Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Doctor Who #400: Revenge of the Cybermen Part 1

"If the Doctor scented a rat, Commander, he'll find one."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Apr.19 1975.

IN THIS ONE... Our heroes return to Nerva Station at an earlier point in History. There's a plague on, caused by a snaky Cybermat.

REVIEW: When watching the canon in order, one comes off this episode with the strong impression that a lot of people are doing things they've already done. Cybermen co-creator Gerry Davis returns to write a new story for them, but it's really a combination of old ones (à la Planet of the Daleks). There's an inhabited planet absurdly flying through the cosmos (The Tenth Planet), a Cyber "plague" that draws veins on your face (The Moonbase), and a space station under siege (The Wheel in Space). Voga being a legendary "Planet of Gold" is sure to bring with it the alchemical baggage that was part and parcel of the Davis years' understanding of science (though David Whitaker seemed the culprit then). Ronald Leigh-Hunt even plays the commander again like he did in another base under siege story, The Seeds of Death. Obviously, much of the set is re-used from The Ark in Space, a money-saving measure that New Who fans will recognize. And then we have director Michael Briant doing the same exact shots between the Cybermat and both Sarah Jane and the communications tech that he did with the giant maggot and Jo. So there's a definite lack of originality here.

Something often forgotten about the fourth Doctor, lost among the eccentricities perhaps, is what a great detective he is. I'm enjoying the heck out of that facet of his character. It's not just a matter of being a cosmic know-it-all (he is) or using his keen senses to somehow know things, you see and hear him working things out. Just as he did with Nyder and the safe in the previous episode, his deductions about the so-called virus are quick and astute. If anything, it looks like Nerva Beacon's medical staff really goofed, though it's likely the Cybermen targeted them first. The Doctor working things out isn't limited to the verbal arena, it's in the physical bits of business too. Watch how he tries to escape Kellman's cabin. Every move he makes is well thought-out and uses his environment to its fullest. Simple scenes are thus made much more interesting. There's an attempt to bring back the Doctor-Harry dynamic, treating the latter like a scapegoat while Sarah gets preferential treatment, but it's not very convincing, especially after they've been two peas in a pod for the better part of the season. Sarah's still being given scenes where she seems about to lose it - and for the first time, I noticed Lis Sladen lose her BBC accent, check for it early when she crouches down to the first dead body  - though it's nice to see her get comfortable doing research, a link to her journalism career. The fourth member of the team, the TARDIS, hasn't been seen in ages. The Doctor takes it on faith that it is drifting back in time towards them, so it must be related to the Time Ring (see Theories). A clever way to tie the season into a single adventure, but necessary?

The Nerva Beacon staff are cookie cutter characters, nothing we haven't seen before. Kellman is an obvious villain with something to hide, though his spy gear is kind of fun. A video receiver in a shoeshine brush? Positively Bondian. Our first sight of the Vogans doesn't excite much either. A dank cave, guys with theatrical masks. What is this, Colony in Space? But ther "hero" Vogans look much better, and the design of their lavish hall is quite beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that the show would reuses some of the elements in other stories, most noticeably, the big infinity symbol that becomes the seal of Rassilon (again, see Theories). The Cybermen get a brief scene, but no dialog, letting the newfangled Cybermat carry all of the action. Well, when it isn't being animated by its victim anyway. I respect the idea to make the 'Mats less silly, but this metal snake creature is particularly unmemorable.

THEORIES: Why doesn't the Time Ring bring the Doctor back to the TARDIS? It's a major design flaw that it wouldn't, and its setting off the TARDIS' "time drift" ability seems an unnecessary complication. The only reason it should - unless it has the same "sense of humor" the TARDIS does, seeking out trouble spots as a matter of course - is that the CIA is somehow sending the Doctor on a secondary mission. You've (hopefully) stopped the Daleks' progress, now do the same to the Cybermen. It's of course too early to tell what needs to be "changed", so we'll have to return to this idea in Part 4. However, the Theory should take the presence of the seal of Rassilon into account (and justify it at the same time). The Vogans apparently have a connection to the Time Lords for them to use the same iconography. Are they Time Lord worshipers? Were they visited and influenced by early time travelers from Gallifrey (perhaps even Rassilon himself)? Or have they been propped up by Gallifrey to defeat the Cybermen (after all, over the course of the series, we see that Cybermen have time travel ability, so would be a threat to the Time Lords). Whatever connection there is, the Doctor recognizes Voga by name, which may be, in itself, a clue.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium
- Can Holmes work the same magic on Davis' retro script he did on Terry Nation's? We'll see. For now, Revenge looks to be an assembly of well-worn elements from the series' past.

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