Earth, 1985, and London’s sewers have turned deadly. Two sewer workers find themselves on the wrong end of a nasty weapon, and some thugs involved in a jewel heist fall victim to the same terrible fate. The leader of the heist, a man called Lytton, has been using a transmitter to send a signal, which the TARDIS picks up. The TARDIS lands in a junkyard, and the Doctor follows what he believes to be a distress call. This leads him and Peri to the sewers. It’s not long before Lytton encounters the force behind the sewer attacks: the Cybermen. Lytton throws his lot in with the Cybermen, putting himself at their disposal to help them with whatever they’re trying to accomplish. It seems the Cybermen have made their base on the planet Telos, since their former home, Earth’s sister planet, Mondas, was destroyed by the Doctor when they attempted to drain the Earth’s power to keep it from dying. That happened in 1986. And now they have the opportunity to set things right, and make room in the universe for Mondas by removing its sibling…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
Season 22 of the Classic Series started with some changes. First, the show moved back to its traditional Saturday evening time slot, having been a twice-weekly mid-week show for the previous three years. Also, the number of episodes per story was halved, and the episode lengths extended from 25 minutes to 45 minutes. This last change was probably the most radical. Who audiences were used to getting their stories in nice bite-sized chunks. While the new format allowed for more Who each week, it also meant the audience had to engage with the story for longer. Not really a big deal for teenagers like me, but maybe a challenge for younger viewers with shorter attention spans. Of course, these days a 45-minute dose of Who every Saturday is the norm. But I recall it took a little getting used to back in 1985.
Though I don’t honestly think the pre-teens were foremost in mind, if “Attack of the Cybermen” is anything to go by. This is an attempt at darker and grittier Who, with dark, dramatic lighting, gratuitous death, and blood. It certainly caused a bit of a stir.
The Sixth Doctor’s regeneration seems to have stabilized, after the checkered performance in his first story, Season 21’s closer “The Twin Dilemma.” This is a better story, though not a great story, which is a surprise as it was purportedly written by script editor Eric Saward (using the pseudonym “Paula Moore”). Other hands have laid claim to authorship (the show’s fan adviser Ian Levene, most notably), and the truth may be that more than one person had a hand in the writing. That would certainly explain why “Attack” isn’t as good as Saward’s other contributions (e.g., “Earthshock” and “Resurrection of the Daleks”).
A key element of the story is the return of Lytton, who assisted the Daleks in the previous season’s “Resurrection of the Daleks.” The fact he’s helping with a diamond robbery is, perhaps, a clue to his connection with the Cryons on Telos, for whom diamonds are commonplace. It seems they have solicited Lytton’s help in stopping the Cybermen from leaving Telos. Once they do, they plan to destroy the planet. It seems the Cryons picked up Lytton’s signal too, and that Lytton’s reputation as a mercenary reached Telos, which is why the Cryons thought he was the right man for the job. I’m not exactly sure how the Cryons, small in number and hiding in frozen chambers, were able to make contact with Lytton. Did I miss something?
Meanwhile on Telos, members of a partially-Cyber-converted work crew, Bates and Stratton, manage to escape. They plan to steal the Cybermen’s time vessel and return home, and in order to do that they need to infiltrate the Cyber base. This looks like an interesting sub-plot, and when they meet up with Lytton and his cohort Griffiths, it seems like they might be able to work together to capture the time vessel and bring down the Cybermen. Then Lytton gets captured, and Bates, Stratton, and Griffiths are all killed just as they’re about to board the ship. So all their effort was for nothing. Saward says he did this to show that sometimes things go wrong, and the good guys don’t always win. That may be so, but in terms of plot, these three characters were as gratuitous as their deaths, and that’s not good. In Doctor Who, if you’re going to kill off good guys, at least make their deaths count for something.
Those are some of the more egregious issues I have with the story. For the most part, the rest of it’s pretty good. Lytton’s character has some shades of grey, and things don’t go exactly to plan for the Doctor. Indeed, at the end, the Doctor laments misjudging Lytton and the fact that while the situation was resolved, it didn’t end well. It makes for a bit of a downer ending (like the ending of “Warriors of the Deep”), which plays to a darker, edgier story. Also, as in “Earthshock,” the Doctor finds himself with a gun in his hand blasting away at Cybermen. I think Eric Saward likes putting the Doctor in situations where he has to go against his non-violent instincts. He did the same in “Resurrection of the Daleks.” One of the more controversial moments in the story is when the Cybermen crush Lytton’s hands. While we don’t hear crunching bones, there’s more than enough blood to communicate quite graphically what’s going on. The Cryons were not very convincing, either in terms of their costume, or their mission. They seem too gentile to be taking on the Cybermen. However, I suppose given all the explosive material they have, it doesn’t matter whether they are a physical match for them.
“Attack of the Cybermen” is a much better start for the Sixth Doctor than his previous story. Aside from some design fails, and story gaffs, it contains some good moments, and solid performances from the main cast. Neither must-see nor classic, but worth watching.