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On rewatching Revenge of the Cybermen  
10th-Sep-2011 06:03 pm
On a Saturday night in 1983, I happened to flip channels to the local public television station in Orlando, FL, to be greeted by a scene in which a strange curly-haired man in a ridiculous scarf was opening a door in a space station corridor. "I don't want to lose my arm - I'm rather attached to it. It's so handy," he said to the young man and woman accompanying him.

This was around 8 minutes into episode 1 of the Doctor Who story, "Revenge of the Cybermen". (You can see this scene at 0:58 in this Youtube video: http://youtu.be/JN6IGDdtOYo.) I was instantly mesmerized. Here was a hero without benefit of dress sense or social skills, saving humanity with nothing more than brains, some cool gadgetry, and some seriously bad puns. (That right there tells you everything you need to know about what my 9-year-old self aspired to. For that matter, it tells you an embarrassing amount about what my 37-year-old self aspires to.) I'll always have a soft spot for "Revenge of the Cybermen", because it made me a Doctor Who fan.

Which is just as well for "Revenge of the Cybermen", because it hasn't got a lot else going for it.

My 9-year-old self was secretly a bit thrilled that in this story, the male companion (Harry Sullivan) was treated as a bit useless and idiotic, whereas the
young woman got all the praise and the approval. At that time, I was used to televeision where female sidekicks got sidelined and treated as bimbos. Watching it today, I'm more likely to be annoyed by the waste of whatever potential Harry had as a character, and to notice that this is one of those Doctor Who stories that fails the Bechdel test simply by virtue of having only one woman in the entire thing.

In fact, when you look at how Sarah is portrayed in this story, it's tempting to speculate that writer Gerry Davis never really grokked that he wasn't writing for Polly, or maybe Victoria. That scene where Sarah gets offended because Harry implies that she's got big ankles, for example. Combat-boot-wearing feminist reporter Sarah Jane Smith is supposed to be worried about the size of her ankles? Please.

I'd also remembered the cybermats in this story as being really terrifying. Whereas I now mostly notice the fact that when they attack, the poor actors have to hang on to them for dear life and thrash mightily to make it look like the things are attacking, because they have no motive power of their own.

What was really surprising in this story were the Vogans. I'd completely suppressed any memory of them from my original viewing, and now I understand why. They actually managed to take 3 astoundingly good actors (Kevin Stoney, David Collings, and Michael Wisher), and coax incredibly mediocre performances out of them by virtue of smothering them in bad prosthetics and giving them crap lines. It's a real shame, because I really like the "Shakesperean Roman" visual design for the Vogan costumes, and they'd be a treat to cosplay if only they didn't look completely crap.

Of course, the biggest problem is that the story doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Why are the Cybermen, the original emotionless cyborg killers, suddenly on a vengeance kick? And why are the Vogans, who are being attacked by the Cybermen because Voga is the richest source of gold, an element that the Cybermen are vulnerable to, completely unable to defend themselves using that gold?

I've never been fond of the "Cybermen are vulnerable to X, which we happen to conveniently have an enormous supply of lying around" plot device, whether it was radiation, as in The Tenth Planet, gravity as in The Moonbase, or gold as in this and subsequent stories. However, the gold vulnerability is handled better here than in other stories. ("Silver Nemesis", with Ace taking out hordes of Cybermen with a slingshot and some gold coins, springs to mind.) At least here, there's a quasi-scientific explanation for the vulnerability (gold dust clogs the chest units), rather than the whole thing being treated a bit like silver bullets and werewolves.

Despite all my complaints, I really enjoyed rewatching this story. But I really wouldn't recommend that this be anyone's first exposure to Doctor Who or classic Doctor Who, even if it was the story that made me a fan.
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