Nostalgia and Revenge of the Cybermen
The conventional verdict on Revenge of the Cybermen is easily summarised: It’s shit. Total shit. The long-awaited return of the Cybermen is the dampest of squibs – seven years after the Cyber army strode, blank-eyed and terrifying, down the steps of St Paul’s, we have a disconcertingly emotional, double-teapotting Cyber Leader and a handful of mute, sponge-suited plodders, newly endowed with a convenient vulnerability which would blight every subsequent outing in the classic series. Vogan politics is as torturously dull as a different franchise’s Vogon poetry. The sets are over-lit, the special effects and stock footage hilarious, the script leaden, the direction pedestrian and several characters’ motivation and actions entirely fathomless. The score is an aural assault. The Cyber ship is a penis. And so on.
It goes to show, say the critics, that nobody’s perfect; not even Tom Baker, Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, the trio that took the series to heights unmatched before or since. Revenge of the Cybermen is their Laughing Gnome, their Merry Wives of Windsor – the bad oeuf in their oeuvre.
Objectively, it is difficult to disagree with much of this. But for a certain generation of now-fortysomething Doctor Who fan, objectivity is impossible when it comes to Revenge of the Cybermen.
Back in the mid-1980s, you watched Doctor Who when it was broadcast or not at all. With hardly any UK repeats and only a smattering of stories shown at conventions, enjoying the Doctor Who back catalogue was an astonishingly costly and – there’s no flowering this up – criminal business.
Firstly, you needed to persuade your parents to part with A MONTH’S SALARY to buy a video recorder. Then you had to make contact with some unscrupulous type willing to break piracy laws to supply you with a copy of one of the older stories regularly repeated on Australian television at the time. This cost £5 or more per single episode, depending on the perceived rarity (much more for black and white). If you were lucky, you would get a fairly watchable second or third generation copy; any more copy history and you had picture distortion, fuzzy resolution, sound crackle and lag. So you had paid the equivalent of well over £100 in today’s money for a Pertwee six-parter that watched as if you were having a mild stroke. That’s the sort of commitment that can make you appreciate even desperate bobbins like The Monster of Peladon. Custom-made cardboard sleeves designed to fit around blank video cases added a faint air of legitimacy to this expensively assembled collection of static.
By 1984, the BBC had made its first forays into the home video market. But aside from a fearfully-butchered 60-minute edit of The Brain of Morbius, the only choice was Revenge of the Cybermen.
This is where I come in – a 9-year-old so deplorably nerdy that he would take his mother’s and brother’s cards to the library as well as his own in order to borrow 18 Doctor Who Target novelisations, and whose greatest pleasure was to lay them out on the floor at home and decide in which order to read them. 1984 was the year my parents invested in a video recorder and that December, during my traditional pre-Christmas hunt for hidden presents, I happened upon Revenge of the Cybermen in the wardrobe. At £39.99 it was a remarkably generous gift, but I got more than their money’s worth. I must have watched it and replaced it at least 10 times before it was even wrapped for Christmas. Who knew what possessed BBC Video to select Revenge as its flag-bearer, but who cared! Here was a story from the programme’s golden age with the definitive Doctor and companion, and an iconic foe – and blissfully, in crystal clear quality.
Other releases would follow in 1985 and soon after – Seeds of Death, Death to the Daleks, Day of the Daleks – all treasured by those who remember the anticipation, the saving up of months of pocket money and the joy of appreciating (for example) Patrick Troughton’s Doctor for the very first time. But none are more loved than Revenge of the Cybermen. That tape was so well-watched that revisiting the story 35 years later I can still recite it virtually word for word.
And it’s powerfully nostalgic. Like others I’m sure, watching Revenge today transports me back to a different decade and a different place with a speed that takes the breath away. Time travel, in a way. Now, perhaps with family members no longer here, who would begrudge us the indulgence of that sweetly painful mental journey back to carefree, sun-drenched, endless summer days that were most likely in reality none of those things. The first few bars of the Blake’s 7, Happy Families or The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy themes have the same effect, as do Teignmouth, artist’s charcoal, the dustier rooms of the Natural History Museum and Do They Know it’s Christmas. Hell, it’s why a lot of us will still happily eat a Findus Crispy Pancake, even though to more developed palates they taste like sandpaper posing pouches full of volcanic sick.
I can’t tell you how much of this is down to nostalgia, but I’d much rather watch Revenge of the Cybermen than the sainted Genesis of the Daleks, which precedes it, or Terror of the Zygons, which follows. Both are, I think (and I whisper this quietly) a bit over-rated. Revenge has none of their portentous weight, and there is actually plenty to enjoy here.
Yes, the Cybermen are poor, but far from the usual pretence that four or five aliens represents a terrifying, planet-conquering force, Revenge actually makes a virtue of the Cybermen’s reduced circumstances – the Doctor mocks them for being on their uppers, a shadow of their former selves: “You’re nothing but a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship.”
Tom and Lis have hit upon their effortless rhythm and peerless chemistry, and Ian Marter somehow makes Harry’s bumbling chauvinism completely delightful. Who regulars David Collings, Michael Wisher, Kevin Stoney, Ronald Leigh Hunt and William Marlowe all put in solid shifts, and Jeremy Wilkin’s Kellman is agreeably sinister. The caves are a pleasing departure from endless quarry-planets, the beacon sets are not nearly as bad as some claim, and the action bustles along briskly with moments of genuine peril.
No, objectively it’s not the greatest story ever. It’s not top 10. Perhaps not even top 100. But for a few of us fortysomethings, Revenge of the Cybermen belongs to a separate, objectivity-proof subset of stories whose power and poignancy lie in their ability to melt the decades away and recall with absolute clarity that, to a 9-year-old in 1984, this strange programme was the most magical thing in the world.