Revenge of the Cybermen

Six years after “The Invasion” aired, it’s good to see the Cybermen return. And it’s doubly nice since they wouldn’t be seen again for another six years after this. “Revenge of the Cybermen” adds to the future history of the Cyber race by mentioning the Cyber war, as well as getting away from stories where they are attacking Earth for one reason or another. Unfortunately, it also introduces the nadir of all Cyber-weak points, their vulnerability to gold. While that vulnerability is sued in a somewhat reasonable manner here (Cybermat-killing aside), it will one day lead to the woeful sight of Ace shooting Cybermen in the chest with gold coins and killing them. I suppose we can’t blame “Revenge” for the sins of late 80s writers, but all the same it did begin here.

The TARDIS crew return to Nerva at an earlier point in its history. It’s currently a navigational beacon warning spacecraft away from a new satellite of Jupiter. The true identity of that satellite is the reason that the Cybermen are drawn to the beacon in the first place, since it is in reality Voga, the planet of gold. It was largely with the help of the Vogans that a massive war against the Cybermen was won, rendering them as little more than scattered groups of nomads with “no home planet, no influence, nothing”.

The story borrows liberally from past Cyberman storylines. There’s a human traitor working with the Cybermen (The Invasion), though in a nice twist he turns out to be a double agent. The Cybermats make a return (Tomb of the Cybermen, The Wheel in Space), though the new version isn’t very convincing. There’s a mysterious plague that’s cutting down the crew of the beacon (The Moonbase). And the Cybermen have a weakness that the Doctor can exploit to defeat them (every Cyberman story ever). The returning viewer might think that with all the rehashed plot elements that “Revenge” offers nothing new, but surprisingly that’s not the case. The fact that they are in conflict with another alien race rather than simply trying to survive or harvest humans adds something new to the mix. The “future history” aspect of the story involving a war and an alliance against the Cybermen gives the narrative a greater scope than many past Cyberman episodes. And the fact that so much of the story is shot on location in some actual caves is a huge factor in opening up the production beyond the usual studio sets. The serial is clearly the low-budget season-ender, but the location filming helps ameliorate that somewhat.

The basic plot is reasonable. The Vogans are in hiding, deathly afraid of being found by the Cybermen. The Cybermen do in fact find them thanks to a plan by a renegade Vogon to destroy them that involves luring them into range of a missile. The story’s title would ascribe the motive of revenge to the Cybermen, but if they’re without emotion, why would they be seeking revenge? And I don’t find the weakness to gold all that convincing or consistent. The gold supposedly plates their breathing apparatus and suffocates them. Except that they don’t breathe. But even if we come up with a “air exchange ventilation system” or some such thing, that still doesn’t explain how gold pellets tossed at the Cybermat can disable it, or how gold can interfere with the radar, or how injecting a Cyberman’s neck with gold can injure it in any way. The vulnerability has clearly not been thought out and goes from suffocating to being the equivalent of holy water to a vampire. Which is just nonsense. “Earthshock” gets the weakness right when the gold from Adric’s badge injures the Cyberleader but doesn’t kill him. That’s about the only serial to depict the weakness to gold with any degree of fidelity to the original idea, something even the episode that introduces the gold weakness doesn’t manage to do.

And the Vogans are aware of their history with the Cybermen. Indeed, that’s the very reason they’re hiding, but it never occurs to them to use their gold as a weapon against the Cybermen when they arrive on Voga? They just keep firing their obviously ineffective weapons over and over again while more and more of them die. The plan was to lure the Cybermen into range and then destroy them with the Sky Striker missile, but they lure them in before the missile has even finished construction? What kind of sense does that make? To put it bluntly, the Vogans aren’t very smart.

Overall: I’m picking this serial apart, so is it worth watching? Does it have any redeeming value? It does indeed. You can’t ever go entirely wrong with the team of Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter, who are always enjoyable to watch. The location filming is pretty good and lends some verisimilitude to the production, and it’s genuinely good to see the Cybermen return after a long absence. I think another rewrite or two to iron out the logical problems with the plot and characters would have done this story a world of good, but it’s still a fun Doctor Who serial.

Posted in 4th Doctor - Tom Baker

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