Attack of the Cybermen

Region 1

Region 2
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 138, starring Colin Baker)
  • written by Paula Moore
    or, written by Eric Saward under the name "Paula Moore" and repeatedly denied.
  • directed by Matthew Robinson
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Malcolm Clarke
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each, or
    2 episodes @ 45 minutes each
Story: While testing repairs to the TARDIS's chameleon circuit, the Doctor and Peri respond to an alien distress signal and get caught up in a web of intrigue between the original Cybermen invasion of Earth from Mondas in 1986, and a secret project being undertaken from their secondary base on the planet Telos. Understanding how the mercenary Lytton fits into the puzzle may keep the Doctor guessing until the end....

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by actors Colin Baker (The Doctor), Nicola Bryant (Peri), Terry Molloy (Russell), and Sarah Berger (Rost).
  • Making-of featurette (27 min.) adding script editor (writer?) Eric Saward, director Matthew Robinson, consultant Ian Levine, and
    film cameraman Godfrey Johnson.
  • "The Cyber Story" history of the Cybermen featurette (23 min.), including Cyber Lieutenant Mark Hardy, former director Morris Barry,
    costume designers Sandra Reid and Dinah Collins, and Cyber voice Roy Skelton.
  • "Human Cyborg" interview of Professor Kevin Warwick (8 min.)
  • Isolated Music Score by Malcolm Clarke
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • The Cyber Generations - music montage video (8 min.)
  • Photo Gallery

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)

Doctor Who makes a bit of a welcome return to many of its roots with this story, which goes far to help anchor new Doctor Colin Baker into his role. Though not a truly grand story itself, it is a vast improvement on the previous two tales, and though it can hardly be thought of as non-violent, its writer(s) seem to have learned that less excessive amounts of violence actually leave more room for a better focus on story and atmosphere. And even if his relationship with Peri isn't producing a lot of good scenes, Colin Baker has found his characterization of the Doctor here, and that at least is finally working well.

Officially, this is the beginning of season 22, even if the previous story felt more like a beginning. Season 22 is unique for experimenting with one of the biggest format changes ever for Doctor Who. The stories remained more or less the same total length as usual, but were now written and produced to be divided up differently. Instead of 4 episodes per story, at 25 minutes each, the new norm was to be on average 2 episodes per story, at 45 minutes each. Of course, any benefit this experiment had was purely for the show's native British audience, as the 45-minute episodes were again arbitrarily split into 25-minute episodes for sale around the rest of the world. What the rest of us noticed more was that Doctor Who's usually good story structure was being thrown out the window for this season, and it went much deeper than just having weak, unplanned cliffhangers.....

I will continue to automatically refer to the 25-minute versions each time I talk about this season's episodes, unless otherwise specified, since that is the natural format of the classic series that continued uninterrupted in the rest of the world, and it does help highlight many of the problems in the writing for the Colin Baker era.

There are two basic structural problems running through most of season twenty-two, and "Attack of the Cybermen" is probably the story that avoids them both best. The first problem is in the length of time that it takes for the Doctor and Peri to arrive at the scene of the main action and begin interacting with the guest characters. Very often, the international 25-minute Part One will end just as (or sometimes before) our two regulars take their first step out of the TARDIS. It makes one wonder why we needed all those scenes establishing guest characters before our regulars begin to interact with them.

This story immediately looks better than most of the rest of the season's stories regarding the problem of getting to the scene on time, because the Doctor and Peri come out of the TARDIS fairly quickly here. However, it is still a bit of a wild goose chase. Indeed, when Part One ends, the Doctor and Peri have still not yet found any guest characters to talk to yet.

The beats surrounding the TARDIS and its chameleon circuit are a lot of fun though, and the story remains unique in following through on ideas that are only talked about elsewhere in the series. Additionally, the TARDIS gets nicely demonstrated for those who may start watching the show here. Even if it is still one of the usual season 22 delays, the delay is disguised and the sequences are worthwhile this time.

Part One does have one of the best unplanned cliffhangers of the season though. But of course we don't want to reveal any spoilers here. If you've already seen the story, switch to the in-depth analysis version, where everything will be discussed....

The second structural problem affecting season 22 stories, and probably the more serious of the two, are the anticlimactic endings. Indeed, by the end of the penultimate half-hour episode of most of these stories, we often see the lead villain incapacitated, or worse, and one has to scratch one's head to wonder if there's anywhere left for the story to go for its final half-hour. "Attack of the Cybermen" totally doesn't have that particular problem, and is much more traditionally structured. Indeed, one has to wonder if the storyline took shape on paper before they knew they would be doing 45-minute episodes instead of the usual 25er's.

Some people complain about the amount of continuity references in this story, while others celebrate such things. All good adventures have backstory anyway, and this tale seems equally capable of functioning on its own as an adventure with backstory that just happens to be available to watch in previous episodes. It really doesn't matter considering what the production focused on putting onto our screens, which was all about moving forward from an old classic story (perhaps not the one you think), which the viewer really doesn't need to be aware of. In the end, there's only one important thing this story does with continuity. Gerry Davis had fudged up the true origins of the Cybermen in his novelizations, and Lytton speaks a line as though he's read those and believed them to be true... only to be corrected by the Doctor. So now, directly in a piece of the show's modern preserved canon, "Attack of the Cybermen" sets the record straight, especially with regards to Telos, neatly vindicating the original TV episodes which were lost and/or unavailable to the public at large at the time. Good job. Cybermen owe a lot of their modern popularity to Eric Saward's passion for resurrecting them respectably.

Other than that, all you really need to know is that the Cybermen have dastardly plans, which depend on two things that the story lays out quite clearly. Like the Borg invasions seen in Star Trek 8: First Contact, the intricate details aren't too important, as many different avenues for achieving their aims could be argued and fought over, and indeed, many unnecessary complications for the story's ideas were excised from the script long before it went in front of the cameras.

If there is a piece of continuity that you need to know and this story doesn't give you up front, watch "Resurrection of the Daleks" (story no. 134) first. Then you're good to go.

Saward Trademarks

While this story does spend much time attempting to relive the series' past, and successfully finds much of its dramatic draw from those elements, that essential atmosphere of family exploration that the series used to have in the sixties (and had again in "Four to Doomsday" (story no. 118) and much of season 19) is now mostly dysfunctional, as the dialogue focuses far too much on the irritability of most of the characters, few of whom one can be morally proud of. Indeed, you will find most of the characters arbitrarily divided up into pairs in this story, and with the exception of pairs of Cybermen villains, there is almost constant arguing and nagging going on between them. It tends to slow the plot down a bit, in addition to being unpleasant to watch. This staple of irritability and blame is actually the seed for the passive-aggressive syndrome that so often defines Eric Saward character arcs. One wonders to what extent he might falsely believe irritability and blame to be universal truths inside every being. While it may be continually debatable how much of this script was written by Saward and how much actually came from Paula Moore / Paula Woolsey, one thing is certain. Saward's trademarks are all over this one.

It is also interesting to note, that of the pairs of characters in the story, the Doctor and Peri often don't seem to be the most important one. Saward's fixation on mercenaries is in evidence again, and you have to wonder if he didn't think such characters were better at dealing with violent villains, since the Doctor was meant to be such an advocate of non-violence and clearly opposed to guns. The Doctor does continue to get to contribute significantly to this adventure, but from some bizarre angles that aren't the most interesting, believable, or uplifting.

And many fans speculate on what happened with the chameleon circuit at the end of this story.... but I'll say no more here.

The Cryons are a uniquely new element that this story brings to Doctor Who. They are a fascinating concept for a species, well matched to the story, but sadly the production realized them under the same sort of melodramatic paradigm that previously spoiled many of the creatures from "The Web Planet" (story no. 13). But in many ways, it is very critical that we have them in the story, for reasons I'll elaborate on in the in-depth analysis version of this review.

I will also give this story a very important point back. This is the only Cyberman story of the classic series, beyond the black and white 1960's, that shows the Cybermen converting humans and assorted humanoid species into more Cybermen. This seems to be way too important a part of who they are to be so ignored. Kudos to this story for showcasing it, particularly in a scene which repeats in more than one of the international episodes, giving it some good extra exposure.

Maurice Colbourne plays Lytton even better in this story than he did previously in "Resurrection of the Daleks", and the role is written to have more dimension and be more interesting here. Brian Glover also turns out an unforgettable performance as Griffiths, somehow managing to create more viewer sympathy than one would otherwise have expected from reading about a simple petty thug on the page.

Of course, we also have David Banks returning as the definitive Cyber Leader, certainly of this era, but probably of the entire 30+ season franchise as a whole as well I think. And it is just such a lovely mark of respect to bring Michael Kilgarriff back to play the Cyber Controller, after the wonderful work he did elevating the performances of all the Cybermen back in 1967's "The Tomb of the Cybermen" (story no. 37). Granted, Cybermen are realized on screen so differently that audience recognition may be a totally moot point anyway, but Kilgarriff delivers the goods in the role once more under these new challenges, and it is great to have him back.

Malcolm Clarke is of course the perfect choice for scoring another Cyberman story, as many of his excellent tracks from "Earthshock" absolutely deserved the second outing that they receive here, often embellished with new extensions and variations. Opportunities for reusing music from "Resurrection of the Daleks" concerning Lytton's policemen seems to have been another advantage from this choice. But although there are some nice new bits here and there, as with the pseudo "Sanford and Son" style piece introducing the junkyard, or the quotations of Bach's Toccata in "D" Minor that Colin Baker seems to have inspired on the organ, much of the new music is a bit too harsh and primitive for my tastes, particularly most early renditions of Lytton's new theme.
Music by Malcolm Clarke
"March of the Cybermen" (5:13) is available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who - Earthshock
Silva Screen FilmCD 709

More info & buying options

Not that this is a bad score at all, these are just the reasons why I feel that "The Twin Dilemma" (the previous story) has a better score in terms of new, original material. It is great that Lytton gets a theme though, and it does play in nicer variations as the story progresses. Perhaps best of all in this story are the rich, spooky lead-ins to the Cyber music that feature prominently in early scenes. Clarke is definitely still on form, producing some of the best music ever for Doctor Who.

While "Attack of the Cybermen" certainly indulges in some of the shortcomings that affected this entire era, causing fans to point elsewhere when looking for the show's most excellent stories, this is most definitely one of the better stories of season 22 and the Colin Baker era as a whole. What this story does have going for it is a lot of action, special effects, slight mythological advancement for the series, and a richly layered soundtrack, making it enjoyable nonetheless.

This story has become available on DVD and VHS video.
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DVD NTSC Region 1
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DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.
VHS Video
NTSC in the U.S.
NTSC in Canada
PAL (bundled with "The Tenth Planet" in the U.K.)

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Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story: "Vengeance on Varos"

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