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Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermen (part four)

In a very nice turn of events, our son completely loved the final episode of this story. He was especially impressed with the destruction of the Cybermen’s ship. Afterward, he told us “that’s the biggest bang I ever saw in the whole history of Doctor Who!” He loved that so much that – for now – he’s actually claiming this is his very favorite story that he’s seen. Come on, nobody thinks that!

Although, honestly, it’s better than I remembered. It has a good script, and I love how David Collings plays Vorus at maximum volume, absolutely furious in every scene he’s in. It’s still flawed in the execution in a few places, of course. There’s a particularly weird – and phony, but mainly weird – special effect when they nearly crash into the planet, and if I’ve been picking on MacGyver for all it’s repurposed film footage, then the use of an Apollo rocket launch to substitute for the Vogans’ missile can’t go without comment. The same blasted clip gets reused the following season. They might have picked film of a rocket that didn’t say “United States” on the side.

I’m particularly disappointed in the Cybermen’s leader. It’s not just that they all sound much more like humans talking through a funny voice-changer when they speak instead of the computerized buzz of the sixties Cybermen, it’s that their leader acts like a human. Maybe Robert Holmes meant to explain that the leader actually still has some emotions in him and ran out of space and time, but the other Cybermen speak simply and logically, and the leader speaks like a cartoon supervillain, and uses words like “excellent” when he hears good news, keeps his hands on his hips, and finds a thesaurus of extra verbs to describe how Voga will be destroyed, vaporized, etc. The dude needed about a quarter as many lines as he has.

Producer Philip Hinchcliffe would only do one more story with a returning villain, and the next producer, Graham Williams, would only bring back two across three years. With the show looking forward more than it had in a long time, there wasn’t room in the series for the Cybermen, and they wouldn’t be seen again for seven years. Unfortunately, this story seems to have served as the template for their appearances in the 1980s, with Cyberleaders emoting too much and saying “excellent,” and everybody worried about gold.

One final note: “Revenge of the Cybermen” was the first story that the BBC issued on home video, in an insanely overpriced 50-minute compilation. Well, everything on VHS was insanely overpriced, but £39.95 for a tape with half the story edited out really was ridiculous. With that in mind, the DVD is the perfect place for a completely wonderful documentary feature called “Cheques, Lies and Videotape,” which looks at the world of bootleg and pirate Doctor Who tape trading in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the wild lengths that fans in the UK had to go to collect episodes of the series.

Of course, at the time of writing, the Region 1 DVD of “Revenge” is out of print and Amazon wants $123 for a copy, so some things never change. It’s still better than the £300 one of the fans in the documentary paid for a washed-out nth generation copy of “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” though!

We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who to watch something else, but stay tuned! Season thirteen begins next month!

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Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermen (part three)

Our son is very, very clear that he doesn’t enjoy this story at all. We recapped the adventures in season twelve tonight, and he’s found something to like about every one of them, especially “Robot” and “Genesis.” Sadly, in a sign of future smart-aleckness to come, the thing that he liked most about “The Sontaran Experiment” was that it was only two episodes long, ba-dum-tish.

“Revenge,” however, is very scary for him. This is another case where the villains absolutely have the upper hand. He doesn’t like how they’ve been physically violent toward the Doctor, and he doesn’t like how powerless everyone seems to be. He did enjoy the very good gunfight between the Cybermen and one faction of Vogans, but he absolutely hated the cliffhanger, where a rockfall kills Jeremy Wilkin’s character and knocks the Doctor unconscious. The episode ends with Harry, who isn’t aware that the Doctor’s got explosives strapped to him, trying to unlatch a buckle that will blow up and kill them all. No, our kid can’t wait for this nightmare to be over.

But I love how well he’s paying attention! We know that his mind wanders during talky bits, but this time, as the Cybermen explain that they want to destroy Voga because “glitter guns” that used the planet’s gold routed them during their last military campaign, he was watching closely. Later on, as the Vogans get mowed down, he asked why they don’t use glitter guns. That’s a pretty good question, really.

Speaking of the Vogans, this serial is just packed with recognizable actors, which kind of makes it a shame that some of them are completely unrecognizable under those strange latex masks! The two lead Vogans, one of whom has worked a deal with the human traitor to lead the Cybermen into a trap, are played by Kevin Stoney and David Collings. Another is played by Michael Wisher. He’d been in the previous story as Davros and would be back two stories later without a latex mask. Wisher may be the only actor in Who to play three different speaking parts across four stories. And of course, among the humans, you’ve got William Marlowe, who we saw in “The Mind of Evil,” and Ronald Leigh-Hunt, who had been Col. Buchan in Freewheelers. Jeremy Wilkin, who passed away in December, had a tiny part in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun and was the second voice of Virgil Tracy in Thunderbirds.

But the real surprise is that the music for this story is by Carey Blyton, the fellow who tried so hard to undermine and ruin the drama of “Doctor Who and the Silurians” and “Death to the Daleks” with his inappropriate horns and kazoos… and it’s not bad at all. It’s never intrusive and never undercuts the tension. It’s at least as good as the usual job by Dudley Simpson. So while it’s a shame that our son isn’t enjoying this story, I certainly am.

Then again, I also know that part four’s going to let us down somewhat. I think he’ll enjoy some of the visuals of the climax more than the adults on the sofa will!

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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.

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The Avengers 4.3 – The Cybernauts

Fifty-two years later, the talk of transistors in “The Cybernauts” is incredibly dated. And the slow, slow revelation that the silent, powerful assassin is a karate-chopping robot, well, that’s the sort of thing contemporary TV establishes before the opening credits without blinking. You have to make allowances for older television; for many viewers then, this was an extraordinarily strange concept.

But if you can put your mind back to 1965, “The Cybernauts” is downright amazing. There’s a reason why ABC chose this episode to launch the program’s run in America. The story by Philip Levene is stylish and witty and has an incredibly palpable sense of danger and suspense. The investigation is straightforward and the characters are believably in the dark. This is a complicated and outre plan for 1965, and Steed and Mrs. Peel are written in a way that television protagonists typically aren’t anymore. They don’t have access to any additional information; they have to dig it all up, with the audience coming along for the ride. And sure, modern audiences will figure out that it’s a robot earlier than our heroes. I don’t think that most people in 1965-66 would.

Macnee and Rigg are helped this week by one of the most amazing guest casts of any British program of the period. Check out the names: Michael Gough and Frederick Jaeger as the villains, John Hollis as a karate dojo, and Bernard Horsfall, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, and Bert Kwouk as industrialists involved with the evil plot. Gough’s Dr. Armstrong is one of the all-time great Avengers villains, and that’s with a lot of competition to come.

Our son, meanwhile, claims that he hated it. He absolutely insists that he hated it. It was far too scary, he complains, and he never wants to see it again.

Then he went upstairs and started karate-chopping his pillow with big sound effects.

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Freewheelers 6.13 – Pay Off

Oh, good. Buchan figured it out like I was hoping last time. After the first storyline ended through luck and betrayal instead of any actual work on the heroes’ part, I was a little worried.

This one has a pretty terrific finale, full of fistfights and gunplay and a visit from both a naval helicopter and some stock footage of a couple of destroyers. Our son was really pleased with this adventure and all the excitement. I was very glad that he enjoyed it so much.

Unfortunately, as I wrote a few weeks ago, this is the only Freewheelers story available at present. This would be the final appearances for Colonel Buchan, Ryan, and Burke, and the last for Sue for a while. Series seven, shown in the fall of 1972, featured Mike and Steve along with a new character played by Caroline Ellis getting involved in a couple of adventures. In the fall of 1973, series eight featured just Sue, along with a new character played by Martin Neil, in a thirteen-week story.

It ended there after 104 episodes, which is an insanely high number for a British show from this period. The last two seasons were repeated on a satellite channel in the nineties, from which some bootlegs made their way around. Some wiseguy even got a listing on Amazon UK for his DVD-R boots of these episodes. I confess that I was tempted, but decided to hope that one day they’ll get a legitimate release. Fingers crossed!

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Freewheelers 6.12 – Red Herring

Caine’s plan is devious, I’ll admit, but I’m not all that sure I’m ready to agree that it’s plausible. Having replaced the lug nuts and muffler and other parts of Buchan’s Lotus with painted gold, he arranges for Buchan to be recalled to England, where customs officers search the car. They’re not immediately ready to believe that he’s from MI-5 and they find the gold.

So what Caine wants to do, while actually moving the gold by boat, is convince Buchan that they’re scheming to smuggle it out £60,000 at a time on one hundred cars. I’m hopeful that Buchan won’t fall for this. Surely he’s going to realize that somebody tipped off customs, right? If they accidentally and randomly pulled him over, then it’s possible that they stumbled on the scheme, but the tip-off obviously means that Caine wants Buchan to think this is the real plan, meaning it’s a red herring. But will Buchan figure it out? The answers in the (hopefully) exciting conclusion, next time…

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Freewheelers 6.11 – The Race

So all the action moves over to Amsterdam, and a windmill near the town of Weesp where Caine has holed up. Interestingly, Leonard Gregory didn’t get to come on location with everybody else.

For people who enjoy looking at the way British television used to be made, there’s a very curious little scene here in which Colonel Buchan discusses the criminals with Captain Rylandt of the Amsterdam police. As you often see with British TV from the seventies, the show is made with the exteriors shot on 16mm film, and the interiors done in the studio on videotape. Rylandt’s office is filmed, therefore it appears to have been shot in the Netherlands with the other material.

But Marie said that a couple of things about it clued her in to the likelihood that this wasn’t filmed abroad. There are two posters for the Rijksmuseum in Rylandt’s office, which struck her as being a lot like the captain’s office in an episode of Law & Order having a couple of posters of the Statue of Liberty. She also said that the actor’s accent wasn’t right. She was correct. It’s a British actor named Arnold Diamond, who had dozens of small roles in films and TV shows, mainly police dramas, in the seventies and eighties.

I wonder whether we’ll see Diamond actually on location in the next episode, or whether the producers shot this and other scenes in his office in the UK, using a film camera rather than building an office set in a studio, using the different appearance of film and tape to fool viewers into thinking he was really Dutch?

Anyway, it turns out that part of Caine’s plan involves smuggling some of the stolen gold back to the UK by way of disguised auto parts. Buchan’s own car is nobbled and the garage that the villains are using is recommended, and Ryan and Burke install a brand new solid gold muffler on his Lotus. Seems a shame that they had to paint it all silver, really.

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Freewheelers 6.10 – The Parcel

So much happens in these episodes! This time out, we’ve got a rescue at sea, Colonel Buchan having no trouble whatsoever getting rid of a bomb, Burke planning something involving a television crew and a yacht race, and even more business with the code that the previous episode introduced.

I wonder whether there was some way for viewers to follow along at home and crack this code. Throughout the seventies, the magazine Look-In (“the Junior TV Times“) ran comics and features based on ITV’s adventures aimed at kids and families. If they didn’t run this code for families to puzzle over, they sure missed a trick.

The episode seems to end with a surprising twist. Commander Caine goes off to retrieve that missing £6,000,000 in gold, but it’s apparently not in France after all. At the climax, we see that he’s made his way to the Netherlands. Marie and I were both born in 1971, the year this was made. She was born in Minnesota, but her mother is Dutch, and she’s made many trips to the Netherlands to visit family. We’re going to enjoy seeing what that country looked like when she was an infant.

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