If even the writer (and I use the term controversially with regards to this story) of Attack Of The Cybermen can only muster “it’s not the best” when referring to it, then you know you’re in for trouble. In fairness, Eric Saward does add that it’s “not the worst” but with the plaudits rare on this Colin Baker two-parter from 1985, the evidence for the prosecution is mounting. But what’s it all about?
Okay, I’ve tried for some time to succinctly summarise the plot (such that it is) of Attack but it’s tough. And this is where one of the many problems of the tale lie – too many story elements colliding in the ultimate ‘shopping list’ from hell. Needless continuity references? Check. Piss poor aliens? Check. Returning villain? Check. Check. TARDIS design change? Eighties studio lighting? Overweight Cybermen? Check. Check. Check.
I’ll try again. The Doctor, played with some gusto by Colin Baker, and Peri, played with skin tight outift-ness by Nicola Bryant, are back in Totter’s Lane, Earth (Why, you ask? No reason) and discover some nasty policeman up to no good. Lurking here is Lytton, last seen in Resurrection Of The Daleks, who has a team of ‘crack’ men searching the sewers for Cybermen (though they think it’s for a heist). The Doc comes along and is forced, by some of the Cybes, to take them all to Telos – home to the tombs (last seen back in the Sixties). There’s also a subplot featuring two slaves on Telos but it’s so insubstantial and meaningless that it’s barely worth a mention. Oh yeah, and the indigenous race of Telos pop up too – the Cryons.
As you can see, it’s a mess. There’s so much going on that any sense of narrative is completely submerged in woeful dialogue and dreadful production values. One of my main gripes about Attack is the score; never has Eighties Who been so detestable. Described by Baker as “intrusive,” the synth ruins almost every scene with its comedic melodies (even mimicking Steptoe & Son at one horrendous moment). It’s like a sci-fi version of Seinfeld at some points, evoking its slap bass punchlines turning them into a Pacman-esque soundtrack. Where Earthshock (the Peter Davison outing for the Cybermen) gave the audience tone and atmosphere, Attack turns any sense of tension into farce and any sense of action into pantomime.
‘Pantomime’ aptly describes the Cybermen, who utterly fail to ‘attack’ in any real or meaningful way. Witness the fat, sorry I mean ‘Cyber’ Controller and the way in which the attachments ‘fit’on his chest. Also worth spotting is the ridiculous way in which two of the Cybermen run away from the explosives at the denouement of this horrid tale – all arms flailing and moving incredibly slowly. Their treatment overall does the Men of Steel no favours. From the start, some of them are quickly despatched by a simple gun (from Earth!) and are overpowered all too easily. Not the Cybermen I came to fear as a child.
Mind you, the mechanical men aren’t the only camp race on the go here; enter the Cryons. Why on Earth anyone thought that Faith Brown and Sarah Greene would have the skills to encapsulate a graceful alien race is beyond me. The direction of these abysmal creations matches their eye-scratchingly bad realisations resembling a school Christmas play at its best moments.
But it’s not all bad! As with many Doctor Who stories from that era, there’s car-crash type quality that aids viewing. The cheapness, the colour, the sounds and the acting all form a heady cocktail that, normally in their singular parts, would induce vomiting of the brain but here they collide, entertaining mainly through its gaudy facade. Through the haze of glitzy dog muck there is genuine quality, however.
Maurice Colbourne is terrific as Lytton and the intricacies of his character are sublimely played. Likewise, his ‘goons’ fill their role with personality and warmth – fleshing out what could have been very pedestrian roles. The direction, for the most part, is adequate though the opening scenes in the sewers are noteworthy for the lighting (not the usual floodlit studio) and the ending is well devised – Lytton’s transformation is still horrific.
The downbeat final scenes remind me of another stinker, Warriors Of The Deep, where The Doctor questions his own methods and preconceptions – a most unusual, but welcome, occurrence in the world of the Time Lord. It’s just a pity that, on both occasions, we had to sit through ninety minutes or so of turgid production values and inexplicable plot points. But, as a very good friend of mine says, even a ‘bad’ Doctor Who episode is better than the majority of everything else.
Extras As most Who fans know, regardless of the quality of the actual story, 2|entertain ensure each release is worth buying on the strength of their VAMs (“value added materials”) and the accompanying features here are no exception. As always there is the obligatory “Production Notes”, PDF Materials (including Radio Times listings for Attack as well as, bizarrely, ones for The Invasion along with a Kit Pedler article called Deus Ex Machina which appeared in The Listener), Trails & Continuity, “Next Time” Trailer (a cracking sneak peek at Image Of The Fendahl) and Isolated Score. I feel these nuggets are often overlooked so I mention them as they are essential reference materials whilst also, at best, fascinating.
The commentary features Colin Baker (The Doctor), Nicola Bryant (Peri), Terry “Malloy if you work for ITV” Molloy (Russell) and Sarah Berger (Rost) and a right old riot it is too with none of them taking Attack too seriously. In fact, Colin spends most of his time laughing at himself and the “fat controller” (stating his “equipment” looks “lop-sided”, titter) whilst Nicola looks on in horror at her high heels and revealing costume and laughing at classic in-jokes such as, “All theses tunnels look the same.” Baker retorts, “All these scripts look the same” – cue uproarious laughter. Good work from the team and it was a thoughtful move to have Molloy sit in for the first and Berger for the second episode – three is the optimum number of contributors for a commentary, I feel.
The documentary “The Cold War” is an excellent look at the mysterious production of Attack Of The Cybermen with the question of its author, Paula Moore, being studied closely. In one corner there’s Eric “The Writer” Saward and in the other there’s Ian “The Fan” Levine and whilst there’s no Harry Hill style FIGHT!, their comments will leave a wry smile on the face. Baker and Bryant pop up with the latter looking distractingly beautiful (okay, Colin does as well) but the former may stun viewers with the assertion that The Twin Dilemna was, wait for it, “a bit crap.” Cue the two fans of that outing hitting their keyboards in rage.
The Cyber Story is, as you may have guessed, a brief history of the Cybes and has a companion piece in The Cyber-Generations – a gallery of Cyberman through the history of the series set to some of the delicious soundtracks from their outings. Both, as the Cyber Leader would say so admirably, excellent. The only real downside is the Human Cyborg – an interview with Professor Kevin Warwick, who has used himself as a human guinea pig for cybernetic implant experimentation. Some may find it interesting but I did not and the Easter Egg continues with Kev being ‘high-larious’ with a Dalek *coughs*. But when you have so many other extras (and there are a lot) these barely dented my enjoyment – which is odd considering how much I disliked the actual story.