The Cybermen have always been Doctor Who’s silver medal monsters. At the very end of First Doctor William Hartnell’s time in the Tardis, they scored a massive hit with audiences, both for their size, their voices, their overall look, and the chilling fact that they were an exercise in speculative science fiction that seemed all too possible. Created by real scientist Kit Pedler and expert storyteller Gerry Davis, they were an object lesson in the idea that the more we augmented ourselves with robotics, the less inherently ‘human’ we would become.
As such, they also became more identifiably close to humanity than many early Doctor Who monsters. While the Daleks were mutant screaming Nazi children in tanks, you could still feel them as entirely ‘other,’ entirely alien, because you had to be a Nazi to begin with to identify with them.
But the Cybermen weren’t avatars of hatred – they were avatars of fear. The fear of growing old, of being less than you had been, even the fear of death. The Cybermen were a solution to all that – but they came with a horrible price. The Cybermen had shed more and more of their organic nature, until somewhere along the way, they had lost the thing that made them human – their emotions. They were cold, emotionless, and logical in all situations. They had no need of pity, no concept of compassion, and a crushing truth at the heart of their existence. Having shed the ‘unnecessary’ elements of a life of flesh, they could only make more of themselves by capturing other humanoids and ‘converting’ them into Cybermen.
Why the potted Cyber-history?
Just by way of explaining why, throughout the late Sixties, the Cybermen rose to become a favourite Doctor Who villain, almost, but never quite, on a par with the Daleks. Throughout Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor, which lasted just four years, they made four appearances, changing their look almost every time.
Then the Seventies arrived, Jon Pertwee took over the Tardis and the Cybermen dropped entirely off the radar. When they next appeared, in Revenge of the Cybermen, they’d been off our screens for 7 years, from 1968-1974. That’s a lifetime in Doctor Who fandom-years. You could have been born when they appeared in Patrick Troughton’s The Invasion and just be getting into the show when they reappeared in Revenge of the Cybermen, two Doctors later.
That’s where you come in to the audio novelization of Revenge Of The Cybermen. The story was meant to be a celebration, a return, and the Cybermen’s first outing in colour. It was intended to reinforce some of the great things about the Cybermen of the Sixties, explain why they’d been away so long, and also change them again, giving them some new elements that would enthral a Seventies audience.
The show when it aired had plenty of classic Sixties Cyber-action – the use of Cybermats (metal multi-purpose rats) to spread a plague on a space station would have been very familiar to anyone who’d seen the Troughton Cyber-serials, and the look of the redesigned Cybermen was more or less just a step up from how they had last appeared on-screen in The Invasion.
But there was lots of new stuff, too – the traditional headlamp they wore had been turned into an energy weapon, so they didn’t need side-arms. And this was the first appearance of a Cyber-leader with black handles on its head.
Having been destroyed by a number of different things in the Sixties serials, including gravity, radiation and a “Polly Cocktail” made mostly of nail varnish remover, Revenge of the Cybermen also introduced the weakness that would see them made vulnerable throughout the Eighties – gold.
In fact, gold was used as a central plank of the story – both why the Cybermen hadn’t been around for a while, and what their mission was this time around. Gold was apparently ‘the perfect non-corrodable metal – it coats their respiratory systems, and in effect, suffocates them.’ That means that when they engaged in an off-screen Cyber-war, deliciously camp-sounding ‘Glitter Guns’ were invented to fire gold dust at them, and they lost and retreated.
The gold dust in that case came from Voga – a planet made mostly of the glittering metal. And the space station the Cybermen are slowly poisoning to death in Revenge of the Cybermen is a beacon, designed to warn traffic of a new asteroid that’s drifted into the space lanes.
Naturally, that asteroid is the unrecognised Voga, its people reduced to underground lives so as not to draw the revenge of the Cybermen down upon them.
They’ve…erm…failed. That’s what the Cybermen return for – to destroy Voga, source of the gold that can kill them, before having another crack at the galaxy.
There’s one more, highly important fact about Revenge of the Cybermen on screen. It was the first time the actors in the Cyber-suits also directly provided the voices of the Cybermen. Previously, they’d always been voiced either by specific voice-actors or through some significant amount of electronic jiggery-pokery.
That becomes important because Cyberleader actor Christopher Robbie never…quite…got the idea of them as emotionless logic-driven beings, and gave his Cyberleader quite a bit of performative emotion – which was to be a feature of the Cybermen in the decade after Revenge.
Why is that important? Because, to read the audiobook version, we have Nicholas Briggs – who besides being executive producer at Big Finish Productions, an audio drama company with the license to create new stories for Doctor Who, has long supplied the voices for Daleks, Cybermen, Judoon and several other creatures, both on audio and in the revived Doctor Who TV show.
That means that while the novelization by Terrance Dicks is fairly faithful to the on-screen action, Nicholas Briggs gets the opportunity to ‘flatten out’ some of Christopher Robbie’s Cyber-exuberance. So here you get a Cyberman that inherently makes more sense than the TV version ever did – at least if you knew anything about Cybermen going in, or were able to ignore Tom Baker’s declaration, right there in Revenge, that the Cybermen were ‘utterly ruthless, total machine creatures.’
The story itself is relatively busy. The crew of Nerva Beacon have been operating under quarantine for months now, dropping like flies to a plague that is actually a toxin delivered by Cybermat. There’s a decent bit of double-crossing on behalf of a human agent – another new element introduced into Cyber-strategy in Revenge that would reappear in both Peter Davison’s Earthshock and Colin Baker’s Attack of the Cybermen. And, significantly more clearly in the book than on screen, we follow the politics of two factions of Vogans. One, led by Councillor Tyrum, wants to maintain the policy of invisible non-intervention, to avoid the interest of the Cybermen. The other, led by a glory-hunting Vogan named Vorus and his frightened acolyte Magrik, have been playing with fire, drawing the Cybemen into a potential ambush so they can destroy them forever and reclaim their place on the surface without fear.
All of this, and the subsequent Cyber-attack, with the Doctor and the space station crew being loaded down with bombs and forced to hike to the centre of Voga to blow up the planet in person, is fairly faithfully replicated in Terrance Dicks’ novelization, but with greater time and space given to the Vogan politics and the conflicts between the two groups, each of which believe theirs is the only way to ensure their race’s survival.
If Dicks’ novel also squashes one of the funniest lines in the TV version, that’s a shame, certainly, but it’s probably a price worth paying for some of the extra benefits in the book. For instance, on screen, the Cyber-ship, although it was supposed to look decrepit, in actual fact looked like something whipped up on Blue Peter out of a washing up liquid bottle and some poster paint. Dicks’ prose, without wasting words, gives you the impression of something sturdy, sleek, and relentlessly functional.
And similarly, when the Cybermen first board Nerva Beacon, they make a slightly unfortunate impression on screen, having to duck to get through the airlock door, resulting in some unfortunate headpiece-wobble. Terrance Dicks rewrites that scene, focusing on the sheer size of the Cybermen – free of production worries, he writes them as ‘at least 7 feet tall’ – and so delivers much more impact than the on-screen version manages.
While the barmier elements of the script as it progresses are kept more or less the same in the novel, and Dicks doesn’t in any sense wander away from the beats of the TV version, you end up with a clearer, less frantic rendering of events here, so it feels like it might just have made sense from a race of super-logical beings.
And that’s where the audiobook plays its hidden ace. Nicholas Briggs delivers reasonably close versions of most of the characters as they appeared on screen, which, when one of them is played by Tom Baker, is no mean feat. He’s slightly unlucky in that some of the roles in the TV version were provided by very distinctly-voiced actors, like David Collings, Kevin Stoney, and Michael Wisher, but for instance, when giving voice to the potential human traitor Kellman (played by Jeremy Wilkin in the TV version), he gets a full quota of sneering into his interpretation, adding drama to the situation.
But it’s in his rendering of the Cybermen – and particularly the Cyberleader – that having Nick Briggs as reader really pays dividends here. While the words on the page are very similar to the words on screen, Nick Briggs gives a radically different performance to Christopher Robbie’s – and uses some electronic wizardry to deliver a voice that’s reminiscent of the Invasion Cybermen…with a tweak, to suggest they’ve come on since then.
The emotional content of the original vocal performance is dialled right down, so you get a more believable Cyberleader – and as such, a more enjoyable version of Revenge of the Cybermen than you’ve had in probably any other format.
That, along with the better representation of the Cybermen by Terrance Dicks and extra clarity on things like Vogan politics and Kellman’s deceptions and booby-traps, make the audionovelization of Revenge of the Cybermen a highlight of the BBC’s 2022 Doctor Who range so far, and one through which you’ll burn in the audio equivalent of a page-turning hurry. Tony Fyler