Chapter 138. Doctor Who – Attack of the Cybermen (1989)

Synopsis: The Doctor and Peri follow a distress beacon only to discover it was sent by Commander Lytton, formerly of the Dalek taskforce. Lytton has now allied himself with the Cybermen in a bid to escape Earth. The Cybermen have a plan to change the web of time and it’s down to the Doctor to stop them.

Chapter Titles

  • 1. The Day Begins
  • 2. The Perfect Crime
  • 3. The Peripatetic Doctor
  • 4. The Search Begins
  • 5. A Close Encounter of a Very Nasty Kind
  • 6. Telos
  • 7. The Tombs of the Cybermen
  • 8. The Great Escape
  • 9. Caught
  • 10. The Final Encounter

Background: Eric Saward adapts scripts for a 1985 story attributed to Paula Moore, but actually written by Saward and Ian Levine.

Notes: There’s some major restructuring in play here. The original opening scene with the sewer workmen is removed and scenes on the surface of Telos are bumped to the second half, which makes so much more sense. The opening chapter is reminiscent of the scenes with Shughie McPherson in Malcolm Hulke’s Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion, as we’re introduced to Lytton’s gang members. We meet Charles ‘Charlie’ Windsor Griffiths, whose poor, single-parent childhood inspired a life of petty crime. Now at the age of 35 (15 years younger than Brian Glover, who played the role on TV), he’s already spent a total of eight years and seven months in prison, though he currently lives with his mother at 35 Milton Avenue (a real address, so probably Highgate, North London). He’s been a part of Lytton’s gang for some time now. The driver, Joe Payne, is a very heavy smoker who runs a garage. He’s never been in prison, despite his business being a front for numerous illegal activities. Joe had sourced the getaway car for a recent job from his own pool of vehicles, which had then been caught on camera and traced back to him – hence why, for the first time in two years, the gang is now being investigated by Special Branch. Joe lies about seeing someone lurking in the sewers, so he can sneak away for a cigarette – and is then killed by something lurking in the sewers. Charlie Griffiths doesn’t like Vincent Russell; he reminds him of a policemen he once knew, which is unusually perceptive of him: Russell is an undercover police office – something Lytton is aware of and is exploiting for his own means. 

Commander Gustave Lytton is an alien Charnel mercenary from Vita Fifteen, in the star system Tempest Dine, though on TV he tells the Cyber Leader that it’s called ‘six-nine-zero’ and the planet (not the ‘satellite’ as on TV) is ‘Riften five’. He has been trapped on Earth for two years [so either he’s counting his service to the Daleks as part of this, or Resurrection of the Daleks took place in 1983]. The site of his audacious robbery is Hatton Garden, the famous ‘Diamond District’ of London that was also the location of a 2015 safe deposit robbery that involved tunnelling (tempting to ponder if any of the perpetrators were fans of this story). 

The sentinel in the sewers ‘looks like ‘a huge black suit of medieval plate armour’. Lytton introduces the aliens to Griffiths as ‘‘Cybermen! Undisputed masters of the galaxy!’ The Cybermen have rasping respirators on their chests (reminiscent of the oily creatures depicted by Ian Marter in his Cybermen stories). The creature later looms through the darkness towards Lytton and his gang:

Where there should have been eyes and a mouth, there were slits. Instead of ears, there were what appeared to be inverted horns that continued parallel with the side of the head, until turning ninety degrees and joining some sort of bosslike device situated at its crown.

Consistent with The Twin Dilemma, Saward once again claims that Time Lord regeneration is made possible by the release of a hormone called ‘lindos’. The corruption of the Time Lords – and the inability of the propaganda to cover up various scandals – is what prompted the Doctor to leave behind both his home planet and his original name when he stole a TARDIS to explore the universe. While at college, Peri dated a ‘first-year engineering student’ called ‘Chuck’. The Doctor recognises the two policemen who he encounters at Joe’s garage, but can’t remember who they worked for, due to the effects of his regeneration. The time travellers find Lytton’s ‘well-polished shoes… fashionable grey suit, a crisp white shirt and a silk tie’

Cybermen convert human bodies by covering them in a substance called ‘arnickleton’, which smothers and eventually replaces body parts, all except for the processed brain. A strict hierarchy governs the Cybermen, led from the top by the Controller, then Senior Leaders who command a Major Phalanx; these are assisted by Leaders and Junior Leaders – and below them are the army troopers (and we encounter more than just the one Cyber Leader once the Doctor reaches Telos). Later, when Lytton is captured, we learn that the Cyber Controller has been fighting to cure a poison released by the Cryons that has resulted in ‘only a few hundred surviving Cybermen’. It’s this imminent threat of extinction that has motivated the Controller’s plan to change the timelines.

The bodies of Russell and a Cyberman are dumped in a corridor off from the main TARDIS console room. The Doctor remembers the ‘last time’ he’d encountered the Cybermen, when Adric had been killed [is his regenerative amnesia making him forget The Five Doctors?]. The Doctor thinks that he’d rather trust a wounded speelsnape [see Slipback] than trust Lytton.

The two partly Cybernised men are Flight Leader Lintus Stratton and Time Navigator Eregous Bates. They come from the planet Hatre Sedtry in ‘the star system known as Repton’s Cluster’ – and they were the original crew of the time ship now possessed by the Cybermen. The TARDIS’s arrival in the tombs on Telos (instead of Cyber Control) seems to concern the Cyber Leader, prompting the Doctor to wonder if these Cybermen have been programmed with ‘limited emotional response’. He could be right there, as the Cyber Controller chooses to have the Doctor thrown into a refrigerated cell with the express purpose of humiliating him before they can meet again.

The Cryon Thrast is renamed Thrust here (really, Eric…). The physiques of the Cryons resemble those of Earth women, but their faces are covered in a ‘translucent membrane’ with ‘large bulbous eyes’ and ‘coarse white hair’ on their jaws. Flast is ‘grotesquely disfigured’ with a gouge that runs the length of her face, the result of Cyber-torture. The rogue Cybermen’s condition is explicitly stated as a side effect of the Cryon toxin; it poisons the Cyberman’s brain and sends it insane before it eventually dies. After being stabbed in the arm by Lytton, the Cyber Controller strikes a blow to his neck, killing him outright. The surviving Cryons take refuge deep within the caves, watching the destruction of the tombs and planning to rebuild their planet.

Cover: The first cover was by Colin Howard, showing a Cyberman and a Cryon, a soaring comet and the frozen planet Telos. Alister Pearson’s 1992 cover presents the Doctor, holding a tracking device, and a Cyberman with the black handles of the Leader (something Pearson had wanted to do for the original cover, before it was awarded to Colin Howard). The figures are presented within frames against the backdrop of a dark, foreboding planet.

Final Analysis: Many years ago, before Doctor Who’s 21st-Century return to our screens, I did my first ever pilgrimage with a friend through every episode of Doctor Who, in order. We managed to get through over 600 episodes in less than a year and then we reached episode one of Attack of the Cybermen. About four months later, we picked up with episode two and it was a struggle. So obviously, I wasn’t looking forward to this novelisation, especially because Eric Saward’s track record after his initial volume hasn’t been the most encouraging.

This is such a surprise. It still has all the clunky backstory and references to the past that made the TV version such a chore, but right from the start, Saward puts the effort in to make sense of the story he helped to create. He’s hugely sympathetic towards Charlie Griffiths (always ‘Charlie’ here), who might be a petty criminal hired for his muscle, but we’re shown how he feels happy seeing someone catch a bus and still worries about the risk of a local shopkeeper being mugged. Later, as he tries to take in the new information about Cybermen having ‘no emotions’, Charlie reviews the things that he feels give his life purpose, like walking in the park, eating one of his mother’s breakfasts, stroking his cat, drinking with his friends, or snuggling under his duvet; it’s a rather sweet encapsulation of the Doctor’s similar speech in Earthshock, but made a bit more tangible thanks to our privileged insight into Charlie’s mundane life in the first chapter.

This eagerness to make the characters more sympathetic extends to the Doctor himself. Saward always had a difficult relationship with this incarnation, yet this shows just how little needed to be changed to make him much more likeable. After an early outburst about his being ‘unstable’, the Doctor apologises to Peri:

‘Listen, Peri..’ The Doctor was now calmer. ‘Inside, I am a peaceful person… Perhaps on occasion,’ he demurred, ‘I can be all noise and bluster.’ Gently he took her arm. ‘But it is only bluster… You’ve nothing to fear. You’re quite safe.’ The Doctor looked baleful. ‘You will stay?’

Saward makes a real attempt to ‘fix’ this Doctor, removing a lot of the rough edges and bullying traits we saw on telly. Of course, the greatest effort of all goes into making us like – or at least respect – Lytton. In tone, he’s a lot closer to Kline, the character Maurice Colbourne played in the TV show Gangsters; he’s pragmatic and a little cold, but his claim to the Doctor that he’s a ‘reformed character’ is a lot more credible here, reinforced by a few peeks into his psyche and how Charlie notices changes in his behaviour, including the addition of a few jokes here and there.

The main plus point here is that the whole story is structured much more coherently. Without the need (if there really ever was one) to keep cutting frantically from location to location, Saward is able to introduce locations and characters when they become relevant. So, Stratton and Bates only appear once we’re on our way to Telos, while the Cyber Controller is foreshadowed but not actually seen until Lytton is presented to him. One of the few joyful moments we had with this story during our pilgrimage was a scene where, realising they’re in a room about to explode, two Cybermen push each other away in a panic, as if saying to each other, ‘Save yerself, Margaret!’ It’s a glorious moment of two under-directed performers improvising their motivations and turning it into farce. While that particular scene is played here strictly for drama, we’re treated to something almost as ridiculous when we finally encounter the Cyber Controller:

Dwarfing all around him, the Cyber Controller stood well over two metres high. With legs slightly apart and hands on hips he appeared like a mighty Colossus dominating the middle of the room. Surrounded by counsellors and guards, who fussed and responded to his every need, he made an impressive and terrifying sight.

Christopher Robbie made the same mistake in Revenge of the Cybermen: Cybermen do not look ‘impressive and terrifying’ with their hands on their hips.

One thought on “Chapter 138. Doctor Who – Attack of the Cybermen (1989)

  1. I loved Kline in Gangsters. It was a wild ride but it needed a human heart; both tough and perceptive. I can’t imagine anything near it being made today. Perhaps the closest I’ve seen to its reality warping genius is DEVS. The two Gangsters books kept me awake during interminable cross-country coach journeys too, so top marks to Philip Martin.

    Liked by 1 person

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