Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermen (parts one and two)

Today’s post is one of more than a dozen in the Classic TV Villain Blogathon, and so with that in mind and several million new readers joining us, I should explain that here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time, my son and I watch popular, family-friendly adventure programs together. We’re usually joined by my wife and we enjoy looking at TV through the eyes of our favorite six year-old critic – when he’s not hiding behind the sofa or has his security blanket, “Bict,” in front of his face anyway – and sharing the experience with all you good readers. Our posts here tend to be on the short side, unless I’m in a long-winded and/or analytical mood and I feel like diving into the continuity or production of old programs, recognizing favorite character actors, or, like this one, digging up anecdotes from my youth and the first time I encountered a particular episode of a show.

But we’re meant to be talking about the Cybermen today. At this point in our viewing of Doctor Who, we’re in April 1975, at the end of season twelve, and the Cybermen are making their first appearance in the show for almost five and a half years. They’re yesterday’s news, basically, and this very flawed but interesting serial treats them that way.

The Cybermen were created by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis in 1966. Pedler was very concerned about artificial organs, and how humans may lose their humanity through replacement parts. This was a very sixties worry, and the Cybermen, originally, were very sixties villains. We’ve noticed several examples here of how many TV writers in that decade, particularly in the UK, seemed to work out their technophobia issues in their scripts. In The Avengers, the Cybernauts could be programmed to murder any business rival, regardless of what any of Asimov’s laws of robotics suggested. In the Who serial “The Ice Warriors,” humans in the future rely on a computer which puts all of Europe in danger. And while we’re not going to blog about The Prisoner, which everybody enjoys more than I do, I keep mentioning “The General” in these pages. That’s the one with the supercomputer that’s going to solve every problem and make every decision and destroy free will as we know it, and which Patrick McGoohan destroys just by asking it “Why?”

The Cybermen appeared in five stories over two years, and their principal motivation was to make other organic beings into machine-creatures like them. This was rarely addressed at length or lingered on in the original run of Who. Some of their more recent appearances in the modern series have gone into more grisly detail about what this might mean, but an all-ages show in the 1960s was a lot tamer than one in the present day. We watched 1967’s “The Moonbase” earlier this morning, and there’s an interesting bit where the Cybermen decide against taking the Doctor’s companion, Jamie, along for conversion because he’s injured his head and doesn’t have any value to them.

Their secondary motivation was to eliminate potential threats against them, which is what gets the plot of “The Moonbase” going. In fact, there’s a funny exchange in part three of the story:

HOBSON: You’re supposed to be so advanced, and here you are, taking your revenge like… like children!
CYBERMAN: Revenge? What is that?
HOBSON: A feeling people have–
CYBERMAN: Feeling. Feeling. Yes, we know of this weakness of yours. We are fortunate. We do not possess feelings.

So it’s just typical of television that when the Cybermen showed up for the first – and only – time in the 1970s, it’s in a story called “Revenge of the Cybermen.” I reminded our son of this exchange before telling him the title of tonight’s adventure. He facepalmed.

“Revenge” seems to be set in the early 30th Century, hundreds of years since the Cybermen’s last chronological appearance. But, since this is a show about a time traveler, it gets to skip around, fill in gaps, contradict itself, rewrite history, or just screw up somehow. Sometime in those hundreds of years, there had been some massive Cyber-Wars, which ended very badly for the Cybermen. All that’s left of them are roaming bands of “pathetic tin soldiers skulking around the galaxy,” as we’ll hear in tomorrow’s episode.

The script for this adventure is credited to Gerry Davis, but it was rewritten, massively, by Robert Holmes. Davis’s original story had something to do with a space casino, but Miles & Wood’s relevant volume of their book series About Time is incorrect to say that this should suggest a connection between this and the Robert Urich detective series Vega$. They write that Davis later went to America to “make” the series. It was created by Michael Mann and Davis only wrote two episodes. Anyway, it’s directed by Michael E. Briant, using many of the sets from “The Ark in Space” as a cost-saving measure.

Last week, as we looked at “Genesis of the Daleks,” I explained how I first encountered Doctor Who in 1984 without access to a guidebook or anybody who’d ever even heard of the show. I’d missed “The Ark in Space” and made some assumptions about the series based on these two TV movies, almost all of which were completely wrong. Since the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry are traveling around this season via transmat and time ring, I didn’t see the TARDIS for a while and didn’t know what it was when I did. I thought this set – the Ark / Nerva Beacon – was where our heroes lived. The dialogue in this story explains that they’re currently in the past of Nerva Beacon. So they didn’t build their spaceship, they moved into it later. Got it, I think.

But here’s where I got very confused. Because I was a comic book-obsessed kid, I assumed that every single villain that we met as this show went on were all part of the Doctor’s big rogue’s gallery. And since I’d seen that listing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s TV Week for “The Five Doctors” which called it a 20th anniversary special, I knew there was a lot of continuity and backstory for me to catch up on… I just didn’t know where in the program I was. I reasoned that I must be kind of early on, because Sarah and Harry were played by actors in their twenties or so (I was assuming that Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, and Ian Marter had starred in the show for all twenty years), but the Cybermen were old villains. How old, though… that didn’t make sense. The story implies they’ve gone back in time thousands of years to have this adventure, and these Cybermen are clearly on their last legs… if Doctor Who has to keep going back in time thousands of years to fight the Cybermen, they can’t pose that much of a threat to his “present,” and his spaceship home, can they?

Fortunately, our son was nowhere as confused, but he wasn’t all that happy about this adventure either. We started this serial tonight with its first two episodes, and he gave it a thumbs mostly down. The problem is that there are three rival factions ready to gun everybody else down: the Cybermen and two groups of Vogans. He seems to have a point. Even in a series where our heroes are constantly jumping from danger to danger, the Vogans are trigger-happy and don’t feel like sharing plans with any outsider. Their ranks are packed with good actors – more about them next time – but all he sees are a gang of threats with machine guns.

On top of that, one of the human characters is a traitor, and he seems to be working for both the Cybermen and one of the Vogan groups at the same time. Throw in a nasty Cybermat, a metallic snake-slug thing that injects alien poison into your body, and this is just an intense experience for a young viewer. Maybe we’ll clear up some of the questions when we start part three Sunday evening!

This post is part of the Classic TV Villain Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. To read all the fabulous posts in this blogathon, click here.

11 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermen (parts one and two)

  1. I was totally unfamiliar with the Cybermen, so I quite enjoyed reading this post! The plotline does sound pretty confusing, especially with the emotionless Cyberman in a storyline about revenge (as you pointed out). Still, I love their look.

    1. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this one, so I’m not sure whether they pull off a satisfactory explanation for what the Cybermen are actually doing in this story. We’ll see as we go on. There is, however, an urban legend that Gerry Davis, who never wrote for Doctor Who again, was specifically unhappy with the title of this one, which Robert Holmes came up with. Gerry wrote it as “Return of the Cybermen,” meaning they had the Revenge/Return title flip eight years before George Lucas did, only the other way around. 🙂

  2. I’ve not seen one episode of Dr. Who. I have thought about tackling it many times, but it just seems like too overwhelming a task. I wouldn’t know where to begin and so I appreciated your comment about a guidebook immensely.

    Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this entry. Your conversational style and personal anecdotes about your son made it all the more engaging. Terrific entry!


    1. Thanks for writing! I’ve heard so many people say that Who seems overwhelming, but if I could figure it out on my own at age 12, anybody can! That said, the word on the street is that the incoming producer, Chris Chibnall, is deliberately making the newest batch of episodes as much of a new viewer entry-level revamp as possible, so check those out when they begin in the fall.

  3. I also first encountered Doctor Who on my own, without a guide, late on a Saturday night on Georgia Public TV in the ’80s, and I was also (a) hooked from the start and (b) thoroughly confused. The first story I saw was “The Caves of Androzani,” which was the last adventure of the Fifth Doctor. It was an amazing place to begin, both because it’s an unusually gripping story and because I had no idea what “regeneration” was, so as the story raced to its climax I truly believed the Doctor was going to die, and sat there in utter dismay, thinking, “I can’t believe I just found this amazing show, only to tune in for the very last episode.” Then the Doctor regenerates, and my jaw hits the floor. “What. The. Hell.” You can see why I became a fan for life!

    At the time, GPTV only had the rights to the fourth and fifth Doctor runs, so after finishing with the fifth they went right back around the next week and started over again with the fourth. But I missed the next weekend’s episode, which must have been “Robot” (I probably went camping with my Scout troop or something), and didn’t tune in again until “The Ark in Space,” another all-time classic story. I had no idea who Harry or Sarah were, but I remembered that the Doctor had regenerated into someone with curly hair, so for the longest time I thought that the Peter Davison Doctor had come before the Tom Baker Doctor, and was, again, utterly confused when I finally made my way to a Doctor Who fan convention and everything was “Fourth Doctor” this and “Fifth Doctor” that.

    Sometime around then, I met a kid from the UK, and of course my first question was, “omigod, have you ever heard of this show Doctor Who?” He gave me the strangest look: “OF COURSE I’ve heard of Doctor Who. Who has never heard of Doctor Who?” …because, as I later learned, every single kid in the UK grew up watching it. I actually think the show’s obscurity in the US was a real gift to kids like us, because it gave us that thrilling experience of discovering something utterly strange and wonderful that we’d never dreamed existed, that was a real challenge to wrap our head around, and that, for at least the first few weeks we watched it, seemed to have arrived exactly as the Doctor does: out of nowhere, with no warning, a gift from the stars, for us and us alone.

  4. I was totally lost when I first started watching Doctor Who as well but I watched it every week on KDIN in Des Moines. I found a guidebook by Jean-Marc Lofficer after a few months, and started meeting fellow Whovians at cons. I remember being surprised that there was an R in TARDIS. Because of their English accents, I thought that they were saying TADIS!

    1. That’s great! I had such a disconnect the first month or so I was watching that I didn’t realize that the blue box and the TARDIS were even the same thing. More on that in these pages soon.

  5. Great piece! I came to “Doctor Who” on our local PBS station, as did so many others here, and so I first saw the modern Cybermen before getting a chance to see them in “The Tenth Planet” and their other early stories. By the time they started showing those early stories, I’d read about them and seen pictures of them, and it was so cool to actually see them in – well, not in the flesh so to speak, but to see just how sinister they were when they first came on the scene.

  6. I’ve been a long time fan of Doctor Who, watching since the Tom Baker days. The Cybermen are a favorite but in the early days of the series, I think they were better in theory and concept than in the actual episodes. But 30-40 years ago, we were culturally more on the same page about being frightened by computers/robots taking over humanity. It’s difficult to remember that same fear now. Thanks for the reminder–the ten year old in me is grateful 🙂

  7. “Harry Sullivan is an imbecile!” Way back in 1981-ish, my Uncle Roger gave me a copy of the Invasion of the Dinosaurs novelization. He told me that it was based on a show on our local PBS station, WXXI in Rochester, NY. So, I tuned in (I was 8) and I loved it! Revenge was one of the first ones I saw and I really thought it was the bee’s knees. As the years of gone on and I cycle my way through the series again and again, it clearly isn’t a superb example of Doctor Who. But, I quite enjoy it. I liked the return to the beacon, the Cybermat, the bombs strapped to everyone’s chests and the cool “infected” effect. I remember being super worried for Sarah Jane and thinking Harry was cool. OK, I still quite like it. Who am I kidding? Thanks for writing this.

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