All That Is Gold Doesn't Glitter

Review of Revenge of the Cybermen (#79)
DVD Release Date: 02 Nov 10
Original Air Date: 19 Apr - 10 May 1975
Doctor/Companion: Four, Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan
Stars: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter
Preceding Story: Genesis of the Daleks (Four, Sarah Jane, Harry)
Succeeding Story: Terror of the Zygons (Four, Sarah Jane, Harry)

Continuing my exploration of Cybermen stories featuring Doctors who have been under-represented in my reviews over the years, this month I consider the Fourth Doctor's only encounter with these iconic enemies in Revenge of the Cybermen.

Aside from being the first time in nearly six and a half years that the Cybermen had appeared on screen (and the last time for another seven), Revenge had the dubious honor of falling between what became two of the most highly regarded stories of the pre-Hiatus (and some would say any) era: Genesis of the Daleks and Terror of the Zygons. How, then, does a mild-mannered serial make its mark on the world? With a fabulous TARDIS team and a plot that has just enough twists to keep it interesting, of course.

The story opens—as every story in T. Baker's first season—following directly on from the end of the prior one. The Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry are all gripping the Time Ring, hoping to land back on Space Station Nerva where they began. Although they arrive intact, the TARDIS has not yet made the temporal adjustment to meet them. Obviously, they decide to look around while they wait.

To their dismay, they find dead bodies scattered everywhere. It turns out that Nerva Beacon, as it is currently known, has been under quarantine the last few months, as all but three crew members and one civilian (an exographer, there to study the asteroid the beacon is orbiting) have succumbed to a mysterious plague. However, what's really behind all the deaths is even more sinister.

It's not long before we realize this asteroid is really Voga, the famed "Planet of Gold" and sworn enemy of the Cybermen, or that the Cybermen, who were presumed to have been destroyed centuries ago thanks to human ingenuity, are not so extinct after all. The ties between the Cybermen, the Vogans, and the folks on Nerva Beacon form the pattern from which the rest of the story unfolds.

One of the things that helps to make this a perfectly serviceable installment, even if it doesn't rise to classic status like its surrounding stories, is the Doctor and his Companions. Sarah Jane and Harry not only complement each other in skills and temperament, but both have good chemistry with the Doctor. Further, because T. Baker is still settling into the role (this being his first season), he still seems to be taking it more seriously (though still with obvious delight) than he does later in his tenure.

There are also some interesting visual elements. For one, Voga is littered with a symbol that would later come to be known as the Seal of Rassilon. It sticks out to a modern viewer, but this is actually the first appearance of the symbol, which would later be repurposed (and its usage by the Vogans retconned in a prose story).

An even more integral part of the look of this story is the extensive subterranean location work for the scenes where characters are traipsing around Voga. It adds a level of realism (except for the claim that it's all pure gold) that puts the good old multipurpose quarry to shame and makes the "interior spaces," both on Voga and Nerva Beacon, stand out in contrast.

Perhaps my favorite visual, though, is a brief pan past crewman Lester, the Doctor, and Commander Stevenson as they sit against the wall in various states of mental/physical distress, hands over ears, eyes, and mouth, respectively. Keep your eyes open for it early in Part Three.

Part of the reason I love to rewatch pre-Hiatus serials is the occasional WTF moment when one remembers just how long it's been since they were recorded. Among the most blatant of those comes in Part One of Revenge, when Commander Stevenson explains to the Doctor that the civilian Kellerman is on board because "he's interested in [Jupiter's] new satellite" (Voga). When the Doctor replies in mild surprise, "What do you mean, there are now thirteen?" I always have to laugh a little.

Jupiter's thirteenth known moon (Leda) was discovered in 1974, probably as Revenge was being written and/or filmed. By now, prolific satellite parent Jupiter counts 67 of them in its known flock. Anomalies like that make it hard to submerge oneself in the belief that these stories and events are in any sense "real," but I've got a head canon that helps: the Doctor has kept his friends/chroniclers within the various production teams just enough in the dark not to give himself away.

The result, this time anyway, is a slightly better than average installment. While it's easy enough to see the writer's hand behind character choices, drawing the plot along, the twists are not as contrived as is often the case. Having our heroes caught between Cybermen, two factions of Vogans, and military and civilian humans allows for a solid story that, while it doesn't rise to "classic" status, still holds its own in a strong season. It's worth a watch.

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Comments

I've seen this adventure but it has to be at least 25 years ago if not more. I only remember it vaguely. But you can't beat Tom Baker and Sarah Jane for chemistry. And Harry was lots of fun too.

I was hoping you'd regale us with some of your thoughts on the Doctor Who news. Perhaps you were planning to talk about it in your next column but I don't want to wait another 2 weeks to get your take on it. They've cast a new companion to replace Clara and Capaldi is planning to leave after his 3rd season.

Too bad about Capaldi. I like his style as The Doctor and wish we had more time with him. The new companion is a 20 something British woman so, race notwithstanding, doesn't look like much new. Still, I never really liked Clara all that much so new blood is welcome.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I was indeed planning on talking about "Bill" in my next post, but I'll give you the short version now: cautiously optimistic. Signs point to mostly more of the same, though there are enough hints at a different take that it could be interesting. Time will tell.

Where did you read that Capaldi is leaving? I have not yet seen anything but rumor and speculation on that front.

By mrfranklin

I read about Capaldi leaving in the same article where they introduced the new companion. I forget which one it was. There were several on my FB newsfeed the day it was anounced and I picked one at random to read. There was a short clip of the new companion Bill and The Doctor hiding from Daleks andI can't say I was too impressed.

Apparently Capaldi feels he should leave when Moffet leaves or something. I wish he would stay. I like him as The Doctor but I'm so unhappy with the way the show has been going reciently. I'd love to see him under new management as it were.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I still haven't seen anything definitive on Capaldi's departure. I saw some things that included him being carefully neutral in reply, to the effect that he wouldn't want to stand in the way of a new showrunner's vision for the show. Later, though, there was something saying Chibnall had asked him to stay on and that he was still deciding.

If you come across the specific article again, I'd love a link so I can read it for myself. :)

By mrfranklin
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