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12x5. Revenge of the Cybermen
Writer: Gerry Davis
Director: Michael E. Briant
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Synopsis: The Doctor, Sarah, and Harry return to Space Station Nerva, but in a time before the solar flares when it was being used as a communications and docking outpost. Most of the crew have succumbed to a "plague" that is actually the work of the Cybermats, as the Cybermen have returned to attack the enemy world of Voga (a small moon/planet abundant in gold that now orbits Jupiter), while a double agent on board Nerva is secretly collaborating with both the Vogans and the Cybermen.

Review: I'm not sure what exactly "Revenge of the Cybermen" is trying to be, but whatever it is, it fails. The characterization of the Doctor is sometimes unsettling in a way that doesn't seem intentional, the portrayal of the Cybermen is lacking in almost everything that has usually made them effective, and even at the level of a passably entertaining romp with lots of chases and explosions, it misfires because so much of the logic is so glaringly flawed.

When the Cybermen first appeared, I found them interesting for their dispassionate and weirdly amoral focus on survival. They didn't bear any actual malice, and though they were capable of betrayal and violence, they didn't seem to enjoy their victims' suffering or even to use it as a strategy of intimidation; rather, they simply didn't care one way or the other. (The very notion, in fact,  that they would take "revenge" on anything seems at odds with their original characterization.) Their fixation on Earth, meanwhile, was explained by the fact that it was once the "twin planet" of their home world. But now they seem to have developed a sadistic edge ("You will have a much closer view [of the crash]," the Cyberleader taunts Sarah when he abandons her on the doomed station) that actually makes them less frightening if only because it's so Saturday-morning-cartoonish. The Doctor's characterization of them -- "pathetic tin soldiers" -- is funny, but it's also disappointingly accurate, in that they do just seem like random villains of the week. And yet, the music veers from inappropriately light and almost upbeat, as the Doctor and his companions first arrive and discover dead bodies all over Nerva, to inappropriately weighty to herald the arrival of these sloppily portrayed and easily defeated Cybermen. The idea that they've been reduced to this sorry state because they've suffered defeats in the "Cyber-Wars" is not bad, but it's telling when the most interesting concept surrounding the return of some classic villains is something that happened off-screen.

The situation between the Cybermen and Voga, on which the story hinges, is another concept that sounds good in theory but in practice turns out either illogical or just plain boring much of the time. I know every Doctor Who reviewer and their mother has already pointed this out, but if the Cybermen and the Vogans have such a long history, and if the Cybermen are so vulnerable to the gold on Voga, then why the hell didn't the Vogans make any ammunition out of gold? It just seems utterly absurd that they have a history as enemies of the Cybermen and yet, when the Cybermen actually invade their planet, they mostly just stand around getting shot. The Cybermen, meanwhile, have their dense moments as well in terms of plotting -- their plan to blow up Voga by forcing the Doctor and two of the Nerva crew to carry bombs to the center of the planet unsupervised is conveniently foiled by some technobabble about how they lose the signal when the trio pass beyond a certain depth. The fact that the Vogans are about to have a civil war break out right as the Cybermen launch their attack helps to add some variety to the plot, in that it's not just a simple case of the Doctor getting involved in a dispute between two separate alien races of the week, and the story does move at a brisk pace, but that's about all I can say for it in terms of creative storytelling. The two characters driving the conflict among the Vogans are yet another Cautious Leader/Impulsive Subordinate duo, and they bring nothing to the formula that we haven't seen before, aside from perhaps a curious fight scene in a control room where everyone else just stands around watching idly for some reason.

I've noted previously that the writers, as well as Tom Baker, seem to be trying to make this new incarnation of the Doctor a little more aloof and inscrutable, a little quicker to resort to violence, and a little less . . . well, human. In principle I don't have a problem with that, and in fact I think it's mostly worked rather well so far, but in this serial it veers in the direction of making the character unappealing. His quoting of Shakespeare over the dead Cybermen seems more mean-spirited than loveably eccentric, for example. And while I can accept his threat to blow up Nerva as a bluff meant to intimidate the Cybermen into backing down (especially when one considers that he knows, from the events in "The Ark in Space," that Nerva will not be destroyed), the scene in which he threatens to turn the Cybermat loose on Kellman if he doesn't explain his role in the murders makes me decidedly uncomfortable. The goofy grin he sports as he makes the threat suggests that it's probably just another bluff meant to force someone's cooperation by appearing unhinged, but there's still something creepy about the way the scene plays. Maybe that's the point, and it would even be one thing if this were "Genesis of the Daleks" and the script was actually exploring the Doctor's dilemma over when to use violence, but it's not clear that "Revenge of the Cybermen" is interested in any such character analysis. (Incidentally, the one character I found kind of interesting, or at least different from most Who villains, was Kellman -- as a double agent who seems to be in it just for the payoff, he reminded me a bit of the character Eckersley seeemd to be for a while in "The Monster of Peladon.")

The twelfth season is still a winner overall in my book, but unfortunately it ends with a serial that takes everything that the season had been doing right and does most of it either wrong or at least sloppily. We had four serials of an interesting and appealing new Doctor, tight and frequently very creative plotting, and memorable appearances by two classic evil alien races -- capped off by wrong-headed characterization of the Doctor, lazy and illogical plotting, and a deeply disappointing return for a third classic evil alien race. Fortunately, the pacing is decent and the action reasonably staged, and as a four-parter it doesn't drag on long enough to turn into a "Time Monster"-esque catastrophe, but it's still easily the weakest installment in quite a while.

Rating: ** (out of four)

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