Confidence, conspicuousness and Attack of the Cybermen (1985)

attackcyb

Part One

Here is a story which has a number of objectives: to be a bold and brilliant season opener, to be a celebration of Doctor Who’s history and to be a kickass Cyberman story. Script editor Eric Saward was so committed to this vision that when BBC rules prevented him from writing the story, he did so anyway and put his girlfriend’s name on it. Extraordinary really, that he had such a burning ambition to tell this story of gangsters, Cybermen and ice maidens that he’d deliberately deceive his employers to allow him to do so. Imagine risking your job and career so you could give the world Attack of the Cybermen.

The first episode gives the best indication of what Saward was seeking to achieve. He offers us space mercenary Lytton (Maurice Colbourne) and his gang of crooks, apparently trying to break into a bank through the sewers. In fact, Lytton’s out to contact a random group of Cybermen, who are hiding out underground. These sections are sharply written and stylishly directed by Matthew Robinson. Although a common criticism of 80s Who is that it moved too far away from the creepy,  tea time suspense that won the show so many fans in its earlier years, these sections are textbook Doctor Who. Interspersed with a subplot of events of the planet Telos, where Cyber-converts Bates (Michael Attwell) and Stratton (Jonathan David) are plotting rebellion, there’s a sense of something interesting and exciting developing, although through a bleak, mostly humourless filter.

Weirdly enough, what really jars in this episode are our heroes, the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri (Nicola Bryant). He is in his trademark red patchwork coat, she in an eye poppingly tight, hot pink leotard. Whether it be against the stark white of the TARDIS or the sunny location work in some London backstreets, they stand out like dayglo paint splashed across a newspaper.

Nor are they pleasant company to be with (to borrow a Saward-ism). They bicker and moan and swap needless continuity references. He’s a bully and a boor, she’s tremulous and shrill. And because they chase a couple of red herring plot elements for most of the episode, it’s not until they eventually descend into the sewers and tussle with some Cybermen that they finally intersect with the story. Frankly, up until that point, they are a garish distraction from more interesting things.

Saward is on record saying that 45 minute episodes, an innovation in this season of classic Who, afforded greater opportunity for character development. But his approach to them is misjudged. It seems to have been to simply expand a 25 minute structure to 45 minutes; the same sort of scenes happen in the same order, they all just take longer. The result is that the typical first half of each of the episodes in season 22 seem unnecessarily slow. That approach would be unthinkable today, where there’s a constant need to engage and re-engage audiences with new incidents, ere they get switch channels or devices. And now we’ve had ten seasons of 45 episodes of 21st Who, we can see that what the 45 minute format needs is rapid, not leisurely pacing.

Even if he was right, that with longer episodes comes a better opportunity to develop character, that surely demands that the characters are worthy of being developed. But these two fluorescent quarrelers, banging on about the chameleon circuit? Really Eric?

Part Two

And suddenly everything switches around. The Doctor and Peri become more agreeable and everything else goes a bit potty.

The change in the Doctor and Peri’s relationship, and in the likeability of their characters is immediate. It’s tempting to say that this is because they’re separated for most of the episode, but even when they’re together, there’s a concern for each other and a rapport which could have developed into a formidable combination (particularly if Peri could have been given more a  proactive role in the story. It should also be noted that when given a chance to change out of that leotard, she opts for a more practical jumpsuit number, but still in retina burning hot pink. That is some commitment to colour.)

But although we now have a TARDIS team we can feel comfortable watching (albeit with sunglasses on), the rest of the story loses focus. Where Part One concentrated on two or three plotlines, in Part Two they multiply like cybernised rabbits. Suddenly there’s a race to steal a time machine, the plight of the indigenous species (the waggily fingered Cryons, played by skilled performers giving carefully crafted performances completely hidden behind anonymous vac formed masks), a brave rebel waiting for her chance to a room full of conveniently stored explosives, rogue Cybermen bursting out of tombs, a plot to blow everything up, another plot to divert a comet into Earth, a reminder of what happened in some Doctor Who from 1966 and a quick shoutout to the Time Lords.

It’s traditional to bash Attack for its overreliance on continuity details, long forgotten by anyone but the most devoted of fanboys (and blimey, if that twists your Tom Baker knickers, just wait until next week). But although it’s clunkily delivered, I don’t think that’s this episode’s worst sin. The Tenth Planet stuff is, after all, confined to one scene and is quickly moved on from. It’s more that Saward seems to suddenly want to include every possible plot line, as if he’s worried he’ll never get another chance to write anything ever again. This seems to blind him from some plot basics. For instance, the Doctor, although getting plenty of action is kept well away from the story’s centre, never gets a chance to confront his old enemy, the Cyber Controller (Michael Kilgariff). Considering Earthshock put the Doctor’s ideological differences to the Cyber Leader (David Banks) front and centre, that’s a conspicuous omission.

The story ends with a sudden escalation of violence including the bloody crushing of Lytton’s hands and the Doctor in a firefight with the Cyberfolk. There’s no attempt to show the Doctor’s ingenuity or problem solving. There’s no attempt to sum up what the central theme of the story has been, which leads to the conclusion that this story’s full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Except perhaps that the Doctor was wrong to assume that a ruthless mercenary was working for one side of an internecine war and not the other.

Although Attack may not be “about” anything, it’s infused with one palpable characteristic: confidence. It has absolute confidence that it knows its fannish viewers and what they want. It has absolute confidence that they will be so fascinated, that they’ll stick around through a tricky format change, embracing the change of pace. It’s confident in its brash new Doctor, its ability to shock and thrill. When you think that a few short weeks after it went out that confidence would be shattered by the series’ first cancellation, there’s also something grand and tragic about its hubris.

LINK TO Rosa: More Americans. Three stories in a row!

NEXT TIME… Get your own stick! I’m in one of your hot countries to meet The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar.

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