and a Jacobean sorceress all duke it out to possess a weapon of McGuffin-ish proportions – is beyond hope.

Fittingly, it’s another VHS memory that sets the tone. When this three-parter was released on cassette in 1993, it came accompanied with a one-hour ‘making of’ documentary (alas, not included on this release). A fraught endeavour, with director Chris Clough and co battling an over-ambitious schedule, it contributed an immortal moment to Who lore when production manager Gary Downie roused his troops for another take with: “Let’s make magic!”

Sadly, they made anything but. Not for the lack of trying. Treat (let’s get old cast and crew to cameo!), after treat (and the Queen!), after treat (Courtney Pine!), after treat (Dolores Gray will do it if we’ll lay on lunch!) spill out, with all the whizz of a conjuring routine.  But the gimmicks misshape the tale. Cause and effect phones in sick as the Doctor and Ace enter and exit scenes willy-nilly, while Lady Peinforte (Fiona Walker) and Richard (Gerald Murphy) materialise screaming into a 20th century coffee shop, prompting only the mildest show of consternation from the old dears on the adjacent table.

Occasionally, you catch a glint of a silver lining, but goodwill is quickly squandered. Example: the Doctor adorably instructing Ace, “Act as if you own the place!” when encountering HRH. However, moments later, he’s in a contretemps with Royal security who want to know how he got into an off-limits section of Windsor Castle. “I travelled through time and space!” growls our hero. Oh, don’t be a prat – you just dodged past a ‘no admittance’ sign.

In the final analysis, there are five not-so-golden lessons to be learned from Silver Nemesis. 1) Sylvester McCoy struggles to do realistic ‘pushing buttons’ acting when working hi-tech props. 2) Skinheads may have been bogeymen in the 1980s, but now look like gay media professionals. 3) Scenes of the Doctor and companion whistling and yomping through the countryside will always be utterly cherishable. 4) The question about who the Doctor is will always be utterly ancillary – even the Cybes say, “The secrets of the Time Lords mean nothing to us”. And  5), the Cybermen’s weakness to precious metal? Yeah, that was a rubbish idea after all, wasn’t it?

So, Silver Nemesis. Let’s – as the kids might say (but Gary Downie never did) – not go there.

DVD extras

Thanks to an advert in a fanzine, the 15-year-old me sent off a big cheque and, by return, received a monthly cachet of hooky Doctor Who videos. Some – like the whole of Season 22 – were taped off British TV, others – a wobbly Carnival of Monsters – came courtesy of an Australian network. Somehow, the crappier the picture quality or the more tenuous the colour signal, the more desirable each became.

It’s something I was reminded of courtesy of the sublime Cheques, Lies and Videotape on the Revenge release, which looks at this subterranean world of DW VHS trading. Ed Stradling (director) and Nicholas Pegg (writer) have surely jacked a coaxial cable straight into my brain, so pointed and nostalgic does this documentary feel. Eleven minutes in, there’s a grab of a blocky CEEFAX Ice Lord promoting the video release of The Seeds of Death. It’s a perfect ambassador from halcyon times. Similarly, there’s a fun sequence where Revenge is repeatedly dubbed from one VHS to another. As each generation takes its toll, picture and sound suffer drop-out, but a pleasurable sense of fuzzy nostalgia becomes increasingly evident. The story’s never looked so good.

Making-of documentary The Tin Men and The Witch is solid, but can’t quite compete. The show’s producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, is unequivocal in his condemnation of Revenge, calling it “too straightforward and rather dull” and rues the day Robert Holmes, plus his own predecessor, Barry Letts “nodded it through”.

Hinchcliffe is joined on the commentary track by Elisabeth Sladen, Roger Murray Leach (designer) and David Collings. No one’s hugely fired up by what they’re watching, although Sladen does stage a spirited defence of Sarah’s screaming (“Let girls be girls!”) and Hinchcliffe reveals his son was subsequently taught drama by one of the Cybermen.

On the Silver Nemesis disc, it’s director Chris Clough, script editor Andrew Cartmel, plus Sophie Aldred  and Sylvester McCoy laying in the chat. Aldred happily points out the place where the Nemesis comet comes to ground is now the car park of The David Beckham Academy. But it’s Cartmel who makes the weightiest point, remembering that at this stage in its life Doctor Who was “the unloved child of Series and Serials” at the BBC.

The main event here is Industrial Action, which details Nemesis’ creation. Within, writer Kevin Clarke freely admits he blagged his way into a meeting with the show’s producer on the promise of a dynamite story idea. An idea that didn’t materialise until he was a good five minutes into their engagement.

A selection of extended scenes (the Doctor mucking about with a fez, who’d have thought it?) round out the release, plus some priceless 1988 continuity, which – even more than Cartmel’s remarks – speaks of the Beeb’s ennui. “All aboard the TARDIS,” says an underwhelmed BBC globe, “for more thrills and perhaps the occasional spill with Sylvester McCoy as Doctor Who…”


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