Doctor Who season twenty-two is not, as we saw in the previous essay, a particularly loved season, and its opener is no exception. It’s one of the most reviled Doctor Who stories ever, and in my opinion unfairly so.

This is not to say it’s a masterpiece – it’s a fairly standard Doctor Who story. It’s no better, and no worse, than (to name a dozen fairly standard Doctor Who stories off the top of my head), The Mind of Evil, The Moonbase, Day of the Daleks, The War Machines, The Power of Kroll, The Krotons, Delta and the Bannermen, Image of the Fendahl, Earthshock, Mawdryn Undead, The Web of Fear, or The Seeds of Death. You may, of course, disagree about the relative merits of some of those stories, but I think taken as a group they point to a sort of average, default mode for Doctor Who in its original incarnation. You can stick any of them in the DVD player and have ninety minutes or so of enjoyable, but not life-changing, entertainment.

So why is this story singled out for criticism far more than the others I mentioned?

There are a few critiques of this story that are fairly regularly made. One of those is the nature of the Doctor and Peri’s relationship – and we’ll have cause to examine that in more detail over the course of the whole season, so let’s set that aside for the moment. Another is that it’s too violent – and again, this is a critique that is applied to the whole season, and the next story is by far the best one to look at that.

So set those aside for the moment. I hope by the end of this week I’ll have dealt with them to your satisfaction, but they’re not specific to this story, and are more generalisable to the whole season.

There are three more common critiques that I’m just going to accept. Malcolm Clarke’s music for the story is remarkably poor (and I say that as someone who will absolutely defend his equally-reviled score for The Sea Devils). That’s true of a lot of the 80s series though.

The Cryons are a bit shit. Not in conception, just in visual design. The costume just doesn’t come off.

And finally, it’s entirely true that the Cybermen are stupid when they put the Doctor into a cell containing a large amount of explosive material, and then go up close to investigate when he pushes the explosives out into the corridor.

So if you’re someone who can’t cope with a cheesy monster costume or an alien villain doing something inexplicably stupid at a crucial point, then yes, Attack of the Cybermen is probably going to annoy you. But if that’s the case, what are you doing watching Doctor Who at all? These are all standard criticisms of the series at pretty much every point.

That leaves one criticism that genuinely needs addressing, and that is that the story is full of references and call-backs to older stories. Some people see this as a deal-breaker – that this is a story that is aimed at giving fandom a checklist of what they want, and creatively bankrupt.

I think one certainly can argue that, but to do so rather takes the story out of its historical context, a context that can possibly best be summed up by pointing out that Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street had just been at number one a few weeks before the story aired.

This may seem to have no relevance, but bear with me, because I think it has every relevance. Because the early 1980s saw a fundamental shift in the way people in Britain dealt with the pop culture of previous generations, and Attack of the Cybermen comes right in the middle of that shift.

Up to the late 1970s, both pop music and TV had been ephemera by design. The idea of watching an old TV programme or buying an old record was something akin to buying last month’s newspaper. You could occasionally get a repeat of a classic TV programme like Fawlty Towers or Hancock showing up on the TV, and similarly there were a small handful of albums that remained in print, and you could pick up the odd K-Tel oldies compilation or similar, but in general pop culture was disposable, and nobody had access to the vast majority of it.

Even with a band like the Beatles – one of the few bands whose entire catalogue remained in print, for obvious reasons – most shops that sold records wouldn’t have the band’s full catalogue. It was perfectly normal in the early 80s for a small-town record shop to have their “red” and “blue” double-album compilations, and maybe a copy of Sgt. Pepper, but little else (as always, things were slightly better in cities, but even there there was little in the way of back catalogue material easily available).

This started to change around 1985 when the CD became a mass medium, and record companies started to realise they could sell people records they already owned in a new format. But this was quite a major change in their business model. In this video from 1984, from about sixteen minutes in, you can see Tony Blackburn, George Michael, and Morrissey discussing a recent set of reissues of classic soul albums. None of them seem to quite understand why it is that someone would actually want to buy old records, since they’re old-fashioned. But what’s really fascinating is that the presenter feels the need to specify that yes, it was perfectly legal for these records to be reissued.

A similar shift was happening with TV and film, with the advent of home video recorders. But in 1985 that shift was only in its infancy, in both media – the Beatles’ catalogue wouldn’t start being reissued on CD until 1987, for example, while at the time Attack of the Cybermen was broadcast only two Doctor Who stories had been released on home video, both in the previous year.

So there was still very little access to the pop culture of the past, because everything was geared to the new. But at the same time, the first generation to grow up on TV and rock and roll music was starting to feel nostalgia for its youth, and a wish to re-experience those things they’d loved, while many of their children (I was one of them) desperately wanted to catch up on everything they’d missed.

So there was a desire for the old, but one that could only be filled by the new. Often an artist would, on moving to a new record label, make a “Greatest Hits” album with soundalike rerecordings of all their hits (this is why you now find so many crappy budget-label CDs and Spotify playlists of music from about 1957 through 1984, rerecorded “by the original artists”). And this is why you have things like Give My Regards to Broad Street – an album where Paul McCartney, with Ringo Starr and George Martin, remakes a bunch of his Beatles and Wings classics with new 80s production, and gets to number one with it.

There were other examples of things like that – Stars on 45, for example, some Dutch Beatles soundalike recordings stitched together in a medley over a disco beat.

Within a couple of years, that relationship with the past had changed dramatically, and the remake was replaced by the sample, and so records like Jive Bunny’s “Swing the Mood”, the spiritual successor of Stars on 45, used the original records. And sampling allowed a much more interesting relationship with past music – the most obvious example in this case being the KLF’s “Doctorin’ the TARDIS”, which got to number one by putting together elements of records by Gary Glitter and the Sweet with the Doctor Who theme and samples of “Genesis of the Daleks”.

But you don’t get to that sort of sophisticated engagement with the past without first having an unsophisticated engagement with it (though see later for whether this is as unsophisticated as it looks). And given its pop-cultural moment, Attack of the Cybermen was far more justified in this kind of thing than McCartney. After all, you could get hold of a copy of Revolver or Let It Be, even if you might have to special order it. At the time Attack of the Cybermen was made, it was believed that Tomb of the Cybermen, for example, was destroyed and no copies existed. Why not just redo the good bit? Judging that kind of thing from a twenty-first century perspective is to wildly misread what the text is doing.

So no, I don’t think the critique that it relies on references to past stories holds water at all. And frankly, it does so no more than the most recent series, whose last story was based on the return of a specific version of the Cybermen who appeared in one story fifty-one years ago, one episode of which is still missing.

So, now we’ve looked at what the story isn’t doing badly, what is it doing well?

For a start, there’s a new structure here, one which is used throughout this season, and we’ll come back to and expand on how this works as we go through the season. But the season going to a format of two forty-five-minute episodes per story as a standard, rather than four twenty-five-minute ones, allows Paula Woolsey to do something very interesting, which will be echoed in most other episodes.

Ah yes, Paula Woolsey. “Paula Moore”, the writer, is a pseudonym for Paula Woolsey, an ex-girlfriend of Eric Saward, the series’ script editor. She’d written a few things for the radio before, but this was her first TV script. In interviews around the time, Saward said that he’d had to make various alterations to her script (as he would for any new writer on the series), but that it was her own work. John Nathan-Turner, the producer, also said this.

In more recent interviews, Saward has said that he wrote the whole thing and put his ex-girlfriend’s name on it in order to get round BBC rules about script editors writing for their own show. He also says that Woolsey gets all the money, that he doesn’t think that’s fair, and that they don’t talk any more.

Meanwhile Ian Levine, the series’ “unofficial continuity advisor”, has said that actually he wrote the basic storyline, which Saward turned into a script.

Note who hasn’t been asked who wrote it? Paula Woolsey, the actual credited writer. Who also happens to be the second of only three women during the classic series’ twenty-six years to ever write a solo script for the series. (Don’t worry, the twelve years of the revived series have added a whole three more women to that list, with one story each…)

There may have been an interview somewhere with Woolsey, but I’ve never seen one , and I’ve looked quite a bit. So unless and until someone bothers to ask the credited writer, rather than her embittered ex-boyfriend, if she wrote it, I’ll carry on talking about her as the writer.

However, I am willing to credit Saward with the structure used here, because it’s one that will be used on several other stories this season, so it may well be one that he imposed on the writers (though it may also be that his ex-girlfriend came up with a good structure and he told the others to use it – again, without anyone ever having bothered asking her what she did, it’s hard to say).

That structure is one that is actually rather more sophisticated than the standard two-parter structure used today. Both the typical season 22 story and the typical current two-parter act as two very different episodes, with different feels and locations to them, separated by a cliffhanger.

And what normally happens in a current-series two-parter is that seemingly independent stories run in parallel – perhaps the Doctor and his companion will split up and have separate adventures. Then at the end of the first episode, the two stories meet in a way that changes everything for the second part.

That happens in Attack of the Cybermen – there’s the story with the Doctor, Peri, and Russell, and the story with Lytton and Griffiths. Russell moves between the two a bit, providing a certain amount of narrative connection, but he’s also completely in the dark about what’s going on, so there’s still a wall between the two stories, broken right at the end of episode one with Russell’s death.

But there’s a third storyline too – the story of Bates and Stratton. Their story is completely independent of the other stories throughout part one, and they don’t interact with the Doctor’s story at all in part two (Lytton briefly becomes part of their story before becoming absolutely enmeshed with the Doctor’s again, while Griffiths moves into their story and dies with them).

This story could be cut away from the rest of the story without anyone even noticing for the most part (you might need a line of dialogue to explain what happened to Griffith) but their subplot opens up the story (and not just in the literal sense that much of it is shot outdoors on film, rather than the studio-bound nature of much of the rest). It shows that the events depicted have consequences for people other than the Doctor and Peri, that there is a wider world of which they are part.

A common criticism of Eric Saward is that he cared more about the worlds into which he was putting the Doctor than he did about the Doctor himself. This may be true (though it’s not like Baker’s Doctor is lacking in characterisation), but if so it’s the right thing to do. Yes, the programme is centred on its protagonist, but if it’s all about his feelings and the consequences to him, what you end up with is some nonsense like Sherlock. The Doctor is an important person because everyone is important.

This view is helped by the casting of this story. Maurice Colburn and Brian Glover are so exactly for the roles they’re cast in that they almost don’t need a script – they’re just playing the same characters they always play, and doing so well.

The other thing the story does really well is it actually features the Cybermen, for the first time since 1966. Not “generic monster robots”, but Cybermen – things that were once human but are now more machine than human.

This story engages with the past, as we’ve said before, but this is a story about the Cybermen themselves engaging with the past. A story that features constant attempts to remake good bits of old Cybermen stories from the past has, as its plot, the Cybermen trying to remake the past and get it right this time. A story that features the Doctor visiting the site of the very first Doctor Who story has the Cybermen revisiting their first story. This is not really continuity reference for the sake of it, this is a story that is about going back to the past and re-examining it in a new context.

And what Woolsey pulls out is the body horror aspect of the Cybermen. This is the only televised Cyberman story in the forty-year period between their first appearance and the origin story for the New Series Cybermen which actually deals with the Cybermen having been human. It’s the only one which deals with the conversion process (although a character is partially converted in Tomb of the Cybermen). It is, in short, a story which goes back to why the Cybermen worked in their first story, and makes them scary again for the first time.

I could go on more. I still haven’t talked about Colin Baker’s performance, for a start. But there’ll be time for that in the subsequent entries. Suffice to say, this isn’t one of the all-time great Doctor Who stories, but it’s one whose flaws are largely ignorable, and which has more thematic meat to chew on than it’s usually given credit for.

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7 Responses to “Doctor Who Season 22: Attack of the Cybermen”

  1. dm Says:

    Excellent write up. I’ve always really enjoyed this story. The continuity stuff never really bothered me beyond being kinda cool. My main memory from watching it as a child is of the Bates and Stratton sections, one of the story’s handful of effective, darkly humorous double acts. Not as sophisticated as when Holmes does that sort of thing, but definitely in the same territory.

    One slight correction on “Don’t worry, the twelve years of the revived series have added a whole three more women to that list, with one story each”, Helen Raynor and Sarah Dollard have each written two stories for the new series, not just one.

  2. Sean Dillon Says:

    (Don’t worry, the twelve years of the revived series have added a whole three more women to that list, with one story each…)

    I’m pretty sure Helen Raynor and Sarah Dollard both have 2 Who stories under their belts. Not perfect, but still.

  3. Andrew Hickey Says:

    You’re both, of course, absolutely right.

  4. LondonKdS Says:

    I know you said you’d hold over the violence question and the Peri question until later, but there are two interesting things about this story from those perspectives.

    Firstly, this is the first story since “Pyramids of Mars” in which all the guest characters with dialogue die, and possibly the second ever in which every single guest character dies (it is ambiguous whether some of the non-speaking Cryon resistants might survive the final explosion, but the implication is not).

    Secondly, Saward’s writing of Peri – this is one of the only stories this season in which she is not a fetishised damsel throughout, in particular the scene in which she escapes from one of Lytton’s nameless minions from “Resurrection of the Daleks” by quick-wittedly throwing brick dust in his face.

  5. James Brough Says:

    Doesn’t everyone die in Horror of Fang Rock? Also, you could argue Keeper of Traken, given that Traken is destroyed in the following story.

    I really loved Attack when I saw it in 1985 – and pretty much all of season 22. I’m still very fond of it. There’s the odd bit of clunkingly macho dialogue, like the Doctor’s description of Lytton as someone who’s shoot his mother to keep his trigger finger supple, but fortunately most of it is given to Maurice Colbourne and Brian Glover, who could do this sort of thing in their sleep. I’ll go to my grave insisting that Glover’s delivery of “You said you came from Fulham” is a great moment, while one of my regrets is that we never got BBC adaptations of the Fleming Bond novels starring Colbourne as Bond and directed by Douglas Camfield.

  6. Jennie Says:

    <3

  7. James Wylder Says:

    I really hope someone can track down Paula and ask her about this. Its a very important part of Who oral history.

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