There are a lot of things about “Revenge of the Cybermen” that don’t make sense.
But the biggest thing comes not from anything that takes place on-screen but the serial’s place in Doctor Who history.
Back in the 80’s as VCRs became more and more common in homes, the BBC decided to test the waters with a commercially released classic Doctor Who serial. And for this honor, they decided to pick something from what many fans considered the pinnacle of Doctor Who – the Tom Baker starring, Robert Holmes script-editing, Phillip Hinchcliffe producing years.
Somehow classics like “The Ark in Space,” “The Pyramids of Mars” or “The Robots of Death” were passed by and instead the world got “Revenge of the Cybermen.”
Who-lore from the era tells us that the BBC polled fans at a convention and a mix-up between “Revenge of the Cybermen” and the then missing “Tomb of the Cybermen” occurred. Seems fans wanted “Tomb.” Instead we got “Revenge.”
The good thing is that “Revenge of the Cybermen” helped the BBC realize there was a market for commercially released versions of Doctor Who on VHS. It’s a shame that it would take them a dozen or so releases to realize fans wanted the stories in the original episode format and not the horrible feature format that were a staple of late-night syndicated airings on many PBS stations.
It’s almost embarrassing for me to admit this but when the first wave of Doctor Who VHS tapes made the leap across the pond, I chose to order (from a PBS mail-order catalog, mind you) “Revenge of the Cybermen” over “The Robots of Death.” Looking back, I can’t recall what pushed me toward “Revenge” over “Robots,” except that I’d seen “Robots” a couple of more times through in syndication and wanted a pristine copy of something I’d only seen once (and read the Target novel of multiple times).
“Revenge of the Cybermen” isn’t exactly what you’d call a classic. It comes from a classic era of the show, but it’s arguably the weakest link from the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era.
Part of the problem is that “Revenge” comes hot on the heels of the instant classic “Genesis of the Daleks,” which reinvented the Dalek story. “Revenge” does little, if anything, to reinvent the Cybermen story. In fact, it pretty much follows the same template as most of the 60’s Cybermen stories – lots of reference and name-dropping of the silver monsters happens right up until the mid-point of the story when they show up in force.
The first two episodes feature a lot of characters talking about when and if the Cybermen will show up. Only for them to finally get around to arriving at the end of episode two and the whole thing going right out the window. The production tries to mask the fact that we only have four actors playing Cybermen, but it doesn’t do it very well. At least old Dalek serials could put up blown up images of the Daleks to try and make it seem like the Dalek army had more than three Daleks.
The Cybermen was looking to destroy Voga, the legendary planet of gold. Turns out Cybermen are allergic to gold, a weakness humanity used to virtually wipe them out in the Cyber-war. Blow up Voga and the door is open for the universe to fall under the might of the Cybermen.
Meanwhile, a faction on Voga is luring the Cybermen to their legendary world in order to finally wipe them out and come out of hiding. In the midst of all this, we have Nerva Beacon orbiting Voga and dealing with a space plague.
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on here, I’m probably overselling it a bit. There is some internal political turmoil taking place on Voga and a civil war of sorts breaks out. The problem is you’ve got a lot of great actors like Kevin Stoney, Michael Wisher and David Collings, buried in rubber masks that don’t allow you to tell any of the Vogans apart. So any scene where a Vogan doesn’t specifically refer to another my name (assuming you remember them from episode to episode. I found it difficult, what with only watching one episode a day), it’s hard to invest really into the conflict or to really choose a side.
Then there are the Cybermen. You’ve got an overly emotional Cyberleader and a bunch of his flunkies who strut about, making threats but rarely following through. I had to suppress a laugh when the Leader and his Cybermen capture the Doctor and threatened to hurt them by giving them what appears to be a vigorous shoulder massage. And then you’ve got the question of if the Cybermen are so deathly allergic to gold, why are the transporting down to Voga in the first place and why doesn’t it impact them more. Following the typical Cyber story from the 60’s, the thing needed to defeat the army of Cybermen is something readily available to the situation. Why exactly 80’s Who seized on gold as the big weakness for the Cybermen, I’ll never quite know.
Add in that you’ve got a traitor on the station who is working with both the Cybermen and the Vogans (so why exactly is he killing off all the humans with a Cyber-plague again, you ask. Seems like it might make sense to lure them there and then have the humans and Vogans work together to eliminate their common enemy) and a few more gaping plot holes and you’ve got a four-part story that starts off with potential only to see it all completely squandered by the time we reach the final credits.
That said, there are a few good things about “Revenge.” OK, maybe more like one good thing – the location shooting. For once, Doctor Who films on location in caves for a planet that’s meant to be full of winding caves and tunnels. These filmed sequences really stand out from the typical Who cave sets of the classic series and are, probably, the thing to most recommend about the serial.
And then there’s the infamous line, “Harry Sullivan is an imbecile!”
So, I guess that makes two things.
Look, “Revenge of the Cybermen” isn’t necessarily a serial you’re going to use to convince a skeptic or potential classic Who fan that embracing the classic series is a good idea. But it does have it’s place in the lore of the show – even if the story of it being the first classic Who story released on VHS is more interesting and less mind boggling than anything we see on screen in these four episodes.