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Sixth Doctor: Attack of the Cybermen
This is the last Sixth Doctor story I had to see (although in fact I realise now that I saw it before at OUWho), but of course only the second to have been broadcast. It is a massive improvement on the first (The Twin Dilemma), and in fact stands perfectly solidly alongside the other basically-decent stories from season 22: Vengeance on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks. It does make me feel slightly better about season 22 overall, but there's still no doubt that it is one of the poorest Who seasons ever produced, and even its three strongest stories all have their flaws.

On the positive side, there are some great characters here, who get proper development during the early part of the story especially, and some decent dialogue. Commander Lytton is a particularly enjoyable villain, and I liked his gang of diamond thieves, too. Peri is a bit whiny again at the beginning, but later on she does get to overpower a policeman by chucking dirt in his eyes, and the Doctor even praises her for doing so, which is nice to see. The story builds up effectively, and I felt it delivered on its promises to take the characters and the plot to some quite epic places towards the end. And there are fun stand-alone scenes along the way, like the temporary repair of the Chameleon circuit. Just for once in the programme's history, and after more than twenty years of waiting, it is great to see the poor old TARDIS functioning like she should. I do agree that it would be too confusing to make into a regular feature, though: even within this one story, I got a bit confused for a while when it took the form of an arch on Telos.

The most common fan criticism of this story seems to be that it drew too heavily on decades-old continuity, and thus alienated 'regular' viewers. But as a fan who hasn't yet seen most of the relevant earlier stories, that doesn't really stand up with me. I found that the references I did recognise added to the story - e.g. the reappearance of Lytton from Resurrection of the Daleks, the sewer setting from The Invasion, and the scrapyard from An Unearthly Child (although it's changed a lot since 1963). But not having seen The Tenth Planet or Tomb of the Cyberman wasn't a problem at all, as the relevant plot points from both of them were spelt out by either the Cybermen or the Doctor anyway, and I didn't find that intrusive or over-complicated.

More troublesome to me was the Doctor's use of violence. He kills a Cyberman in the sewers during the first episode with his 'sonic lance', without making any attempt to talk to it or negotiate. Now, this could be interpreted as a perfectly reasonable reaction to the traumatic experience he had last time he encountered the Cybermen during Earthshock - much like Five's scene in Resurrection of the Daleks where he lets off a stream of bullets into a shell-less Dalek creature in the warehouse, with a clear sense that this is what his previous encounters with the Daleks have pushed him to. But if that was the intention of the writer(s - whoever they were) in Attack..., it didn't come across to me. Five's equivalent scene is harrowing and emotional, but Six's just came across as matter-of-fact - a mere matter of expediency, with little wider significance. The consequence is that when he later kills at least four more Cybermen on Telos (three with explosives and one with a gun), it seems matter-of-fact as well - a world away from the gripping spectacle of the Doctor being pushed to his limits that we got from Five in Resurrection... I don't know quite what has gone wrong between the two stories, especially since it's probable that the idea in both cases comes from the pen of Eric Saward. But something has definitely gone off the boil - and will continue to do so as the season develops.

Still, there is meta-referentiality to keep me cheery - especially when the two human slaves on Telos escape, and one of them, donning a Cyberman mask in order to try to pretend he is a guard with a human prisoner, declares "This is fantasy! It won't convince anyone!" I also enjoyed Six squirming uncomfortably over the destruction of Mondas - it reminded me rather of New Who's Time War guilt for Nine and Ten, though on a rather subtler level.

That's it for Six's stories as televised, then, but there is just one remaining loose end I want to tie up before I move on.

The Ultimate Foe episode two: Eric Saward's script
The backstory here is that Robert Holmes was originally commissioned to write the script for The Ultimate Foe, but died before he could finish the second episode. Based on Holmes' notes and conversations with him, Eric Saward wrote up the second episode, but then had a massive argument with John Nathan-Turner, and went home in a huff, taking his ball with him. Pip and Jane Baker were then commissioned to produce an emergency replacement episode, but without any sight of Saward's script (I don't know if they could see Holmes' notes or not) - and this is what was actually recorded and broadcast.

Saward's script, though, still exists: or at least, a script with '(c) Eric Saward' written at the bottom of it does. It seems credible enough - it has the ending Saward reputedly fell out with JNT over, and the dialogue and plotting do read like Robert Holmes filtered through Eric Saward. So I'll assume that it's genuine in the absence of proof to the contrary.

It is, not surprisingly, a great deal better than what was actually broadcast. Almost everyone's roles in the proceedings make much more sense - especially Sabalom Glitz's and the Master's. The dialogue is better, there are some nice ideas being batted around (especially when the Doctor and Mel get trapped in a literal and conversational loop), and the plot-line is much clearer and more plausible. In particular, we no longer have to grapple with the inexplicable deposition of the High Council or the sudden overturn of all charges against the Doctor, in spite of the fact that the whole point of the trial in the first place was for the Time Lords to use him as a scapegoat. Convenient 'Limbo Atrophiers' which serve to pull characters from the action when the writers can't think what to do with them next are thankfully absent, and, best of all, Peri remains properly dead. All in all, comparing the combined efforts of two of Who's best writers with two of its worst really makes for a very instructive lesson in how to write good Who - and how to fail dismally at doing so.

And as for the ending with the Doctor and the Valeyard tumbling, locked in mortal combat, into the Time Vent - how very Reichenbach falls! There is a great deal more going on there than simply referencing an iconic fictional scene, as well. After all, Robert Holmes had been responsible for casting the Doctor as Sherlock Holmes before. What with that and the coincidence in their surnames, it's hard not to start seeing a sort of holy trinity: the Doctor = Sherlock = Robert. Assuming that the Time Vent idea was originally Robert Holmes', rather than Eric Saward's, then, it starts to look very much like the personal swan-song of a dying man, who bestows upon his character the kind of dramatic Holmesian ending he'd rather prefer to have himself.

That said, though, I think I can see why JNT preferred not to have it. When Conan-Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, readers clamoured for him to return. But would the viewers do the same for the Doctor? Or would the BBC step in and point out that this looked like an excellent place at which to bring Doctor Who to an end? I can well imagine how his recent experience made him reluctant to take the risk. It's just a pity that that reticence ultimately meant losing not only that bold and exciting final scene, but also any kind of coherent conclusion to an entire season of Who - surely as risky as just having that controversial ending in the first place, if JNT had only realised it.

So that is that, and Six becomes the second Doctor for whom I have seen the entirety of his televised oeuvre - not so hard in his case as in others, obviously. When I reached this stage for the Fourth Doctor, he got a whole eulogy post, complete with top five and bottom five stories. Six gets no such eulogy, I'm afraid - he has his moments, but I have no particular desire to revisit this era of Who in any kind of detail. A top five and bottom five would also be rather excessive, since that would mean I'd have to include all but one of his stories in the ranking. But I think I can manage a top three and bottom three, as follows:

Top three:
1. Revelation of the Daleks - lots of good secondary characters (including a possible gay couple), some nice self-referentiality, a sound portrayal of Davros and Colin Baker on good form.
2. Attack of the Cybermen - see above!
3. The Mysterious Planet - it's not perfect, and I could equally have put Mindwarp or Terror of the Vervoids here. But this one just about wins out for having some good dialogue and secondary characters and taking us around the London Underground in ruins.

Bottom three:
1. The Twin Dilemma - poorly-conceived story, feeble characterisation (with the noble exception of Edgeworth / Azmael) and a catastrophically-misjudged introduction for a new Doctor. Whoops!
2. The Mark of the Rani - stupid fake Northern accents, don't much like the Rani, Anthony Ainley sounds bored out of his tree and the fake-continuity annoys the hell out of me.
3. Timelash - also suffers from fake-continuity, the drama largely misfires, the Doctor jeers at a disabled person for no reason and Peri is particularly bad. But then again, it does have Avon from Blake's 7 and H.G. Wells. I still doubt I'll ever watch it again, though.

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 18th, 2009 09:09 pm (UTC)
You like Attack of the Cybermen? Your wrongheadedness continues unabated, I see ... ;-)
Apr. 18th, 2009 09:24 pm (UTC)
I didn't say it was the best Who ever - only that it's the second-best story of the Six era. You've got to admit that the pickings are slim...
Apr. 18th, 2009 09:27 pm (UTC)
True, true ... but still, better than Vengeance on Varos?
Apr. 18th, 2009 09:35 pm (UTC)
Vengeance has a lot of very interesting stuff going on in it, for sure - but I'm no great fan of Sil, and ultimately the whole thing is tainted for me by the acid bath scene.
Apr. 19th, 2009 12:59 pm (UTC)
Are you includng "Slipback" as canon? If so, I've a copy on tape that you're welcome to a copy of. Although suspect its online somewhere anyroad..
Apr. 19th, 2009 01:05 pm (UTC)
Ack, I think I will draw the line at the TV stories with Six, TBH. I went to audios for Four because I love him so, but I'm not sure I can find the same passion for Six!
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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